Threat Inflation and Its Consequences

A sober assessment of the facts reveals the United States’ fortunate circumstances and, therefore, its ability to move towards a restrained strategy.

May 27, 2020 • Commentary
This is an excerpt from the Cato White Paper “Building a Modern Military: The Force Meets Geopolitical Realities.” You can read the full report here.

The U.S. innovation base and geographic distance from potential adversaries, ensure that the United States will remain relatively secure from traditional dangers for the foreseeable future. Many Americans today are more fearful of infectious diseases than foreign invasion or terrorism – though those attitudes could shift back once the coronavirus abates. However, the United States does not always capitalize on its unique advantages. While there are many challenges to U.S. interests, the immediate and grave threats to the homeland do not come from nation states. The prospect of a great power war with China is horrifying, yet remote. War on the Korean peninsula would be nearly suicidal for both South Korea and North Korea. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has engaged in numerous actions below the threshold of armed conflict, including election interference through various social media campaigns, but knows that direct military conflict with the United States and Europe would be disastrous. Russia has used its relatively meager conventional capabilities to attack neighboring states not sheltered under the U.S. defensive umbrella (e.g. Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014) but has generally stopped short of attacking NATO member states. Iran has grown adept at using proxies to extend its influence in the Middle East, but neither Tehran nor Washington seems to want war, despite recent escalation and provocations in the region.1

A sober assessment of these facts reveals the United States’ fortunate circumstances and, therefore, its ability to move towards a restrained strategy. The dominant view within the U.S. defense establishment instead reflects rampant threat inflation that suggests the United States is falling behind.2 This mindset results in a needlessly aggressive strategy, and an overly costly military posture.3 Strategic planners should prioritize among a range of future challenges, some of which are not susceptible to military solutions. The global COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the threat such non‐​traditional challenges can pose to Americans’ safety. But while a more innovative and streamlined defensive force would be in the public interest, the Pentagon and its congressional allies may continue to expend energy on preserving existing or “legacy” weapons systems and programs that frequently fail to meet design goals, in part because such systems benefit a small but vocal constituency of weapons manufacturers and defense contractors.

Future plans for confronting potential challengers in all domains—including air, land, sea, space, and cyber—should proceed with the confidence that there is adequate time to make prudent decisions. In the process, Pentagon planners should be forward thinking and acknowledge that the capabilities that prevailed in the world wars of the 20th century may have little relevance in the 21st. For example, what instruments of U.S. power will enable both coercion and deterrence? What advances in military technology have no direct counters? What branches of the military will use cutting‐​edge technology, and what types of personnel, both in uniform and out, will be needed to support a modern military? Some within the defense establishment are asking such questions, but more research, education, and innovation is needed to solve future challenges.

About the Authors
Lauren Sander

1 The two most significant events were a September 2019 attack against a Saudi oil refinery and the January 2020 killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and subsequent Iranian missile attack against a U.S. military base in Iraq. See Ben Hubbard, Palko Karasz, and Stanley Reed, “Two Major Saudi Oil Installations Hit by Drone Strike, and U.S. Blames Iran,” New York Times, September 15, 2019, https://​www​.nytimes​.com/​2​0​1​9​/​0​9​/​1​4​/​w​o​r​l​d​/​m​i​d​d​l​e​e​a​s​t​/​s​a​u​d​i​-​a​r​a​b​i​a​-​r​efine…; and Louisa Loveluck, “U.S. Commanders at al‐​Asad Base Believe Iranian Missile Barrage was Designed to Kill,” Washington Post, January 13, 2020, https://​www​.wash​ing​ton​post​.com/​w​o​r​l​d​/​m​i​d​d​l​e​_​e​a​s​t​/​a​l​-​a​s​a​d​-​b​a​s​e​-​h​a​d​-​m​i​n​u​t​e​s​-​n​o​t​i​c​e​-​b​e​f​o​r​e​-​t​h​e​-​i​r​a​n​i​a​n​-​r​o​c​k​e​t​s​-​c​a​m​e​-​c​r​a​s​h​i​n​g​-​d​o​w​n​-​i​n​-​a​n​-​h​o​u​r​-​l​o​n​g​-​b​a​r​r​a​g​e​/​2​0​2​0​/​0​1​/​1​3​/​5​0​f​c​9​d​d​6​-​3​3​e​2​-​1​1​e​a​-​9​7​1​b​-​4​3​b​e​c​3​f​f​9​8​6​0​_​s​t​o​r​y​.html.

2 For more, see Cato’s project on threat inflation, https://​www​.cato​.org/​p​r​o​j​e​c​t​-​t​h​r​e​a​t​-​i​n​f​l​ation.

3 See, for example, Robert K. Ackerman, “Hyperwar is Coming Faster than You Think,” Signal, February 8, 2018, https://​www​.afcea​.org/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​h​y​p​e​r​w​a​r​-​c​o​m​i​n​g​-​f​a​s​t​e​r​-​y​o​u​-​think.