The Future of National Security, By the Numbers

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

May 6, 2011

“Figures often beguile me,” Mark Twain wrote in his autobiography, “particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’”

Most of those who work in the realm of international security would tend to agree with Twain. We have all seen academics spit out statistics and models in a way that was of no actual use to those who cared about the real world. Similarly, we have watched politicians run fast and loose with all sorts of numeric data. The result is that we often more agree with the witty Scottish statesman who said, “You might prove anything by figures.”

And yet, as much as those of us who despised calculus back when we were in school hate to admit it, numbers do matter. The unadulterated cleanness of a number does have a certain way of driving home the truth of a matter, most importantly in cutting through the rhetoric and the often intentional confusion that surrounds complex matters. Figures can show a cold, hard reality that we often want to ignore. As Aristotle wrote, “Numbers are intellectual witnesses.”[1]

Today, we are entering a period in national security that various strategic documents ranging from the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) to the new British Security Strategy have entitled “an age of uncertainty.” We have been left grasping for some type of certainty in everything from threats to resources. So, if looking through the mathematical lens offers “the poetry of logical ideas,” as Albert Einstein claimed, what are the key numbers that we should be paying attention to in trying to understand where we might be headed next in the realm of national security?

$13.7 Trillion

In October 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron issued a new British national security strategy that entailed a wave of cutbacks, including 17,000 fewer soldiers and 25,000 fewer civilians in the British military. Also left on the cutting room floor were all its Harrier jets, several ships including an aircraft carrier, and 40 percent of the army’s tanks. Cameron’s government made this decision not because it wanted to (conservative governments in the United Kingdom have traditionally been defense hawks when it comes to budgets), but because it felt that it was the only way to stave off short-term currency and fiscal crises and a long-term economic security collapse.

While many commentators have focused on what these cuts mean for the British military role in the world, the numbers underlying the report illustrate the type of tough decisions that are also likely looming in American policy circles moving forward. That is, a quick run of the numbers shows that the British conservative government felt obligated to act when facing a fiscal environment that pales in comparison to the U.S. predicament. The United Kingdom had a roughly $242 billion budget deficit and (more useful for comparative purposes) was running almost to a 60 percent debt-to–gross domestic product (GDP) ratio. By comparison, the U.S. debt stands at $13.7 trillion and an 89 percent debt ratio, with the Office of Management and Budget showing the deficit coming in at another $1.3 trillion in fiscal year 2011. In essence, Britain’s nightmare scenario remains America’s blissful normality. If action is not taken to rein this in, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that in 2050, the U.S. gross debt will have reached about 344 percent of GDP.

At some point, these numbers’ growth will become unsustainable for both U.S. economic and national security, and thus the British experience may well be looked to for guidance by American policymakers, either by fellow conservatives or liberals. As in the United Kingdom, most of the savings will have to come out of reduced government spending and dealing with unfunded social welfare commitments (which in the United States are mainly driven by making social security promises that no longer reflect demographic reality), but no one should believe that the debate will spare the defense and foreign policy world. As in Britain, there will likely be an expectation that the pain of any cuts will have to be spread out. Notably, this likelihood seems to be borne out by the various bipartisan debt and deficit reduction task forces that released various reports last fall, all of which brought up the need for tightening a Pentagon funding spigot that has been opened more and more over the last decade.

While Secretary Robert Gates has tried to preempt such cuts with efficiency measures designed to wring $100 billion in savings across multiple years, two realities stand in the way. The first is that the current process is not about actual cuts, but is instead an attempt to shift funds internally. The second is that these measures are unlikely to yield anywhere near $100 billion. For example, the big talk about closing U.S. Joint Forces Command should save at most $250 million—and that is if the entire shop were closed versus the likelihood that many of the offices will emerge intact within other commands. Similarly, a substantial portion of the claimed cuts in the new Department of Defense (DOD) budget offer depends on a changed assumption on inflation figures. Shifting numbers across accounts did not work for Enron over the long term, nor will it work for the Pentagon.

Defense hawks should take solace in the fact that, much like what is likely to happen in the United States, the British number-crunchers found savings but avoided harming current operations. Moreover, the British defense cuts were far less severe (at only one-third of the scale) than those experienced by other agencies of foreign policy, such as the 25 percent level of cuts at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. (Indeed, if the numbers in the British experience indicate tough times looming for the Pentagon, it indicates cuts to the bone for agencies such as the State Department.)

The exact size of the potential cuts will certainly be a matter of much projection and debate in the coming years (my colleague Michael O’Hanlon, who tends to have a good history at this sort of thing, predicts that DOD ultimately will be asked to find roughly $60 billion in savings), but what is clear is that we are entering an era in which leaders will have to make some actual decisions in defense policy, not only in spending but also in fiscal and strategic priority-setting.

$10,500 per American, $1.3 billion per al Qaeda

The U.S. military’s newspaper, Stars and Stripes, found that at $747 billion spent in direct funds, each American citizen has paid $2,435 for the Iraq War. If one includes indirect spending and broader economic consequences, it comes out to just over $9,000 per citizen. This does not include the roughly $500 billion that will have to be spent in medical and disability compensation for Iraq War veterans over their lifetimes, which comes out to another $1,500, for a total of $10,500 per U.S. citizen. When it comes to dealing with nonstate actors, our investment ratio is even more draining. Defense News found that U.S. military spending on its operation in Afghanistan was just over $1.3 billion per suspected al Qaeda member.

These numbers define the environment of another key aspect emerging in national security: not merely what to spend, but what we can afford to do operationally. That is, if we are entering an “era of persistent conflict,” as our strategy documents project, can we persistently sustain such cost ratios against our foes? Moreover, these numbers are leading many to question whether an approach based on territorial seizure is the best manner for defeating a global nonstate network, and, in so doing, driving an evolution of how the United States conducts counterterrorism.

In the wake of 9/11, when it came to responding to a real (in the case of Afghanistan), or at least publicly claimed potential (in the case of Iraq), terrorist attack, the rejoinders were preemption and “regime change,” the seizure of the territory from which the attack had or might emanate, and the remaking of the government there to ensure it was no longer a terrorist organizing and recruiting ground. These responses, initially framed as counterterrorism missions, gradually shifted into counterinsurgency missions in the midst of civil wars, and U.S. forces became bogged down in local political and ethnic disputes. As David Kilcullen noted in The Accidental Guerrilla, the irony was that such efforts to undermine recruiting by extremists may have made it easier.

Seemingly unable to contemplate the costs for a new operation of such scale, the responses to recent plots of terrorism seem to be moving to another model, or perhaps a “back to the future” model of the cruise missile diplomacy of the late 1990s. Bob Woodward’s Obama’s War outlines that the planned U.S. response to a successful attack on American soil—tracked back to Pakistan—is not to set large numbers of boots on the ground. Instead, the response is a simple expansion of the number of unmanned airstrikes already being conducted there. This is not particularly notable, given that the undeclared U.S. air war in Pakistan has so far hit 202 targets with drones. Similarly, when a series of plots were tracked back to Yemen and Somalia in 2010, other black holes of governance, no one contemplated anything beyond more unmanned strikes and a few covert action teams.

35 Bands, 1 Diplomat

This shift actually makes perfect sense when one looks at the other key numbers that shape this space, establishing the parameters of not just what the United States can afford or not, but also who should carry them out and how.

While counterinsurgencies and nation-building efforts are certainly tough, they are not impossible tasks. Rather, they require a deep and enduring commitment. A RAND study found, for example, that the average length of an insurgency is about 10 years; wars won by the government side (what we are fighting in Afghanistan) take an additional 2 years on average.

For the last decade there has been constant discussion of building up our capabilities to deliver engagement, stability, aid, devolvement, and justice programs on the ground, the nonmilitary aspects so key to success in these types of operations. And yet for all the discussion in leveraging agencies other than the military, the numbers show something else: that nearly 10 years into such fights, Washington still has not faced the deep and enduring commitment part of the battle.

The State Department, for instance, has roughly 6,500 Foreign Service Officers and 5,000 Foreign Service Specialists. They are spread across 265 diplomatic missions, with the Washington, DC, headquarters housing the bulk. When it comes to the actual ability to deliver at the field level where it matters most, the numbers show a hard truth. Roughly 4 percent of the operational budget for Afghanistan goes toward civilian operations. The entire U.S. Government has been able to generate only 13 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) there, each of roughly 80 personnel. Moreover, the only way to staff these PRTs has been to draw primarily from the military Services (even though the PRTs do not have a traditionally military role), most often by bringing officers from other taskings (meaning that their background and training do not match the type of aid, development, and reform advisory work the teams conduct). The PRT in Farah, Afghanistan, for example (which was ably commanded for the past year by a Navy officer with a background in helicopter operations), had one State Department civilian advisor for an area roughly twice the size of Maryland and containing 1 million Afghan citizens.

To put this in a numeric comparison, the U.S. Army alone has 35 Regular Army bands, ranging in size from 50 to 250 members. In addition, there are 18 Army Reserve bands and 53 Army National Guard bands. The numbers are on a similar scale for the other Services. These numbers show where we stand between the rhetoric of counterinsurgency and interagency planning and the reality of executing it at DOD as well as non-DOD agencies.

8 Percent of Voters

The reason for this shift in operational responses and the continued lack of capacity may be found within another set of figures: the numbers that tell us about the underlying political support for such expanded operations today, and their likely future.

Again, the important point here is not whether such operations are doable, but whether the intervening party has the long-term will necessary for them. And here, too, the numbers may be painting a different sort of message about the American body politic, one that is increasingly becoming disengaged from foreign policy issues. Indeed, in the last election, less than 8 percent of voters told CNN that their votes were determined by foreign policy issues.

When we look at future trends, the numbers grow worse. I recently completed a survey of over 1,100 young American leaders between the ages of 16 and 24 who have attended National Student Leader conferences and expressed an interest into going into politics and policy. While not all will achieve this goal, it is interesting that in this set of would-be future Barack Obamas and John McCains, 58 percent believed that the “United States is too involved in global affairs,” roughly twice that of older generations. The polling shows there is a strong emerging narrative of isolationism, shaped by their formative experiences of 9/11, Iraq, and Katrina (comparable to the impact of Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam for prior generations). Notably, this is not a trend being driven by the new Tea Party movement, but rather one occurring among young leaders who identify as Democrats or Independents, who are 20 percent more likely to have such isolationist attitudes than young Republicans.

These are just attitudes, which may change or even reverse in the future; the isolationist youth of the 1920s and 1930s, of course, ended up having to fight World War II in part because of such attitudes. But whether it is the strange coalition-building between the left and right wing on withdrawing from Afghanistan or declining new commitments in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, or elsewhere, the American public and its policy leaders seem to be steering away from any mission of scale. Indeed, the changing appetite is even illustrated by recent actions in our own hemisphere. In 1994, the fear of a failed state in Haiti led to the deployment of more than 20,000 military personnel, with a broad mandate to uphold democracy. By comparison, after the 2010 earthquake created an actual collapsed state in every sense of the term, the United States sent just over 4,000 troops, with a mandate to get aid in quickly and then get out as rapidly as possible.

18 Months, 1 Billion Times as Powerful

The prime numbers of national security’s future lie not only in dollars, voters, terrorists, or diplomats, but also in how we handle an emerging wave of “killer applications.”

It used to be that an entire generation would go by without one technologic breakthrough that altered the way people fought, worked, communicated, or played. By the so-called age of invention in the late 1800s, these breakthroughs were coming once every decade or so. Today, the ever-accelerating pace of technological development is best illustrated by Moore’s Law, the finding that, over the last 40 years, microchips—and related developments in computers—have doubled in both power and capability every 18 months or so. The total amount of computing power that the entire U.S. Air Force had in 1960, for example, is now contained in a single Hallmark greeting card that plays a little song when you open it.

Moore’s Law predicts that such technologies will be one billion times more powerful within 25 years. While the historic pace of change does not have to hold true (but note that even with a pace one-thousandth as fast as it has historically been, we will still see technologies one million times more powerful within 25 years), it is inarguable that wave after wave of new game-changing inventions are bursting onto the scene with an ever-increasing pace. From robotic planes that strike targets 7,000 miles away to “synthetic life,” manmade cells born out of laboratory chemicals, these astounding technologies grab today’s headlines with such regularity that we have become almost numb to their historic importance.

Looking forward, the range of technologies already at the point of prototyping is dazzling in potential impact. Directed energy weapons, “smart” improvised explosive devices, nanotech and microbotics, bio-agents and genetic weaponry, chemical and hardware enhancements to the human body, autonomous armed robots, and electromagnetic pulse weaponry all may seem straight from the realm of science fiction but are on track to be deployable well before most of us have paid off our mortgages.

This raises two sets of questions: how has our national security structure changed in light of these massive changes in the tools at our disposal (answer: not enough), and how will we deal with the massive changes looming? What makes such technologies notable is not just the new possibilities they open up, but also the difficult issues they raise for policy. Even the first generation of unmanned systems today (the Predator may seem advanced, but it is actually the Model T of the field, already obsolete) has raised deep military, political, moral, and legal questions that touch on everything from when our nation goes to war (the air war campaign in Pakistan that has achieved over 6 times the number of airstrikes as the Kosovo war’s opening round) to the individual experiences of soldiers themselves (many remote warrior units have levels of combat stress and fatigue that are as high as their counterparts physically deployed to the battlespace).

7 Degrees of Security and 1493

But new discoveries do not just affect the tools at our disposal and how we choose to use them; they also can lead to entirely new realms of commerce and conflict that national security leaders must wrestle with. As one Air Force general told me, “The greatest change moving forward is the changing of domains.”

Historically, whenever humans have discovered something of value, they often have fought over it. For example, in past periods of political landscape shift in European history, the discovery of gold and silver in the New World in the 1500s and the scramble for African gold and diamonds in the late 1800s were greater catalysts for diplomatic and then armed conflict among the rising and established powers than was intracontinental behavior.

Similarly, new technologies also shaped the very battlespaces where such powers contended. Through most of human history, for example, we only fought on the land and on top of the sea. Then, at the turn of the last century, technologies that had only recently been the stuff of science fiction (Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and A.A. Milne’s “The Secret of the Army Aeroplane”) allowed powers to fight in entirely new domains, under the sea and in the air, which required entirely new forces to be created to carry out these battles and new laws to regulate them.

Today, the numbers show how a series of 21st-century parallels are emerging. While we are no longer filling in the blank spaces in the world’s map, we are discovering immense value in locales that previously either were not accessible or did not exist, and, in turn, gearing up to fight there.

For example, the white space on the map of the Arctic region has always been a harsh, inaccessible area that no one particularly cared about in policy circles—until today. As a result of the changes that our technologies have wrought upon the global climate itself, the Arctic is warming up and opening up, and thus creating new issues for global security that cannot be ignored. Indeed, global warming appears to be playing out far more dramatically in the Arctic than elsewhere due to two key numeric factors: the sharper angle at which the sun’s rays strike the polar region, and the faster rate at which retreating sea ice is turning into open water, which absorbs far more solar radiation. Thus, the Arctic is seeing temperature increases in the 7-degree range rather than the 2- to 3-degree rises seen elsewhere. As a result, this part of the globe is yielding new and valuable navigable trade routes, as well as potential drilling spots for significant energy and mineral resources (some believe there may be as much oil and natural gas at stake as Saudi Arabia has).

But opening up a new part of the globe yields new security questions; indeed, there has not been such a geographically large area-of-sovereignty issue to solve since 1493, when Pope Alexander VI divided the New World between Spain and Portugal (which, of course, prompted wars with powers left out of this deal for the next few centuries). Thus today, while conflict is by no means inevitable, various players are preparing for a polar scramble. An advisor to Vladimir Putin declared, “The Arctic is ours and we should manifest our presence,” while Canada, Norway, the United States, and even noncontiguous states such as China have started to build up their capabilities to operate in this once forbidding space (the United States has no nuclear-powered icebreakers, while China has two and plans for several more).

947 Satellites, 80 Percent of Communications

Outer space is another domain that was once inaccessible but that is increasing in commercial and military value. Technology has allowed us to turn this place of science fiction into a realm populated by 947 operational satellites.[2] Through these systems now runs the lifeblood of global commerce and communication, as well as (arguably) U.S. military operations. About half of the 175 dedicated military satellites orbiting the world are U.S. military systems. But this only tells part of the story. Over 80 percent of U.S. Government and military satellite communications travel over commercial satellites. As General Lance W. Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, explains, “Space is the center of gravity now.”

To give an example of the importance of space, global positioning system (GPS) satellites are used to direct the movement of 800,000 U.S. military receivers, located on everything from aircraft carriers to individual bombs and artillery shells. A “glitch” in GPS in early 2010 left almost 10,000 of these receivers unable to log in for days, rendering them useless and their systems directionless.

The result is that starting with the 2001 Rumsfeld Space Commission, which served as the springboard for the former Secretary of Defense’s return to government; the Pentagon has conducted at least 21 studies of space warfare. Of course, as senior colonel Dr. Yao Yunzhu of the Chinese Army’s Academy of Military Science has warned, if the United States believes that it is going to be “a space superpower, it’s not going to be alone . . . it will have company.” The Chinese have aggressively moved into the satellite and launch sectors, with plans to add more than 100 civilian and military satellites in the next decade.[3] They also have a manned program on pace to pass the United States, hoping to place a taikonaut on the Moon’s surface by 2020.

More important to conflict scenarios is that China has demonstrated antisatellite capabilities repeatedly over the past 3 years, with Russia and India, and even a few nonstate actors also at work in the field, indicating that the future of conflict back on Earth will not stop at the edge of the atmosphere for long.

90 Trillion Emails, 90,000 Cyberwarriors

Unlike underwater, the air, the polar cold, or outer space, cyberspace is a domain that not only was inaccessible, but also literally did not exist just a generation ago, which perhaps explains why the current crop of senior leaders seems so flummoxed by it.

The centrality of cyberspace to our entire global pattern of life is almost impossible to fathom, as the numbers involved are so high as to sound imaginary. Almost 90 trillion emails were sent in 2009, at a pace of roughly 47 billion a day. The Internet is made up of some 234 million Web sites, with the number growing at a 25 percent annual rate.[4] The military use is equally astounding. DOD operates 15,000 computer networks across 4,000 installations in 88 countries. While a substantial portion is kept in its own classified version of cyberspace, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, DOD computers access the broader Internet over 1 billion times a day.[5] Indeed, former Director of National Intelligence Admiral Michael McConnell estimated that 98 percent of U.S. Government communications, including classified communications, travel over civilian-owned and -operated networks.

But with so much value being located in this new space, it is also becoming a locale for crime, contestation, and even conflict. Symantec identified more than 240 million distinct new malicious programs in 2009, a 100 percent increase over 2008.[6] Many of these are various types of spam and low-level annoyances or criminality, but there is a serious undercurrent. More than 100 foreign intelligence organizations have been reported trying to break into U.S. systems, and known cyber attacks against U.S. Government computers rose from 1,415 in 2000 to 71,661 in 2009.[7] Indeed, the Federal Bureau of Investigation described cybersecurity as the third most important national security threat—a notable designation, considering that its director did not even have a computer in his office until 2001.

While the majority of the focus in public discussion has been on mostly overblown scenarios of “electronic Pearl Harbors” or “cyber Katrinas” (the vast majority of these attacks on U.S. Government Web sites are actually nuisance defacements, the equivalent of cybergraffiti), the numbers show how the real national security danger may lie in the gradual undermining of the U.S. economic and national security edge, especially in innovation and intellectual property. It is estimated that U.S. firms lose approximately $1 trillion a year in business, wasted research and development investment, employee downtime, and added spending due to cyberattacks. The Joint Strike Fighter program, for instance, lost several terabytes of data related to design and electronics systems to a cyber attack. To put this amount of lost information into context, the overall size of the Internet did not reach a single terabyte until around 1997. Such numbers represent not only lost bytes and billions of investment dollars in research, but also 10 to 20 years of lost technological edge in the battlefield and marketplace.

As a result, much as what happened in other new domains, security in the cyber domain is drawing a skyrocketing amount of policy attention, organization, and budget dollars. Much as Marines consider November 10, 1775 (the Corps’ birth date), as the most important day of the year, future cyberwarriors may well celebrate May 21, 2010, the date that U.S. Cyber Command stood up. Nonexistent just a few years ago, this new entity now has 90,000 personnel and acts as the coordinator of over $3 billion in DOD spending on information security.

What these numbers tell us is that war confined to the real world may be passé.

70 Percent Living in the Volcano

The shift in domains is not just a matter of the changes technology has wrought on the world around us; it is also about where we are. And here, too, the numbers show a monumental shift under way, with huge resonance for the future of national security.

To many, the U.S. military has rounded an intellectual corner in the last few years. From the writings of the QDR to the training given to Army captains, there has been an increased emphasis on the ability to navigate the complex geographic and social patterns of simultaneously defeating a guerrilla army while winning tribal elders’ hearts and minds in the midst of perhaps the most rural, remote, and mountainous part of the world.

Yet the rest of the world seems to be going in a different direction than the type of villages we are training for, which remain essentially unchanged from the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion to our own operations in rural Afghanistan. Rather than its rural history, the future of humanity lies in the cities.

In 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in urban zones. By 2008, it crossed the 50 percent mark and is on pace to reach the 70 percent mark within the next 25 to 30 years, the same period our strategies claim to plan for.

But as we add 3 billion new souls to the planet, 99 percent of them in the developing world, it is not only a move to the cities that is afoot, but a move to cities of ever-increasing size and scale. More than 40 percent already live in cities with populations of more than 1 million. These staggering statistical trends are driving the evolution of the “megacity,” an urban agglomeration of more than 10 million people. Sixty years ago, there were only two: New York and Tokyo. Today there are 22 such megacities—the majority in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. By 2025, there will be another 30 or more.

Most importantly, each of these cities is characterized less by its glittering skyline than by its “megaslums,” the miles upon miles of shantytowns and squatter communities that house millions of young, urban poor, the angry losers of globalization. As Mike Davis writes in Planet of Slums, the city that was once the capstone of civilization and wealth creation is increasingly surrounded by “stinking mountains of shit” that are “volcanoes waiting to erupt.” What this means is that despite our understandable current focus on how to deal with tribal elders in the mountains of Afghanistan, the numbers tell us that the future focus of global security will most likely be an urban one.

This shift is not just because of the mass movement into the cities, but it is also because the city is increasingly where the anger that causes insurgency, terrorism, and war originates. Historically, rebellion and conflict usually started in the rural regions and, only if successful, spread to the city. But as analyst Ralph Peters notes, the 21st century has seen the reversal of that trend: “Cities are now center[s] of rebellion . . . because the city is dehumanizing, breaking down traditional values and connections.”[8] And for the young citizens of this place, “Habituated to violence, with no stake in civic order . . . there is only rage.”[9]

Moreover, these broken cities are their home turf, the more likely Sherwood Forest to any future insurgent or terrorist than a village or forest itself. Describing a scene that could be straight out of Mogadishu, Fallujah, Freetown, Gaza, Grozny, or Sadr City, Peters notes that cities are where professional forces tend to face more problems, and thus the “future of warfare lies in the streets, the sewers, high-rise buildings, industrial parks, and the sprawl of houses, shacks, and shelters that form the broken cities of our world.”[10]

3 Times the Size

The final change lies within the very people who will increasingly staff the military and will be making the decisions that shape how the United States and its allies react to these changing numbers.

From 1980 to 2005, the U.S. population experienced a historic demographic shift. The generational cohort born in this period—known as the Millennials, Generation Y, or the Facebook and 9/11 Generation—came in at slightly larger than the Baby Boomers in numbers and three times the size of the preceding Generation X. Indeed, these comparative ratios were what propelled Barack Obama into the White House.

This generation has already produced the young voters, soldiers, and diplomats of today, who will in turn be the leaders of tomorrow (and given their numbers, at faster rates and of greater power than the X-ers who now fill middle management roles). Thus, any national security policymaker (and, arguably, boss, teacher, coach, or pastor) who wants to succeed in this future will need to understand this new generation.

The numbers show how this emerging generation brings different perspectives to everything from historic experiences to political and strategic values. They grew up in a world in which there was no divided Germany, cameras lacked film, and the Internet is a primary news source. For instance, Vietnam has been a touchstone experience for American policymakers for the last few decades, creating a lens through which they view the world even today (Newsweek, The New York Times, and Washington Times have all led with stories as to whether Afghanistan is “Obama’s Vietnam”). And yet to a Millennial, the Vietnam War is as distant as World War II is to the Obama White House. Polling has found that young leaders coming of age in the post-9/11 world have far more mixed views of traditional allies such as Israel, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia, while the shifting demographics of America (becoming over 30 percent Latino, for instance) may well bode changes to the idea that the U.S. focus can be either trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific only. Indeed, the U.S. population is expected to rise by roughly 142 million over the next four decades, but most of this growth would not be domestic. Newly arriving immigrants would account for 47 percent of the rise, and their U.S.-born children and grandchildren would represent another 35 percent.

Perhaps most importantly, the emerging generation that will shape national security brings its own way of doing things. For example, nearly every business and government agency is now wrestling with the recruitment and management of young workers who have different sets of career goals, who seem to be looking for shorter-term jobs rather than long-term careers, and who are focusing more on “finding their passion” than did previous generations. Has our 1950s-era personnel and benefits system similarly changed?

Having grown up as “digital natives” in a world in which computers always existed and 97 percent regularly use them, this new generation brings vastly different expectations of the technologies that stress our systems and bureaucracies. Indeed, perhaps no organization has faced this in tougher terms than the U.S. military, which has struggled with everything from whether to allow social networking (the Pentagon spokesperson set up Facebook and Twitter accounts at the very same time it was banned at many U.S. military bases) to the slow acquisitions system, which particularly annoys this young and very impatient generation. A young Soldier in Afghanistan, for example, who has yet to get his Joint Tactical Radio System (a multibillion-dollar defense contractor radio system first funded in 1997 but still undelivered) can buy an application for his personal iPhone that tracks sniper bullet flights for 99 cents.

This generation also brings in a different approach to how it uses, processes, and shares information itself. Prior generations had information pushed to them and were taught to hoard it, whether they were students taking a test or policymakers shaping a nation’s foreign policy. By contrast, Millennials tend to have a “Google mindset.” Information’s value lies not in its limitation, but in its distribution. Knowledge is valued not in terms of ownership, but rather in accessibility, how easily it can be “pulled” and applied to rapidly changing problems.

The outcome of this is different patterns of thinking. As an example, this generation is amazingly adept at multitasking; I once watched a young Airman sitting behind a bank of computer screens at a Combined Air Operations Center in the Middle East simultaneously working within 36 different Internet chatrooms, each an airstrike mission. But as any parents who have had the experience of speaking with their children at dinner while they text under the table could attest, this multitasking sometimes comes at the price of reflection and long-term problem-solving.

Unfortunately, what psychologists are calling this “continuous partial attention syndrome” could describe not only our young men and women, but also perhaps our nation as a whole. We are getting very good at multitasking, but it is hard to see much strategy in terms of directly facing the realities that the above numbers raise. And for that our nation could pay a tragic price.

One could draw differing lessons and conclusions from the key numbers above of national security, and indeed how to face them should lie at the heart of any policy debate moving forward. And they will surely evolve and change. But as Stendhal once wrote, the beauty of numbers lies in the fact that they “allow for no hypocrisy and no vagueness.” No one seriously wrestling with understanding, planning, and preparing for the national security world of today and tomorrow can afford to ignore the cold, hard reality that each of these statistics and figures underscores about the deep challenges we face in rapidly our changing world.  

[1] Aristotle, The Metaphysics (10f–1045a).

[2] Union of Concerned Scientists Satellite Database, available at <>; and the United Nations Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, available at <>.

[3] Peter Brookes, “The Not-So-Final Frontier,” Armed Forces Journal, June 2008.

[4] See “Internet 2009 in numbers,” January 22, 2010, available at <>.

[5] Eric T. Jensen, “Cyber Warfare and Precautions against the Effects of Attacks,” Texas Law Review (June 1, 2010), available at <>.

[6] “Symantec Report Shows no Slowdown in Cyber Attacks,” available at <>.

[7] Jensen; Gary McAlum, “U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Hearing on China’s Proliferation Practices, and the Development of its Cyber and Space Warfare Capabilities,” hearing before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 110th Congress, 2d Sess., May 20, 2008; author telephone interview with staff member, U.S. Strategic Command, August 28, 2009; author email interview with staff member, U.S. Cyber Command, August 17, 2010.

[8] Author interview with Ralph Peters, Washington, DC, March 29, 2007.

[9] As quoted in Christopher Coker, Waging War Without Warriors? The Changing Culture of Military Conflict, IISS Studies in International Security (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002), 10.

[10] Ralph Peters, “Our Soldiers, Their Cities,” Parameters (Spring 1996), 43.