The Definition of Strategic Assessment

strategic assessment in comparative perspective

There is intense secrecy about Chinese national security matters, but comparisons with other nations' processes of strategic assessment can increase our understanding of how China may assess its future security environment. (643) How have major nations conducted strategic assessments of the security environment? Studies of this question by more than 30 authors have been sponsored by the Director of Net Assessment, U.S. Department of Defense, to uncover lessons that may be of value to the production of American strategic assessments. One lesson is that there are different national styles of making strategic assessments. By viewing China in comparative perspective, it may be possible to understand better how China deals with its assessment problems.

definition of strategic assessment

What is strategic assessment? (644) It is sometimes confused with intelligence analysis of foreign forces and international trends. The major difference is that strategic assessment is an analysis of the interaction of two or more national security establishments both in peacetime and in war, usually ourselves and a potential enemy. It is the interaction of the two belligerents that is the central concept, not an assessment of one side alone. In historical analysis, it is possible prior to the outbreak of past wars to observe what the highest level of leadership on each side did to "assess" the outcome and nature of the war that was coming. In fact, a widely praised explanation for the causes of war is precisely that strategic assessments were in conflict prior to the initiation of combat--one side seldom starts a war knowing in advance it will lose. Thus, we may presume there are almost always miscalculations in strategic assessments of varying types according to the nature of the national leadership that made the assessment.

In retrospect, it is often easy to discern the sources of errors in strategic assessment. For example, it is a mistake to examine static, side-by-side, force-on-force comparisons of numbers of weapons and military units without analyzing the way these weapons and units would actually interact in future combat. It is another mistake to fail to define correctly who will be a friend and who a foe in wartime, so the question of international alignments or alliances cannot be ignored. Another error is to deduce incorrectly from an opponent's peacetime training exercises, published military doctrines, and peacetime military deployments what may be the way forces actually conduct themselves in combat, especially in a war of many months or years that goes beyond the original plan of war that was drafted at the outset: the longer a war, the more time for factors involving the entire national society and economy to be brought into play and the less important the initial deployments, doctrines, and plans become. Another mistake is to use analytic routines or rigid measures of effectiveness designed for day-to-day management of efficiency in meeting budgetary or other standards to judge future military effectiveness during a war, which may bear little relationship to peacetime management problems.

Professor Stephen Peter Rosen of Harvard University has presented a set of examples of these errors. For example, between August 1939 and June 1940, the U.S. Navy senior leadership strategic assessments of the adequacy of the military capabilities of the United States paid little attention to how a future war might unfold. It mainly satisfied U.S. Navy peacetime criteria using "simple comparisons of the number of U.S. Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy ships . . . no sense of the possible wartime interaction between the two fleets let alone between the two nations." (645) The static use of counting numbers and units was at fault in the French military assessment of a potential German attack in 1939. The military balance measured in quantitative terms between the German forces opposite France and the French forces involved in that theater was almost equal, even slightly favoring France. The armored fire power of France and its allies exceeded that of the Germans by one-third, although German air power was nearly double that of France. Quantitative modeling could not have suggested that the Germans could achieve a four-to-one advantage in the sector in which they achieved a breakthrough; that the Germans could make rapid, deep penetrations to destroy rear areas in France; that the French concept of operations after World War I had been for slow infantry movements behind preplanned, centrally directed artillery barrages dependent on fixed headquarters with fixed telephone lines; and that the German Air Force would completely neutralize French air power and achieve absolute air superiority. Only a strategic assessment focusing on these qualities of the interaction of the two belligerents would give any indication of the outcome of the war. (646)

In the broadest definition, "strategic assessment" implies a forecast of peacetime and wartime competition between two nations or two alliances that includes the identification of enemy vulnerabilities and weaknesses in comparison to the strengths and advantages of one's own side. According to Professor Rosen, "The military theoretician Carl von Clausewitz probably deserves credit for being the first to try to delineate the general character of net assessment at the level of national military interaction." (647) One section of Clausewitz' book On War asks a simple question: How can the national leadership know how much force will be necessary to bring to bear against a potential enemy? Clausewitz replies,

We must gauge the character of . . . (the enemy) government and people and do the same in regard to our own. Finally, we must evaluate the political sympathies of other states and the effect the war may have on them. (648)

Clausewitz warns that studying enemy weaknesses without considering one's own capacity to take advantage of those weaknesses is a mistake. Clausewitz emphasizes the importance of identifying the enemy's "center of gravity," a feature that if successfully attacked, can stop the enemy's war effort. Assessment requires considering the potential interaction of the two sides. According to Clausewitz, "One must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind." (649)

department of defense net assessments

The practice of strategic assessment by the U.S. Department of Defense in the past 25 years has been divided into six categories of studies and analysis. The first involves efforts to measure and forecast trends in various military balances, such as the maritime balance, the Northeast Asian balance, the power-projection balance, the strategic nuclear balance, the Sino-Soviet military balance, and the European military balance between NATO and the former Warsaw Pact. Some of these studies look 20 or 30 years into the future to examine trends and discontinuities in technology, economic indicators, and other factors.

A second type of assessment focuses on weapons and force comparisons, with efforts to produce judgments about military effectiveness that sometimes "revealed U.S. and Soviet differences in measuring combat effectiveness and often showed the contrast between what each side considered important in combat." (650)

The third set of studies examines lessons of the past using historical evaluations as well as gathering data on past performance of weapons used in the context of specific conflicts. A fourth set analyzes the role of perceptions of foreign decision makers and even the process by which foreign institutions make strategic assessments. As Andrew Marshall, Director, Net Assessment, wrote in 1982 about assessing the former Soviet Union,

A major component of any assessment of the adequacy of the strategic balance should be our best approximation of a Soviet-style assessment of the strategic balance. But this must not be the standard U.S. calculations done with slightly different assumptions . . . . rather it should be, to the extent possible, an assessment structured as the Soviet would structure it, using those scenarios they see as most likely and their criteria and ways of measuring outcomes . . . the Soviet calculations are likely to make different assumptions about scenarios and objectives, focus attention upon different variables, include both long-range and theater forces (conventional as well as nuclear), and may at the technical assessment level, perform different calculations, use different measures of effectiveness, and perhaps use different assessment processes and methods. The result is that Soviet assessments may substantially differ from American assessments. (651)

Studies analyzing perceptions are difficult because the data used often must be inferred from public writings and speeches. Implicit biases of Americans based on our own education and culture must also be avoided.

A fifth effort of American net assessment sponsors studies that search for new analytical tools, such as developing higher "firepower scores" than may be used for the Air Force and Navy as well as the initial inventor, the ground forces. In the early 1980s, a multiyear effort was funded at The RAND Corporation to develop a Strategy Assessment System (RSAS) as a flexible analytic device for examining combat outcomes of alternative scenarios.

A sixth category of studies is professional analyses of particular issues of concern to the Secretary of Defense that may involve identifying competitive advantages and distinctive competencies of each size military force posture; highlighting important trends that may change a long-term balance; identifying future opportunities and risks in the military competition; and appraising the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. forces in light of long-term shifts in the security environment. Past practitioners from the Office of the Secretary of Defense have underscored the need for American strategic assessment to focus on long-term historical patterns rather than on short-term trends and to appraise strengths and vulnerabilities of both the United States and its potential opponents as they would interact in future conflicts as well as during peacetime competition.

assessments before world war ii

An insightful set of seven historical examples of strategic assessment from 1938 to1940, produced for the Office of Net Assessment, allows for the comparison of the styles of strategic assessment practiced in Britain, Nazi Germany, Italy, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and Japan. A number of "lessons learned" are relevant to any effort to understand how the Chinese leadership conducts strategic assessment of its future security environment. Marshall specified four categories of strategic assessment:

Sun Tzu proclaimed full confidence in the "calculations" he made in "the temple" before hostilities. "Modern net assessment follows Sun Tzu's principles, if not his confidence in outcomes. The important allusion is to 'the temple' and the role of faith." (653)

The main problem was how to frame assessments, particularly with regard to political-military factors such as who were the potential threats and potential allies, and what international alignments would be vital to the outcomes of future wars. Purely military issues were how to weight different types of combat power, especially new concepts of operations like tactical air power in the Blitzkrieg or the role of submarines. Errors and successes came from answers to large framework questions of what to include, what to ignore, and how to "think about" the military balances that form the security environment.

Both assessing wartime international alignments and finding new measures of effectiveness to assess new types of military power were fraught with errors in pre-World War II strategic assessments. Professor Paul Kennedy of Harvard points out that Britain failed to assess the role the Soviet Union could play as a second front for Hitler. The French made both types of error: they neglected the scenario that Germany might first conquer France's East European allies and underestimated the role of air power in the Blitzkrieg, despite detailed reports from French intelligence. The Soviets correctly assessed the potential for Japan to remain neutral and correctly saw that Hitler would invade along a southern approach toward the Baku oil fields, by Stalin's use of alternative scenarios in annual war games.

U.S. errors were "big picture" problems. Although the United States eventually in 1940 developed five alternative scenarios (RAINBOW 1 to 5), from 1920 to about 1935, it initially mistakenly believed it had only one potential enemy (Japan) and therefore planned for only one major military scenario--Plan ORANGE--for war in the Pacific to liberate the Philippines from a Japanese attack. The Naval War College played this scenario in annual and other war games an estimated 120 times. Then, with the rise of Hitler, 15 years of American assessments had to be discarded when the strategic focus shifted to winning first in Europe, while staying on the defensive in the Pacific.

The most relevant comparison for China may be the Soviet Union, but this is also the most secret. As Professor Earl Ziemke put it, after three decades of research on Soviet military affairs, even when he tried to use historical data to look back from 1990 to 1940:

The Soviet net assessment process cannot be directly observed. Like a dark object in outer space, its probable nature can be discerned only from interactions with visible surroundings. Fortunately, its rigidly secret environment has been somewhat subject to countervailing conditions. . . . Tukhachevsky and his associates conducted relatively open discussion in print.

Comparing the Soviet structure with Chinese materials in the 1990s, it is apparent from the way in which Soviet strategic assessment was performed in the 1930s that a number of similarities, at least in institutional roles and the vocabulary of Marxism-Leninism, can also be seen in contemporary China. The leader of the Communist Party publicly presented a global strategic assessment to periodic Communist Party Congresses. The authors of the military portions of the assessment came from two institutions that have counterparts in Beijing today and were prominent in Moscow in the 1930s: the General Staff Academy and the National War College. Another similarity was that the Communist Party leader chaired a defense council or main military committee and in these capacities attended peacetime military exercises and was involved deciding the details of military strategy, weapons acquisition, and war planning.


643. Readers may be surprised about how secretive China remains in the national security area in spite of openness in all other areas. After all, China is one of the most open nations in the world in many respects. In 1966 it had over $100 billion of foreign direct investment, the largest in the world after the United States, and was the second most popular destination for foreign tourism, after France.

644. Two colonels at the Academy of Military Science define "strategic assessment" as used by Sun Zi in the Art of War. Their new translation into English faults the well-known translation in 1963 by Brigadier General Samuel Griffiths for "serious errors," including using the word "estimates" instead of "strategic assessment." See Pan Jiabin and Liu Ruixiang, Art of War: A Chinese-English Bilingual Reader (Beijing: Junshi kexue chubanshe,1993), 123-124.

645. Stephen Peter Rosen, "Net Assessment as an Analytical Concept," in On Not Confusing Ourselves, eds. Andrew W. Marshall, J. J. Martin, and Henry S. Rowen (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991), 288.

646. Rosen, 296-297; Assessing the Correlation of Forces: France 1940 (Washington: BDM Report for the Office of Net Assessment, June 18, 1979).

647. Rosen, 286.

648. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 586.

649. Ibid., 595.

650. George E. Pickett, James G. Roche, and Barry D. Watts, "Net Assessment: A Historical Review," in On Not Confusing Ourselves, 169-171.

651. Andrew W. Marshall, "A Program to Improve Analytic Methods Related to Strategic Forces," Policy Sciences (November 1982): 48.

652. Ernest R. May, ed., Knowing One's Enemies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 5.

653. Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, Calculations: Net Assessment and the Coming of World War II (New York: Free Press, 1992), 2.