The Strategic Environment -- Opportunities and Challenges

Although the United States currently enjoys relative peace and security, the strategic environment remains complex and potentially dangerous. The threat of global war has receded. Former adversaries now cooperate with us across a range of security issues, and many countries view the United States as the security partner of choice. Our core values of representative democracy and market economics are embraced in many parts of the world, creating new possibilities for enduring peace, prosperity, and cooperation among nations. We are not confronted by a "peer competitor"— a hostile power of similar strength and capability—nor are we likely to be in the near future. Given the United States’ military potential and ability to deploy to any region of conflict, it is also unlikely that any regional power or coalition could amass sufficient conventional strength to defeat our Armed Forces. We therefore have an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future security environment. We are successfully adapting our military alliances to new realities and building security relationships with new coalition partners. There are, nonetheless, significant challenges. Ethnic, economic, social, and environmental strains continue to cause instability and the potential for violence. Regional conflict remains possible, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a major concern, and we face a number of nontraditional, transnational, and unpredictable threats to our security.

Regional Dangers

The potential for conflict among states and groups of states remains our most serious security challenge. Despite the best efforts of engagement, it is likely that more than one aspiring regional power will have both the desire and means to challenge the United States militarily. Iran, Iraq, and North Korea currently pose this challenge, with no guarantee that these threats will diminish significantly soon. Numerous other regional powers have increasing access to wealth, technology, and information, potentially giving them greater military capability and more influence. Some may attempt to become dominant in a region, intimidating US allies and friends, pursuing interests hostile to our own, and developing asymmetric capabilities , including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the means to deliver them. With instant global communications, geographically-separated aggressors could easily coordinate hostile actions. Failed and failing states, and conflict that is not directed against the United States, can also threaten our interests and the safety of our citizens.

Asymmetric Challenges

Some state or nonstate actors may resort to asymmetric means to counter the US military. Such means include unconventional or inexpensive approaches that circumvent our strengths, exploit our vulnerabilities, or confront us in ways we cannot match in kind. Of special concern are terrorism, the use or threatened use of WMD, and information warfare. These three risks in particular have the potential to threaten the US homeland and population directly and to deny us access to critical overseas infrastructure. Other challenges include exploiting commercial and foreign space capabilities, threatening our space-based systems, interrupting the flow of critical information, denying our access to strategic resources, and environmental sabotage. Hostile actors may use such means by themselves or in conjunction with conventional military force. Such asymmetric challenges are legitimate military concerns. We must increase our capabilities to counter these threats and adapt our military doctrine, training, and equipment to ensure a rapid and effective joint and interagency response.

Transnational Dangers

The security environment is further complicated by challenges that transcend national borders and threaten our national interests. Human emergencies other than armed conflict; extremism, ethnic disputes, and religious rivalries; international organized crime, including illegal trade in weapons, strategic materials or illicit drugs, as well as piracy; massive refugee flows; and threats to the environment each have the potential to put US interests at risk. These challenges can obstruct economic growth and democratic development and lead to conflict. Complicating the situation is the continued blurring of the distinction between terrorist groups, factions in ethnic conflicts, insurgent movements, international criminals, and drug cartels. Failure to deal with such security concerns early in their development may require a more substantial response to a more dangerous problem later.

"Wild Cards"

We can never know with certainty where or when the next conflict will occur, who our next adversary will be, how an enemy will fight, who will join us in a coalition, or precisely what demands will be placed on US forces. A number of "wild card" threats could emerge to put US interests at risk. Such threats range from the emergence of new technologies that neutralize some of our military capabilities, to the loss of key allies or alliances and the unexpected overthrow of friendly regimes by hostile parties. While an individual "wild card" may appear unlikely, the number of possible "wild cards" make it more likely that at least one of them will occur with disproportionately high consequences. While asymmetric challenges and transnational dangers are serious in themselves, a particularly grave "wild card" is the combination of several such threats. Acting in collusion with other hostile entities, for example, an adversary might attempt to combine multiple asymmetric means with the seizure of a strategic objective before we could respond. Such an attack-- timed to avoid US forces while they are committed elsewhere, and supported by diplomatic and propaganda efforts -- could be directed against an important national interest. This could critically undermine US will, credibility, access, and influence in the world.

The strategic environment facing us is complex, dynamic, and uncertain. If the United States were to withdraw from international commitments, forsake its leadership responsibilities, or relinquish military superiority, the world would become more dangerous and the threats to US interests would increase. It is in this environment that US Armed Forces must carry out their tasks to protect America and its interests.

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