WASHINGTON _ The nation’s top military officer told Harvard’s Kennedy School Thursday that despite the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the exit of longtime dictators from the world stage, and no mortal enemy in the form of a nation-state the United States is more vulnerable.
Army General Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told students at a forum on the Cambridge campus that even though the world appears to enjoy greater stability and interdependence, threats looming beneath the surface -- from cyber warfare to the proliferation of long-range missiles -- actually place American security at greater risk.
“The truth is, I believe I am chairman at a time that seems less dangerous but is actually more dangerous,” Dempsey said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “That’s the essence of what I like to call the security paradox.”
Dempsey, who took on the role as top military adviser to President Obama last fall, has been criticized for asserting that the international scene poses greater harm than at any time in his lifetime – even the Cold War when the destruction of much of humanity loomed as a possible consequence of the nuclear standoff between superpowers.
An aide to the general told the Globe before the speech that the Harvard appearance was meant to give the general the chance to “explain more fully why he thinks that.”
Dempsey, who previously commanded all US military forces in the Middle East and served as the top officer in the Army, explained in his remarks that “although geopolitical trends are ushering in greater levels of peace and stability worldwide, destructive technologies are available to a wider and more disparate pool of adversaries. Highly accurate ballistic missiles lurk in every theater. Bombs made out of fertilizer can destroy our toughest mine-resistant vehicles. A cyber attack could stop our society in its tracks.”
He noted that “these lethal and disruptive technologies” are spreading to both advanced militaries as well as terrorist groups.
“As a result, more people have the ability to harm us or block our ability to act today than at any other point in my life,” he said.
He cited as one example precision-guided weapons. “It used to be that we were the only military who could drop a bomb down a chimney, or choose which window to send a cruise missile through. Now dozens of ‘middleweight’ militaries have this capability.”
The US advantage in “electronic warfare” is also eroding, Dempsey asserted.
“Like ‘cloaking’ in Star Trek, electronic warfare systems offer us ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ capabilities,” he said. “This is the technology that allows our forces to penetrate deep into enemy airspace. The problem is that our electronic warfare capabilities are no longer so unique. Today, more than 90 percent of the components in an electronic warfare system can be purchased off-the-shelf, from globally-sourced commercial vendors.
“Our potential adversaries’ access to microelectronics means they can increasingly interfere with the very systems that provide our battlefield edge: our computer networks, our sensors, and our precision navigation ability,” Dempsey said.
”We still have a lot of tricks up our sleeve, he added, “but the margin for error is growing smaller.
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender