Although U.S. military satellites picked up plenty of activity from Russian military units assembling outside Crimea last month, intelligence analysts were still surprised when troops and tanks finally moved across the border to invade.
But despite insinuation by some senior U.S. officials that leaks from ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden were to blame, a retired Marine Corps general explained the real reason in a talk at UC-Berkeley last week.
The short answer: the U.S. military has always been terrible at predicting future events.
“You always hear about the foreseeable future — in the military we say the future is not foreseeable, it is not,” Gen. James Mattis, the former commander of U.S. Central Command, said in a lecture last Thursday.
The problem, Mattis said, is the “fundamental unpredictability” of world events. The international playing field is just too complex, with unlimited variables that are constantly changing.
Mattis offered up plenty of examples in his talk:
About 200 years ago, with the founders of the nation sitting in a room — “they had just humbled the British redcoats” and created a new country, Mattis said, of a theoretical conversation he may have had at the time: “Who are we going to fight next? … Not one of us would have said, ‘I think the Royal Navy is going to sail right up that river and burn Washington, D.C. to the ground.’ They would have been laughed out of the room.”
But that was exactly what happened in the War of 1812.
Fast forward to the early 20th century, with the U.S. Army strung out across the nation in outposts, mostly dealing with Indian uprisings, Mattis said, “and if someone had said of what would happen next: ‘I think we’ll be in Europe, and people will be dropping bombs out of aeroplanes, men will wear gas masks and charge barbed-wire machine gun nests,’ they’d be laughed out of the room.”
In June 2001, Mattis, who was serving as senior military assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defence, says there was a similarly misguided conversation.
With Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and others in the room, the question came up: Where do you think we’ll be fighting next? Also in the room, Mattis said, were smart military officers who had gone through intensive schooling on strategy and operations. One finally spoke up.
“I don’t know where we’re going to fight, Mr. Secretary, but I’ll tell you where we won’t be,” said an Army lieutenant colonel while pointing to a map of the Middle East.
“Six months later I was shivering in Afghanistan,” Mattis said. “It is not that we are dumb … it is a fundamental unpredictability.”
While the military can’t really predict what’s going to happen, it can take steps to “reduce the risk,” he concluded.
As for what we can do, Mattis emphasised the importance of keeping Iran from getting a nuke and supporting friendly countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Building a flexible and forward-looking military is obviously important, too, though on the subject of Pentagon budget cuts, Mattis has previously said we should “stop sucking their thumbs and whining about sequestration, telling the world we’re weak.“
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