Skip navigation

Known Unknowns Unconventional Strategic Shocks in Defense Strategy Devel Strategic Studies Inst 2008

Download original document:
Brief thumbnail
This text is machine-read, and may contain errors. Check the original document to verify accuracy.

Nathan Freier

November 2008

Visit our website for other free publication
To rate this publication click here.
This publication is a work of the U.S. Government as defined
in Title 17, United States Code, Section 101. As such, it is in the
public domain, and under the provisions of Title 17, United States
Code, Section 105, it may not be copyrighted.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the
Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S.
Government. This report is cleared for public release; distribution
is unlimited.
Comments pertaining to this report are invited and should be
forwarded to: Director, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War
College, 122 Forbes Ave, Carlisle, PA 17013-5244.
The author would like to thank the following individuals
and organizations for their significant contributions to this work.
First, I am grateful to my colleagues at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, particularly Sam Brannen, Kathleen Hicks,
Clark Murdock, and Christine Wormuth. Our interaction over the
summer was decisive in clarifying my thoughts. Next, I would like
to thank Mr. D. Burgess Laird of the Institute for Defense Analysis
for encouraging me to write this monograph in the first place and
providing important advice at the front end of the project. I am also
grateful to Dr. Phil Williams both of the University of Pittsburgh
and the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. Dr.
Williams’ advice and precision editing were instrumental in the
project’s completion. I am further grateful for the contributions
of Dr. Carl van Dyke of the National Intelligence Council. His
input was instrumental in strengthening my final arguments.
As always, I am also beholden to the other authors cited in this
work. And, finally, this monograph would not have been possible
without support from the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping
and Stability Operations Institute. Their provision of a hospitable
venue for research and writing made this work and future like
works possible.


All Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) publications are available
on the SSI homepage for electronic dissemination. Hard copies
of this report also may be ordered from our homepage. SSI’s
homepage address is:

PKSOI’s website address is

The Strategic Studies Institute publishes a monthly e-mail
newsletter to update the national security community on the
research of our analysts, recent and forthcoming publications, and
upcoming conferences sponsored by the Institute. Each newsletter
also provides a strategic commentary by one of our research
analysts. If you are interested in receiving this newsletter, please
subscribe on our homepage at

ISBN 1-58487-368-X


	 This timely PKSOI Paper on unconventional
strategic shock provides the defense policy team a clear
warning against excessive adherence to past defense
and national security convention. Including the insights
of a number of noted scholars on the subjects of “wild
cards” and “strategic surprise,” the author, Nathan
Freier, argues that future disruptive, unconventional
shocks are inevitable. Through strategic impact and
potential for disruption and violence, defense-relevant
unconventional shocks, in spite of their nonmilitary
character, will demand the focused attention of defense
leadership, as well as the decisive employment of
defense capabilities in response. As a consequence, Mr.
Freier makes a solid case for continued commitment
by the Department of Defense to prudent strategic
hedging against their potential occurrence.
	 The Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute
and the Strategic Studies Institute are pleased to offer
this insightful monograph as a contribution to the
debate on this important national security issue.
Colonel, U.S. Army
Peacekeeping and Stability
Operations Institute
Strategic Studies Institute


NATHAN FREIER is a Visiting Professor of Strategy, Policy,
and Risk Assessment at the U.S. Army’s Peacekeeping and
Stability Operations Institute and a Senior Fellow in the
International Security Program at the Center for Strategic
and International Studies (CSIS). Mr. Freier joined CSIS in
April 2008 after retiring from the U.S. Army after 20 years
as a lieutenant colonel. His last military assignment was
as Director of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army
War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. Prior to that, he
served in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of
Defense for Strategy, where his principal responsibilities
included development of the 2005 National Defense
Strategy. Previously, he was an Army fellow/visiting
scholar at the University of Maryland’s Center for
International and Security Studies and a strategist with
the Strategy, Plans, Concepts, and Doctrine Directorate,
Department of the Army Staff in Washington, DC. Mr.
Freier twice deployed to Iraq as a strategist while assigned
to the Army War College. From January to July 2005, he
served in the Strategy, Plans, and Assessments Directorate
of Headquarters, Multi-National Force–Iraq, and from
May to August 2007, he served as a special assistant
to the Commander, Multi-National Corps–Iraq, in the
Commander’s Initiatives Group. In his current capacity,
he continues to provide expert advice to a number of
key actors in the security and defense policymaking and
analysis communities. Among his research interests and
areas of expertise are U.S. grand strategy; national security,
defense, and military strategy and policy development;
irregular, catastrophic, and hybrid security challenges
and conflicts; strategic net and risk assessment; terrorism;
and the Iraq War. Mr. Freier holds masters’ degrees in
International Relations from Troy State University and
Politics from The Catholic University of America.


	 The current defense team confronted a gamechanging “strategic shock” in its first 8 months in
office. The next team would be well-advised to expect
the same. Defense-relevant strategic shocks jolt
convention to such an extent that they force sudden,
unanticipated change in the Department of Defense’s
(DoD) perceptions about threat, vulnerability, and
strategic response. Their unanticipated onset forces the
entire defense enterprise to reorient and restructure
institutions, employ capabilities in unexpected ways,
and confront challenges that are fundamentally
different than those routinely considered in defense
	 The likeliest and most dangerous future shocks
will be unconventional. They will not emerge from
thunderbolt advances in an opponent’s military
capabilities. Rather, they will manifest themselves in
ways far outside established defense convention. Most
will be nonmilitary in origin and character, and not,
by definition, defense-specific events conducive to the
conventional employment of the DoD enterprise.
	 They will rise from an analytical no man’s land
separating well-considered, stock and trade defense
contingencies and pure defense speculation. Their
origin is most likely to be in irregular, catastrophic, and
hybrid threats of “purpose” (emerging from hostile
design) or threats of “context” (emerging in the absence
of hostile purpose or design). Of the two, the latter is
both the least understood and the most dangerous.
	 Thoughtful evaluation of defense-relevant strategic
shocks and their deliberate integration into DoD
strategy and planning is a key check against excessive
convention. Further, it underwrites DoD relevance


and resilience. Prior anticipation of September 11,
2001 (9/11) or the Iraq insurgency, for example, might
have limited the scope and impact of the shock. In
both instances, wrenching periods of post-event selfexamination did help solve our current or last problem.
They may not have been as effective in solving our next
	 DoD is now doing valuable work on strategic
shocks. This work must endure and mature through
the upcoming political transition. The next defense
team should scan the myriad waypoints and end points
along dangerous trend lines, as well as the prospect for
sudden, discontinuous breaks in trends altogether to
identify the next shock or shocks. Doing so is a prudent
hedge against an uncertain and dangerous future.


A thoughtful senior policy official has opined that most
potentially devastating threats to U.S. interests start
being evaluated as unlikely.
Jack Davis3

	 Defense analysis and strategy are inherently
reactive. Historically, defense strategy development
and planning have demonstrated three critical flaws.
For too long, they have been overly reactive. Corporately,
they have lacked sufficient imagination. And, as a result,
both have been vulnerable to surprise.
	 Recent history indicates that defense strategy and
planning fail to be sufficiently predictive. When they
do venture into prediction, it often comes as linear
extrapolation of contemporary challenges, adhering
too closely to current convention. These are artifacts of
defense conservatism, finite resources, and Bureaucracy
	 Senior defense and military leadership naturally err
on the side of what is known and practiced at the expense
of preparing for what is less well-known but perhaps
more dangerous. There is an inherent predilection
against anything that smacks of speculation. This
trend is natural and narrowly reasonable. Cautious
senior leaders see too much at stake in the near-term
to countenance instituting disruptive institutional
change that is predicated on predictive analysis. In
their view, there are enough compelling challenges in

the Department of Defense’s (DoD) in-box to consume
the focus of senior leaders and strategists. Yet, in the
contemporary environment, focusing exclusively on
the known, practiced, and narrowly reasonable is
also naïve. At this juncture, engaging in some sound
speculation is increasingly prudent.
	 Like the attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11), the
subsequent War on Terrorism (WoT), and the Iraq
insurgency, the next defense-relevant challenge is likely
to be a strategically dislocating surprise.4 Without
continued and more sophisticated “horizon scanning,”
there is near-certainty that the next compelling defenserelevant challenge will be a “strategic shock.”5 The
current administration confronted a game-changing
“strategic shock” inside its first 8 months in office. The
next administration would be well-advised to expect
the same during the course of its first term.6
	 Strategic shocks jolt convention to such an extent
that they force affected institutions to fundamentally
reorient strategy, strategic investments, and missions.
DoD’s post-9/11 adjustment to counterterrorism (CT)
and counterinsurgency (COIN) illustrates this point.
Some of DoD’s reorientation on CT and COIN was
prudent and necessary, but also, at the same time,
late and reactive. Without comprehensive net and risk
assessment of future shocks, any defense adjustment
based on yesterday’s experience but nonetheless
intended for tomorrow’s unconventional demands
could prove far off the mark downstream.
		 Senior defense leaders and strategists have key
questions to answer on the subject of strategic shocks.
This monograph examines the role of the strategic
shock in contemporary defense strategy development.
It targets the incoming senior defense team, seeking
to encourage them to institutionalize defense-relevant


shocks in long-range defense strategy and planning
efforts. It attempts to begin answering four important
questions on the subject: (1) What are strategic shocks?
(2) What obstacles militate against their routine
employment in DoD strategy development? (3)
Why are strategic shocks important to strategy and
planning? And, finally, (4) What kinds of shocks would
profoundly impact future DoD decisionmaking?
	 Meaningful consideration of shocks in strategy
development and planning would better posture DoD
for an unconventional future. The contemporary
environment is inherently complex. It will remain
so. The likeliest and most dangerous security
challenges emerging from it will be unconventional.
“Unconventional,” from a DoD perspective, connotes
national security conditions and contingencies that are
defense-relevant but not necessarily defense-specific.
Unconventional security challenges lie substantially
outside the realm of traditional warfighting. They
are routinely nonmilitary in origin and character.7 Yet,
nonmilitary, in this context, does not necessarily mean
nonviolent, nonstate, or disordered and unorganized.8
	 This monograph argues that thoughtful evaluation
of the most plausible defense-relevant shocks and their
deliberate integration into DoD strategy and planning
provides senior defense officials with key checks on
excessive convention. Further, the institutionalization
of deliberate net and risk assessment of defense-relevant
shocks, reasoned judgments about their origins, and
preliminary analysis of the most appropriate responses
to them promises to routinize prudent hedging in
DoD strategy and planning. Finally, serial assessment
of potential shocks underwrites DoD relevance and
resilience in an increasingly unconventional strategic
environment. The most recent National Defense


Strategy (NDS) captures this idea when it observes:
“The [Department of Defense] should also develop
the military capability and capacity to hedge against
uncertainty, and the institutional agility and flexibility
to plan early and respond effectively alongside
interdepartmental, nongovernmental and international
	 The Department of Defense is doing valuable work
on strategic shocks. That work must endure and mature
through the upcoming political transition. DoD has
initiated an embryonic effort on “strategic trends and
shocks.”10 In a critical period of political transition, it
might lose momentum with the inevitable change in
defense leadership. This would be unfortunate. The
new Secretary of Defense and his or her team must
continue to build on the work done thus far. Careful
examination of the most plausible and disruptive
strategic shocks should be routine in all future defense
strategy, planning, and decisionmaking.
(T)here are some risks to national security which . . .
can be conceived, but not predicted or fully anticipated.
Because they cannot be anticipated, such events are
very difficult to plan for effectively. At least two reasons
apply. First, by their very nature, these events alter the
international system by their reversal of significant
trends, thereby undermining the facts upon which
future planning is built. Second, many of these events
fall outside the scope of traditional or permitted defense
— Sam J. Tangredi12


	 Strategic shocks change the nature of “the game”
itself. To Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, strategic
shocks (or “strategic surprises” in their lexicon) are
“game changing events.”13 Their occurrence suddenly
discredits many or all preexisting assumptions about
the environment and those conventions that govern
effective navigation through it. Schwartz and Randall
Strategic surprises . . . are those . . . events that, if they
occur, would make a big difference to the future, force
decisionmakers to challenge their own assumptions of
how the world works, and require hard choices today.14

Schwartz and Randall distinguish strategic shocks
or surprises from other contingencies. They argue
that they (1) “have an important impact on . . . [the]
country”; (2) stretch conventional wisdom in ways that
make “it difficult to convince others that the surprise is
even possible”; and, finally, (3) are so complex that it is
“hard to imagine what can be done in response.”15
	 Employing the term “wild card,” John L. Peterson
defines strategic shocks as those events that have “a
direct effect on the human condition”; have “broad,
important and sometimes fundamental implications”;
and finally, rise and mature “so fast that there is not
enough warning to allow the rest of the system to
adjust.”16 Thus, game-changing strategic shocks catch
national security institutions like DoD by surprise by
the speed of their onset, as well as by the breath and
depth of their impact. Strategic shocks suddenly and
irrevocably change the rules of the game, as well as the
contours and composition of playing surface itself.
	 In a defense context, strategic shocks manifest
themselves as sudden surprises to DoD’s collective
consciousness. They pose grave risks—perhaps even
lasting and irreversible harm—to one or more core

security interests. Defense-relevant shocks force
sudden, unanticipated change in DoD’s perceptions
about threat, vulnerability, and strategic response. Their
unexpected onset forces the whole defense enterprise
to rapidly reorient and restructure institutions and
employ institutional and operational capabilities in
fundamentally different ways, against fundamentally
different challenges.
	 Some of the most plausible defense-relevant strategic shocks remain low probability events. Nonetheless, their impact is so fundamental and consequential
that hedging against them is a critical activity for the
entire defense enterprise. Again, the post-9/11 period
is a clinic in this regard.
	 Defense-relevant strategic shocks present senior
leaders and strategists with complex conceptual
challenges. Defense-relevant strategic shocks are thunderbolt events. Absent prior consideration, strategic
shocks catch senior defense leaders and strategists flatfooted. They are so strategically dislocating that they
cause sudden defense adaptation to new, unfamiliar
rule sets or the absence of rules altogether. Defense
leaders and strategists are forced by circumstances to
make snap judgments on the future efficacy of standing
defense paradigms—all under the pressure of time and
rapidly changing circumstances. As a consequence,
responses to them are vulnerable to having hope and
chance versus prudent risk-informed planning as their
	 Taking some exception with Tangredi’s observation
above, they are at once both predictable (and often
predicted) but also un- or inadequately anticipated and
accounted for.17 According to a 2007 Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) report, “In hindsight, it is clear that
most shocks are the product of long-term trends, and are


less disruptive when we have anticipated and responded to [the underlying trends].”18 In this regard, strategic shocks are less failures in prediction and instead
key failures by the strategy and policy community to
thoughtfully account for them adequately in strategic
	 Shocks do, as Tangredi suggests, undermine
prevailing strategy and planning assumptions.19
And thus, they also often lie outside “traditional
or permitted” areas of defense inquiry. As a result,
they so jar prevailing defense wisdom that they force
fundamental changes to some or all long-standing
defense priorities. The NPS report observes similarly,
“Shocks are disruptive by their very nature and . . . can
change how we think about security and the role of the
military.”20 Thus, strategic shocks force defense leaders
into uncharted operating space. Witness, for example,
the unplanned renaissance of CT, COIN, and stability
operations within the DoD repertoire.
	 “Shock” and “surprise” are not necessarily synonymous. Surprise is only half of the equation with
respect to defense-relevant shocks. They are distinct
from other unexpected strategic contingency events in
that they are unanticipated and inadequately accounted
for to such an extent that their occurrence triggers
fundamental strategic and institutional disruption
across the defense enterprise. There is no scientific
break point between strategic shock and strategic
surprise. The boundary separating the two is a function
of an event’s strategic impact, the extent of disruption it
causes, and the degree to which the defense enterprise
anticipated its occurrence in strategy development and
planning. High impact contingency events that promise
fundamental disruption and occur without the benefit
of adequate policy-level anticipation are more likely
than not to be strategic shocks (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Defense-Relevant Strategic Shock Versus
Strategic Surprise.
	 Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait was
a strategic surprise. It was not a strategic shock. Both
the challenge from Iraq’s military and the American
response to large-scale conventional cross-border
incursion were well-considered in both theory and
practice. There was no need for a fundamental
reorientation of defense strategy and defense priorities
in response.
	 On the other hand, 9/11-like attacks were not
necessarily unpredicted, but they were nonetheless
shocking to the national security establishment.
Against a wide universe of compelling defense-relevant
challenges, 9/11-like events and the likeliest American
response to them were both inadequately considered
and undervalued in defense planning. Thus, when they
became reality, they proved to be disruptive shocks to
the collective defense consciousness. The surprising


speed and breadth of change in U.S. perceptions
about the threat from terrorism forced an institutional
revolution on DoD without the benefit of detailed
	 In 1962, Thomas Schelling captured the essence of
the defense-relevant strategic shock, in the foreword
to Roberta Wohlstetter’s classic book Pearl Harbor:
Warning and Decision, when he observed on the Pearl
Harbor attacks:
The results, at Pearl Harbor, were sudden, concentrated,
and dramatic. The failure, however, was cumulative,
widespread, and rather drearily familiar . . . (S)urprise
is everything involved in a government’s . . . failure to
anticipate effectively.21

	 There are two routes to defense-relevant shock.
Strategic shocks will arrive via one of two distinct paths.
The first is rapid, unanticipated arrival at the natural
end of a well-recognized and perilous trend line; or, as
a corollary, earlier than expected arrival at a dangerous
waypoint along that same trend line.22 Both indicate
some substantial and largely unforeseen escalation
of recognized hazards. Alternatively, they may arrive
via less predictable, discontinuous breaks from trends
altogether.23 These are the rarer “Black Swans.”24 9/11
might be considered the former. And, although the
subject of some debate about its predictability, the
sudden collapse of the Soviet Union might fall in the
latter category.
	 This view is consistent with DoD’s current
perspective on strategic shocks. DoD policymakers
define shocks as sudden arrival of exigent conditions
“that [punctuate] the evolution of a trend—a
discontinuity that either rapidly accelerates [the
trend’s] pace or significantly changes its trajectory.”25

The first of these discontinuities implies unanticipated
arrival at a way- or endpoint on a recognized trend line.
The second reflects sudden onset of the rarer “Black
Swan.” On the subject of “strategic trends,” the most
recent defense strategy observes:
Increasingly, the Department will have to plan for a
future security environment shaped by the interaction of
powerful strategic trends. These trends suggest a range
of plausible futures, some presenting major challenges
and security risks.26

	 Shocks emerge from strategic planning territory that
Hugh Courtney describes as “Level 3” and “Level 4”
uncertainty. Courtney’s upper two levels of uncertainty
are also consistent with the discussion above. According to Courtney, “Level 3” uncertainty is territory
where “(o)ne can identify the range of possible future
outcomes, but no obvious point forecast emerges.”27
This range of outcomes is akin to the end- and/or way
points on known and dangerous trend lines. “Level 4”
uncertainty represents decisionmaking territory where
“a limitless range of possible future outcomes” exists.28
This is the territory of the “Black Swan”—discontinuous breaks in trend lines altogether.
	 Unconventional, defense-relevant shocks lie in
the conceptual territory between the well-considered
and the purely speculative. In defense strategy and
planning, meaningful consideration of shocks is uncovered, informally-covered, or inadequately-covered ground. Indeed, in spite of nascent work within
the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), shocks
largely lay in an analytical no man’s land separating
conventional contingency events from highly incredible
or speculative ones. The uncovered ground in between
becomes fertile soil for the next shock.

	 On one side of the no man’s land is the well-practiced
trade of DoD. It is territory occupied by conventional
military competition and now kinetic CT and COIN.
Until 9/11, DoD over-subscribed to the first. Since the
Iraq War, it hazards over-optimizing for the second.
	 On the other side of the divide is an incredible
or highly speculative extreme that pushes at the farboundary of defense rationality. Up to a reasonable
point, some of this area might still be the target of
prudent hedging. However, beyond the point of
reason, it becomes a resource consuming distraction. In
contemporary defense parlance, this area is exemplified
in what the author might call the extreme “disruptive
challenge” where the U.S. military might find itself
suddenly powerless against the technical advances
of a capable state opponent with little or no strategic
warning.29 Figure 2 provides a graphic representation
of the two extremes and the analytical no man’s land

Figure 2. No Man’s Land—“The Gap.”


	 9/11 rose from the middle of “no man’s land.” An
illustration is in order here. Prior to 9/11, terrorism was
plainly on the defense and national security agenda.
There was a clear trend line of increasing terrorist
violence and lethality—e.g., 1993 World Trade Center
bombings, 1998 East African bombings, the USS Cole.
“Run-of-the-mill” terrorism was deemed nettlesome
but strategically inconsequential. It was “white noise”
perpetrated by what some thought to be an unimportant
and largely discredited extremist constituency. At the
far end of the same spectrum, defense and national
security strategists considered nuclear terrorism to be
catastrophic, unthinkable, and thus worthy of some
defense focus.
	 There was little meaningful defense consideration
of the severity and consequences of terrorism lying
on the strategic ground in between. However, in
hindsight, one can see that 9/11 marked the U.S.
arrival at a natural, dangerous, and underappreciated
waypoint on an already recognized trend line. It was a
thunderbolt from the middle of the analytical no man’s
land separating the conventional from the extreme.
	 The gap between the conventional and wellconsidered and the incredible or highly speculative
should be a priority in future defense analysis.
Detailed net and risk assessment between the two
extremes is increasingly important to defense strategy
and planning. This territory skirts the inside edges
of well-considered, defense-relevant, and defensespecific conditions and truly incredible or extreme
ones. Admittedly, the boundary demarking the latter
is highly subjective. Nonetheless, this middle area
has long been undervalued in mainstream defense
planning. Here a caution from Thomas Schelling is
appropriate. He observes:


The danger is not that we shall read the signals and
indicators with too little skill, the danger is in a poverty
of expectations—a routine obsession with a few dangers
that may be familiar rather than likely.30

	 The gap in the middle is that unconventional
ground where irregular, catastrophic, and hybrid
“threats of purpose” and “threats of context” rise
and mix in complex combinations to challenge core
interests.31 Purposeful threats are defense-specific or
defense-relevant security challenges originating in the
hostile designs of a consequential opponent. Threats
of context are defense-relevant security challenges
emerging slowly or suddenly from circumstances
endemic to the strategic environment itself; all in the
absence of hostile design vis-à-vis the United States.32
	 This middle gap—where threats of purpose and
context rise and combine—is the likeliest source
of strategic shock for the nation and its defense
establishment. Increased focus here may catch the
next disruptive surprise early. Thus, it is increasingly
important for senior leaders and strategists to examine
all plausible waypoints and endpoints along the full
length of unfavorable trend lines, as well as credible,
discontinuous breaks in the trend lines themselves. Both
should be done with a view toward hedging against
unforeseen shock. Hugh Courtney is instructive in this
regard. He observes:
Scenarios that describe the extreme points in the range of
possible outcomes are often relatively easy to develop,
but those in between deliver the most information for
current strategic decisions and they are the hardest to


	 The most compelling future defense-relevant shocks
are likely to be unconventional. Future Secretaries of
Defense should recognize that the next defense-relevant
shock will likely emerge as a significant surprise to the
innately conservative and traditionally-focused DoD
establishment. It will be strategically dislocating. It is
certain to fall substantially outside established defense
convention. And, if left unaccounted for in DoD
strategy development and planning, it will vex senior
leaders and strategists.
	 Indeed, the odds are very high against any of the
challenges routinely at the top of the traditional defense
agenda triggering the next watershed inside DoD.
Here it might be valuable to recognize that current
defense convention itself may be less a reflection of
strategic reality than commonly appreciated.34 In this
regard, the next exigent challenge for DoD is not likely
to emerge from deliberate, cross border attack by an
aggressive state. Nor, is it likely to arrive via sudden
missile attack on an American or allied population.
Finally, neither will it likely come from an organized
insurgency against a friendly government. These are
all now the stock and trade of defense convention,
yet probably fail to adequately represent the likeliest
defense-specific and defense-relevant realities. Figure
3 below suggests that the contemporary defense reality
may already straddle the far extreme of current defense
convention, as well as significant uncovered ground in
“the gap.”


Figure 3. Current Reality May Defy Current
	 In this respect, the next compelling defenserelevant threat is likely to appear by purpose and
design or accident at the intersection of war of some
description,35 low politics, and chronic instability. It will
fall in between the conventional decision and operating
space of competing U.S. Government (USG) agencies.
It will not lend itself to simple resolution through the
traditional application of U.S. instruments of power in
their classical combinations. As in the case of both 9/11
and the Iraq insurgency, the next consequential shock
for DoD is certain to be unconventional and defenserelevant, not traditional and defense-specific.36
	 Among the most challenging defense-relevant
shocks will be those arising in the absence of hostile
strategic design.37 Defense leaders and strategists
should be acutely aware that both hostile purpose
and strategic context are combining to undermine and
threaten core interests. As senior leaders and strategists
weigh the hazards of both, they should recognize that
looking for the next shock solely in the hostile designs of
adversaries is grossly inadequate. Indeed, the strategic
environment itself may be the next worst U.S. enemy.

	 Even shocks born of hostile purpose will look
different than current convention allows. Indeed, future
purposeful shocks are likeliest to come when state and
nonstate competitors learn to effectively circumvent
traditional U.S. military overmatch, employing nonmilitary means as war. They will leverage politics,
economics, hostile social action, and discriminating
nonmilitary violence in innovative combinations. As
a result, traditional U.S. military advantages will be
sidelined not by breakthrough military technology or
concepts, but by the simple absence of a legitimate casus
belli. These circumstances should be less “shocking,”
as there is still some latent convention to the prospect
of purposeful opponents leveraging nonmilitary
innovation as war. Nonetheless, the current defense
strategy does recognize the potential for shock in this
regard when it observes:
In some instances, we may not learn that a conflict is
underway until it is well-advanced and our options
are limited. We must develop better intelligence
capabilities to detect, recognize, and analyze new forms
of warfare.38

	 The most challenging defense-relevant shocks
might emerge from adverse conditions endemic to
the environment itself. This is made more certain by
the unguided forces of globalization, toxic populism,
identity politics, underdevelopment, human/natural
disaster, and disease. In the end, shocks emerging from
contextual threats might challenge core U.S. interests
more fundamentally than any number of prospective
purposeful shocks. This is especially true given the
degree to which threats of context remain unconsidered
or, at a minimum, undervalued in contemporary defense planning and decisionmaking. In the main,

threats of context are difficult for the defense establishment to anticipate and combat precisely because:
	 •	 There is no single engine or design behind their
	 •	 They are more out of the proximate control of the
United States and its most capable international
	 •	 They are much harder to predict and/or track;
and finally,
	 •	 They are in- or undervulnerable to traditional
instruments of U.S. power applied in predictable
	 Threats of context might include but are not limited
to contagious un- and under-governance; civil violence;
the swift catastrophic onset of consequential natural,
environmental, and/or human disaster; a rapidly
expanding and uncontrolled transregional epidemic;
and the sudden crippling instability or collapse of
a large and important state. Indeed, pushing at the
boundaries of current convention, it would be prudent
to add catastrophic dislocation inside the United States
or homegrown domestic civil disorder and/or violence
to this category as well. The 2008 NDS observes
Over the next 20 years physical pressures—population,
resource, energy, climatic, and environmental—could
combine with rapid social, cultural, technological, and
geopolitical change to create greater uncertainty.39

	 Most of these contextual threats are triggers or
catalysts. They are the origin of shocks. The extent of
the shock is determined by the degree to which any one
of these threats is unanticipated or unaccounted for by
the strategy and policy community and, as a result,

forces revolutionary change on the defense or national
security status quo. For example, disruptive civil
violence, natural disasters, and epidemics are expected
on the near- to mid-term strategic horizon. They will
occur around the world. The defense-relevant shock
comes when one of these occurs or two or more of these
combine in ways that force DoD to fundamentally
reorient strategy, capabilities, investments, and concepts in response.
	 By way of example, realist calculation indicates
that epidemics and widespread civil violence might
be tolerable in some parts of the world. Shock would
result if these occurred inside the United States or
inside a key strategic partner to such an extent that they
forced DoD to radically re-role for domestic security,
population control, consequence management, and
stabilization. Likewise, failure of any state is tragic, but
not always compelling strategically. However, failure
of one or more nuclear states and subsequent nuclear
use by competing parties in an intrastate war or nuclear
use externally against the United States or a key U.S.
ally might force DoD to fundamentally retool for
stabilization in a “dirty” environment, and, at the same
time, increase its capacity for the armed restoration of
responsible control over third party nuclear arsenals.40
There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the
unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we
have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks
strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need
not be considered seriously
—Thomas Schelling41


	 Defense strategy and planning are trapped by
excessive convention. DoD has begun to explore
strategic shocks in a more thoughtful way. In the past,
however, meaningful consideration of strategic shocks
was never welcome in mainstream defense strategy and
policy development. The past might be prologue in this
regard. Until quite recently, meaningful examination
of shocks was relegated to the niche worlds of defense
futures, concept development, and net assessment.
These defense-specific communities, however, limited
consideration of shocks to examination of linear
or discontinuous changes in the quality of known
military threats.42 Until the predictable shock of 9/11,
mainstream defense strategists rarely ventured into
the territory of unconventional strategic shocks in
other than a cursory and speculative manner. In the
words of the 9/11 Commission, “Imagination is not a
gift usually associated with bureaucracies.”43
	 In general, rigorously analyzed strategic shocks
were never injected thoughtfully into important
pieces of high-level defense guidance—e.g., successive
National Military Strategies, Quadrennial Defense
Reviews, and biennial Defense Planning Guidance.
When strategic shocks or wild cards were mentioned
in these, they were often described in overly broad
terms and were most often captured in “throw away”
language like that from the 1997 National Military
Strategy (NMS):
We can never know with certainty where or when the
next conflict will occur, who our next adversary will be,
how an enemy will fight, who will join us in a coalition,
or precisely what demands will be placed on U.S. forces.
A number of “wild card” threats could emerge. . . . Such
threats range from the emergence of new technologies
. . . to the loss of key allies or alliances and the unexpected
overthrow of friendly regimes.44

	 Thus, to date, successive Secretaries of Defense
have been disinclined to account for shocks in their
strategic calculations. There is a predictable and
natural sensitivity within the defense establishment
against veering too far in the direction of speculation.
Likewise, innate military conservatism has consistently
forced senior leaders and strategists into the sanctuary
of convention. Powerful motivations militate against
gambling finite resources or targeting DoD strategy
toward worldviews deviating dramatically from established defense norms. Francis Fukuyama suggests
this is the product of behaviors bred inside the national
security bureaucracy. He observes:
Those who deal professionally with global politics,
foreign policy, and national security affairs have
particular biases when it comes to thinking about the
future. Their biases generate a perceptual incentive
structure that throws off their general capacity for
accurate prediction.45

	 Summarizing the arguments presented in his
recent edited volume on strategic shocks and wild
cards, Fukuyama concludes that failures of cognition,
resources, and institutional weaknesses all contribute
to the widespread tendency to leave strategic shocks
out of deliberate strategic planning.46 On the issue of
“human cognition,” he decries the dangers resident in
“shared mental models” that result in group think. He
observes more generally, “(L)eaders have a hard time
discounting the present value of events that will take
place in the future.”47
	 With respect to resources, he argues, “Even if
individuals . . . are cognitively prepared for a future
contingency, they often do not have the right incentives
to hedge against it properly.” He continues, “Hedging


is costly, and no organization can possibly hedge
against all possible contingencies.”48 Finally, on the
issue of institutions, Fukuyama suggests, “Hedging
against future risks . . . also requires collective action,
specifically a sharing of decisionmaking authority
and a pooling of resources across organizational and
international boundaries.”49 The implication is that the
capacity for shared responsibility and collective action
are rare qualities inside the U.S. national security and
defense establishments.
	 DoD’s prevailing, pre-9/11 “mental model” biased
it in the direction of excessive convention. All of the
aforementioned were evidenced in the behaviors
of pre-9/11 DoD. The mental model operative in
DoD prior to 9/11 rested on the 60 (plus)-year-old
theology of industrial and information-age military
conflict. The role of DoD was to “fight and win wars.”
“Wars” by definition were limited to the formal clash
of arms between the United States and hostile state
competitors. Defense strategy and planning were
driven by linear extrapolations of existing or perceived
sources of future military conflict—resurgent Russia,
rising China, recalcitrant Iraq, miscalculating North
Korea. There would be future security challenges. The
only difference between the Cold War and the postCold War epoch was quantity—cumulatively more
consequential challengers; and quality—a universe of
threats that were dangerous but not so existentially.
	 In this mental frame, the only threats of consequence
were states; specifically, state militaries. Among these,
the sources of strategic shock were thought to be those
that might have the potential for sudden unanticipated
acquisition and employment of new, more threatening
(“disruptive”) military capabilities or designs. There
would, for example, be an immediate regional challenge


from a small universe of second-rate military powers
prone to miscalculation. And, on the mid- to longterm horizon, emergence of near-peer or peer military
competitor was accepted as gospel.
	 The fear was that one or more of these state
competitors would acquire “revolutionary technology”
and undertake “associated military innovation”
that would “fundamentally alter long-established
concepts of warfare” and undermine traditional U.S.
dominance.50 The likeliest future candidates at the high
end of this category were a more activist and bellicose
China or, more distantly, a reenergized and newly
capable Russian Federation.51
	 Issues having little to do with organized military
competition between states were considered boutique,
speculative, and distracting from the real business of
defense planning and traditional warfighting. This
narrative stuck in the U.S. defense community precisely
because it conformed to mental models shared by most
inside DoD. 9/11 and subsequent experience in Iraq,
Afghanistan, and the wider war on terrorism (WoT)
changed all prevailing “mental models.” However,
the extent to which it did so in a durable way is an
open question. The defense and military bias in favor
of convention is likely more deeply entrenched than
outside observers appreciate.
	 Earlier and more detailed examination of the gap
might have limited the intensity of the post-9/11 shock.
Until 9/11 and subsequent irregular wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, defense strategists were the virtual
prisoners of mechanical planning and programming
processes from the theater- to the national-strategic
level. These lent themselves easily to the evaluation of
well-structured adversary military forces and actions.
Predictably, they also resulted in the perpetuation


of Cold War-like defense planning scenarios, stock
war plans, force sizing and planning constructs, and
acquisition strategies that:
	 •	 First, were conceived of according to classically
realist convention and inherited from or derivatives of strategic concepts and constructs more
appropriate to the Cold War;
	 •	 Second, were often mistaken for or masquerading as coherent defense strategy;
	 •	 Third, failed to account for dangerous forces of
social and political insecurity spinning off the
decomposing Cold War order;
	 •	 Fourth, reflected a security environment senior
leaders and strategists were intellectually best
prepared for and also most comfortable with;
	 •	 Fifth, ultimately proved unresponsive to a
new, more unconventional defense-relevant
challenge set.
	 Hindsight argues that defense concepts, sizing and
shaping constructs, and plans devised in the decade
prior to 9/11 were wholly inappropriate to the environment likeliest to emerge from the shock of the Cold
War’s collapse.53 For example, neither successive
force sizing and shaping constructs nor a whole range
of associated U.S. war plans would have survived
rigorous analysis intact were they measured against
the serial human, material, and fiscal demands of
simultaneous COIN/Security, Stabilization, and
Reconstruction Operations (SSTRO) campaigns in
Iraq and Afghanistan, or the persistent and unceasing
demands of a wider WoT. A more thoughtful and
unbiased analysis of the near- to long-term national
security horizon in the wake of the Cold War might


have resulted in a clearer, more nuanced, and more
realistic view of defense-relevant demands in the 21st
	 However, this more thoughtful and unbiased
analysis also would have required senior defense
leaders and strategists to explore the gap between
conventional contingencies and extreme or speculative
contingencies in much greater detail. Had this analysis
occurred, it might have identified the increasing
U.S. vulnerability to a whole range of consequential
and potentially shocking challenges that were more
complex and more unconventional than those imagined
by defense leaders and strategists who continued to
operate under a discredited Cold War rule set. Indeed,
it may have accounted for the increasing likelihood
of successive post-Cold War shocks to the defense
establishment—e.g., 9/11, the WoT, and the Iraq
insurgency—and the attendant requirement for DoD
to either adjust to or be overwhelmed by the demands
of the contemporary environment.
	 Thoughtful assessments like this also would have
put a number of contemporary (and preferred) defense
priorities and methods at substantial risk. This would
run afoul with a range of bureaucratic interests inside
the Pentagon. Traditional core competencies, longlead weapons programs and investments, concepts of
operation, and budget share would all have been in
jeopardy to one extent or another. In some form, these
inherently bureaucratic obstacles remain extant today.
	 9/11 was important. However, was it important
enough to make DoD’s appreciation of unconventional shocks irreversible? Without question, 9/11
was a “game changer” for DoD.54 So, too, was the
sudden onset of the insurgency in Iraq. In the wake of
9/11, the on-going WoT, and active irregular conflicts


in Iraq and Afghanistan, senior DoD leaders and
strategists increasingly recognize the importance of
defense-relevant shocks. On-going efforts like DoD’s
“strategic trends and shocks” initiative and the State
Department’s “Project Horizon” are embryonic efforts
intended in part to institutionalize the concept of
strategic shock in routine government planning and
	 Both efforts are futures oriented and preventive.
Both are intended to help define near-term choices
and decision space. Finally, both seek to shape
priorities, capabilities, and strategic design in ways
that will posture the defense and national security
establishments to better anticipate, prevent, and, if
prevention fails, respond decisively to sudden strategic
shock in the future.
	 The extent to which the national security establishment appreciates the potential value associated
with maturing either or both of these efforts is
uncertain. Yet, if the previous 7 years is an indication
of a new more unconventional national security status
quo, both “strategic trends and shocks” and “Project
Horizon” merit continued support and development.
The current defense team acknowledges this imperative. For example, on the subject of strategic trends and
the prospect for their triggering dislocating shocks, the
2008 NDS concludes, “How [strategic trends] interact
and the nature of the shocks they might generate is
uncertain; the fact that they will influence the future
security environment is not.”56


	 Without sophisticated advanced consideration of
unconventional strategic shocks specifically, DoD’s
frame of reference and tool-kit will be inadequate to
contend with the most dangerous and complex future
contingencies. Anticipation of unconventional shocks
in particular is exceedingly important. This calls for a
disciplined approach to their deliberate identification
and analysis.
	 In this regard, it is difficult to find something one is
not first committed to looking for. The degree of danger
or harm from defense-relevant strategic shocks more
broadly is directly proportionate to DoD’s ability to
see them coming in sufficient time and with sufficient
clarity to affect meaningful advanced preparation. This
requires a commitment to look for and examine shocks
in the first place.
	 Once identified as plausible, the most disruptive
prospective shocks must become the subject of detailed
interdisciplinary examination. All of this argues for
continued defense and interagency investment in and
routinization of initiatives like “strategic trends and
shocks” and “Project Horizon.” The current defense
team is inclined in this direction. According the recent
NPS report:
One of the key objectives of the (d)epartment is developing
a systematic process and intellectual foundation to
identify key trends and shocks, and subsequent impacts
of these shocks.57

	 Identifying on-coming defense-relevant shocks
will never be a DoD responsibility alone. The more
unconventional the prospective shock, the more this

is the case. Likewise, preventing shocks or responding
to them will always require the innovative blending
of all instruments of national power. Both advanced
warning of impending shock and the decisive blending
of defense and non-defense resources in response rely
on a whole-of-government commitment to tackle the
topic from its infancy in an intellectually disciplined
fashion. Having already invested in preliminary
consideration of strategic shocks, DoD’s ongoing
efforts should continue and mature in this regard.
	 This intellectual heavy-lifting requires that shocks
benefit from sufficient emphasis in future defense
strategy development. This demands the interest
and engagement of high-level DoD leadership.
It further requires defense strategists who are
adequately socialized to look for and contend with
critical uncertainties, indications of sudden change
in the environment, and, finally, shock. In general, it
requires a defense establishment that is predisposed
toward curiosity about and investigation into the
unconventional and the unknown. All of these are in
some respects countercultural.
	 In short, strategic shocks should increasingly
enter defense convention as a key driver for strategy
development and strategic planning. According to
Schwartz and Randall, “One cannot foresee strategic
surprises without being imaginative, but the results will
not be believed without being systematic.” 58 Indeed, if
9/11, the WoT, and the Iraq insurgency are indicators,
deliberate consideration within DoD of some key
prospective shocks will be more important to strategic
decisionmaking than will detailed examination of
other long-standing conventional policy drivers. The
latter are consistently over-considered and thus, wellunderstood. The recent past provides a tragic example
of the “failure of imagination” in this respect.

	 Naturally, there are both benefits and hazards
to incorporating strategic shocks more broadly into
defense decisionmaking. However, the benefits outweigh the hazards. According to Tangredi:
Assessing the potential effects of wildcards may bring
one to the point where imagination overtakes research.
Nevertheless, sketching the outlines and prospective
impacts of such unanticipated events helps identify the
alternatives against which hedging strategies may be

	 As suggested above, deliberate consideration of
the most consequential, high-impact unconventional
shocks must be an interdisciplinary effort occurring at
the intersection of strategy and policy development,
intelligence, and defense analysis. Synthesized,
interdisciplinary judgments on shocks ensures that
any process chartered to examine them avoids the
trap of becoming an unfocused, speculative, and
overly academic examination of “what if” and instead
becomes a policy-relevant input into the Secretary of
Defense’s decision space on the merits of plausibility,
strategic relevance, and impact. In order for these
interdisciplinary judgments to have requisite influence
on higher-level DoD decisionmaking, any examination
of shocks must occur in close proximity to and have
the attention of the Secretary of Defense himself.
	 Illustrations of prospective shocks are more
compelling to policymakers than are generalized
descriptions of dangerous trends. General descriptions
of dangerous trends, while important contextually,
are not nearly as powerful to policymakers as are

tight, illustrative descriptions of the most dangerous
endpoints, waypoints, or discontinuous breaks in trend
lines. Paraphrasing the 9/11 Commission, it is critically
important for DoD to “routinize” consideration of
plausible strategic shocks so as to posture it to better
anticipate, hedge against, and respond to them in the
most effective and risk-informed way.60 The following
unconventional shocks are illustrative.61 They are only
intended to demonstrate the type of disruptive shock
groups that merit deliberate consideration in future
defense strategy deliberations.
Strategic State Collapse.62
	 In the international system, some states matter
more than others. There are a number of states whose
stable functioning is uniquely important to the United
States and its interests. Most of these states harbor
vast potential for harm should they succumb to
sudden, catastrophic instability or failure. This is true
regardless of their pre-collapse disposition toward the
United States—friendly, benign, or neutral. These are
“strategic states” that:
	 •	 Possess significant employable weapons of mass
destruction (WMD) capacity;63
	 •	 Possess significant strategic resources, economic
capacity, and/or dominant geographic leverage;
	 •	 Are in close proximity to the United States or a
key strategic partner and have a large dependent
population vulnerable to uncontrolled migration;
	 •	 Could with unanticipated destabilization trigger
contagious instability in an important region;
	 •	 Are allies or key strategic partners.

	 None of these categories are mutually exclusive.
Failure, uncontrolled instability, or collapse of states
exhibiting one or more of these qualities would present
the United States with complex hybrid challenges. They
may, for example, pose grave harm to the security of
an important region. Alternatively, they may suddenly
provide consequential opponents of the United States
unrestricted access to or influence over a victim state’s
assets, resources, and political outcomes.
	 There are a number of plausible collapse scenarios.
Triggers for collapse are rooted in irregular, catastrophic, and hybrid threats of purpose and context.
Given the recognized instability of some strategic
states, collapse might mark a natural endpoint to an
already recognized and unfavorable trend. In other
cases, strategic state collapse may arrive via “Black
Swan” with little or no strategic warning. For DoD,
the collapsed strategic state presents an immensely
complex defense relevant challenge. Sheer capacity
alone indicates a decisive DoD role in restoring a new
more stable status quo.
	 Fulfilling that role would be problematic given the
character of the post-collapse environment.64 In the
collapsed strategic state, elements of the armed forces
and security services may remain under coherent
command and control and actively resist intervention.
Dedicated agents of the prior unstable status quo are
prone to fight—often violently—to protect or restore
vestiges of the old order. Criminals and “pop-up
militias” are likely to carve out new, defensible spheres
of influence from pieces of the fallen state. Adjacent
powers will rush in physically, politically, and/or
materially to decisively influence outcomes. Longrepressed political constituencies will be prone to seek


out former oppressors and exact vengeance. Local
nationalists will resist foreign imposed or inspired
solutions. Some internal constituencies will fight to
rebalance political authority. Others will fight against
that rebalancing. Finally, supercharged indigenous and
expatriate constituencies may sow instability beyond
the borders of the victim state. All of this will occur in an
environment where the surety of nuclear or biological
weapons is in question, critical strategic resources are
at risk, and/or the core interests of adjacent states are
threatened by spillover. Further still, this will all occur
in a sea of abject human insecurity.
	 One of the most dangerous prospective contingencies in this regard might be collapse of a large capable state that results in a nuclear civil war. Uncontrolled proliferation in the event of a nuclear state’s
collapse is an ever-present threat. However, here also
DoD would have to contend with stabilization in the
aftermath of nuclear use. It might be the lead agent
in reassertion of responsible control over substantial
nuclear weapons capabilities. Finally, it would likely
be responsible for the armed separation of nucleararmed opponents and the deliberate disarmament of
the various parties to the conflict. All of this would
occur under the constant threat of continued nuclear
use within or outside the confines of the victim state.
Violent, Strategic Dislocation Inside the United
	 As a community, the defense establishment swears
to protect and defend the constitution against all
enemies foreign and domestic. DoD’s role in combating
“domestic enemies” has never been thoughtfully
examined. Thus, there is perhaps no greater source


of strategic shock for DoD than operationalizing that
component of the oath of service in a widespread
domestic emergency that entails rapid dissolution of
public order in all or significant parts of the United
	 While likely not an immediate prospect, this is
clearly a “Black Swan” that merits some visibility inside
DoD and the Department of Homeland Security. To
the extent events like this involve organized violence
against local, state, and national authorities and exceed
the capacity of the former two to restore public order
and protect vulnerable populations, DoD would
be required to fill the gap. This is largely uncharted
strategic territory.
	 Widespread civil violence inside the United States
would force the defense establishment to reorient
priorities in extremis to defend basic domestic order
and human security. Deliberate employment of weapons of mass destruction or other catastrophic capabilities, unforeseen economic collapse, loss of functioning political and legal order, purposeful domestic resistance or insurgency, pervasive public health emergencies, and catastrophic natural and human disasters are
all paths to disruptive domestic shock.
	 An American government and defense establishment lulled into complacency by a long-secure domestic order would be forced to rapidly divest some
or most external security commitments in order to
address rapidly expanding human insecurity at home.
Already predisposed to defer to the primacy of civilian
authorities in instances of domestic security and divest
all but the most extreme demands in areas like civil
support and consequence management, DoD might
be forced by circumstances to put its broad resources
at the disposal of civil authorities to contain and


reverse violent threats to domestic tranquility. Under
the most extreme circumstances, this might include
use of military force against hostile groups inside the
United States. Further, DoD would be, by necessity, an
essential enabling hub for the continuity of political
authority in a multi-state or nationwide civil conflict
or disturbance.
	 A whole host of long-standing defense conventions
would be severely tested. Under these conditions and
at their most violent extreme, civilian authorities,
on advice of the defense establishment, would need
to rapidly determine the parameters defining the
legitimate use of military force inside the United States.
Further still, the whole concept of conflict termination
and/or transition to the primacy of civilian security
institutions would be uncharted ground. DoD is
already challenged by stabilization abroad. Imagine
the challenges associated with doing so on a massive
scale at home.
Politics, Economics, Social Action, and Political
Violence as Hybrid War.
	 The United States might also consider the prospect
that hostile state and/or nonstate actors might
individually or in concert combine hybrid methods
effectively to resist U.S. influence in a nonmilitary
manner.65 This is clearly an emerging trend. Imagine, for
example, a China-Russia axis that collectively employs
substantial political power within international institutions and markets to hold key American interests at
risk. At the international level, actors like this might
employ extant and emerging political/economic
arrangements as instruments for purposeful resistance
and war.66


	 At the national and subnational level, purposeful
opponents could synchronize nonmilitary effort,
agitating quasi-legitimate proxies into concerted social
action and precision political violence targeted at
nullifying traditional U.S. military advantages, limiting
American freedom of action, and adversely shaping the
strategic choices of or political outcomes inside key but
vulnerable American partners.67 Imagine “a new era of
containment with the United States as the nation to
be contained” where the principal tools and methods
of war involve everything but those associated with
traditional military conflict.68 Imagine that the sources
of this “new era of containment” are widespread;
predicated on nonmilitary forms of political, economic,
and violent action; in the main, sustainable over time;
and finally, largely invulnerable to effective reversal
through traditional U.S. advantages.
	 The pressure on the United States would be
cumulative and persistent. In the extreme, it could
drive U.S. decisionmakers into increasingly desperate
and potentially illegitimate counteraction. Under these
circumstances, when competitor militaries are in the
mix, they are less tools focused directly against U.S.
military superiority and more effective foils against
American military intimidation. In this regard, U.S.
military forces would be sidelined. Employment of U.S.
military power would hold little promise for reversing
adverse political and economic conditions. Further,
the overt use of military force by the United States
would largely be viewed as illegitimate for redress of
competitor success in nonmilitary domains. Finally,
should the competition involve major competitors like
China or Russia, U.S. military action might hazard
unacceptable costs or unwanted and uncontrolled


	 In this regard, the role of DoD would be more
nuanced but also critical. This is particularly true to
the extent that a hybrid competitor leverages some
discriminate political violence against the United States
or its partners as a force multiplier. Under conditions
of hybrid war fought largely with nonmilitary and
often nonviolent means, defense capabilities for direct
action and intelligence gathering would need to be
fine-tuned to both the more unconventional character
of the conflict, as well as the high risks associated with
military imprecision and miscalculation.
	 To the extent a hybrid conflict like this endures
and remains substantially nonmilitary in character,
DoD might witness both a significant re-rolling and a
substantial loss of material resources as U.S. political
leaders shore up more useful nonmilitary instruments
of power. In either case, there is no contemporary
strategic or doctrinal appreciation for the role of DoD in
warfare prosecuted against the United States by other
than military and predominantly nonviolent ways and
means. Strategic shock would follow.
	 The aforementioned are admittedly extreme. They
are not, however, implausible or fantastical. Avoiding
the next “blue ribbon panel,” chartered to investigate
future failures of strategic imagination, requires
that DoD continue its commitment to identifying
and analyzing the most credible unconventional
shocks on the strategic horizon. Increased attention
to unconventional shocks in defense strategy should
neither supplant prudent hedging against conventional
surprise nor routine preparation for the likeliest


defense-specific traditional, irregular, and catastrophic
challenges. It should, however, become increasingly
important in routine defense decisionmaking.
	 Historically, shocks like Pearl Harbor, 9/11,
and the Iraq insurgency have generated wrenching
periods of self-examination. However, these periods
of introspection most often focus on solving the last
problem versus deliberately avoiding or contending
with the next one. For example, DoD is admittedly better
at COIN and CT in light of its post-9/11 experience. It
is, however, reasonable to ask how relevant these are
corporately to the next defense-relevant strategic shock.
Absent continued reconnaissance into the future, there
is no good answer to this question.
	 Thus, prudent net and risk assessment of (1) the
myriad waypoints along dangerous trend lines; (2) the
sudden or unanticipated arrival at the end of the same
trends; and finally, (3) rapid onset of the rarer “Black
Swan” are increasingly important to DoD. Under this
administration, valuable work has begun in this regard.
This work should continue to mature uninterrupted.
Preemptive examination of the most plausible “known
unknowns” represents a reasoned down payment
on strategic preparedness and an essential defense
investment in strategic hedging against an uncertain
and dangerous future.
It would be wise for the next defense team to
recall the experience of its predecessors. On September
11th, 2001, the latter witnessed the disruptive collision
of defense convention and strategic reality. The rest, as
they say, is history.


1. Hart Seely, “The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld: Recent Work
by the Secretary of Defense,” Slate, available from
id/2081042/, accessed August 28, 2008. Seely quotes Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s now famous assertion, “As we know,
there are known knowns. There are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know
there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown
unknowns. The ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
2. This is a common theme in post-9/11 government and
academic commentary. See, for example, National Commission
on Terrorist Attacks Upon the Nation, The 9/11 Commission Report,
available from,
accessed December 27, 2007, pp. 339-348; and Michael Ignatieff,
“The Burden,” New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003,
available from
The 9/11 Commission argued that first among the four critical
failures that led to 9/11 or, at a minimum, led to the United States
being caught unaware by 9/11 was a failure of “imagination.”
Similarly, Ignatieff observed, “It was also, in the 1990s, a general
failure of historical imagination, an inability of the post-cold war
West to grasp that the emerging crisis of state order in so many
overlapping zones of the world . . . would eventually become a
security threat at home.”
3. Jack Davis, Improving CIA Analytic Performance: Strategic
Warning, Kent Center Occasional Papers, available from www., accessed
December 6, 2007.
4. See Peter Schwartz, Inevitable Surprises: Thinking Ahead
in a Time of Turbulence, New York: Gotham Books, 2003, p. ix;
Francis Fukuyama, “Chapter 1: The Challenges of Uncertainty:
An Introduction,” in Francis Fukuyama, ed., Blindside: How
to Anticipate Forcing Events and Wild Cards in Global Politics, An
American Interest Book, Washington DC: Brookings Institution
Press, 2007, p. 1; and Francis Fukuyama, “Chapter 15: Afterward,”
in ibid., p. 170. Both Fukuyama and Schwartz suggest that 9/11
and the Iraq insurgency were “strategic shocks.”


5. Both the terms defense-relevant and defense-specific are
used in this monograph. Defense-relevant security challenges or
conditions are mostly nonmilitary in character but should be of
substantial interest to DoD. A defense-specific challenge is one that
springs from a military source and requires primary involvement
by DoD.
6. This point was raised in a conversation on this paper by
Dr. Carl Van Dyke, a Senior National Intelligence Officer with the
National Intelligence Council’s Office of the National Intelligence
Officer for Long Range Warning.
	 7. In this regard, military connotes those threats, activities,
capabilities, or circumstances associated with the armed forces
of states. Nonmilitary connotes security challenges, activities,
capabilities, or circumstances whose origin and form have little in
common with conventional conceptions of state armed forces.
8. The same points are argued in the forthcoming CSIS
publication by the author entitled “Shifting Emphasis: Leaders,
Strategists, and Operators in an Era of Persistent Unconventional
9. Department of Defense (DoD), National Defense Strategy,
June 2008, p. 5.
10. The “Strategic Trends and Shocks” project on-going within
OSD Policy Planning is a preliminary venture into the routinized
inclusion of strategic shocks in defense strategy development.
For helpful descriptions of this effort, see Naval Postgraduate
School (NPS) Transformation Chair, Forces Transformation
Chairs Meeting: Visions of Transformation 2025—Shocks and
Trends, February 21, 2007, available from
files/TFX%20Mtg%20FEB07%20Report.doc, accessed August 21,
2008; Terry Pudas, Trends and Shocks: An Alternative Construct
for Defense Planning, available from
php?S=2752923, accessed May 19, 2007; and DoD, June 2008, pp.
11. See Schwartz, p. xvii. Schwartz argues that shock (or in
his words surprise) is inevitable and predictable. He concludes
the preface with the following, “History provides ample reason
to believe that we can expect inevitable surprises ahead.”

12. Sam J. Tangredi, “Chapter Seven, Wild Cards,” McNair
Paper 63: All Possible Wars? Toward a Consensus View of the Future
Security Environment, 2001-2025, November 2000, available from, accessed May 19,
13. Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, “Chapter 9, Ahead of
the Curve: Anticipating Strategic Surprise,” in Fukuyama, ed.,
Blindside, p. 93.

14. Ibid., p. 93.


15. Ibid., p. 94.

16. John L. Peterson, Out of the Blue: Wild Cards and Other Big
Future Surprises; How to Anticipate and Respond to Profound Change,
Washington, DC: The Arlington Institute, 1997, p. 10.

17. See Schwartz, 2003, p. 3. Schwartz observes:
There are many things we can rely on, but three of
them are most critical to keep in mind in any turbulent
First: There will be more surprises.
Second: We will be able to deal with them.
Third: We can anticipate many of them. In fact we can
make some pretty good assumptions about how most of
them will play out.
We can’t know the consequences in advance . . . but we
know many of the surprises to come. Even the most
devastating surprises . . . are often predictable because
they have their roots in the driving forces at work


18. NPS Transformation Chair, p. 3.


19. Ibid. This is consistent with the DoD view of strategic
shocks. The 2007 Naval Postgraduate School report suggests
that DoD’s official view is that strategic shocks “undermine the
assumptions on which all current policies are based.”

20. Ibid.

21. Thomas Schelling, “Foreword,” in Roberta Wohlstetter,
Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1962, p. viii.
22. For a valuable description of the idea of “trend lines” in
a DoD context, see Naval Postgraduate School Transformation
Chair, p. 3. Here trends are described as “(a) path along which
events tend to evolve predictably.”
23. These two conclusions were the product of an informal
discussion between the author and Kathleen Hicks of the Center
for Strategic and International Studies and Robert Scher of the
consulting firm Booze-Allen-Hamilton.
24. See Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the
Highly Improbable, New York: Random House, 2007. Taleb argues
a “Black Swan” has “three attributes.” First, they “lie outside the
realm of regular expectations”; second, they promise “an extreme
impact”; and, third, “in spite of its outlier status, human nature
makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact,
making it explainable and predictable.”

25. NPS Transformation Chair, p. 3.


26. DoD, June 2008, p. 4.

27. Hugh Courtney, 20/20 Foresight: Crafting Strategy in an
Uncertain World, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001, p.

28. Ibid., p. 32.

29. See DoD, The National Defense Strategy of the United
States of America, March 2005, p. 3. The 2005 National Defense
Strategy defines “disruptive challenges” as those that “come from


adversaries who develop and use break-through technologies to
negate current U.S. advantages in key operational domains.”

30. Schelling, p. viii.

31. The author described irregular, catastrophic and hybrid
challenges in great detail in a previous monograph. See Nathan
Freier, Strategic Competition and Resistance in the 21st Century:
Traditional, Irregular, Catastrophic, and Hybrid Challenges in Context,
May 2007, available from
pdffiles/pub782.pdf, accessed August 5, 2008. The author discusses
threats of purpose and context in detail in the forthcoming
CSIS monograph “Shifting Emphasis: Leaders, Strategists, and
Operators in an Era of Persistent Unconventional Conflict.” On
what the author means by the term “core interests,” see Peter
Bergen and Laurie Garrett, “Report of the Working Group on
State Security and Transnational Threats,” The Princeton Project
on National Security, available from
conferences/reports/fall/SSTT.pdf, accessed December 27, 2007. The
Princeton working group led by Bergen and Garrett identified
a construct of “six fundamental interests” useful to consider as
a template. These include “economic prosperity; governance
continuity; ideological sustainability; military capability;
population well-being; and territorial integrity.”
32. See Phil Williams, From the New Middle Ages to a New Dark
Age: The Decline of the State and U.S. Strategy, Carlisle, PA: Strategic
Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, June 2008, available
from www.Strategic, accessed September
11, 2008. Williams reinforces this point when he observes,
In the 21st century in most parts of the world, issues of
security and stability have little to do with traditional
power politics, military conflict between states, and
issues of grand strategy. Instead, they revolve around the
disruptive consequences of globalization, governance,
public safety, inequality, urbanization, violent nonstate
actors, and the like.
Later, Williams returns to this point when he says,


In a sense, states are being overwhelmed by complexity,
fragmentation, and demands they simply are unable to
meet. They are experiencing an unsettling diminution
in their capacity to manage political, social, and
economic problems that are increasingly interconnected,
intractable, and volatile.

33. Courtney, 20/20 Foresight, pp. 125-126.

34. Dr. Phil Williams, a Visiting Research Professor at the U.S.
Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, made this observation during
a conversation on a draft version of this monograph.
35. See war. (n.d.), Unabridged (v 1.1), available
from, accessed August 5, 2008.
Here war should be considered “active hostility or contention;
conflict; contest.”
36. See DoD, March 2005, p. 2. The word “traditional” in this
context implies “challenges posed by states employing recognized
military capabilities and forces in well-understood forms of
military competition and conflict.”
37. The following section includes adaptations of arguments
made by the author in the forthcoming CSIS monograph “Shifting
Emphasis: Leaders, Strategists, and Operators in an Era of
Persistent Unconventional Conflict.”

38. DoD, June 2008, p. 4.


39. Ibid.


40. Ibid., p. 9.

41. Schelling, p. vii.
42. Military is this regard connotes security challenges,
activities, capabilities, or circumstances associated with the armed
forces of states.
43. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the Nation,
The 9/11 Commission Report, available from


resources/, accessed December 27, 2007, p.
44. DoD, “Section III: Defense Strategy,” Quadrennial Defense
Review, May 1997, available from
qdr/sec3.html, accessed May 19, 2008.

45. Fukuyama, “Chapter 1,” in Fukuyama, ed., Blindside, p. 2.


46. Fukuyama, “Chapter 15,” in ibid., pp. 169-172.


47. Ibid., pp. 169-170.


48. Ibid., p. 171.


49. Ibid.


50. DoD, March 2005, p. 3.

51. See DoD, June 2008, pp. 10-11. This trend endures today.
Note the language in the current NDS.
52. See DoD, March 2005, p. iii. The 2005 NDS recognizes this
latter point when, in the foreword, Secretary Rumsfeld observes,
“The National Defense Strategy outlines our approach to dealing
with challenges we will likely confront, not just those we are
currently best prepared to meet.”

53. Ibid., pp. 2-3.

54. See, for example, Schwartz and Randall, p. 93. With
respect to 9/11, Schwartz and Randall observe, “(E)ven the
most devastating surprises are often inevitable. Many people
did anticipate the terrorist attacks of September 11 . . . Yet, most
Americans, as well as officials in both the Clinton and Bush
administrations, focused their attention elsewhere while the
inevitable grew imminent.”
55. For a discussion of “Project Horizon,” see Sid Kaplan,
Project Horizon—A New Approach to Interagency Planning, available
from Horizon.pdf, accessed May 19,



56. Department of Defense, 2008, p. 5.


57. NPS Transformation Chair, p. 3.


58. Schwartz and Randall, p. 97-98.


59. Tangredi, “Chapter Seven: Wild Cards.”

60. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the Nation,
The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 344.
61. The detail expressed herein does not reflect official U.S.
government policy.
62. See DoD, 2008, p. 9; and NPS Transformation Chair, p. 6.
Strategic state collapse is clearly on the defense radar screen as
a prospective strategic shock. The author is currently writing a
monograph on the policy implications associated with strategic
state collapse.
63. The author is principally concerned here with sizeable
nuclear or biological capabilities.
64. See Freier, Strategic Competition, p. 58-59. A similar
description of strategic state collapse is included in a previous
monograph by the author.

65. Ibid., pp. 47-52.

66. In an initial conversation on this project with with D.
Burgess Laird of the Institute for Defense Analysis, Laird raised
existing institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Council, the
United Nations General Assembly, etc. as potential forums for
future coordinated political competition with the United States.

67. Ibid., pp. 48-49.


68. Schwartz and Randall, p. 108.


69. Freier, Stategic Competition, p. 51.