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.