US Military Checks Its 21st-Century Weak Spots

Military leaders urge radical changes in how America readies itself for conflicts, at home and around the world.

Even a lone superpower has an Achilles' heel or two.

Although the United States military's dominance is unmatched by any nation in the world today, America's top military strategists say there are vulnerabilities that must be addressed.

Among the key areas of concern:

* Small-scale attacks by terrorists on American soil.

* Hit-and-run attacks with cheap biological and chemical weapons.

* Cyber-terrorist assaults on US telecommunications and financial systems.

These are some of the findings of a congressionally chartered panel report released yesterday and interviews with US military officials.

"We are ill-prepared for defense against chemical and biological weapons," says Gen. Charles Krulak, commandant of the US Marine Corps.

A vision of the future of war stuck in General Krulak's mind during the Gulf War. In Kuwait, he saw children dressed in chemical-biological suits on a playground as if that were normal. "Our military has no appreciation for the fact that other cultures think differently," warns Air Force Col. Charles Dunlap Jr., of the Strategic Air Command. "We assume they think of warfare just as we do."

Instead of full-fledged attacks on American troops, guerrilla tactics, gas attacks, and terrorism will be the future weapons of choice, according to Colonel Dunlap. The National Defense Panel report advocates that the US spend up to $10 billion annually on new strategies and technologies to parry these potential attacks. It also suggests that the Army's National Guard develop an expertise in handling biological and chemical attacks in the US.

Overseas, "we have to find a way to reduce the political value of weapons of mass destruction," notes Brig. Gen. Wallace Gregson Jr., the Marine Corps' director of strategy and plans. "Iraq can call up Saudi Arabia and say it has a choice: Stop siding with the US or lose Riyadh." That sort of blackmail, he believes, may become common in the future.

Strategists are also concerned that America's ethics, its media, and even its environmental conscience can be used as weapons of humiliation by a clever enemy. By hitting a US "soft spot," a third-world leader can shatter the country's resolve to wage war abroad, they say.

"The [US] military is more concerned with its casualties than with the strength of the enemy," says Harvey Sapolsky, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Security Studies Program. "Our enemies realize if they kill enough Americans, they can get us to go home."

While the US now relies on its high-tech weapons to keep casualties down, that confidence is "fatally flawed" when it comes to protecting America's communication and financial infrastructure, says Col. Stephen Wright, a national defense fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass, where a conference on military strategy was held last month. Computer expertise is spreading rapidly throughout the world. "The new technology means a smaller state can now trip up the United States much more easily," he says.

And the battlefields of tomorrow are more likely to be in urban areas than in deserts or mountains. "It will always be in a city," says the Marines' Krulak. "This is dangerous. It is not where we want to be."

In Mogadishu, Somalian Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed used graffiti and a cellular phone network that matched that of the US to transmit messages.

To adapt to new battlefields, the US must reduce its visibility. Instead of using vulnerable and locally unpopular land bases, the military plans to move much of its structure to ships so it will be more mobile. "The next century will be the golden age of sea power," predicts Admiral Donald Pillig, vice-chief of US Naval Operations.

And when soldiers enter cities, their tactics will be radically different from the past.

The Marines will learn Peace Corps tactics to help civilians, but they will also be ready to fight a "ferocious tribesman," Krulak says. "A soldier will go from rendering humanitarian assistance to peacekeeping to all-out street fighting, all in the same day, all within three blocks in the same city," he predicts. "A total [military] transformation is what we're calling it."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.