The Cold War offered military planners considerable strategic clarity the threat was known, and the problem was generating a force structure of sufficient size and sophistication to counter it. Today's military threats are varied and, for the most part, well below the level that even a shrinking U.S. force can handle comfortably. Threats ten to twenty years out, however, must be taken seriously because of the long time required to complete a major systems acquisition; to develop, test, and institutionalize new doctrine; and to accomplish the organizational innovations necessary to use both effectively.
Future threats may be divided into four categories: peers, bullies, terrorism, and chaos. The threat environment twenty years hence is unlikely to be of one type. Nevertheless, framing the choices facing planners shows what the U.S. armed forces might look like if one or another type of threat were to become the predominant focus of the Defense Department.
Few planners think it likely that the next twenty years will see a reemergence of a nation that can pose a challenge to U.S. military power as broadly as the Soviet Union did. However, at least two countries (Russia and China) could conceivably be peer adversaries at the strategic level of nuclear weapons, space, and information systems. Others could come close. How should the United States respond to the possibility? One avenue of interaction is to use arms controls to manage the cost of competition and the consequences of interstate breakdown. New restrictions on land warfare (e.g., tagging heavy equipment, placing sensors in border areas, putting size limitations on ground forces) would benefit the United States, given its compact army. On the other hand, some participants agreed that some of today's arms control regimes should be rolled back. Many felt that the United States is overly restricted in space and that a more permissive ABM regime would serve U.S. interests. Yet if the world's superpower stepped away from mutual arms limitations, this might send the wrong message about U.S. intentions and complicate counter-proliferation efforts.
Another avenue of future competition may be information warfare. Can or should the United States hold other nations' participation in the world economy at risk? The United States might be able to shut down another nation's banking system but not without risk of collateral damage to the global banking system. Can physical war be replaced by a survival contest among rival information systems under attack? Perhaps the United States should concentrate on developing defensive systems. The United States has the biggest stones, but also the most glass in its house.
What can the United States do to deter peer-level competition? Perceptions management was held to be key to U.S. national security. Most believed that the stronger and more capable the United States showed itself to be, the less often it would be challenged by others. Yet, with coalitions unstable, a demonstration of U.S. power might persuade others to ally themselves against what they would perceive as their leading threat (e.g., German behavior between 1890 and 1914).
A world of peer strategic competition would drive the military in familiar directions towards: nuclear forces, satellites and other long-range warning systems; tactical ballistic missile defense systems (including for allies); perhaps strategic defense systems and space attack systems; air defense in general; information warfare and security; and robust command-and-control.
If the circumstances and logic of the Bottom Up Review hold true for two more decades, U.S. armed forces will be sized and structured primarily to engage in two simultaneous major regional contingencies (MRCs). The usual suspects in such MRCs (e.g., Iran, Iraq, North Korea) are presently unsophisticated rogue states that aspire to nuclear weapons and delivery systems. …