The world today is less violent but also more dangerous than at any other time in human history, the nation’s senior military officer told a Harvard University audience April 12.
That “counterintuitive combination” of peace and potential conflict is “the essence of what I like to call the security paradox,” Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the audience attending a John F. Kennedy School of Government forum in Cambridge, Mass.
“Although geopolitical trends are ushering in greater levels of peace and stability worldwide, destructive technologies are available to a wider and more disparate pool of adversaries,” Dempsey said.
In the past, the general noted, it took a nation’s power to create a national security threat: industrial progress fueled the world wars, and the threat of mutually assured destruction between superpowers kept the Cold War from getting too hot.
Today, the same rise in global trade and information technology that has increased cooperation and cut violence between nations also has put 21st century weapons in reach of smaller groups, the chairman said.
“More people have the ability to harm us or deny us the ability to act than at any point in my life – and that’s the security paradox,” he added.
While in the past only the United States could drop a bomb down a chimney, “now dozens of middleweight militaries around the world have that [precision munitions] capability,” he said.
Potential adversaries now can buy “off-the-shelf” more than 90 percent of the components needed to build an electronic warfare system, Dempsey said. That creates a risk to “the very systems that provide our battlefield edge: our computer networks, our sensors, and our precision navigation ability,” he said.
Cyber attack is another evolving threat that doesn’t require a large military to launch it, Dempsey said.
“With the right computer virus, a single person can disrupt life for … an entire city, and potentially even our entire nation,” he added.
“The message is that the margin of error is growing smaller,” the chairman warned.
The U.S. military must counter these new and elusive threats even as its budget shrinks, Dempsey noted.
“We have to make hard choices about where to put our resources – and where to pull them back,” he said.
The Defense Department strategy balances cost, force structure, mission and risk, Dempsey said. The strategy aims for a force with fewer service members, greater agility and more powerful technology, he added.
The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps need to meld service-unique strengths to build capabilities “that don’t exist unless they’re combined,” the general said.
The force will be regionally postured but globally networked, “scaled and scoped to demand,” he said.
“Finally, it will be a force that provides a degree of security in balance with what the nation needs and what the nation can afford,” Dempsey added.
The security paradox presents a difficult challenge, Dempsey said. “But challenges are nothing new to this nation,” he said. “We have adapted and re-invented ourselves many times throughout our history.”
The newly commissioned USS New York is emblematic of the nation, and of 21st century U.S. military strategy, the chairman said.
The New York is an amphibious ship that carries a Marine expeditionary unit, which combines ground, air and logistics capabilities, and usually has about 2,200 Marines and sailors assigned.
The bow of the just-commissioned ship, Dempsey said, “was forged from seven tons of steel pulled from the rubble of the twin towers. …This steel – tempered to be stronger than it was before – will carry experienced, war-tested Marines half way around the world and back.”
The New York and its crew will patrol the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Gulf, “keeping faith with our partners and allies in port calls and conducting exercises or actual real-world operations as needed,” he said.
The ship is a testament to the nation’s resilience, the chairman said.
“When I think of the challenges we face,” Dempsey added, “I think of the USS New York. She and her crew are part of the agile and technologically advanced force we are building. They are ready to prevail in any conflict. They are the best this country has to offer.”