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Part II: Divergent Views, Debates and Wild Cards

[Editor’s Note: Pan I identified views concerning the security environment of the next 25 years about which current studies form a rough consensus. What follows is a discussion of the divergent views expected to fuel the strategy debates of the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, as well as wild card events that may require strategic hedging. Both pans are a summary of the monograph All Possible Wars? Toward a Consensus View of the Future Security Environment, 2001-2025, published by National Defense University Press in November 2000. For brevity, footnotes and references have not been included. The complete work is available on the web at: www.ndu .edu!insslrnacnairlmcnair63/m63cvr.html.]

Debates on defense policy inevitably mirror diverging views of the future. Defense programs, if they are to be effective, must be tailored to the anticipated threat, or if not designed for specific threat-provide capabilities that are seen as essential for future security. Thus, force structure alternatives identified as the result of any comprehensive defense review-such as the forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review 2001 (QDR 2001)-are, at their core, reflections of alternative views on the probable shape of future wars and the likely means of their deterrence.

The intent of this article is to outline those elements of the future security environment about which there is no consensus among the experts. Analysis of the thirty-six survey sources reveals diverging views concerning at least nine specific aspects of the future security environment in which the United States will conduct its international relations from now until the year 2025. These alternative assessments of the future are presented below as either-or statements, but there are admittedly varying degrees of agreement and the either-or statements generally represent the extreme ends of the range. For the purpose of defense planning, an identification of the contending positions on the future security environment is the prelude for making deliberate choices on how to prepare for and perhaps hedge against an analytically uncertain future.

1. It is unlikely that two Major Theater Wars (MTW) would happen simultaneously … or … Two near-simultaneous MTWs will remain a possibility.

A number of critical assessments-some of which are linked to a recommended strategy or force structure different than the current posture-discount the possibility of two major theater wars occurring near simultaneously. Preparing for two such overlapping contingencies is dismissed as unsupportable worst-case thinking. Taking a cue from the National Defense Panel of 1997, many analysts find the two MTW construct inconvenient to their recommendations for transformation, since readiness for the simultaneous scenarios requires considerable expenditure of resources and the maintenance of considerable standing forces.

But when assessments of potential regional conflicts are combined, the possibility of crises or conflicts developing near-simultaneously in two or more regions seems quite plausible. There are both historical precedents and strategic logic for a potential regional opponent to make aggressive moves when conflicts are occurring in other parts of the world. While the United States is responding to the first conflict or contingency, an aggressor might believe that the objectives of a second conflict would be easier to achieve. In a general sense, this was Nazi Germany’s strategy of declaring war on the United States immedi-ately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Unexpectedly, the United States reversed its anticipated priorities, initially focussing on the European theater.

It has become common to describe recent NA TO actions against Serbia-presumed to be a Smaller-Scale Contingency (SSC)-as using an MTW’s worth of air power. If SSCs occur at a near-continuous rate, it is almost inevitable that two or more will occur near-simultaneously. The United States may not choose to involve itself in more than one SSC, but if it did choose to handle two, what would happen if one or both were to require two MTW’s worth of effort?

The divergence of views on the probability of overlapping major theater wars, like the other contradicting statements, fonn the fundamental issues of the debates to be expected in the QDR 001 process.

2. Future wars will be more brutal with more civilian casualties… or … information operations and precision weapons will make warfare less deadly.

The question of whether future wars will be characterized by greater brutality and greater civilian casualties or will be characterized by more discriminate attacks and fewer civilian casualties often arises in debates concerning the existence and effect of a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and the importance of information warfare.

At one end is the view that the trend towards a world of warriors in which youthful populations of the less economically-developed world are involved in ethnic, religious or tribal conflict. This gives rise to more brutal fonns of warfare, in which the international laws of war are rarely observed. The ethnic cleansing of Bosnia and Kosovo (along with myriad civil wars), conducted largely by para-military terror squads whose primary skills involve the killing of unarmed civilians, are cited as representations of the future of war. Combatants and non-combatants are rarely distinguished. Victory consists of complete destruction of the lives and property of the enemy. Such wars will involve ethnic cleansing, genocide, mass movement of refugees, famine, torture, and rape. Weapons can range from the primitive to the merely unsophisticated. While annoyed vehicles, artillery, and shoulder-held anti-air missiles may be used, the dominant platform is the individual warrior-possibly under the age of twelve and the small anns carried. The use of commercial GPS and cellular phones are useful, but not essential for operations.

The implication is that the sophisticated precision weapons, along with the information systems, that characterize U.S. anned forces have relatively little effect against such an enemy.

At the other end is the vision that precision weapons and information warfare will make warfare both less likely and less bloody. Kosovo is also used as an illustrative case-this time as an example of how precision bombing, with considerable effort to spare civilian lives and property, was able to win a modem war and reverse ethnic cleansing. Because such precision strikes rely on accurate intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), the processing of information is a dominant feature of this style of war. Proponents of information warfare argue that the manipulation of information may, in itself, preclude physical combat in future conflicts. Under perfect conditions, it is argued, the manipulation of information will prevent a populace from going to war by persuading them that the war is unjustified or is already over, or turning them against governments intent on war.

Somewhere in between these views is the argument that future wars will not necessarily be more brutal, but that precision strike and information warfare does not presage an era of immaculate warfare.

3. Chaos in littorals or panic in the city are more likely contingencies than major theater war … or … Major theater war will remain the primary threat to security.

The issue of the separation between military personnel and civilians, or combatants and non-combatants underlies the question of where and how future warfare will take place. Classical warfare is assumed to take place between clearly identified armies in terrain suitable for direct engagements. History-replete with siege warfare, attacks on infrastructure, and massacres of civilian populations-may demonstrate that the ideal is actually an exception. However, there remains the popular impression that just war is, or at least should be, about defeating the cross-border aggression envisioned in the current major theater warfare scenarios.

Of course, armed forces are used for more than MTWs. Throughout its history, America has called on its armed forces to deal with many contingencies outside of formally declared wars. These contingencies have ranged from punitive expeditions to humanitarian interventions. Current wisdom is that the number of such small-scale contingencies (SSCs) has greatly increased since the end of the Cold War, along with a greater propensity on the part of American decision-makers to intervene. Sources also point out the relative rarity of American military involvement in major theater warfare against cross-border aggression. From this perspective, Desert Stonn is an exception rather than a rule. Given the apparent increase in the number and frequency of non-state threats and the potential for asymmetric operations, it has been suggested that the primacy of the Defense Department’s focus on preparing for classical major theater warfare is a mistake. The threats of the future, according to this view, will be significantly different, and require a different emphasis in preparations.

One perspective is that future conflicts-particularly those within failed states-will present little opportunity for firepower-intensive warfare. There will be no front lines, rear areas, and in some cases no clearly identifiable enemy force. Rather, there will be an overall atmosphere of chaos in which the primary mission of U.S. military forces will be to establish order and quell violence in the most humane way possible. Forecasts sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps point to the continuing urbanization of the world’s population-a driver identified by many other sources, and the continued breakdown of failed states as leading to numerous tribal-like conflicts. With over 70 percent of the world’s urban population within the operating range of a coastline, chaos in the littorals is shorthand for such future contingencies that occur within that region.

Spurred by the potential use of chemical or biological weapons in urban areas, a slightly different perspective can be tenned panic in the city. Proponents of this view are concerned that asymmetric or terrorist attacks could create similar chaotic conditions within the U.S. homeland. The U.S. military would not simply have to stabilize chaotic conditions overseas, but would be expected to do the same at home. While many emerging strategy alternatives call for increased military involvement in homeland security, most assume that the military would merely play a support role to civil authorities, providing resources that may not be readily available in the civil sector. In contrast, those who view panic as the new weapon envision homeland security as the preliminary, or even the primary mission of U.S. anned forces . The implication is that civilians simply can not face the physical or psychological aspects of the chem-bio threat, and both precautions and responses should be a direct military function. Once the perception of homeland sanctuary is broken by an actual asymmetric attack, the American population would panic into fleeing towards areas of perceived safety, while demanding that their elected officials cease whatever foreign activities may have provoked such an attack.

In order to prevent such a scenario, sources argue, the military needs to refocus its efforts away from the less likely case-classical military response to cross border aggression-and towards the more direct and more likely threats of asymmetric attacks against the homeland and the use of panic as a weapon of the globalized future. In contrast, a significant number of sources view major theater war as the most likely warfare in which the United Scates would become involved, and job one for her military. From this perspective, America’s large-scale warfighting capability is the primary deterrent of both chaos and asymmetric attack.

The divergence of opinion on whether future warfare will primarily take the form of chaos in the littorals and panic in the city, or will mostly resemble the expected forms of major theater wars, appears to be more related to preferred prioritization of threats than any conclusive forecast of wars to come. But there is evidence on both sides of the issue.

4. Space will be a theater of conflict … or … Space will remain a conduit of information, but not a combat theater.

The question of the so-called militarization of space is particularly contentious. Space-based intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) are critical to U.S. military operations and gave such an informational and command and control advantage during Operation Desert Storm, that some have called the Gulf War as the first space war. However, there are great distinctions between the military use of space, a war from space, and a war in space. Every future assessment predicts increasing use of space assets by the military, however, there are wide differences in whether a war from or in space could occur in the timeframe to 2025.

A number of sources are very certain of the potential for a force-on-force space war. The U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century states explicitly: “Space will become a critical and competitive military environment. . .. weapons will likely be put in space. Space will also become permanently manned.”

An opposing viewpoint is the forecast that militarization of space is not likely to occur prior to 2025. This reasoning projects a continuing U.S. advantage in military space systems based on its previous investment and infrastructure development. From this posture, “the United States is in a good position to win any ensuing arms race.” Other potential inhibitors of space-based weapons are the international treaties governing space activities.

But skeptics of treaty prohibitions tend to share the inevitability view of the introduction of space weaponry in the 2001-2025 timeframe. As former Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall argued: “We have a lot of history that tells us that warfare migrates where it can-that nations engaged in conflict do what they can, wherever they must. At a very tender age, aviation went from a peaceful sport, to a supporting function, very analogous to what we do today in space to a combat arm. Our space forces may well follow that same path.” A similar argument is made by Major General Robert Dickman, who was the DoD Space architect in 1997: “To hope that there will never be conflict in space is to ignore the past.”

5. A near-peer competitor is inevitable over the long term; we need to prepare now … or … Preparing for a near-peer will create a military competition (thus creating a near-peer).

As previously discussed, there is general consensus that the development of a global military near-peer competitor to the United States prior to 2025 is unlikely. However, that forecast does not quell the debate on whether such a near-peer is inevitable in the long term. Sources that view a near-peer as inevitable base their argument on historical example; every aging leader is eventually challenged by younger, growing competitors. To ignore this is also to ignore the past. In terms of the academic study of international relations, there appears always a struggle among states to become the hegemon that dominates the international system. Even scholars who question the morality of hegemonic control-and in particular the United States apparent position as the current hegemonic power-appear to believe that such a struggle is the natural order between states.

If the struggle for hegemonic control is the natural order of the international system, it would also be natural that those responsible for the security of the United States-including it’s freedom, its institutions, its population, and its prosperity-would prepare for such a struggle. While there may be a continuous debate as to which preparations are most appropriate-and how the outbreak of hostilities can be deterred in the near tenn, there seems agreement among many that a dissatisfied state could eventually build itself into a military near-peer to the United States sometime after 2025. The belief in the inevitability of a near-peer is also reflective of the consensus point that advanced military technology will become more diffuse. As military technology becomes more diffuse, it appears inevitable that any American advantage in military technology would gradually shrink, creating de facto near-peer competitors. There is, however, an alternative view on the inevitability of military near-peer competition. In this view, it is not the natural order for near-peer challengers to occur, but, rather, the actions of the leading power that causes such a competition. Supporters of this view range from those who see a competitive international system as an anomaly of the capitalist world, to those who view gradual world democratization as eventually leading to a world free from major war-under the premise that democracies do not fight democracies. Others subscribe to the belief that near-peer competition is not inevitable as an unspoken corollary to their idea that a leading power can take actions that prevent such a competition from occurring. To some extent, such a view underlies the premises of former defense officials Ashton Carter and William J. Perry’s proposals for a “preventive defense.”

The question of the inevitability of a near-peer competitor after 2025 is not merely academic. If an inevitable conflict with a near peer competitor is expected after 2025, it would behoove the United States to take distinct steps to develop a defense policy and force structure that would retain a measure of military superiority sufficient to dissuade, deter, or-if necessary-defeat a potential near-peer opponent.

However, if it is actual or proposed military preparations of the hegemon that propel other states to seek parity, it may be in the interest of the United States to break the cycle of increasing military expenditures in order to prevent the development of a near-peer. Specific policies could be adopted along the lines of preventive defense that seek to co-opt or manage a potential near-peer by allowing a degree of American vulnerability in order to preserve the current balance, which appears in favor of the United States.

6. Overseas bases will be essentially indefensible … or … Future capabilities will be able to defend overseas bases.

The potential reach of opponents into space, along with the adoption of other techniques of anti-access or area denial warfare would have a damaging impact of the overseas bases upon which America’s current power projection forces appear to be dependent. If the 2001-2025 period is indeed one in which potential opponents strengthen their anti-access capabilities (as appears to be the consensus), than the threat to overseas bases would appear to increase. However, there is a debate among the sources as to whether the nature of the future security environment will conspire with the laws of physics and diffusion of technology so as to make an overwhelming threat to fixed land bases permanent.

In the eyes of the bases will be indefensible school, defensive measures simply can not keep up with the offensive threat that places fixed military forces at grave risk. In this perspective, the action-reaction phenomenon of military technological development naturally favors offensive systems. Even with theater ballistic missile defenses in place, overseas bases could be attacked with WMD by other means of delivery, such as cruise missiles, attack aircraft or artillery shells.

At the same time, there may be political vulnerabilities that make overseas bases, particularly those within the sovereign territory of a host nation, much more difficult to defend. The host nation may seek to placate a potential aggressor by insisting that defenses be kept to a minimal in order to maintain the current strategic balance. If the base relies on the movement of mobile defense into the theater, such as the arrival of Patriot missile batteries, they are vulnerable to pre-emptive attack or coercion. The host nation may decide not to let the United States use its base facilities lest such permission provoke an attack by a regional aggressor. Certainly, this would make mounting a power projection campaign considerably more difficult.

It may be a reaction to the implications for American power projection that causes other sources to insist that overseas bases could be successfully defended in the 2001-2025 time frame. To admit the growing vulnerability could cause undesired revolutionary changes in the allocation of defense resources. However, the bases can be defended view also argues that emerging military technologies can make defenses against WMD more effective. The continuing lead of America and her allies in emerging military technology causes some to conclude that defenses can match offenses, particularly when backed by the eventual triumph of qualitatively (and possibly quantitatively) superior U.S. power projection. Likewise, the regional use of WMD may be deterred by the vast U.S. nuclear arsenal, use of which might be provoked by significant casualties of U.S . military personnel or host nation civilians. Other sources argue that overseas bases can be defended by sea-based or space-based systems.

Additionally, there is the argument that vulnerability of land bases actually works to the advantage of the United States. If an attack on overseas-based U.S. forces occurs, it is likely that the United States would be reinforced in its determination to pursue the end-state of a regime change. This perception could potentially deter a regional aggressor from launching such a strike. Also, vulnerability might provoke the host nation to seek greater, rather than lesser military cooperation with the United States. Certain sources also argue than any host nation which could be coerced to restrict U.S. access to bases (potentially threatened by the regional aggressor’s WMD), is simply not an ally worth defending.

7. Current (legacy) U.S. forces will not be able to overcome anti-access strategies except at high cost … or … Techniques of deception or denial of information will remain effective in allowing legacy systems to penetrate future anti-access efforts.

The debate on the defensibility of overseas bases has a parallel concerning the continuing effectiveness of power projection forces. Supported by the same data concerning the growing development of anti-access systems and strategies, a number of sources suggest that the power projection forces of the United States as they are currently constituted will have increasing difficulty in penetrating anti-access defenses in the 2001-2025 period.

The proponents of this view do not necessarily see these developments as an evolutionary challenge to which the United States can modify and adapt its current forces. Rather, they see this as a revolutionary development that is enabled, in part, by foreign adaptation to the RMA. This position leads to the advocacy of radical changes in the U.S. defense posture. Indeed, the perception of the growing strength of anti-access strategies is a major impetus to the calls for defense transformation.

In contrast, there remains a body of literature that characterizes anti-access strategies as natural aspects of war that require incremental improvements in American power projection forces, but are not a revolutionary development requiring radical change. This view argues that current developments, particularly in theater missile defense and stand-off and precision weapons, allow U.S. power projection capabilities to keep pace with anti-access systems.

8. Nuclear deterrence will remain a vital aspect of security … or … Nuclear deterrence will have an increasingly smaller role in future security.

Sources are split in their assessment of the importance of nuclear weapons and the validity of traditional nuclear deterrence in the 2001-2015 period. On the one hand are those who see nuclear weapons as less effective tools in deterring war. On the other are those sources which concede that nuclear weapons may have a different role than they had in the height of the Cold War, but insist that they remain the ultimate deterrent even against rogue states.

Many who state a moral opposition to nuclear weapons have translated their desires into forecasts of a globalized world in which nuclear deterrence no longer makes sense. With greater economic interdependence, this argument runs, even the so-called rogue states will be reconciled into the international order, renouncing or reducing their overt or covert nuclear arsenals.

Sources that view future conflict as consisting primarily of brutal civil wars in undeveloped states-along with Western intervention to prevent suffering and injustice-simply see no utility in nuclear weapons. From a considerably different perspective, some suggest that the RMA bas simply passed nuclear weapons by. If informa-tion operations will be the dominant form of conflict in an internet-ted world, the use of nuclear weapons would seem merely suicidal. Nuclear effects, such as EMP, hold the potential of destroying much of the technical access to information on which both war and international society are dependent. There would seem to be no utility in nuclear warfighting, and therefore nuclear deterrence is confined to a background role.

Others who focus on the potential for RMA advances to make national missile defenses effective, argue that a defense-dominant world will eventually lead to the abolition of nuclear arsenals . Additionally, some sources simply argue that nuclear deterrence has little effect on irrational rogue regimes and terrorist groups, the two threats that are most likely to attempt asymmetric attacks on the U.S. homeland.

In opposition to this composition of views stand those sources that view nuclear weapons as retaining considerable deterrent effect, even on rogue regimes. Since, it is argued, active defenses can never be one-hundred-percent effective, the potential for nuclear destruction will remain. Nuclear deterrence, therefore, retains a considerable role in protecting the homeland from weapons of mass destruction.

9. Conventional military force will not deter terrorism or non-state threats … or … U.S. military capabilities will retain considerable deterrent or coercive effects against terrorism and non-state threats.

Sources that focus intensely on the increasing vulnerability of the U.S. homeland and on the potential for asymmetric attack tend to doubt the ability of conventional military force to deter such attacks. Although there is not necessarily a direct correlation with specific views on the validity of nuclear deterrence, many of these sources tend to down-play the role of nuclear weapons and assume that potential opponents would concentrate on developing chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction, rather than expend resources on developing an extensive nuclear arsenal. Biological weapons, in particular, are frequently assumed to be immune to deterrence by conventional military forces-and possibly by nuclear weapons as well. The logic is that opponents who would be so irrational or immoral to use biological weapons (particularly against civilian populations) would not easily be swayed by the threat of extensive damage to their own people. More importantly, terrorist groups-having no state or population to protect-do not necessarily present the vulnerabilities of a traditional military opponent. If it is assumed that there is an inherent difficulty in determining the actual perpetrators of a biological attack, there may be no apparent target for conventional (or nuclear) forces to attack.

An opposing viewpoint is that there are always vulnerabilities than can be attacked-even for terrorist groups. Presumably, terrorists act for causes that have overt elements such as political independence for a certain population. Contrary to the most alarmist speculations, effective terrorist groups tend not to be crazy or self-destructive.

Proponents of the deterrence is possible position point to the example of the 1986 Eldorado Canyon reprisal on Libya, which appeared to cause Muammar Qaddafi to reduce his support of terrorist activities. With a combination of intelligence, overt reprisal, covert reprisal, effective law enforcement, and some degree of consequence management preparations, it would seem possible that terrorist activities-particularly with weapons as sophisticated as WMD, which are extremely difficult to obtain or utilize effectively-could be prevented, dissuaded or deterred.

Events to Hedge Against

The nine points of divergence described above are based on differing assumptions concerning the implications of the previously identified consensus points. The identification of divergent viewpoints helps to frame the more contentious issues of the defense debate. But, in addition, it suggests that there may be potential developments that future defense policies may need to hedge against. If reputable, well-informed sources differ as to the future impact of chaos and urban warfare, or the future role of nuclear deterrence, it may be prudent to develop policies that are effective under multiple alternatives. Another element that suggests the need for hedging strategies is the identification of wildcards.

Wildcards can be defined as risks to national security which, by their very nature, can be conceived, but not predicted or fully anticipated. However, the effects of these wildcards could be so devastating to American security that their consideration in creating hedging strategies is of vital importance. These include: (1) an eventual military near-peer competitor; (2) potential alliance of regional competitors; (3) attempts to leap-frog into space warfare; (4) collapse of key ally or regional support; and (5) trend towards a world of warriors.

This list is based on both a review of the points of divergence and an examination of wildcards identified during the survey of sources. The five events selected to hedge against hold three criteria in common: (I) they are events for which preparations in military planning or force structure are practicable, (2) if they occurred, their effects would be magnified by the expected trends identified by the consensus security environment, and (3) they hold the potential to create significant danger for the United States.

A hedge against an unexpected event could take two forms. First, contingency plans could be developed and a select group of resources could be maintained in reserve in order to carry out the plans. A second form or means of hedging would be the development of systems that could operate under unexpected conditions as well as perform optimally in anticipated missions, in other words, operate as a highly-adaptive system.

Conclusion: Towards an Effective Defense Review

The debates that defense reviews engender are always messy. The media makes quite a sport of pointing out the conceptual disunity and lack of jointness among the squabbling Armed Services. Rarely mentioned is the fact that defense policy in a democracy was meant to be contentious and inefficient. To debate up until the very moment the guns sound was always considered a healthy thing. This is in clear contrast to the policies and procedures of authoritarian regimes. As Chinese Communist Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping advised his political and military strategists: “Don’t debate .. . Once debate gets started, things become complicated.” But powerful militaries that do not debate, such as the German Wehrmacht or Soviet Armed Forces, seem to end up on the wrong side of history.

Americans like debate and we generally view the future as complicated, even if we would like to be able predict it. QDR 2001 will also be complicated, as will any subsequent review. One of the ways we can begin in cutting through such complications is to start by identifying both a consensus view of the characteristics we expect in the future security environment, and the diverging views and issues worthy of debate .

The April In Memoriam should have read RADM Harry Hull, USN(Ret.).

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