Academic journal article McNair Papers

6. the Intractability of Strategic Surprise

Academic journal article McNair Papers

6. the Intractability of Strategic Surprise

Article excerpt

Granting that Clausewitzian friction prevented Coalition forces from achieving important operational-strategic goals despite Desert Storm's lop-sided outcome, why should one take the next step and infer that technological advances in the future will be unable to find any enduring solution to the historical problems of friction? The direct evidence just presented of general friction's evidently undiminished persistence as recently as 1991 is of little avail regarding friction's future role under the premise of technological progress. Direct, empirical evidence from wars still to be fought, after all, is unobtainable. Nonetheless, reasons can be found in fields as diverse as economics, evolutionary biology, and nonlinear dynamics for suspecting that many real-world processes, including physical ones, can exhibit structural unpredictability. (1) Since this sort of inherent unpredictability seems to be part and parcel of what Clausewitz subsumed under his Gesamtbegriff einer allgemeinen Friktion, confirmation of similar, if not related, unpredictabilities in fields far from war would begin to build a case for the conclusion that Clausewitzian friction will persist regardless of technological progress. The case built on the ubiquity of unpredictable processes will not, of course, be a direct one. Like evolutionary biologists, who cannot directly observe the workings of natural selection, we shall have to rely on indirect arguments. (2) The first of these indirect arguments arises from considering the prewar problem of avoiding strategic surprise.

Japan's 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor transformed the problem of strategic surprise into a deeply personal experience for an entire generation of Americans. (3) The horrific consequences of a surprise Soviet nuclear attack on the United States, which was a constant feature of the four-decade Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, reinforced the primacy of this problem for another generation. Yet, notwithstanding all the efforts that American leaders, defense analysts, intelligence experts, and military planners have put into "solving" the problem of strategic surprise, the literature on the subject, as well as history since 1941, suggests that the problem is intractable.

The classic 20th-century account of how strategic surprise can occur despite a wealth of intelligence on enemy actions and intentions remains Roberta Wohlstetter's 1962 study of Japan's surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. "Never before," she concluded after sifting through the sources available to the American government during the months preceding the attack, "have we had so complete an intelligence picture of the enemy." (4) The available "signals," meaning clues, signs, or other pieces of evidence about Japanese moves or intentions, (5) were abundant. An American cryptanalyst had broken the top-priority Japanese diplomatic code (known as MAGIC), allowing the U.S. government to listen to a large portion of the privileged communications between Tokyo and major Japanese embassies such as Berlin, Rome, and Washington; cryptanalysts had also achieved some success in reading the codes used by Japanese agents in major American cities and ports; American naval leaders possessed traffic analysis on Japanese naval and military codes; extremely competent on-the-spot political and economic analysis was furnished by the U.S. embassy in Tokyo; additional classified information was provided by British intelligence (although there was a tendency at this stage among both the British and Americans to distrust each other's privileged information); and, there were various unclassified sources of information, including very accurate reporting and predictions on the Japanese political scene by the overseas correspondents of several major American newspapers. (6) "All that we lacked was the date of December 8 [Tokyo time], a precise list of targets, and, most important, an ability to estimate correctly Japanese desperation and daring. …

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