Military Threats: Peak oil, population, climate change, pandemics, economic crises, cyberattacks, failed states, nuclear war

[ The military is realistic about the challenges the world faces and often presents them with far more clarity than you’ll find from any other government institution. In 2010, the military took a look at some of the world’s toughest issues, with a report “The Joint Operating Environment”. To save you the time of reading this 76 page document I’ve condensed it to the main points of this joint effort of all the military branches.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”]

USJFC. 2010. The Joint Operating Environment. United States Joint Forces Command.

Every military force in history that has successfully adapted to the changing character of war and the evolving threats it faced did so by sharply defining the operational problems it had to solve.

The enemy’s capabilities will range from explosive vests worn by suicide bombers to long-range precision-guided cyber, space, and missile attacks. The threat of mass destruction – from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons – will likely expand from stable nation states to less stable states and even non-state networks.

Today’s interlocking trading and communications networks may tempt leaders to consider once again that war is, if not impossible, then at least obsolete. Accordingly, any future war would cost so much in lives and treasure that no “rational” political leader would pursue it.

The problem is that rationality is often a matter of perspective – in the cultural, political, and ideological eye of the beholder. For what must have seemed perfectly rational reasons, Saddam Hussein invaded two of Iraq’s six neighbors in the space of less than ten years and sparked three wars during the period he ruled.

The real danger in a globalized world, where even the poorest have access to pictures and media portrayals of the developed world, lies in a reversal or halt to global prosperity. Such a possibility would lead individuals and nations to scramble for a greater share of shrinking wealth and resources, as they did in the 1930s with the rise of Nazi Germany in Europe and Japan’s “co-prosperity sphere” in Asia.

The long-term strategic consequences of the current financial crises are likely to be significant. Over the next several years a new international financial order will likely arise that will redefine the rules and institutions that underpin the functioning, order, and stability of the global economy. There is one new watchword that will continue to define the global environment for the immediate future: “interconnectedness.” Until a new structure emerges, strategists will have to prepare to work in an environment where the global economic picture can change suddenly, and where even minor events can cause a cascading series of unforeseen consequences.

Large exporting nations accept U.S. dollars for their goods and use them both to build foreign exchange reserves and to purchase U.S. treasuries (which then finance ongoing U.S. federal operations). The dollar’s “extraordinary privilege” as the primary unit of international trade allows the U.S. to borrow at relatively low rates of interest. However, the emerging scale of U.S. Government borrowing creates uncertainty about both our ability to repay the ever growing debt and the future value of the dollar. Moreover, “any sudden stop in lending…would drive the dollar down, push inflation and interest rates up, and perhaps bring on a hard landing for the United States…”

The precise nature of a “hard landing” of this sort is difficult to predict should creditor nations such as China demand higher interest rates, increasing the perception that the U.S. no longer controls its own financial fate. This dynamic could encourage the establishment of new reserve currencies as global economic actors search for alternatives to the dollar. Changing conditions in the global economy could likewise have important implications for global security also, including a decreased ability of the United States to allocate resources for defense purposes, less purchasing power for available dollars, and shifting power relationships around the world in ways unfavorable to global stability. Domestically, the future of the U.S. financial picture in both the short and long term is one of chronic budget deficits and compounding debt.


Although these fiscal imbalances have been severely aggravated by the recent financial crisis and attendant global economic downturn, the financial picture has long term components which indicate that even a return to relatively high levels of economic growth will not be enough to right the financial picture. The near collapse of financial markets and slow or negative economic activity has seen U.S. Government outlays grow in order to support troubled banks and financial institutions, and to cushion the wider population from the worst effects of the slowdown. These unfunded liabilities are a reflection of an aging U.S. Baby-Boom population increasing the number of those receiving social program benefits, primarily Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, versus the underlying working population that pays to support these programs.17 The foregoing issues of trade imbalance and government debt have historic precedents that bode ill for future force planners. Habsburg Spain defaulted on its debt some 14 times in 150 years and was staggered by high inflation until its overseas empire collapsed. Bourbon France became so beset by debt due to its many wars and extravagances that by 1788 the contributing social stresses resulted in its overthrow by revolution. Interest ate up 44% of the British Government budget during the interwar years 1919-1939, inhibiting its ability to rearm against a resurgent Germany.

Unless current trends are reversed, the U.S. will face similar challenges, anticipating an ever-growing percentage of the U.S. government budget going to pay interest on the money borrowed to finance our deficit spending. Rising debt and deficit financing of government operations will require ever-larger portions of government outlays for interest payments to service the debt. Indeed, if current trends continue, the U.S. will be transferring approximately seven percent of its total economic output abroad simply to service its foreign debt.

Interest payments are projected to grow dramatically, further exacerbated by recent efforts to stabilize and stimulate the economy, far outstripping the current tax base shown by the black line. Interest payments, when combined with the growth of Social Security and health care, will crowd out spending for everything else the government does, including National Defense.

U.S. Defense Spending: The “Hidden Export” The global trade and finance illustration on page 19 overlooks one large “export” that the United States provides to the world – the armed force that underpins the open and accessible global system of trade and travel that we know as “globalization.” At a cost of 600 billion dollars a year, U.S. Joint Forces around the world provide safety and security for the major exporters to access and use the global commons for trade and commerce.

A more immediate implication of these twin deficits will likely mean far fewer dollars available to spend on defense. In 1962 defense spending accounted for some 49% of total government expenditures, but by 2008 had dropped to 20% of total government spending. Following current trend lines, by 2028 the defense budget will likely consume between 2.6 percent and 3.1 percent of GDP – significantly lower than the 1990s average of 3.8%. Indeed, the Department of Defense may shrink to less than ten percent of the total Federal budget.

For over six decades the U.S. has underwritten the “hidden export” of global security for the great trading nations of the world, yet global and domestic pressures will dramatically impact the defense budget in the face of rising debt and trade imbalances. This may diminish this service which is of great benefit to the international community. In this world, new security exporters may rise, each having opinions and objectives that differ from the global norms and conventions that we have encouraged since our own emergence as a great power a century ago. Moreover, they will increasingly have the power to underwrite their own not-so-hidden export of military power. Unless we address these new fiscal realities we will be unable to engage in this contest on terms favorable to our nation.


To meet even the conservative growth rates posited in the economics section, global energy production would need to rise by 1.3% per year. By the 2030s, demand is estimated to be nearly 50% greater than today. To meet that demand, even assuming more effective conservation measures, the world would need to add roughly the equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s current energy production every seven years. Absent a major increase in the relative reliance on alternative energy sources (which would require vast insertions of capital, dramatic changes in technology, and altered political attitudes toward nuclear energy), oil and coal will continue to drive the energy train. By the 2030s, oil requirements could go from 86 to 118 million barrels a day (MBD). Although the use of coal may decline in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, it will more than double in developing nations. Fossil fuels will still make up 80% of the energy mix in the 2030s, with oil and gas comprising upwards of 60%. The central problem for the coming decade will not be a lack of petroleum reserves, but rather a shortage of drilling platforms, engineers and refining capacity.

Peak Oil

Petroleum must continue to satisfy most of the demand for energy out to 2030.

OPEC: To meet climbing global requirements, OPEC will have to increase its output from 30 MBD to at least 50 MBD. Significantly, no OPEC nation, except perhaps Saudi Arabia, is investing sufficient sums in new technologies and recovery methods to achieve such growth. Some, like Venezuela and Russia, are actually exhausting their fields to cash in on the bonanza created by rapidly rising oil prices.

The Chinese are laying down approximately 1,000 kilometers of four-lane highway every year, a figure suggestive of how many more vehicles they expect to possess, with the concomitant rise in their demand for oil. The presence of Chinese “civilians” in the Sudan to guard oil pipelines underlines China’s concern for protecting its oil supplies and could portend a future in which other states intervene in Africa to protect scarce resources. The implications for future conflict are ominous, if energy supplies cannot keep up with demand and should states see the need to militarily secure dwindling energy resources.

Another potential effect of an energy crunch could be a prolonged U.S. recession which could lead to deep cuts in defense spending (as happened during the Great Depression). Joint Force commanders could then find their capabilities diminished at the moment they may have to undertake increasingly dangerous missions. Should that happen, adaptability would require more than preparations to fight the enemies of the United States, but also the willingness to recognize and acknowledge the limitations of America’s military forces. The pooling of U.S. resources and capabilities with allies would then become even more critical. Coalition operations would become essential to protecting national interests.

OPEC and Energy Resources

OPEC nations will remain a focal point of great-power interest. These nations may have a vested interest in inhibiting production increases, both to conserve finite supplies and to keep prices high.

Should one of the consumer nations choose to intervene forcefully, the “arc of instability” running from North Africa through to Southeast Asia easily could become an “arc of chaos,” involving the military forces of several nations.

OPEC nations will find it difficult to invest much of the cash inflows that oil exports bring. While they will invest substantial portions of such assets globally through sovereign wealth funds – investments that come with their own political and strategic difficulties – past track records, coupled with their appraisal of their own military weaknesses, suggest the possibility of a military buildup. With the cost of precision weapons expected to decrease and their availability increasing, Joint Force commanders could find themselves operating in environments where even small, energy-rich opponents have military forces with advanced technological capabilities. These could include advanced cyber, robotic, and even anti-space systems. Finally, presuming the forces propelling radical extremism at present do not dissipate, a portion of OPEC’s windfall might well find its way into terrorist coffers, or into the hands of movements with deeply anti-modern, anti-Western goals – movements which have at their disposal increasing numbers of unemployed young men eager to attack their perceived enemies.

World Oil Chokepoints (page 30) (U.S. department of energy & Energy Information Administration

  • Strait of Hormuz 17 MBD
  • Strait of Malacca 15 MBD
  • Suez Canal Sumed Pipline 4.5 MBD
  • Bab-el-Mandeb 3.3 MBD
  • Turkish Straits 2.4 MBD
  • Baku-Tbilisi-Ceylan Pipeline 1 MBD
  • Panama Canal 0.5 MBD

A severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity. While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India. At best, it would lead to periods of harsh economic adjustment.

One should not forget that the Great Depression spawned a number of totalitarian regimes that sought economic prosperity for their nations by ruthless conquest.

During the next 25 years, coal, oil, and natural gas will remain indispensable to meet energy requirements. The discovery rate for new petroleum and gas fields over the past two decades (with the possible exception of Brazil) provides little reason for optimism that future efforts will find major new fields.

By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 MBD.

Natural disease also has an impact on the world’s food supply. The Irish Potato Famine was not an exceptional historical event. As recently as 1954, 40% of America’s wheat crop failed as a result of black-stem disease. There are reports of a new aggressive strain of this disease (Ug99) spreading across Africa and possibly reaching Pakistan. Blights threatening basic food crops such as potatoes and corn would have destabilizing effects on nations close to the subsistence level. Food crises have led in the past to famine, internal and external conflicts, the collapse of governing authority, migrations, and social disorder. In such cases, many people in the crisis zone may be well-armed and dangerous, making the task of the Joint Force in providing relief that much more difficult. In a society confronted with starvation, food becomes a weapon every bit as important as ammunition.

Access to fish stocks has been an important natural resource for the prosperity of nations with significant fishing fleets. Competition for access to these resources has often resulted in naval conflict. Conflicts have erupted as recently as the Cod War (1975) between Britain and Iceland and the Turbot War (1995) between Canada and Spain. In 1996, Japan and Korea engaged in a naval standoff over rocky outcroppings that would establish extended fishing rights in the Sea of Japan. These conflicts saw open hostilities between the naval forces of these states, and the use of warships and coastal protection vessels to ram and board vessels. Over-fishing and depletion of fisheries and competition over those that remain have the potential for causing serious confrontations in the future.


As we approach the 2030s, the world’s clean water supply will be increasingly at risk. Growing populations and increasing pollution, especially in developing nations, are likely to make water shortages more acute. Most estimates indicate nearly 3 billion (40%) of the world’s population will experience water stress or scarcity.

Absent new technology, water scarcity and contamination have human and economic costs that are likely to prevent developing nations from making significant progress in economic growth and poverty reduction.

The unreliability of an assured supply of rainwater has forced farmers to turn more to groundwater in many areas. As a result, aquifer levels are declining at rates between one and three meters per year. The impact of such declines on agricultural production could be profound, especially since aquifers, once drained, may not refill for centuries. Glacial runoff is also an important source of water for many countries. The great rivers of Southeast Asia, for example, flow through India, Pakistan, China, Nepal, Thailand, and Burma, and are fed largely from glacial meltwaters in the Himalaya Range. Construction of dams at the headwaters of these rivers may constrict the flow of water downstream, increasing the risk of water-related population stresses, cross-border tension, migration and agricultural failures for perhaps a billion people who rely on them.

One should not minimize the prospect of wars over water. In 1967, Jordanian and Syrian efforts to dam the Jordan river were a contributing cause of the Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbors. Today Turkish dams on the upper Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, the source of water for the Mesopotamian basin pose similar problems for Syria and Iraq. Turkish diversion of water to irrigate mountain valleys in eastern Turkey already reduces water downstream. Even though localized, conflicts sparked by water scarcity easily could destabilize whole regions. Continuing crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region is an example of what could happen on a wider scale between now and the 2030s. Indeed, it is precisely along other potential conflict fault lines that potential crises involving water scarcity are most likely.

Were they called on to intervene in a catastrophic water crisis, they might well confront chaos, with collapsing or impotent social networks and governmental services. Anarchy could prevail, with armed groups controlling or warring over remaining water, while the specter of disease resulting from unsanitary conditions would hover in the background.

The latter is only one potential manifestation of a larger problem. Beyond the problems of water scarcity will be those associated with water pollution, whether from uncontrolled industrialization, as in China, or from the human sewage expelled by the mega-cities and slums of the world. The dumping of vast amounts of waste into the world’s rivers and oceans threatens the health and welfare of large portions of the human race, to say nothing of the affected ecosystems. While joint forces rarely will have to address pollution problems directly, any operations in polluted urban areas will carry considerable risk of disease. Indeed, it is precisely in such areas that new and deadly pathogens are most likely to arise. Hence, commanders may be unable to avoid dealing with the consequences of chronic water pollution.


The impact of climate change, specifically global warming and its potential to cause natural disasters and other harmful phenomena such as rising sea levels, has become a concern.

Shrinking sea ice opens new areas for natural resource exploitation, but may raise tensions between Arctic nations over the demarcation of exclusive economic zones and between Arctic nations and maritime states over the designation of important new waterways as international straits or internal waters.

Global sea levels have been on the rise for the past 100 years. Some one-fifth of the world’s population as well as one-sixth of the land area of the world’s largest urban areas are located in coastal zones less than ten meters above sea level.

Furthermore, populations in these coastal areas are growing faster than national averages. In places such as China and Bangladesh, this growth is twice that of the national average. Should global sea levels continue to rise at current rates, these areas will see more extensive flooding and increased saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers upon which coastal populations rely, compounding the impact of increasing shortages of fresh water. Additionally, local population pressures will increase as people move away from inundated areas and settle farther up-country. In this regard, tsunamis, typhoons, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural catastrophes have been and will continue to be a concern of Joint Force commanders. In particular, where natural disasters collide with growing urban sprawl, widespread human misery could be the final straw that breaks the back of a weak state.

If such a catastrophe occurs within the United States itself – particularly when the nation’s economy is in a fragile state or where U.S. military bases or key civilian infrastructure are broadly affected – the damage to U.S. security could be considerable. Areas of the U.S. where the potential is great to suffer large-scale effects from these natural disasters are the hurricane-prone areas of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, and the earthquake zones on the west coast and along the New Madrid fault.


One of the fears haunting policy makers is the appearance of a pathogen, either manmade or natural, able to devastate mankind, as the “Black Death” did in the Middle East and Europe in the middle of the Fourteenth Century. Within barely a year, approximately a third of Europe’s population died.

The crucial element in any response to a pandemic may be the political will to impose quarantine.

A repetition of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which led to the deaths of millions world-wide, would have the most serious consequences for the United States and the world politically as well as socially. The dangers posed by the natural emergence of a disease capable of launching a global pandemic are serious enough, but the possibility exists also that a terrorist organization might acquire a dangerous pathogen.

The deliberate release of a deadly pathogen, especially one genetically engineered to increase its lethality or virulence, would present greater challenges than a naturally occurring disease like SARS. While the latter is likely to have a single point of origin, terrorists could seek to release the pathogen at several different locations in order to increase the rate of transmission across a population. This would seriously complicate both the medical challenge of bringing the disease under control

The implications for the Joint Force of a pandemic as widespread and dangerous as that of 1918 would be profound. American and global medical capabilities would soon find themselves overwhelmed. If the outbreak spreads to the United States, the Joint Force might have to conduct relief operations in support of civil authorities that, consistent with meeting legal prerequisites, could go beyond assisting in law enforcement and maintaining order. Even as Joint Force commanders confronted an array of missions, they would also have to take severe measures to preserve the health of their forces and protect medical personnel and facilities from public panic and dislocations. Thucydides captured the moral, political, and psychological dangers that a global pandemic would cause in his description of the plague’s impact on Athens: “For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or of law.


A timely high-resolution imagery of much of the globe is already available. This has empowered not only states, but also citizens who have, for example, used such imagery to identify hundreds of facilities throughout North Korea. As a result, the future Joint Force commander will not be able to assume that his deployments and operations will remain hidden; rather, they will be exposed to the scrutiny of both adversaries and bystanders.

China’s 2007 successful test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon sent shock waves throughout the international community and created tens of thousands of pieces of space debris. Then in 2009, a commercial telecommunications satellite was destroyed in a collision with a defunct Russian satellite, raising further concerns about the vulnerability of low-earth orbit systems. These events and others highlight the need to protect and operate our space systems in an increasingly contested and congested orbital environment. The relative vulnerability of space assets plus our heavy reliance on them could provide an attractive target for a potential adversary.

Cooperation & competition among conventional powers

The great question confronting Europe is whether some impending threat – an aggressive and expansionist hegemon, competition for resources, the internal stress of immigration, or violent extremism – will inspire them to raise a larger armed force to preserve their security. It is also conceivable that combinations of regional powers with sophisticated capabilities could band together to form a powerful anti-American alliance. It is not hard to imagine an alliance of small, cash-rich countries arming themselves with high-performance long-range precision weapons. Such a group could not only deny U.S. forces access into their countries, but could also prevent American access to the global commons at significant ranges from their borders.

Deng Xiaoping’s advice for China to “disguise its ambition and hide its claws” may represent as forthright a statement as the Chinese can provide. What does appear relatively clear is that the Chinese are thinking in the long term regarding their strategic course. Rather than emphasize the future strictly in military terms, they seem willing to see how their economic and political relations with the United States develop, while calculating that eventually their growing strength will allow them to dominate Asia and the Western Pacific.

The Chinese are interested in the strategic and military thinking of the United States. In the year 2000, the PLA had more students in America’s graduate schools than the U.S. military, giving the Chinese a growing understanding of America and its military. As a potential future military competitor, China would represent a most serious threat to the United States, because the Chinese could understand America and its strengths and weaknesses far better than Americans understand the Chinese. This emphasis is not surprising, given Sun Tzu’s famous aphorism: “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy, but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.”

The Chinese are working hard to ensure that if there is a military confrontation with the United States sometime in the future, they will be ready. Chinese discussions exhibit a deep respect for U.S. military power. There is a sense that in certain areas, such as submarine warfare, space, and cyber warfare, China can compete on a near equal footing with America. Indeed, competing in these areas in particular seems to be a primary goal in their force development. One does not devote the significant national treasure required to build nuclear submarines for coastal defense. The emphasis on nuclear submarines and an increasingly global Navy in particular, underlines worries that the U.S. Navy possesses the ability to shut down China’s energy imports of oil, 80% of which goes through the straits of Malacca. As one Chinese naval strategist expressed it: “the straits of Malacca are akin to breathing – to life itself.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lost the lands and territories it had controlled for the better part of three centuries. Not only did the collapse destroy the economic structure that the Soviets created, but the weak democratic successor regime proved incapable of controlling the criminal gangs or creating a functioning economy.

Since 2000, Russia has displayed a considerable recovery based on Vladimir Putin’s reconstitution of rule by the security services – a move most Russians have welcomed – and on the influx of foreign exchange from Russia’s production of petroleum and natural gas. How the Russian government spends this revenue over the long term will play a significant role in the kind of state that emerges. The nature of the current Russian regime itself is also of concern. To a considerable extent, its leaders have emerged from the old KGB, suggesting a strategic perspective that bears watching. At present, Russian leaders appear to have chosen to maximize petroleum revenues without making the investments in oil fields that would increase oil and gas production over the long term. With its riches in oil and gas, Russia is in a position to modernize and repair its ancient and dilapidated infrastructure and to improve the welfare of its long suffering people. Nevertheless, the current leadership has displayed little interest in such a course. Instead, it has placed its emphasis on Russia’s great power status. For all its current riches, the brilliance of Moscow’s resurgence, and the trappings of military power, Russia cannot hide the conditions of the remainder of the country. The life expectancy of Russia’s male population, 59 years, is 148th in the world and places the country somewhere between East Timor and Haiti.

In the Caucasus region, especially Georgia and its Abkhazian and South Ossetian provinces, Russia has provided direct support to separatists. In other cases, such as the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan or in the Trans-Dnestrian region of Moldova, Russia provides indirect support to keep these conflicts simmering. These conflicts further impoverish areas

They lay astride new and vulnerable routes to access the oil of the Caspian Basin and beyond. They encourage corruption, organized crime, and disregard legal order and national sovereignty in a critical part of the world. In the future, they could exacerbate the establishment of frameworks for regional order and create a new “frontier of instability” around Russia. Indeed, while many of its European neighbors have almost completely disarmed, Russia has begun a military buildup. Since 2001, the Russians have quadrupled their military budget with increases of over 20% per annum over the past several years. In 2007, the Russian parliament, with Putin’s enthusiastic support, approved even greater military appropriations through 2015. Russia cannot recreate the military machine of the old Soviet Union, but it may be attempting to make up for demographic and conventional military inferiority by modernizing. Russia’s failure to diversify its economy beyond oil and natural gas, together with its accelerating demographic collapse, will create a Russia of greatly decreased political, economic, and military power by the 2020s. One of the potential Russias that could emerge in coming decades could be one that focuses on regaining its former provinces in the name of “freeing” the Russian minorities in those border states from the illtreatment they are supposedly receiving.

The Pacific and Indian Oceans

The rim of the great Asian continent is home to a number of states with significant nuclear potential. China and Russia are members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and have significant nuclear arsenals at their command. India and Pakistan have demonstrated the capacity to detonate nuclear devices, possess the means to deliver them, and are not party to the NPT, while others such as North Korea and Iran are pursuing nuclear weapons technology (and the means to deliver them) as well. Several friends or Allies of the United States, such as Japan and South Korea are highly advanced technological states and could quickly build nuclear devices if they chose to do so.

While the region appears stable on the surface, political clefts exist. There are few signs that these divisions, which have deep historical, cultural, and religious roots, will be mitigated. Not all of Asia’s borders are settled. China, Japan and Russia have simmering territorial disputes over maritime boundaries, while demographic and natural resource pressures across the Siberia/Manchuria border have significant implications for Moscow’s control of its far east. If one includes the breakup of the British Raj in 1947-1948, India and Pakistan have fought three brutal wars, while a simmering conflict over the status of Kashmir continues to poison relations between the two powers.

The Vietnamese and the Chinese have a long record of antipathy, which broke out into heavy fighting in the late 1970s, and China’s claims that Taiwan is a province of the mainland and that scattered islands as far afield as Malaysia are Chinese territory obviously represent a set of troublesome flashpoints. The continuing dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir may be the most dangerous disagreement that exists between two nuclear armed powers. The Chinese have backed up their claims to the Spratleys, which Vietnam and the Philippines also claim, with force.

How contested claims in this important sea lane are resolved will have important implications for trade routes and energy exploration, and as an area of growing naval competition. The Kurile Islands, occupied by the Soviets at the end of World War II, remain a contentious issue between Russia and Japan. The uninhabited islands south of Okinawa are in dispute between Japan and China, both drawn to the area by the possibility of oil. Much of the Yellow Sea remains in dispute between the Koreas, Japan, and China, again because of its potential for oil. The straits of Malacca represent the most important transit point for world commerce, the closure of which for even a relatively short period of time would have a devastating impact on the global economy. There is at present a subtle, but sustained military buildup throughout the region. India could more than quadruple its wealth over the course of the next two decades, but large swaths of its population will likely remain in poverty through the 2030s. Like China, this will create tensions between the rich and the poor. Such tension, added to the divides among its religions and nationalities, could continue to have implications for economic growth and national security. Nevertheless, its military will receive substantial upgrades in the coming years. That fact, combined with its proud martial traditions and strategic location in the Indian Ocean, will make India the dominant player in South Asia and the Middle East. Like India, China and Japan are also investing heavily in military force modernization, particularly with an emphasis in naval forces that can challenge their neighbors for dominance in the seas surrounding the East and South Asian periphery. The buildup of the navies by the powers in the region has significant implications for how the United States develops its strategy as well as for the deployments of its naval forces.

India sits on the rim of an ocean pivotal to U.S. interests, and possesses a navy larger than any other in the region. It borders a troubled Pakistan, a growing China, is in a neighborhood at high risk of nuclear proliferation, is a common target for radical ideological groups using terrorist tactics, and sits astride key sea lanes linking East Asia to the oil fields of the Middle East. An estimated 700 million Indians still earn under $2 a day.

From a security standpoint, the NATO alliance will have the potential to field substantial, world-class military forces and project them far beyond the boundaries of the continent, but this currently seems a relatively unlikely possibility, given demographic shifts between native-born Europeans and immigrants from the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Europe is undergoing a major cultural transformation, making it less willing to project military power into likely areas of conflict. Perhaps this will change with the recognition of a perceived threat. The next 25 years will provide two good candidates: Russia and continued terrorism fueled by global violent extremism.

The Baltic and Eastern European regions will likely remain flashpoints as a number of historical issues such as ethnicity or the location of national boundaries, which have led to conflict in the past, continue to simmer under the surface. Russian efforts to construct a gas pipeline to Western Europe under the Baltic Sea rather than a less costly land route through Eastern Europe suggests a deliberate aim to separate the Central and Western European NATO countries from the Baltic and Eastern European members of NATO. Continued terrorist attacks in Europe might also spark a popular passion for investing in military forces.

Should violent extremists persist in using this tactic to attack the European continent with increasing frequency and intensity, there might be a response that includes addressing this threat on a global scale rather than as an internal security problem.

Central and South America

Military challenges in South America and Central America will likely arise from within states, rather than between them. Many internal stresses will continue to challenge the continent, particularly drug cartels and criminal gangs, while terrorist organizations will continue to find a home in some of the continent’s lawless border regions.

The power of criminal gangs fueled by drug money may be the primary impediment to economic growth, social progress, and perhaps even political stability and legitimacy in portions of Latin America. The cartels work to undermine and corrupt the state, bending security and legal structures to their will, while distorting and damaging the overall economic potential of the region. That criminal organizations and cartels are capable of leveraging expensive technologies to smuggle illicit drugs across national borders serves to illustrate the formidable resources that these groups can bring to bear. Taking advantage of open trade and finance regimes and global communications technologies, these groups attempt to carve out spaces free from government control and present a real threat to the national security interests of our friends and allies in the Western Hemisphere.

The assault by the drug cartels on the Mexican government and its authority over the past several years has also recently come into focus, and reminds one how critical stability in Mexico is for the security of the United States and indeed the entire region. Mexico has the 14th largest economy on Earth, significant natural resources, a growing industrial base, and nearly free access to the biggest export market in the world immediately to its north.

In addition to conventional bank transfers, syndicates import between $8 billion and $10 billion in bulk cash each year. As traditional land routes for smuggling drugs into the US have been shut down, in most of the US there has been an increase in drug price and a decrease in drug purity but as in any conflict, the enemy has adapted, and now the maritime routes have become critical to smugglers.

As Mexico becomes successful, the drug problem will expand into a greater regional problem, so a holistic approach is needed. The economics are shifting as well, with the United Kingdom and Spain now the most lucrative markets and the problem spilling into Japan, Russia, and China.

Unless Venezuela’s current regime changes direction, it could use its oil wealth to subvert its neighbors for an extended period while pursuing anti-American activities on a global scale with the likes of Iran, Russia, and China, in effect creating opportunities to form anti-American coalitions in the region.

Sub-Saharan Africa presents a unique set of challenges, including economic, social, and demographic factors, often exacerbated by bad governance, interference by external powers, and health crises such as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Even pockets of economic growth are under pressure and may regress as multiple problems challenge government to build the capacity to respond. Some progress in the region may occur, but it is almost certain that many of these nations will remain on any list of the poorest nations on the globe. Exacerbating their difficulties will be the fact that the national borders, drawn by the colonial powers in the Nineteenth Century, bear little relation to tribal and linguistic realities. The region is endowed with a great wealth of natural resources, a fact which has already attracted the attention of several powerful states. This could represent a welcome development because in its wake might follow foreign expertise and investment for a region in dire need of both. The importance of the region’s resources will ensure that the great powers maintain a vested interest in the region’s stability and development.

Relatively weak African states will be very hard-pressed to resist pressure by powerful state and non-state actors who embark on a course of interference. This possibility is reminiscent of the late Nineteenth Century, when pursuit of resources and areas of interest by the developed world disturbed the affairs of weak and poverty stricken regions.

Based on current evidence, a principal nexus of conflict will continue to be the region from Morocco to Pakistan through to Central Asia. Across this part of the globe a number of historical, dormant conflicts between states and nations over borders, territories, and water rights exist, especially in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Radical extremists will present the first and most obvious challenge. The issue here is not terrorism per se, because terrorism is merely a tactic by which those who lack the technology, weapons systems, and scruples of the modern world can attack their enemies throughout the world. Radical extremists who advocate violence constitute a transnational, theologically-based insurgency that seeks to overthrow regimes in the Islamic world. They bitterly attack the trappings of modernity as well as the philosophical underpinnings of the West

At a minimum radical Islam seeks to eliminate U.S. and other foreign presence in the Middle East, a region vital to U.S. and global security, but only as a first step to the creation of a Caliphate stretching from Central Asia in the East to Spain in the West and extending deeper into Africa. The problems in the Arab-Islamic world stem from the past five centuries, during which the rise of the West and the dissemination of Western political and social values paralleled a concomitant decline in the power and appeal of their societies.

Today’s Islamic world confronts the choice of either adapting to or escaping from a globe of interdependence created by the West. Often led by despotic rulers, addicted to the exports of commodities which offered little incentive for more extensive industrialization or modernization, and burdened by cultural and ideological obstacles to education and therefore modernization, many Islamic states have fallen far behind the West, South Asia, and East Asia. The rage of radical Islamists feeds off the lies of their often corrupt leaders, the rhetoric of radical imams, the falsifications of their own media, and resentment of the far more prosperous developed world. If tensions between the Islamic world’s past and the present were not enough, the Middle East, the Arab heartland of Islam, remains divided by tribal, religious, and political divisions, making continued instability inevitable. Iran has an increasingly important role in this center of instability. A society with a long and rich history, Iran has yet to live up to its potential to be a stabilizing force in the region. Although the U.S. has removed Iran’s most powerful adversary (Saddam) and reduced the Taliban, the regime continues to foment instability in areas far from its own borders. Despite a population that remains relatively favorable to the United States, the cleric dominated regime appears ready to continue dedicating its diplomatic and military capabilities to confrontation with the United States and Israel, and to cultivate an array of very capable proxy forces around the world. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, various groups in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, and the Caucasus, and other client states will serve to extend and solidify Iranian influence abroad.

Extreme volatility in oil prices is eroding national revenues due to the failure of the regime to diversify the national economy, which stifles the future prosperity of the Iranian people. Iran must create conditions for its economic viability beyond the near term or face insolvency, internal dissension and ferment, and possible upheaval. The economic importance of the Middle East with its energy supplies hardly needs emphasis. Whatever the outcome of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces will find themselves again employed in the region on numerous missions ranging from regular warfare, counterinsurgency, stability operations, relief and reconstruction, to engagement operations. The region and its energy supplies are too important for the U.S., China, and other energy importers to allow radical groups to gain dominance or control over any significant portion of the region.


Weak and failing states will remain a condition of the global environment over the next quarter of a century. Such countries will continue to present strategic and operational planners serious challenges, with human suffering on a scale so large that it almost invariably spreads throughout the region, and in some cases possesses the potential to project trouble throughout the globalized world.

Many, if not the majority, of weak and failing states will be in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. A current list of such states much resembles the lists of such states drawn up a generation ago, suggesting a chronic condition, which, despite considerable aid, provides little hope for solution.

There is one dynamic in the literature of weak and failing states that has received relatively little attention, namely the phenomenon of “rapid collapse.” For the most part, weak and failing states represent chronic, long-term problems that allow for management over sustained periods. The collapse of a state usually comes as a surprise, has a rapid onset, and poses acute problems. The collapse of Yugoslavia into a chaotic tangle of warring nationalities in 1990 suggests how suddenly and catastrophically state collapse can happen – in this case, a state that had hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics at Sarajevo, then quickly became the epicenter of the ensuing civil war. The erosion of state authority by extremist Islamist groups bears consideration due to the disastrous consequences for U.S. security such weakness could create. Pakistan is especially under assault, and its collapse would carry with it the likelihood of a sustained violent and bloody civil and sectarian war, an even bigger haven for violent extremists, and the question of what would happen to its nuclear weapons. That “perfect storm” of uncertainty alone might require the employment of U.S. and coalition forces in a situation

Risk Level

One of the most troubling and frighteningly common human disasters that occur as states collapse is that of ethnic cleansing and even genocide. This extreme violence, leading to the death and displacement of potentially millions, is usually traced to three interlocking factors. These include the collapse of state authority, severe economic turmoil, and the rise of charismatic leaders proposing the “ultimate solution” to the “problem” of ethnic or religious diversity or the division of economic or political spoils.

The drive to create ethnically or ideologically pure political entities has been a consistent feature of the era of self-determination and decolonization. The retreat of the European empires followed by the contraction of the dangerous, yet relatively stable U.S.-Soviet confrontation has laid bare a world of complex ethnic diversity and violent groups attempting to secure power while keeping ethnic minorities under heel. As sources of legitimate order have crumbled, local elites compete for the benefits of power. The stakes are particularly high in ethnically diverse regions.

Where might we expect to see a similar toxic mix of mismatched political governance, difficult economic circumstances, and aggressive politicians willing to use human differences to further their pursuit of political power? The ethnic confrontations in Europe have been largely solved through wars, including the Second World War and the Balkan Conflict; however, they may reemerge in new areas where migration, demographic decline, and economic stress take hold. Most problematic is the vast arc of instability between Morocco and Pakistan where Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Arabs, Persians, Jews, Pashtuns, Niall Ferguson, “The Next War of the World” Foreign Affairs (September 2006), p. 66. Baluchs, and other groups compete with one another.

Many areas of central Africa are also ripe for severe ethnic strife as the notion of ethnically pure nation states animate old grievances, with Rwanda and the Congo being examples of where this path might lead. As Lebanon, Bosnia, Rwanda, and current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, the Joint Force may be called upon to provide order and security in areas where simmering political, racial, ethnic, religious, and tribal differences create the potential for large scale atrocities.


While states and other conventional powers will remain the principal brokers of power, there is an undeniable diffusion of power to unconventional, non-state, or trans-state actors. While these groups have rules of their own, they exist and behave outside the recognized norms and conventions of society. Some transnational organizations seek to operate beyond state control and acquire the tools and means to challenge states and utilize terrorism against populations to achieve their aims. These unconventional transnational organizations possess no regard for international borders and agreements. The discussion below highlights two examples: militias and super-empowered individuals. Militias represent armed groups, irregular yet recognizable as an armed force, operating within ungoverned areas or in weak failing states. They range from ad hoc organizations with shared identities to more permanent groups possessing the ability to provide goods, services, and security along with their military capabilities.

Militias challenge the sovereignty of the state by breaking the monopoly on violence traditionally the preserve of states. An example of a modern day militia is Hezbollah, which combines state-like technological and warfighting capabilities with a “substate” political and social structure inside the formal state of Lebanon. One does not need a militia to wreak havoc. Pervasive information, combined with lower costs for many advanced technologies, have already resulted in individuals and small groups possessing increased ability to cause significant damage and slaughter. Time and distance constraints are no longer in play. Such groups employ niche technologies capable of attacking key systems and providing inexpensive countermeasures to costly systems. Because of their small size, such groups of the “super-empowered” can plan, execute, receive feedback, and modify their actions, all with considerable agility and synchronization. Their capacity to cause serious damage is out of all proportion to their size and resources.


In the 1940’s the Democratic West faced down and ultimately defeated an extreme ideology that espoused destruction of democratic freedoms: Nazism. Afterward, these same powers resisted and overcame another opposing ideology that demanded the diminution of individual liberties to the power of the state: Communism.

We now face a similar, but even more radical ideology that directly threatens the foundation of western secular society. Al Qaeda terrorists, violent militants in the Levant, radical Salafist groups in the Horn of Africa, and the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan are all examples of local groups pursuing local interests, but tied together by a common, transnational, and violent ideology. These groups are driven by an uncompromising, nihilistic rage at the modern world, and accept no middle ground or compromise in pursuing their version of the truth. Their goal is to force this truth on the rest of the world’s population. These radical ideological groups have discovered how to form cellular, yet global networks that operate beyond state control and have the capacity – and, most importantly, the will – to challenge the authority of states. Because these organizations do not operate within the international diplomatic systems, they will locate bases of operations in the noise and complexity of cities and use international law and the safe havens along borders of weak states to shield their operations and dissuade the U.S. from engaging them militarily.

Combining extreme ideologies with modern technology, they use the Internet and other means of communications to share experiences, tactics, funding, and best practices to maintain a constant flow of relatively sophisticated volunteers for their effort. Moreover, they have made common cause with other unconventional powers and will use these organizations to shelter their efforts and as fronts for their operations. These radical groups are constructing globe-spanning “narratives” that effectively dehumanize their opponents, legitimizing in their eyes any tactic no matter how abhorrent to civilized norms of conduct. They believe that their target audience is the 1.1 billion Muslims who are 16 percent of the world’s total population. The use of terror tactics to shock and silence moderate voices in their operational areas includes suicide bombing and improvised explosive devices to kill and maim as many as possible.

Most troubling is the possibility, indeed likelihood, that some of these groups will achieve a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capability through shared knowledge, through smuggling, or through the deliberate design of an unscrupulous state. The threat of attacks both abroad and in the homeland using nuclear devices, custom bio-weapons, and advanced chemical agents intended to demonstrate dramatically our security weaknesses are real possibilities we must take account of in our planning and deterrent strategies.

No one should harbor the illusion that the developed world can win this conflict in the near future. As is true with most insurgencies, victory will not appear decisive or complete. It will certainly not rest on military successes. The treatment of political, social, and economic ills can help, but in the end will not be decisive. What will matter most will be the winning of a “war of ideas,” much of which must come from within the Islamic world itself.


A continuing challenge to American security will be the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. planners had to consider the potential use of nuclear weapons both by and against the Soviet Union. For the past 20 years, Americans have largely ignored issues of deterrence and nuclear warfare. We no longer have that luxury.

Since 1998, India and Pakistan have created nuclear arsenals and delivery capabilities. North Korea has on two occasions attempted to test nuclear devices and likely has produced the fissile material required to create weapons. North Korea is likely to attempt to weaponize its nascent nuclear capability to increase its leverage with its neighbors and the United States.

Furthermore, the Iranian regime is pressing forward aggressively with its own nuclear weapons program. The confused reaction in the international community to Iran’s defiance of external demands to discontinue its nuclear development programs may provide an incentive for others to follow this path. Unless a global agreement to counter proliferation is successful, the Joint Force must consider a future in which issues of nuclear deterrence and use are a primary feature. Some state or non-state actors may not view nuclear weapons as tools of last resort. It is far from certain that a state whose culture is deeply distinct from that of the United States, and whose regime is either unstable or unremittingly hostile (or both), would view the role of nuclear weapons in a fashion similar to American strategists. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by other regimes, whether they were hostile or not, would disrupt the strategic balance further, while increasing the potential for the use of nuclear weapons.

Add to this regional complexity the fact that multiple nuclear powers will very likely have the global reach to strike other states around the world. These rising nuclear powers may view use of WMD very differently from the U.S. and may be willing to employ them tactically to achieve short term objectives. The stability of relations among numerous states capable of global nuclear strikes will be of central importance for the Joint Force. Assured second-strike capabilities and relations based on mutually-assured destruction may mean greater stability, but may effectively reduce access to parts of the world. On the other hand, fragile nuclear balances and vulnerable nuclear forces may provide tempting targets for nuclear armed competitors.

Any discussion of weapons of mass destruction must address also the potential use of biological weapons by sovereign states as well as non-state actors. By all accounts, such weapons are becoming easier to fabricate – certainly easier than nuclear weapons – and under the right conditions they could produce mass casualties, economic disruption, and terror on the scale of a nuclear strike. The knowledge associated with developing biological weapons is widely available, and the costs for their production remain modest, easily within reach of small groups or even individuals. The U.S. ability to deter nuclear armed states and non-state actors needs to be reconsidered and perhaps updated to reflect this changing landscape.

More advanced weaponry will be available to more groups, conventional and unconventional, for a cheaper price. This will allow relatively moderately funded states and militias to acquire long-range precision munitions, projecting power farther out and with greater accuracy than ever before. At the high end, it has already been seen that this reach extends into space with the public demonstration of anti-satellite weapons. Whether a small oil-rich nation or a drug cartel, cash will be able to purchase lethal capabilities. If manpower is a limiting factor, the advances in robotics provide a solution for those who can afford the price. This has the sobering potential to amplify further the power of the “super-empowered” guerrilla.

A current example of the kind of technological surprise that could prove deadly would be an adversary’s deployment and use of disruptive technology, such as electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) weapons against a force without properly hardened equipment. The potential effects of an electromagnetic pulse resulting from a nuclear detonation have been known for decades. The appearance of non-nuclear EMP weapons could change operational and technological equations. They are being developed, but are joint forces being adequately prepared to handle such a threat? The impact of such weapons would carry with it the most serious potential consequences for the communications, reconnaissance, and computer systems on which the Joint Force depends at every level.

High powered microwave (HPM) weapons will offer both the Joint Force and our adversaries new ways to disrupt, degrade, or even destroy unshielded electrical systems, as well as electronics and integrated circuits upon which command and control, ISR and weapon systems themselves are based. The non-explosive, non-lethal aspects of HPM will prove adaptive against a variety of threats embedded and operating among civilian populations in urban environments.


By the 2030s, five billion of the world’s eight billion people will live in cities. Fully two billion of them will inhabit the great urban slums of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Many large urban environments will lie along the coast or in littoral environments. With so much of the world’s population crammed into dense urban areas and their immediate surroundings, future Joint Force commanders will be unable to evade operations in urban terrain. The world’s cities, with their teeming populations and slums, will be places of immense confusion and complexity, physically as well as culturally. They will also provide prime locations for diseases and the population density for pandemics to spread.

There is no modern precedent for major cities collapsing, even in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, when the first such cities appeared. Cities under enormous stress, such as Beirut in the 1980s and Sarajevo in the 1990s, nevertheless managed to survive with only brief interruptions of food imports and basic services. As in World War II, unless contested by an organized enemy, urban areas are always easier to control than the countryside. In part, that is because cities offer a pre-existing administrative infrastructure through which forces can manage secured areas while conducting stability operations in contested locations. The effectiveness of that pre-existing infrastructure may be tested as never before under the stress of massive immigration, energy demand, and food and water shortages in the urban sprawl that is likely to emerge.

What may be militarily effective may also create the potential for large civilian casualties, which in turn would most probably result in a political disaster, especially given the ubiquitous presence of the media. As well, the nature of operations in urban environments places a premium on decentralized command and control, ISR, fire support, and aviation. Combat leaders will need to continue to decentralize decision-making down to the level where tactical leaders can act independently in response to fleeting opportunities.


In an uncertain world, which will inevitably contain enemies who aim either to attack the United States directly or to undermine the political and economic stability on which America, its allies, and the world’s economy depend, the nation’s military forces will play a crucial role. Yet, war is an inherently uncertain and costly endeavor. As the United States has discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no such thing as a rapid, decisive operation that does not generate unforeseen second and third order effects.

Preventing war will prove as important as winning a war.

Deterrence also depends on the belief on the part of the adversary that the United States will use its military power in defense of its national interests.

After protracted action in Afghanistan and Iraq, the force now faces a period of reconstitution and rebalancing which will require significant physical, intellectual, and moral effort that may take a decade to complete. During this time, our forces may be located significant distances from a future fight. Thus, the Joint Force will be challenged to maintain both a deterrent posture and the capacity and capability to be forward engaged around the world, showing the flag and displaying the ability to act in ways to both prevent and win wars.

Shadow Globalization: “Bazaars of Violence”

The globalization of trade, finance, and human travel across international boundaries in the commercial world has an analogous dark side as well. Criminal and terrorist networks are intermingling to construct their own “shadow globalization,” building micro markets, and trade and financial networks that will enable them to coordinate nefarious activities on a global scale.

The ubiquity and ease of access to these markets outside of legal structures attract shadow financing from a much larger pool, irrespective of geography. In these markets, rates of innovation in tactics, capabilities, and information sharing will accelerate and will enable virtual organizational structures that quickly coalesce, plan, attack, and dissolve.

As they grow, these markets will allow adversaries to generate attacks at a higher level of rapidity and sophistication beyond law enforcement’s capability to interdict. For example, we have seen Somali pirates hiring indigenous spotters to identify ships leaving foreign harbors as prime targets for hijackings.

We should expect shadow globalization to encourage this outsourcing of criminality to interface increasingly with insurgencies, such that actors in local conflicts will impact on a global scale, with perhaps hundreds of groups and thousands of participants. The line between insurgency and organized crime will likely continue to blur. This convergence can already be seen in the connections between the FARC and cocaine trafficking, MEND and stolen oil, and the Taliban and opium production. This convergence means that funding for violent conflicts will interplay and abet the growth of global gray and black markets.

The current size of these markets is already $2-3 trillion and is growing faster than legal commercial trade; it has the potential to equal a third of global GDP by 2020. If so, violent insurgencies will have the ability to trade within this economic regime, amassing financial resources in exchange for market protection, and to mobilize those resources to rival state military capabilities in many areas. This gives them the increased ability to co-opt and corrupt state legal structures.

Shadow globalization may not be merely an Internet phenomenon, as groups are able to buy or lease their own commercial aircraft, fast boats, submarines, and truck fleets, and to move people and cargo across regions outside state-controlled legal trade regimes. Moreover, collaboration among younger generations through ever more powerful social media will likely be globally mainstream by 2025. The sophistication, ubiquity, and familiarity of these technologies will enable faster and more efficient market formation. This means that micro-market interaction will be both natural and habitual to its participants, creating opportunities for “flash micro-markets” and symbiosis between legal and illicit market elements.

It is in this political-strategic environment that the greatest surprises for Americans may come. The United States has dominated the world economically since 1915 and militarily since 1943. Its dominance in both respects now faces challenges brought about by the rise of powerful states. Moreover, the rise of these great powers creates a strategic landscape and international system, which, despite continuing economic integration, will possess considerable instabilities. Lacking either a dominant power or an informal organizing framework, such a system will tend toward conflict.

Between now and the 2030s, the military forces of the United States will almost certainly find themselves involved in combat.


There are two particularly difficult scenarios that will confront joint forces between now and the 2030s. The first and most devastating would be a major war with a powerful state or hostile alliance of states.

Given the proliferation of nuclear weapons, there is considerable potential for such a conflict to involve the use of such weapons.

While major regular war is currently in a state of hibernation, one should not forget that in 1929 the British government adopted as its basic principle of defense planning the assumption that no major war would occur for the next ten years. Until the mid-1930s the “Ten Year Rule” crippled British defense expenditures. The possibility of war remained inconceivable to British statesmen until March 1939, despite the movement of formerly democratic governments to Fascism. The one approach that would deter a major conflict involving U.S. military forces, including a conflict involving nuclear weapons, is the maintenance of capabilities that would allow the United States to wage and win any possible conflict. As the Romans so aptly commented, “if you wish for peace, prepare for war.” Preventing war will in most instances prove more important than waging it. In the long term, the primary purpose of the military forces of the United States must be deterrence, for war in any form and in any context is an immensely expensive undertaking both in lives and national treasure.

Americans must not allow themselves to be deluded into believing their future opponents will prove as inept and incompetent as Saddam Hussein’s regime was in 1991 and again in 2003.

Having seen the capabilities of U.S. forces in both regular and irregular war, future opponents will understand “the American way of war” in a particularly detailed and thorough way.

More sophisticated opponents of U.S. military forces will certainly attack American vulnerabilities. For instance, it is entirely possible that attacks on computers, space, and communications systems will severely degrade command and control of U.S. forces.

Conflicts or events beyond the scope of traditional war, such as 9/11, or non-attributable use of WMD, will create demands that will stress the Joint Force.

In planning for future conflicts, Joint Force commanders and their planners must factor two important constraints into their calculations: logistics and access. The majority of America’s military forces will find themselves largely based in North America. Thus, the first set of problems involved in the commitment of U.S. forces will be logistical. In the 1980s many defense pundits criticized the American military for its supposed over-emphasis on logistics, and praised the German Wehrmacht for its minimal “tooth to tail” ratio in the Second World War. What they missed was that the United States had to project its military forces across two great oceans, then fight massive battles of attrition in Europe and in East Asia. Ultimately, the logistical prowess of U.S. and Allied forces translated into effective combat forces, defeated the Wehrmacht on the Western Front, crushed the Luftwaffe in the skies over Germany, and broke Imperial Japan’s will. The tyranny of distance will always influence the conduct of America’s wars, and joint forces will confront the problems associated with moving forces over great distances and then supplying them with fuel, munitions, repair parts, and sustenance. In this regard, a measure of excess is always necessary, compared to “just in time” delivery. Failure to keep joint forces who are engaged in combat supplied could lead to disaster, not just unstocked shelves. Understanding that requirement represents only the first step in planning, but it may well prove the most important.

The crucial enabler for America’s ability to project its military power for the past six decades has been its almost complete control over the global commons.

Any projection of military power in the future will require a similar enabling effort, and must recognize that the global commons have now expanded to include the domains of cyber war and space. The Joint Force must have redundancy built in to each of these areas to ensure that access and logistics support are more than “single-point safe” and cannot be disrupted through a single point of attack by the enemy. In America’s two recent wars against Iraq, the enemy made no effort to deny U.S. forces entry into the theater. Future opponents, however, may not prove so accommodating.

The second constraint confronting planners is that the United States may not have uncontested access to bases in the immediate area from which it can project military power. Even in the best case, allies will be essential to providing the base structure required for arriving U.S. forces.

But there may be other cases in which uncontested access to bases is not available for the projection of military forces. This may be because the neighborhood is hostile, smaller friendly states have been intimidated, negative perceptions of America exist, or states fear giving up a measure of sovereignty. Furthermore, the use of bases by the Joint Force might involve the host nation in conflict. Hence, the ability to seize bases in enemy territory by force from the sea and air could prove the critical opening move of a campaign. Given the proliferation of sophisticated weapons in the world’s arms markets, potential enemies – even relatively small powers – will be able to possess and deploy an array of longer-range and more precise weapons. Such capabilities in the hands of America’s enemies will obviously threaten the projection of forces into a theater, as well as attack the logistical flow on which U.S. forces will depend. Thus, the projection of military power could become hostage to the ability to counter long-range systems even as U.S. forces begin to move into a theater of operations and against an opponent. The battle for access may prove not only the most important, but the most difficult.

One of the major factors in America’s success in deterring potential aggressors and projecting its military power over the past half century has been the presence of its naval forces off the coasts of far-off lands. Moreover, those forces have proven of enormous value in relief missions when natural disasters have struck. They will continue to be a significant factor in the future. Yet, there is the rising danger with the increase in precision and longer range missiles that presence forces could be the first target of an enemy’s action in their exposed positions.

The Joint Force can expect future opponents to launch both terrorist and unconventional attacks on the territory of the continental United States, while U.S. forces, moving through the global commons, could find themselves under persistent and effective attack. In this respect, the immediate past is not necessarily a guide to the future.

Unfortunately, we must also think the unthinkable – attacks on U.S. vital interests by implacable adversaries who refuse to be deterred could involve the use of nuclear weapons or other WMD.

Our joint forces must also have the recognized capability to survive and fight in a WMD, including nuclear, environment. This capability is essential to both deterrence and effective combat operations in the future joint operating environment. If there is reason for the Joint Force commander to consider the potential use of nuclear weapons by adversaries against U.S. forces, there is also the possibility that sometime in the future two other warring states might use nuclear weapons against each other. In the recent past, India and Pakistan have come close to armed conflict beyond the perennial skirmishing that occurs along their Kashmir frontier. Given India’s immense conventional superiority, there is considerable reason to believe such a conflict could lead to nuclear exchanges. As would be true of any use of nuclear weapons, the result could be massive carnage, uncontrolled refugee flows, and social collapse – all in all, a horrific human catastrophe.

Future adversaries will work through surrogates, including terrorist and criminal networks, manipulate access to energy resources and markets, and exploit perceived economic and diplomatic leverage in order to complicate our plans. Such approaches will be obscure and difficult to detect,

We face an era of failed states, destabilized elements and high end asymmetric threats. We must be prepared to adapt rapidly to each specific threat, and not narrowly focus only on preferred modes of warfare.

As Mao suggested, the initial approach in irregular war must be a general unwillingness to engage the regular forces they confront. Rather, according to him, they should attack the enemy where he is weakest, and in most cases this involves striking his political and security structures. It is likely that the enemy will attack those individuals who represent the governing authority or who are important in the local economic structure: administrators; security officials; tribal leaders; school teachers; and business leaders among others, particularly those who are popular among the locals.

The current demographic trends and population shifts around the globe underline the increasing importance of cities. The urban landscape is steadily growing in complexity, while its streets and slums are filled with a youthful population that has few connections to their elders. The urban environment is subject to water scarcity, increasing pollution, soaring food and living costs, and labor markets in which workers have little leverage or bargaining power. Such a volatile mixture is a recipe for trouble.

Joint forces will very likely find themselves involved in combat and relief operations in cities. Such areas will provide adversaries with environments that allow them to hide, mass, and disperse, while using the cover of innocent civilians to mask their operations.

They will also be able to exploit the interconnections of urban terrain to launch attacks on infrastructure nodes with cascading political effects. Urban geography will provide enemies with a landscape of dense buildings, an intense information environment, and complexity, all of which ease the conduct of operations.

Any urban military operation will require a large number of troops which could consume manpower at a startling rate. Moreover, operations in urban terrain will confront Joint Force commanders with a number of conundrums. The very density of buildings and population will inhibit the use of lethal means, given the potential for collateral damage and large numbers of civilian casualties. Such inhibitions could increase U.S. casualties. Additionally, any collateral damage carries with it difficulties in winning the “battle of narratives.” How crucial is the connection between collateral damage and disastrous political implications is suggested by the results of a remark an American officer made during the Tet offensive that American forces “had to destroy a village to save it.” That thought process and suggestion of indiscriminate violence reverberated throughout the United States and was one contributing factor to the erosion of political support for the war. Terrorists will be able to internalize lessons rapidly from their predecessors and colleagues without the bureaucratic hindrances found in nation states. One must also note the growing convergence of armed groups and terrorist organizations with criminal cartels like the drug trade to finance their activities. Such cooperative activities will make terrorism and criminal cartels only more dangerous and effective.

Where an increase in terrorist activity intersects with energy supplies or weapons of mass destruction, Joint Force commanders will confront the need for immediate action, which may require employment of significant conventional capabilities.

As Sir Michael Howard once commented, the military profession is not only the most demanding physically, but the most demanding intellectually. Moreover, it confronts a problem that no other profession possesses: There are two great difficulties with which the professional soldier, sailor, or airman has to contend in equipping himself as commander. First, his profession is almost unique in that he may only have to exercise it once in his lifetime, if indeed that often. It is as if a surgeon had to practice throughout his life on dummies for one real operation;

Secondly, the complex problem of running a [military service] at all is liable to occupy his mind so completely that it is easy to forget what it is being run for.

The Joint Operating Environment has spoken thoroughly about the asymmetric application of power by potential enemies against U.S. military forces. There is also an asymmetry with respect to the defense spending of the United States and its potential opponents, particularly in irregular contexts. One needs only to consider the enormous expenditures the United States has made to counter the threat posed by improvised explosive devices (IED). The United States has spent literally billions to counter these crude, inexpensive, and extraordinarily effective devices. If one were to multiply this ratio against a global enemy, it becomes untenable.

If we expect to develop and sustain a military that operates at a higher level of strategic and operational understanding, the time has come to address the recruiting, education, training, incentive, and promotion systems so that they are consistent with the intellectual requirements for the future Joint Force.

Do make it clear that generalship, at least in my case, came of understanding, of hard study and brainwork and concentration. Had it come easy to me, I should not have done [command] so well. If your book could persuade some of our new soldiers to read and mark and learn things outside drill manuals and tactical diagrams, it would do a good work. I feel a fundamental crippling in curiousness about our officers. Too much body and too little head. The perfect general would know everything in heaven and earth. So please, if you see me that way and agree with me, do use me as a text to preach for more study of books and history, a greater seriousness in military art. With two thousand years of example behind us, we have no excuse, when fighting, for not fighting well…

The defining element in military effectiveness in war lies in the ability to recognize when prewar visions and understanding of war are wrong and must change. Unfortunately, in terms of what history suggests, most military and political leaders have attempted to impose their vision of future war on the realities of the conflict in which they find themselves engaged, rather than adapting to the actual conditions they confront. The fog and friction that characterize the battle space invariably make the task of seeing, much less understanding what has actually happened, extraordinarily difficult. Moreover, the lessons of today, no matter how accurately recorded and then learned, may no longer prove relevant tomorrow. The enemy is human and will consequently learn and adapt as well. The challenges of the future demand leaders who possess rigorous intellectual understanding. Providing such grounding for the generals and admirals, sergeants and chiefs of the 2030s will ensure that the United States is as prepared as possible to meet the threats and seize the opportunities of the future.

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