Strategic Surprise

September 19, 2012  |  ARTICLES

The nature of strategic surprise in warfare is such that it confounds and negates an enemy's strategy, and indeed his purpose - not just his objective - and ultimately his policy, thereby making irrelevant and futile his entire, following effort.  Strategic surprise, i.e. an unpredicted development that had a decisive and fundamental, transformative, sometimes revolutionary, effect, has been rare in Western warfare.  Similar surprise, after the fact, has been occasioned by the strategic changes that resulted from the accumulated and manifold, unexpected collateral consequences of basic developments and their novel applications, e.g. in technology, over time.  Unconstrained unorthodox and, by definition, subversive imagination is essential to the practice or achievement of strategic surprise.  Historically, strategic surprise is contextual; it is conditioned by the particular problem and its existential nature and the culture, time, weakness, and desperation of the protagonist.  

Militarily, often the execution and prevention of strategic surprise devolve into problems of preemption and deterrence, if its probabilities and indicators are known.  Surprisingly, writings on military surprise are few.  Still fewer are official military writings on strategic deception.  Rarer still are official military writings on self-deception, perhaps because such self-criticism could challenge the competence, legitimacy, and authority of an institution.  Also notable is the muteness of U.S. Intelligence-Counterintelligence on deception, which may be an admission of fundamental mission failure.  Indeed, except for routine estimative and warning intelligence products, deception (political, military, technological), counter-deception and strategic surprise are oft-neglected topics, a high risk for policy.  Both ends of Intelligence-Counterintelligence, requirements and production, require improvement.  Obvious areas of risk are in cyberwar, Space war, and "dark networks."

Technology will not change the fundamental, essential nature of war; technology can change the conduct and outcome of a particular war.  This is the strategic application of technology warfare; its most decisive use results in strategic surprise.  The capability for technological strategic surprise has been possible since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  Outside the U.S., a few countries are capable of developing a technological invention that could provide them the opportunity to effect a strategic surprise, whereas many countries can procure a technological invention that could provide them with a strategic advantage.  Novel, unconventional or untraditional application of a technology also can produce surprise, sometimes with strategic effect.  

Contemporary warfare has, in itself, been a surprise to the U.S. because it poses the potential for a new international system of power relationships, a strategic effect of the first order.  Thus far, the U.S. has not produced an intellectual conception, institutional organization, and societal understanding of contemporary warfare, resulting in an inadequate permanent response to this new threat.  Moreover, in the conduct of contemporary warfare, the traditional tactical, operational, and strategic levels are inseparable; each one may have an effect on another, rather than only at its own echelon.  This flexible "interoperability" allows for opportunities to cause strategic surprise.

Strategic surprise is a continuing intellectual, political, military, and technological problem of high importance for the U.S.