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America's New Strategic Reality

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 introduced the United States to a new strategic reality, one which will confront it for generations to come. No longer can it rely on the conventional protections of time and distance as a result of being surrounded by vast oceans and air space. Instead, non-conventional attacks may come with little to no notice, and they may occur against American citizens and interests at home as well as abroad. In the War on Terror, an existential war of ideas, future attacks on the United States may originate from within as well as from outside the Nation's borders.

Nor can the Nation rely on the time between wars to reconstitute itself and focus on future threats. Instead, the new strategic reality, the context in which the Nation finds itself in the War on Terror, is similar to that in which the Army finds itself, that war is now the norm, the steady state environment, and not the exception (as described in the Army 2005 Posture Statement). It is a protracted and continuous war of finite conventional resources arrayed against infinite asymmetrical threats. The implications of this new strategic reality are clear: America must come to understand the character of the threat it faces and adapt accordingly. Failure to do so could have grave strategic consequences and invite challenges to American political, economic, and military leadership throughout the world.

While most of the Nation's conventional military resources are postured to deal with traditional military threats the more immediate and likely threat, and that to which the United States is more immediately vulnerable, comes from unconventional threats from either state or non-state entities. This threat has been the greatest focus of United States efforts since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Ultimately, the greatest threat to the nation may not be military at all, but may come from non-military methods of waging war.

The national challenge for the Nation in the War on Terror will be to transform its approach away from industrial age concepts that focus on conventional, symmetrical military threats and responses; are based on hierarchical command and control; and which are geography-based across territory and space. Instead, it must adopt a network-centric multi-disciplinary approach based on the understanding that a fundamental shift of power has occurred from industry to information. The new paradigm must be rooted in information age concepts that focus on non-conventional, asymmetrical threats and responses, to include non-military methods of applying force to wage war, and non-hierarchical command and control. It must expand beyond the geographical base of territory and space, to defeat the threats to which the United States is most vulnerable.

Perhaps the most significant aspects of the new strategic reality are its persistent nature, resulting in a blurring of the familiar distinctions between war and peace, potential for elimination of the distinction between combatants and noncombatants, and erasure of the foreign-domestic divide. These are the by-products of the information age paradigm for waging war. The Department of Defense Quadrennial Defense Review Report (2006) acknowledges the nature of the new strategic reality in its opening statement, "The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war." It is a war in which there is no foreseeable end in sight.

In the War on Terror, there can be no time for a strategic pause to reset or to plan for the future. Instead, the time horizon to address the strategic gaps in preparedness and performance is now, while engaged. Traditionally, the strategic military planning time horizon has been measured in months, years, and even decades. The strategic time horizon in the War on Terror is measured in the seconds, minutes, and hours in which asymmetrical attacks can occur. These timelines are incompatible and must be reconciled in order to secure the Nation's future.

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