Regional Conflicts with Strategic Consequences

By Bunn, M. Elaine; Mosher, David E. et al. | Strategic Forum, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Regional Conflicts with Strategic Consequences

Bunn, M. Elaine, Mosher, David E., Sokolsky, Richard D., Strategic Forum

Key Points

During the Cold War, strategic capabilities were synonymous with nuclear capabilities, and U.S. strategic planning focused on nuclear deterrence and response against a single adversary. Today, more potential enemies are developing asymmetric capabilities to inhibit or prevent U.S. military intervention in regional conflicts--in short, to wage strategic warfare by implicitly or explicitly threatening highvalue political, military, or economic targets with weapons of mass destruction and disruption. U.S. security over the next several decades will depend increasingly on the ability to deter and respond effectively to strategic regional conflicts with significant escalation potential.

The Department of Defense faces the task of ensuring that a comprehensive set of responses is developed for the National Command Authorities and is incorporated into planning before a conflict begins.

To meet this challenge, the defense establishment should analyze requirements for deterring and combating strategic warfare in regional conflicts, identify shortcomings in plans and capabilities, and develop solutions.

Providing a broad mix of military options could require changes in operational concepts, contingency planning, training, and resource allocation. The effort will require significant input from all the relevant commands and force providers, as well as the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Staff, services, and other agencies.


The strategic environment facing the United States has changed radically in the past decade. The United States needs to reexamine traditional ways of planning for the use of military force in conflicts that threaten vital interests and that could escalate to the highest levels of violence. Several characteristics define the new environment:

* Changed relationships between the major powers. The bipolar world of the Cold War has yielded to U.S. preeminence in virtually every facet of power, while Russia has become a second-tier power. China now has the seventh largest economy in the world and is modernizing both its conventional and nuclear forces--though it is unlikely to replace the former Soviet Union as the second pole in a reconfigured bipolar world.

* The rise of regional powers, such as Iraq and Iran. These aspiring regional hegemons are unhappy with a status quo that is preserved by American military power. The end of bipolarity has brought this antagonism to the fore. During the Cold War, regional conflicts played out within the context of the broader ideological and strategic conflict between the two superpowers, which also tamped down pressures for escalation and proliferation for fear that conflict would spiral out of control. That all ended with the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet empire made it impossible for Russia to continue supporting its allies abroad, who were forced to become responsible for their own security.

* The possibility that smaller rogue states might try to keep the United States out of a regional conflict. By credibly threatening that the fight could escalate and even involve homeland attacks on the United States or its partners, a regional pariah might hope to prevent the United States from committing forces to the conflict or hinder it from building coalitions with European and regional allies. Failing that, a regional adversary could seek to delay and disrupt U.S. deployments to the theater and hamper operations. Finally, the leadership of a rogue state may be able to preserve its regime even in defeat if it could strike the American homeland or American allies. In short, regional powers are developing the capability to conduct strategic warfare against the United States. The importance these countries place on asymmetric warfare probably has been encouraged by the American distaste for wartime casualties and worries about self-deterrence.

Planning Challenges

In the changing environment, the United States must transform its thinking about deterring and defeating attempts to use strategic warfare to force it to abandon the defense of its vital interests in regional conflicts. …

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