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Transformation and Strategic Surprise

Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray. | April 2005

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Though discounted by Clausewitz in the circumstances of his era, strategic surprise has enjoyed considerable popularity over the past century. The possibility of achieving decisive results from attacks launched on short, or zero, warning has appeared to improve greatly with advances in technology. It follows that surprise has been recognized as offering what seem to be both golden opportunities and lethal dangers. Since surprise is an ironbound necessity for the tactical success of terrorism, it is understandable that it attracts a major degree of attention today. There is no real novelty about this. After all, for 40 years the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organizatiion (NATO) allies perpetually worried about surprise attack on the Central Front in Europe, as well as about a surprise first strike designed to disarm the United States of its ability to retaliate with its strategic nuclear forces.

As a general rule, this monograph does not repeat or attempt to second guess the existing scholarship on how to correct bureaucratic and other pathologies in the world of intelligence. Furthermore, it does not contest the declared purposes or the details of the Army?s radical transformation plan, both of which it judges to be admirable. It is not that kind of analysis. Instead, this discussion takes an unusually broad view of the problem, actually the condition, of strategic surprise, and relates it to the process of military transformation that currently is still in its early stages. The analysis has a strong thesis and conclusion. Specifically, it argues that in period after period, and with few exceptions in war after war, the kind of strategic surprise to which the United States is most at risk, and which is most damaging to U.S. national security, is the unexpected depth and pervasiveness of the connection between war and politics. Americans usually are superior in making war: they are far less superior in making the peace that they want out of the war that they wage.

The monograph argues that the current military transformation, though certainly welcome, cannot itself correct the long-standing U.S. weakness in the proper use of force as an instrument of policy. The discussion claims that, notwithstanding its probable virtues in the enhancement of military prowess, the current military transformation bids fair to be irrelevant to America?s really serious strategic problem or condition. What the global superpower needs is a military establishment that it can use in ways conducive to the standards of international order it seeks to uphold, and with the political consequences that U.S. policy intends. Whether that establishment is more, or less, network-centric, or has, more or less, on-call precision firepower, truly is a matter of less than overwhelming importance. Politics rules! More accurately phrased, perhaps, policy should rule! War is political behavior that must serve policy. Since the conduct of war should not be a self-regarding apolitical activity, preparation for it in peacetime, as well as its exercise in anger, needs to be suffused with the sense of purpose that is provided only by the realm of policy. To summarize: this monograph has taken no issue with the grand design of the transforming Army, rather the salient topics are the use made of the Army by American policymakers, and the way that the Army chooses to behave, both in combat and afterwards.

The argument unfolds cumulatively with seven points presented in all but self-explanatory, descriptive language.

Bureaucratic Reform.

1. Reorganization of intelligence bureaucracies can be useful, but is only of marginal importance for reduction in the risks of strategic surprise.

There is always room for bureaucratic improvement. But every reorganization for reform brings its own pathologies. If we are looking for areas of behavior wherein truly significant improvement can be made in meeting the challenge of potential strategic surprise, bureaucratic reform is not among them. Of course, there are administrative reforms that do make a difference; for example, those that affect career and promotion patterns, and hence shape the traffic flow of high talent. However, defense against the kind of strategic surprise to which the United States is most vulnerable, the unexpected political consequences of military behavior, is best provided by strategic education, not reorganization.

Understanding the Condition.

2. Surprise effect, not surprise, is the challenge.

The problem is not surprise. Surprise happens!?to adapt the common exclamation. Rather the problem is the effects of surprise. Surprise, by definition, is in the hands of our enemies who are attempting to paralyse the dialectic of war. But the effects of surprise, by and large, are in our hands. We cannot aspire to be surprise-proof. We can, however, aim to be proofed against many, perhaps most, of the malign effects of surprise.

3. Some unpleasant surprises should be readily avoidable.

War and warfare tend to be confused one with the other. The fact that there is much more to war than the waging of warfare is the core of the American difficulty in using its military power for desired political outcomes. Better understanding of the connection between war and peace, and between the waging of warfare and the kind of postwar settlement intended, would hugely reduce the incidence and severity of unpleasant strategic surprise for U.S. statecraft. The relationship between policy and military action inherently is a tense one. They are distinctive realms, commanded technically by different rules and values. Nonetheless, the conduct of warfare must be guided by policy, though policy must be prepared to be disciplined by military practicalities. Poverty in the necessary dialogue between policy and the military helps produce, indeed all but guarantees, adverse strategic surprise.

Levels of Analysis.

4. The geopolitical context is the most important.

Strategic surprise is the product, ultimately, of a particular geopolitical context. Technological surprise is improbable, though the use of internationally common technologies in surprising ways is a near certainty. Diverse strategic and military cultures, reflecting their unique geopolitical circumstances, will adapt new technologies and ideas to fit their distinctive needs. The threat or use of force is a political act deriving from a political, or geopolitical, context. At root, such threat or use is not a technological or cultural action. Strategic surprise may well have a technological dimension, but it will not be the product, or the expression, of technology. By way of contrast, such surprise is certain to have a cultural dimension, in the sense that culture must contribute to the making and the content of policy. Statecraft, and war as one of its agents, are political behaviors, conducted for policy ends. No matter how prominent the technological or cultural factors appear to be, the behaviors are political. They are intended to have geopolitical effect.


5.Do not exaggerate the dangers from surprise.

Surprise, even strategic surprise, is not a panacea solution to the uncertainties of war, or the strengths of the enemy. History records few cases where decisive victory was achieved as a result of the achievement of successful strategic surprise. Even when surprise is secured, so what? What are its strategic benefits, its effects? If we are alert and flexibly adaptive, we should be able to ensure that no enemy who catches us by strategic surprise would profit by the deed. That said, it is possible that the unprecedentedly interconnected world of the 21st century is, as aconsequence, unprecendentedly vulnerable to the ripple effect of strategic surprise. What once were local events now can have a global resonance. We are respectful of this view, but not thoroughly persuaded that it accurately expresses a historical change of great moment for our argument.

6. Minimum regrets must be a guiding principle.

Defense planners cannot aspire to design and procure the uniquely ?right? force posture for the future. They can and should, however, aim to get the really Big Things right enough. The most suitable blessing for a defense planner is, ?may all your errors be small ones.? In transforming the Army for the 21st century, the appropriate ambition is to design a posture that will never be the cause of major regrets for ?might and should have beens.? The Army?s transformation plan, privileging flexibility and agility, should minimize the danger of being caught on the wrong side of truly major decisions.

7.The operational level of warfare is not the whole of war. Is the U.S. Army pursuing the most appropriate vision in its transformation?

The transformation needed most urgently in the Army is in its suitability as the primary policy instrument of the sheriff of world order. The transformation now underway in all of the Armed Forces, including the Army, necessarily has as a prominent feature, the further leveraging of information technology (IT) so that the troops can do even better what they do superbly well already. America?s most pressing strategic problem, really a condition so persistent, is that time after time military prowess is not employed as effectively as it should be in the service of policy. This is the zone of strategic surprise that potentially could prove fatal to America?s role as the principal ordering agent that the world requires. The challenge is partly for the Army to be adaptable to diverse political contexts, and to be able to undertake missions that transcend traditional warfighting. With its planned transformation, the Services would seem to have recognized these challenges and to have stepped up boldly to remake themselves to meet them. Just how successful the Army will prove to be in its proclaimed goal of changing its culture remains to be seen. The greater challenge, however, is for America?s policymakers to understand: (1) the strengths and limitations of the military instrument that they are using; (2) the nature and character of war; and (3) the cultural attitudes both of our enemies and of ourselves. Transformation is most needed in an enhanced adaptability for effectiveness in different political circumstances. Policymakers must only resort to force with a careful regard to the desired political consequences and with a sustained will to license the actions necessary to achieve them.


As a highly pragmatic discipline, strategic studies follows events, both those that are actual and those that are widely anticipated. The concept of surprise is intellectually fashionable today. However, it is not at all self-evident what the practical implications are or ought to be. In common with its conceptual stablemate, asymmetry, surprise defines a content-free zone. It has no inherent meaning, save with respect to its logical opposite. Surprise and asymmetry must be defined solely with reference to what they are not. This rather unhelpful, academic seeming, point happens to have major real-world implications. The defense community has signed on for yet another big idea that it is ill equipped to pursue purposefully, if indeed such pursuit is feasible at all.

Historically, American strategic theorists and defense analysts have taken their cues from the signals of concern transmitted by officials. Those official signals typically have been triggered by events. For example, the entire conceptual edifice of the theory of stable mutual deterrence was created in the 1950s, following the first public explanation of a coherent U.S. nuclear strategy by the Eisenhower administration in 1953-54.3 The administration was seeking to incorporate nuclear weapons into national strategy, in the context of the lessons of the war just concluded, at least frozen by an armistice, in Korea; the development of fusion weapons; the expansion of the nuclear stockpile; and, of course, the growth of the Soviet nuclear threat in quantity and quality.4 In the mid 1970s, there was a brief flurry of analytical interest in the problems of surprise attack, with specific reference to the possibility of Soviet forces in Europe catching the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) unawares on the Central Front of the inner-German border.5 Moving fast-forward to today, a U.S. defense community, civilian and military, that traditionally has been all but comprehensively uninterested in irregular warfare, now has rushed predictably to where the policy action is most lively, and the money is most readily accessible.

Only a few years ago, the writing of books and other studies on terrorism was a distinctly minority pursuit in the intellectual wing of the defense community. Today, such an endeavor is virtually mandatory if one aspires to be a part of the fashionable, and funded, crowd. Whereas even in the 1990s, let alone during the Cold War decades, experts on terrorism and other forms of irregular warfare were exceedingly thin on the ground, now they are truly abundant. Indeed, today it is rare to find a defense expert who does not claim counterterrorist competency in his or her portfolio of professional skills.

A problem with intellectual fashion is that, by its very nature, it must change. In the case of national defense, it will change as policymakers react to the circumstances that beset them. The official, and attendant-dependent, worldview moves on, leaving in its wake yesterday?s Big Idea. In the field of war and strategy, there are no new ideas. Rather there is a storehouse of concepts and theories which are the products of two and a half millennia of intellectual and pragmatic rumination on strategic experience. ?Ideas persons,? intellectual leaders perhaps, for the U.S. defense community go to that storehouse periodically and rediscover the high merit in some well-known, but probably long neglected, notion. This is how it is with strategic surprise and, indeed, with its conceptual fellow traveller, the asymmetric threat.6

Lest some readers believe that this author has strayed into exaggeration with his claims for the contemporary authority of the notion of surprise, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld can be quoted to settle the issue. Aside from the swipe at the previous administration, the Secretary?s words express a view that now is consensual across the political spectrum. In his Annual Report for 2002 he advised as follows:

Well before the events of September [2001], senior Defense Department officials, through the vehicle of the Quadrennial Defense Review, determined that contending with uncertainty must be a central tenet in U.S. defense planning. Too much of the Department?s planning over the decade of the 1990s had focused on a few familiar dangers rather than the broad array of potential challenges of consequence to U.S. interests and the nation?s inherent vulnerability to asymmetric attacks. They concluded that U.S. defense planning must assume that surprise is the norm, rather than the exception. Adapting to surprise?adapting quickly and decisively?must be a hallmark of 21st century defense planning.7

Since terrorism has been identified as the defining threat of this era, and since it can only succeed by surprise, it has to follow, syllogistically, that surprise is a, if not the, master strategic concept or principle of our time. Unfortunately, surprise, along with such other Big Ideas as asymmetry, uncertainty, and friction, for a few examples, is not easy to operationalize outside a narrow band of tactical parameters.8 The superpowers could, and did, procure and operate diverse and complex strategic force postures which were designed to deny success to a would-be surprise attacker. The military challenge was eminently quantifiable, at least it appeared to be so. But, what is one to make of, let alone do with, the official advice that surprise is the norm? That sensible sounding declamation is about as useful as the oxymoronic maxim to ?expect the unexpected.?

The purpose of this monograph is to make a modest contribution to improving understanding of strategic surprise, especially with reference to the process of military transformation. I believe that the idea frequently is wrongly conceptualized, that errors in basic understanding can promote undue pessimism on our part, and that the whole subject is overdue for a complete review. With a mind, ultimately, to the implications of my argument for the armed forces in general, and the Army in particular, this monograph attempts to stimulate and contribute to just such a review.

The discussion is organized into subjects which accommodate a total argument with seven points, three of them serving as conclusions. As a roadmap to what follows, I will close this introduction with a summary of the major points explored and advanced below.

1. Reorganization of intelligence bureaucracies can be useful, but is only marginally important for reduction in the risks of strategic surprise.

Understanding the Condition.

2. Surprise effect, not surprise, is the challenge.

3. Some unpleasant surprises are reliably avoidable.

Levels of Analysis.

4. The geopolitical context is the most important.

Conclusions: Implications for the Army.

5. Do not exaggerate the dangers from surprise.

6. Minimum regrets must be a guiding principle.

7. The operational level of warfare is not the whole of war. An attractive and persuasive vision of a transformed Army, though an essential forward step, in itself is no guarantee of military behavior strongly supportive of political goals.

These seven points cumulatively expose the nature of the problem, or condition, of strategic surprise. They are guided by a sustained focus upon an attempt to improve the Army?s appreciation of the challenge of strategic surprise. From that appreciation should flow an improved understanding of how it may need to behave with its transformed force so as to be more responsive to the demands that policy may send its way.9

To launch the substance of this enquiry in the appropriate spirit, we will quote the immortal wisdom of Yogi Berra. Yogi offered advice for the ages when he said, or is reported to have said, ?prediction is difficult, particularly about the future.?


1. S. Douglas Smith, book review, Naval War College Review, Vol. LVII, No. 1, Winter 2004, p. 147.

2. Arthur C. Clarke, quoted in Primo Levi, The Search for Roots?A Personal Anthology, London: Allen Lane, 2001, p. 188. I am grateful to John B. Sheldon for bringing this wise judgment by Clarke to my notice.

3. Colin S. Gray, Strategic Studies and Public Policy: The American Experience, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982, chs.3-4; Saki Dockrill, Eisenhower?s New-Look National Security Policy, 1953-61, New York: St. Martin?s Press, 1996; and Lawrence Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, 3rd edn., Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, ch. 6.

4.U.S. strategic offensive force loadings increased from 330 warheads in 1950 to 1,418 by 1954. Natural Resources Defense Council, ?Table of US Strategic Offensive Force Loadings, 1945-75, 1976-2012,? August 21, 2004, httpi/nrdc.org/nuclear/nudb/datab1.aspthe Soviet Union remain uncertain. See Thomas B. Cochran and others, Nuclear Weapons Databook, Vol. IV: Soviet Nuclear Weapons, New York: Harper and Row, 1989, p. 25; and Pavel Podvig, ed., Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Estimates for

5. See Richard K. Betts, Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense Planning, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1982, chs. 6-9; and John J. Mearsheimer, Conventional Deterrence, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983, ch. 6.

6. Roger W. Barnett, Asymmetrical Warfare: Today?s Challenge to U.S. Military Power, Washington, DC: Brassey?s, 2003, is particularly useful.

7. Donald H. Rumsfeld, Annual Report to the President and the Congress, Washington DC: Department of Defense, 2002, pp. 10-11, http//www.defenselink.mil/execsec/adr2002/index. htm.

8. For example, in his pathbreaking study of friction, Barry D. Watts concedes: ?The objection, which has been consciously ignored to this point, is that the unified concept of general friction (Gesamtbegrift einer allgemeinen Friktion) embraces so much of war that it does not provide a very precise instrument for analyzing the phenomena at issue.? Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, McNair Paper 52, Washington, DC: National Defense University, October 1996, p. 122.

9. Politics and policy are not deployed interchangeably in this monograph. Definitions of these key concepts are notoriously contestable. The German politik conveniently conflates the two, but in English we are obliged to be careful. Politics is about government, broadly understood. It is about power. In the words of the classic formula, politics is about who gets what, when, and how. We should appreciate that that claim includes the domain of ideology: whose ideas shall rule? Policy is formulated by policymakers and is the product of a political process. It is political purpose, stated in the barest of terms. By and large, policy is regarded only as the declarations of intention by policymakers, but a wider view is defensible. It can be argued that policy comprises capabilities and actions, as well as declarations. Recall the maxim, ?show me your programs and I will tell you your policy.?