Threat Assessment

The analyses of flashpoints in the preceding chapters demonstrate how diverse are the circumstances that could lead to conflict in the late 1990s or early 2000s. The analysis also demonstrated that the world's hotspots can be divided into four types of problems: those involving major powers, significant regional powers, troubled states, and transnational actors. This list is ranked by order of the military challenge that the various problems present.

Major Powers

Relationships among the major powers--the U.S., Europe, Japan, China, and Russia--seemed less important in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. Our assessment is that they will reemerge in the next five to ten years as the centerpiece of world affairs. In part, that is a recognition of their weight in the traditional measures of national strength: the major powers account for 70 percent of the world economy, 38 percent of the world's population (admittedly 21 percent in one country, China), and 80 percent of the world's military personnel. In addition, relations among the world's major powers may become more contentious than just after the Cold War.

Threat Assessment

Despite recurring strains, relations among the United States, Europe, and Japan are growing stronger. Part of this trend is an increasing willingness among the three powers to manage their differences and expand cooperation. Events in the former Yugoslavia gave NATO a new lease on life, while the June 1996 NATO Ministerial enhanced the re-integration of France within the NATO military structure. U.S. relations with Japan have also become more cooperative since the April 1996 summit between President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.

Russia and China are growing increasingly suspicious of longer-term U.S. intentions. Russia feels that it is not receiving the respect due a great power. Both Russia and China see themselves as divided nations. Russia is intensely concerned about the future of its near abroad, that is, the other states of the former Soviet Union. For its part, China is concerned about perceived Western opposition to its efforts to complete national reunification by reintegrating Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, and the Spratly archipelago. Although there are intrinsic limits on how far any strategic cooperation between Moscow and Beijing might develop, both nations are clearly drawing closer together and simultaneously becoming less willing to cooperate with the West on broad strategic issues.

Ongoing Major Conflicts 1996

Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute,
SIPRI Yearbook 1996, as interpreted by INSS.

Note: Conflict in Russia occurred in Chechnya.

Russia and China will remain regional powers motivated largely by nationalistic concerns related to sovereignty and national prestige. Neither Russia nor China is a peer competitor of the U.S., capable of a mounting a broad military challenge to it. Both nations are well aware of their military deficiencies, both are focused on vital domestic priorities, and both, therefore, wish to avoid conflict.

Moreover, neither adheres to an ideology that compels or justifies a global challenge to American interests. Russia has repudiated communism and, although China retains a superficial commitment to Marxism, the imperative to spread global revolution has disappeared completely. In Russia and China, the function of ideology is being replaced by nationalism.

Accordingly, nationalism and concerns about sovereignty will be potent factors in Russian and Chinese foreign policies. Both Russia and China think of themselves as great powers and both are in a process of adjusting their relations with the international community. A central component of Russian nationalism is the determination to recapture Russia's lost status as a great power. For China, great-power status is a means of ensuring that it will never again be subjected to the humiliations of the past.

In a corollary manner, safeguarding national sovereignty and prestige is and will continue to be a key influence on the foreign and national-security policies of both nations. Russia wishes to maintain the integrity of what it regards as its traditional territories and areas of special influence, while China wishes to complete the reunification of its national territory. Chinese security concerns will also motivate Beijing to assert its influence throughout North and Southeast Asia.

Russian and Chinese sovereignty concerns will be expressed within the contexts of their respective regions: for Russia, its near abroad and just beyond; for China, other East Asian nations, with their historic patterns of interaction and common dependence on seaborne trade. Relations between these two powers and their neighbors result from their expression of national concerns and their interpretation of where the legitimate boundaries of their sovereignty lie.

Thus, Russian and Chinese actions are crucially important to the security environment in regions where the United States has allies and vital interests. Russian actions in the near abroad will affect how NATO feels about its security, while China's national reunification plans for Taiwan and the South China Sea will directly affect the security structure of Asia. Moreover, both nations can concentrate considerable military capabilities in the areas directly adjacent to their borders.

Potential Challenges for the U.S. Military

If its strategy succeeds, the United States and the world can look forward to many decades free of hostile major-power rivalry. Nevertheless, the United States cannot entirely discount military challenges from a major power. It would be prudent to prepare for problems with a major power. The most obvious candidates are China or Russia, but possibly one of the larger regional powers, such as India, could transform it itself into a major military power in the next decade. It is not necessary to specify which one of these powers could be the source of problems, because all of the major powers that the U.S. might confront in the foreseeable future share sufficient characteristics that it is possible to describe a composite, which we refer to as a potential theater peer. That term captures the essence of the military challenge from such countries: they are not peers with the U.S., able to challenge it at world-wide, but they may have sufficient power to be a peer with the U.S. in the theater of operations near them.

Another reason that it is possible to plan against a composite threat from a major power, without having to specify which country is meant, is that the potential theater peers present quite similar military challenges. The basic conventional threat from theater peers reflects their investment in industrial-era forces with few if any information-era components. The potential theater peers have tank and artillery inventories; indeed, their armies are based around heavy units. Even though their theorists may have mooted the military-technical revolution, their revolution in military affairs is not well advanced. Nor have they yet made major investments in electronics.

Nevertheless, the potential regional peers are far more challenging threats than are the rogue regimes which might involve the U.S. major regional conflicts (MRCs):

If a theater peer becomes involved in a conflict, it is likely to be fought over specific issues which that country sees as related to its sovereignty but which the U.S. sees as involving aggression against a neighbor. The conflict is likely to be limited in scope, scale, and duration. Because it is not capable of mounting sustained operations at any distance from its borders, a theater peer would also wish to avoid the escalation of conflict to include powers that are not direct parties to the dispute. It would try to establish clear political aims and objectives and control the pace and scale of operations to secure an advantageous political settlement. In short, they would make every effort to manage the conflict in order to achieve larger political objectives.

If a theater peer engages in aggression on its borders to protect what it sees as a challenge to its sovereignty, the challenge for the U.S. will be to find ways to respond without escalating into a full-scale war. U.S. interests are not sufficiently at risk in such situations to risk global thermonuclear war, but the U.S. may want to respond--especially if the country attacked is able to defend itself well. The problem is how to come up with a strategy for limited war. For example, were the U.S. to decide to assist Taiwan under missile attack from China, it would be difficult to come up with a strategy that stopped the attack but did not risk nuclear war. Similarly, if Russia attacked Ukraine and got bogged down (as we think it would, in this unlikely scenario), the U.S. might want to provide limited help to Ukrainian forces. That would be no simple matter, especially since the U.S. would not want to endanger its nearby allies (such as Turkey and potentially Hungary), from whose territory it might want to operate. In short, the military challenge to the U.S. in the event of a conflict with a theater peer will be complex and quite different in character from that posed by a major regional conflict.

Overall Response Approach

The broader challenge for U.S. policymakers, therefore, is to create an environment in which the possibility of major-power conflict is eliminated, or at least greatly reduced, by a strategy of suasion. Negatively, the suasion strategy aims to dissuade Russia and China from using military means to deal with their concerns. Positively, such a policy should persuade Russia and China that following a policy of cooperative participation in the international community is the course that best serves their interests. Even disputes that bear upon sovereignty are best resolved by peaceful negotiation and compromise. Persuasion also involves reassuring Japan and EU that continuing to maintain and develop solid alliance relations with the United States best meets their interests.

Dissuasion is a two-edged sword. The greater the military capability of the United States, the better it can deter the expression of hostile force and even dissuade other nations from engaging in future competition. However, the other effect of U.S. military superiority may be to lead other nations to believe that their interests are at risk, in which case they may decide they have no choice other than the use of force. The central strategic issue for the United States is thus (1) achieving and maintaining a military capability that will dissuade Russia and China from using force in the short term, and from investing the resources to become future opponents in the longer term, without (2) stimulating either to seek to match that U.S. capability. Clearly Russia and China as major powers have the right to a certain capacity for broad defense, and in many cases this might justify a greater capability than either possesses in the mid-1990s. Beyond some point, however, it must be ascertained whether such a capability is unwarranted and constitutes a challenge.

On the persuasion side, the U.S. seeks to widen areas of cooperation with the major powers by engaging them to solve common problems. That engagement has two major aspects: bilateral cooperation between the United States and either Russia or China to resolve regional difficulties, and the continued integration of all major powers into institutions and other arrangements designed to promote global interests. The common institutions for which broader Russian or Chinese participation are sought run the gamut from economic to political, scientific and technological. Particularly important militarily are a number of important agreements related to nonproliferation--such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Wassenaar Arrangement. Such institutions help convey the West's desire to see Russia and China interact with it on the basis of equal regard, so long as they play by the rules entailed by membership in these fora. However, the price of securing enhanced participation may involve a larger measure of receptivity to and flexibility about revising rules and procedures along lines the Russians and Chinese regard as better serving their interests.

Inducing China and Russia to adhere to the fundamental norms of international behavior will not be easy. Russia and China are intensely nationalistic and extremely committed to what remain relatively narrow concepts of sovereignty and national prerogatives. Nevertheless, in the longer run, a more successful strategy of engagement and enlargement, if based upon common interests and supported by committed allies and an appropriate mix of military capabilities, can make such tensions easier to manage and eventually resolve. The more the major powers are engaged, the less explicitly they need to be dissuaded.

Major Regional Conflicts

Threat Assessment

There are some potential MRCs to which the U.S. is not likely to send large forces, though U.S. forces might be deployed to monitor the situation and possibly to forestall spread of the conflict. The two most important such conflicts are an Indo-Pakistani war, especially given the danger that it could escalate to nuclear war; and an Arab-Israeli conflict. In the event of an Indo-Pakistani nuclear war, the U.S. military might provide humanitarian assistance following the conflict. Were there another Arab-Israeli conflict, the U.S. might provide additional military aid to Israel. In neither of these situations, however, is it likely that U.S. forces will be called upon for combat.

The regional situations in which the U.S. is most committed are those highlighted in the plan of preparing for two nearly simultaneous MRCs: the Korean peninsula and the Persian Gulf. The two threats have important similarities. Each presents a broad range of threats, from classic military invasion to seize territory all the way to terrorist bombings. Each could involve weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which means that U.S. forces may well have to operate under the assumption that they are at risk from at least missiles and chemical and biological weapons. In each case, an asset important to the U.S. is so close to the other side's front lines that it could be overrun (Seoul in the Korean case, Kuwait in the Gulf).

The most important similarity is that in both cases, the threat is diminishing. It is even possible that the Korean threat will collapse. However, it is more likely still that the North Korean conventional military threat will remain but grow smaller. With each passing year, the North Korean armed forces are operating with equipment that is increasingly aging and obsolescent. The North Korean economies is in extremely poor shape. Similarly, Iraq's armed forces have aging equipment and its economy is doing badly. The most likely prospect is that the U.S. will face declining conventional military challenges in both areas, especially in Korea. As for Iran, its economic difficulties and diplomatic isolation mean that its forces on the whole are not improving; its ability to conquer ground is deteriorating, but its sea-denial capability is growing stronger.

A threat that grows larger each year is proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical ( NBC) weapons and missiles to deliver them. To be sure, there have been successes in reinforcing international legal norms against proliferation and in persuading four countries to give up nuclear weapons (South Africa, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus). However, it appears that some states have decided that the advantages of possessing NBC weapons outweigh the costs of going against these norms. There is a growing prospect that, in a confrontation with a regional power, the U.S. will face a threat of NBC use.

Potential Challenges for the U.S. Military

The two regional flashpoints in which the U.S. military is most likely to become directly involved are the Korean peninsula and the Persian Gulf. The rogue regimes there remain dangerous, though--for reasons discussed in the chapter on military missions--the prospect of near simultaneous conflicts in both theater are declining. Each theater presents a broad range of threats, from terrorist bombings to a classical military invasion to seize territory. Even as their military capabilities are declining, they remain powerful relative to the U.S. allies:

The military challenge to the U.S. is to defend vulnerable territory against an enemy with powerful assets near the front line. For example, well protected North Korean artillery can do extreme damage to Seoul. Similarly, Iraqi divisions remain an easy drive from Kuwait City. Warfare in these theaters could erupt quickly and be highly intense. It is not clear if airpower deployed in the theater would be sufficient to protect the assets at risk, especially if the attack came with little warning. This places a premium on having significant numbers of ground forces that can reach the area quickly, e.g., from forces in place or using pre-positioned equipment.

Were Iraq or North Korea to attack, it is not clear what U.S. war aims would be. On the one hand, the U.S. will want to eliminate regimes that have shown that they will repeatedly engage in unacceptable actions. On the other hand, the U.S. will not want to risk involving other powers in a broader war (e.g., China in Korea) or becoming bogged down in protracted occupation (e.g., in Iraq). Given that these competing concerns may not be resolved except in the midst of a conflict, the U.S. military must be prepared for the most demanding task it may be assigned, i.e., war until full victory.

Overall Response Approach

In pursuit of its basic aims of promoting stability and preventing aggression, the U.S. has adopted in each of the regional flashpoints different approaches to convincing the parties that conflict would not be in their interest. In the Arab-Israeli case, the U.S. has devoted a major share of its global diplomatic efforts, including much of the secretary of state's time, to promoting the peace process. It provides substantial economic and military aid to Egypt and Israel. The U.S. also provides forces in the Sinai to monitor the Egyptian-Israeli agreement.

In the case of the three rogue regimes in North Korea, Iraq, and Iran, the U.S. approach is built upon deterrence via forward deployment. The presence of substantial U.S. forces in these regions, and the demonstrated will and ability to commit more forces in the event of a crisis, provide powerful evidence to the potential aggressors that they would not benefit from launching an attack. It could be argued that had the U.S. had such a presence in the Persian Gulf in 1990, Saddam Hussein would not have miscalculated about how the world would respond to an invasion of Kuwait. U.S. presence in both the Persian Gulf and the Korean peninsula will almost certainly persist for the next decade and beyond. Irrespective of the fate of the present regimes, both areas will remain volatile regions in which the U.S. has vital interests.

If the common element in the approach to rogue regimes is deterrence, the difference in approach is in the U.S. evaluation of the value of engaging each regime. The U.S. is more optimistic about the prospects for engaging North Korea, less optimistic about Iran, and least optimistic about Iraq.

A central aspect of the U.S. approach towards all three rogue regimes is to form an international consensus for response to unacceptable behavior. The effort has been relatively successful in Korea, as evidenced by the consortium to finance facilities to replace North Korea's dangerous nuclear program; and in Iraq, as seen in the continuing UN Security Council support for tough restrictions on Saddam. By contrast, the U.S. has not convinced its allies that containment is the appropriate method of dealing with Iran. This situation may well persist, though it is also possible that, at least regarding Iraq, international support may diminish as the perceived threat declines.

Troubled States

Threat Assessment

Since the end of the Cold War, the number of states undergoing serious, internal unrest involving violent disorder and major humanitarian/human-rights problems affecting important segments of the population has increased substantially. In several instances, internal unrest has generated high tension or conflict with neighboring states, while the flood of refugees has created serious internal socioeconomic and political problems for these states. These problems are of concern to U.S. interests in world stability and in advancement of human rights, as well as, on occasion, to U.S. interests in regions of present or future strategic importance. However, these problems generally do not affect the immediate vital national security interests of the U.S.

The troubled-state phenomenon--and attendant regional and internal unrest, serious humanitarian and human-rights problems, and high numbers of victims--is likely to continue undiminished into the twenty-first century. There is a growing propensity by people in many countries to turn away from the state toward ethnic, tribal, religious, or other forms of separatism as a source of solace, protection, and identity. They are at the center of the conditions that contribute to the systemic failure of the state.

International and regional organizations have responded to increased internal violence with a corresponding increase in external intervention, with the goal of mitigating the effects of the internal problems and, in some cases, resolving the internal conflict. Such intervention operations usually comprise a combination of humanitarian, economic, diplomatic, political, and security measures conducted by a wide variety of civilian organizations (e.g., the UN and its agencies, other international, regional, and nongovernmental humanitarian organizations) supported by a multinational coalition of military forces.

Some of the interventions have been successful, but others have not. Evidence as of 1996 suggests that, once a state has failed, peace does not easily return. The country becomes a battleground for heavily armed factions, many with commercial agendas and external connections, who have the unarmed citizenry a their mercy. Despite an investment of billions of dollars in peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions, Somalia and Liberia are largely controlled by local warlords, chaos and misery abound, and normal political and commercial activity is at minimal levels. On the other hand, as of late 1996, Haiti seems to be on the mend, and the situation in Bosnia is much more hopeful than before the NATO-led intervention.

Potential Challenges for the U.S. Military

Messy domestic conflicts create problems for military intervention. Yet U.S. public pressure to prevent humanitarian disasters and genocide may encourage intervention in countries where the United States has few direct and immediate interests, as was the case in Somalia. No other issue has created a more difficult set of foreign policy problems for the last two administrations.

The U.S. military's role in troubled states will probably be to provide humanitarian aid, protect non-combatants, separate hostile military forces, and prevent conflicts from spreading to other countries. The U.S. military is less likely to play a major role in nation-building, at which its success record is spotty at best. But, as the 1994­95 intervention in Haiti demonstrates, the military may well be assigned some nation-building responsibilities, such as urgent repairs to physical infrastructure. A danger in nation-building is that restoring political institutions often requires choosing sides in an ongoing conflict. The side not chosen may then see U.S. forces as the enemy and attack them, leading to casualties that erode public support for the operations. Of course, humanitarian operations can also have a downside: underlying problems that were suppressed when U.S. forces were present often re-emerge after those forces have departed, leading to questions about the efficacy of intervention.

Activities in troubled states in which the U.S. military might be engaged cover a widespread spectrum, including, in order of likely frequency:

In short, the U.S. will not typically commit combat forces to long-term operations in troubled states. The main challenges in troubled states for the U.S. military will be in monitoring, providing logistics and support, and handing over smoothly to civilian agencies and non-U.S. forces after a brief U.S. command role.

Overall U.S. Approach

The U.S. public is likely to support assistance to troubled states in those cases where the military can respond constructively and at a relatively low cost. One example would be the provision of relief after humanitarian disasters. Likewise, when a local conflict threatens to spill over into neighboring states, border monitors and military aid to the neighbor can often be effective. Similarly, when clashing parties agree on a political solution but are suspicious of the willingness of the other side to live up to its promises, peacekeepers can make a difference.

Early identification of potentially troubled states allows for action before the crisis stage, perhaps avoiding concerted international military intervention. Preventive diplomacy is cost-effective, compared to the alternative of periodic military engagement. However, the reduced budget for international affairs is making preventive diplomacy more difficult, as what resources are available are devoted to the most immediate crises and to the major powers rather than to preventing conflict in troubled states. The best bilateral and multilateral instruments to be used at an early stage are normal programs of diplomatic, political, economic and security assistance--all with a view to reducing the causes of short- and long-term tension, enhancing stability, and improving governance. Such aid will be a challenge to provide in view of reduced congressional appropriations for foreign assistance. This trend will be difficult to reverse. However, not to do so will inevitably increase the burden over time on U.S. military forces, their readiness, and their budgets.

The second stage of the overall U.S. approach is early preventive action at the outset of a crisis, either to resolve or contain it, thereby avoiding larger-scale problems and a possible larger-scale intervention. This usually involves concerted multinational action of a primarily civilian nature, focused upon rapid delivery of crisis assistance (e.g., food, medicine, basic agricultural packages, and short-term job creation) plus regional or international teams to survey and assist with problems.

In the event of an interagency decision that a troubled-state crisis requires direct U.S. intervention, the actions that will be taken will include:

When the U.S. decides to participate, there is no lack of capability but rather a problem in determining at what level, with what specific capabilities and skills, and with which units and personnel. Misuse or overuse of these capabilities has been shown to have a negative impact upon public support, military morale, operations and personnel tempo, and the availability and readiness of forces for other military operations.

Increasing the basic capabilities of others will enable them to operate effectively with greatly reduced U.S. participation. It will also facilitate the task of U.S. forces should there be a need to form a multinational coalition. This basic assistance may include improvements in transportation and logistics capabilities, standardization or interoperability of basic equipment and C3I capabilities, training, and so forth--so that the U.S. will no longer be called upon to furnish such a large portion of these requirements.

U.S. forces practice a hostage rescue

Transnational Problems

Threat Assessment

In some form, transnational threats--that is, international threats not due to the direct actions of governments--have been around for as long as there have been nations. From its very inception, the United States has had to deal with issues such as piracy on the high seas, epidemics transmitted from abroad, and unwanted immigration. However, in the 1990s, some transnational threats have become more urgent, or at least have appeared to be more pressing. These include sudden mass refugee flows, environmental problems, and drug trafficking and other forms of international crime.

One issue of particular concern to the military is terrorism. Attacks can be expected on U.S. forces abroad by shadowy extremists, especially in the Middle East. Furthermore, there is a danger of attacks within the U.S. by foreign terrorists or by U.S. groups with foreign connections and motivated by a foreign, anti-democratic ideology.

Potential Challenges for the U.S. Military

During the Cold War, the notion that the military might have a role in addressing transnational threats rarely surfaced. Since the demise of the Soviet threat, however, the U.S. armed forces have become free to address other tasks, such as disaster relief and constabulary functions. The question of whether the military is the appropriate agency to handle such tasks, however, remains open. The military's role in responding to transnational problems is likely to be greatest with respect to terrorism. The military is likely to devote increasing attention to protecting its forces abroad from terrorist threats. It will also be involved through the use of counterterrorism forces--for instance, hostage rescue--but also through retaliatory raids in the collection of counterintelligence.

Overall U.S. Approach

The principal U.S. approach to transnational problems is through international civilian cooperation. For instance, environmental problems are addressed through negotiated agreements, such as the Montreal Convention limiting production of ozone-layer-weakening chlorofluorocarbons. Narcotics trafficking is countered primarily through assistance to host country police forces.

The U.S. government may continue the trend since the 1980s of treating terrorism as a form of organized crime, that is, as an illegal activity to be handled primarily by the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. Furthermore, the U.S. will continue to make use of sanctions to pressure terrorist-supporting states, such as the UN sanctions against Libya as well as the tougher U.S. unilateral sanctions on Iran. The greater use of criminal justice means and of sanctions can means a reduced role for military retaliation as a response to terrorism. At the same time, the military will have an increasing role in defense against terrorism, especially protecting U.S. forces abroad from terrorist attacks.


It would be fair to say that, at least for now, the U.S. is in a strategic lull, but faced with more complex and diverse set of smaller threats. By the phrase "strategic lull," we mean that the U.S. currently has no global peer. Also, the most likely conflicts are the least threatening (the U.S. could stay out of them); the most challenging are unlikely to occur soon. The most likely conflicts are internal to troubled states, and the areas at greatest risk are those in which the U.S. historically has been little involved. The U.S. could readily stay out of most of these conflicts without harming its vital interests, as traditionally defined. On the other hand, the most challenging conflict would be a confrontation with a major power over an extension of its influence into neighboring areas that it sees as naturally part of its sovereign territory. As was made clear by the tensions in the Taiwan Straits in early 1996, such a conflict cannot be ruled out and should be prepared for, though it is unlikely to occur.

The main short-term challenge is readiness for a major regional conflict with a rogue regime, including enhancing deterrence (e.g., through pre-positioning equipment) so that conflict becomes less likely. The U.S. will increasingly be challenged by transnational problems, and troubled states will continue to dominate the daily agenda. However, the U.S. also needs to hedge against the emergence of a major-power theater peer--in part because such hedging may help dissuade the major power from entering into an arms race that it knows it would lose.

With luck and skillful diplomacy, the current strategic lull may become a lasting calm, in which the security threats are relatively small. Or, it might be the prelude to a new competition with a major power. The outcome will determine the nature of the emerging international system.

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