The Future Role of the U.S. Armed Forces in Counterterrorism

Published in: CTC Sentinel, Volume 13, Issue 9, pages 24–39 (September 2020)

Posted on RAND.org on October 06, 2020

by Brian Michael Jenkins

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Many senior officials believe that emphasis on counterterrorism for the past two decades has compromised the ability of the U.S. armed forces to perform other critical military missions and that strategic competition, not terrorism, must now be the primary concern. This essay provides observations on the future role of the armed forces in counterterrorism and the future role of counterterrorism forces in great power competition. It notes that it will be difficult to demote counterterrorism while terrorists still remain a threat. However, there will be a further shift to counterterrorism without counterinsurgency. Dividing the military into near-peer warfare and counterterrorism camps makes little sense. Future wars will require U.S. commanders to orchestrate capabilities to counter an array of conventional and unconventional modes of conflict, including terrorism. Reduced defense spending in the post-pandemic environment will further increase pressure to cut counterterrorism—but the savings will be modest. Shifting priorities should not mean discarding competence. The hard-won skills that result from decades of counterterrorism operations are fungible, indeed valuable to future military challenges, including great power competition. Terrorism itself is constantly evolving, demanding new approaches. The ability to rapidly adapt to changing threats is applicable to strategic competition.

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