Doomsday war games: Pentagon's 3 nightmare scenarios

Pentagon planners have plenty to deal with these days – Iran in search of nuclear-weapons technology, suicide bombings in Afghanistan, and the final pullout of US troops in Iraq potentially leaving behind a security vacuum in the Middle East. But in war games in Washington this week, US Army officials and their advisers debated three nightmare scenarios in particular. Here are the doomsday visions that Pentagon planners have been poring over:

1.Collapse of Pakistan

Members of the Azad Welfare Society burn a replica US flag Sunday during a rally to condemn NATO air strikes on Pakistani troops. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

Following the assassination of the Pakistani president in a scenario that begins in 2013, Pakistan begins to descend into chaos. It is a time of great uncertainty, in which Pakistan’s “Islamist Army faction and its militant Muslim allies” decide to act.

Their plan, according to the war game: “to exploit that country’s growing civil disorder to seize power and create a radical Islamist state.” Compounding this chaos is the confusion over who will gain control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal, estimated to number 80 to 120. These weapons are believed to be located at a half-dozen or so sites around the country.

At least one site is occupied by Islamist units. “Both US and other national intelligence services have concluded that sympathetic elements of the ISI [Pakistan's spy agency] have provided Islamist officers leading the breakaway army units with the activation codes needed to arm the nuclear weapons under their control,” notes the scenario, which is drawn from "7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century" by Andrew Krepinevich, a former staffer in the Office of Net Assessments, the Pentagon’s futuristic and highly influential internal think tank.

If this were to happen, “there may be little to prevent these weapons from being used.”

The principal targets of such weapons would be United States, and US citizens draw little comfort, the scenario adds, from the efforts of US government officials to emphasize the difficulties involved in transporting nuclear weapons halfway around the world, which would be necessary, they add, in order to target an American city.

US forces have considered a preemptive strike on the area where the weapons are thought to be located, but Islamist forces have warned of the “horrific consequences” that would result if any foreign power attempted to do this. While the crisis in Pakistan “comes as a shock to most Americans,” the scenario notes, “to many observers, including senior government officials, it is hardly a surprise at all. To them, the greatest surprise is that Pakistan did not implode sooner.” 

Rise of militant China

US Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships sail in formation during Annual Exercise 2011, an annual bilateral field-training exercise. (US Navy Photo/REUTERS/File)

It is the year 2013, and “what experts are calling the greatest aggregation of naval power the world has ever seen is assembling in a long arc several hundred miles off the maritime approaches to China.” The leaders of the United States and Japan are debating what to do next “in what many fear may be the opening gambits in a new world war.”

The People’s Liberation Army is blockading Taiwan – and diplomats know that a blockade is an act of war. That’s why they are calling it a “quarantine,” and US allies, including Japan, are contemplating a retaliatory “counterquarantine” against Chinese ports.

Defense analysts conclude that a series of internal crises in China has brought the world’s great naval powers to the cusp of war. China’s economic growth has slowed dramatically. This has worried Chinese leadership, which “needs a rapidly growing economy to ensure its legitimacy,” according to the scenario, also drawn from "7 Deadly Scenarios" by Mr. Krepinevich, who now is the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

At the same time, China’s young male population is rising, the result of China’s one-child policy and widespread selective abortions that favor male offspring.

Now girls are at a premium, leaving many young men unmarried and suffering “from low self-esteem, and feel[ing] alienated from (and rejected by) ‘mainstream’ society. Some scholars, studying the consequences of historical cases of profound sex-ratio imbalances, argue that this situation may set the stage for high levels of internal stability,” the scenario warns.

"They also ominously note that at times governments faced with this prospect have attempted to redirect that frustration against external rivals.” 

A succession of US administrations, “distracted by the Long War with radical Islamist states and groups, and enjoying the short-term economic benefits of trade with China, failed to take the growing Chinese military machine seriously.” Yet “for those who looked closely, the warning signs have been there.”

China has pursued cyberwarfare “to introduce a wide range of viruses, worms, Trojan horses, and other cyber ‘weapons’ into the information grids” of the United States, especially US military computer networks. China has also expanded its fleet of submarines specially equipped to “cut undersea fiber-optic cables that provide data links both to US military forces and to the civilian economy.”

Then, in quick succession, America suffers two major cyberstrikes. One penetrates the Pentagon’s major link to troop supply lines. The other hits the New York Stock Exchange, resulting “in a termination of trading for nearly two days.” Now Pentagon planners must decide how to respond.

Collapse of North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (r.) and his son Kim Jong-un (l.) pose for photographs with the visiting Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang during their meeting in Pyongyang Oct. 24. (REUTERS)

Authoritarian dictators can repress their populations for decades, but now the regime of Kim Jong-il “is embarking on the most difficult challenge that such regimes face: succession,” according to a scenario by Bruce Bennett and Jennifer Lind, published in the fall issue of the journal International Security.

Yet “the transition from apparent stability to collapse can be swift.” A government collapse in North Korea “could unleash a series of catastrophes on the peninsula with potentially far-reaching regional and global effects.”

This could trigger a massive outflow of the nation’s 24 million people, many of whom are severely malnourished, across the border into South Korea. With the food shortages could come civil war.

Equally troubling, “North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction could find their way out of the country and onto the global black market.” As a result, the consequences of a “poorly planned response to a government collapse in North Korea are potentially calamitous.”

North Korea has 1.2 million active duty military troops. What’s more, China will likely send its forces to aid in humanitarian efforts, as well. “The specter of Chinese forces racing south while US and South Korean troops race north is terrifying given the experience of the Korean War, a climate of suspicion among the three countries, and the risk of escalation to the nuclear level.”

Based on the most optimistic assumptions, according to the scenario, as many as 400,000 ground forces would be required to stabilize North Korea – more than the US commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

This would strain US forces, but the Pentagon noted in its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review that the “instability or collapse of a WMD-armed state is among our most troubling concerns. Such an occurrence could lead to a rapid proliferation of WMD material, weapons, and technology, and could quickly become a global crisis posing a direct physical threat,” the scenario warns, “to the United States and all other nations.”