Time for a fresh take on security

Fragile and possibly failed states, nuclear developments in Iran and North Korea, friction and conflict between non-state actors, private wars in Mexico, pirates off Somalia’s coast, civil war in Syria, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorist groups all will characterize the next presidential term.

For the first time since World War II, however, the commander in chief will not have the luxury of preparing for every contingency. Serious budget constraints will require defense budgets to conform to a degree of discipline that will make it impossible to “pay any price, bear any burden” that the Cold War and beyond made us accustomed us to. Fortuitously, the changing nature of conflict and the transformation of the most likely warfare will make this transition both more acceptable and more necessary.

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The likelihood of nation-state wars in the 21st century — at least those involving the United States — is declining, largely due to the advent of weapons of mass destruction and the integration of global economies. Wars cost too much and they are too destructive to justify traditional all-out warfare. Such threats as we do face will require smaller, more specialized combat units with tactical weapons and instant mobility. Technology, in the form of drones, robots and sophisticated detection, will provide a U.S. advantage. Otherwise, 21st century warfare will look very much like the elimination of Osama bin Laden and the 11th century age of the Assassins.

The exception, of course, is the terrorists’ possession of weapons of mass destruction. Here all the nuclear aircraft carriers, long-range bomber wings and big army divisions will not protect us. The national and international security formulas will remain: detection, prevention and response. Stop the evil-doers before they arrive on our shores, but be prepared to contain the impact if that fails. Ironically, the greatest security asset in the years to come will probably be the lone informant.

The transformation of our military structures in the age of changing conflict will require the emerging younger officer corps and a new generation of political leaders to gradually transition from the large-scale, Cold War/nation-state warfare legacy systems to the lighter, faster, more mobile and more lethal combat capabilities. Budgets will require it, but even more importantly, so will reality. The commander in chief in the coming four years will find it increasingly necessary to seek cooperation and collaboration with allied intelligence and security services to isolate non-state actors, guarantee global energy distribution systems, constrict nuclear ambitions, protect global cybersystems and prevent the integration of mafias, drug cartels and renegade arms dealers.

A number of the nation’s most serious national security experts reached conclusions such as these well before 9/11 and the subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq wars. As the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century concluded in 1999: “The type of conflict in which this country will generally engage in the first quarter of the 21st century will require sustainable military capabilities characterized by stealth, speed, range, unprecedented accuracy, lethality, strategic mobility, superior intelligence, and the overall will to prevail.”

Even if, as some would have it, the United States wished to police the world unilaterally, budget realities will prevent it and shared security interests will prevail. We will soon find it both convenient and necessary to structure new security alliances for specific security missions and for long-term common interests. The security of the global commons will increasingly characterize defense structures and policies.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that there are shared security interests, such as petroleum distribution systems and international communications systems, that many other nations share. The United States is facing and will continue to face a blunt choice: either demand autonomy and go-it-alone doctrines that commit us to police the world in the common interest — at unacceptable costs — or structure new security alliances that are project-specific — for example, cybersecurity — or that are inclusive and require long-term integration of multinational security assets in the manner of NATO to protect the global commons.

Once again, the U.S. Commission on National Security forewarned in 1999: “The national security of all advanced states will be increasingly affected by the vulnerabilities of the evolving global economic infrastructure.” Traditional national security is giving way to international security.

Thinking as usual will represent the greatest hazard in the next few years. The 21st century is already as different from the 20th as the 20th century was from the 19th. Traditional, conventional thinking will increase our vulnerability. Anticipation, imagination, flexibility and experimentation are required to make us secure in an age of profound revolutionary change.

Hart is a former senator from Colorado and is now chairman of the nonpartisan American Security Project.