Surprise Attack Paul John.
Given the sophistication of intelligence gathering techniques, why are states so frequently surprised when they are attacked ?

Whether signals intelligence, human intelligence or photographic intelligence, it is still not possible to see inside the human mind. Looks can be very deceiving and such deception can come in many, working to the enemy's advantage when intending to launch a surprise attack upon another state. One state's perceptions of another are all important when judging the likelihood of a surprise attack and it is here that the failure of intelligence can be best explained. The victim of a surprise attack is in actual fact a victim of its own misperceptions. The perceived technological capability of other states, racial perception, historical background, poor communication within the victim state and the fact that intelligence is often selectively interpreted to fit a pr e-conceived theory or hunch all serve to blind a state to an impending attack. An examination of the 20th Century clearly demonstrates that through the most rapid technologically changing century, surprise attack is as much a threat as it ever was.

There are numerous examples of states being surprised by attacks throughout the 20th Century. In June 1941 the Soviet Union was completely taken by surprise by the German offensive (Operation Barbarossa). In December 1941 America was surprised by an attack by 351 Japanese planes upon its Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour which sank 16 naval vessels including 6 Battleships as well as destroying 164 planes and killing 2,403 servicemen and civilians. In 1973 Israel was surprised at the combined Egyptian and Syrian offensive and as recently as 1990 the most sophisticated states in terms of intelligence capability were surprised when Sadam Hussein invaded Kuwait. America, The Soviet Union and Israel were all heavily punished because they were the victims of a surprise attack, but the explanations to why they were actually surprised vary somewhat. In hindsight all the warning signs are clear to see in context, but at the time the 'signals' were not read within the context of an imminent attack and therefore were overlooked. In June 1941 Stalin did not perceive that Hitler would attack Russia so soon and would at least issue an ultimatum beforehand and although numerous warnings were highlighted to him directly, his state of mind led him to overlook these warnings. So then the question is why are these states still surprised although their intelligence capability should rule this phenomenon out.


Pearl Harbor is the best examples of how surprise attack will always occur despite intelligence and technology because it highlights the fact that however sophisticated a nations intelligence is, it can only serve to increase the amount of intelligence that still has to be examined and it is at this interpretational stage of the intelligence process that serves to increase the attackers chances of surprise, because the human mind is already filled with assumptions about the state involved. For instance ; if you expect a state to act in a certain way then when you are interpreting intelligence, you tend to clearly see what supports that hypothesis and overlook what doesn't. In 1941 Stalin didn't think Germany would attack his country, in December that year Roosevelt felt that Japan couldn't attack Pearl Harbor and again in 1990 Kuwait thought Iraq was once again bluffing by massing its troops on the border. In December 1941 Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. It was a devastating blow to the Americans who thought that the attack was technologically impossible to execute let alone by the Japanese whom they viewed as inferior. So with the assumption that Japan could not attack Pearl Harbor David Kahn states that you rarely find what you are not looking for and Christopher Andrew points to the fact that Roosevelt was looking; but although looking, was not necessarily expecting in the right place. Kahn ends his article (The Intelligence failure of Pearl Harbor) by examining the legacy of Pearl Harbor, and concludes that "Pearl Harbor has taught the United states to gather more information and to evaluate it better"1 Still there is no solution to the fundamental problem of human perception which blinds states to, what in hindsight can be seen as, blatant and clear signals that a surprise attack is imminent. Kahn asserts that Roberta Wohlstetter in her 1962 article is wrong in saying that analysis was the fault, because there was nothing to analyse! Christopher Andrews in his book "For The Presidents Eyes Only", reinforces Kahn's argument by stating that Americans simply didn't expect an attack on Pearl Harbor, because it was thought technically impossible, and also because America was blinded "by a racism that led the Americans to underrate Japanese abilities and will"2 American military and political leaders thought Japan incapable of successfully executing a precise plan aimed at tactical surprise against the United States of America. This racial element coupled with the misguided assumption that Pearl Harbour was safe from attack, left America unsuspecting and limited as far as military intelligence on Japan was concerned. If you are not expecting being hit you don't see the punch coming. America wasn't expecting, so didn't see. This is often coined as 'Cognitive Dissonance', meaning that you see what you are focused on (say, an attack from the North) and are therefore blinded from everything else. Christopher Andrews refers to "disorganised and under resourced U.S intelligence community"3 in 194 1 and this was another factor that made America a ripe target for a surprise attack because communication has to be clear in order to persuade people with assumptions and theories in their mind that an attack is actually very likely or imminent. This problem of poor communication within the victim state was best highlighted at Pearl Harbor, but also apparent in Roberta Wohlstetter uses the term 'noise' to describe the sheer volume of misleading signals and intelligence that can lead nation states to be surprised even when the relevant signals


Barry D. Watts states that "notwithstanding all the efforts that American leaders, defence analysts, intelligence experts, and military planners have put into 'solving' the problem of strategic surprise, the literature on the subject, as well as history since 1941, suggests that the problem is intractable."4 In other words Watts is saying that Surprise attack will not be made extinct by technology or intelligence or theory, but will continue to be a phenomenon in warfare because humans presume and assume the norm and are then surprised entirely when a nation steps out of this norm. Watts also believes that "the possibility of such surprise attack at any time lies in the conditions of human perception and stems from uncertainties so basic that they are not likely to be eliminated, though they might be reduced."5 History has upheld view correct as a nations such as the USA with its sophisticated satellite reconnaissance "was every bit as surprised by the Arab attack in 1973 as the Israeli's were"6 It is also the case that "human attention is directed by beliefs as to what is likely to occur" and therefore "One wrong hypothesis can quickly lead both intelligence collection and interpretation down the wrong path" and this is clear to see when looking at examples such as Pearl Harbor, the 1973 Arab-Israeli War or Operation Barbarossa. Viewing another nation through a historical perspective can also mislead the victim states perception of another. Kuwait was warned by US satellite pictures that the Iraqi Army was massing on its borders, but assumed Iraq was bluffing once again as it had done as far back as 1961 and could therefore be bought off. Stalin also thought Hitler would first issue an ultimatum before invading Russia in 1941, and in the face of blatant indications that this was in actual fact not the case he still clung to this belief, which cost him dearly. America viewed Japan through blinkered historical spectacles when assuming that Japan was incapable of executing a plan that could achieve strategic surprise against the USA and Israel made this same mistake in 1973 when presuming that the Arab states could neither plan tactically or work together in a co-ordinated attack, because this was the case in the previous Arab-Israeli wars. It is also a mistake to judge whether an attack is likely or not on your perceived gain/loss assessment, because your enemy can have completely different opinions as to what is worth losing and what is worth gaining and this could lead a nation to be complacent, thinking t hat it is safe because the enemy state has too much to lose. The same applies to ones assessment of the likelihood of offensive action by another state, as this can again lead to complacency and vulnerability.


Intelligence no matter how sophisticated or developed can eliminate the analytical or interpretational problems that human nature produce. Surprise attack is inevitable because human perception is flawed in that assumptions and presumptions are always present and can frequently "persist stubbornly in the face of contradictory evidence". This means that no technological advance is going to make Surprise attack any less unlikely because the problem is mental not visual perception. As long as nations, leaders and advisers 'expect' or assume when looking at another states actions, surprise attack will always be a phenomenon in international conflicts, at both the strategic and operational levels. One way to reduce the risk of surprise attack lies in the likely victim state eliminating its preconceived perceptions of the racial inferiority of the enemy, the technological capability of the enemy, the stance and mood of the enemy, the historical consistency of the enemy, the cost and gain factors and the likelihood of offensive action by the enemy from its calculations on whether other states are likely to attempt a surprise attack and just look at the intelligence with a clear head and an expectation of surprise attack as a possibility. States must be aware of the fallibility of their preconceptions. This is not a fool proof solution however, as I believe the problems of human perception and assumption are too entrenched to be overcome, and can only be subdued by states becoming interdependent to the extent where it can be assumed t hat a surprise attack is a virtual impossibility.


1. David Kahn, The Intelligence Failure Of Pearl Harbour, Foreign Affairs (Fall 1991) Page 152 2. David Kahn, The Intelligence Failure Of Pearl Harbour, Foreign Affairs (Fall 1991) Page 145 3. Christopher Andrew, For The President's Eyes Only. (Page 75) 4. Barry D Watts - Institute For National Strategic Studies Http://www.ndu.edu/ndu/inss/macnair/mcnair52/m52cont.html 5 Ibid 6 Ibid