Known Unknowns: Unconventional “Strategic Shocks” in Defense Strategy Development

The U.S. Navy target ship USS Utah (AG-16, ex ...

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There was a time when defense planners could anticipate, well in advance with a high degree of accuracy, the kind of threats and adversaries they would face in their next conflict. War Plan Orange, the U.S. Navy’s plan to engage and beat Japan in a Pacific war, had been under study for over 30 years when the attack on Pearl Harbor came, and the war in the Pacific unfolded largely as planners had expected.

Not so in today’s world, as Nathan Freier points out in this book published by the Strategic Studies Institute. Today, attacks from unexpected directions – “strategic shocks” in Pentagon parlance – are the new norm. Freier makes a case why and how defense planning must change from its cold war mode and into a newer, more flexible approach.

There is more than national security policy on the able in this work. “Strategic shocks” are becoming a common challenge in business as well, and for those businesses that actually do try to maintain a longer-term or strategic view of the market (and that tiny fraction that even attempt informal plans to that end), this book is a worthy companion to The Innovator’s Dilemma.

2 thoughts on “Known Unknowns: Unconventional “Strategic Shocks” in Defense Strategy Development

  1. You might want to “enlighten” me on this one: “war in the Pacific unfolded largely as planners had expected”. I thought that Plan Orange anticipated holding the Phillipines and forcing an early Jutland-style main fleet action in that area. Not remotely what happened: long slog up the Solomon Islands and across New Guinea during 1942-43 – prime movers aircraft-carriers and subs, not battleships – then island-hopping toward Japan 1943-45. Highly improvised; not “planned”. Am I wrong about this?

    • Fair question, no short answer, so bear with me.

      If you haven’t picked up Edward Miller’s “War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan 1897-1945,” drop everything and get it now. You’ll really enjoy it. For me, it dispelled a lot of my previous misconceptions about Orange (Miller even explains why those misconceptions were promulgated.) There were various iterations of Orange, some of which anticipated a major fleet action and holding the Philippines. But most variations of Orange, and all after 1932, assumed the Philippines could not be held early in the war (although Army planners squealed about it.)

      Miller documents how the broader strokes of Orange – Central Pacific thrust through “The Mandate” (the island chains of the Central Pacific) as the main effort, the Philippines as likely lost, destruction of the Japanese fleet, siege by commerce interdiction and bombardment – were at the heart of Orange through its various iterations and that the plan and the process were vindicated by events. The primary deviation from the main plan – driven primarily by MacArthur – was the Southwest Pacific thrust, which The Gen’rul himself conceded was a “stepping stone” approach. The Central Pacific effort actually began with the defense of Midway, but the meat-grinder of Guadalcanal drew resources that would have otherwise gone into the Central Pacific effort, delaying the “main thrust” assaults into ’43.

      There were deviations, to be sure. The original plan had the Navy seizing Truk as a base, but advances in underway replenishment made it unnecessary. Submarines replaced surface raiders as the siege/interdiction platform, and carriers replaced battleships, but these technical innovations, as important as they were to the conduct of naval war, did not fundamentally alter the strategy espoused in the plan.

      A superb book, as much an eye-opener as Parshall and Tully’s “The Shattered Sword.”

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