U.S. adversaries will step up harassment of American forces overseas as the government transitions to a new administration, predicts a retired Navy admiral and former commander of U.S. forces in Europe.
Ret. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, who served as commander of U.S. European Command and as NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, predicts Russia, China, Iran and North Korea will increase its bad behavior to test the incoming administration.
"I assure you all of the actors who are pushing on the United States now will push even harder on the new administration to try and find out where the limits are, and that will be a period of maximum danger," Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told The Hill in a recent interview.
"There will be an inevitable period of testing that goes on after a new administration comes in and it will require a heightened state of alert and frankly a continued effort to make it clear that we're not going to tolerate encounters that lead to real danger for our people or a danger of escalation," he said.
Adversaries' military forces have already begun to increase its provocative behavior against U.S. forces, as the Obama administration winds down its time in office.
In recent months, Russian forces have intercepted or conducted at least three maneuvers around U.S. forces in an "unsafe" or "unprofessional" manner in the Black and Baltic Seas. Last year, there were two such events, according to an analysis by Stratfor.
"U.S. aircraft and ships routinely interact with Russian units operating in the same area. Historically, most of these interactions have been safe and professional. However, in recent months, Russian service members have conducted several unsafe and unprofessional maneuvers," EUCOM spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. David Faggard told The Hill on Wednesday.
"These actions have the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions and could result in an accident that causes grave injury or loss of life on either side," he said.
Iran has also stepped up its harassment of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. So far this year, Iranian naval forces have conducted 32 "unsafe or unprofessional" interactions with U.S. naval forces, compared to 24 last year, a U.S. Navy official told The Hill.
"We are seeing a wave of military provocation," Stavridis said.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said at a Senate hearing last month that some state actors were trying to advance their interests through "adversarial competition" short of armed conflict.
"Examples include, Russian actions in Ukraine, North Korea's nuclear saber rattling, Chinese activities in the South China Sea and Iran's malign activities across the Middle East," Dunford said at the Sept. 22 hearing.
"In different ways, each of these nations leverage economic coercion, information operations, cyber capabilities, unconventional warfare and force posture, deliberately seeking to avoid a U.S. military response," he said.
Critics blame it on the loss of U.S. credibility.
"America's adversaries neither respect nor fear us. America's friends are increasingly hedging their bets, and America's policy options have been significantly narrowed and worsened," Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Virginia race looms as dark cloud over Biden's agenda MORE (R-Az.) said about the administration’s Middle East approach at the hearing with Dunford.
Stavridis said he believed the bad behavior was increasing due to the Obama administration's lame duck status, and uncertainty over what the next administration will do. He also said a lot of the behavior was for domestic audiences.
"Putin's primary audience at the end of the day is his own public. China is trying to look and appear very strong in the region because of their own economic slowdown. The Iranians, similarly in this period of time, coming off of the relief on sanctions, which has been perceived by some inside Iran as softening of the Iranian regime not to continue to pursue nuclear weapons, so they're trying really hard to look and act tough," Stavridis said.
"So you combine that with the fact you've got an administration that is about to leave power. The new one is not in place, and it becomes kind of a perfect storm where these kinds of regimes will try to make moves because they know that if they keep it just below the level of military response, they can get away with it, look strong at home, and kind of look strong to a new administration coming in."
However, Stavridis said the current administration has not pushed as hard as it could to address the provocations, and that troops have been in "rather delicate place" of having to exercise restraint but not allowing themselves to be put in danger.
"I think that it is correct to say that we have not pushed not as hard as we should on the political and diplomatic aspects of this and we would be wise to make sure that our opponents know that they are playing with fire here," he said. "We've got to communicate that as directly and clearly as we can; if we don't do that, we buy additional risk for our units."
Stavridis, who was vetted by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Nation mourns Colin Powell The Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight Powell death leads to bipartisan outpouring of grief MORE for the position of vice president, recommended the next administration lay out its policies very clearly, particularly with cyber, where he sees the most danger for escalation.
"The potential there for catastrophic miscalculation that really takes down a portion of the U.S. power grid or really destroys a segment of our financial sector, or goes after a significant military command and control -- that would demand a significant response, and it would be very easy to quickly spiral into a real level of cyber conflict that is in nobody's interest," he said.
"So I think laying some clear guidelines, and being very forthright and making sure that all of our units in the field know that there will be an inevitable period of testing that goes on after a new administration comes in, and it will require a heightened state of alert and frankly a continued effort to make it clear that we're not going to tolerate encounters that lead to real danger for our people or a danger of escalation," he said.