Asia and cyberattacks headline list of growing threats to US, military says

In the first revision of its National Military Strategy since 2004, the US military also hints at the wear and tear on American servicemen and women after 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lee Jin-man/AP/File
South Korean conservative activists march as they hold a mock coffin and portraits of North Korean leader Kim Joing Il and his son Kim Jong Un during a rally denouncing cyber terror and missile launch in Seoul, South Korea, July 10, 2009. The Pentagon's release of the latest revision of the National Military Strategy says the threat of cyberattacks is a growing concern.

In the first revision of the National Military Strategy since 2004, the Pentagon is singling out Asia as a region of rising power and concern, pointing to the increased threat of cyberattacks, and warning of the “impact of the wars on our military, especially our people” as the US enters its 10th year of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The National Military Strategy, which was released Tuesday, is the Pentagon’s piece of the National Security Strategy, the White House’s periodic appraisal of the pressing threats America faces and how it plans to deal with them. The previous National Security Strategy was released in 2010.

The document takes note of the wear and tear on the US military as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We underestimate at our peril," the Pentagon says, "the stresses of sustained combat operations on our equipment and people."

Reflecting the US military’s broadening areas of responsibility, the Pentagon document also makes note of destabilizing global trends in population growth, water scarcity, and climate change.

The Pentagon’s growing focus on Asia “does not necessarily mean” more American troops will be dispatched to the region, says a senior US military official, who briefed reporters on the condition that he not be identified by name. But the official did not rule out the possibility of a “redistribution” of forces, noting that in Europe, there is less need for US ground forces as NATO develops ballistic missile defenses.

The American military should also seek to “invest new attention and resources in Southeast and South Asia,” according to the report, which lobbies for more exercises with the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, among other countries. It also points to the need to expand and deepen military relationships with both China and India.

But even as the US military seeks closer defense ties with China, for example, it remains wary of the country’s technological leaps forward.

North Korea 'a provocative threat'

“We will continue to monitor carefully China’s military developments and the implication those developments have on the military balance” in the region, according to the assessment, which catalogues a litany of US apprehensions. “We remain concerned about the extent and strategic intent of China’s military modernization, and its assertiveness in space, cyberspace, in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea.”

The document offers few surprises, particularly with regard to North Korea, a long-time irritant to American goals in the region.

“North Korea remains a provocative threat to regional stability,” particularly, the report notes, as its “nuclear capability and potentially unstable transition of power” pose “a risk to regional stability and international non-proliferation efforts.”

In the Middle East, the Pentagon document warns, a nuclear-armed Iran “could set off a cascade of states in the region seeking nuclear parity or increased conventional capabilities; that could lead to regional conflict.”

Warnings on cyberspace

This could in turn affect efforts to rein in weapons of mass destruction, and keep them out of terrorist hands. “The prospect of multiple nuclear armed regimes in the Middle East with nascent security and command and control mechanisms amplifies the threat of conflict, and significantly increases the probability of miscalculation or the loss of control of a nuclear weapon to non-state actors,” the Pentagon says.

Woven throughout the document are warnings that cyberspace is becoming increasingly congested and dangerous.

“Some states are conducting or condoning cyber intrusions that foreshadow the growing threat in this globally connected domain,” it says. Complicating matters, the “cyber threat is expanded and exacerbated by lack of international norms, difficulties of attribution, low barriers to entry, and the relative ease of developing potent capabilities.”

Even as the assessment warned of future threats in the face of the anticipated growth of budgetary constraints, it entered a plea for American soldiers who have been fighting wars on two fronts for a decade.

“While acknowledging that hard near-term choices must be made in light of broader economic constraints,” writes Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen in an introduction to the document, “it places a clear priority on our people and their families as,” he adds, “they are the truly indispensable elements of any strategy.”

Population and climate changes

Citing demographic trends, the assessment at times stresses concerns that are traditionally deemed the province of humanitarian organizations.

“The world will become more populated and urbanized. Global population will increase by approximately 1.2 billion and there will be more than a billion new urban dwellers by 2025,” according to the report. Such developments “will contribute to increased water scarcity and may present governance challenges.”

The report delves into global warming as well, noting that the “uncertain impact of global climate change combined with increased population centers in or near coastal environments may challenge the ability of weak or developing states to respond to natural disasters.”

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