In today’s complex security environment, the Army does not have the luxury of a single opponent or threat and must be prepared to respond to all adversaries, a panel of experts said during the 2015 Association of the U.S. Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition.
"Unpredictable and unstable is the new normal," said Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, who moderated an Institute of Land Warfare Contemporary Military Forum titled "Threats in a Complex World."
Legere, who has served as senior intelligence officer at Headquarters, Department of the Army, since April 2012, said both state and nonstate actors are taking advantage of instability, increasing populations, dwindling resources and technology proliferation to strike at the U.S. and the Army in a variety of locations around the world and at home.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) remain a threat throughout the Middle East, said Patrick Prior, senior defense intelligence expert for combating terrorism at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
"The terrorist threat was given a boost by the Arab spring," Prior said, explaining that the protests, riots and civil wars created a vacuum, and terrorist organizations rushed to fill the ungoverned space.
"They move in and set up their own laws…openly celebrating slavery, rape and torture," Prior said.
He added that ISIL and other terrorist groups perpetuate instability by targeting vulnerable segments of the population, such as Christian minorities, then casting themselves as defenders against Western influence to incite more violence.
ISIL is based in Iraq and Syria, Prior said, but terrorist groups are rapidly expanding. "In the past 16 months, they have garnered eight affiliates in neighboring countries," he said, adding that Libya is the province that is most concerning to the U.S.
Anti-ISIL efforts from the U.S. and its allies have met with some success. Prior estimated that recent fights "have pushed ISIL back between 23 and 30 percent."
Nonetheless, "the transnational terrorist problem today is the most complex we’ve ever faced," he concluded.
"Of all the societies on Earth, the two most different from the United States are the Japanese and the Iranians," said Dr. Patrick Clawson, director of the Iran Security Initiative for the Washington Institute.
Many of those key cultural differences have an impact on national security, Clawson said.
First, he said, the Iranian government "bets on every horse in the race." For example, Iran claims to support the current Syrian regime, but the principal fundraiser for ISIL – a group advocating direct opposition to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad – lives in Tehran.
Second, "We [the U.S.] are interested in results; Iran is interested in impressions," Clawson said, adding, "The Iranian government gains a great deal of support from the surrounding region by standing up to ‘global oppression’ – that is, the United States."
Another societal and government difference lies in declarative policy. "America places great importance on declarative policy, following through on what we say," Clawson said. "No Iranian politician has ever been criticized for not following through on a declaratory statement. If the situation changes, their position changes."
This tendency to value expediency and flexibility over all else could have severe negative repercussions for the recent nuclear agreement with Iran, the U.S. and other world powers. "That’s the problem with the nuclear deal" Clawson said. If circumstances change, the Iranian government could simply issue a new fatwa, or religious ruling.
"These differences are not going away. The strategic culture is not going to change because it’s based on a deeply held ideological perspective…Iran is a complex threat that is not going away," Clawson said.
Phillip Karber, president of the Potomac Foundation, said that Russian aggression in the Ukraine is not abating, and the Army needs to be prepared to face the Russian military’s new strategies.
Known as "new generation warfare," Russian tactics range from information war and subversion to threats to overt military action, said Karber, who recently returned from a stint in Ukraine embedded with local military.
"Unmanned aerial systems [UAS] are ubiquitous in Russia’s war in Ukraine," he said, adding that at least 16 types of Russian UAS have been documented in Ukrainian airspace.
Additionally, the Russian military "favors mass fires over precision munitions…quantity over quality, which can cause catastrophic losses in minutes," Karber said.
Both sides of the conflict have moved away from light, mobile units to tank-equivalent heavy infantry fighting vehicles.
However, Karber said, "the Ukrainians to date have not recorded one single kill" on the T-90 tanks favored by the Russian military.
Finally, Karber said, Russian air defense systems – covering nearly the entirety of the country - are crippling the Ukrainian air force, and the U.S. may not be able to rely on superior air power in such a situation.
Brig. Gen. Karen Gibson, deputy commander, Joint Force Headquarters-Cyber, described the unique cyber threats facing the U.S. Army today.
"Our reliance on cyberspace has made the nation and our Army vulnerable," Gibson said. "Those who seek to harm us in the cyber domain use the same Internet we do," which means that adversaries once separated by oceans now have direct access to the U.S.
Gibson noted that cyber weapons are far less expensive and easy to find compared to conventional munitions. They are "a cheap and easy means to harm the American military," she said.
The cyber threat is also unique in that there is "little to no risk whether an attack succeeds or fails" because even a failed attack costs the military in time and effort, she said.
Cyber attacks on the military are a constant threat, Gibson said. "We are engaged with the enemy in virtual contact each and every day." Among nation-states, the biggest cyber threats are Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, she said.
It is imperative that the Army improves its cybersecurity culture, Gibson said. "Every user matters – there can be no ‘weak links.’ Everyone who uses an Army or DoD network is part of the first line of defense."