Key takeaways from the 2024 Summit on Modern Conflict and Emerging Threats

2024 Summit on Modern Conflict & Emerging Threats, April 17-18, 2024, Vanderbilt University

By Dayna Verstegen

“As we look at the future of protecting our democracy, the exchange of ideas will fuel collaborative work among governments, academia and private business and accelerate innovation to help us be better prepared for emerging threats. Vanderbilt, and our new Institute for National Defense and Global Security, are proud to be at the center of that exchange and innovation.” —Daniel Diermeier, chancellor, Vanderbilt University

The third annual Summit on Modern Conflict and Emerging Threats at Vanderbilt University brought together the country’s most prominent strategic intelligence leaders to discuss and dissect the current state of national security. The focus of the 2024 summit was the People’s Republic of China.

National security experts, including Gen. Timothy Haugh, director of the NSA and Cyber Command; Sheetal Patel, assistant director, Transnational and Technology Mission Center, CIA; Anne Milgram, administrator of the DEA; and Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, documented the current political, economic, social and military dynamics between China and the United States.

In addition to private and public sector experts, Vanderbilt faculty, including Douglas Adams, retired Lt. Gen. Charlie “Tuna” Moore, Erin Calipari, Andres Gannon and Niloofar Razi Howe, contributed their expertise. Students were also invited to attend, and they got a rare look into strategic government operations from the decision-makers themselves.

Vanderbilt University, 2024
Vanderbilt University junior Max Perry attended the 2024 Summit on Modern Conflict and Emerging Threats. (Harrison McClary/Vanderbilt)

“The complex, intertwined and interdependent nature of our national security today requires us to address threats with nuance, strategy and an interdisciplinary approach that recognizes how actions in one domain may affect another,” Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said in his remarks opening the summit. “The kind of radical, cross-sector collaboration we need to address national security challenges is one of the things that sets Vanderbilt apart. It’s part of our culture.”

CHINESE THREATS LOOM LARGE OVER NATIONAL SECURITY

“The People’s Republic of China represents the defining threat of this generation and this era. There is no country that presents a broader, more comprehensive threat to our ideas, our innovation, our economic security and our national security.” —Christopher Wray, director, FBI

The third annual Summit on Modern Conflict and Emerging Threats offered a deep examination of China’s history, economy, technology, military readiness and supply chain, and its increasingly dissatisfied people, and revealed the complexity of the problem:

  • Unbound by international norms, China’s formidable cyber forces have become a persistent threat. For decades, they have targeted every major U.S. industry, hacking thousands of companies and government organizations. This relentless campaign has resulted in the theft of intellectual property across diverse sectors—from technology and pharmaceuticals to energy, utilities and communication.
  • China has developed new international payment systems that bypass the need for a SWIFT ID code and have become the largest money launderers in the world.
  • China has invested heavily in space capabilities, developing myriad attack platforms, including direct descent missiles that can strike U.S. satellites.
  • China makes the vast majority of the precursor chemicals necessary to make fentanyl, which they send to Mexico to become illegal pills that kill more than 100,000 Americans each year.

COLLABORATION IS THE MOST CRITICAL ASSET OF OUR NATIONAL SECURITY

“The broad collaboration toward a common purpose is a principal advantage in contesting China … [that will] allow us to achieve agility, scale and capabilities that would not otherwise be available to us.” —Gen. Timothy Haugh, director, NSA

Despite sobering assessments of China’s capabilities and U.S. vulnerabilities, a wave of optimism surged through the summit. Each presenter documented methods for combating China’s threats, and a common thread emerged: collaboration. The stifling information silos and agency rivalries of the past are gone, replaced by a contagious spirit of collective action.

The first day of the summit crackled with an electric sense of synergy. While national security experts from a wide range of agencies and military—NSA, FBI, CISA, CIA, DARPA, DOD, the Cyber National Mission Force, Marines, Army, National Guard, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Vanderbilt University and even private sector companies—took the stage, the audience quickly recognized the vast potential for collaboration among the participants. By lunchtime, the room buzzed with attendees actively networking and seeking out opportunities to work together.

CYBERSECURITY THREATS FROM CHINA JEOPARDIZE AMERICAN INDUSTRIES

“Our national security is directly tied to our economic security and at the heart of economic security is the health and protection of technological innovation.” —Sheetal Patel, assistant director, Transnational and Technology Mission Center, CIA

According to intelligence experts, China has been stealing information from America and its allies since at least the 1980s. “The People’s Republic of China is engaged in the largest and most sophisticated theft of intellectual property and expertise in the history of the world by leveraging its most powerful weapons, starting with cyber,” Wray said.

In fact, China’s hacking program is larger than that of every other major nation combined. Cybersecurity threats like theft of intellectual property, supply chain disruption and disinformation campaigns are all dangerous, but according to experts, the greatest threat to our national security is attacks on key infrastructure like power, water and communications systems.

AI OFFERS COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE TO FIRST MOVERS

“The country that puts generative AI on their data first will win.” —Sheetal Patel, assistant director, Transnational and Technology Mission Center, CIA

Artificial intelligence sparked frequent debate at the summit about its double-edged nature. AI for example, has enabled the development of nuclear and biological weapons by nonfriendly actors, but it also has helped the U.S. identify and prevent attacks at home and among our allies like Taiwan and Ukraine.

Patel said that the challenge for America and its allies is that China does not play by the same rules that govern us. “We could build the guardrails for AI and how to use it, and we are going to build it and make sure we use it ethically, but the People’s Republic of China and our other adversaries don’t have to follow suit.”

Haugh believes that the fate of all nations depends on our ability to adapt: “It is no longer that the big eat the small. Now that the fast eat the slow … the advantage will go to those that see first, recognize first, adapt first and apply first.””

THREAT OF FOREIGN INTERFERENCE LOOMS OVER U.S. ELECTION

“We fully expect in this election cycle to see more foreign adversaries using modern technology at a faster clip than we have in prior elections. These adversaries are finding diverse ways to pit Americans against each other, amplify controversial topics and undermine confidence in our electoral system.” —Christopher Wray, director, FBI

According to national security experts, technology—and particularly artificial intelligence—will be leveraged at unprecedented rates to disrupt and influence the 2024 presidential election in the United States. “AI has the ability to create and spread disinformation,” Patel said. “Generative AI applications could be used by our adversaries to develop synthetic content and influence public opinion in ways that undermine U.S. interests.”

The 2024 U.S. presidential election is expected to be one of the costliest and fiercest battles in American history. Instances of “synthetic content,” or deep fakes featuring President Joe Biden, have already surfaced in this electoral cycle, including a deceptive video during the New Hampshire Democratic primary and robocalls using an AI-generated voice.

CHINA HAS WEAPONIZED FENTANYL WITH DEADLY EFFECT

“For almost three years, I have talked about fentanyl as the deadliest drug threat that the United States has ever seen, but today I would tell you it is the most urgent and deadly threat, period, that we are facing.” —Anne Milgram, administrator, DEA

While fentanyl might be an unexpected subject at a national security summit about China, Milgram said that China supplies Mexico with all the chemicals necessary to make the dangerous, deadly drug. Hundreds of millions of fentanyl pills are then carried over the U.S. border and sold as Oxycontin, Adderall, Percocet and Xanax.

In recent years, the potency of fentanyl has skyrocketed, intensifying its threat. DEA estimates reveal that a striking seven out of 10 doses entering the United States are fatal. In just the past year, American law enforcement seized over 400 million doses, and most of them trace back to Mexico. This relentless assault on the U.S. borders and populace is alarming: Every 11 days, more people die from drug poisoning in the U.S. than the cumulative fatalities of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

MUTUAL TRUST AND RESPECT ACCELERATES THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE

“It matters that we spark open and hopefully ongoing conversations among national security leaders who spend their days facing down real-world security threats, faculty members with unparalleled depth of knowledge in their fields, and industry experts whose companies sit on the front lines of our interactions with China.” —Daniel Diermeier, chancellor, Vanderbilt University

Attendees of the 2024 Summit on Modern Conflict and Emerging Threats identified best practices for countering China:

Collaborate broadly. The NSA established the Cybersecurity Collaboration Center and created partnerships with more than 1,000 public and private entities. Through the issuance of numerous unclassified cybersecurity advisories, the CCC outlines adversaries’ attacks and the vulnerabilities they target. These advisories help governments and private industries worldwide safeguard their data.

Improve security processes. In the infamous “SolarWinds” hack in 2020, the Russians implanted malicious code within software for IT resource management. Subsequently, when the company released a software update, it unknowingly disseminated compromised code, providing Russia with a back door to install malware for spying. Consequently, the U.S. government swiftly enacted multi-factor authentication, phishing-resistant technology across all agencies and services.

Make information widely available. The DEA formed counter-threat teams of agents, analysts, data scientists, chemists and financial experts that transformed DEA technology systems. Now every agent in its 334 offices worldwide has access to all DEA data, ensuring that they have the comprehensive information necessary to detect and combat illegal drug trafficking on a global level.

Invest in American technological development. Jamil Jeffers, a venture investor and a partner at Mercer, shared a recent collaboration with nine other venture capital firms that have agreed not to invest in adversary technology. “We are going to invest in American capabilities and technology to ‘build secure by design, and build resilient by data,’” Jeffers said. Jeffers believes that this type of effort is crucial if America is to lessen its dependence on trade with China.

VANDERBILT TO LAUNCH NEW INSTITUTE DEDICATED TO NATIONAL

Vanderbilt University will also expand its collaboration by investing in national security scholarship and research with the formation of the Institute for National Defense and Global Security. “This institute will help us deliver world-changing solutions to the kinds of challenges we’re discussing here—all at the speed of modern conflict,” Diermeier said.

The Institute for National Defense and Global Security, which plans a launch later this year, will be built upon the same four interrelated pillars that guide all scholarly work at Vanderbilt: Its purpose will be to accelerate innovation by working closely with government, military and private sector companies to create solutions with users and for users; educate service-minded students and the national security workforce about trends, tools, policies, data and processes they need to protect democracy around the world; convene national security and intelligence thought-leaders and practitioners to discuss, dissect and deliberate the most consequential national security problems in the U.S. and abroad; and leverage expertise among faculty and students to advise national security leaders on classified and unclassified security-focused programs.

“We live in a dramatically changing world where no entity working in isolation will have all that is required to respond to emerging threats,”  Haugh concluded. “Therefore, advantage will go to those best postured to work in collaboration with others. Accelerating technology change creates a rapidly expanding art of the possible.”