Clear and Present Danger - National Security’s Top Five Threats

By CTU Faculty 

CTU Homeland Security Degree - Big FiveIn 2012, National Defense Magazine (NDM) listed these as the top five threats to national security. Not much has changed. The threats – biological weapons, nuclear weapons, cyber attacks, climate change and transnational crime/terror – may not be surprising. Even still, it’s a solid reminder that the world remains a dangerous place. The tools of the trade are available and, in some cases, relatively unsophisticated. The United States is neither immune to these threats nor so technologically superior that overcoming them can be guaranteed.

The report is not comprehensive. Many other likely scenarios and threats exist; however, the article sheds light on threats with the greatest impact including:

This is where Public Health meets Homeland and National Security. These entities have a shared commitment to identifying diseases, tracking their spread and limiting the impact on communities by containing the disease outbreak. Toward that end, the National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) was created in 2007 as an interagency, federal-level hub focused on coordinating resources and sharing information. According to the report, NBIC and contributing federal agencies like the Center for Disease Control, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security, still have much work to do.

Nuclear Attack
The U.S. has wrestled with nuclear weapons issues for six decades. During that time, the government has invested significant financial resources to build weapons and develop protocols for use, but also to track nuclear programs and limit proliferation from non-U.S. groups and nations. The two key areas of focus are: 1) who has the weapons and 2) where the weapons are located. Although it’s not an area of focus, the intended use and target should also be considered. The report is skimpy, leaving out important information about the evolution of the threat of nuclear attack. Little time is spent on Iran or terrorist group interests, with negligible information on North Korea. Yet, there is an important takeaway: the best use of U.S. resources is on the “away game,” or finding and eliminating nuclear weapons before they reach U.S. shores.

If nothing else, cybersecurity is finally getting the attention it deserves. Now the challenge is to sort through the chaff of various potential threats to understand where we should focus our resources. According to the report, General Keith Alexander, National Security Agency Director and head of U.S. Cyber Command, there is a shift from theft-driven and disruption-focused cyberattacks to attacks primarily focused on destruction of critical infrastructures like dams, power grids and transportation systems. Anything that depends on computer systems for its operations is vulnerable. Alexander believes the focus shouldn’t be on if these destructive attacks will happen, but when, which makes sense. In the last year alone, U.S. critical infrastructure faced over 200 attacks. These may be probing attempts to discern vulnerabilities for future exploitation. It is clear that cybersecurity, and protection of core infrastructure upon which the U.S. economy and our security rests, will be this generation’s battle.

Climate Change
The report smartly includes the security implications due to changes in global climate patterns. Forget the political debate over climate science. Weather patterns are changing. From drought-related population migrations to melting ice in the Arctic, there is good reason to consider the impact on U.S. security. Part of the challenge identified by the NDM report will be monitoring changes and developing processes to respond – in terms of diplomacy and military options – in ways that enhance security. And, importantly, how does a nation sort through the dangers inherent to shifting climate to find opportunities, perhaps for new energy or mineral sources, or – in the case of the Arctic – new transportation routes?

Transnational Crime and Terror
At first glance, this category may not seem to be necessary. Certainly, the first three areas mentioned in this post – bio, nukes and cyber – can all be tools of transnational groups bent on either criminal or terrorist activity. The value here is in ensuring that security policy experts keep their eye on transnational threats as well as threat issues from nation-states, such as Iran, North Korea, China and Russia. The concern is the nexus of transnational crime and terror, with the former providing access and funding for the latter. This is a real threat, and indications appear to be more prevalent that such activity is indeed occurring.


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