DoD’s Joint Operating Environment Report: America’s 21st Century Defense Priorities

DoD's Joint Operating Environment Report: America's 21st Century Defense Priorities - top government contractors - best government contracting event

The Department of Defense has released its Joint Operating Environment (JOE) report outlining the threats America will face through 2030 and the DoD’s mitigation strategy.  The report lists a number of unconventional threats facing the United States – below is a brief summary.

Unconventional Threats: Non-States

Dramatic population growth in the developing world will see Yemen and Nigeria rival Russia in terms of population.  Population growth is focused almost exclusively in the developing world: developed nations like Germany, France, Japan and Korea will see an absolute drop in population levels.

The Middle East

Unsurprisingly, the JOE report says “Based on current evidence, a principal nexus of conflict will continue to be the region from Morocco to Pakistan through to Central Asia.” The Middle East’s volatile combination of political instability and economic importance (due to its massive energy reserves), combined with mounting shortages caused by a surge in population in areas with localized delivery mechanisms for staple crops and clean water, has given rise to  “shadow globalization,” the mingling of terrorist and criminal enterprises.

Jalaluddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Jalaluddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Just as FARC guerillas in Colombia came to dominate the cocaine trade as a way to finance terrorist activities, the Taliban has come to exploit the opium trade to back activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  According to the JOE report: “This convergence means that funding for violent conflicts will interplay and abet the growth of global gray and black markets. The current size of these markets is already $2-3 trillion and is growing faster than legal commercial trade; it has the potential to equal a third of global GDP by 2020.”

The unconventional threat expands to cyberspace: hackers are growing increasingly sophisticated, even employing licensing technology for computer viruses, and the problem of attribution in cyberspace means that it is difficult to distinguish between sanctioned and non-sanctioned attacks.

Conventional Threats: States

Rising levels of U.S. debt will be a driving force that shapes America’s role in the future.  While dismal economic predictions are largely symptomatic of the current economic climate, unsustainable levels of entitlement and debt interest spending will force a decrease in defense spending in relative terms.  Britain’s toxic levels of debt in the period between World War I and World War II left it unable to stop Germany’s rapid militarization, even if it had mustered the political wherewithal to do so.


Wen Jiabao
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao

Also, the single largest holder of U.S. currency reserves and treasury bonds is China, and while this does present a deterrent to any potential Chinese aggression (interest on U.S. debt provides a lucrative revenue stream) it leaves America in a diminished posture regarding economic self-determination.  Chinese military analysts hold the U.S. military command and control structure in high regard, evidenced by the fact that “in the year 2000, the PLA had more students in America“™s graduate schools than the U.S. military, giving the Chinese a growing understanding of America and its military.”

The JOE also notes that “an unsuccessful China may prove more dangerous than a successful one,” and that “Due to its “one child“ policy, China may grow old before it grows rich. Furthermore, a cultural preference for male heirs will create a surplus male population nearing 30 million by 2020.”  This is uncharted territory.


Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Russia’s population is shrinking, with birth rates below replacement levels of 2.1, but military spending is increasing at an alarming rate.  The Kremlin has approved year-over-year increases of 20%, placing emphasis on modernization and even developing new ballistic missile technology.  Per the JOE report, “For all its current riches, the brilliance of Moscow“™s resurgence, and the trappings of military power, Russia cannot hide the conditions of the remainder of the country. The life expectancy of Russia“™s male population, 59 years, is 148th in the world and places the country somewhere between East Timor and Haiti.”  This, coupled with a failure to diversify its economy past oil and natural gas exports, leave Russia vulnerable on the world stage.

Russia has also been a destabilizing influence locally, “play[ing] on ethnic and national tension to extend its influence in its “near abroad.“  In the Caucasus region, especially Georgia and its Abkhazian and South Ossetian provinces, Russia has provided direct support to separatists. In other cases, such as the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan or in the Trans-Dnestrian region of Moldova, Russia provides indirect support to keep these conflicts simmering.”


Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

The JOE takes a decidedly post-modernist turn when it discusses contemporary “narratives” constructed by radical groups worldwide that “‘narratives’ that effectively dehumanize their opponents, legitimizing in their eyes any tactic no matter how abhorrent to civilized norms of conduct.”  Fighting these “narratives” requires a paradigm shift in military thought, a sentiment echoed by Admiral Michael Mullen, “As is true with most insurgencies, victory will not appear decisive or complete. It will certainly not rest on military successes.”

China sees itself as a military competitor with the United States primarily in three areas: cyberspace, submarine warfare and space, and these are the arenas where the United States has been dominant in recent history.  To compete, the US must take a cue from British air defense efforts in World War II, as Churchill noted, “it was the operational efficiency rather than novelty of equipment that was the British achievement.“

The US must expect attacks on sustainment and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, as well as its command and control networks, and must avoid the complete dependence on a networked environment that would create an easily-exploitable “Achilles’ heel” in military capabilities.

Emerging technologies will play a major role in future U.S. warfighting. “For example, directed energy systems may begin making an appearance in the defense against ballistic missiles, artillery, mortars, and rocket systems, and in tactical ground attack roles, perhaps allowing the Joint Force more room to maneuver and widen areas sheltered from attack by ballistic weaponry of all types.”

Additionally, robotics will become increasingly autonomous, and relieve flesh-and-blood soldiers of some of the most dangerous tasks of warfare.  Already, partially-autonomous helicopter resupply UAVs are in development by Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky.

To sum up, new developments in technology mean that the United States is far from finished on the global stage, but it is the effective implementation of these new capabilities rather than the technologies themselves that will determine our place in the world of 2030.

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