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Dealing with Emerging Threats

​EMERGING THREATS and irregular warfare are as challenging as they sound. There is not a clear-cut path to predicting or responding to new and unconventional tactics, but the U.S. military must address these threats all the same. How that can be done was part of a recent hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

The experts testifying included Robert Killebrew, retired U.S. Army Colonel and visiting fellow with the Center for a New American Security; Seth Jones of Rand Corp.; and David Maxwell, retired U.S. Army Colonel and associate director of Georgetown University’s security studies program.

They were asked whether they think the United States is strategically ready for emerging threats and irregular warfare, and they were asked about specific strategies, such as counterinsurgency.

Jones said that the record on how well the United States conducts counterinsurgency was “mixed.” He added, “I don’t believe we have a strategic document on this subject.” He cited the mistakes that were made in Iraq and Afghanistan in focusing on replacing a central government without truly understanding the tribal and clan interactions. While the United States eventually corrected itself in those areas, it took years, he noted.

Strategy is not a silver bullet, cautioned Maxwell. But at least as a country, “we have done well over time in learning the lessons and adapting,” he said.

Killebrew said that the U.S. military does not always approach counterinsurgency in the proper way. Though the United States has a tendency to see itself as the major actor in the conflict, Killebrew tells Security Management, in insurgencies, it’s actually the insurgents and the host country who are the primary actors.

Maxwell concurs: “We have to know how to conduct counterinsurgency, because we need to be able to advise, assist, and enable our friends, partners, and allies to conduct counterinsurgency. But when we do it for them, we often become part of the problem.”

An example of a successful application of the advise and assist strategy is Colombia, where the United States provided assistance in dealing with insurgents but did not carry on the war itself, says Killebrew.

Another issue discussed at the hearing was the country’s ability to prepare for the next type of threat. It isn’t easy to predict emerging threats, even for the experts. “We can’t predict, although I think we can see from history the types of threats. And I think that they’re typically evolving,” says Maxwell.

Some of the evolving threats mentioned by speakers at the hearing were cybercrime and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks.

Jones identified what he considered to be two of the major threats facing the United States today. The first was that there was a feeling after the death of Osama bin Laden that the global jihadist movement was on the verge of defeat. However, he said that this feeling is unjustified. Collapsing regimes in numerous countries, coupled with the Arab Spring, have helped to bolster the movement, he said.

The other threat cited by Jones at the hearing was what he called the hubris of the United States in how it was viewed across the world. Specifically, Jones noted as problematic the United States’ belief that the country is well-liked everywhere. “I think [the government’s] strategic communications on irregular warfare have been…deeply lacking,” he told the subcommittee, as has its ability to project a positive image of itself and its policies around the world.

Since it can be difficult to adequately predict future threats, the experts stressed how important it is to be able to adapt quickly to whatever new conditions arise.

To do that, Maxwell recommended at the hearing that “the number one investment that we have to make for the future is in people and in education.”

He tells Security Management, “We need people who can solve complex political and military problems, can understand the environment and be able to craft strategies that will support our national security.” Maxwell added that he’s worried that if defense budgets are drawn down, money will be allocated improperly. For example, money may still go to weapon systems and platforms but not necessarily to education.

Jones added during the hearing that there is room for education of not just military leaders but of the American population, which he says has not always been adequately versed on the true threats facing the country.

Jones further explained to lawmakers that appropriate education campaign would provide the public with a greater appreciation of the dangers and what the nation is fighting for in its homeland security efforts.