A new government report has shed light on the future weapons that pose the greatest threat to the U.S., and on which adversaries are most likely to one day target Americans.
In a report detailing the most pressing long-term threats to the U.S., the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that America’s rivals are working hard to develop the latest weapons capable of defeating the U.S. on the battlefield and beyond.
The GAO surveyed 45 government departments to analyze the most pressing national safety concerns. This included organizations across the Department of Defense (DOD), State Department, Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The report notes the greatest threat is posed by China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, all of whom will continue to try and undermine U.S. global influence and prepare for a possible military confrontation with American forces.
Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)
“An increasing number of actors may gain access to these weapons,” the GAO suggested, whether atomic, chemical or biological. Recent years have seen the number of nuclear-capable nations expand to nine, as North Korea defied international sanctions to develop atomic weapons. Though establishing WMD and nuclear programs is extremely difficult and expensive, the GAO noted nations or groups “could steal nuclear materials from existing facilities or develop new types of biological weapons using genetic engineering and synthetic biology.”
On the modern battlefield, electronic warfare can be just as destructive as a conventional approach. Such systems can be used to disable sensors, communication, navigation, and information systems, leaving an adversary blind and isolated. “These weapons are intended to degrade U.S. capabilities and could restrict situational awareness or may affect military operations,” the GAO noted.
U.S. forces in Syria have already reportedly been targeted by Russian electronic warfare systems, while China is believed to be testing electronic weapons deployed to man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea where American ships and aircraft conduct regular patrols.
Hypersonic weapons—conventional- or nuclear-armed missiles travelling at Mach 5 or higher, i.e. at least five times faster than the speed of sound—are so fast that modern defensive systems are thought to be useless against them.
“China and Russia are pursuing hypersonic weapons because their speed, altitude, and maneuverability may defeat most missile defense systems,” the GAO noted, “and they may be used to improve long-range conventional and nuclear strike capabilities.”
U.S. officials have warned that America is falling behind in the hypersonic race, and given that no counter-measures currently exist, this technology gap could dramatically alter the balance of military power.
The great power contest may even extent to space. China and Russia are both developing counter-satellite weapons that could knock out vital communications and satellite links for their enemies, despite existing international agreements placing space off-limits for military activity.
The GAO specifically noted China’s investment into this ability, warning Beijing “is developing capabilities to conduct large-scale anti-satellite strikes using novel physical, cyber, and electronic warfare means.”
Non-hypersonic missiles, too, will remain a pivotal area for the U.S. and its rivals. “Adversaries are developing missile technology to attack the United States in novel ways” the GAO explained, including “conventional and nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, sea-launched land-attack missiles, and space-based missiles that could orbit the earth.”
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s administration has threatened to withdraw from the Cold-War era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, which banned ground-launch missiles with ranges of 310 to 3,417 miles. Repealing the ban could spark a new missile arms race.
Intelligence, surveillance reconnaissance (ISR)
ISR platforms will allow governments to track people and equipment throughout the world in real time with the help of AI, sensors, data analytics, and space-based platforms, the GAO warned.
Their use extends far beyond the front lines, and could allow rival powers to follow political figures, military commanders, industrial targets or even dissidents who have fled abroad to find safe haven. China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are all developing multiple ISR platforms, the GAO noted.
China, Russia and the U.S. are at the forefront of advanced aircraft development. Thus far, only four fifth-generation fighter jets have entered active service—two in the U.S., one in China and one in Russia.
Future stealth aircraft will “fly faster, carry advanced weapons, and achieve greater ranges,” the GAO report explained. “Such aircraft could force U.S. aircraft to operate at farther distances and put more U.S. targets at risk,” the authors added.
Stealthy and far-ranging submarines can act as a significant force leveller. As such, Russia is continuing to invest in new submarine technology and tactics to avoid detection by more advanced and numerous U.S. naval assets.
China, meanwhile, is working on “underwater acoustic systems that could coordinate swarm attacks—the use of large quantities of simple and expendable assets to overwhelm opponents—among vehicles and provide greater undersea awareness,” the GAO analysis noted.
“Adversaries could achieve breakthroughs in anti-submarine warfare—such as using AI to locate U.S. submarines—or attack U.S. undersea infrastructure, which could cripple communications,” it added.
Cyber weapons could cripple a unit, military base, city or even country from thousands of miles away. They can be used against weapons on the front line or can attack critical infrastructure like power grids and hospitals on the home front.
The U.S., China and Russia have all ploughed huge sums into offensive and defensive cyber capabilities. But the relatively low cost and potential high impact of such attacks means they have become an important part of the armory for smaller nations like Iran, North Korea and Israel.