Editor’s Note:  This article differs from the regular format we use at Divergent Options per a request from Nate Freier of the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.  This article has the writer imagining that they are a Special Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense (SecDef).  The writer is responding to a request from the SecDef for a two page memo that defines or describes strategic and military risk and identifies national security situations that may take place from 2017 to 2027 that would require the U.S. Department of Defense to surge personnel or capability to address.  The entire call for papers can be found here.

Chris Townsend is an active duty U.S. Army officer with 20 years of service.  He is a Middle East and North Africa Foreign Area Officer.  He can be found on Twitter @FAO_Chris and has written for the Journal of Defense Resources ManagementSmall Wars JournalArmchair General, and the Strategy Bridge.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

16 February 2017

MEMORANDUM FOR: Secretary of Defense

SUBJECT: Strategic and Military Risk

1.  DEFINING RISK:  Risk is any uncertainty that could complicate military operations or limit strategic options in responding to threats to U.S. interests.  Risks to strategic and military response can be categorized into three areas:  Operational, Institutional, and Global.

a.  Operational risk represents potential threats to military options and includes the presence of near-peer adversaries capable of area denial and the creation of threats across multiple domains simultaneously; weapons of mass destruction; adversarial Cyber, Space, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance capabilities; and the potential for simultaneous multiple-theater, multiple-phase conflict.

b.  Institutional risk includes the forces, funding, and acquisition uncertainties and inefficiencies.  These affect the size, training, equipping, readiness, and resilience of the fighting force and the ability to project power in response to dispersed threats while defending the homeland and assisting civil authorities.

c.  Global risk represents the uncertainties introduced by climate, politics, and societal factors.  Complications introduced from changes to climate or natural disasters, competition for resources, challenges to sovereignty, cultural friction, and global, criminal—independent or state-aligned—actors all present risks that must be mitigated and used to inform planning.

2.  THREAT SCENARIOS:  The greatest threat to the United States response capability is a simultaneous, multiple-theater, multiple-phase, multiple-domain conflict compounded with a homeland defense requirement in an era of dwindling resources and forced reductions in manning and equipping in a global political environment where the U.S. has reduced basing, access, and overflight options due to lapsed efforts in relationship maintenance, coupled with a lack of partner capacity and poorly defined political and strategic end states.

a.  The most likely scenario for the next ten years is for America to continue its military involvement in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan as Iran seeks to increase its influence through the continued proliferation of the Iranian Threat Network and meddling in regional politics.  As the conflicts resolve, there will be significant requirements for the U.S. to train and equip security forces to maintain the fragile stability in these countries.  Periphery conflicts like Egypt in Libya, Turkey in Northern Syria and Iraq, and Saudi Arabia in Yemen will strain resources as the U.S. continues to support partners with equipment and training.  Counterterrorism efforts will continue to require attention and resources around the globe and here at home.

b.  The most dangerous scenario is state-on-state aggression that either through treaty or interest requires U.S. engagement in addition to the ongoing security missions around the globe.  Potential conflicts include Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, Iranian-Saudi War, Chinese seizure of Taiwan and surrounding waters, clashes between India and Pakistan, and North Korean attacks on South Korea or Japan.  Any such conflict would expose the inability of the U.S. military to truly project power in multiple theaters while protecting the homeland.

c.  The most disruptive scenario would be a full-scale, multiple-domain attack on the homeland while forces are deployed into multiple theaters.  Potential adversaries have demonstrated the capability to disrupt internet, power, and communication systems in addition to the ability to shoot down satellites.  Significant network outages would create chaos in civilian arenas and significantly challenge military planning.  Space capabilities of new satellites deployed by potential adversaries could threaten lateral physical or cyber attacks against our satellites creating long-term disruption.  The U.S. could find itself unable to address threats from distant adversaries that have developed capabilities that increase stand-off distances and preclude insertion of forces without significant risk.  Other belligerents would likely seize on U.S. preoccupation by launching efforts to resolve regional disputes.

3.  SURGE REQUIREMENTS:  In every scenario the U.S. would be required to surge forces in response to aggression or instability.

a.  U.S. Forces must be capable of surging forces into two separate theaters while maintaining ongoing security requirements at home and abroad.  Current manning, arming, and equipping forecasts are insufficient for this kind of conflict, straining the ability to respond, reducing the margin of error, and increasing the costs.  Potential conflicts with near-peer adversaries would be longer wars with higher casualties that embolden those that threaten our interests while undermining the confidence of allies and partners.

b.  The priority now must be to shift current security and training responsibilities to partner nations with U.S. support.  Domain owners must refocus on basic proficiency in their respective domain: air, land, sea, cyber, space.  Efforts to establish relationships between domain owners that allow for quickly assembled Joint Task Forces to effectively operate are vital to addressing potential threats.  The risks from multi-domain battle and anti-access/area denial must be addressed through focused strategic planning for ways to defeat these threats and develop our own capabilities in these areas.

c.  While global risk can only be understood and used to inform planning, operational and institutional risk can be managed by military and civilian leaders.  Legislative and doctrinal efforts must define the institutional and operational risk tolerance thresholds and match those assessments with funding and programs to mitigate residual risk.  Without a rebalance away from ongoing security requirements, and a refocus on core domain competencies absent the uncertainty of sequestration, the U.S. will find itself challenged in the most likely scenarios and sorely outmatched in the most dangerous and disruptive ones.

4.  POC for this memorandum is Christopher P. Townsend, MAJ, SC.