Assessing the “Strategic” in Surprise

Practically applying the idea of “strategic surprise” when anticipating new threats is difficult as soon as one moves away from the general idea, and tries to be more specific about the strategic impact a surprise could have.

The surprise part of the concept is relatively easily understood and envisioned. When imagining a threat or danger occurring, we don’t have any problem identifying and explaining the many reasons why this event could happen unexpectedly and find us unprepared. Assessing, estimating and understanding these incriminated causes, then remedying them, is more complex, indeed the raison d’être of strategic foresight and warning and risk management, and the topic of many studies.

The strategic dimension, for its part, is more elusive and far less intuitive. For example, if you were asked to specify in one or two sentences the strategic-level impacts of the use of micro-drones for hostile action, or of the increasing use of mesh-networking, or of the decrease by fifty percent of the pollinators’ population and had to answer the question immediately, would you be able to do it? This is actually a very difficult exercise. If you have already thought about the question and researched it, if it is one of your area of specialisation, then the chances are that you will be able to answer easily. It is easier if the question is about a threat that is obviously strategic, such as a war between Iran and Israel, and even there some strategic implications can easily be forgotten. But what if the danger or threat imagined relate to an entirely new area, as is most likely to happen if you try anticipating and getting ready for the future, or does not belong obviously to the more classical geo-strategic realm?

Here, I would like to focus on the strategic component of the idea of strategic surprise, to underline some of the major challenges that make it difficult to answer the “strategic-level impact question” and suggest practical ways forward (click on the link to jump directly to conclusions). The aim of this post is modest and only hopes to contribute to facilitate debates on strategic impact and significance. Those will remain and are necessary to obtain the best possible strategies.

The elusive strategic level

As explained by Crocker (2007), among others,* the idea of strategic surprise comes from the military. Nowadays, it must be enlarged to be adapted to our 21st century: “With today’s complex challenges, strategic surprise has a far broader range of meanings in addition to the original one. Surprises with strategic significance may come from random events, historical discontinuities, trend reversals, systemic transitions, our own actions, or the actions of others” (Crocker).

But what exactly is this strategic significance, the overall effect of the sum and articulation of what we named earlier the strategic-level impacts?**

Is qualifying as strategic something that is of the longer term, of the wider scope and of the larger geographical (or spatial) dimension?

Unfortunately, such simple rule is not useful anymore, assuming it ever was. For example, John G. Heidenrich, in his very interesting article, “The State of Strategic Intelligence: The Intelligence Community’s Neglect of Strategic Intelligence,” underlines that if the strategy of Containement during the Cold War necessitated a long-term outlook, this was linked to the issue itself not to an inherent element of strategy: “If the timeframe of a strategic issue is short, however, as several are, the strategic intelligence should mirror that” (Heidenrich, 2007).

Grabo, in the case of warning, emphasises that if “…Strategic warning is generally viewed as relatively long-term, or synonymous with the “earliest possible warning,’’ “In practice, the line between strategic and tactical warning may not be so precise. … Would a warning issued in the early afternoon of 20 August 1968 of a Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia have been strategic or tactical?” O’Leary underlines that “… llines are blurred between strategic and operational aspects of surprise…”

Yarger (2006), using Foster (1990) summarizes the challenges: “with the advances in transportation and communications, there has been a spatial and temporal convergence of strategy, operational art, and tactics.”

The difficulty with the understanding of what is strategic is not a new problem, and not limited to the study of surprise, but one that seems to be pervasive and long-lasting. Heidenrich (Ibid.) notes that:

“Does Anyone Know What Strategic Intelligence Is?

Readers can easily get a sense of the problem by conducting a small, admittedly unscientific, survey. Hand someone a report on a foreign-related topic and describe it as “strategic intelligence.” Then ask the recipient to explain the term “strategic intelligence” and how the report qualifies. In my own surveys, a typical reply, after an awkward pause, has been that strategic intelligence is information about countries, or about strategic nuclear forces, or perhaps a long-range forecast. Another common reply, commendable in its honesty, has been ‘I don’t know.'”

Ways forward

If we continue following Heidenrich, we start getting elements of answers. Something that has impact at the strategic-level is something that will have an effect upon “a strategy, typically a grand strategy, what officialdom calls a national strategy. A strategy is not really a plan but the logic driving a plan… A strategy furthers one’s advance towards goals by suggesting ways to accommodate and/or orchestrate a variety of variables –sometimes too many for the strategist alone to anticipate and understand.”

Note that strategy is not limited to a grand strategy. The latter is then articulated in various strategies, according to main areas, up until the theatre strategy, as depicted in the graphic (from Yarger, 2006).*** We could even wonder if a fractal approach would not be a useful way to look at strategy, but this would be the topic for another post.

Taking into account, now, the point made by Crocker, using Luttwak, according to which “surprise at war” suspends strategy, however, briefly and partially, then the change brought about need not be complete and long-lasting to qualify as strategic impact.

From there, we can move forward towards finding ways to improve our assessment of strategic impacts.

First, as Heidenrich definition underlines, or as most students of strategy point out, a strategy is about human decisions (Heidenrich, 2007; Brands, 2012). For example, Yarger stresses similarly, that “Strategy provides a coherent blueprint to bridge the gap between the realities of today and a desired future. (p.5)… Strategy is fundamentally about choices; it reflects a preference for a future state or condition and determines how best to get there. (p.6)”

This specificity of strategy must be foremost in our mind when we endeavour to answer our “strategic-level impact” question. The response must help as much as possible the task of the strategist in his/her preparation for strategic surprises, whilst preventing the closing of options.

Thus, the question can actually be answered only according to the specific strategies of a specific actor. If there is no strategy, if it is implicit or if we try answering the question for an actor without already knowing its strategy, then a strategy must first be either imagined or reconstructed. If we try to answer the question from an external or global point of view, then one will need to resort first to a strategic analysis of the actors (even in an implicit, cursory way), and find impacts that are most likely to affect the various strategies of all (or most) actors involved (without forgetting the strategic constraints of the system, e.g. the current international society of state), which is actually what I do here for Red (team) Analysis. We could also imagine working from the point of view of a global ideal governance (with all the pitfalls this implies), but then the ideal would need to be defined before a strategy could be created.

Second, we must move backward to the origin of our problem, the anticipated phenomenon that might create a surprise. Usually, we are not using such a neutral word as phenomenon, but think in terms of threat, and more rarely opportunity. By so doing, we unconsciously and thoughtlessly attribute a major impact to this phenomenon: a good one (an opportunity) or a bad one (a threat). This is a black and white view that tends to ignore that an immediate opportunity may have adverse consequences, while a threat may turn out or be used to one’s advantage. Indeed, the art of the strategist may well be her/his capacity to turn a threat into an opportunity for a specific strategy. Thus, to be able to answer our “strategic-level impact question,” in the best possible way – the way that will give room for the best possible integration of the new element in the revised strategy – then one would need first to suspend the idea of threat or opportunity to be able to envision the full impact and chain of consequences it may have on our strategy.

Third, “Strategy is the art and science of developing and using the political, economic, social-psychological, and military powers of the state in accordance with policy guidance to create effects that protect or advance national interests relative to other states, actors, or circumstances” (Yager, 2006:1, 2012:53). These “political, economic, social-psychological, and military powers of the state,” or of any actors for which one would estimate the strategic impact of a surprise, the “other states, actors, or circumstances” are “strategic factors,” i.e. “The things that can potentially contribute to or detract causally from the realization of specified interests or other interests” (Yarger, 2012:58-61). Then key factors are selected and orchestrated to create the strategy. (ibid.) Any change brought about by our phenomenon that bears upon one or more strategic factors or would potentially imply a change in the logic, the accommodation and orchestration will be a strategic-level impact. We cannot limit ourselves to look out for changes affecting key strategic factors because the impact could well be to transform the ranking and role of strategic factors.

Finally, making an analogy for any problem with a conventional war and the battlefield is helpful to determine what is strategic and what is not. Try to imagine for a given problem what would be related to tactics and operations, and the strategic will appear more easily… while the blurring of the lines will also most probably be emphasised.


Let us now try to describe some strategic-level impacts for the three initial examples.

The use of micro-drones for hostile action:

  • It could redefine the idea of troops capabilities that is crucial in many military and corps strategy. Micro-drones could be used for both attack and defence at individual soldier level as well as combined. (At the tactical level we might ask: which types of micro-drones for which types of soldiers, how many per soldier, etc. At the operational level: which combination of defensive drones acting as anti-armour, which type of attack drones per type of combatant unit? How would these novel units interact among themselves? How would the drones combine, and according to which plan would they engage the enemy?).
  • Detection of hostile actions and hostile capabilities (need to track nano components for example) would have to be revised, across domain.
  • Deployment and projection possibilities would change.
  • The whole idea of domestic security and thus related strategies would have to be revisited, etc.

An increasing generalised use of mesh-networking:

  • Impact on the whole current attempt at regulating and harnessing the world-wide-web. Many, sometimes nascent, strategies regarding cyber-security and cyber-threats would have to be revised, to integrate changing support infrastructure, accrued flexibility and agility.
  • Evolution of the internet and more broadly communication landscape, at technical and commercial level; transformation of the need for and use of existing infrastructures, consequently rise and fall of commercial actors, change in countries (or political units)’ relative power.
  • Increased agility of hostile cyber-actors and rising potential for psy-ops by any actor, thus heightened potential for destabilization, including asymmetrically, and irredentism.
  • Need to imagine, create, develop and set up new mobile and fixed infrastructures for detection and interdiction.
  • Need to complement a generalised focus on “high-tech/algorithm mainly” solutions with hybrid new mobile infrastructure + personal intervention forces; related impact on resources.
  • Need to revise interests, thus goals, and system – even underlying grand vision – to face a potential exponential multiplication of threats and related cost (change of level of action, moving towards ideas, norms), etc.

A decrease by fifty percent of the pollinators’ population:

  • Considering that it is still difficult to assess the multi-dimensional effects of the reduction of pollinators, from direct economic impact on the agricultural and food sector, to health (rising costs and decreasing availability of fruits, etc.) through ecosystems’ imbalance (Barfield et al., 2012), a first strategic-level impact could be the necessity to have serious nation-wide, continent-wide and global strategies regarding this phenomenon.
  • Protection of pollinators could have to be main-streamed throughout all policies and strategies.
  • The urban mode of development could have to be completely revised, as it impacts the lives of pollinators.
  • Trade security could have to be changed to pay strict attention to invasive species.
  • Some countries could reinforce their pro-GMOs strategies, making it harder for other countries and local populations to struggle against GMOs, leading to harsher competition in terms of trade, potentially to protectionism, for example, and to tense situations domestically. Alternatively, all countries could decide to favour GMOs with unknown longer term impacts that could upset all strategies.
  • Many strategies across domains now tend to include an ageing of the OECD countries’ population. If the loss of pollinators’ impact meant strong reduction in food diversity and increased prices, then this ageing might not happen as elderly mortality might, on the contrary, increase. All the strategies relying on ageing would thus have to be revisited. Alternatively, younger populations could bear the brunt of the sanitary impact and the ageing imbalance could be heightened, also demanding a revision of strategies, etc.


Let us summarise three practical ways forward that can be helpful in specifying strategic level-impacts when trying to foresee surprises:

  1. Identify, would it be only mentally, which actor(s) and which strategies are concerned by the potential surprise; however briefly, start with a strategic analysis of all the actors potentially involved. Do not limit yourself to state actors, or, worse, to some specific types of state actors (e.g. analyses looking only at some elite groups and forgetting citizens or the people, interactions and dynamics, as these approaches were one of the reasons behind the Arab Spring warning failures, e.g. see Laipson, 2011), but look really for all players.
  2. Suspend judgement regarding the negativity or positivity of the anticipated phenomenon (in strategic terms). Try to start from a neutral vantage point and work out progressively all consequences, there considering valence and assessing the effects on all strategic factors, thus the potential disturbance to strategy.
  3. Consider all possible strategic factors as well as the very logic and art of orchestrating them. Help yourself by also finding out tactical and operational level impacts, taking guidance from analogies with classical warfare.


Thanks: I am very grateful to all those who have made this post possible, through rich and enlightening discussions, as well as with their comments and suggestions.

* Many studies and articles deal with strategic surprises. Some of them are mentioned below, in the bibliography. A more complete list can be found in the incredibly complete and useful J. Ransom Clark’s Bibliography on the Literature of Intelligence. Many studies tend to focus on the surprise element, on the feasibility of strategic surprise, on its efficiency to win a war, etc. Few of them tackle directly the elusiveness of the strategic element, often taken it for granted.

** The strategic significance is understood here as a complex system composed of strategic impacts.

*** Some concepts such as Effect-based Operations (EBO) have been questioned following the 2006 Israeli—Hezbollah War (Balasevicius, 2009: 10, see also Berman, 2011). This does not question Yarger’s approach, even if in his 2006 publication he uses a vocabulary that may now be seen as out of fashion.

Bibliographic References

Balasevicius, T., Major, ‘Adapting Military Organizations to Meet Future Shock,’ Canadian Army Journal Vol. 12.2 (Summer 2009) 8-24.

Barfield, Ashley, John Bergstrom and Susana Ferreira, “An Economic Valuation of Pollination Services in Georgia,” Selected Paper prepared for presentation at the Southern Agricultural Economics Association Annual Meeting, Birmingham, AL, February 4-7, 2012.

Berman, Lazar, “Beyond the Basics: Looking Beyond the Conventional Wisdom Surrounding the IDF Campaigns against Hizbullah and Hamas;” Small Wars Journal, April 28, 2011

Brands, Hal, The Promise And Pitfalls Of Grand Strategy, Strategic Studies Institute, United States Army War College, August 2012.

Crocker, Chester A. “Thirteen Reflections on Strategic Surprise,” Georgetown University, 2007, reprinted in The Impenetrable Fog of War: Reflections on Modern Warfare and Strategic Surprise, Ed. Patrick Cronin,  (Praeger Security International, 2008).

Foster, Gregory D., “A Conceptual Foundation for a Theory of Strategy,” The Washington Quarterly, Winter, 1990.

Gaddis, John Lewis, “On Strategic Surprise,” Hoover digest, 2002 no. 2.

Gaddis, John Lewis, “Strategies of Containment, Past and Future,” Hoover digest, 2001 no. 2.

Grabo, Cynthia M., Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning, edited by Jan Goldman, (Lanham MD: University Press of America, May 2004).

Greene, Brian W., “Rethinking Strategic Surprise: Defence Planning Under “Bounded Uncertainty,” Technical Memorandum DRDC CORA TM 2010-186, August 2010.

Handel, Michael, “Intelligence and the Problem of Strategic Surprise,” (1984) in Paradoxes of Intelligence: Essays in Honor of Michael I. Handel ed. By Richard Betts, (London & Portland: Frank Cass Publishers, 2003).

Heidenrich, John G., “The State of Strategic Intelligence: The Intelligence Community’s Neglect of Strategic Intelligence,” Studies in Intelligence, vol51 no2, 2007.

Laipson, Ellen, Ed. Seismic Shift: Understanding Change in the Middle East, May 2011, Stimson Center.

Lee Wai Keong, Christopher, CPT, “Strategic Surprise,” Journal of the Singapore Armed Forces, Journal V24 N3 (Jul – Sep 1998).

Luttwak, Edward N., Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001 2nd edition), p. 4, cited by Crocker, “Thirteen Reflections,” p.2.

O’Leary, Jeffrey Maj USAF, Surprise And Intelligence Towards A Clearer Understanding, Airpower Journal – Spring 1994.

Yarger, Harry Richard, “Strategic Theory for the 21st Century: The Little Book on Big Strategy,” Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) monographs, United States Army War College, February 2006.

Yarger, Harry Richard, “The Strategic Appraisal: The Key To Effective Strategy,” In U. S. Army War College Guide To National Security Issues, Volume I: Theory Of War And Strategy, 5th Edition, J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr. Editor, Strategic Studies Institute Book, United States Army War College, June 2012.

Yarger, Harry Richard, “Toward A Theory Of Strategy: Art Lykke And The U.S. Army War College Strategy Model,” In U. S. Army War College Guide To National Security Issues, Volume I: Theory Of War And Strategy, 5th Edition, J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr. Editor, Strategic Studies Institute Book, United States Army War College, June 2012.

Iconographic references

(When the source is not visible when pointing the mouse over the image)

Featured image: USS California slowly sinking, USS Shaw burning – Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941. By U.S. Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.