Threat Kingdom

Article excerpt

WE GOT WHAT WE ASKED FOR. Now we need to adapt.

In a classic article on threat perception written early in the Cold War, J. David Singer defined a threat as a capability coupled with intent.1 He explicitly defined a term he thought was used too loosely in vital security debates at that critical time. His definition remains a basic point of instruction in security studies. Unfortunately, academia's precision has not improved the focus of US post-Cold War security policy. Contemporary security policies declare hunger, civil unrest and other conditions of the security environment as threats. Consequently, the terra "threat"expanded to mean almost everything-means little. Singer's definition helped security policy planners focus on capabilities when they were measured in time of flight, throw weights and megatons of yield. The intent of the Soviet Union was assumed within models of massive retaliation, deterrence and mutual assured destruction. A key objective of the Cold War's intelligence effort was finding out whether capabilities enabled that intent to become a threat, and if so, how great of a threat. In retrospect, it was a simpler time.

Many things have changed. For instance, despite great effort to describe the current security environment, no recent articulation of US national security strategy equals the coherent vision of former US State Department Charge George Kennan for containing the Soviet Union.2 It may be too much to expect a similarly elegant vision for protecting US interests in the contemporary security environment. Kennan's world was less complex than the security environment confronting. today's strategists. Likely these will be no neat, concise statement of national strategy directing the means and ends of the United States over a long period. Kennan's world was the aberration and his lack of confidence "in the ability of men to define hypothetically in any useful way, by means of general and legal phraseology, future situations which no one [can] really imagine or envisage" may better define our times than his.3

In today's increasingly complex security environment, states are not the only major actors, and technology arms small groups with weapons that in the past were held only by great powers. Technology and the prolif eration of knowledge have made biological, radiological, chemical and cyber capabilities available to nonstate actors. Kennan's world assumed the intent of specific state actors based on their public declarations and other information. Determining others' capabilities-for example, by counting missile silos-was essential. In today's security environment it is capability that must be assumed.

Past conventional wisdom that an actor's intent could not be known exaggerated the difficulty because counting missile silos or armored formations was an easier and obvious alternative. In fact, an actor's intent can be known, but it requires much more than counting silos. Unfortunately, given the existing capability of dozens of actors, state and nonstate, to strike America's critical infrastructure and population with weapons that cannot be counted from space, determining intent is the only remaining option to identify threats.

Watching Them Watch Us

The appearance of weapons of new concepts, and particularly new concepts of weapons, has gradually blurred the face of war.4 - Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui

Crafting an effective security policy requires understanding three elements: self, environment and threat (see Figure 1). Understanding self means knowing the ends desired, capabilities possessed, resources available, acceptable courses of action and other aspects. The environment interactively affects both self and threat and can be modeled using core assumptions about its characteristics.5 For example, a common model of the security environment assumes that states are the primary actors; the system is self-help without an overarching authority to referee disputes; survival is the ultimate end; and power, whether measured in terms of economic, military or other instruments, determines rank in the system. …