Throughout the long decades of my military career, the backbone of U.S. national security was the "strategic triad" of delivery systems for nuclear weapons: ballistic-missile submarines and their associated nuclear-tipped missiles, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles operated from silos deep in the earth, and long-range manned bombers, which could deliver nuclear bombs and eventually nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
America's reliance on this Cold War triad continues through the present day, though the systems have changed somewhat as a result of both advances in technology and changes in treaty limits, most recently reflected in the New START treaty.
As we sail more deeply into the turbulent 21st century, however, there is another triad that bears considering that will be a critical part of U.S. security in the decades to come. This new triad will be far less abstract and hidden-away than the Cold War strategic triad and much more frequently employed -- often in kinetic ways.
This "New Triad" consists of special operations forces, unmanned vehicles, and cybercapabilities. Each has an important individual role to play, but taken together, the sum of their impacts will be far greater than that of each of the parts when used alone.
First, consider special operations forces, or SOF. They have become a tool of choice in a wide variety of actions in today's world, from the spectacular mission that finally killed Osama bin Laden to training African partners to thwart the brutal Lord's Resistance Army in Africa, and from helping Colombian forces fight the FARC insurgency in Latin America to providing security for disaster relief operations in Pakistan.
Today's SOF are capable of operating across the entire spectrum of operations, from soft power and training to the ultimate "red dots on foreheads" missions epitomized by the killing of bin Laden and popularized by film and television.
Because they are trained in languages, cultural mores, high-tech communications, medicine, concealment, and many other discrete skills, they can operate in the widest imaginable variety of geographical settings. They are also small in number, highly motivated, and relatively cost-effective. They are generally precision-guided in their approach, can limit collateral damage, and blend in when needed.
The second capability in the New Triad is unmanned vehicles and sensors. This branch of the triad includes not only the airborne attack "drones" that are endlessly debated at the moment, but unmanned surveillance vehicles in the air, on the ground, and on the ocean's surface. They also operate at depth in the world's oceans, both in the water column and on the ocean's floor. For example, the use of "underwater drones" might someday allow attacks on enemy shipping or ports, as well as the exploitation of underwater fiber-optic cables deep on the ocean floor. This could one day provide a rich environment for intelligence collection, "blinding" communication pathways, and the conduct of cyberoperations.
While expensive, such systems have the obvious advantage of not requiring the most costly component of all: people. Also, without people operating them, they can perform in far harsher environments and hold a higher degree of political deniability for covert and clandestine operations. And they are highly accurate, are largely networked together via overhead systems, and can provide direct feeds to conventional and special operations forces.
Finally, and potentially most powerfully, there is the world of offensive cybercapability that is just beginning to emerge. This part of the New Triad has the potential to operate with devastating effect, possibly able to paralyze an opponent's electric grid, transportation network, financial centers, energy supplies, and the like.
Cybersystems can also collect information and intelligence, manipulate enemy navigation and operational systems, and perform in clandestine and unattributable ways. Although expensive to design and create, they become quite cost-effective to operate over time.
Several points emerge as we consider the potential of this New Triad.
First, these are all key investment areas for creating security. A dollar spent in these three segments is generally more efficient and -- most importantly -- has a vastly higher chance of being put to use than many other defense investments, including strategic nuclear ones. There is simply no serious question that we will be repeatedly using the components of the New Triad "early and often" as the coming decades unfold.
Second, the Defense Department needs to think through how each of these parts of the New Triad will be managed in the procurement, oversight, personnel, and operational senses. For example, it is probably time to consolidate the myriad cyberforces owned and operated by the separate services and other parts of the Defense Department and merge them into a single organization, much as was done with today's U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida.