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Twenty-First-Century Threats in a Complex World: Dealing with DUST in the Wind

  • Published
  • By Dr. Robert McCreight


As the second decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, the United States can be proud of its modern arsenal, defense R&D, and the development of future platforms. We know that building and maintaining the prevalence of ICBM and cruise missiles, weapon of mass destruction (WMD) systems, and cutting-edge combat armaments are the foundation of our security, but it is fair to ask whether we have accounted adequately for the full spectrum of threats around the corner. Insights and theories suitable for battles of the past may not fit the future. We urgently need to grasp and gauge these future threats by applying strategic analysis, forward thinking, and imagination before we unwittingly forfeit our advantages in geopolitical security.

These insidious threats contain the ever-present risk of strategic surprise and loss of geostrategic edge in future technology. That future is replete with exceptionally challenging outcomes in the broad terrain of dual-use science and technology (DUST). While virtually all aspects of emergent science and technology have both beneficial and potentially harmful applications and thereby also the risk of engineered multi-technological convergence, the threat terrain remains obscure. If we accept that many future, albeit ill-defined, emerging threats signal a complicated, multilayered scenario laden with surprises that ordinary and traditional threat estimates overlook, then we are at risk. Worse, serious and uniform consensus by the intelligence community and national security agencies on what and how we should monitor and redirect strategic warning toward future DUST threats is ambiguous. There is also the risk of being blind, overconfident, or smugly unaware of what foes and rivals may be developing covertly to outmaneuver, surpass, or nullify our newest systems. Generally, the scope, scale, magnitude, and reach of DUST threats arising after 2020 creates a genuine mix of familiar old threats and an array of some very new and complex ones hard to ignore. The tempo of direct, engineered, and convergent DUST growth will be greatest after 2020.

This new landscape is a solemn burden shared by the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, State, and Commerce and the interagency national security and intelligence community. Intelligence tasking and targeted collection focusing on future DUST systems globally that dramatically alter or redefine command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) and potentially merge information operations downstream with electronic warfare in insidious ways are worth considering. Future threat scenarios derived from globally unseen DUST developments residing inside benign academic departments, think tanks, or covert science programs and technology enterprises must be considered. However, what seems to be lost in the discussion are the framework, principles, and methodology that experts, intelligence analysts, and national security leaders could rely on to discern what the future threat terrain looks like or could become. Indicators of strategic warning after 2020 that reside quietly inside unlimited DUST strongholds are needed to shift emphasis.

Appreciating the spectrum of surprises embedded in DUST is critical. History displays instances where the inability to gauge and grasp the authenticity of future attacks spelled doom for the victims, leaders, and policy makers involved. Future threat assessments must begin with a realistic, full-spectrum appreciation for the role DUST symbolizes. Ironically, taking a page from nuclear doctrine, we must seriously consider the “countervalue” set of future conflict battlefields where civilians and societal infrastructure are of equivalent strategic value. Focused threat assessments failing to integrate the new frontier of DUST threats to military and civilian targets will fall short of strategic imagination and thereby fail national security leaders at critical times, potentially leading to irreversible security setbacks.

The DUST Challenge

The task of assessing new and emerging twenty-first-century century threats is an ongoing challenge. It features the intractable problem of discerning covert weapons development, nascent geostrategic aggressors, the rise of new terror groups, clandestine research, and the secret proliferation of future weapons technologies before they overwhelm us. DUST issues large and small open the door to a vast, often unproven universe of future weapons systems where the prospect of multi-domain unrestricted warfare takes on a horrific scope and impact for those unwilling or unable to contend with it. Of course, traditional foes and geostrategic rivals will persist in nibbling at the margins of our global security posture and search relentlessly for ways to exploit or undermine it. However, what seems more likely is that beginning in 2020, a nasty mix of traditional geostrategic challenges along with several unanticipated, innovative weapons systems will surface—ushering in an era of progressively more complex, covertly engineered, and technologically superior convergent armaments. These future weapons will be tested and employed outside the dragnet of conventional intelligence and ISR mechanisms without regard for Western notions of legal or ethical fairness. Their developers are busily engaged in other forms of devising DUST emergent weapons systems where convergent blends of advanced technologies are meant to defeat or bypass any systems the United States, NATO nations, and our other allies possess or deploy.

Such weapons will arise literally out of the future DUST environment and inhabit combat arenas overlooked, bypassed, ignored, or neglected by defense experts. The inherent challenges to the United States after 2020 will be threefold. First, they will defy easy and common-sense detection and deterrence, making their battlefield defeat less likely. Second, they will arise in ambiguous and anomalous weapons areas seen as “low likelihood, high-risk, and low-priority” threats by those otherwise distracted by formulating traditional Western defense concepts. Third, they will emerge in future battlefield situations where they were least identified, expected, or properly assessed in advance of kinetic or nonkinetic use against civilian targets. As such, strategic warning against DUST platforms that concentrate solely on counterforce considerations avoiding the implications of civilian leadership and infrastructure management vulnerabilities will likely fall short.

In the decade after 2020, the scope, scale, and magnitude of strategic surprise will change dramatically. Beyond a mere lack of imagination, the intractable bureaucratic nature of doing what worked repeatedly in past conflicts will win out relentlessly over future focused programs—pushing the science and technology envelope to assess and analyze the offensive and defensive dimensions of DUST. In the interim, rivals and foes will proceed to exploit DUST systems for maximum effect unbridled and unhinged. US experts fascinated by advances in exoskeletons, intensive diets and exercise, robotic and autonomous platforms, and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled ISR systems risk distracting themselves from those nascent developments and covert discoveries transpiring in foreign lands. Under a wide open exploration of DUST opportunities, rivals and foes will pursue convergent blends of nanotech, neurotech, nanobiology, neurobiology, AI, and robotics toward a deliberate outcome. They desire perfectly focused weapons singularity, deadly DUST convergence, and runaway quantum combat systems. We will witness the restoration of countervalue targeting as never before. Regrettably, strategic warning will not alert us, and the West will neither recognize nor understand it when it emerges. DUST convergence will further defy detection and deterrence owing to its complexity, and we will discover painfully imperfect defenses against it. Finding ways to ultimately defeat it will exhaust talent and resources as we discover those persistent enemies exploiting the cracks and seams in our strategic calculus. Attaining and maintaining a global technological edge will be a massive struggle, and there are few guarantees of success. In some dire scenarios, we may only possess the ability to detect future DUST threats rather than overcome and defeat them. All of this derives from the naïve perspective that tomorrow’s wars mirror those of the past.

(DARPA photo)

Figure 1. Medical countermeasures. Recent DARPA research has shown the ability to accelerate production of millions of doses of vaccine using novel plant-based methods. However, clinical trials for vaccines and drugs cannot be initiated without preclinical evidence of their safety in people. Human safety and drug performance is not always effectively predicted through animal testing and the Department of Defense must rapidly develop and field safe and effective medical countermeasures against biological threats to warfighters. To create a pathway for fielding safe and effective countermeasures, DARPA has launched the Microphysiological Systems program. MPS will develop a platform that uses engineered human tissue to mimic human physiological systems. The interactions that candidate drugs and vaccines have with these mimics will accurately predict the safety and effectiveness that the countermeasures would have if administered to people. The resulting platform should increase the quality and potentially the number of novel therapies that move through the pipeline and into clinical care.

Gauging the Immediacy of the DUST Threat

Those who advise that DUST threat manifestations are at least a decade distant and therefore do not require immediate attention and concern may be overlooking the available evidence of their use and value. We are wedded to WMD matters, killer satellites, hypersonics, robotic platforms and soldier enhancements. That fixation may blind us to incipient DUST threats arising after 2020. This is especially true in the neurocognitive, nonkinetic domain, which in some cases is being bypassed by more urgent worries about AI, cyber, and hypersonics. While these security concerns have merit, we must dive deeper into future DUST iterations. Hapless diplomatic victims of hostile-modified radiofrequency (RF) and microwave technology were likely compromised in Guangzhou, China, and Havana, Cuba, where largely irreversible neurocognitive damage has affected dozens of persons. Isolated press reports exist of RF/microwave neurocognitive weapons use in selective repressive measures by China against protestors in Hong Kong. This nonkinetic technology will quietly advance covertly as its net strategic threat value is dismissed when compared to more deadly weapons systems. Literally operating under the radar, nonkinetic DUST platforms merit careful thought. If the West rolls out new weapons platforms only partially offsetting asymmetric DUST systems being devised elsewhere, the global threat spectrum changes. Experts believe that further operational tests will continue in the years ahead until the scope and effective range of these neurocognitive weapons systems can be perfected for wider theater and tactical combat use, as well as employment against civilian [countervalue] targets. This prospect manifests just as AI and cyber reflect a mix of counterforce and countervalue threats that command greater attention.

In the dawning months of 2020, we cannot erase the margin of uncertainty, nor can we eliminate any guesswork and ambiguity in determining whether a foe possesses a game-changing weapons system. We can add another perspective that may help prepare ourselves for the analytical demands of the twenty-first century. Reliance on improved DUST analysis, assessing singularity and quantum systems, and red teaming ourselves into better postures of readiness are the defining challenges of our future. Our 2020 doctrine and readiness training must account for this threshold risk. In many cases, strategic warning is also absent and reflects a dangerous trend in preparing our national defense enterprise to recognize and alert senior leadership to this emergent threat. Serious, repeated war gaming of DUST scenarios and our responses to them are only a starting point, but essential to help form strategic thinking about the issue. So it is fair to ask whether national security leadership is wrestling with these emergent and convergent DUST issues in tabletop exercises and seminars.

Threats after 2020: What Is to Be Done?

Nullifying the future DUST threat from any future global enemy is a worthy strategic goal; however, today we lack the wherewithal to build and implement it. We start with a sober recognition that every offensive platform under consideration has to be viewed in terms of its net defensive capabilities. Neutralizing a technology you cannot define, identify, or expect and anticipate leads to a dismal outcome. In an era where we have learned to respect the power of fully asymmetric warfare, we ought to consider what future DUST singularity, hyper-convergent AI technologies, and future weapons systems signify. How equipped are we to reckon with this eventuality? What discerning analytical and strategic lens can be applied to reduce our risks of exposure or overconfidence? Keeping a technological edge is a constant battle; simply exhorting leaders to sustain it does not assure even partial success.

Looking ahead, it seems that one overriding challenge is to identify foreign foes covertly devising newer forms of warfare technologies, including the relentless exploitation of DUST for strategic advantage or surprise. We remember painfully that the real risks of strategic surprise are genuine, elusive, and pervasive. It is never more than one careless assumption, myopic perspective, or flawed analysis tied to another. Experience has taught that “mirror-imaging” can blind us to imagining weapons systems that defy or overcome our own armaments. We risk calamity if we languish in comfortable perspectives of what selected enemies are researching but fall short of imagining what the spectrum of possible future threats tolerates. Added to that dilemma is the conundrum of flawless technological forecasting—it simply does not exist. Such forecasting, despite its lofty aims, remains amorphous, ambiguous, and largely unimaginative.

There is also the insidious trap of illogical, uninformed deterrent thinking that always discovers too late those new lethal systems that overcome what we once confidently expected would eternally protect us. Moreover, there are the periodic historical errors, gaps in estimates, and misjudgments that have plagued our intelligence agencies and undermined confidence in their net assessments and threat forecasts. Intelligence experts and national security leaders alike must adjust their perspectives to account for the DUST wave and all it contains. True enough, history will hold senior policy makers accountable, and allegations of skewed, incomplete, or poor intelligence will distribute the blame for strategic blunders evenly. However, we must change the focus, optempo, and emphasis of our analytical frameworks. Higher priority must be accorded DUST, technological singularity, and quantum systems, else we risk catastrophic disadvantage and endure strategic blind spots.

One thing remains clear as we contemplate what measures will equip us properly for a messy, complex security environment where future threats must be understood against the backdrop of multidomain unrestricted warfare and DUST factors permeate the battlefield. We must look beyond traditional mechanisms that have served us thus far. Going beyond the need to detect, deter, defend, nullify, and defeat hostile technologies is the imperative of grasping how the threat can manifest itself.

These criteria merely supply a basic foundation for determining where to place our national defense priorities and security emphasis. The twenty-first century presumptively holds discoveries and breakthroughs in synthetic biology, AI, biochemical engineering, hypersonic propulsion, acoustic wave systems, laser platforms, directed-energy systems, and an entire spectrum of advanced weapons systems and lethal innovations that can alter the balance of global power. Many of these future systems will be explicitly blended or leapfrog others from time to time, greatly complicating coherent plans for defense and deterrence as successive creations and research designs yield armaments never before seen and for which no viable defense exists.

Indications are that the trend in developing future DUST weapons systems among our enemies after 2020 will likely continue at a frenetic pace. We need explicit criteria for discerning what the future brings and how prepared we are to deal with it. Reliable criteria help us to guide our grasp of the future security environment, entailing a wholly new perspective on future threats. They could help determine whether to embark in this direction or otherwise risk wrongly misjudging future threats and underestimating foes who presumptively lack the brainpower to leverage and outmaneuver us. These criteria, outlined below, serve as a guide to a deeper level of readiness for preparing our national defense, security, and intelligence agencies for an uncertain but technologically complex future.

Criterion 1: Minimize or prevent the occurrence of technological strategic surprise. Simply put, our first criterion to guide defense, intelligence, and security leaders and experts is to harden our sensors and antenna to minimize or prevent instances of technological strategic surprise and develop warning, defense, and deterrent measures to overcome short-term setbacks. Doing so requires unlimited DUST threat-spectrum forecasting and analysis.

Criterion 2: Retain a decisive technological edge in global security systems. Expert efforts, targeted investments, innovative research, and relentless creativity are needed in combination to guarantee that dual-use science and technology affords a definitive advantage to the United States in developing future weapons systems, including the 4D capabilities outlined in criterion number three. This entails annual comparative global DUST analyses.

Criterion 3: Enhance technological forecasting, detection, deterrence, and defense (4D).

Research, engineering, and innovative discoveries are needed consistently to develop, enhance, and improve threat detection, deterrence, and defense systems against uncertain risks of hostile weapons and mechanisms aimed at inflicting strategic surprise on the United States. Comprehensive future DUST assessments are needed to safeguard the United States against all unexpected and likely future threats. The intelligence community and national security agencies must do this.


If we allow ourselves to imagine a world where unrestricted science and technology activities continue in open and covert environments, there can be little doubt that rivals, enemies, and other opportunists will sense the areas of greatest weakness or neglect. Their entire rationale is based on the abiding desire and associated pressures for attaining global strategic parity with or strategic edge over the US. We should expect this will continue well into the next decade and beyond. We face a dilemma. We can continue to piecemeal our way into the future with archaic threat assessment mechanisms requiring repair or we can adopt a different perspective. One pathway is both familiar and comfortable while the other has elements of uncertainty about it. Before a decision is made, we must urgently think about another way forward. A future replete with DUST systems seems likely while discerning the full spectrum of DUST threats is much less so.

In many ways, the traditional means of discovering, identifying, analyzing, and confirming future threats will be the default position. However, allowing for a new set of perspectives may allow consideration of threat dynamics, which—owing to their simple classification—combines with traditional methods to enable a more comprehensive taxonomy for understanding how the future threat landscape is changing. An enhanced approach to strategic threat assessment entails a focus on (1) a deliberate combination of future situational awareness and traditional all-source intelligence technologies; (2) input by security think tanks and the insights gleaned from imaginative war gaming; and (3) the value of employing a framework mechanism for categorizing presumptive DUST threat dynamics arising in the coming decades. The process outlined will still require defense, intelligence, and advanced technology experts to gather, evaluate, discern, and deconstruct the broad spectrum of data that depict the actual and presumptive threat landscape for the coming decades. Waiting for a better time years from now is not an option.

The world’s ongoing and expected research efforts in DUST reflects a commitment to recognizing it for the threat it represents. From a deeper analysis of the interwoven and complicated DUST issues, we can envision a situation similar to a crossroads. In effect, we know what we are doing, we suspect what others are doing, we recognize that covert R&D can mask DUST research elsewhere, and our imagination tells us that spectacular efforts are likely underway to overcome, neutralize, or undermine anything our own arsenal might produce. Of course, proof and evidence will be needed to verify suspicions and underline theories of covert weapons development, but we will likely find that only a few of the hidden and covert DUST weapons will ever be discovered before they are effectively used against us. That creates a dilemma of significant strategic proportions because overreliance on our own R&D and misunderstandings about enemy capabilities combine to mask and obfuscate risks of enemy DUST technologies leapfrogging over our own work, posing a greater risk of strategic surprise.

Have we truly overcome those 9/11 and Pearl Harbor moments in which surprise is outside the realm of probability? Can we fall victim again to cruel strategic surprise, senselessly smug security, or a failure of imagination? Knowing our own weaknesses—especially in detecting and defending against DUST weapons—is a starting point. If, as Sun Tzu advised long ago, our foes pursue “dark and impenetrable” research and seek to “subdue the enemy without fighting,” a redefined battlefield of propaganda, disinformation, active measures, and subtle neurocognitive countervalue weapons emerges. Is it science fiction or fact—that is the challenge.

Are we susceptible to misplaced hubris and overconfidence that our superior technology will always confer a strategic edge in our favor? Can we truly diagnose emerging DUST platforms that pose genuine strategic risks? Today, the challenge for defense strategists and intelligence experts is to jettison the adage of staying one step ahead of our foes. Instead, our aim must always be to (1) keep as many steps ahead and fully cognizant of DUST risks and pathways as possible, (2) explore nontraditional DUST threats as bona fide, and (3) identify and detect threats we can only conjure or imagine.

If we seriously underestimate the dynamics of a DUST-saturated global environment after 2020—where future weapons formed against us can nullify, penetrate, or weaken our armor—we risk strategic failure. We must account for DUST and its various manifestations far beyond the obvious and expected. The alternative default view seems more reactive and traditional in nature, hedging against the unexpected and novel and gravitating to the familiar and well known. This strategic perspective is dangerous in that it reflects limited imagination, drifting as it does between business as usual and barely incremental upgrades to strategic warning. Instead, we must shape and define the future long before the future shapes and defines us.

Dr. Robert McCreight

Dr. McCreight, adjunct professor at George Mason University and lecturer at National Defense University, spent 35 years at the Department of State, and after retiring in 2004, he served as a consultant for major homeland security and national defense contractors. His professional career includes work as an intelligence analyst, treaty negotiator, arms control delegate to the UN, counterterrorism advisor, political-military affairs analyst, and Deputy Director of Global Scientific Exchanges. As a senior Soviet military analyst with Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, he analyzed Soviet nuclear rocket forces as well as chemical and biological weapons programs. McCreight participated in the design of remote geospatial collection, treaty verification systems, international post-disaster relief and humanitarian operations, as well as peacekeeping policy and operations in Somalia and Bosnia. He also coordinated crisis management simulations and seminars for White House nuclear preparedness seminars and spent time supporting Soviet counterpropaganda and active measures programs during the Cold War. His military and civilian career included extensive work on strategic simulations and war-game design. His expertise includes work on negotiations support for the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention treaties and scientific collaboration on biodefense and advanced future weapons platform issues.


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