Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: Strategic Error

In my Foreign Policy column, I explain why better strategic warning won't by itself make the U.S. and its allies safer.


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.




Wed, 08/29/2012 - 3:16pm

In reply to by Rick

Rick: Interesting points, however I have a somewhat different view.

Somewhat paraphrased, Mr. Haddick notes, intelligence community analysis is aimed at averting surprise and to avoid it should focus on well-known [problems] that could or appear to be developing into crises. In addition, he opines that strategic intelligence and warning, while vital, should not come at the expense of tactical warning capabilities, which he believes when known by an adversary can be just as effective at deterring conflict as strategic warning. Exemplifying that proposition, he asserts that had U.S. commanders in the Pacific in 1941 displayed (exhibited conspicuously?) better tactical warning processes, Japanese decision-makers, realizing they could not achieve tactical surprise, may have been dissuaded from attacking. …. and because various iterations of War Plan Orange had been prepared since the late 1800’s the failure to deter or defeat the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor resulted from a tactical level intelligence failure, not a strategic level failure.

Contrarily, I would propose history demonstrates the opposite -- that the use of detailed information gathered by intelligence operations has been / and will always be determined by the strategic mind set (the strategic view) held by the receiving organization member having the authority to determine the relevance and value of that data.

If the reviewing / deciding authority’s strategic vision of the situation is flawed, then tactical information will rarely, if ever, cause them to change their view and set them on a decision making course based on what they will perceive to be counter intuitive tactical level intelligence information. Correspondingly, I also would propose that planners deciding to launch an attack generally comprehend and consider the strategic level shortcomings of their opponent’s leadership and, therefore, tactical demonstrations by those at target locations have little, if any, probability of causing cancellation of an attack under those conditions.

Accordingly, I contrarily believe that unless intelligence agency input is able to both discern the strategic nature of a threat and then to so inform the opinion / view of the nation’s leadership, gathered tactical level intelligence will have little or no impact on military readiness or be used to prevent a so-called surprise attack.

History is replete with examples supporting this contention. Stalin ignored countless warnings from front line troops observing the Germans massing for attack in June 1941 because he viewed the treaty between Russia and Germany as mutually beneficial. Bush and Rumsfeld ignored warnings that Iraq could not be successfully occupied by a small invading force and that Iraqi military units would employ insurgency style tactics post-invasion because they envisioned a joyous people being freed. Saddam Hussein apparently refused to believe that the US would invade Iraq despite easily obtained intelligence concerning the buildup of US forces on his border. MacArthur disregarded reports that large Chinese forces were entering North Korea and infiltrating between his X Corps and the 8th Army because that tactical scenario didn’t fit his view of the strategic situation. Israel was surprised by the initial effectiveness of the tactics Egypt employed in 1973 having disregarded substantial tactical level pre-invasion information as it didn’t fit their view of Egyptian incompetent military performance.

In each of these examples an errant strategic view trumped the receipt of tactical level information / intelligence strongly indicating otherwise. In none of these or in countless other situations was the attacker deterred by knowledge their opponent had observed their preparations for an attack – as they understood or believed their opponent’s leadership had strategically failed to comprehend their intent.

Surprise by a party being initially defeated results generally from strategic error on the part of their leadership, at least in my opinion, not a lack of tactical level information.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor resulted not from an intelligence failure, nor should it have been a strategic surprise, as noted in my above posting, but instead resulted due to a “strategic error” on the part of President Roosevelt. Having been an Assistant Secretary of the Navy does not an Admiral make. Further, as Admiral Richardson correctly noted, substantially weakened (if not crippled) by the preceding 10+ years of depression era budgets and low staffing levels, the 1940 US Navy was not a deterrent force and Roosevelt should have realized that fact.

Experienced Naval Officers can detect the operational weaknesses of an opposing naval force in the manner those lacking sea going experience often generally cannot. Admiral Richardson correctly informed Roosevelt that the Japanese Admiralty understood the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet of October 1940 lacked the logistical support capabilities in the form of fleet oilers (AO’s) or secure Western Pacific fueling stations to support operations far distant from Pearl Harbor. He also correctly informed Roosevelt that given their logistical weaknesses the presence of the Navy’s aging and slow battleships at Pearl Harbor would have no deterrent effect on Japanese advances into Indo China and into the East Indies.

The Admiral, who had studied the Japanese military for decades, understood they would advance into the areas of the East Indies to secure the resources required by their military and nation. Correspondingly, he understood they would advance into seize and fortify Central Pacific Ocean Island chains -- 1500+ miles from Hawaii -- and opt for a defense in depth strategy to defend their expanded territorial conquests in the Southern Seas and await the expected response from the US. A response they believed could not occur for at least a year.

It was Richardson's belief – and that of most Navy Officers of the time – that the Fleet should never be berthed at that time inside Pearl Harbor. There it would be a target for attack by the Japanese striving to pre-empt the use of those ships against their advance and to extend the time required for the US Navy to build and man sufficient ships to counterattack -- if they could have taken out the Aircraft Carriers. Although not the place for this discussion, contrary to the incorrect views of many historians, by the mid-1930’s and after both the U.S. and Japanese Navies centered their fleet formations around Carrier Task Forces with the slow battleships from WWI relegated to providing protection, if they could keep up with the faster carriers.

Richardson understood that the Japanese military doctrine was wedded to the theory of undeclared and surprise warfare and so informed Roosevelt. The President also ignored a multi-service March 1941 review finding that the military in Hawaii lacked the resources (in 1940 /1941) to successfully detect an attack. The Navy possessed less than 20 percent of the PBY aircraft and aircrews that would be required to sustain the protracted reconnaissance needed to cover the ocean areas surrounding Pearl Harbor, even if restricted to the Northwest to Northeast approaches. A report which both Major General Frederick L.Martin for the Army and Rear Admiral Patrick N. L. Bellinger for the Navy had signed off – predicting that a surprise air attack on Oahu would likely be launched at dawn, prior to a declaration of war, and from a distance inside 300 nautical miles. Information concerning the number of PBY's most certainly provided to the Japanese Admiralty by their spies in Hawaii – who could see aircraft types and count / estimate their numbers.

U.S. commanders in the Pacific in 1941 could not have displayed better tactical warning processes (called for by the SWJ article) as they lacked the resources for that effort, and by that effort persuaded Japanese decision-makers they could not achieve tactical surprise and thus be dissuaded from attacking. Roosevelt would have had to adopt a version of Admiral Richardson’s strategic view to have ordered the allocation of forces to Hawaii needed to protect the fleet, and that change in view was not in the cards.

It was, exemplifying my above proposition; Roosevelt’s errant strategic view of the situation in the Pacific that resulted in the Japanese being able to sink the Pacific Fleet’s aging battleships moored in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, not an intelligence failure on the part of the local commanders in Hawaii.

Referencing Pearl Harbor Wohlstetter noted in her study, “The possibility of such surprise at any time lies in the conditions of human perception and stems from uncertainties so basic that they are not likely to be eliminated, though they might be reduced.” In short, a leader’s strategic perception is unlikely to be changed merely by tactical or operational information or views of others. Also, As Israeli Lieutenant General Bar-Lev aptly noted, “Surprise is a paramount principle of war that belongs in the sphere of psychology. Unlike some other principles that depend on the means of war, surprise relies mainly on the conceptual ability to overcome the enemy's understanding of what is going on. It is directed against the psychology of the enemy with the intention of exploiting his weak points.”

The point of above is to demonstrate that military surprise attacks succeed not due to a lack of tactical level intelligence indicating such an attack is possible or imminent, but generally result because those in command positions hold an errant and firm strategic view psychologically barring them from accepting as accurate tactical level intelligence data indicating an opponent was planning an attack.

While the military and other agencies should possess the capabilities needed to acquire tactical level intelligence data, providing accurate strategic level assessments, and somehow convincing those in upper level leadership positions to accept their validity is the paramount task. It is critical if the objective is to prevent surprise results from occurring. Tactical level intelligence has no value if not accepted by the intended decision makers as contextually meaningful. It cannot substitute for an accurate strategic view or compensate for strategic error. Further, under these conditions tactical displays will not deter an enemy attack if they are aware of errant strategic views held by those in command, as appears to be proposed by the above paper, at least in my opinion.

On a side note, give that the success of a surprise attack, particularly at the opening of hostilities, is determined by the degree to which the military action affects the opponent’s mobilization, deployments, or grand strategy -- the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a failure as it produced zero delay on the amount of time it took to construct and staff the number and types of naval vessels and aircraft needed to carry the war to them. It also directly led the Japanese Navy to the Battle of Midway and disaster six months later, effectively ending their offensive capability and reversing the tide of naval warfare in the Pacific. Such are the fortunes of war.


Sun, 08/26/2012 - 2:41pm

In reply to by CBCalif

CBCalif - With any strategy there is risk and FDR as an old Navy hand (former AsstSecNav) understood the risk, but made a political decision to move the fleet to Hawaii . . . After all, one could ask, what was the fleet for, but to act as a deterrent toward Japanese expansion?

Although, you should recall, FDR did order Adm. Stark and Gen. Marshall in late November 1941, to advise all commanders in the Asia/Pacific theater to take up a war posture . . . Unfortunately, what FDR didn’t know was the time and place Japan would attack, only that war was coming.

However, the foregoing aside, the real crux that ties into Mr. Haddick’s piece is that no matter how much we spend, or don't spend on our strategic intelligence collection effort might be what Roberta Wohlstetter talked of in her seminal study, “Pearl Harbor; Warning and Decision:" that no matter how much collection of information by intelligence professionals from various agencies, using a wide range of collection methods, there has to be the capability of separating the signals from the noise. . . And I might add, separating a national political agenda from influencing the analysis.

Whether the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor resulted due to strategic error or an intelligence failure poses an interesting question. A strong case can be made for that attack having occurred due to strategic error on the part of President Roosevelt. In 1940 Roosevelt, and the State Department, decided it was in America’s interest to take actions they believed could restrain the Japanese from making additional aggressive moves in China.

One of those actions President Roosevelt took ordered the Navy, in October 1940, to transfer the ships of the Pacific Fleet from their West Coast bases to Pearl Harbor. At that time Pearl Harbor was not the major Naval Installation it would later become. The Pacific Fleet had historically been based until that time at it bases in Southern California. Also, rarely, if ever, remembered at that time James O. Richardson was (since January 1940) the Admiral commanding the Pacific Fleet. He was considered a leading authority on Pacific naval warfare and Japanese strategy.

Admiral Richardson openly protested against “Roosevelt’s” ordered redeployment of the Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor and made his feelings known to both the President and other politicians in Washington D.C. At a White House meeting on October 8, 1940, Richardson reportedly argued that the Pacific Fleet should remain based on the West Coast and not at Pearl Harbor and expressed his disagreement with Roosevelt’s conclusion that the presence of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor was a deterrent to Japanese aggression. He argued that the presence of the fleet at Hawaii might deter a civilian political government, but “that Japan had a military government which knew that the fleet was undermanned and unprepared for war, and had no auxiliary ships without which it could not undertake active operations. Therefore the presence of the fleet in Hawaii would not (and did not) exercise a restraining influence on Japanese action.”

Admiral Richardson is then noted as having stated to Roosevelt that senior naval officers lacked the confidence in the civilian leadership of the United States necessary to achieve victory in the Pacific. (See Pearl Harbor Attack, Hearings Before the Joint Congressional Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack, 79th Congress, Part One, pp. 255-256; James O. Richardson with Admiral George C. Dyer, On the Treadmill to Pearl Harbor: The Memoirs of Admiral James O. Richardson (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Division, 1973), pp. 435-436; Master Thesis, For The Good Of The Service: Husband E. Kimmel And The Aftermath Of Pearl Harbor at

Admiral Richardson was summarily relieved by Roosevelt on January 5, 1941 – so much for accurate disruptive thinking.

My last comment aside, the Japanese military in 1941 was interested in obtaining rubber from (then) French Indo China and oil from the Dutch East Indies. The move by the Japanese military into the Pacific beginning in December 1941 was aimed at securing the above noted resources needed to fuel their war machine and for no other purpose. Every related action taken by the Japanese Navy (and Army) against US and British military installations was made to wither secure their (Japanese) lines of communication with Indo China and the East Indies or to protect their Eastern (Pacific Ocean) flank against US attack. In addition, they apparently believed that by securing many of the Islands one thousand plus miles West and South of Hawaii would provide them with in depth defensive positions which the US would have (they believed) to systematically assault – a classic defense in depth strategy relying on Western Pacific Island bases.

Given their strategic resource objectives of obtaining oil from the East Indies and rubber from Indo China; their force commitments to their Chinese Theater of war; and an added (post-December 1941) need to protect their lines of communication with their resource bases and its Western Pacific flank -- what strategic interest would the Japanese Navy have had in mind that would have provoked their interest in attacking on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, had the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet not been based there? Basing the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor constituted, in the Japanese mindset, a threat against their Eastern Flank which had to be removed.

True, the Japanese Navy could have attacked Hawaii and destroyed the USAAF’s fighter planes on the ground at Hickam Field, but for what military purpose. Those fighter planes lacked the range to attack the Japanese bases distant from Hawaii and, therefore, posed no threat to their movement against the Dutch East Indies. In addition, the Japanese Navy lacked the logistic train needed to sustain their Carrier Task Force in that region for any significant time and they would have had to soon withdraw. Most do not realize the critical role that logistical support from an incredibly large number of so-called Auxiliary Ships plays in sustaining a fleet at sea, without which a fleet cannot maintain its presence far from its bases. The Japanese Navy simply lacked the number of Auxiliary Ships such as Oilers to remain in the Hawaii area and therefore to keep strategic control over that area of operations. In addition, the Japanese Army was unwilling to provide the troops needed for any invasion efforts that far from home for territory they deemed no to be strategically worthy.

Given those facts, I would propose that the December 7, 1941 attack by the Japanese against Pearl Harbor resulted from strategic error on the part of President Roosevelt. That strategic error having been Roosevelt’s October 1940 transfer of the Pacific Fleet from their West Coast bases to Pearl Harbor intended to defer further Japanese aggression against China -- lessons that should have value for those making strategic decisions today.

Without going into any detail, I would similarly argue US military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the scope and level of commitment into which both morphed, resulted from strategic error. Also, whether this Nation's leadership is also proceeding in a strategically sound manner as concerns our relationships and plans for confronting Iran and China remain to be seen.

That said, in this day and age the US should never discount the influence of tactical systems capabilities to "attempt" to prevent military or terrorist style actions by those opposing our interests, but remember that those devoted to / interested in attacking an opposing entity will study their tactical capabilities and develop (what they believe) is a way around them. That is the nature of the attacker -- whether it be a foreign nation or group or the US.


Sat, 08/25/2012 - 8:19am


A good column, although understandably very US-centric.

I participate in academic intelligence studies and have repeatedly asked why so little is focussed on the relationship between the intelligence producer and the non-intelligence policy decision-maker - who is not always a politician. This side of the Atlantic Ocean it is rare for the non-intelligence policy decision-maker to make any comments in public. Roderic Braithwaite, an ex-UK diplomat and Ambassador in Moscow is one that comes to mind; I'll not quibble whether he is a policy decision-maker.

There is also the bizarre account by an ex-CIA analyst who prepared profiles for the annual US-Saudi conference, he had no personal dialogue with the readership,more particularly no-one ever asked the readers for their input.

I always found 'UK Government Intelligence: Its nature, Collection, Assessment and Use' in Annex A in this UK document the best guide for policy makers:

Although I don't know if they ever read it!