Five major threats to the U.S., our allies and our interests

By decade’s end, the United States will be spending more to service its debt annually than on national defense. At that point, if current plans remain in place, the country will be spending only 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense — a full half percentage lower than during the Clinton administration, which, in turn, was the lowest level ever for the country since before World War II.  In the meantime, entitlement and welfare spending will have galloped ahead, dominating the federal budget. This is the future the current administration apparently wants.  And it has consequences for the nation’s security.

In the years since Barack Obama took office, the United States has crept away from its global role, seeking to “end” rather than “win” the conflicts in which we are engaged, deferring management of regional conflicts to local powers, and spending more time courting problem countries like Russia and China than working with our long-time allies.  Al Qaeda has been on the run in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but has flourished in Yemen and Somalia.  The president made explicit his view that the United States is no more exceptional than, say, Greece, and has governed accordingly.

For those who applaud this draw down of a century of American power, the U.S. retrenchment is good news.  Unfortunately, not all of those clapping are to be found in Washington.  Chinese, Iranian and al Qaeda leaders have all recently commented on American weakness.  And there is no shortage of those willing to exploit that weakness.  Among the major threats to the United States, our allies and our interests worldwide, several stand out:

Terrorist groups: No, not just al Qaeda and its more potent franchisee in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  Also, increasingly Hezbollah, which now dominates Lebanon’s government and has tens of thousands of missiles, as well as precision guided weapons that can reach Tel Aviv.  As we learned this month with the revelation of new planned attacks by AQAP, these groups have substantial transnational capabilities.  Failure to replicate 9/11 doesn’t portend future failure.  Al Qaeda and Hezbollah have cooperated in the past, and will likely do so in the future. 

Nuclear weapons proliferation: North Korea and Iran are the poster children of nuclear weapons proliferation, but there are others that get less than daily coverage in the press.  Pakistan now has an arsenal that likely tops 200 nuclear weapons; Burma is reported to have a nuclear weapons program.  Syria had a nuclear weapons program and still denies access to the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Should Iran acquire the makings of a nuke, few doubt that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and others would be far behind.  Can we rely on the safeguards of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and the good offices of these governments to stop the transfer of such weapons to others?

China: China’s rise has been a phenomenon remarkable in human history, elevating hundreds of millions out of lives of poverty and thrusting China’s leading business lights onto the international economic stage.  But the money that has flowed as a result of China’s rise has been used for more than poverty alleviation; China’s military budget has increased by double digit percentage rates each year for the last twenty.  The People’s Republic, still dominated ruthlessly by the Chinese Communist Party, has branched out into the blue water in a big way, with an aircraft carrier, a new class of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, and an anti-ship ballistic missile in its arsenal. 

China represents sufficient a challenge to the United States that the Obama administration has executed what it describes as a “pivot” away from the Middle East toward Asia.  But that “pivot” exists in name alone; in fact, the U.S. has too few assets to rebalance power in the region and, if defense spending continues to drop, there will be even fewer ships and planes to match up with the growing Chinese arsenal. There are those who believe that China’s economic rise will constrain its strategic ambitions; others are persuaded that the mainland’s growing riches will simply finance the domination of the Pacific.  Follow the dollars and the latter appears demonstrably to be the case. 

Cyber: The threat of cyber warfare is a favored 21st century topic.  The Obama administration has stood up a military cybercommand to address the problem; the military, the intelligence community and the government overall is throwing billions into cyber defense.  The threat is not just to the many systems that depend upon an enormous and vulnerable cyber infrastructure.   Less ballyhooed, but potentially devastating nonetheless is the threat to industry, not simply in the protection of intellectual property but in the basic functioning of the modern economy.  Russia and China, as well as North Korea are investing heavily in cyberwarfare capabilities. 

Space: How much of our national defense is now dependent on space?  On the satellites that orbit, that stream information, that manage flights, that vector weapons, that facilitate missile defense, that manage the Global Positioning System that gets everyone from grandma to the 82nd Airborne from here to there.  How vulnerable are our assets in space?  In 2007, the PRC tested an anti-satellite weapon, reportedly its third, but first successful test of such a weapon.  China and others may already have the ability to disable certain satellite functions with sophisticated laser technology.

What are we to do?  In each case, there are concrete steps that can be taken to diminish the threat.  We can counter Iran with a credible military threat, and arm the Israelis with the tools to back up their own defense.  We can resource the “pivot” to Asia with fully fledged carrier battle groups and submarine support for local allies and military resources necessary.  We can devote counterinsurgency resources to the terrorist threats we see in Afghanistan, and do far more to ensure Yemen’s leaders are incentivized to locate, fight and kill al Qaeda.  We can invest in cyber defenses, in the research and development needed to maintain our technological edge.  Ditto for space.  

What’s the common theme?  Resources and credibility.  We have the world’s greatest military to win wars and deter others.  If sequestration happens next year, the defense budget will lose over a trillion dollars in planned spending over the next decade: the Army will be the smallest it has been since World War II, the Navy will shrink to a level not seen since before World War I.  And our pilots will fly fewer fighters than ever in the history of the Air Force and planes typically will be older than the pilots flying them.  Decline is a choice that turns threat into reality.