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Uncertainty is the defining characteristic of today's strategic environment. We can identify trends but cannot predict specific events with precision. While we work to avoid being surprised, we must posture ourselves to handle unanticipated problems-we must plan with surprise in mind.

We contend with uncertainty by adapting to circumstances and influencing events. It is not enough to react to change. This strategy focuses on safeguarding U.S. freedoms and interests while working actively to forestall the emergence of new challenges.


"America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones. We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few." - National Security Strategy, September 2002

The U.S. military predominates in the world in traditional forms of warfare. Potential adversaries accordingly shift away from challenging the United States through traditional military action and adopt asymmetric capabilities and methods. An array of traditional, irregular, catastrophic, and disruptive capabilities and methods threaten U.S. interests:

  • Traditional challenges are posed by states employing recognized military capabilities and forces in well understood forms of military competition and conflict.

  • Irregular challenges come from those employing "unconventional" methods to counter the traditional advantages of stronger opponents.

  • Catastrophic challenges involve the acquisition, possession, and use of WMD or methods producing WMD like effects.

  • Disruptive challenges may come from adversaries who develop and use breakthrough technologies to negate current U.S. advantages in key operational domains.

These categories overlap. Actors proficient in one can be expected to try to reinforce their position with methods and capabilities drawn from others.

Indeed, recent experience indicates that the most dangerous circumstances arise when we face a complex of challenges. For example, our adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan presented both traditional and irregular challenges. Terrorist groups like al Qaeda are irregular threats but also actively seek catastrophic capabilities. North Korea at once poses traditional, irregular, and catastrophic challenges. Finally, in the future, the most capable opponents may seek to combine truly disruptive capacity with traditional, irregular, or catastrophic forms of warfare.

Traditional challenges. These challenges are most often associated with states employing armies, navies, and air forces in long-established forms of military competition. Traditional military challenges remain important, as many states maintain capabilities to influence security conditions in their region. However, allied superiority in traditional domains, coupled with the costs of traditional military competition, drastically reduce adversaries' incentives to compete with us in this arena.

As formidable as U.S. capabilities are against traditional opponents, we cannot ignore the challenges that such adversaries might present. Traditional challenges require us to maintain sufficient combat capability in key areas of military competition.

Irregular challenges. Increasingly sophisticated irregular methods e.g., terrorism and insurgency challenge U.S. security interests. Adversaries employing irregular methods aim to erode U.S. influence, patience, and political will. Irregular opponents often take a long term approach, attempting to impose prohibitive human, material, financial, and political costs on the United States to compel strategic retreat from a key region or course of action.

Two factors have intensified the danger of irregular challenges: the rise of extremist ideologies and the absence of effective governance.

Political, religious, and ethnic extremism continues to fuel conflicts worldwide.

The absence of effective governance in many parts of the world creates sanctuaries for terrorists, criminals, and insurgents. Many states are unable, and in some cases unwilling, to exercise effective control over their territory or frontiers, thus leaving areas open to hostile exploitation.

Our experience in the war on terrorism points to the need to reorient our military capabilities to contend with such irregular challenges more effectively.

Catastrophic challenges. In the face of American dominance in traditional forms of warfare, some hostile forces are seeking to acquire catastrophic capabilities, particularly weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Porous international borders, weak international controls, and easy access to information related technologies facilitate these efforts. Particularly troublesome is the nexus of transnational terrorists, proliferation, and problem states that possess or seek WMD, increasing the risk of WMD attack against the United States.

Proliferation of WMD technology and expertise makes contending with catastrophic challenges an urgent priority. Even a single catastrophicattack against the United States or an ally would be unacceptable. We will place greater emphasis on those capabilities that enable us to dissuade others from acquiring catastrophic capabilities, to deter their use and, when necessary, to defeat them before they can be employed.

Disruptive challenges. In rare instances, revolutionary technology and associated military innovation can fundamentally alter long-established concepts of warfare. Some potential adversaries are seeking disruptive capabilities to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities and offset the current advantages of the United States and its partners.

Some disruptive breakthroughs, including advances in biotechnology, cyber operations, space, or directed energy weapons, could seriously endanger our security.

As such breakthroughs can be unpredictable, we should recognize their potential consequences and hedge against them.


Alongside the four security challenges are far reaching changes in the international system:

  • We continually adapt our defense partnerships.

  • Key states face important decisions that will affect their strategic position.

  • Some problem states will continue to pose challenges, while others could realize that their current policies undermine their own security.

  • Hostile, non state actors have substantial numbers, capability, and, influence.

International partnerships. International partnerships continue to be a principal source of our strength. Shared principles, a common view of threats, and commitment to cooperation provide far greater security than we could achieve on our own. Unprecedented cooperation in the war on terrorism is an example of the benefit of strong international partnerships.

Today, the United States and its partners are threatened not just by enemies who seek to oppose us through traditional means, but also by an active spectrum of non traditional challenges. Key U.S. relationships around the globe are adapting and broadening in response to these changes. Also, we have significantly expanded our circle of security partners around the world.

Key states. Several key states face basic decisions about their roles in global and regional politics, economics, and security, and the pace and direction of their own internal evolution. These decisions may change their strategic position in the world and their relationship with the United States. This uncertainty presents both opportunities and potential challenges for the United States. Some states may move toward greater cooperation with the United States, while others could evolve into capable regional rivals or enemies.

Over time, some rising powers may be able to threaten the United States and our partners directly, rival us in key areas of military and technological competition, or threaten U.S. interests by pursuing dominance over key regions. In other cases, if adverse economic, political, and demographic trends continue, large capable states could become dangerously unstable and increasingly ungovernable, creating significant future challenges.

While remaining alert to the possibility of renewed great power competition, recent developments in our relations with states like Russia and China should encourage a degree of hope. As the President's National Security Strategy states, "Today, the international community has the best chance since the rise of the nation state in the seventeenth century to build a world where great powers compete in peace instead of continually prepare for war."

Problem states. Problem states will continue to undermine regional stability and threaten U.S. interests. These states are hostile to U.S. principles. They commonly squander their resources to benefit ruling elites, their armed forces, or extremist clients. They often disregard international law and violate international agreements. Problem states may seek WMD or other destabilizing military capabilities. Some support terrorist activities, including by giving terrorists safe haven.

As recently demonstrated by Libya, however, some problem states may recognize that the pursuit of WMD leaves them less, not more, secure.

Significant non state actors. Countering the military capabilities of state competitors alone cannot guarantee U.S. security. Challenges today emanate from a variety of state and non state sources. The latter are a diverse collection of terrorists, insurgents, paramilitaries, and criminals who seek to undermine the legitimate governance of some states and who challenge the United States and its interests.


This strategy is built on key assumptions about the world, the nature of U.S. strengths and vulnerabilities, and the opportunities and challenges we may see in the coming decade.


The United States will continue to enjoy a number of advantages:

  • We will retain a resilient network of alliances and partnerships.

  • We will have no global peer competitor and will remain unmatched in traditional military capability.

  • We will maintain important advantages in other elements of national power-e.g., political, economic, technological, and cultural.

  • We will continue to play leading roles on issues of common international concern and will retain influence worldwide.


Nevertheless, we have vulnerabilities:

  • Our capacity to address global security challenges alone will be insufficient.

  • Some allies and partners will decide not to act with us or will lack the capacity to act with us.

  • Our leading position in world affairs will continue to breed unease, a degree of resentment, and resistance.

  • Our strength as a nation state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism.

  • We and our allies will be the principal targets of extremism and terrorism.

  • Natural forces of inertia and resistance to change will constrain military transformation.


The future also offers opportunities:

  • The end of the Cold War and our capacity to influence global events open the prospect for a new and peaceful state system in the world.

  • Positive developments in Iraq and Afghanistan strengthen U.S. influence and credibility.

  • Problem states themselves will increasingly be vulnerable to the forces of positive political and economic change.

  • Many of our key partners want to deepen our security relationships with them.

  • New international partners are seeking integration into our system of alliances and partnerships.


In the framework of the four mature and emerging challenges outlined earlier, we will contend with the following particular challenges:

  • Though we have no global peer, we will have competitors and enemies-state and non state.

  • Key international actors may choose strategic paths contrary to the interests of the United States.

  • Crises related to political stability and governance will pose significant security challenges. Some of these may threaten fundamental interests of the United States, requiring a military response.

  • Internationally-even among our closest partners-threats will be perceived differently, and consensus may be difficult to achieve.


All this necessitates an active defense of the nation and its interests, as explained below and in the National Military Strategy.

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