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Threat analysis in the strategic context.

Insecurity reflects a combination of threats and vulnerabilities, implying that states can reduce insecurity by either reducing vulnerability or decreasing threats. To some extent this would alternatively entail focusing national security policy on the state itself and lessening vulnerabilities, or focusing on international security by addressing the sources of external threats. The concepts of insecurity and vulnerabilities are, however, also closely linked and a specific approach to security may simultaneously attempt to address both threats and vulnerabilities. (1)

While vulnerabilities are relatively identifiable and concrete, the same does not necessarily apply to threats. Threat assessment is not always an objective process--actual threats may not necessarily be perceived; and perceived threats may not have real substance.

A further issue is the distinction between normal competition, lesser threats, and threats to national security. "The difference between normal challenges and threats to national security necessarily occurs on a spectrum of threats that ranges from trivial and routine, through serious but routine, to drastic and unprecedented. Quite where on this spectrum issues begin to get legitimately classified as national security problems is a matter of political choice rather than objective fact. (2)

However, certain criteria are offered as a basis for identifying national security threats. The type of threat and the intensity of a threat (proximity, probability of occurrence, specificity, consequences and historical setting) are for instance factors to take into account. Nevertheless, measurement remains difficult. Furthermore, decisions regarding the seriousness of threats often tend to ultimately remain political decisions.

Threats have to be defined as capabilities multiplied by intentions, probability, consequences and time-span. If either one is lacking, or very distant, there is no real threat. Intentions may, however, be difficult to determine. Hence, while some actions such as troop deployment are obvious, others are concealed. Even open actions may be aimed at confusion or deception. Preparatory and support actions are useful indicators of the intention of any main action, for example stockpiling of strategic materials or military mobilisation. (3)

Betts elaborates on the problem of correctly assessing intentions by referring to unambiguous threats, which require 'factual-technical' warning, and threats which are less clear and require 'contingent-political' warning. The former involves the detection of changes underway in the deployment of capabilities, while the latter involves "predicting decisions and initiatives by other states, groups." This implies probabilistic statements rather than categorical statements. During the Cold War period hostile intentions were often taken for granted or assumed. The post-Cold War situation has resulted in a focus on 'unconventional' threats such as international terrorism, the drug trade and organised crime, replacing the overall Soviet threat as especially perceived by the United States (US). (4)

A further distinction can be drawn between threat perception based on actual existing threats, as perceived, and so-called 'threat-independent' analysis based on hypothetical contingencies such as invasion.

As far as the sources of threats are concerned, they may be classified by sector, for example military threats, political threats, societal threats, economic threats and environmental (ecological) threats. Within each of these sectors threats may again arise domestically or externally, although the two are often combined. So-called weak states predominantly face domestic threats. Although broadened concepts of security have included a wider range of threats or potential threats, caution has been expressed in this regard. "In other words, when developments in other realms ranging from the economic to the ecological threaten to have immediate political consequences or are perceived as being able to threaten state boundaries, political institutions, or governing regimes, these other variables must be taken into account as a part of a state's security calculus." This is especially the case in Third World countries where a 'political' definition of security is essential. (5)

Changing the referent object of security (whether it be regional security, state security, regime security or individual security) will obviously also alter the source and nature of threats to that security. "If we treat security as the security of the state, then we are ignoring the insecurity of people who are under threat from the state". In this regard the concept of national security in its broader sense is often used to include various referent objects within a state, including the state institutions and individuals. Obviously not all threats to individuals are threats to national security, and in this sense contradictions between individual and national (in the context of state) security arise. Buzan states in this regard that individual security is ultimately subordinate to the higher-level political structures of the state and the international system. Should extreme tension exist between state and citizens, it is difficult to continue applying the concept 'national security' to the situation. (6)

A distinction is sometimes made between security issues that are of a more immediate (and hence possibly more serious) nature and that require immediate attention, and issues that are not an immediate danger, although they may be serious in terms of, for instance, their implications. In this context, the more immediate threats are sometimes referred to as 'security threats' and the less urgent as 'security risks', or 'potential' threats. The element of uncertainty related to potential threat or risk in this regard, can be expressed in speculative terms or in probabilistic terms. In the latter context, certain indicators or preconditions needed for a risk to occur, are often identified and monitored. Probabilities, for example high, medium or low, can then be assigned to each risk. In this context, risk is not seen as being the equivalent of uncertainty, but to lie on a certainty-uncertainty spectrum where on the one end the outcome is known, and on the other end the outcome is not known. (7) Security risks are at times viewed as being strategic in nature while security threats are of a more immediate nature and hence lie at least in part on the tactical level. In another context, a certain threat may have tactical implications (for example enemy superiority in terms of certain weapon systems), but it does not yet pose a broad strategic threat in a war situation.

Measuring risk in the above context, can be done through the identification and monitoring of preconditions (indicators) for a specific risk to occur. The above meaning of the concepts risks and threats is, inter alia, assigned to intelligence 'risk assessment' and intelligence 'threat assessment'. The former deals with probability and impacts specifically, while the latter deals with those risks with the highest probability of occurrence and adverse impact, as well as with risks already manifesting. (8)

Risk analysis, in the above context, can be based on driving forces (background conditions), moderating factors, aggravating factors (or accelerators) and trigger factors, and the monitoring of these variables (as depicted in Figure 1).


The background conditions are viewed as the creation of tensions and the accelerating factors as an escalation of tensions. Trigger incidents (for example, changes in leadership) serve to cross the threshold into a more full-blown crisis in a relatively short period of time. (9)

Criteria used to monitor background and accelerating factors would depend on the specific threat requiring warning.


(1.) Brown, H, Thinking about national security, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1983, p4.

(2.) Louw, M H H, "Introduction to the national security concept", in Louw, M H H (ed), National Security: A modern approach, Institute for Strategic Studies, University of Pretoria, 1978, pp 10-11.

(3.) Garnett, J, "Introduction" in Garnett, J (ed), Theories of peace and security: A reader in contemporary strategic thought, The Macmillan Press Ltd, London and Basingstoke, 1972, p 31.

(4.) Smoke, R, "National security affairs", in Greenstein, F I and N W Polsby (eds), Handbook of Political Science, Vol 8, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co, Reading, Massachusetts, 1975, p 248.

(5.) Ibid, p 250.

(6.) Barber, W E, "National Security Policy", in Louw, M H H, op cit, p 35.

(7.) Bernhardt, W, "Bridging the Uncertainty Gap in Intelligence Analysis: A Framework for Systematic Risk and Threat Assessment", Strategic Review for Southern Africa, Vol 26, No 1, May 2004, pp 63-65.

(8.) Ibid, pp 65-66.

(9.) Davies, J L and T R Gurr, Preventive Measures: Building Risk Assessment and Crisis Early Warning Systems, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, New York, 1998.
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Title Annotation:Part I
Publication:Institute for Strategic Studies
Date:Nov 1, 2008
Previous Article:Part IV: contemporary challenges and emerging issues.
Next Article:Risks and risk analysis in the strategic context.

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