Transforming Defense
National Security in the 21st Century
Report of the National Defense Panel - December 1997


The United States enters the new millennium facing challenges very different from those that shaped our national security policy during the almost fifty years of the Cold War. The dynamics of four key trends, parallel and interrelated, are driving change:

  • The geopolitical revolution that prompted the collapse of the Soviet Union and that will see the emergence of China as a major regional and global actor;
  • Demographic and social pressures on potentially volatile social systems;
  • The emergence of a global, interdependent marketplace that affects the well-being of virtually every nation and society; and
  • The technological revolution that is transforming advanced industry-based economies into information-based economies and that promises to effect a revolution in military affairs. All of this must be related to actions taken by the United States. The decisions we make today about what we stand for as a nation and our place in the international system will have tremendous implications, not just for our future, but for the future of people everywhere.

    Geopolitical Trends

    The political ramifications of the Soviet empire's collapse are likely to continue into the twenty-first century, even as groups of states seek to join together in regional or other interstate arrangements to further common political and economic interests. The ethnic and national pressures for independence and sovereignty that the collapse of the former Soviet Union released may well continue over the next several decades, reconfiguring the landscapes of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Conflict based upon race, religion, political ideology, or economic status will continue to exert internal and external pressures on many nations. At the same time, the role and importance of nonstate actors— whether they are international humanitarian providers and multinational corporations, or bands of criminals and illegal drug traffickers— will exert growing influence on the global community.

    A Changing World:
    Political decisions of the twentieth century may define the environments of the twenty-first century
  • New ethnic-cultural-religious polarization
  • National boundaries redrawn
  • Powerful nonstate entities

  • These developments have implications for our approach to security arrangements, alliances, and international agreements on everything from nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to trade and the environment. We will continue to honor what has been a strong obligation: to support our historic European and other long-term allies and partners, both bilaterally and as a part of NATO. Increased interaction between NATO and the countries of Eastern Europe and newly independent states invites military and economic cooperation that can have profound effects on world stability and long-term U. S. military requirements.

    Our involvement in Asia will likely increase and change over time, making our alliances and relationships in this region even more important. We envision a reconciled, if not a unified, Korean peninsula— an eventuality that has significant security implications for the United States as well as for our relations with Japan and China. China and India, with their growing populations and economies, promise to be increasingly important to our strategic interests.

    We will continue to be involved in regions that control scarce resources, such as the Middle East and the emerging Caspian Sea areas for oil, as we try to hedge our own and our allies' resource dependencies. We will also continue to be involved with the nations of Africa in areas of mutual interest.

    Neither can we overlook the importance of those who share our borders and our hemisphere— Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean nations. Developments in these countries can have a profound effect on our security and economic well-being.

    Demographic and Social Trends

    Paralleling and influencing these political developments are social and demographic trends that threaten to outstrip the ability of many countries to adapt. These include rapid population growth in regions ill-prepared to absorb it, refugee migration and immigration, chronic unemployment and underemployment, and intensified competition for resources, notably energy and water.

    The impact of burgeoning population growth will not be evenly distributed over the globe. The world's poor and developing countries face the greatest rates of population increase and the concomitant challenge of providing jobs, health care, decent living conditions, and requisite social services. This challenge will be especially serious in urban areas, which are already experiencing acute shortfalls in services. Such developments may trigger recurrent humanitarian crises characterized by famine and disease that could require military involvement and other responses by the international community. Conversely, it should be noted that the slowing of population growth— and even declines— in other parts of the world will create economic challenges, including strong downward pressure on defense spending in most European countries and Japan.

    Economic Trends

    Closely tied to the challenges developing from these demographic and social trends are the effects of the expanding global marketplace. U. S. citizens, businesses, and nongovernment organizations will move into every corner of the globe, including those areas "off-limits" during the Cold War. Multinational corporations will continue to gain economic power and political influence, posing opportunities and challenges for diplomacy and other aspects of international relations. Economic sanctions, for example, may be more difficult to implement and enforce, given the multinational character of global corporations.

    At the same time, the flow of private capital into the less-developed world can be a force for positive change. The explosion of communications and information accessibility will influence political, cultural, and economic patterns, perhaps profoundly. Critical resources such as water or arable land may become scarcer than oil, exacerbating political, economic, and ethnic tensions. However, access to oil in the Gulf, the Caspian Sea, and elsewhere will likely remain critical to global economic stability. Finally, perceived disparities of wealth, where vast riches are controlled by a relatively few countries, could also create tension and present political and moral challenges for governments.

    Technology Trends

    Technology will play an ever-increasing and imperative role in America's security policy and programs in the future. Robotics and unmanned vehicles will become a part of everyday life, both in the military and society at large. Nano-technology has the potential to radically alter everything from computer systems to the way we construct household goods and spacecraft. Information technologies, as will be discussed, will play a preeminent role, with offensive and defensive manifestations. Technological advances will also lend themselves to even more lethal and destructive weapons. In the hands of rogue states and terrorist or criminal groups, foreign or domestic, new weapons offer frightening prospects to our country.

    In short, we are in the early stages of a revolution in military affairs¾a discontinuous change usually associated with technology but also representing social or economic changes that fundamentally alter the face of battle. The rapid rate of new and improved technologies¾a new cycle about every eighteen months¾is a defining characteristic of this era of change and will have an indelible influence on new strategies, operational concepts, and tactics that our military employs. If we do not lead the technological revolution we will be vulnerable to it.


    To appreciate the range of security considerations in 2010– 2020, the Panel hypothesized four different and plausible futures of the world. While we do not argue that any one of these future worlds will actually occur, their description and articulation help to identify the principal factors that could drive change worldwide in the next two decades. Although we recognize that "wild cards"— such as environmental disasters, wars, epidemics, and technological breakthroughs— can radically alter the international security environment, we focused on creating worlds that reflect various manifestations of the trends discussed previously. Each hypothetical world is briefly described below:

    1. The first world, Shaped Stability, describes an environment in which international cooperation on economic development and security issues has created a relatively stable international order. The world's wealth is greater and more evenly distributed. The rise of such transnational challenges as terrorism, organized crime, and environmental degradation has created broad public understanding of the importance of cooperative security arrangements. As a result, the American people have accepted vigorous engagement abroad as essential to their security. For example, the deterrence and prosecution of international crime has required U. S. law enforcement agencies, the intelligence community, the military, and various international government and nongovernment police institutions to collaborate regularly. Partially as a consequence of this cooperation, the rule of law is increasingly accepted internationally.

    Nevertheless, this world is not without its continuing frictions. These frictions include demographic pressures, shortages of natural resources, weapons proliferation (including weapons of mass destruction), and continuing ethnic and national tensions. Although somewhat ameliorated by global prosperity, these tensions exist in isolated pockets of the developing world, occasionally spilling over into the developed world. The U. S. military's principal role as an instrument of national security is to augment diplomatic, economic, and political efforts and protect against their failure.

    The future is hidden even from the men who make it. –Anatole France

    2. The second world, Extrapolation of Today, is a baseline projection of today's uncertainties into an increasingly competitive and politically diverse world. Although the global economy continues to expand, some countries remain disadvantaged. Economic expansion is most pronounced along the Pacific Rim, where China has become the key economic and political state in the region. India, with a larger middle class and possibly a greater population than China, is also important. Some rogue states, as well as nonstate actors, have acquired the means of delivering weapons of mass destruction. The American homeland cannot be viewed as a sanctuary from their use. Although the United States is still the leading world power, its sustained political-economic-military dominance is uncertain.

    3. The third world, Competition for Leadership, envisions a traditional balance of power world in which a hostile regional alliance (or possibly a single nation) is rising to challenge the United States. As a result, the United States adapts existing security relationships and enters into new alliances and trading partnerships to balance and, if necessary, counter these challenges. An all-Asia trading bloc has been formed in the Far East. A new alliance of South and Southwestern Asian nations has formed, centered on opposing the political, economic, and cultural influence of the West. Increased military spending worldwide and regional arms races are prominent features of this world. Moreover, many states have acquired weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. Although ethnic and humanitarian tensions still exist, their relative significance in the international system has been reduced owing to the resurgence of nation-state conflict.

    Clearly recognized emerging threats foster public support for the expansion, and use, of military power. The U. S. military must now plan for the possibility of major combat operations against powerful enemies capable of quickly concentrating force against our interests within critical security regions. The military must also position itself to defend the homeland against attacks, the most likely being covert introduction of weapons of mass destruction, attacks by ballistic and cruise missiles, or information systems disruption.

    4. The fourth world, Chronic Crisis, describes deteriorating global economic conditions coupled with the breakdown of international institutions. Weakened nation-states, nonstate organizations, and coalitions fight over scarce resources. Alliances are fluid, unpredictable, and opportunistic. Nationalism and ethnic hatreds have formed violent independence movements in Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. Pivotal states are in crisis. Virtual narco-states (host states dominated by drug organizations) exist in regions of South America and Southeast Asia. Weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery are widely available. Unchecked massive migrations and failing municipal infrastructures accelerate urban chaos. The United States is in danger of losing much of its will and ability to influence international events.

    The American public— perceiving little chance of influencing the chaos abroad— is preoccupied with domestic security as nonstate actors increasingly penetrate the United States with illegal drugs, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and transnational crime.

    The World in 2020:
  • Hedge against uncertainty
  • Curtail the outdated/ less useful
  • Explore new concepts
  • Adapt over time

    The World in 2020:
    The required military transformation must be done within the context of a parallel review of the entire national security establishment.


    In considering these trends and the various worlds and possible strategic environments we may face, several implications emerge. The nation-state, although still the dominant entity of the international system, is increasingly affected by the growing power of multinational corporations and international organizations, transnational encroachments on national sovereignty, and demographic pressures that stress the abilities of governments to meet their citizens' needs. New alliance structures may develop that reflect concerns about these evolving challenges, while less relevant alliance relationships will decline. Technology, geopolitical developments, and economic and social trends may fundamentally alter the realities of today.

    The range of possible outcomes is wide and impossible to predict with any certainty. Each will present unique conditions, many very different from those of today. The central challenge to our defense structure, therefore, is to move forward in a manner that enables us to respond effectively to whatever does occur. This strongly suggests a hedging approach to preparing for the future. We must maintain adequate current capability as we adapt. As we learn more about new ways to apply military power, we can shift the emphasis of our forces while curtailing outdated or less useful forces and operational concepts. As time passes we will learn more about evolving challenges and competitors while continuing to adapt our forces accordingly.

    The U. S. military must not go through this transformation alone. Our entire national security establishment and our alliance relationships must change in parallel if we hope to sustain global stability through regional partnerships. Alliance structures, both formal and informal, will grow in importance and should be viewed as essential ingredients to regional stability. For example, we must encourage China to be a constructive member of the international community even as we balance the security needs of our allies with the concerns of China. We must encourage Russian stability as well. At the same time, we may face new regional competitors that threaten U. S. ability to influence events in regions of vital interest. Above all, we must recognize that while protecting traditional interests (nuclear deterrence, support of alliance structures, protection of critical resources, the safety of Americans abroad, etc.), an entire new array of operational challenges is emerging that our forces of 2010– 2020 must be able to handle.


    Over the last quarter of the twentieth century, the U. S. military has had several successes, perhaps best illustrated in the overwhelming Gulf War victory in 1991. These successes were earned by dedicated professionals who learned from past mistakes and implemented new training and operational concepts and technological advantages to allow us to meet and master these challenges. As we enter a new era, we will face a new and demanding set of challenges that will require us to transform our military and elements of our national security system to meet them.

    We can assume that our enemies and future adversaries have learned from the Gulf War. They are unlikely to confront us conventionally with mass armor formations, air superiority forces, and deep-water naval fleets of their own, all areas of overwhelming U. S. strength today. Instead, they may find new ways to attack our interests, our forces, and our citizens. They will look for ways to match their strengths against our weaknesses. They will actively seek existing and new arenas in which to exploit our perceived vulnerabilities. Moreover, they will seek to combine these unconventional approaches in a synergistic way.

    An adaptive adversary:
    exploiting his strengths— attacking our weaknesses

  • Attack our will to fight
  • Employ imaginative tactics and techniques
  • Deny access to forward locations
  • Exploit WMD technology
  • Target fixed installations and massed formations
  • Move the fight to urban areas
  • Combine approaches for even greater synergy

  • We should recognize that potential competitors will seek every advantage. Their forces almost certainly will not be a mirror image of ours. They may attempt to:

  • Employ military tactics that cause high casualties among U. S. forces and civilians to raise the cost and possibly deter U. S. involvement;
  • Turn to weapons of mass destruction and ballistic and cruise missiles to neutralize forward ports, bases, and prepositioned assets and to inflict heavy casualties on us and our allies;
  • Attack our information systems, seeking to debilitate them;
  • Counter our control of the sea by seeding key straits and littorals with large numbers of mines and by subjecting any forces therein to missile salvos;
  • Counter our control of the air with speed-of-light weapons and extensive anti-aircraft systems;
  • Target fixed installations and massed formations within the range of their weapons and seek greater stand-off ability with those systems;
  • Attack the underlying support structures— both physical and psychological— that enable our military operations;
  • Deny us access to key regions and facilities;
  • Use terror as a weapon to attack our will and the will of our allies, and to cause us to divert assets to protect critical installations, infrastructures, and populations.

    The most pressing challenges of the future— and therefore potential asymmetric areas that our enemies will try to exploit— are summarized below.

    Power Projection

    The cornerstone of America's continued military preeminence is our ability to project combat power rapidly and virtually unimpeded to widespread areas of the globe. Much of our power projection capability depends on sustained access to regions of concern. Any number of circumstances might compromise our forward presence (both bases and forward operating forces) and therefore diminish our ability to apply military power, reducing our military and political influence in key regions of the world. For political (domestic or regional) reasons, allies might be coerced not to grant the United States access to their sovereign territory. Hostile forces might threaten punitive strikes (perhaps using weapons of mass destruction) against nations considering an alliance with the United States. Thus, the fostering and nurturing of allies and alliances, as well as our ability to protect our allies from such threats, will be an important factor in our future ability to project combat power anywhere in the world.

    DEMANDS for power projection continue to increase
    CHALLENGES to power projection continue to increase

    As flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the low lands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness.
    –Sun Tzu

    A future opportunity, competition, and vulnerability —all at once

    Even if we retain the necessary bases and port infrastructure to support forward deployed forces, they will be vulnerable to strikes that could reduce or neutralize their utility. Precision strikes, weapons of mass destruction, and cruise and ballistic missiles all present threats to our forward presence, particularly as stand-off ranges increase. So, too, do they threaten access to strategic geographic areas. Widely available national and commercial space-based systems providing imagery, communication, and position location will greatly multiply the vulnerability of fixed and, perhaps, mobile forces as well.

    At the same time, constraints on forward-basing (i. e., infrastructure outside the continental United States: ports, installations, prepositioned equipment, and airfields) and advanced technologies threaten to impede our access to key regions. Geographic realities are putting greater demands on power projection capabilities. For example, as oil and gas fields in Central Asia gain in strategic value, we may need to project power greater distances, farther from littorals or established bases. Political realities also drive our standoff options. As we attempt to protect our own forces, we are left with a dilemma: our allies, whom we are trying to protect, will remain exposed¾a situation that requires new provisions for their defense. Adaptive enemies, emerging technologies, greater distances, and altered alliance relations will present new conditions to U. S. military forces that must be mastered if we are to maintain our current ability to project power.

    Information Operations

    The importance of maintaining America's lead in information systems— commercial and military— cannot be overstated. Our nation's economy will depend on a secure and assured information infrastructure. These systems are also instrumental to the success of military operations. As we learned in the Gulf War, significant advantages in situational awareness translate directly into significant advantages on the battlefield. As a result, information operations are likely to be crucial to the course of future conflict, challenging us, and our allies, in both offensive and defensive ways.

    Already, the commercial development of information technology is so widespread, accessible, and cheap that it promises to create both opportunities and risks for our nation. For example, access to, and the meaningful synthesis of, information will be a key aspect of relations among states and nonstate actors, in peace, crisis, and war. The entity that has greater access to, and can more readily apply, meaningful information will have the advantage in both diplomacy and defense. More ominously, this information arena will also create new vulnerabilities as we depend more and more on computer systems and telecommunications to manage financial operations, public utilities, and other key elements of economic systems.

    Effective use of information superiority demands that we move rapidly to the next level of "jointness" among the uniformed services: full commonality of U. S. military information systems. This commonality must be interoperable with the information systems of our allies as well, if we are to reap the advantages of coalition operations.

    Given the importance of information— in the conduct of warfare and as a central force in every aspect of society— the competition to secure an information advantage will be a high-stakes contest, one that will directly affect the continued preeminence of U. S. power.


    Given the importance of space-based capabilities to information operations, our ability to operate in space, support military activities from space, and deny adversaries the use of space will be key to our future military success. In the near term, a wide variety of commercial and international initiatives will make space much more accessible. As the costs of launching payloads into space are substantially reduced, the use of space for civil, commercial, and military purposes will quickly expand. Consequently, our ability to control operations on the land, sea, and air will depend to an increasing extent on our access to space.

    We must anticipate that our enemies will seek to use commercial remote-sensing and communications satellites, along with space-based timing and navigation data, to accurately target U. S. forces with high degrees of accuracy. In turn, they will seek to degrade our abilities to track and target them. If we do not control the military utility of space, the advantages we now hold in information operations and more traditional military operations could be put at risk. Therefore, in addition to exploiting space for our own benefits, we must protect our space assets to include our commercial assets and deny our enemies the opportunity to gain military advantages through their use of space.

  • An opportunity for us AND our adversaries
  • A lead we cannot lose
  • An asset we must protect

  • Proliferated
  • Available
  • Affordable
  • Simple

    Vulnerability of citizens at home and troops abroad

  • Urban Operations

    A particularly challenging aspect of the future security environment will be the increasing likelihood of military operations in cities. Demographic trends in the less developed regions of the world are creating more and more sprawling urban and suburban complexes characterized by a significant increase in younger populations and decaying infrastructures. At the same time, political, financial, informational, and cultural developments are making cities more integral to relations among sovereign nations. The new terrain of the "megacity", unfamiliar to modern-day forces, is not the open terrain on which much of our conventional superiority is predicated. We must also expect to be involved in cities while conducting such contingencies as humanitarian and disaster assistance, peacekeeping, and peace enforcement operations.

    Cities challenge our ability to project power and mount military operations. Urban control— the requirement to control activities in the urban environment— will be difficult enough. Eviction operations— the requirement to root out enemy forces from their urban strongholds— will be even more challenging. Urban operations have historically required large numbers of troops while diluting technological advantages, making for extremely tough fighting. Urban structures and human densities vastly complicate targeting and maneuvering. Many of our current weapons are often ineffective in urban environments because of trajectory limitations, built-up areas, subterranean passages, and unobservable targets. Our ability to employ force could be significantly hampered by the proximity of noncombatants, vital infrastructures, and government and nongovernment institutions.

    We should make every effort to avoid conducting urban operations unilaterally. Allies, particularly those in the affected region, will likely be instrumental to mission success and eventual transition back to peacetime conditions. Civil-military operations will be fundamental to the aftermath of such battles.

    Prepare now: Contingencies
  • Urban control
  • Urban defense
  • Eviction operations
  • Targeting and strike


  • Noncombatants
  • Skyscraper "jungles"
  • Vital infrastructure
  • Government institutions

  • Weapons of Mass Destruction

    The proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the means to deliver them (to include missiles) poses a serious and growing threat to the people and interests of the United States. The threat is qualitatively different because of its potential to do extreme damage, physical and psychological, with a single strike. Due to their availability, relative affordability, and easy use, weapons of mass destruction allow conventionally weak states and nonstate actors to counter and possibly thwart our overwhelming conventional superiority.

    These weapons threaten security at home. The 1995 use of sarin gas in the Tokyo subways stands as a stark and ready reminder of the chemical threat. Biological weapons are an even more serious problem. For example, they could be readily introduced into mass transportation systems and quickly spread to thousands of people with devastating consequences. Small nuclear devices smuggled into population centers could also produce thousands of casualties.

    Abroad, such weapons challenge our ability to project combat power. Their use, or threat of use, could deter allies from granting the United States forward operating areas and degrade or impede the ability of our forces and allies to effectively complete the mission at hand. Campaigns could be waged by our enemies in several venues: from driving wedges among our allies to direct use against American forces in a region to retribution against communities within the United States.

    To address the challenges posed by weapons of mass destruction, the United States will need a comprehensive approach that begins with excellent intelligence actions to prevent or slow proliferation, to protect our forces and citizens from attack, and to deal with the consequences of such an event, at home or abroad. Collectively, efforts like these would begin to form the basis of a sufficient weapons of mass destruction deterrence policy for the twenty-first century. The capability to manage the consequences of such weapons of mass destruction, in particular, will be an important tool in strengthening deterrence by denying an adversary the political and psychological benefits of use. As we did with the Cold War nuclear threat, we must invest in preparing for the "unthinkable." Consequence management will require effective coordination among local, regional, national, and international agencies and organizations, both here and overseas. We must take care to ensure that the proper training facilities are available, such as the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Alabama.

    Transnational Threats and Challenges

    Transnational challenges and threats, by definition, reside in more than one country and require a multi-partner response. They range from information, space, and weapons of mass destruction attacks to problems that might become security threats (e. g., environmental disruptions, pandemics, and mass migrations). These challenges are real. Terrorists, foreign and domestic, state and nonstate, have already demonstrated the ability to strike at us at home and abroad. Their sophistication, access to technologies that could include weapons of mass destruction, and frequent state sponsorship give them great potential to do us harm.

    Criminal enterprises, to include the illegal drug trade, are also detrimental to the well-being of our society. Their access to enormous amounts of money allows them to purchase the goods and services they need to penetrate our communities more effectively and put our citizens at risk. With ties to rogue states, corrupt public officials, and terrorist organizations, these criminal entities could present a significant challenge to our domestic security.

    In short, the increasing erosion of the sanctity of international borders as barriers to the challenges described above will force us away from our existing paradigms; in response, international cooperative agreements, intelligence systems, consequence management structures, and a variety of intergovernmental jurisdictional and legal procedures will have to be developed and adapted.


  • The effect felt at home and abroad
  • A challenge that crosses borders and confuses jurisdictions
  • A response requiring the attention of all – Domestic and foreign governments – Nongovernment organizations



    Transforming Defense
    National Security in the 21st Century
    Report of the National Defense Panel - December 1997