Skip to main content

Responding to Future Security Challenges

Kenneth R. Weinstein

As the congressional Super Committee deliberates on ways to reduce our national deficit by $1.2 trillion, its members have been taking suggestions from various quarterspoliticians, economists, and now even the public. But there is one man whose thinking they should keep in mind as they make their recommendations next month: Herman Kahn.

The most noted and controversial nuclear strategist of the Cold War, Kahn (1922-83) was a polymath whose areas of expertise would eventually entail not merely geo-strategy but history, physics, economics, and innovation. He predicted the rise of Japan in the 1980s and the bursting of its economic bubble in the 1990s. He foresaw the American tech boom and, at the time of his death, was increasing preoccupied with the possibility of the electronic transmission of mail — a full decade before most of us were aware of e-mail.

Above all, Kahn was a futurist. He believed in stretching the policy imagination, and, in a term he popularized, “thinking about the unthinkable.” When it came to national security, Kahn promoted the view that defense analysts needed to think about a variety of conflict scenarios and to imagine these against the backdrop of shifting geo-strategic landscapes. Kahn, in short, wanted policymakers to have the greatest possible flexibility in responding to future challenges.

At the height of the Cold War, Kahn gravitated toward the study of nuclear strategy. While others argued that scenario-planning for a nuclear exchange with the Soviets was immoral as it would encourage the use of nuclear weapons, Kahn argued that there was a moral case for preparing strategies for nuclear conflict. With proper and realistic planning, the adverse consequences of nuclear war could be reduced. Kahn argued that the prevailing wisdom of the time, that any nuclear war would inevitably annihilate both superpowers, was false; his scenario planning exercise showed there was a possibility that one or both sides in a nuclear exchange might survive, however badly damaged. Therefore, he explained, thoughtful debate on the possibilities and consequences of nuclear strategy was needed to reduce its potential damage.

History is rife with examples of policy experts failing to imagine what the future might bring. As my colleague Seth Cropsey has noted, the British Royal Navy grossly miscalculated at the end of the 19th century. The Royal Navy had a rule that its fleet in Europe needed to be as large as the next two navies on the Continent combined under the assumption that future conflict could only take place in Europe. When the Royal Navy faced a budget shortfall, its leaders followed this rule and largely disengaged from east Asia to maintain a high enough level of forces in Europe. In so doing, they ignored the rise of the Imperial Japanese Navy, which then came to be a dominant force in Asia and the cause of immense turmoil for the next half-century.

Unfortunately, our defense-policy establishment today is not much different from its counterparts fifty years ago or the British Royal Navy one hundred years ago. We are still not fully imagining what the geo-strategic landscape might look like even a few decades down the line and what new defense strategies we may need to meet these challenges. And the cuts to the military budget being considered by the Super Committee (on top of a $350 billion budget cut already mandated for the Pentagon over the next decade) rest on the assumption that international conflict in 2050 will only be slightly altered from what it looks like today.

We are already failing to invest in the kind of naval forces needed to face the challenges in the next half-century in Asia. China is developing aircraft carriers and naval vessels that will challenge the balance of power in Asia, currently in our favor, and limit our future policy flexibility in critical regions from the South China Sea to the Pacific. Combined with Russian muscularity driven by revenues from natural resources, and the ever-looming threat of nuclear proliferation, we’re entering a new and uncertain security environment that requires a more robust defense policy.

In the midst of these changes, we are, at the Pentagon’s recommendation, cutting back on the F-22 while stretching out purchases of the F-35 strike-fighter. But the F-22 works in tandem with the F-35. The F-22 destroys enemy air and missile defense systems that represent the greatest threat to the less sophisticated F-35. The Russians and Chinese are developing new fifth-generation fighters, giving them technologies such as stealth and supercruise that only American fighters have thus far enjoyed. We need to maintain the air dominance that has been a critical enabler of American military capacity since the end of World War II.

More generally, and more importantly, any defense cuts risks thinning out the industrial base of skilled workers needed to produce the high-technology weapons of the future. Even as things stand now, we do not have enough people with these skills. A growing number of engineering graduates from our major universities are from the PRC and many will return home to become part of China’s defense industrial base. A 2006 National Science Board report indicated that more foreign-born science and engineering graduate students were from China than any other country. China domestically, moreover, is producing more Ph.D.‘s in engineering today than the U.S.

There may not be time to retool in a crisis. That was one of Kahn’s guiding philosophies. He wanted policymakers to focus on “important issues, not just urgent ones.” As he once told an interviewer, “I’m against ignorance. I’m against sloppy, emotional thinking. I’m against fashionable thinking.” It is not easy for policymakers to resist the conventional wisdom of our Washington establishment, but the future of America’s security depends on their ability to do so. 

Related Articles

Transcript: Kim Jong Un and the Northeast Asian Arms Race

Patrick M. Cronin & Alex Wong

Following is the full transcript of the Hudson Institute event titled Kim Jong Un and the Northeast Asian Arms Race ...

Continue Reading

Defense and Aerospace Report: Washington Roundtable

Patrick M. Cronin

In an interview with Vago Muradian on Defense and Aerospace Report, Patrick Cronin discusses military tensions and defense strategy. ...

Continue Reading

US Navy Modernization

Bryan Clark

In a podcast interview on Fed Scoop, Bryan Clark discusses the challenges the Department of Defense faces in modernizing to address strategic competit...

Listen Now