The national security establishment is currently facing criticism for a perceived failure to anticipate Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the capture of a swathe of Iraqi territory by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and the political upheaval of the Arab Spring. The American public expects its leaders to be prepared for such contingencies while also addressing familiar challenges, like terrorism or China’s increasing assertiveness.
The breadth and rising tempo of potential crises, coupled with fiscal constraints, means that national security leaders can’t hope to be fully prepared for all contingencies. But continually focusing on the problem of the day creates blind spots when it comes to low likelihood but extremely disruptive factors. It is one thing to be caught off guard by the anticipatable actions of a nation or even a non-state actor; it is far more serious to be surprised by a new method of warfare.
If there was ever a time to be on guard against disruptions that can upend America’s strategic position, it is now. Taking stock of long-shot, high-impact surprises does not mean waiting until the consensus wisdom, or the events at hand, catch up. The national security community should not shy away from constantly challenging the assumptions that it relies on to build everything from budgets covering hundreds of billions of dollars to operation plans for the armed forces.
More from CNAS
CommentaryCan China’s Military Win the Tech War?
The United States and its allies should take seriously Beijing’s efforts to militarize China’s technological base....
By Anja Manuel & Kathleen Hicks
TranscriptTranscript from Emerging Concepts in Joint Command and Control
On Wednesday, May 20, 2020, the CNAS Technology and National Security Program hosted a virtual panel discussion on emerging concepts in joint command and control featuring Hon...
By Robert O. Work, Chris Dougherty & Paul Scharre
CommentaryWhat the government should or should not do to help space industry
The COVID-19 economic slowdown will have lasting implications on the new space sector. Yet the United States cannot afford another lost decade of commercial space innovation. ...
By Mikhail Grinberg
CommentaryTime for the US to declare independence from China
Americans now know they can’t rely on China or even our allies to produce the goods we need during a pandemic. That’s why it’s time for the United States government to do what...
By Anthony Vinci & Dr. Nadia Schadlow