The United States faces a complex array of threats to our national security, including our political, economic, military, and social systems. These threats will continue to evolve as new and resurgent adversaries develop politically and militarily, as weapons and technology advance, and as environmental and demographic changes occur.
The US is currently unable to repel an attack from the hypersonic weapons that are being developed by Russia and China, as they can pierce most missile defense systems, a recent US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has revealed.
“China and Russia are pursuing hypersonic weapons because their speed, altitude, and maneuverability may defeat most missile defense systems, and they may be used to improve long-range conventional and nuclear strike capabilities,” U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals.
Current Landscape of Emerging Threats Department of Defense (DOD) officials noted that Western liberal democratic institutions around the world are being challenged in new and novel ways. Adversaries have had over 40 years to study the United States and Western institutions. As such, the nature of warfare has evolved to include “gray zone” conflict—defined as the area between war and peace—where weaker adversaries have learned how to seize territory and advance their agendas in ways not recognized as “war” by Western democracies.
Also, these gray zone conflicts can offset superior U.S. economic and security structures. DOD officials added that adversaries around the world may erode democracies, often using democratic institutions, in the gray zone of conflict. ODNI officials also noted that China and Russia are pursuing gray zone strategies to achieve their objectives without resorting to military conflict.
DOD officials provided a list of recent significant examples of adversary success in the gray zone of conflict, several of which have occurred without significant consequences, including:
• Russian and Chinese near-unrestricted thefts of U.S. intellectual property, Office of Personnel Management data theft, and penetrations of U.S. civil, utility, and military data and electoral voting systems;
• Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory, namely Crimea;
• Chinese seizure of the South China Seas and the building of military islands in defiance of international court rulings;
• China using bilateral economic deals to marginalize U.S. multilateral frameworks in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific;
• Russia attempting to resurrect former Soviet client state relationships with Syria, Egypt, and Libya, and potentially with additional countries in the Middle East and North Africa;
• Iran realigning the Middle East by using proxy forces to create friendly governments including Syria, Iraq, and Yemen at the expense of U.S. leadership in the region;
• “Strongmen” in countries such as Venezuela, Egypt, and Turkey using democratic institutions to promote new paradigms independent of Western liberal norms;
• The continued attraction of extremist groups, including the Islamic State and al-Qaida, as a preferable means to achieve Sunni Arab autonomy as a viable alternative to minority governance in countries with majorities that outnumber them (as in Syria and Iraq). DOD officials said that, with current demographic trends, Western liberal democratic institutions will be tested in new ways as the nature of warfare changes.
The challenge for the United States and its allies will be to develop responses faster than adversaries through a better understanding of the strategic environment. Officials added that this presents a challenge since the United States appears to be strategically surprised by an evolving world.
DOD officials also said that the United States must adapt to challenges from adversaries and better link security objectives and economic objectives, or risk further erosions of U.S. influence to adversaries such as China and Russia. Officials stated that China and Russia are more agile than the United States in creating relationships with other countries to degrade U.S. bilateral and multilateral frameworks.
For example, China and Russia are working to define the United States as a “status quo” power trying to preserve the old world order in what is becoming a multipolar world. These officials added that the nature of conflict has changed, and so the United States must evolve
Chinese Global Expansion
China is marshalling its diplomatic, economic, and military resources to facilitate its rise as a regional and global power. This may challenge U.S. access to air, space, cyberspace, and maritime domains. China’s use of cyberspace and electronic warfare could impact various U.S. systems and operations.
Russian Global Expansion
Russia is increasing its capability to challenge the United States across multiple warfare domains, including attempting to launch computer-based directed energy attacks against U.S. military assets. Russia is also increasing its military and political presence in key locations across the world.
Iranian Political and Military Developments
Iran is expanding its influence by increasing the size and capabilities of its network of military, intelligence, and surrogate forces, while increasing economic activities in other areas of the world. Iran will also likely continue to develop its military capabilities, including developing technology that could be used for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and improving its offensive cyberspace operations.
North Korean Military Developments
North Korea is developing capabilities to strike North America and its allies with long-range missiles and may produce significant numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Foreign Government Capacity and Stability
Violent extremist organizations may proliferate in countries that have limited governing capacity and are facing conflict, which may result in a higher risk of terrorist attacks and increased demand for U.S. resources to counter them. Countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean may experience instability based on conflict, which may lead to humanitarian disasters and government collapses.
Violent ideologies could influence additional individuals to turn to terrorism to achieve their goals across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Terrorists could advance their tactics, including building nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, or increase their use of online communications to reach new recruits and disseminate propaganda.
New Alliances and Adversaries
The United States could face challenges from potential new state adversaries and non-state adversaries (e.g., private corporations obtaining resources that could grant them more influence than states).
Adversaries—such as Russia, Iran, and China—may engage in advanced information operations campaigns that use social media, artificial intelligence, and data analytics to undermine the United States and its allies. Adversaries’
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Adversaries could gain increased access to AI through affordable designs used in the commercial industry, and could apply AI to areas such as weapons and technology.
Quantum Information Science
Quantum communications could enable adversaries to develop secure communications that U.S. personnel would not be able to intercept or decrypt. Quantum computing may allow adversaries to decrypt information, which could enable them to target U.S. personnel and military operations.
Internet of Things (IoT)
The United States may face difficulties protecting networks and data as IoT grows and traditional approaches for security (e.g., encryption) may no longer effectively protect information. Adversaries could also disrupt IoT-enabled critical infrastructure and devices.
Autonomous and Unmanned Systems
Adversaries are developing autonomous capabilities that could recognize faces, understand gestures, and match voices of U.S. personnel, which could compromise U.S. operations. Unmanned ground, underwater, air, and space vehicles may be used for combat and surveillance.
Actors—which may include state or non-state entities such as violent extremist organizations and transnational criminal organizations—could alter genes or create DNA to modify plants, animals, and humans. Such biotechnologies could be used to enhance the performance of military personnel. The proliferation of synthetic biology—used to create genetic code that does not exist in nature—may increase the number of actors that can create chemical and biological weapons.
Other Emerging Technologies
Actors may gain access to new technologies previously limited to militaries, such as affordable and sophisticated encryption technologies, which would hinder U.S. efforts to monitor terrorist and criminal activities. Other emerging technologies—such as additive manufacturing (i.e., 3D printing)—may be vulnerable to cyber attacks or be used to manufacture restricted materials, such as weapons.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
An increasing number of actors may gain access to these weapons. Adversaries could steal nuclear materials from existing facilities or develop new types of biological weapons using genetic engineering and synthetic biology.
Adversaries are developing electronic attack weapons to target U.S. systems with sensitive electronic components, such as military sensors, communication, navigation, and information systems. These weapons are intended to degrade U.S. capabilities and could restrict situational awareness or may affect military operations.
China and Russia are pursuing hypersonic weapons because their speed, altitude, and maneuverability may defeat most missile defense systems, and they may be used to improve long-range conventional and nuclear strike capabilities. There are no existing countermeasures.
China and Russia are developing anti-satellite weapons to threaten U.S. space operations. China is developing capabilities to conduct large-scale anti-satellite strikes using novel physical, cyber, and electronic warfare means.
Adversaries are developing missile technology to attack the United States in novel ways and challenge U.S. missile defense, including conventional and nuclear ICBMs, sea-launched land-attack missiles, and space-based missiles that could orbit the earth.
Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) Platforms
Future advances in AI, sensors, data analytics, and space-based platforms could create an environment of “ubiquitous ISR”, where people and equipment could be tracked throughout the world in near-real time. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea are developing multiple ISR platforms.
China and Russia are developing new aircraft, including stealth aircraft, which could fly faster, carry advanced weapons, and achieve greater ranges. Such aircraft could force U.S. aircraft to operate at farther distances and put more U.S. targets at risk.
Russia has made significant advancements in submarine technology and tactics to escape detection by U.S. forces. China is developing underwater acoustic systems that could coordinate swarm attacks—the use of large quantities of simple and expendable assets to overwhelm opponents—among vehicles and provide greater undersea awareness. Adversaries could achieve breakthroughs in anti-submarine warfare—such as using AI to locate U.S. submarines—or attack U.S. undersea infrastructure, which could cripple communications.
Adversaries, such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, may launch cyber attacks against critical U.S. infrastructure (e.g., electric, oil and gas, and nuclear power systems) and military infrastructure (e.g., communications and ISR platforms). Adversaries could also launch cyber attacks on the U.S. health care system, threatening patient safety by disrupting access to medical care. Finally, adversaries are also developing tools to directly attack hardware and embedded components in aviation systems, which can manipulate or destroy data.
- Government Accountability Office (GAO)