Small Wars

Strategic Error

When the big picture misses the point.

The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon's central provider of military intelligence to field commanders and policymakers, recently rededicated itself to the mission of strategic warning. Its new five-year plan commits the agency "to prevent strategic surprise." This week the two-thousandth U.S. soldier died in the now eleven-year Afghan war. Many will see this milestone as just one of the many painful consequences of the intelligence community's failure to warn policymakers about the 9/11 attack. From that perspective, it is understandable that DIA's leaders seem to be putting strategic warning at the top of their priorities.

But will the renewed commitment to strategic warning actually make the United States safer? Improved strategic warning won't improve safety if policymakers don't act on the warnings they receive. And despite the intelligence community's best efforts, surprise is nonetheless inevitable, if only because adversaries are constantly probing for openings. DIA and its fellow intelligence agencies are not wrong to step up efforts at preventing strategic surprise, but it is actually just as important to focus on tactical warning. And, ultimately, the real burden falls on policymakers to follow through on the warnings they receive and to prepare for the surprises that will inevitably occur.

A declassified CIA essay from 2003 attempted to explain the difference between tactical and strategic warning. Tactical warning focuses on specific incidents, targets, or perpetrators, with a goal of deterring or limiting damage from an adversary's attack by alerting friendly forces and resources already in place. Strategic warning, by contrast, focuses on long-term developments that, when brought to the attention of policymakers, will allow officials to redirect resources, formulate contingency plans, establish new programs, form new relationships, and otherwise meaningfully prepare for new conditions and trends.

Some may consider the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the September 2001 attacks to be strategic surprises, due to the magnitude and consequences of those events. But by the CIA definition, these were tactical, not strategic surprises. The U.S. government was long aware of Japan's designs on the Pacific and had been developing a war plan for decades prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. Similarly, the U.S. government was well aware of al Qaeda before 9/11 and was slowly -- if inadequately -- responding to the threat. The intelligence failures in both cases were tactical, not strategic.

By contrast, the Iranian revolution in 1979 and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 were strategic surprises in the sense that both occurred so quickly that policymakers did not have a chance to either deter or mitigate their effects in advance through new programs, shifts in resources, or the establishment of new useful relationships and alliances. Policymakers were left scrambling with these tasks largely after the fact. Strategic warning could have allowed the Carter administration to better prepare for the consequences of Iran's upheaval. And with more warning, the U.S. and its allies might have been able to reposition military forces to deter Saddam Hussein's takeover of Kuwait.

Haunted by these and other shortcomings, the U.S. intelligence community is now engaged in long-term comprehensive research projects such as Global Trends 2030, a large strategic forecasting report the National Intelligence Council will release later this year. Global Trends 2025, released in November 2008, described long-term demographic, economic, environmental, and institutional trends and discussed their implications. With money increasingly short, policymakers will be under pressure to prioritize defense spending, and they will look to the intelligence community to help them identify the threats that matter and those they can safely ignore. However, the Global Trends reports show the cultural gap between policymakers and intelligence analysts; while the report was undoubtedly insightful to its authors, it is hard to find any connection between reports such as Global Trends and changes policymakers have made to actual policies and programs.

Intelligence analysis deals in probability estimates of future events and solving puzzles to avert surprise. Policymakers by contrast are often focused on today's crisis and want a "straight answer" to their questions, not a probability distribution. This cultural gap and the differing institutional pressures separating policymakers and intelligence analysts can create dangers. Surprise is failure for the intelligence community. It is thus no wonder that as an institution it is focused on what might be lurking in its blind spots. But that search should not come at the expense of well-known problems, such as the U.S.-China rivalry, that are clearly in the windshield. Policymakers need to ensure that while the intelligence community is working hard to avoid another embarrassing surprise, it is not losing its focus on problems that are well-known and that may be developing into crises.

That means that strategic intelligence and warning, while vital, should not come at the expense of tactical warning. Tactical warning capabilities, when known by an adversary, can be just as effective at deterring conflict as strategic warning. Had U.S. commanders in the Pacific in 1941 displayed better tactical warning processes, Japanese decision-makers, realizing they could not achieve tactical surprise, may have been dissuaded from attacking. According to the Pentagon's 2011 report on China's military power, China's military doctrine emphasizes surprise, deception, and offensive operations. This increases the importance of U.S. tactical warning capabilities in the Pacific, which commanders and policymakers would be wise to both reinforce and display as a means of bolstering stability. As a Washington-based agency, DIA may see strategic warning as its proper role, with tactical warning a responsibility for field operators such as U.S. Pacific Command. But if tactical warning is short-changed by increased attention to strategic warning, risk may increase. It is the responsibility of policymakers to ensure that all levels of the intelligence bureaucracy are properly covering essential intelligence missions and requirements.

It is also up to policymakers to take responsibility for their relationship with the intelligence community. Policymakers should give useful guidance to analysts on intelligence priorities, receive intelligence products with an open mind, and accept their role for either changing policy and programs accordingly or acknowledging why they opt not to. Strategic warning will result in increased safety only if policymakers act on the warning.

How to act is not always simple or obvious. The Clinton and Bush administrations received strategic warning about al Qaeda but until 9/11 underestimated the threat's potential. Before 9/11, the U.S. government also failed to fully appreciate how al Qaeda had switched from being a strategic to a tactical warning issue. Similarly, while the authors of Global Trends 2030 and other strategic analysts are off in search of the next ephemeral "unknown unknown," policymakers have a responsibility for clear and present challenges, such as formulating strategies for the U.S.-China competition. Policymakers need to accept their part of this responsibility while also demanding continued support from the intelligence community.

Policymakers should likewise take responsibility for the fact that despite their best efforts, intelligence analysts will inevitably be surprised. Policymakers would be in a better position to deal with surprise if they retained reserves of diplomatic and military resources to draw on when required. Without adequate reserves, investments in warning, such as military intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, become even more critical. Neglecting both adequate reserves and warning tools compounds risk. Austerity may be a fact of life in today's Washington, but taking such compound risks is a gamble no one has to make. Policymakers, you've been warned.

National Archive/Newsmakers

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