The U.S. Department of Defense has begun its quadrennial defense review (QDR) with the goal of assessing the threats and challenges facing the United States in order to balance strategies, capabilities and forces.  This is the fourth QDR and the results will not be known or released until early 2010.

  But the scenarios and assumptions that drive the analysis can reveal how the United States military thinks about its future and international security.  So far, there is no clean break with the past.

The QDR security challenges do not look different from 2008.  Instead, the list of security concerns is still violent extremist movements, the spread of weapons of mass
destruction, rising powers with sophisticated weapons, failed or failing states and threats to the global commons (air, sea, space, cyberspace).  Only the last threat is relatively new, and it is undoubtedly influenced by international attention to piracy in East Africa and the cyber attacks and penetrations that are rampant in the world today.  With that exception, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Iran and North Korea still dominate defense thinking.

At the same time the threats to U.S. security are unchanged, the Defense Department notes that the dominant position of the United States is not guaranteed.  Instead, there are “a series of powerful trends that are reshaping the international landscape and will dramatically complicate the exercise of American statecraft and overseas relations.”  This assumption can translate into more prominent roles for European countries, Russia, India, China and Brazil.

Yet, the shared global challenges of the current global economic downturn, climate change and demographic shifts tend to favor the United States.  Europe, Russia, India, China and Brazil also face serious challenges, and it’s uncertain that they are any better prepared than the United States to emerge as more powerful.

Setting this aside, it must be ensured that the Defense Department is in a position to advance and defend national interests when the President directs.  Several scenarios will be explored in-depth: institutionalizing irregular warfare and civil support abroad (e.g. Afghanistan and Iraq), building partner countries’ military capabilities and addressing threats posed from the use of advanced technology and WMD.

Further, U.S. security posture is likely to change to address areas where it bases forces (continuing a shift from Europe to the United States and Asia), to fix the inefficiencies that plague the $700 billion a year organization and to strengthen support to civilian-led operations and activities.  Regarding the latter, other U.S. government agencies are conducting their own strategic reviews in the continual quest to rebalance power in the United States government.

Of greatest interest in discussions is the extent to which great power war is imagined.  This question underlies the fiercest debates in Washington and explains why certain weapon systems are procured, delayed or cancelled.  Secretary of Defense Gates has heralded efforts to rebalance the force to meet today’s challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan with those imagined in the future.  In general, he sees great war as highly unlikely, and this is represented in the recent decisions to hold the F-22 buys to under 200 and to focus Navy procurement efforts on frigate-sized warships.  (He also recognizes the United States has a fairly large advantage over other powers too.)

While great power war might be unimaginable, there is a new consensus emerging that will drive many defense planning scenarios.  Known as “hybrid war,” it posits that “our greatest challenge in the future will come not from a state that selects one approach, but from states or groups that select the whole menu of tactics and technologies and blend them in innovative ways.”  Hybrid war moves thinking about security beyond the stale dichotomous debate on the future of war and envisions transnational actors wielding conventional capabilities and major powers employing unconventional capabilities.

This perspective is not pure defense fantasy and is grounded in analysis of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, which used both conventional (tanks) and unconventional (cyber attacks) methods.  Or, it was evident in Hezbollah’s response in Lebanon against Israel in 2006.  Or, it can be seen today with Colombian drug traffickers increasingly using mini-submarines to transport cocaine.  All of the scenarios illustrate that the clean divisions between state and non-state threats are gone.  While this can be disconcerting, it’s probably better to plan against one group using a nuclear weapon instead of trying to prevent nuclear annihilation as we did just 20 years ago.

Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI.  These views are his own.