We Need to Understand

By Thomas Hirschfeld and W. Seth Carus

Taking a broader look begins with understanding the limitations of our current efforts to analyze possible military opponents. In reviewing writings on alleged threat countries, we can see four types of analytic errors-systemic, political, military, and functional-that distort assessments. All such distortions characteristically underpin worst-case analysis.

Systemic Distortions

Repeated claims that the post-Cold War world has become more dangerous for the United States are hard to justify. It is absurd to compare the remaining dangers to threats we faced during the Cold War. Today, no country is capable of posing a threat comparable to that of the former Soviet Union. Major threats that might require application of significant military force are hard to find now.

Claims about the growing numbers of internal conflicts and more ethnic strife are almost as hard to sustain. Internal wars and ethnic conflicts are not increasing in number or intensity; they just have become more visible, now that our anxieties about the danger of global war have receded. Internal conflicts raged throughout the Cold War, but we ignored them unless they became new factors in our struggle with the Soviet Union. According to one estimate, there have been no more than two dozen local or internal conflicts in any recent ten-year period—and only some of them were based on ethnic differences.

More important, these conflicts seldom require any U.S. response. When they do, swift U.S. military action is seldom needed. According to one calculation, 13 wars occurred between 1977 and 1994, but U.S. forces were involved in only four. During that same period, U.S. forces ventured into harm's way on 22 occasions, but only four such expeditions responded to a sudden move by an adversary. 1

With any luck, the adversaries of the two major regional conflicts (MRCs) in the Bottom Up Review—North Korea and Iraq—will disappear by the early days of the next century. North Korea is under great stress, and many analysts believe that it may well be gone soon. Similarly, the longterm survival of the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein is at least open to question.

Moreover, it often is assumed implicitly that the United States must face threat countries alone, relying only on its own resources. In contrast, the national security strategy that emerged in the wake of Cold War assumes that under most conditions the United States will operate as part of a coalition, probably pieced together to respond to a particular challenge. The new strategy recognizes that the United States needs the ability to act unilaterally if necessary, but the preference is for combined operations that will involve the military forces of other countries.

By almost any measure, the world facing the United States today is less dangerous than the one that existed a decade ago. Without being conclusive, these factors—including the preponderance of U.S. military force over any conceivable national adversary and continuing U.S. alliance relationships—suggest that the United States can meet most projected military challenges. And when challenges do emerge, few of them will require immediate response on a large scale.

Political Distortions

The political motivations of potential adversaries are often distorted in ways that exaggerate the threat that they may actually pose to U.S. security. The most common political distortions involve assessments of motivation. Analysts assume that the country whose forces are being described is intractably hostile toward the United States and to its allies. Thus, we now hear countries described as "rogue" or "outlaw" states. The so-called "rogue" status ascribed to particular countries has an unchanging quality, with little room to recall that leaders eventually pass from the scene, or that regimes may change direction. Instead, particular rogue states are assumed to be a permanent feature of some post-Cold War international system. This mind-set derives from a Cold War model, which involved what appeared to be a never-ending conflict between two sets of adversaries with fundamentally incompatible world views. In reality, the history of the states presently labeled "rogue" suggests that relatively few will pursue hostile policies over an extended period. Three of the current group once were friends of the United States (Iran, Iraq, and Libya), and some of our present partners once were quite hostile (Egypt and Indonesia). If experience is any guide, there is no reason to believe in permanent hostility from any of these regimes.

Rogue governments are portrayed as motivated primarily by anti-American or anti-Western views, with the usually unstated but otherwise obvious corollary assumption that such regimes will devote every available dollar to military purposes. Rarely is there any sense that heavy investment in armed forces for most of these countries are determined at least as much by requirements of internal and regional security as by a desire to fight or confront more distant foreign enemies. In reality, most Third World dictatorships face serious threats to their survival; as a result, internal security remains a fundamental preoccupation of the leadership in such countries. Moreover, the external threats of greatest concern to such countries are normally regional in character.

Iraq is a clear example of a state focused on internal and regional threats. There are many reasons for Saddam Hussein to fear groups, sects, factions, families, and individual enemies at home. Historically, Iraqi governments have been overthrown by military coups. It was just such a coup that overthrew the Hashemite monarchy and brought the Ba'ath party and then Saddam himself into power. At the same time, the primary external threats to Iraq have come from regional disputes, primarily with Iran, but also the longstanding Arab-Israeli conflict; political and ideological tensions with Syria; and frontier and oil disputes with Kuwait. Thus, even though Iraq came into direct conflict with the United States in the wake of its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, we are hardly the sole security problem, as seen from Baghdad.

These considerations suggest more nuanced political assessments of hostile states, especially when looking at long-range trends. Good analysis means moving beyond the simplistic characterizations of the Cold War. It is no longer enough to count the number of rockets in the Moscow May Day parade, and thereby initiate calculations toward some figure that explains our own requirements. The sheer size of the Soviet forces may have justified such methods in the past. There is little to justify confining our analysis to such methods today.

Military Distortions

Projections of future foreign weapon acquisitions, derived from follow-on assessments of rising combat capabilities, are among the most common distortions in estimating military capabilities. Perhaps this is so because many of today's analysts were trained to observe the systematic, highly structured weapon-acquisition programs of the Soviets. The Soviet Union developed and manufactured most of its own military equipment, making it possible to predict with a semblance of coherence—if not always accuracy—the future equipment acquisitions of the Soviet military. This is simply not possible when tracking the more complex and erratic acquisition programs of many postulated future adversaries—although we sometimes see confident, published predictions that some country will acquire specific weapons or types of weapons by some future date or period. Such a prediction was featured in a publication that the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) has recently released, which projects the number of combat aircraft that it believes Iraq, Iran, and North Korea will possess in 2005. 2

Such projections often ignore the organizational, budgetary, or political issues that might constrain acquisition. For example, most descriptions of intended Chinese aircraft carrier acquisitions seemingly fail to consider potential tensions within the defense budget between security requirements on China's maritime frontiers which a carrier might serve; competing problems of ground and air force, space, and strategic forces modernization; or internal contingencies, like Tibet.

The history of the international arms trade suggests that it is extremely difficult to predict reliably the systems a country will procure. Arms purchases in the developing world rarely follow the structured planning processes so familiar to U.S. defense planners. Moreover, trends are often highly inconsistent. One study noted that only 9 of the top 25 importers of weapons in 1983 were among the top 25 in 1992. 3

A second distortion in military intelligence analysis is the confusion of inventory with capability. This problem may originate with the emphasis on warning in the military intelligence culture. In modern times, significant warning indicators have included deployed units whose communications could be identified and sometimes read, observable items of major equipment, and the identifiable evidence of construction and movement, called "signatures." Items of deployed equipment, which could be counted, represented units, and by extension, a notional order of battle pieced together over time by sophisticated observers.

It is an enormous leap to move from assuming the presence of some operational unit from the combined presence of signals, construction and heavy items such as tanks, to extrapolating units and therefore military capabilities from the tanks alone. No tank, ship, or aircraft is an operational capability unless it has trained crew, maintenance and the necessary support, communications and—in the field—protection. If the equipment actually is on hand but has a few or none of those characteristics, it is an inventory item. If the item is on order, or reportedly on order, or in some design phase, then it is at most a potential or a prospect. Such a prospect should be described with caveats:

  • When the item in question may be acquired
  • How many there will be, when it may be deployed, and whether or how it might perform (once properly supported, manned, and protected)

Unfortunately, intelligence analyses sometimes compress distinctions between operating items and those in inventory or in prospect, counting all such items as capabilities and implying that they represent capabilities through grouping or graphic display.

An example of how simplistic analysis can distort trends is evident in a recent ONI study, which asserted that the challenges facing U.S. strike warfare capabilities are "more diverse and demanding than ever before." Yet, the evidence advanced does little to support this assertion. For example, ONI calculates that in 1995, the air forces of Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea possessed just over 1,300 fourth-generation aircraft. By 2005, it estimates that these countries will have about 1,430 fourth-generation and 270 of what it calls advanced fourth-generation aircraft. In other words, all these countries will acquire only about 400 new advanced aircraft during the next decade. 4 Even if one accepts the implicit assumption that these states would somehow act in combination, 40 new aircraft per year hardly constitutes a threat even remotely analogous to the magnitude of the challenge once posed by Soviet military acquisitions.

More significantly, the report fails to make a case that the newly acquired aircraft represent significant enhancements in military capability. The problems of transforming equipment into capabilities are especially acute in the developing world, where the prestige of known possession is often more important than capability, and the militaries often lack the resources to acquire and maintain the supporting equipment for their major weapons systems. Thus, for example, it is common for countries to acquire advanced fighter aircraft without also purchasing sufficient inventories of spare parts to operate the aircraft effectively.

Perhaps the most serious distortion in presenting the results of military intelligence analysis is the use of major platforms as the prime units of account for comparing particular military capabilities with those of another country. This ignores related or complementary elements of the force comparison that may be more significant in combat than platforms performance--even if all the platforms work, and all are available. 5

Pilot training and situational awareness probably have much more to do with the outcome of aerial combat than the performance characteristics of aircraft, or even numbers of aircraft. Yet all too often we continue to see side-by-side comparisons of U.S. and threat aircraft designed to suggest that our equipment is in some way inferior to that of the opposition. Such comparisons also suggest that the threat represented by the platform or other equipment item being displayed is most effectively countered by one of ours—of a similar but more modern type. They also seem to imply that we need to buy more but better fighters, rather than invest in such alternatives as improved air-to-air missiles, enhanced command, control, communications, computer applications, and intelligence processing (C4I) systems, more rigorous training, new antiaircraft weapons, or more capable electronic warfare systems.

To deal with the complexities of modern warfare, analysis must get beyond the traditional focus on particular weapons, usually platforms. Increasingly, warfighting efficiency is improved by the integrated effort of a large number of systems. Thus, the effectiveness of a strike aircraft depends on much more than its pilot's own capabilities and the capabilities of the ordnance it carries. It also depends on the information provided by intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems, and on advanced C4I systems. 6

The dramatic importance of the integrated use of such technologies was first clearly demonstrated during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. During that conflict, Israeli fighter aircraft shot down about 80 Syrian fighters without a single loss. Three factors accounted for this result: superior aircraft and air-to-air missiles; better trained pilots; and what the United States now calls dominant battle space knowledge. The Israelis had an integrated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance system that continuously tracked the movement of every Syrian aircraft, both on the ground and in the air. The Syrian pilots never had a chance because the Israelis knew virtually everything about Syrian activities while the Syrian pilots knew almost nothing. This illustrates the danger of limiting analysis to comparisons of aircraft and missiles.

Functional Distortions

Functional distortion in intelligence analysis amounts to deemphasis of security threats that may be acknowledged and real, but which existing forces can do little about, or that cannot be countered without significant investment in capabilities that differ from those in hand. Terrorism and drugs, against which U.S. administrations have repeatedly declared "war," are obvious examples. In the purely military realm, functional threat distortion involves ignoring threats which are very difficult to counter (such as weapons of mass destruction), unpleasant to contemplate (missiles deployed in tunnels), or unglamorous and non-career enhancing for those who might have to deal with them (naval mines). Unfortunately, many of the dangers we face, in the near and medium terms, are in these de-emphasized areas.

Some of them are analogous to those of the Cold War. Consider, for example, some of the implications of conflict with a capable adversary possessing significant numbers of nuclear weapons, such as the hostile China sometimes postulated by people searching for new enemies. Many forget that China possesses nuclear delivery systems with potential intercontinental range. Thus, a conflict with a nuclear-armed China cannot be considered a purely conventional conflict, even if no nuclear weapons are employed. In such an event, the senior political leadership in the United States, and indeed the American people, would need to consider potential risks to U.S. cities—raising many of the same strategic considerations that permeated our relations with the Soviet Union.


Exaggerating today's threats to U.S. national security, by creatively highlighting ways the forces of other states pose dangers for U.S. forces, does the nation and the military services a profound disservice. A fundamental problem facing the military in the post-Cold War world is balancing the allocation of resources between today's defense problems and those of tomorrow. Wisdom and experience suggest that we concentrate on understanding those of tomorrow, particularly because we have so much trouble identifying those of today. By exaggerating today's threats, however, we distract attention from what truly matters, and delay and ultimately short-change the allocation of resources needed to develop the future capabilities that we really will need. Over the longer term, we also undermine the credibility of the intelligence product, the intelligence community, and ultimately the justification for the defense program.

Finally, there is no long-range benefit in conforming today's forces into the comforting outlines of some formerly familiar threat pattern, simply because we can imagine no other. Growing ever larger and heavier, in anticipation of fighting forces like those of yesterday's enemies, foreshadows the fate of Goliath of Gath.

1 Gaffney, H.H. A Vision for the Marines , CNA, March 1995.

2 Office of Naval Intelligence, Worldwide Challenges to Naval Strike Warfare , January 1996.

3 Ian Anthony, “Current Trends and Developments in the Arms Trade,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, p. 38. September 1994.

4 Office of Naval Intelligence, Worldwide Challenges to Naval Strike Warfare , January 1996.

5 The sole exception seems to be adversary surface-to-surface missile systems, which, unlike ships or aircraft threats are generally viewed as imposing requirements for dedicated defenses, rather than matching in kind.

6 The most sophisticated discussions of these issues have originated with Admiral William Owens. As applied to assessments of military capability, see W. Seth Carus, “Military Technology and the Arms Trade: Changes and Their Impact,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science , pp. 163-174, Summer 1994.

Mr. Hirschfeld is a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. He is a former member of the foreign policy planning staff for the Secretary of State.

Dr. Carus is a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. He is a former member of the policy planning staff for the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.


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