Great power competition has returned after a generation of absence, and the U.S. military edge over prospective opponents is eroding. Whereas the United States previously could overwhelm adversaries with sheer force, if necessary, it now needs every advantage it can get. This study analyzes how the United States might inflict surprise on its adversaries to gain a strategic advantage. Surprise is one aspect of a broader discussion in the national security literature on innovative operational concepts, which may serve as force multipliers to enable the United States to get more out of existing capabilities. A follow up to CSIS’s highly successful 2018 study Coping with Surprise in Great Power Conflicts, this report highlights several components of a successful surprise, including exploiting adversary vulnerabilities, using intelligence and technology, employing secrecy and deception, and doing the unexpected. The report also contains over a dozen vignettes illustrating potential future surprises.
Mark Cancian (Colonel, USMCR, ret.) is a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program.