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Asymmetric Threats

During the next decade, the United States plans to maintain superior if not unique capabilities in the face of any potential military opponent. This capability, as described in chapter 9, has the following features:

However, present and future opponents may expend considerable intellectual and material resources to develop political-military responses designed specifically to upset or counter the great strengths inherent in the force posture advocated by the QDR. The Nation's great capability in high-technology power projection forces may lead future opponents to devise a variety of "asymmetric" counters or stratagems to frustrate, if not defeat, the U.S. military advantages.

Defining Asymmetry

Put simply, asymmetric threats or techniques are a version of not "fighting fair," which can include the use of surprise in all its operational and strategic dimensions and the use of weapons in ways unplanned by the United States. Not fighting fair also includes the prospect of an opponent designing a strategy that fundamentally alters the terrain on which a conflict is fought.

Historical examples of such strategies include the following:

Future opponents will have many options for attempting to deter, disrupt, or defeat U.S. use of military power. Four broad options could be part of an asymmetric response to current and foreseeable U.S. superiority in regional combined-arms warfare capability. The first option is the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and long-range ballistic or cruise missiles. A future regional opponent could threaten U.S. and allied forces with a dramatic form of military escalation. Even without operational use, the mere presence of such capability would act as a regional-strategic shadow and might weaken the commitment of key allies to any future U.S. military response to regional aggression. The second is the selected acquisition of high-technology sensors, communications, and weapon systems. This is the strategy of the niche player. The third, the exploitation of cyberweapons, could be used to disrupt the next generation of information-technology (IT) military logistics systems or to bring the war home by attacking the national strategic infrastructure (NSI), itself rapidly exploiting IT in the name of economic efficiency. And in the fourth, opponents could choose to fight in environments, such as large cities or jungles, that degrade the U.S. capacity to find and attack militarily significant targets. This could include conducting acts of aggression that purposely blur boundaries between actions considered crimes and those viewed as warfare.

U.S. and allied efforts failed to neutralize the threat of the Iraqi theater ballistic missile (TBM) during the Persian Gulf War. Saddam Hussein's only military success, and a limited one, lay in the failure of the American-led coalition to find and destroy mobile theater missiles. For potential opponents of the United States, developing long-range unmanned bombardment systems is a very high priority. Many nations have active programs for the development and deployment of ballistic missiles with a range of up to 3,000 kilometers. The SS1C SCUD represents the 50-year-old technology of the V2 TBM. New generations are in development or have been deployed, such as the Chinese M9 series. Upgrades in accuracy and effectiveness of TBMs are likely during the next decade. All contemporary and future TBM launchers will be able to find their geolocation with high accuracy and convenience, owing to the global positioning system (GPS).

The theater-range, ground-launched cruise missile may mature as an alternative means of long-range bombardment. At present, the threat of long-range cruise missiles is less visible than that of TBMs. The use of the Tomahawk-class cruise missile during the Persian Gulf War highlighted the new role of nonnuclear armed land-attack cruise missiles--a technology that matured in the last decade of the Cold War. Future theater peers and regional powers will probably develop their own versions of the Tomahawk. Some of these states may choose to mass-produce cruise missiles on a scale similar to that of the German V1 program, which led to the production of thousands of weapons. Relying on GPS guidance and made of inherently low-observable materials (fiberglass), a new generation of V1 may appear in many potential MTWs. By using ballistic and cruise missiles in a combined-arms campaign, a regional opponent could place U.S. and allied expeditionary forces in danger of very long-range artillery fire.

Adding to the danger to U.S. military capabilities in an MTW is the prospect of a regional opponent developing and deploying an array of WMD warheads for delivery on their ballistic and cruise missile arsenals. Even without accurate terminal guidance, both ballistic and cruise missiles armed with WMD present U.S. and allied forces with the potentially horrific threat of mass military and civilian casualties.

The lowest cost and heretofore apparently the most effective response to the threat of WMD weapons has been the threat of massive reprisals, including the use of nuclear weapons. This concept of extended deterrence has appeared to work well, especially during the Cold War stand-off between NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations. In the context of future MTWs in Eurasia, deterrence through the threat of retaliation could prove less effective prior to and after the use of WMD weapons. It is possible to imagine that a future opponent might brandish WMD weapons to intimidate one or more regional allies into dropping out of a pro-U.S. coalition. WMD could also be used as weapons of mass "disruption." Biological weapons might prove an attractive means of disguised warfare that in some future contingency might be used to induce widespread illness without mass fatalities. Developments in antimaterial, less-than-lethal chemical weapons, could lead to use of cruise missiles equipped with wide-area antimaterial aerosol warheads. Finally, nuclear weapons could be used in a less than lethal information-warfare mode. After acquiring even a small (fewer than 20) arsenal of nuclear weapons, some regional opponents might conclude that several could be used to generate wide-area electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects during a critical phase of a military operation in order to damage a wide array of C4ISR assets deployed by the United States in an MTW.

Operation Anadyr (Cuban Missile Crisis)

In 1962, the Soviet political military leadership decided to shift the global geo-strategic correlation of forces and provide Cuba with a credible defense against an invasion by the United States. With limited air- and sealift assets, the Soviet military decided to deploy an expeditionary force that would rely heavily on the new revolution in military affairs nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Operation Anadyr called for deployment of ballistic missiles--the SS4 MRBM and SS5 IRBM--to rapidly upgrade the Soviet transoceanic range nuclear arsenal in order to buy time for the delayed SS7 ICBM program. A second feature--undetected by U.S. intelligence for some 30 years--was the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons for use by the relatively small Soviet expeditionary force as high-firepower, anti-invasion weapons. Recent revelations indicate that the Soviet political-military leadership designed Anadyr as an asymmetric response to the clear military nonnuclear superiority of the United States in the Caribbean region.

High-Tech Weapons

Potential military opponents of the United States may conclude that there are major political, strategic, and military risks in relying too heavily on nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons as an answer to U.S. power-projection capabilities. Some of them may believe that they can acquire key elements of the systems associated with the RMA from the open arms market. And some may even have the high-technology wherewithal to develop and use indigenous production. This last capability may loom as a major difference in the capability of a theater peer and a regional power or rogue.

Chinese M9 (Dong Feng15) SRBM

The GPS navigation satellite constellation is an attractive global asset that many military powers can exploit in all of its dimensions, as revealed during the Persian Gulf War. In the next decade, several alternatives, such as the Russian GLONASS system, are likely to be deployed as backups to the U.S.-owned and -operated GPS.

By 2002, the space-based elements of cyberspace will have undergone a major upgrade with the deployment of several satellite constellations that provide high-bandwidth mobile communications, among which Iridium, Globalstar, and Teledesic offer the leading edge in the rapid proliferation of space-based mobile telephone and data systems.

SCUD missile

Also by 2002, several 1 meter resolution commercial imaging satellites will be operational. These commercial reconnaissance systems now rely on electro-optical sensors, but by 2008, one or more such systems may offer all-weather and night surveillance based on the use of active sensors such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR).

In a future contingency, U.S. forces will be monitored during any crisis by a wide range of players, including international news organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The U.S. military will operate in a global fish bowl. At a minimum, future opponents may gain invaluable strategic and operational information about the location and disposition of U.S. and allied forces.

In most SSC or MTW contingencies, the U.S. military option to degrade these space-based assets will be very limited. Except in extreme military emergencies, the U.S. regional commander in chief is very unlikely to gain authorization to use physical violence to disable such global assets. Disabling EW or IO attacks may be authorized, but the military may face the possibility that in future military operations, including combat, U.S. and opposing forces may simultaneously be exploiting the same space-based infrastructure.

Any U.S. expeditionary force engaged in a future MTW along the global littoral will rely on the Navy to provide early reconnaissance fires, active missile defenses, operational surveillance, amphibious capability, and seaborne logistics. Air and ground units will simultaneously rapidly deploy by way of the large airlift fleet of wide-body jets. One of the responses of a regional power to this U.S. strategy will be to acquire sufficient RMA-type capabilities to be able to challenge the U.S. air and sea rapid deployment capability. Several of the following niche options will probably be available in the global arms market:

jEnhanced reconnaissance strike systems, including long-range ground- and air-launched antiship cruise missiles and a variety of UAVs, Maritime Patrol Aircraft, and space-based surveillance platforms

A central feature of the strategy of the niche regional power will be to deploy sufficient regional capabilities to increase substantially the entry price to any U.S. expeditionary force without recourse to WMD weapons. Such an approach will be reinforced by the synergistic effect of a complementary WMD shadow.

Aside from exploitation of RMA-type systems in the theater of operation, one or more theater-peers or regional rogues might choose to bring the war home to the United States by exploiting cyberspace.

More conjectural, but not necessarily more controversial, is the prospect of MTWs becoming simply major wars in which targets in the United States could be attacked from cyberspace. The QDR calls for exploitation of the Revolution in Business Affairs (RBA), and of the concept of focused logistics, according to which all four services will move toward a "just-in-time" logistics system. From the perspective of the U.S. military's history, a shift away from the current logistics concept of "just in case" would be revolutionary. As posited by the QDR, the shift to a "just-in-time" logistics system could lead to major peacetime savings by reducing inventory requirements and increasing the efficiency of the process of repairing equipment. The strategic and operational benefits of moving to a focused logistics radically lower the logistics footprint of the U.S. expeditionary forces during an MTW; and a smaller footprint will reduce timelines for deployments of combat forces while also reducing the vulnerability of the in-theater logistics system to air and missile attacks. No longer would there be a need for the massive dumping of supplies as in Operation Desert Shield, the Persian Gulf War buildup.

These powerful advantages could be offset if an opponent attacks the U.S. high-performance logistics system with cyberweapons and through cyberspace. War conducted from cyberspace means a conflict in an environment where the geolocation of attacker and target is nearly independent.

Aside from attacks through cyberspace designed to disrupt the rapid deployment phase of a U.S. expeditionary force, cyberattacks could be directed at the national strategic infrastructure (NSI) of the United States and key allies. Targets include the major elements of the national economy: the public telecommunications network, the financial and banking system, the electric power grid, the oil and gas networks, and the national transportation system--specifically, the air transportation system. All elements of the NSI are undergoing rapid, revolutionary changes under the pressures of privatization, globalization, and exploitation of IT.

Enormous economic benefits appear to be accruing to the U.S. economy, and the IT revolution may itself provide a partial explanation for the current steady economic growth accompanied by low unemployment and low inflation. These economic efficiencies may provide the United States with increasing commercial and economic superiority, but with that comes the risk of new strategic vulnerabilities. For private industry and commerce, public security and safety become cost centers to be avoided. Unfortunately, some of the NSIs that will evolve rapidly during the next decade may prove vulnerable to a variety of attacks from cyberweapons. One possible response by a regional opponent of the United States to the possible deployment of a U.S. expeditionary force is to cause a new strategic "fog of war." Without adequate back-track techniques, a strategic opponent of the United States might be able to conduct a disguised structured campaign that would cause mass disruption to civil society. This opponent may have nongovernmental allies located inside and outside the United States which, with or without the opponent's direct assistance, might conduct a cyberwar campaign that could distract and slow the decisionmaking process of the U.S. National Command Authority.

Finally, a future enemy could conduct a slow-motion strategic economic warfare campaign against private economic interests in the United States. A future high-performance criminal organization might be employed to conduct a campaign of strategic crime against the United States and its major allies. New opportunities for high-performance crime could use rapid deployment of a wide range of cyberpayments or electronic currency systems that facilitate the global transition to electronic commerce.

Conflict in the form of cyberwarfare that would blur conventional boundaries between crime and war might prove attractive to an opponent that sees no strategic benefit in a direct confrontation of the military of the United States in a regional war.

The opportunity to conduct major military operations in a relatively pristine environment, such as the Kuwaiti theater of operations, is not likely in many future SSCs or plausible MTWs. As in the case of NATO military intervention in Bosnia, future military operations may be conducted in very adverse terrain and weather conditions. Opponents may attempt to take advantage of features of urban environment and mountainous or jungle terrain to reduce the effectiveness of U.S. forces highly reliant on RMA-type systems.

Given the U.S. public's low tolerance of conflicts that do not involve the vital or major interests of the United States and their seeming unwillingness to accept casualities, future opponents may try to cause major casualties. General Aideed's successful response to the U.S.-led UN expeditionary force in Somalia in the fall of l993 offers a model for potential opponents. U.S. forces are likely to be involved in a number of SSCs. The U.S.-led NATO intervention in Bosnia may profoundly color future administrations' views of the usefulness of having U.S. Armed Forces deal with civil and tribal or clan conflicts.

Deterring Saddam

Seven years after the end of the Persian Gulf War uncertainty remains, and no little controversy, about whether the threat of nuclear retaliation by the United States and its nuclear-armed allies, the United Kingdom, France, or Israel, deterred Saddam Hussein from authorizing the use of Iraq's extensive chemical weapon arsenal.

"The President had decided, at Camp David in December, that the best deterrent of the use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq would be a threat to go after the Ba'ath regime itself. He had also decided that U.S. forces would not retaliate with chemical or nuclear weapons if the Iraqis attacked with chemical munitions. There was obviously no reason to inform the Iraqis of this. In hopes of persuading them to consider more soberly the folly of war, I purposely left the impression that the use of chemical or biological agents by Iraq could invite tactical nuclear retaliation. (We do not really know whether this was the reason there appears to have been no confirmed use by Iraq of chemical weapons during the war. My own view is that the calculated ambiguity regarding how we might respond has to be part of the reason.)"

--James A. Baker III, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: Putnam's, 1995), 359.

"The other thing that occurred to me was the lack of military utility of nuclear weapons. In the Gulf War, we took inordinate measures to preclude unnecessary casualties. Nuclear weapons are such a gross instrument of power that they really have no utility. They work against you, in that they are best used to destroy cities, and kill women and children. Now first, that's morally wrong; second, it doesn't make sense; and then, of course, there is the real threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of irresponsible or desperate powers. If you own them, you legitimize them just by your own ownership."

--General Charles Horner, in Jonathan Schell, "The Gift of Time," Nation
(February 2/9, 1998).


Large Transition States

An important implicit assumption of the QDR is the absence of a military threat by a global peer before 2010. Several credible theater-peer competitors may challenge U.S. interests as early as 2008. A theater peer, by definition, will have a transoceanic nuclear delivery capability. It will have a substantial technological and military industrial base to develop, exploit, and deploy selected elements of an RMA-class military systems. It will have a large regional military capacity. And it will have a substantial space program and access to much of the global aerospace industry through commercial sources.

From the perspective of U.S. military planners, the arrival of future theater peers may be ambiguous. As transition states, they will probably both cooperate and compete with the United States on a wide range of strategic and geoeconomic issues. Such mixed relations will make any long-term U.S. strategy to use international monitoring or sanctions to restrict in a substantial way the diffusion of advanced dual-use or military technology ineffective. At present, the most plausible theater peers by 2008 are three large transition states: China, Russia, and India.

These three major powers may not pose a direct military threat to U.S. interests, with the possible exception of a future major military crisis between China and the United States over the disposition of Taiwan. More plausible is that the long-term strategic calculus of these powers may undermine central strategic assumptions of the QDR. First, Russia and China will probably give considerable emphasis to the role of nuclear weapons in deterrence and possibly warfighting, if only to counter U.S. preponderance in high-technology nonnuclear warfighting capabilities. India and Pakistan may follow the same rationale. If these major powers follow this nuclear emphasis strategy, it could prove to have an even more corrosive effect on the viability and stability of the NPT regime. Second, Russia and China have developed relations with several states--Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya--that the United States has defined as rogues, and they have become major exporters of military hardware and technology to these states. At the least, their relationships with Iran and Iraq will undermine the U.S. dual-containment strategy, by which it seeks to impose both international pressure and isolation on both regimes reminiscent of the Cold War. Most worrisome would be successful reestablishment of an alliance between either Russia or China and one or more of these rogue powers.

Patriot missile battery

China, Russia, and India may invest in leap-ahead technologies, include major investments toward directed energy, EMP, HPM, and cyberweapons systems designed specifically to undermine the U.S. concept of dominant battlefield knowledge warfare.

The biggest worry for the United States, as suggested above, may be the indirect strategic effect of a theater peer's behavior in a Eurasian region where the United States has vital interests.


Current regional opponents (rogues) of the United States, specifically Iran and Iraq, may make major efforts to develop a geostrategic and geoeconomic alliance with either Russia and China or with both. Unlike the Persian Gulf War, where Iraq was geostrategically isolated, a future crisis involving Russia and China would be far more stressful for the U.S. military. The specter of limited wars in Korea and Vietnam looms large in the minds of U.S. military planners, and Washington might even rule out some high-performance reconnaissance strike options out of fear of escalation in a regional conflict.

With or without an alliance relationship, most potential rogue states will attempt to acquire the capability of a theater peer by 2008. Iran today continues to acquire a substantial WMD and long-range missile capability, and Iraq may soon follow, once UN economic sanctions are removed; the scientific and engineering cadre lies in wait. As already noted, the attractiveness of acquiring a regional WMD delivery capability is very powerful as a counter to U.S. power-projection capabilities. In parallel, rogue regimes will try to acquire a variety of niche capabilities to threaten or actually to raise the entry price of any major U.S. military intervention. Much of what the potential regional predator will do in the coming decade will probably be focused on undermining a U.S.-led political-military coalition, both in the region and at the United Nations.

Failed States

In Somalia and Chechnya, local insurgents led by charismatic leaders frustrated military operations by the United States and Russia, respectively. With the global increase in urban sprawl, future conflicts are liable to occur in cities rather than in the countryside. Urban terrorism has a long history of use as the strategy of the weaker military party. Hiding within a civilian population, many of whom are sympathetic to the policies, if not the immediate aims, of the terrorists, is a consistent strategy of opponents of a U.S. or multilateral military intervention viewed as hostile to that organization's strategic interests.

Insurgents have already acquired advanced infantry weapons, including man-portable anti-aircraft and antiarmor guided weapons, which are spreading rapidly worldwide, reflective of the broader cascade of older weapons out of both NATO and the former Warsaw Pact nations. Insurgents in the near future will be able to exploit the three space-based assets--navigation, surveillance, and telecommunications--to support their own operations. Mobile telephones equipped with encryption technology will be very useful to insurgent leadership. Insurgents may behave like niche regional military powers that have acquired RMA-types of weapons and support systems. The basic strategy of the insurgent or local tough ordinarily is, as stated before, to raise the entry price for any U.S. or other intervention force and drive it from the local field of battle.

Transnational Criminals

Even gray zones of classic insurgent warfare may be blurred by the introduction as a major player in future conflicts of the transnational criminal organization (TCO).

The U.S. military has already faced the frustrating task of taking part in the protracted drug war against various TCOs operating out of Latin America, Asia, and the greater Middle East. The current focus of U.S. Armed Forces is to provide wide-area surveillance south of the U.S. border in support of U.S. law enforcement efforts to interdict the flow of illegal drugs. Especially in Colombia and Mexico, U.S. law enforcement has been thwarted by the ability of the various drug cartels to mutate rapidly and suborn local governments. Several nations may become dominated politically and financially by powerful criminal enterprises. Certainly, a number of Latin American countries have had to struggle against this challenge.

The phenomenon is global, and a potential worry is that some states may chose to use indigenous TCOs in a symbiotic way. Like the use in Elizabethan England of letters of marque during state-sponsored terrorism against Spain's seaborne gold traffic, TCOs may be used creatively by future opponents of the United States to prey on the economies of the industrial democracies without prompting any effective reaction. Cyberspace may prove a very attractive arena for conducting strategic crime campaigns that may unfold over several years.

The QDR Response

The drafters and designers of the QDR strategy were not unmindful of the possibility of asymmetric threats. In a number of areas, new initiatives have been taken to make U.S. forces more resilient to asymmetric responses, and in others the response can be best described as "work in progress."

Countering WMD

Major initiatives can be identified that provide a response to a probable and very worrisome asymmetric threat--the delivery of WMD weapons by long-range ballistic or cruise missiles, or both. Some of these initiatives are listed below.

Enhanced Counterforce:

Advanced Theater Missile Defenses:

                                                                                                                                Hezbollah guerrilla

Joint Passive Defense Measures:

All these initiatives suggest that embedded in the QDR is a very robust response to the WMD threat. A key to the success of these programs, aside from steady funding, is whether they will be effectively orchestrated by an overarching counter-WMD campaign. Such a campaign would require all the services to make major commitments to the development of new operational concepts and to a vigorous training program. Like the antisubmarine warfare (ASW) challenge, counter-mobile missiles armed with WMD warheads would be very difficult to produce.

Finally, the issues of electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) and high-powered microwave (HPM) weapons are troubling. The limited use of nuclear weapons above the atmosphere can generate wide-area electromagnetic effects. The United States and other countries with advanced technologies have vigorous programs to develop nonnuclear-driven EMP and HPM weapons. A major policy issue apparently not fully resolved by the QDR is whether the next generation of key weapons systems and their associated C4ISR should be made resilient to this class of weapons effects. Electromagnetic hardening imposes a tax that many program managers would prefer not to pay. Without a coherent program, the risk remains that by 2008 many of the advanced weapons deployed with U.S. expeditionary forces will have a glass jaw.

This problem will not go away, even were U.S. planners convinced that the threat of nuclear retaliation would deter the next first use of a nuclear weapon. WMD weapons may be deployed in a way that causes major material damage and disruption without also incurring mass military and civilian casualties.

B2 dropping B6111 bomb

Countering High-Tech

One powerful argument for investment in a robust counter-WMD and countermissile capability is that it provides for enhanced warfighting abilities across the spectrum of conflict. Forces that can conduct a countertheater missile campaign in an WMD-shadowed environment will be very well equipped to destroy classical military threats. Put another way, if you can conduct an effective SCUD hunt, you can smash tank armies.

Although there was an interservice quarrel over which array of weapons systems could best defeat a classical mechanized invading army, the QDR chose instead to invest in a variety of "tank killing" systems. Many of these are mentioned above, in the discussion of counter-WMD and countermissile operations.

The United States is developing a range of capabilities designed to counter asymmetric high-tech weapons. These efforts include:

Low-Observable Combat Vehicles and Stand-Off Capabilities:

Fighting for the Littoral:

Night Fighting Superiority:

Soldiers in CBW gear

Countering IW

The United States. has also taken steps to counter cyber weapons, including:

Implicit in the QDR strategic planning is the assumption that the United States will remain at the leading edge of military and dual-use technologies. Overall, this is indeed likely for the next 10 years. But deployment of advanced silicon-based weapons systems coupled with focused logistics produces emerging vulnerabilities. Some programs will be needed to nurture effective long-term responses.

Further Work

Even against the niche player that acquires RMA-type weapons, QDR-designed forces should have a robust capability to prevail in major combat operations. What remains uncertain is whether U.S. combat casualties will rise substantially during future SSCs or MTWs. Even with enhanced capabilities, U.S. commanders may not escape the reality that their combat units may suffer sharp but limited casualties during the high-intensity phase of any military operation. Obviously, the central political- strategic question for the NCA is whether the prospect of such casualties is worth the cost. Clearly, a regional player or local tough will try to prompt the answer "no." This chapter does not try to establish whether military leaders should either attempt to warn its political masters of this possibility, or continue to support the fiction, based on the unique experience of the Persian Gulf War, that war is a blood-free sport.

Aside from the threat of niche players and local toughs acquiring RMA-type technologies, several major powers, including potential theater peers, are likely to invest in the next generation of leap-ahead technologies.



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