By: Sean Palter
Depending on the orbit of the moon, the distance from the earth to the lunar surface is roughly 240,000 miles. While that may seem far to most, to Admiral James Stavridis that distance does not even amount to a year’s travel.
The current NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) logged over 300,000 air miles last year on his way through 40 plus countries. With such a heavy travel load and one of the most difficult jobs in the world, a typical day has no meaning in the Admiral’s vocabulary.
“There is no typical day,” comments Stavridis, who is also the Commander, US European Command. “I spend a few days a month in my HQ in Mons, a few days in my US HQ in Stuttgart, and the rest of the time on the road, from Washington D.C, to Afghanistan and everywhere in between.”
Stavridis assumed command during the summer of 2009 at perhaps one of the most difficult times for the Alliance. Months before, NATO had appointed a Group of Experts to explore ideas for a new and modern Strategic Concept. Beyond that, he was responsible for one of the most difficult wars that the United States and NATO had ever encountered: Afghanistan.
Now, months after the Lisbon Conference, where the new Strategic Concept was adopted, NATO has shifted its focus to a more modern approach.
“It’s a superb document,” exclaimed the Admiral when asked about the new Strategic Concept. “Afghanistan, the Balkans, piracy, cyber, and missile defense are some key areas I’m working on these days.”
Cyber security, one of the issues that Stavridis is working on, is proving to be the emerging issue of the 21st century. Yet many still do not fully understand the capabilities and threats posed by this.
Stavridis admits that NATO has not been sufficiently prepared on this front, but they are working very hard on that now.
“I’m standing up a cyber monitoring and response cell within the NATO command structure and linking to the NATO Centre of Excellence for Cyber Defence in Estonia, as well as to the NATO response cell within the NATO Cyber Response Centre run by the NATO agencies,” the Admiral explains. “We also have to explore private-public linkages, which we just did in a one-day conference at NATO HQ attended by big corporations, academics, military and a wide variety of nations.”
One of the moments that still resonate within him was flying over Afghanistan for the first time since becoming the SACEUR and realizing the many challenges that he faced.
“I’m passionate about Afghanistan, and I think the key is the comprehensive approach,” remarks Stavridis, the first Naval officer to hold the position of SACEUR since it was created in 1951. “If we can link together all the elements of NATO’s capabilities – economic, political, military, cultural, linguistic, technological and so on – in a comprehensive way, we have a good chance of succeeding. This comprehensive approach, which is international, interagency, and private-public is the key to security in the 21st century.”
The progress witnessed in Afghanistan by Stavridis since becoming SACEUR has been significant.
“The build up of the Afghan Security Forces has been impressive – we’ve now got 270,000 trained with a goal of 300,000 by this fall. We’ll meet that, and the truly good news is their increased ability to operate effectively in the field,” explains Stavridis. “In the South, we see the ratio of coalition to Afghan forces roughly 1:1 in hard fighting. Afghan Forces take 75% of the casualties and they are motivated and patriotic. We’re making steady progress and I’m optimistic we’ll succeed.”
To illustrate that this significant progress has been effective in more ways than one, Stavridis quotes recent polling by Charney Associates, Society of Asia, and others.
“Recent polling shows that the Afghan people are optimistic about the future of their country by about 60% and their army has an approval rating of over 80%.”
With so many issues facing NATO, Stavridis has many short term goals that he hopes to see accomplished within the next year.
“Train 300,000 Afghan Security Forces, deepen defence cooperation with Russia, reduce NATO forces in the Balkans to under 5,000, exercise effectively for Article V of the Alliance, put six ships on counter-piracy station throughout the year, stand up effective cyber cooperation between NATO and private sector partners and lay out a good missile defence C2 scheme for Europe.”
The Admiral speaks English, Spanish, French and is learning Portuguese and is a firm believer that people need to do their best to understand each other, literally and figuratively. He is proud to be the first person from the Navy to be the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and hopes that he’s “brought a different way of looking at things that comes from his many years in the complex maritime environment.”
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NATO Council of Canada.