The Pentagon’s Crystal Ball

The conventional wisdom is that militaries always prepare to fight the last war.  The conventional wisdom is less useful in predicting what the hell the next war will really be.  In a few instances, we’ve been pretty good at it – the US Navy’s war games in the 20’s and 30’s were amazingly prescient glimpses into how the real Pacific campaign would unfold in the 1940’s.  War games in the European theater were clearly not nearly as prescient – the French prepared to refight World War I on the Western front, and the Germans were prepared to re-fight the French when they invaded the USSR a few years later.

In his book The Black Swan*, Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that making predictions in complex systems like warfare and geo politics is essentially impossible.  Now, former Navy Seceretary Dr. Richard Danzig is making a similar argument

I accept that the inclination to predict is deeply embedded in U.S. institutions and in human nature….[But] long-term national security planning…will inevitably be conducted in conditions that planners describe as ‘deep’ or ‘high’ uncertainty, and in these conditions, foresight will repeatedly fail.”

 I point this out because we as a nation are preparing to make deep and lasting cuts to our Defense budget.  I accept the political reality of the decision, and even accept that cuts can be made without thrusting us into some sort of national security crisis.  What worries me, however, is that the cuts will be driven by an over confidence in our ability to predict the “next war.”  The Black Swan argues that one of the biggest problems with the unpredictability with our world is our tendency to rationalize it after the fact – we ridicule analysts and pundits who failed to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union or the rise of Al Qaeda, forgetting that those events may have, in fact, been extremely difficult to predict.

We have to assume that the future will be unpredictable – and leave ourselves with a military that is flexible enough to deal with whatever threats come our way.  Hedgehogs will appear on both sides of the aisle, in uniform and out.  They will hem and haw about how such and such a weapons system is a neccesity for the “next war” while the other guy’s weapons system is suitable only for the “last war.”  Danzig cautions us to take those predictions with a big grain of salt –

Policymakers will always drive in the dark…however, they must stop pretending that they can see the road.

*If you’ve read The Black Swan, you know that NNT uses the Fox and Hedgehog metaphor a couple of times.  The answer is yes, I did steal the idea from him (and Tetlock – I had heard the metaphor before, but I decided to use it as a blog title while reading The Black Swan)


About thinklikeafox

I'm a Naval Officer living in Southern California. I hope to be attending law school in the next year or two, and I started writing this blog out of a desire to improve my writing and critical thinking skills after a couple years outside of academia.
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