The core objective of national strategy is to insure the survival of the nation and the lives of its citizens. For a number of years, Soviet missiles actually threatened our national survival, and this threat obviously had a natural priority - prosperity and the institutions behind it are meaningless if the nation fails to survive. During these years prosperity was also assured by the preeminent economic position of the United States - with less than 5% of global population, the nation enjoyed some 25% of global wealth. Even the poor in America were better off than literally billions of people on subsistence worldwide. This strategic situation has been transformed. Threats to life have receded dramatically, while other challenges have multiplied.
Catastrophic threats, which could kill tens of millions and destroy the nation, include asteroid strikes and supervolcanoes. Only two pose any significant short-term risk: a major nuclear exchange or a virulent pandemic.
- With the end of the Cold War, a major nuclear exchange with Russia is now highly unlikely; such an exchange with China would be possible in the future if we badly mismanage our relationship. Our robust strategic nuclear posture discourages any Russian consideration of a nuclear strike, or Chinese interest in challenging our nuclear supremacy. Although the United States would not be directly involved, a major nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could also result in massive global starvation and poses a catastrophic risk, now probably larger than either a direct Russian or Chinese strike.
- A virulent pandemic poses a clear and present danger. While some kind of
mutated influenza virus is the most likely candidate, it is not the only one.
In November, 2002, a previously unrecognized disease which became referred
to as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) appeared in China. There was
no vaccine or treatment; but it responded to traditional treatment tools:
isolation, infection control, and contact tracing. It remains a pressing concern;
as with influenza, viral mutations could result in a severe global threat.
Similarly, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) first came to the attention
of medical authorities in June, 1981. Since then, the virus has infected some
65 million people and killed 25 million of them. Initially it was invariably
fatal. Now drugs have made it treatable in many cases, but mankind is fortunate
that at the very time the disease was first emerging, medical science was
also beginning to understand DNA and viral diseases. Had AIDS emerged a mere
couple decades earlier, it may well have spread widely before even being recognized
and development of effective drugs would have been practically impossible.
Mankind is also fortunate that AIDS requires intimate contact for transmission.
But AIDS is a stark reminder that new and highly virulent diseases can emerge
unexpectedly. Another new disease, just as virulent but readily transmissible,
would certainly wreak havoc with world health. It seems unlikely that a terrorist
group would be able to initiate a medical disaster of such magnitude, or even
that they would want to as it would inevitably affect their own preferred
populations. Nevertheless, the widespread availability of sophisticated biogenetic
equipment and the worldwide availability of many lethal viruses, including
those originally collected for biowarfare purposes, means that this is a possibility.
Some extremist group or even some perverted scientist could produce an agent
which turns out to be much more lethal or effective than anticipated.
Extreme Threats, which could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths and major damage, are certainly more likely to occur than catastrophic threats, but would not threaten the very existence of the nation. They include lesser versions of catastrophic threats, and fall into the same general categories: major natural upheavals, pandemics, and nuclear disasters. A few are particularly troublesome:
- While catastrophic pandemics remain highly unlikely, a lesser pandemic killing over a million Americans is well within the realm of possibility. The 1918 flu epidemic infected 28% of Americans and killed nearly 700,000. A similar outbreak today of a lethal influenza, a mutated SARS, or some new and unexpected disease could result in extreme casualty levels. Even more disturbing, the explosive development of biotechnology expands the possibility that even one skilled scientist with modest equipment could design a pathogen which would threaten the lives of millions of Americans.
- There are only a couple minor nuclear powers that could launch a limited nuclear strike against the United States. Iran may be developing both a warhead and an intercontinental missile, but at the moment has neither. North Korea apparently has nuclear weapons; in the best of circumstances, perhaps using a ship-borne missile, it could possibly strike Hawaii or the US West Coast. In the longer run, the United States could face a much wider range of nuclear armed states; as many as 40 countries have the technical skill, and in some cases the required material, to build a bomb. Our robust nuclear posture, which inhibits any Russian or Chinese threats, also increases the salience of nuclear weapons and could encourage lesser powers to acquire them, as North Korea clearly demonstrates.
- An unauthorized launch could potentially be carried out by some rogue commander in the Russian or Chinese forces, as well as within our own forces or those of lesser nuclear powers. In our own forces we have worked hard to put extensive safeguards in place to negate such a possibility, and we have doubtless shared some of this technology with our Allies and probably also with Russia. Nevertheless, no system is foolproof. Modern security systems rely heavily on computers, and hackers have clearly demonstrated how vulnerable supposedly secure systems can be. The larger the size of existing forces, the larger the potential for some unauthorized actions.
- Terrorist groups have been actively seeking nuclear capabilities. Thanks to a rogue Pakistan scientist, it has to be assumed that terrorists know how to construct a crude improvised nuclear device. The biggest challenge they face is obtaining the necessary nuclear materials: highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Alternatively, it might be possible for a terrorist gorup to obtain an actual nuclear weapon from an existing stockpile, either with government collusion or through bribes or blackmail. And the entire nation of Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, is at some risk of disintegration or takeover by radical elements.
Major threats could cause thousands of deaths. These are all around us. Routine risks include traffic accidents (which kill 3,000 people a month) and murders (another 1,000 a month). Medical shortcomings (including hospital infections) kill as many as 1,000 people a week. These are all individual deaths, scattered in time and place, and they have minimal impact on the national psyche.
- Katrina vividly demonstrated that natural disasters can rise to this level of seriousness
- Industrial and transportation accidents in the United States have rarely caused more than a few deaths, but larger disasters are possible as shown by the 1984 accident in Bhopal, India, which killed some 10,000 people. More troubling is the possibility that an insider group or a heavily armed attack group could cause a major incident, such as a purposeful explosion of a chlorine tank car in a particularly vulnerable location. A terrorist strike of this sort would have to be spectacularly successful for casualties to rise into the thousands.
- Similarly, terrorist strikes with conventional explosives have occasionally resulted in a hundred or more deaths, but would also have to be spectacularly successful for casualties to rise into the thousands.
- Nuclear accidents (such as Chernobyl or Three Mile Island) or a terrorist initiated incident (perhaps a radiation dispersal device) would cause relatively few immediate deaths, but perhaps thousands over a period of years. Economic impacts would be far more important than specific casualties.
- Military operations have historically resulted in high death levels: 400,000 US military deaths in World War II, well over 50,000 in Viet Nam. Current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been much less costly, with some 5,000 total deaths to the present. But these deaths have high public relevance and definitely reduce the likelihood of public support for future military operations.
Serious incidents, such as airplane crashes, can kill hundreds of people at a time and provoke a strong psychic reaction. Therefore, many people would rather drive than fly, even though driving involves a much higher risk of injury or death. This psychological reaction is a major focus of terrorist efforts; the failed attempt by underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for example, threatened the lives of some 200 people, but will result in massive security expenditures. Some 3,000 people were killed in the World Trade Center attack and this changed America forever; 3,000 people are killed every month on the roads and no one notices. While incidents of this magnitude can be very disruptive, they do not pose a strategic challenge to the United States. The biggest impact of such a terrorist incident would not be the incident itself, but the reaction (or over-reaction) to it.
Overall, threats to US lives are substantial but manageable. The largest threats are medical (pandemics, hospital shortcomings); addressing them requires research, improved hospital routines, and increasing the overall resiliency of the total medical system. Nuclear threats also remain troublesome. The biggest threat of a major nuclear exchange does not involve US adversaries, but rather an India-Pakistan exchange. Addressing this threat, as well as lesser nuclear threats, requires a wide range of security, diplomatic, and military actions.
The best single indicator of life protection is probably the life expectancy for a country. By this criterion, the United States only does tolerably well, ranking 45th in the world, and 16th out of 16 major wealthy countries in infant mortality, so there is certainly potential for significant improvement. This would require a better allocation of resources to minimize overall risk of death and is a difficult leadership challenge. The high salience of potential multiple deaths (e.g., an airplane bombing), especially when used to stir up political attacks, easily trumps any logical risk analysis. So, while it may be true that the chances of dying by a lightning strike are higher than dying in a terrorist strike, lightning strikes get no federal funding and potential airplane bombing gets tens or even hundreds of billions.
It is not only a question of the psychological impact of multiple deaths. Terrorist strikes, as well as auto accidents and hospital shortcomings, kill real people, but actions that save lives, even many thousands of lives, save only statistical lives. No one knows who they are, or even exactly how many there are. So, for example, diverting funds from protecting 200 people in an airplane to saving thousands of lives in hospitals gets little support. Recent newspaper articles have reported significant decreases in murder rates and traffic fatalities, representing hundreds of lives saved, but this will not figure in any political campaign; no one will be re-elected or denied re-election, for example, because of a two-month change in overall life expectancy, even though this would represent thousands of lives.
So it is easy to stoke concerns on high visibility but low risk threats (like a nuclear exchange) yet very difficult to do the same on low visibility but high risk situations (like hospital infections). If a threat can be clearly defined (nuclear missiles hitting a major city, or a suicide bomber blowing up an airplane in flight), then it is relatively easy to build support for some clear counter response, even if it is extremely expensive or only addresses some part of the threat (e.g., anti-missile defenses or full body scanners). When a threat is much more amorphous or theoretical (e.g., some new disease creating a pandemic or some mishap sparking an India-Pakistan confrontation) and countermeasures are complicated and do not provide any clearly defined impact (e.g., bolstering medical research or providing development assistance to Pakistan), then it is much more difficult to aggregate support. This is true even if the intrinsic risk is much higher, or the costs markedly lower.
No risk can be reduced to zero, but the closer we get the more expensive it becomes. With resources always limited, it is a mistake to allocate them on a case-by-case basis, rather than developing a balanced allocation based on an overall assessment of total risks. A skewed allocation undermines national well being. So, for example, if we overprotect against airplane bombers, we will be underprotecting against apartment bombers or dirty bombers or anthrax attacks or potential pandemics.
It is the leaders who must look beyond attention-grabbing threats to assess real risks and use their resources for maximum advantage. It is risks - the magnitude of a threat times the probability of occurrence - that are most important. Unfortunately, this is not a neat mathematical challenge, because typically both the actual threat magnitude and the probability are at best educated guesses, as well as the probable impact of countermeasures. So there can be no neat prioritized listing of risks. In addition, catastrophic threats, because of their irreversible consequences, require some extra attention even if risks seem low.
Any leader can expect that decisions will be challenged by both well intentioned and ill intentioned opponents, and it is not easy to separate irresponsible partisan attacks from thoughtful, responsible inquiry. So leaders have to make the case for a reasonable allocation of resources against total risks, and responsible opponents need to not only question a decision but provide their own case for some alternative. Only then can the overall live expectancy climb, making the nation a better place to live and saving the lives of thousands of people who will not even know their lives have been saved.