Saturday, January 17, 2009

A look back at strategic thinking

I'm not much into lifting blog posts from other sources, but in this case I couldn't resist. The Joint Operating Environment 2008 report is published by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a high-level evaluation of global trends, and contains very high-level thinking about factors and scenarios facing the world. One thing they stress is that too much focus on "predicting the future" is unwise, since nobody can do so, and the important thing is to be flexible and agile in your thinking so as to be able to adapt to the inevitable unexpected.

As an object lesson in this principle, they had a sidebar in the report noting how strategic thinking looked at approximately 10-year intervals through the 20th century. It's instructive to note not only what changed, but how swiftly. This is a helpful exercise in a time when the media has everyone thinking that everybody has always thought the way we think, and will always think that way.
Strategic Estimates in the Twentieth Century:

1900 - If you had been a strategic analyst for the world’s leading power, you would have been British, looking warily at Britain’s age old enemy: France.

1910 - You would now be allied with France, and the enemy would now be Germany

1920 - Britain and its allies had won World War I, but now the British found themselves engaged in a naval race with its former allies the United States and Japan.

1930 - For the British, naval limitation treaties were in place, the Great Depression had started and defense planning for the next five years assumed a “ten year” rule -- no war in ten years. British planners posited the main threats to the Empire as the Soviet Union and Japan, while Germany and Italy were either friendly or no threat.

1936 - A British planner would now posit three great threats: Italy, Japan, and the worst, a resurgent Germany, while little help could be expected from the United States.

1940 - The collapse of France in June left Britain alone in a seemingly hopeless war with Germany and Italy with a Japanese threat looming in the Pacific. America had only recently begun to scramble to rearm its military forces.

1950 - The United States was now the world’s greatest power, the atomic age had dawned, and a “police action” began in June in Korea that was to kill over 36,500 Americans, 58,000 South Koreans, nearly 3,000 Allied soldiers, 215,000 North Koreans, 400,000 Chinese, and 2,000,000 Korean civilians before a cease-fire brought an end to the fighting in 1953. The main opponent in the conflict would be China, America’s ally in the war against Japan.

1960 - Politicians in the United States were focusing on a missile gap that did not exist; massive retaliation would soon give way to flexible response, while a small insurgency in South Vietnam hardly drew American attention.

1970 - The United States was beginning to withdraw from Vietnam, its military forces in shambles. The Soviet Union had just crushed incipient rebellion in the Warsaw Pact. D├ętente between the Soviets and Americans had begun, while the Chinese were waiting in the wing to create an informal alliance with the United States.

1980 - The Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan, while a theocratic revolution in Iran had overthrown the Shah’s regime. “Desert One” -- an attempt to free American hostages in Iran -- ended in a humiliating failure, another indication of what pundits were calling “the hollow force.” America was the greatest creditor nation the world had ever seen.

1990 - The Soviet Union collapses. The supposedly hollow force shreds the vaunted Iraqi Army in less than 100 hours. The United States had become the world’s greatest debtor nation. No one outside of the Department of Defense has heard of the internet.

2000 - Warsaw is the capital of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nation. Terrorism is emerging as America’s greatest threat. Biotechnology, robotics, nanotechnology, HD energy, etc. are advancing so fast they are beyond forecasting

2010 - Take the above and plan accordingly! What will be the disruptions of the next 25 years?

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