The wars of the future will be longer, deadlier and waged against a more diverse variety of enemies than ever before, and U.S. armed forces must be ready, Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III said Wednesday.
Speaking to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Mr. Lynn identified what he called “three strategic trends” that are shaping “our future national security environment: lethality, duration and asymmetry.”
In a 21st-century world transformed by the information technology revolution, a greater range of adversaries - from criminal gangs to terror groups and rogue states - have access to the deadliest of weapons, Mr. Lynn said.
“For centuries, the most economically developed nations wielded the most lethal military power,” he said, but not anymore.
Terrorists and insurgents can strike civilian and military targets with improvised weapons and deadly effect, he said. “Rogue states seek nuclear weapons. [And] some criminal organizations even possess world-class cybercapabilities.”
The growing diversity of potential enemies able to strike with deadly effect at the United States or U.S. forces “means we cannot prepare exclusively for either a high-end conflict with a potential near-peer [nation-state] competitor or a lower-end conflict with a counterinsurgency focus,” he said.
Instead, the U.S. military “must be able to confront both high-end and low-end threats … we will need both fifth-generation [jet] fighters and counter-IED technology,” he said, referring to the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used by militants in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition, traditional military thinking about wars, which saw them as intense but short conflicts like the first Gulf War, is outmoded.
“This construct does not fit our current reality. … Our deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have now lasted longer than the U.S. participation in World War I and World War II combined,” he said. “The stress this places on our force turns out to be far more challenging to manage” than traditional conflicts.
“We must plan to sustain long-term commitments for a range of plausible conflicts,” which means changing the way “we size, structure and utilize” the National Guard and reserves, he said.
“We need the ability to scale-up force structure for longer conflicts,” he said, meaning the military needs to be able to mobilize larger numbers of troops for longer periods of time.
The third trend Mr. Lynn identified is the growth of asymmetry in warfare.
No longer are battles fought between similar forces - “cavalry on cavalry, [or] armor on armor.” Today, he said, “the American military is dominant by almost every measure … adversaries can defeat us only if they sidestep our construct for the use of force” and “target our weaknesses and undercut our advantages.”
Thus, insurgent groups avoided direct combat with U.S. forces but sought to destroy expensive weapons systems and kill troops with roadside bombs that can be built for a few dollars.
“Traditional powers also seek asymmetric capabilities,” he said in an apparent reference to potential nation-state adversaries like China. He cited the quest for cyberwarfare capabilities as the best example.
In contrast to state-of-the-art conventional weapons systems, cutting-edge cybercapabilities are easy and cheap to acquire. “A small number of highly trained programmers, using off-the-shelf equipment, can develop toxic tools and deploy them to great effect,” Mr. Lynn said.
Moreover, cybercapabilities are spreading, he said. Other countries could be deterred from attacking, even with deniable cyberweapons, by U.S. military power.
“So even though nation-states are the most capable actors, they are the least likely to initiate a destructive [cyber]-attack,” he said. “Terrorist groups, however, have no such hesitation.”
“So in cyber, we have a window of opportunity to act before the most malicious actors acquire the most destructive technologies,” he said.