Imagine this terrible parlor game. Everyone guesses what the biggest threat to the U.S. will be in 2050. Will it be another big country trying to graduate to superpower? A small band of guerrillas from a destabilized country? A string of digits that hit out grid and cause rolling blackouts across the Acela corridor? Or climate change, which changes our borders and the access enemies have to them.
That's not a parlor game at the Pentagon. That's the job. You can forgive officials there for boiling it down to some pretty basic concepts. In this case: Be ready.
At a recent event at New America, Undersecretary of the Army Patrick Murphy cited readiness as the Army’s first future priority, simply stating, “Readiness wins wars.”
But how, given the shifting shape of U.S. domestic and global policy, to say nothing of the ever-changing world in which it’s written, can the Army hope to stay ready? Geopolitically, the U.S. Army will be challenged by a wide array of threats from both state and non-state actors, the most overt threat of which is terrorism. Currently, the most visible of these is the Islamic State. Though primarily based in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has global affiliates and unaffiliated adherents willing to execute operations on their behalf against targets across the world, including in the United States, as evidenced by the 2015 San Bernardino attack and, most recently, the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. The Islamic State’s success at global recruitment demonstrates how the Army of the future must reach beyond its traditional role and expand further into other challenged fields (i.e. cyber).
There will also continue to be geopolitical challenges to American national security from states. According to Murphy, the largest state-based challenges come—and can be expected to continue to come—from Russia, Iran, and China, all of which challenge American interests in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, respectively.
Russia poses a threat to American interests in Europe through its arms sales, nuclear capabilities, and overt willingness to violate international law if and when it suits Russian interests. Russian aggression in Europe as well as the attempted expansion of Russian influence in the region may make perfect sense to Moscow, but are nevertheless strategic and tactical concerns that the U.S. Army will have to contend with in the future. Russian capabilities to challenge NATO in the region mean that the Army must be able to rapidly counter Russian forces or proxy forces attacking our European allies. “Readiness,” Undersecretary Murphy underscored, “deters our most dangerous threats.” American success in the European theater, then, hinges on our ability to convince our allies in the region that we are capable of defeating Russia in open conflict if provoked.
Supported by Russia through the sale of advanced weapons systems and technology, Iran, too, may pose a threat to American interests in the Middle East. Despite the recent reopening of U.S.-Iran relations, the Army will likely continue to conduct counterterrorism operations in the Middle East, as well as train indigenous forces to conduct their own counterinsurgency campaigns and conduct independent land operations in gray zones—and, to stay ready, will keep a close eye on Iran.
China, meanwhile, is another formidable near-peer adversary to U.S. security interests in Asia. China threatens regional security through their attempts to create spheres of exclusive influence in the East and South China Seas. China’s provocative actions across all battle spaces, including cyberspace, as well as the accelerated rate of the Chinese military’s modernization steadily increases the risk of direct confrontation with the United States if tensions continue to escalate, and the Army needs to be prepared for this eventuality and ready to engage the Chinese standing army—the largest in the world—at a moment’s notice. “Since World War II,” Undersecretary Murphy said, “we have recognized that ready soldiers, properly manned, trained, equipped, and led, can beat larger forces.” In this case, that means , ensuring freedom of movement for American forces in spite of Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities via superior defense systems, power projection, and strategic airlift capabilities. This will allow the Army to deter the Chinese and, should deterrence fail, sustain land forces in the area in defiance of Chinese A2AD capabilities.
Further geopolitical challenges emerge from “rogue states” such as North Korea, volatile Pakistani relations, and global climate change. North Korea’s provocative behavior and continued nuclear testing pose a significant threat to both regional stability as well as U.S. interests. In the event that North Korean hostilities ramp up drastically and deterrence fails, the U.S. Army needs to be at optimal readiness—primed and able to defeat the North Korean army. If North Korea were to collapse without American direction, loose fissile/nuclear materials could pose a potentially catastrophic global threat. Similarly, should Pakistan increase its nuclear arsenal, the threat of regional instability as well as the threat of nuclear proliferation will only increase, and the U.S. Army will be responsible for mitigating or eliminating these threats.
Finally, as agricultural output plummets in some areas and the threat of “extreme weather events” such as hurricanes and tornadoes increases due to global warming, food and water insecurities may become rampant and increase international resource competition. This pressure may exacerbate relatively dormant sociopolitical or economic rivalries and escalation due to resource competition in the Arctic or elsewhere may lead to a military confrontation with other global powers such as Russia and China.These future threats will likely challenge American security commitments and interests globally, and the Army will be on the front line of any conflict. Or, to put it another way: The threats of today will evolve and continue into tomorrow. It is up to the Army of the present to adapt so as to be ready for them in the future.