From the Pentagon’s “4+1” threat matrix, to “4+1 times 2”

The U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort heads past lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center building under heavy fog as it leaves to return to its home port of Norfolk, Virginia, after treating patients during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City New York, U.S., April 30, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Editor's note:

Writing in The Hill, Michael O’Hanlon makes the case for an updated Pentagon threat matrix that includes biological, nuclear, climatic, digital, and internal challenges. While this new matrix does not mean cutting the defense budget to fund additional priorities, the challenges O’Hanlon lays out are complicating aspects of the modern world that can make other, more traditional threats more perilous.

For half of a decade, the Defense Department has organized thinking and planning around the five main threats of Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and transnational violent extremism or terrorism. In the quarter century before that, the Pentagon built forces more narrowly around a regional war framework that prioritized addressing extremist states such as Iraq and North Korea and, later, the struggle against terrorism.

The shift started with former Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford, who depicted it as a “four plus one” framework because the last threat is more diffuse than the others. Some have reconstrued the framework slightly, as they display the idea as a “two plus three” list to focus on the competition with Russia and China as the highest concerns. It is a smart paradigm as it is short enough to focus attention and resource allocation, but also broad enough not to claim clairvoyance about future threats or to build national security priorities around too narrow a group of scenarios.

Yet the coronavirus crisis should make one thing abundantly clear to us if it was not before. That list of scenarios, while reasonable for the Defense Department, is inadequate for the country as a whole. We must keep that earlier list because nothing about the pandemic lessens all the dangers of traditional geopolitics. But the grand strategy of the United States needs to complement those threats depicted by Dunford with a second base of “four plus one” dangers crossing a separate dimension or axis.

The new “four plus one” list needs to include biological, nuclear, climatic, digital, and internal threats. Just like the first list had a final entry that was different, the new “four plus one” list focuses on domestic cohesion. So if Americans do not see the benefit of a strong global leadership role for the United States and elect officials as such, we will be missing the domestic prerequisite to operate effectively on the world stage. Moreover, the other threats will not be properly addressed. These new “four plus one” dangers are not hostile thinking adversaries. They are complicating aspects of the modern world that can make other threats more perilous.

For the most part, these are not primarily problems for the Pentagon, but for the government and the country as a whole. Not all of these new “four plus one” threats are truly new. But most are of growing concern because of the ballooning world population and advances in technology in modern times. A bigger population and high technology are not bad things. They can, in fact, be very desirable. Yet they can intensify and accelerate many dangers in the world even as they allow for more prosperous and possibly happier lives for more people than ever before in history.

What does it mean to adopt a threat matrix of “four plus one”? To start, it does not mean cutting the defense budget to fund additional priorities. The new threats add to previous dangers. They do not supersede them. This is part of why they do not get enough attention. It is not easy to put any one person or agency in charge of managing them.

Many priorities associated with biological threats, notably pandemics, are in the health and environmental domains, like more domestic production capacity for tests, treatments, and medical supplies, strengthened public health infrastructure both at home and abroad to detect and isolate new threats, and better regulation for wildlife markets and exploitation of the forests in places like China, Brazil, and Indonesia to reduce transmissions of any disease from animal to human in the first place.

On climate, it is high time for a carbon tax to discourage excessive use of fossil fuels in the United States. That tax should, for political purposes, be structured as revenue neutral, giving a standard refund to everyone while incentivizing all of us to be greener. On digital technology, we are due for a national debate on whether leaving the Homeland Security Department to guard the online government systems, while no one in the government guards private infrastructure systems, is a smart idea.

But most compelling and probably most difficult is the need for a serious plan to bolster the United States at home. Of great concern are science, education, engineering, and infrastructure, and the classic middle class economic dream. The coronavirus, in the way that it affects workers and families, only strengthens the case. Americans supported a strong global leadership role after World War Two because they remembered how such conflict had come to be and feared communism. Support for engagement continued even after the Berlin Wall fell because it was not that expensive at the time. The 9/11 attacks made fear the great motivator for an assertive foreign policy, even if it also led us astray in many ways.

Many Americans wonder if a global economy and many alliances around the world are really good for them. As the election of Donald Trump had proved in 2016, many voters are certainly willing to rethink our place in the world. If we do not listen to that message, the entire domestic basis for a strong United States and an engaged foreign policy leadership role could evaporate. Domestic policy has turned to foreign policy. Both the Pentagon and the candidates should take heed. As we emerge from the emergency response to coronavirus in the months to come, this more than any other is the debate we need to have as a country.