Intelligence experts have warned that the United States’ defense and intelligence apparatus will need to relearn how to operate in contested environments as it transitions away from counter-terrorism and moves toward competition between great powers.
The Department of Defense and U.S. intelligence agencies will need to rapidly focus on combating threats from state actors that fall somewhere below an outright war, according to former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security Kari Bingen.
“The intelligence community and the Department of Defense need to be thinking about that conflict below the threshold of armed conflict: Gray zone activities,” Bingen said during an Oct. 4 talk at the Atlantic Council, a D.C.-based think tank.
“The Department of Defense does order of battle well, [things like] how many tanks [or] how many aircraft, but in this more competitive and economic space, what are the implications for national security?”
Bingen said that the reorientation from the types of operating environments that the United States enjoyed throughout the Global War on Terror would be difficult, as the nation would now face a “contested operational environment.”
Whereas the United States previously operated in the Middle East or Africa with relatively unchallenged superiority in intelligence, surveillance, and communication, competing with an adversarial nation such as China would be much more difficult.
The United States now faces the uphill battle of learning to fight and compete in cities filled with adversarial surveillance systems, under threat of enemy drones, and with its communications jammed, Bingen said. A prospect made all the more difficult as the nation has not consistently engaged in such operations for over 20 years.
“I would encourage the [intelligence] committee to be focused on China and that peer [or] near-peer competition, and technology,” Bingen said.
That contested environment has come to the homefront as well. Nowhere more so than in the battle for information and influence, according to Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), who serves as ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and also spoke at the Atlantic Council event.
Turner said that “outside influences” were working to undermine the United States and its democratic systems.
“There are foreign actors that attempt to, through malign intent, influence the outcomes of our democracy,” Turner said.
“It’s both a threat by foreign actors and it’s also an internal domestic threat.”
Turner’s comments follow claims by tech giant Meta Platforms last month that it dismantled Chinese and Russian influence operations aimed at influencing the upcoming U.S. midterm elections by increasing polarization.
That polarization presented a direct threat to the nation, Turner said, both for everyday Americans but also those wielding power in Washington.
“There are people who are overstepping in the intelligence community in areas where it’s [become] a partisan effort and perhaps it squelches debate when debate needs to happen,” Turner said.
To that end, Turner said that steps would need to be taken to counter domestic threats from radicalized individuals and groups, but that extreme caution would be needed to ensure that such efforts did not weaponize the government against the American people.
“There is a significant danger of us turning the intelligence community on our citizens, and I think it can thwart democracy and thwart the debate that we need to have to support democracy,” Turner said.
“There [are] always going to be those elements that we have to make sure do not harm society, but we have to be careful.”