Nuclear Terrorism, Pakistan, China, a Pandemic: Predicting the Next 9-11

The military expert speaks with U.S. News about his latest book.

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Andrew Krepinevich has long been the Pentagon's go-to guy for advice on military affairs, from the war in Afghanistan to futuristic military weapons systems. Currently the president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank, Krepinevich has written 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century. He spoke with U.S. News about dangers facing the country. Excerpts:

How did you choose your seven scenarios?

A lot of it stems from trend analysis—economic trends, political trends, and so on. The idea behind the book was that there are prospective 9/11s and Pearl Harbors. And a lot of times when we are surprised, looking back at it, we say, "Well, gee, we should have seen it coming." Can you give an example of that?

There's a story about an attack on Pearl Harbor on a Sunday morning on the seventh day of the month by waves of aircraft that had been launched off aircraft carriers. And yet it wasn't the 7th of December, 1941. It was the 7th of February, 1932; that was part of a fleet [war game] that the U.S. Navy was conducting. They had just completed these new kinds of ships called aircraft carriers. The commander of the carriers, the admiral on one team, launched an attack. And the Americans [playing the forces in Hawaii] were outraged that this should happen. They said an attack would never occur on a Sunday—it wasn't sporting. And of course after World War II was over, Admiral Nimitz said nothing with the exception of the kamikazes really surprised us. Of course, the first question you think to ask is "What about Pearl Harbor?" Well, we'd done it to ourselves 10 years earlier. What are the biggest threats to America?

Certainly, nuclear proliferation plays a big role in three of the scenarios. One is a covert introduction of nuclear weapons into the United States, where about nine old Soviet atomic demolition munitions are sold on the black market to a radical Islamic group. One goes off in San Antonio, and forensics indicate that it's a Soviet-made weapon. Does [the president] inform the American public and risk a panic? Then Chicago is attacked, and San Diego is attacked. You get a spontaneous migration out of the cities, and there are calls to impeach the president. Since the U.S. is the only country being attacked, its economy is going down the tubes, and you need a reverse Marshall Plan. What state actors are most worrisome?

In Pakistan, you look at the trends there: Are we going to see less radicalism or more? Right now, the government really doesn't do an effective job of educating its own people, especially in the more troublesome regions. There are divided loyalties within the Pakistani military. Layer on top of that the fact that the country may have somewhere between 40 and 80 nuclear weapons, and you can see a witches' brew potentially boiling over. China, too, crops up repeatedly.

[In one scenario,] this fantastic economic growth they've been enjoying is starting to come to an end, forcing them to appeal to nationalism and foreign threats, as opposed to satisfying people's desires through economic growth. There is also the trend of men without wives—in China, they are called "the barren branches." What you have over time are large numbers of young men who are not going to be able to find a life companion. These are guys who can't get a date, who don't have good prospects—what we'd call losers. And there are some studies that indicate that when you get large numbers of young males and testosterone, they tend to blame society, form groups, and be highly unstable and disruptive. Arguably, one good way to focus that negative energy is to put these people in uniform and send them somewhere else. And that can be a source of concern for us. Is there a scenario that particularly surprised you as you looked into it?

The pandemic scenario. You read what people in the medical community are saying, and their point is that a pandemic influenza is not an if event; it's a when event. Nearly a century ago, we had the famed Spanish influenza that killed more people than all the people killed in World War I. It was almost a "bring out your dead in the morning," overwhelming the ability of the healthcare infrastructure to handle the problem. And so the situation is that you have an avian influenza virus that makes this last leap to where it can be easily transmitted between humans. It takes time to isolate the strains and produce a vaccine. So you've got a period of six to nine months where you need to accumulate large stores of the vaccine. In the meantime, you have to rely on antiviral drugs, and you don't have enough of those. You see breakdowns in areas where U.S. forces are located; they're besieged. You get massive numbers of people moving towards the U.S. border, and the government realizes that we cannot accommodate them because we're hanging on by a thread. The armed forces is given the challenge: How do you stop these people in a humanitarian way? Again, you sit down and you start to think about what does the Pentagon have to worry about. The circumstance is a huge humanitarian catastrophe, one that is quite plausible and that would require the military to be very inventive.