Top Five Threats to National Security in the Coming Decade

By Sandra I. Erwin and Yasmin Tadjdeh

Defense technologists are most successful when they hone in on specific problems. The Pentagon’s research agencies and their contractors were asked in 2003 to come up with ways to foil roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and although they did not defeat the threat entirely, they did produce a number of useful detectors, jammers and other counter-explosive systems. More recently, military researchers received marching orders to help tackle the so-called “anti-access area-denial” threats, which is Pentagon-speak for enemy weapons that could be used to shoot down U.S. fighters and attack Navy ships.

The next wave of national security threats, however, might be more than the technology community can handle. They are complex, multidimensional problems against which no degree of U.S. technical superiority in stealth, fifth-generation air warfare or night-vision is likely to suffice.

The latest intelligence forecasts by the Obama administration and other sources point to five big challenges to U.S. and global security in the coming decades.

Biological Weapons:
The White House published in 2009 a National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats with an underlying theme that biological weapons eventually will be used in a terrorist attack. To prevent deadly viruses from being turned into mass-casualty weapons, officials say, one of the most difficult challenges is obtaining timely and accurate insight on potential attacks. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has a team of researchers working these problems. But they worry that the pace of research is too slow to keep up with would-be terrorists.

Nukes: Large stockpiles of nuclear weapons are tempting targets for nation-states or groups set on attacking the United States and its allies, officials assert. Black-market trade in sensitive nuclear materials is a particular concern for U.S. security agencies. “The prospect that al-Qaida or another terrorist organization might acquire a nuclear device represents an immediate and extreme threat to global security,” says an administration report. No high-tech sensors exist to help break up black markets, detect and intercept nuclear materials in transit and there are no financial tools to disrupt this dangerous trade. A much-hyped Department of Homeland Security effort to detect radioactive materials at U.S. ports has been plagued by technical hiccups. Analysts believe that although a full-up nuclear weapon would be nearly impossible for an al-Qaida like group to build, a more likely scenario would be a low-yield “dirty bomb” that could be made with just a few grams of radioactive material.

The drumbeats of cyberwarfare have been sounding for years. Network intrusions are widely viewed as one of the most serious potential national security, public safety and economic challenges. Technology, in this case, becomes a double-edge sword. “The very technologies that empower us to lead and create also empower individual criminal hackers, organized criminal groups, terrorist networks and other advanced nations to disrupt the critical infrastructure that is vital to our economy, commerce, public safety, and military,” the White House says.

The cybersecurity marketplace is flooded with products that promise quick fixes but it is becoming clear that the increasing persistence and sophistication of attacks will require solutions beyond the traditional.

Climate Change: The national security ramifications of climate change are severe, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. While the topic of climate change has been hugely politicized, Panetta casts the issue as a serious security crisis. “In the 21st century, we recognize that climate change can impact national security — ranging from rising sea levels, to severe droughts, to the melting of the polar caps, to more frequent and devastating natural disasters that raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Panetta said. The administration projects that the change wrought by a warming planet will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources and catastrophic natural disasters, all of which would require increased U.S. military support and resources. The scientific community, in this area, cannot agree on what it will take to reverse this trend. There is agreement, though, that there is no silver bullet.

Transnational Crime: U.S. defense and law-enforcement agencies see transnational criminal networks as national security challenges. These groups cause instability and subvert government institutions through corruption, the administration says. “Transnational criminal organizations have accumulated unprecedented wealth and power through the drug trade, arms smuggling, human trafficking, and other illicit activities. … They extend their reach by forming alliances with terrorist organizations, government officials, and some state security services.” Even the United States’ sophisticated surveillance technology is not nearly enough to counter this threat, officials say.

In this special report, National Defense examines the top five threats in greater detail.


The public health community’s dream is to make the arrival and spread of communicable diseases as easy to predict and track as the weather.

Just as a meteorologist spots the seeds of a hurricane off the African coast, and begins to plot its possible path as it makes its way toward the Caribbean, a global bio-surveillance network would allow officials to detect a bio-weapon or the emergence of a deadly flu virus in China and track it as it spreads throughout the world. Measures could then be taken to quickly develop and distribute vaccines.

Despite the onset of the information age, where a doctor in Asia could theoretically inform a centralized information clearinghouse on the other side of the world of a new virus within seconds, realizing this dream is years away, experts at a recent National Defense Industrial Association Biosurveillance conference said.

Making diseases as predictable as the weather is a lofty goal, but the weather analogy is an imperfect one, said Steve Bennett, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Biosurveillance Integration Center. To start, the medical community doesn’t have all the prediction models that weather watchers can use to plug data into. They just don’t exist.

“Prediction is a pretty difficult thing to achieve,” he said. “Real-time situational awareness, I think we can get close.”

Congress established the center in 2007 to pull together the efforts of 12 federal agencies and departments that are charged with tracking diseases.  Its goal is to “rapidly identify, characterize, localize and track a biological event of national concern; integrate and analyze data relating to human health, animal, plant, food, water, and environmental domains; and to disseminate alerts and pertinent information.”

The Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture are all among the entities that track diseases.

“I think there was this idea in 2007 when that law was stood up  … there was this thought that there were these databases all around the federal government and the states and all we had to do was put $100 million into an IT system and hook it all together, and out comes wisdom,” Bennett said.

The databases don’t exist, or they exist in spreadsheets on different systems, and they are not structured at all, he said. Five years after the law was passed, Bennett still spends the bulk of his time visiting other agencies to keep tabs on what is happening.

“It is people and relationships. I wish there was a more technical solution, but that is kind of the way it is,” he said.

As far as developing a real-time global picture of what diseases are spreading and where, there seem to be more questions than answers.

“Right now the sum of biosusurveillance is based on ambiguous data. And to go from ambiguous data to a decision is a very difficult thing to do,” said C. Nicole Rosenzweig, a research biologist at the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland.

How do analysts take something that is at some level, research, and assess it as though we have complete confidence in it? she asked. “A lot of research will have to go into this,” she added.

Information technology systems that could collect and coordinate the data and give public health officials a picture of where diseases are emerging is only one part of the problem.

The main issue is that the policies and procedures on how to do this have yet to be worked out.
Harshini Mukundan, a scientist in the chemical division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said diseases emerge in food, humans and animals.

“They are all interconnected and having separate agencies monitoring each [one] defeats the cause,” she added.

Who owns the biosurveillance data? she asked. Is it going to be governments or the World Health Organization? “It is hard to envision what the system will look like and how exactly it will function. …  We need some direction on that from the government to start imagining how it will be implemented,” Mukundan added.

Bennett said: “There are lot of systemic issues that we need to fix, process issues, authority issues, things that can make decisions faster.”

Laurie Garrett, a policy analyst and senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said all the technical problems could be solved in five to 10 years, “but I don’t believe we have the capacity or the will to implement” them.

The political crisis in the United States today means it is difficult to get any kind of decision from the federal government. Many state legislatures are suffering from similar gridlock, she said.

“Are the problems bureaucratic, financial or policy? The answer is ‘yes,’ [to] all three,” she said.

Transparency has been an issue on the federal government’s end. For example, it issued a gag order on federal scientists during the 2001 anthrax attacks.

“As a result, on the local level, they were operating almost blind and did not have vital information,” she said.

Meanwhile, the government may be turning to the public for help.

Health and Human Services recently sponsored a grand challenge asking competitors to use Twitter to create a web-based application that would compile the top five trending illnesses in a geographic area and distribute the findings to state and local public health officials.

Bennett said there is valuable data contained in insurance claims. Such forms have geo-location tags and could help public health officials to see where diseases are cropping up. But then there are privacy issues.

“I don’t need to know specific patient information. ...I need to know general trends.”

The national security community may not need to know the kinds of data that would intrude on personal privacy, he added.

Jason Pargas, special assistant to the director at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s chemical and biological technologies directorate, said he believes that these issues will all be worked out in five to 10 years. He is in the research-and-development community, so he has to be an optimist, he said. Prediction models, applied math and computing may converge to where disease forecasts could become possible, he said.

But governments need to see the public as a partner.

“If you engage the public, you will have a much more redundant, highly, highly effective system,” he said. 

Nuclear Weapons

Still at the top of the list of the most terrifying threats to the United States are nuclear weapons.

The nation has spent an almost incalculable amount of money over the past six decades to find them, monitor them, and destroy the means by which they are delivered.

Open source information suggests there is still a lot of work to be done.

Research into hitting an intercontinental ballistic missile bearing a nuclear warhead with another missile began in the Eisenhower administration 50 years ago. Yet today, this can still only be accomplished under the most controlled circumstances with questions remaining on whether decoys could easily defeat the “hitting a bullet with a bullet” scenario.

President Reagan’s dead-end effort to shoot down missiles from space, better known as Star Wars, came to naught. The Airborne Laser program, which envisioned destroying missiles on the launch pad by using directed energy shot from an aircraft, also came to a halt.

The mutually assured destruction doctrine offset these defensive shortcomings. But as many analysts have noted, non-state actors such as terrorist groups, if they were to get their hands on a nuke, don’t play by those rules.

More recently, the Department of Homeland Security abandoned a program to develop Advanced Spectroscopic Portals that could detect a smuggled warhead inside a shipping container. The congressional mandate to scan every container entering the United States means that this effort will continue, although on a smaller scale.

Less overt is the detection problem. Who has nukes? And where are they?

The answer is: underground.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is hidden deep in its mountains, as are Iran’s alleged efforts.

Army Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess Jr., director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in his annual threat assessment released in February before his retirement, said underground facilities that may hide missiles and weapons of mass destruction are “spreading.”

Finding, assessing, mapping and ultimately destroying a hard and deep buried target — HDBT in military lingo — has become an increasingly difficult challenge for the military and spy communities, Air Force Lt. Col. Craig Baker, wrote in an Army War College paper, “The Strategic Importance of Defeating Underground Facilities.” The two communities have placed a great deal of emphasis on tackling this problem during the last decade, he wrote. Most of it has been carried out with little attention. Despite the low profile, the military has been taking the problem seriously.

“America’s potential adversaries have realized that current non-nuclear penetrating weapons are relatively ineffective in destroying underground facilities,” Baker wrote. Weapons of mass destruction programs are now underground in an effort to remain out of reach. New commercial tunneling technologies have also made underground bunkers less expensive to build, he noted.

The National Reconnaissance Office, National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency and the Air Force all need sensors to detect nuclear weapons, as well as the underground bunkers where they are hiding. The Air Force’s Technical Applications Center, based at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., has been tasked with searching for nuclear weapons and verifying treaties.

Much of its work is classified. If the U.S. is to preemptively destroy a nuclear weapons program, it will require intelligence on where these weapons are located and how deep underground they are stored.

An effort to destroy an underground complex may require repeated bombings by massive ordnance penetrator. These can only be carried by B-2 bombers, and only one at a time.

Jeffrey Richelson, senior fellow at the National Security Archives, a research institute that pries secret documents out of the government through Freedom of Information Act requests, said, “We obviously need weapons that can penetrate through certain depths, through certain hardness. But whether they can even build them to attain certain levels of destruction, I just don’t know … I’m not even sure the people in the Defense Department know. They are guessing, trying to figure it out using various models.”

Then comes the difficult question of battlefield damage assessment. Some things could be determined from outside, such as whether a bombing campaign collapsed an entrance. But since there may be an incomplete picture of what was inside a deeply buried bunker in the first place, it would be hard to know if a strike was successful, he said.

Documents show that the Defense Department and intelligence community over the past decade have been taking this problem seriously. “It has become more prominent and more important in recent years,” Richelson said.

Baker’s paper identified more than $1 billion being spent tackling underground facility defeat issues during fiscal years 2009 and 2010. 

There is some good news. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, signed by most countries, has yet to be ratified. But it has helped create a robust global network that can monitor clandestine underground nuclear weapon detonations. A National Academies report released in 2000 spelled out the shortcomings signees would have in attempting to detect tests. On a typical day, the Earth experiences hundreds of earthquakes and large mine blasts. The seismic clutter made it difficult to detect underground nuclear explosions, said Paul Richards, a Colombia University emeritus professor of geophysics and seismology at a Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy briefing on Capitol Hill.

A follow-up report released this year showed remarkable progress over the last decade. Hundreds of seismic and air-sniffing sensors have been placed all over the world, and countries have done a better job of sharing their legacy seismic sensor data with those who monitor the treaty, he said.

The radioactive particles released by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant accident last year were detected all over the globe and as far as South America, said Robert Werzi, who maintains the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s 80 radionuclide air monitors. If a sensor detects a manmade radioactive particle, analysts can then determine how many days old it is, backtrack the weather patterns, and pinpoint its origins, he said.

Officials believe the network of seismic sensors is good enough to detect 90 percent of any clandestine attempt to test a nuclear weapon that is over 1 kiloton. The lower the yield is on a test, the less effective it is.

Richards said it is necessary “to consider how well nuclear tests can be carried out evasively.”

There is a need for a continuing research-and-development program to improve the network of sensors, he added.

“The goal of the monitoring effort is to drive ever downwards the yield of anything that might go undetected or identified,” he said.

The Future of Cyber-Wars

Army Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, sees a day in the not too distant future when attacks on computer networks cross the line from theft and disruption to “destruction.”

And this chaos will not all take place in the digital world of ones and zeroes. He is referring to remote adversaries taking down infrastructure such as power grids, dams, transportation systems and other sectors that use computer-based industrial controls.

The last decade has seen mostly exploitation by adversaries, or the theft of money and intellectual property. Next came distributed denial of service attacks when hackers overwhelm networks and disrupt operations of businesses or other organizations, Alexander said at a recent Woodrow Wilson Center panel discussion on cybersecurity.

Other than intercontinental ballistic missiles and acts of terrorism, an adversary seeking to reach out and harm the United States has only one other option: destructive cyber-attacks, Alexander said.

This could result in loss of life and damage to the economy on par with what occurred after 9/11.

 “All of that is within the realm of the possible,” he said. “I believe that is coming our way. We have to be out in front of this,” Alexander said.

How to thwart such attacks is the problem the nation is facing.

Most of the Internet’s infrastructure through which malware is delivered is in the private sector’s hands. So too are the banking, energy, transportation and other institutions that are vulnerable to the attacks.

During the past year, there have been 200 attacks on core critical infrastructures in the transportation, energy, and communication industries reported to the Department of Homeland Security, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“And that is only the tip of the iceberg. Undoubtedly there are more that have not been reported,” she said during the panel.

“In this case, the dots have already been connected. The alarm has already been sounded, and we know it is only a matter of when, not whether we have a catastrophic attack,” she said.

Alexander, Collins and others are advocating for a more coordinated national effort to share information on cyberthreats. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency have loads of expertise, but can’t always share classified information, or cross lines when it comes to the privacy of U.S. citizens. The rest of the federal government has bits and pieces of information, and different responsibilities. Private sector companies are sometimes reluctant to disclose attacks for fear of upsetting shareholders or opening themselves up to lawsuits. Legislation co-sponsored by Collins to help pave the way for better information sharing died in Congress last summer.

Despite having poured countless amounts of money into cybersecurity on both the federal and private levels, there is still a lot to be learned about the threat, said one analyst.

“Why do we have a cyberwar community? Because we haven’t mastered cyber,” said Martin Libicki, senior management scientist at Rand Corp.  The main problem is that computers were originally seen as something to be “tinkered” with, Libicki said.

“We’ve built the most important infrastructure on things that were made to be toys,” said Libicki. Being toys, computer systems from the start have gaps and vulnerabilities needing to be patched.

“Every cyber-attack is a reflection of some vulnerability in the system,” said Libicki.
Greg Giaqunito, an analyst at Forecast International, said it’s not enough to defend the nation from attacks, offensive capabilities are required.

Increasingly, the United States is taking more proactive measures against adversaries and initiating activity, Giaqunito said.

“We are actually taking proactive action against other adversaries, so it’s not only protecting ourselves, but the U.S. taking more proactive stances and actually initiating some activity against U.S. adversaries,” he said.

Over the next few years, the hackers will become more sophisticated, said Charles Croom, vice president of cyber security solutions at Lockheed Martin Information Systems & Global Solutions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the technologies are becoming more advanced — even the most sophisticated threats often use known vulnerabilities and malware, Croom said — but the adversaries have become more effective.

Lockheed Martin’s Security Intelligence Center has over the last 10 years compiled a database of patterns and hacking groups. This information can help analysts as they work to stop threats.
While innovation in technology is important, Croom said the backbone of its security system is its analysts.

A shortage of network security experts continues to be a problem in both government and the private sector. Alexander said because of the poor economy, he isn’t having a problem attracting and retaining service personnel and civilian employees to Cyber Command now, but that won’t always be the case. Incentives and bonuses may be needed to retain experts, he said.

Duke Ayers, program manager of SAIC’s CyberNEXS initiative, a live-training program that focuses on cyber education, said, “We know that we’re not developing people fast enough in cyber or the technical skills.” SAIC, along with other partners such as the University of Texas at San Antonio, developed the CyberNEXS program that gives immediate feedback to participants as they pursue cyber-education.

Industry, the Defense Department and the Air Force Association have also teamed up to work on the CyberPatriot program, a nationwide high school-level competition intended to motivate high school students to get involved in the cybersecurity sector early and to cultivate talent.

Industry has also formed partnerships with academia to help stop attacks. In 2009, Northrop Grumman started its Cybersecurity Research Consortium, which includes Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Purdue University. There they investigate the various security threats that face the economy and national security and work on solutions that can help stop them, said Mike Papay, vice president of Cyber Initiatives at Northrop Grumman Information Systems.

With cybersecurity, Papay said, government and industry need to work together from the beginning during the procurement process. This, he said, is one way to reduce costs and achieve better cybersecurity.

“It’s not just about acquiring pure cybersystems anymore; it’s about acquiring UAV’s, radars, ships, etc, where cyber needs to be embedded to ensure mission success. Government and industry need to consider cyber in almost everything they do,” said Papay.

Despite all these initiatives, Collins struck a pessimistic tone, especially when it comes to the federal government’s response.

“In all the years that I have been working on homeland security issues, I can’t think of another area where the threat is greater, and we have done less,” she said.

Climate Change

For the U.S. military, climate change is a “ring-road” issue that surrounds its future strategic planning. 

No matter which way the Defense Department turns, U.S. global interests will eventually intersect with the effects of a warming planet, analysts said.

While politicians debate the legitimacy of climate science, the Defense Department has recognized it has a practical, hard-security interest in tackling issues like its energy footprint, said David Michel, director of environmental security at the Stimson Center.

“There’s no tree-hugging, sandal-wearing, granola eating aspects to the military’s approach,” Michel told National Defense. “The water-food-energy nexus of issues caused by climate change is going to be a rising challenge for the military and the national security strategy reflects that.”

The military will have an ever-increasing need for sensors and observation platforms to keep constant watch on how climate change manifests itself through weather and ecological phenomena, said Michel.

“These technologies are increasingly particularized and specialized,” he said. “We need to make sure that all of our eyes in the sky are not only looking at North Korea, for instance, but gathering a wealth of data from many areas. We need an inclusive data network to which many different observation technologies contribute.”

At the ends of the Earth, where climate change is already noticeable in receding ice caps, the same technologies are needed to monitor the melt, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Coast Guard will also need new ships that can patrol the cold waters of the Arctic, to provide a constant presence in what could become the world’s newest contested open ocean, she said.

The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review lists resource scarcity, climate change, disease, and demographics as “enduring trends” that threaten national security.

The challenge for the U.S. military, as it shifts its primary focus to the Pacific Ocean, will be balancing its response to acute events with a chronic, sustained preparedness for the long-term effects of climate change, Michel said. The Pacific already averages 70,000 annual deaths to natural disasters ranging from floods to typhoons and earthquakes.

“We’re likely to see more of those sorts of acute events,” Michel said. “But even at the same frequency and strength as we see them today … as populations continue to grow, as urbanization along coastlines continues, more people will be exposed.”

The U.S. military has a unique ability to provide infrastructure at nearly a moment’s notice when disaster strikes. A single carrier strike group can provide medical supplies, lift capabilities and communications to a country devastated by a catastrophic event, as it did after a massive earthquake ravaged Haiti in 2010. The Marine Corps, along with the Navy, has pledged that disaster relief and humanitarian aid will be two of their main duties within a Pacific-centered security strategy.

The chronic results of climate change are more challenging. Funneling resources to combat a problem that might not manifest for decades is a hard sell, especially with constrained budgets, Conley said. But phenomena associated with climate change like persistent drought, violent flooding and agricultural disruption are real and immediate concerns for many of the nations the United States partners with around the world, Michel said. The effects are also causing the most disruption in some of the world’s most politically unstable regions — Southern Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, South America.

“To the extent that climate change is an issue for our partners … it is going to become an issue for us,” Michel said. “The military is also aware that … climate impacts could be accelerants of instability in the countries where we have political interests or strategic concerns.”

There are opportunities also associated with a warming planet. Some effects like the melting polar ice caps are regrettable ecologically but potentially a windfall for global commerce, said Conley. A receding Arctic icecap could mean the Northwest and Northeast passages and Russia’s Northern Sea Route could remain open longer in summer. Eventually they could remain navigable to commercial shipping year-round.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center in September announced that the polar ice cap shrank over the summer months to the smallest area in the 33 years that records have been kept — just 1.5 million square miles at its nadir.

“We’re really seeing a dramatic acceleration of Arctic ice melt,” Conley said. “As the ice recedes, there are increases in commercial and other human activity. It also opens new sources of oil and gas and tourist opportunities in new waters.”

The implications of the sudden availability of natural resources and shipping lanes through the Arctic have drawn much attention from nations spanning the globe. The obvious players — the eight-member Arctic Council, which includes the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and Iceland — are concerned about border security where a sea of ice once did the work for them.

Other nations as far away as India and China are trying to gain admission to the council to advocate for their interests in shipping through an open Arctic, which could lessen by a third the time and cost of trans-oceanic shipping, said Conley.

For those and other reasons, the U.S. military “is just as interested in the decline of polar ice as the polar bear people,” Michel said.

It is another instance where the military, by addressing a practical challenge to national security, can have a positive ecological impact, like the Navy being a champion of biofuels. Navy officials view renewable energy as a means of bringing down the cost of operations. The Marines care less about curbing global warming than they do about keeping fuel and water convoys off vulnerable roads. But the net result of sustainable resource programs is a significant reduction in the military’s carbon footprint, Michel said.

In the Arctic, however, the United States is woefully unprepared for the challenge. The Coast Guard has a single operational icebreaker and the military hasn’t built one for more than 30 years.

“This summer, when Shell Oil attempted to drill offshore in the Arctic, they were able to bring more assets to bear than the U.S. Coast Guard could ever hope to muster,” Conley said. “When we need resources, we borrow them from other countries. By the time there is a crisis there, we won’t have the ability to address it.”

There are other strikes against U.S. polar preparedness. Because the disappearance of the ice cap is a long-term issue that may not have consequences for decades, it is difficult to interest policymakers and even more difficult to pin down funding for infrastructure and ships, Conley said.

The Arctic is also an area where 20 federal agencies have some role, creating headaches for strategists and diplomatic efforts to manage competition there.

“Coordination of Arctic policy is a nightmare on a good day,” she said.

In the Arctic, as in Asia and the Pacific, the United States will be forced to acknowledge and address climate change, if it is to uphold its professed role as a global power to secure and maintain the free-flow of public goods, Michel said.

“If we say climate change is one of our major concerns that is going to shape the 21st century and then we ignore it, the international community will notice,” he said.

Transnational Crime/Terror

Well before the May killing of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs, the terrorist organization he headed had become a dispersed, loosely linked network of international terror and criminal groups.

Add to that the existing transnational trafficking in narcotics, weapons and people, and the recipe yields a complicated problem for U.S. military and law enforcement agencies at home and abroad.

“We’re going to continue to have this transnational, non-standard set of threats and everything that goes with that,” said Garry Reid, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations, during a discussion of future SOF operations at the annual Air and Space conference in September. “Those threats are going to persist in multiple environments over the next 10-plus years.”

Countering those threats is made all the more difficult given that the U.S. military can’t take its eye off state-level actors to fight non-state, non-standard actors.

“Our national defense focus and clearly the focus of our Special Operations Command has got to equally be on … high-end threats and state competitors of the future,” Reid said.

Events like the Arab Spring have created power vacuums and ungoverned lands where criminals and terrorist groups are able to operate with impunity.

While much of the U.S. military’s attention has been on the Middle East, anti-U.S. terror groups and al-Qaida sympathizers have spread elsewhere.

Today, the arc of instability, from West to East Africa to Pakistan to Bangladesh has any number of al-Qaida copycat sympathizers, Arnaud de Borchgrave, senior adviser and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in January.

Illegal trade is “increasingly converging with ideologically-motivated networks, fostering a new generation of hybrid threats,” according to information from the project’s website.

Mali and Libya were two examples given by Reid of places where those two forces are converging. A coup last year in Mali left the country’s inhospitable north largely ungoverned. “Bandits and kidnappers” have since set up shop.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has reared its head in Mali, operating without constraint in the arid north, some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth.

“Al-Qaida branched into there a few years ago and showed mixed results with proselytizing their ideology,” Reid said. “They have not posed a transnational threat per se to attack the United States homeland, but they are of growing concern to our interests in the region.”

The group draws its origins from desert bandits and smugglers taking advantage of a power vacuum to advance their and al-Qaida’s interests. The instability in Libya has afforded them an opportunity to spread their beliefs there also, Reid said.

They gain a significant amount of resources from kidnapping for ransom — tens of millions of dollars go into their treasure chests. For al-Qaida, kidnapping to fund terrorist activities is a relatively new brand of criminality, he said.

These are small-scale crimes with regional implications for which military intervention is not well suited. They call instead for foreign military engagement by special operations forces, which have been overstretched this last decade, and for which no respite is in sight, Reid said.

“We see ourselves being pretty busy in the future,” he said.

The situation calls, as many others do, for technologies that are force multipliers, like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms that are easily deployed and operated by militaries short on resources.

There are “issues of partner-nation absorption,” of what portion of the enforcement burden native societies and militaries can take on, Reid said. Technologies like unmanned aerial vehicles and persistent border surveillance can enhance that absorption, he said.

But it is “not as simple as providing a piece of kit and waving goodbye,” he said. “How do we allow a small nation to have the advantage of these capabilities? These technologies will have to be scalable.”

Simply handing over or lending the U.S. military’s large and complicated unmanned aerial vehicles and surveillance systems won’t do. Once criminal activity is detected, the host nation must be have the will and training to curtail it.

That will require a steady presence of SOF personnel in remote parts of the world. Distributed operations of that nature and scope call for a secure communications network the United States doesn’t currently have, Reid said.

The transnational threat also hits close to home. The United States is the world’s primary market for illicit drugs. They flow over the nation’s land and maritime borders by the ton and government agencies catch only about a third of what’s smuggled, Gen. Douglas Fraser, then the commander of U.S. Southern Command, told defense reporters in March.

An estimated 1,200 to 1,500 metric tons of illegal drugs are produced in South and Central America each year, Fraser said. Of that, about 60 percent eventually makes it to the United States, he said.

Here again, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies can help. But eyes in the sky can only spy, and in South America are often hampered by rain forests.

In countries like Colombia and Honduras, criminals hide beneath a triple-canopy rain forest through which current sensors cannot penetrate, Fraser said. “That’s really a [research-and-development] effort right now. ... We have not gotten to a penetrative capability yet.”

UAVs, however, cannot interdict drugs or smugglers once they are found. The Coast Guard and Navy need more ships for that task, or other weapon systems that both spot and stop illegal drug and gun trafficking, he said.

But technology is not always the silver bullet, Fraser said. Just as in North Africa, countering transnational threats in South America is accomplished by using some technologies like maritime radar but is best done through direct cooperation with regional allies and old-fashioned word-of-mouth intelligence gathering, he said.

While UAVs have developed rapidly because of successes in Iraq and Afghanistan — Reid credits many of SOF’s “most public successes” on their spying abilities — they aren’t necessarily the best platform for every job, Fraser said.

Photo Credits: iStockphoto, Navy

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Cyber, Cybersecurity, Energy, Climate Change, International, Science and Engineering Technology

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