This Isn’t the Surprise You Were Expecting


Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in “Off Guard,” a series on surprise in war inspired by a new CSIS study .

Surprise is back. A generation of war where the U.S. military had overwhelming capabilities pushed surprise into the background. But today, surprise is ready to catch America off guard once more. China and Russia have become competing great powers that can challenge the U.S. military in all warfighting domains, especially close to their shores. A long peace between the great powers has lulled Americans into believing that such conflicts are obsolete. Changes in warfighting technology will transform the conduct of future battles in unexpected ways.

Exacerbating U.S. vulnerability is a cockiness arising from decades of obtaining easy victories over weak adversaries. Senior officials have told U.S. forces, not just that they are the best in the world, but that they are the best the world has ever known. As with Greek heroes of legend and literature, such hubris can lead to downfall. In 1806, the then-dominant Prussian army lost a century of military dominance in a single day at Jena and Auerstedt.

In thinking about surprise in war, we should start with the fundamental question: What is surprise? Surprise occurs when events are so different from a victim’s expectations that opponents gain a major advantage. Surprise is rarely absolute. Historically, the victim had at least some inkling of what was about to happen but could not come to a decision in time or acted too late to take effective countermeasures.

When people think of surprise, they typically think about surprise attack — the most dramatic and visible kind of surprise — but surprise also occurs with technology, doctrine, and diplomacy. The United States needs to consider all four manifestations if it is to develop ways of coping with future surprise. To give illustrate what surprise might look like, not in some distant future but today or soon, the discussion below provides some examples, taken from a new CSIS study on surprise.

Surprise Attack

Classic examples include the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 — a war was expected, but the surprise was where, the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 — a war was expected eventually, but the surprise was when, and the Chinese intervention in Korea in 1950 — the capability for attack was seen, but the surprise was why.

Surprise occurs for three reasons: First, an attacker might have a different calculation of risk than the victim. For example, the United States regarded a direct Japanese attack in 1941 as suicidal, expecting instead an attack on British, French, or Dutch territories, but Japan regarded it as vital for the survival of its empire. Second, attackers often believe they can achieve a knock-out first blow if they attack within a window of opportunity. In attacking the Soviet Union after the purges, the Germans planned to destroy the Soviet army and win in a few months. Finally, the victim often ignores warning signs. For example, before the Chinese intervention in Korea in 1950, and as it was actually happening, the United States picked up many signals of impending conflict. Nevertheless, MacArthur and his staff were convinced that such an intervention, although possible, was irrational and refused to take action.

Today, the United States is most vulnerable to surprise attacks from Russia and China. Although the possibility of future attacks by both countries have been discussed, actual attacks could be surprises because of the timing, location, or motivation, just as with the historical examples cited above.  Concerns abound that Russia will launch a surprise attack on the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. These NATO members are particularly vulnerable: militarily weak, geographically exposed, and internally divided by ethnic tensions. Russia frequently conducts nearby “snap” exercises, which could be used as cover for attack preparations, and Russia’s use of “gray zone” operations could soften targets before an attack.

China continues to expand its military and might use it against the United States to re-establish its traditional hegemony in the western Pacific. Although such a war looks irrational, it would not be unprecedented. China entered the Korean War against the United States in 1950 even though it had recently endured years of civil war and millions of casualties. It took on a nuclear power at a time when it had no nuclear weapons of its own and did this only five years after the United States had vanquished Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Technological Surprise

In great power conflicts, technological surprises are not, in themselves, war winning. Some, like the initial German use of poison gas in World War I, produced only local effects because the users were unprepared to exploit the advantage gained before victims developed countermeasures. Others can provide tactical advantages of such magnitude that they produce strategic effects for a period of time. For example, the superior fighting characteristics of Japanese Zero fighter in World War II surprised allied air forces and enabled Japan to gain aerial dominance for about a year until the allies developed better tactics and aircraft. Nuclear weapons are the one exception to the rule that technological surprise is not decisive. In World War II these weapons were so powerful that they forced termination of the war.

Looking at technological vulnerabilities today, cyber attacks stand out. The United States is highly dependent on networks to conduct its preferred way of fighting wars. Cyber attacks represent a huge unknown because their wartime effects have never been tested. They could be as destructive as nuclear or chemical weapons or could provide useful but not war-winning capabilities. Scholars argue both sides. This uncertainty opens space for surprise.

New technologies could produce surprise: weapons in space, autonomous combat vehicles, missile defense, and hypersonic missiles. Recently developed gene splicing techniques raise the possibility of biological warfare.

Technological surprise could arise from systems that have evolved since the last great power conflict. For example, submarines with advanced sensors and weapons have never fought each other, stealth aircraft never been in a dogfight, and artillery has never dueled with precision munitions.

Surprise can occur when U.S. technologies don’t perform as expected. The classic example here is the failure of U.S. submarine torpedoes in World War II. The submarine force took years to acknowledge and fix the multiple defects — running too deep and failing to detonate. Senior officers blamed the failure on lack of crew training and poor shooting. Design engineers denied that their new technology could have problems. The cost in blood and lost opportunities was high.

Today the United States has dozens of weapons not yet subjected to the full stress and countermeasures of a great power adversary. Can we be sure that they will all work as planned? And if problems do arise, will they engender finger-pointing between weapons designers and operators?

Doctrinal Surprise

The German blitzkrieg of World War II is the classic example. The Wehrmacht combined armored forces with enhanced communications, close air support, and motorized infantry to produce battlefield advances so rapid that their adversaries could not cope and were eventually surrounded and destroyed. Their opponents did not lack the key technologies. France, for example, had more tanks and better tanks than Germany. However, German forces put the technologies together differently to produce a powerful new capability.

Doctrinal surprise could appear almost anywhere: For example, adversaries might combine long range missile technology with precise targeting to neutralize U.S. bases, steal operational secrets and use the information to attack vulnerable points, assassinate American leaders, employ nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, or subvert an ally’s political stability before launching an overt attack.

Surprise can also come from the unexpected failure of one’s own doctrine because many doctrines cannot be adequately tested in peacetime. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower once observed, “Every war is going to astonish you in the way it occurred and the way it is carried out.”

The initial failure of strategic bombing in World War II is one such example. The United States believed that heavily armed unescorted bombers could penetrate deep into an enemy’s airspace and attack key targets. The Eighth Air Force implemented this strategy from August to October 1943, but the strategy failed because of unsustainably high losses. The two raids against the towns of Schweinfurt and Regensburg became infamous because of the 120 bombers lost (about 20 percent of the attacking force). As a result, the Eighth Air Force had to pull back until long-range fighter escorts were available.

Failure of U.S. doctrine is hard to forecast. If the Pentagon knew which doctrines might fail, it would change them. Nevertheless, one can imagine surprise arising when a war is longer or more intense than planned, when U.S. military leadership or combat forces turn out to be more brittle than expected, or when some concept of operation fails. What would happen, for example, if stealth aircraft could not penetrate the air defenses that great powers can establish? Or if carrier battle groups are driven beyond their attack range?

Diplomatic Surprise

What countries might do under the stress of gathering war is often unclear, even to the countries themselves, until the moment of decision arrives when they must act one way or the other. Then the soft rhetoric and easy gestures of peace get swept away, and the nakedly self-interested calculations of realist politicians take over.

In 1914, for example, Italy was allied to Germany and Austria-Hungary, but refused to support them when the war broke out. In 1915, induced by hopes of territorial gain, it joined the other side.

Today, America’s need for allied and partner capabilities creates a diplomatic vulnerability. Because many allies and partners are geographically close to Russia and China, they are much more exposed than the United States itself. Can the United States really be sure that it will stand firm when the shooting starts?

So What?

What should the United States do in the face of these potential surprises? The first inclination is to reform the intelligence community so it will avoid past failures and anticipate possible surprises. Indeed, better data collection, more insightful analysis, and improved decision-making are helpful, but, in the end, not enough to anticipate everything. Some surprise is inevitable. The reasons for this conclusion are many, from the inherent difficulty in predicting the future, to the cleverness of adversaries, and the vulnerability of status quo powers to disruptive behavior.

Nevertheless, there is no reason to be fatalistic. The United States can take action to anticipate the possibilities of surprise through better intellectual preparation, to reduce the effects of surprise through resilience, and to counteract the effects of surprise through adaptation. For this reason, the project changed its name from “avoiding surprise” to “coping with surprise.”

Wargames can expand intellectual horizons, experiments can test concepts and systems identified as promising , and exercises can accustom forces to being surprised. All these activities build the mental resilience needed to fight through surprise.

Marc Bloch, a university professor and French staff officer in 1940, identified the crucial role of mental resilience when he described what happened to the French army as the blitzkrieg rolled over it: “They thought that everything was lost, and, therefore, acquiesced in the loss.” The French army might have fought on after its initial defeats. It had done so in 1914 in the face of similar setbacks. However, it lacked resilience for a variety of military, political, and cultural reasons, so the army gave up.

Enhancement of reach back and revival of the senior mentor program can give independent advice to forward headquarters and commanders and perhaps provide a steadying influence during crisis.

Maintaining a large “tool box” — a wide range of weapons and units — can enhance physical resilience. If some tools are incapacitated by countermeasures, or useful in meeting unexpected threats, the commander has a solution at hand, rather than having to develop a capability from scratch during an emergency.

Once a conflict begins, lessons learned processes conducted in real time can identify challenges. Rapid acquisition processes can provide responses. Flexible decision-making is needed throughout because organizations are often reluctant to acknowledge failure.

Above all, senior officials need to stop talking about the unprecedented superiority of the United States armed forces and acknowledge, in doctrine, war fighting concepts, and public statements, that great power conflict will be a tough and uncertain fight. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has made a strong start here noting, “There is no God-given right to victory”. That spirit needs to permeate doctrine and culture to inoculate the armed forces against the inevitable surprises ahead.


Mark Cancian (Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps, ret.) is a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program. Colonel Cancian spent over three decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, active and reserve, serving as an infantry, artillery, and civil affairs officer and on overseas tours in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Iraq (twice).

Image: National Archives via Kurt Click/Flickr

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