6 Largest National Security Threats Facing the U.S. Today


As the contentious political debates around Chuck Hagel's secretary of defense nomination continue, some are calling the Republican filibuster a threat to U.S. national security. Senator Claire McCaskill noted, "All they’re doing is sending a signal to the rest of the world is that we’re not united in a bipartisan way around the issue of national security. That is damaging to our national security."

Still, the fight over Hagel's confirmation can't last forever. The next secretary of defense will have to face significant national security challenges, challenges as new as cyber security and as old as border security, both of which President Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Here are the six most pressing national security issues America faces today.

1. Climate change

The main national security threat facing the U.S. is one that threatens the entire globe. The Pentagon has been vocal about the threat of climate change since its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, which predicted an increase in requests for help from civilian authorities battling floods, wildfires, and hurricanes.

This November, a CIA-commissioned study by the National Research Council warned of unpredictable, climate change-induced crises occurring with increased frequency.  Hurricane Sandy is just a taste of the crises that may affect public health systems as well as food, energy, and water supplies and markets. The study also cites climate change-related conflicts emerging around the Nile watershed, where 300 million Egyptians, Sudanese, and Ethiopians live and farm, and where South Korean and Saudi Arabian companies have purchased land. 

Though climate change legislation is unlikely to pass a Republican-dominated House, the NRC report hasn’t fallen on deaf ears, as President Obama used his State of the Union address to promise executive actions.

2. Nuclear security 

With nine countries possessing nuclear weapons, nuclear security is one of the most pressing and complex national security issues facing the Obama administration. In October, Russia said it would not renew the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program with the U.S., stating it might continue the program under its own supervision and initiative. The choice to refuse renewal is related to frustration over the U.S. missile defense system being put in place in Europe.

Fears of a nuclear-armed Iran and North Korea’s recent nuclear tests are making arms reduction even more difficult. North Korea’s recent nuclear test will likely strengthen Republican concerns about disarming while America’s professed enemies increase their caches, despite the fact that former state department non-proliferation official Mark Fitzpatrick says American disarmament has little effect on North Korea, as a 90% cut in the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal “would be still much more than what North Korea has.”

Iran’s intransigence is another issue, as recent attempts by the IAEA to secure further investigations into the country’s nuclear program have failed.

3. Cyber security

Cyber attacks may not have the emotional pull of a nuclear blast, but former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned of a “cyber-Pearl Harbor” that involves launching “several attacks on our critical infrastructure at one time, in combination with a physical attack." 

Panetta’s speech at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York was a response to attacks on American financial institutes originating in China, Russia, Iran, and from militant groups across the globe.

Cyber attacks are not limited to financial institutions and infrastructure. The New York Times came under fire from Chinese hackers following a report on the assets of Premier Wen Jiabao’s family. Cyber attacks against journalists have been occurring since 2008 and are though to be part of a spying campaign that is as much about stealing trade secrets as it is about controlling its public image.

The Obama administration is no stranger to committing cyber attacks, the highest profile one being the U.S.-Israeli Stuxnet attack on an Iranian fuel enrichment facility that destroyed 1,000 centrifuges. The president used his State of the Union address to announce an executive order on cyber security that raised concern among tech advocates about the mischaracterization of hackers. 

4. Spending cuts to diplomatic services

Another major source of national security risk stems from the potential cuts to security at U.S. embassies. $168 million dollars may be cut from the “World Wide Security Protection” and “Embassy Security, Construction and Maintenance Accounts” should the March 1st sequestration go through. According to Matt Dennis, spokesman for the Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, funding from these accounts is “used to enhance safety and security through construction upgrades and hiring trained and reliable local security personnel."

More cuts to the diplomatic budget following the September 11 attack on Benghazi and the recent suicide attack on the U.S. embassy in Turkey threatens national security by increasing risks to American diplomats and interests abroad, which in turn hinders contact between diplomats and the population of the countries they’re working in, obstructing a crucial facet of diplomatic work: a human face.

5. Conflating aid and defense

On its face, foreign aid a tool of soft power, but as UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk shows in his piece “When soft power is hard,” it is tied more to power politics than to humanitarianism. With 23% of the State Department USAID budget going to “defending security interests” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, foreign aid has made the jump from poverty alleviation to nation building. Development and defense have become, in the words of Hilary Clinton, “mutually reinforcing.” In Afghanistan for example, USAID policies are tied to counterinsurgency efforts that place the lives of local and international aid workers in jeopardy. 

The strings attached to USAID tarnish America’s image abroad, rendering its actions suspect. This leads to misdirection of funds and allows for serious oversight. For an succinct study of this misdirection, see Craig Davis’ “’A’ is for Allah, ‘J’ is for Jihad,” which details how USAID funded educational materials to Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s helped sow the seeds of fundamentalism. This mistrust of aid, combined with budget cuts to diplomatic services makes for a dangerous situation, where whatever legitimacy was left of soft power has all but disintegrated.  

This leads us to the next national security threat facing the U.S. today…

6. Unchecked war

While the so-called soft power produced by aid and public diplomacy wanes, Obama’s drone program is not shoring up much support for America abroad.

In Pakistan, where drone strikes have killed between 400 to 800 civilians and injured over a thousand more, a major study recently reported that 74% of the population considers America an enemy. As Pakistan’s people become increasingly vocal about their opposition to the strikes, the government has stopped looking the other way and started condemning the attacks as “illegal” and an affront to its sovereignty.

Covert actions have been occurring in Yemen for some time now. Drone strikes began occurring in 2009 and of the 1,000 or so people killed in the actions, up to 178 were civilians. While Yemen’s government seems to be supportive of the attacks, they have serious implications for the security situation in the country and for the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the population. For example, a recent attack has killed not only Al-Qaeda targets but also a popular moderate cleric who was in the middle of negotiations with the extremists.

As drone attacks spread to Somalia, there is real concern that they create untenable political situations as well as a new militants, with the New York Times reporting “drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants.”