Archive for June 29th, 2012

By BG William C. Hix, US Army

Today’s headlines provide the prologue to a broad range of emerging challenges in an increasingly unpredictable and complex security environment, even as impending budget shortfalls promise to constrain our resources to respond.  The increased speed, quantity, and reach of human interactions, along with potential adversaries’ greater access to lethal capabilities, are driving the likelihood of instability and disorder in ways that blur the distinctions of past conflicts.  A Syrian regime held up by an increasingly shaky Shi’a-Alawite alliance, a nuclear armed North Korean state teetering on the verge of collapse, the increasing influence of transnational criminal organizations, and under-governed spaces such as post-Qaddafi Libya reflect this complexity and illustrate the wide variety of existing and emerging challenges to US national interests.  Recent events, along with China’s growing economic and military power tied to its own goals and ambitions, and the increasing risk of nuclear weapons proliferation in East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East make clear that the United States must remain engaged and prepared for a wide range of challenges.

Solving these security challenges will not be accomplished without human interaction on the ground.  Historically, it has been ground forces that have been required to operate in difficult environments, made complex by the unpredictability of human interaction.  Looking to 2030 this complexity will only increase, driven by globalization, increased access to information, and transparency, resulting in a remarkable diffusion of power and the proliferation of technology to increasingly diverse groups.  The character of conflict is likely to change as a result of these factors. Accordingly, two critical issues will dominate ground force operations in Asia and the Middle East:  nuclear proliferation and the diffusion of anti-access capabilities.

Dealing with nuclear proliferation issues that will likely dominate the world stage in 2030 is essential.  Based on stated objectives and trends, the risk of nuclear proliferation in East Asia, South Asia or the Middle East cannot be ignored.  Still other nuclear states may not be able to keep their weapons out of the hands of a wide variety of non-state actors.  A Stanford database on nuclear smuggling documents some 850 incidents in the past decade, including weapons grade plutonium smuggled out of the former Soviet Union.  Nuclear related arrests have been made in Armenia and Georgia.  In the coming decades, with thousands of nuclear facilities spread throughout the world and not all nations maintaining high standards of security, it is necessary to plan for the possibility of lapses at some of these facilities. As a matter of sound risk mitigation or crisis response, if called upon US Army forces will play a key role in working with other joint capabilities to quickly locate, track, seize, secure, and deal with the consequences of nuclear proliferation.

As the country moves toward 2030, the US military will confront significant challenges to access that it hasn’t encountered since World War II.  Breakthroughs in precision technology will make gaining and maintaining access one the key functions of ground forces in the future.  More precise missiles, aircraft, and unmanned aircraft are the technological backbone of future access challenges. Many of these precision capabilities are also developed as retrofit kits, upgrading older systems.  Intercontinental ballistic missiles with an accuracy of 100 meters will be within reach of nations and non-state actors alike thanks to advancements in global mapping, measurement devices (gyros and lasers), global positioning systems, and computing power.  The Chinese 400-meter WS-2 multiple rocket launchers and the Russian Yakhont cruise missile with a 300-kilometer range are just two examples of weapons likely to be widely proliferated by 2030. Increasingly, capabilities such as GPS jamming and laser countermeasures are exacerbating the access challenge. Enemies with precision mortars, artillery, rockets, missiles, and cyber tools can and will cover our likely entry points. Recognizing these challenges, the United States is developing operational approaches and capabilities to address these threats and maintain our competitive advantage over known and potential adversaries. These include off set entry operations and the application of US asymmetric advantages to counter or destroy hostile precision strike.

Military forces must ultimately be prepared to fight and win wars.  Indeed, it this capacity to respond decisively that is vital to deterring wars in the first place.   Certainly, ground forces have particular value in shaping the environment before a crisis even erupts and preventing conflict. One common denominator of most nations in Asia and the Middle East is the prominence of their ground forces. Army conventional and special operations forces are uniquely suited to assist Asian and Middle Eastern countries build the capacity to handle their own problems. Replicating and increasing past successes in this area will be all the more important given an unpredictable and complex future operating environment. Concurrently, we continue to study and attend to emerging challenges, ensuring we stand ready to meet whatever tests lie ahead.

Brigadier General William C. Hix is Director, Concept Development and Learning, Army Capabilities Integration Center, US Army Training and Doctrine Command.

By Elbridge Colby

A quarter century ago, nuclear weapons were central to US military planning – yet today they are largely consigned to the background.  How important will they be a quarter century from now?

Many argue that the salience of nuclear weapons in military planning will continue to decline.  These observers point to the international opprobrium that constrains the employment or brandishing of such weapons, typified by the apparent growth of a “taboo” or “tradition of non-use,” as well as the more practical difficulties of using nuclear weapons in a rational and controlled fashion.  To these observers, assuming some degree of prudent statesmanship and good faith among the major powers, nuclear weapons will continue to recede in relevance.  Nuclear forces may well exist in the 2030s, but they will provide a basically existential deterrent, hardly impinging on the real world concerns of statesmen and military planners except as hazardous material to be properly accounted for.

But is this prediction of continuity correct?  Are nuclear weapons likely to be as marginal to US defense planning in the 2030s as they appear to be today?  There seem to be two primary reasons for doubt.

The first reason for doubt is the possibility of nuclear proliferation among smaller and medium powers.  From the Persian Gulf War through Iraq and Libya, the United States could and regularly did fight militarily unlimited wars against “rogue states.”  While the United States exhibited admirable restraint towards civilians in these conflicts, it neither needed to nor did recognize any fundamental necessity for restraint in its conduct of the war against its adversary; rather, it pursued regime change and total victory.  US forces could conduct their campaigns of “shock and awe” without serious consideration for the enemy’s capability to escalate in response.

But the conditions that allowed this are changing.  Countries ranging from North Korea to Pakistan have learned by observing the US way of war against Iraq and Libya that, as an Indian general pithily remarked about what to learn from the First Gulf War, it is foolish to fight the Americans without nuclear weapons.  If more countries acquire nuclear weapons – and especially survivable nuclear weapons – the United States will have to face the reality that adversaries might have the ability to launch nuclear attacks against its allies or even the United States itself even (and especially) if US forces initiate a full-scale attack.  This does not mean that the United States would need to forswear fighting nuclear-armed adversaries – but it would mean that the United States would need to learn – or relearn – how to fight limited wars, wars that seek to achieve US objectives while minimizing the probability that an adversary would escalate.

The second reason why nuclear weapons will probably be more salient is the likelihood of greater symmetry in the conventional military balance in theaters of prime interest to the United States.  While this is likely to be a longer-term development, the narrowing of US advantages in conventional warfare is likely to prompt US planners to think more about nuclear weapons as a way of shoring up its deterrent and defense postures by the 2030s.

The decline in the salience of nuclear weapons in the 1990s and early 2000s was a function of two events: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the maturation for the United States of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).  The combination of these events propelled the United States to a position of olympian conventional superiority over any plausible foe in any plausible contingency.  But the strategic landscape has been changing.  A number of countries, above all China, are dedicating substantial resources to ambitious conventional military modernization programs.  And the RMA is spreading.  Countries such as China, Iran, India, Pakistan, and even non-state actors like Hezbollah are now exploiting the possibilities of advanced conventional weaponry, even as they also explore forms of “hybrid” warfare designed to undercut American military advantages.

The upshot of these developments is that the United States is likely to face a considerably more capable set of militaries than it did in the 1990s and 2000s, especially in the Pacific and the greater Middle East. US forces will have to strike deeper, harder, and more quickly against a wider range of adversary targets – and thereby take on greater escalatory risk – in order to accomplish military objectives against these opponents.  This reality will force American planners to consider the possibility that such conflicts could lead to escalation to the nuclear level with those states that possess such weapons.

Moreover, even with effective investments in cutting edge military technologies, by the 2030s the United States may face situations in which it finds itself at a conventional military disadvantage in regions of great importance to Washington, particularly the Western Pacific.  Depending on the trajectory of American investment in force modernization, US forces may, for instance, be inferior in the local balance of power or US power projection capabilities may rely on fragile, vulnerable, and readily disrupted or disabled assets. If the United States cannot achieve its regional military objectives with conventional forces, it will need to consider greater reliance on its nuclear forces to compensate for its conventional inferiority and/or vulnerabilities – if it wishes to maintain the network of extended deterrent guarantees that have undergirded global order since World War II.

The combination of these two trends suggests that nuclear weapons will play a more salient role in global politics by the 2030s than they have in the last two decades.

Elbridge Colby is a principal analyst and division lead for global strategic affairs at CNA.  He previously served in various positions with the US Government, where he focused on nuclear weapons policy and proliferation.