Weak countries pose threat, Pentagon says

Some of the most significant national security threats to the United States will likely come from weak and failed states, according to a high-ranking Pentagon official.

“State weakness and failure may be an increasing driver of conflict and situations that require a U.S. military response,” Michèle Flournoy, the undersecretary of Defense for policy, said on Wednesday at a briefing hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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Flournoy stressed that in the past the threats came from powerful, aggressive states, but that will be changing in the coming years. Many of the security threats will arise out of states’ inability to meet the basic needs of their population and secure their own territory, Flournoy said.

Flournoy plays a key part in  the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR — a sweeping analysis of military strategy and capabilities. The conclusions reached as part of the QDR will inform the budget for fiscal 2011, but also set a budgetary pattern for the next four years after that.

The scenarios used as part of the sweeping review take place in the 2015-2016 timeframe, but some are also projected out to 2025 to account for the advanced technology that adversaries could get their hands on by then, but won’t have in the next five years.

The task of the analysis is a challenging one and could set the tone for President Obama’s national security strategy, at least during his first term. The defense review is congressionally mandated and — as its name suggests — occurs every four years.

Flournoy said that the U.S. military needs to be prepared to face the increasing dangers posed by weak states and that the analysis addresses that by picking a few “illustrative scenarios in trying to understand what different kinds of situations that could emerge from state weakness might mean in terms of demands on the military.”

While she didn’t provide any details about specific countries, Flournoy said the Pentagon is not only looking at individual countries but also at “different kinds of combinations.”

“Unfortunately, it is a growing list” of countries that could potentially fail or weaken significantly, Flournoy said. Failed or weakened states have an increasing amount of ungoverned spaces that could then become safe havens for terrorist organizations and criminal activity, she said.

{mospagebreak}One of the more prominent examples is Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and the situation in Somalia that has spawned a rash of piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

In its latest report on future challenges, the Joint Forces Command concluded that “many, if not the majority, of weak and failing states will center in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.”

“A current list of such states much resembles the lists of such states drawn up a generation ago, suggesting a chronic condition, which, despite considerable aid, provides little hope for solution,” the report said.

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The Pentagon is also facing another daunting challenge: increasingly hybrid forms of warfare, as Flournoy put it.

Not only does the U.S. military have to face irregular forms of warfare, such as the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where troops have to weather roadside bombs and other improvised though not necessarily sophisticated attack methods, it will have to be prepared to fend off “high-end asymmetric threats,” Flournoy explained.

Those threats would come from rising regional powers or rogue states with highly sophisticated technologies such as anti-satellite and anti-air weapons, undersea warfare capabilities and weapons of mass destruction, Flournoy said.

“You can see we are going to be pulled in different directions,” Flournoy said. The Pentagon has the daunting task of balancing the needs of the military for the current conflicts with a “very uncertain” future, Flournoy said.

For the QDR, the Pentagon is going to consult with other government agencies and Congress and is also looking for input from military officers from other countries, Flournoy said.

“We do not have a monopoly on good ideas,” Flournoy said.