Prospective, défense et surprise stratégique: Le stratège, l'improbable et l'inattendu (Foresight, Defence and Strategic Surprise: The Strategist, the Improbable and the Unexpected)

Jacques Richardson (Member of foresight's editorial boardE‐mail:


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 1 December 2005



Richardson, J. (2005), "Prospective, défense et surprise stratégique: Le stratège, l'improbable et l'inattendu (Foresight, Defence and Strategic Surprise: The Strategist, the Improbable and the Unexpected)", Foresight, Vol. 7 No. 6, pp. 79-80.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Surprise… includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that action gets lost (Thomas Schelling in Foreword to Pearl Harbor, Warning and Decision).

The citation is taken from Roberta Wohlstetter's (1962) remarkable volume that analyzed closely the whys and wherefores of Japan's devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Author Delcroix carries on in the same tradition, urging the weighing of all elements of available information in order to avoid, especially at the national level, being taken by surprise. His analysis has three parts.

The first section stresses the indispensability of foresight, whatever form it takes, in the preparation of national defence (and, by extension, of other large‐scale management). The second evokes the uncertainty of today's and tomorrow's world, one demanding more than ever non‐linear thought prepared for any instability, in other words the probability of improbability – while preparing to cope with the dysfunction and distress harboured by surprises lurking on the edge of chaos. The third part admits the acceptance of present major trends as indicators of future developments while one ponders the unforeseeable, especially catastrophic developments.

Delcroix admits that all three considerations need not be reserved to general officers in the chain of command, in the case of the military, but to non‐commanding strategic planners and advisors as well. Any senior or middle manager will read these pages, as a consequence, to his or her advantage.

The author begins by tracing the origins of organized foresight analysis in two countries, the USA and France. In the USA the activity began in earnest towards the end of the Second World War when the Air Force created the RAND group, soon after to become a private corporation and today diversified well beyond the military. The American approach has been transformed, in the process, to give priority to geostrategy and to regional developments outside North America.

In France two individuals (Gaston Berger and Bertrand de Jouvenel) created in the 1950s what is now Futuribles International, a private group that counts French ministries and corporations and certain transnationals among its clients. The country's military and diplomatic services have also established their own centres de prospective or strategic‐planning staffs. The French effort retains a strong logistical bent, however, largely concerned with infrastructure and materiel, while the American endeavour increasingly has added the strategic eventualities – politically and economically speaking – to the factors that it seeks to assess holistically.

1 The stunning strategy of surprise

Author Delcroix dwells considerably on the effectiveness of surprise – not astonishingly, given his subtitle: surprise as the werewolf lurking in the entangled forest of planning. He gives much attention to the value of the 40‐year‐old magnum opus by Wohlsetter, mentioned above. This study in foresight and how it might fail (albeit an analysis made ex post facto), of the literally telegraphed “surprise” by Japan and of the compounded indecision in Washington and Honolulu behind America's entry into the Pacific conflict of 1941‐1945.

Delcroix repeats usefully Wohlstetter's insistence on the difference between knowing in advance what an adversary plans and taking the necessary preventive or counter action by those charged with plans and operations. A lack of coupling these elements may lead inexorably to outright failure, even defeat (otherwise, the futility of a service proffered, an unsuccessful product, or the unacceptability of a new effort in governance) … and perhaps to total calamity in the form of systemic collapse.

Towards the end of his work, Delcroix lauds the American‐inspired approach to understanding complex problems called net assessment – also known as operational net assessment (ONA). The United States Joint Forces Command, based in Virginia, defines ONA as “the integration of people, processes and tools that use multiple information sources and collaborative analysis to enhance command decision‐making” ( mc02/ona.htm). The necessary staff collated for such closely‐working intelligence and operations remains, as Delcroix suggests, are beyond the means of the average government or corporation. Yet the utility of such expertise, especially if properly applied in anticipation of surprise, should be invaluable.

The terrorist surprises experienced by the Americans in New York in 2001, the Russians and the Turks shortly afterwards, the Spanish in March 2004 and the British and Egyptians in July 2005 were culminations of two currents of prediction. One, “positive” in character, had foreseen events of the type. The other current, “negative” in tone, could foretell in no detail when, where and exactly how State‐free terrorists would strike. This conflict in streams of foresight is the burden, in effect, of Geoffrey Delcroix's booklet. The ability to anticipate has its limits, therefore, so long as the element of true and complete surprise can be withheld from the intended target: whether competitor, threatening rival, or defenceless victim.

In an age of poignant uncertainties, Delcroix's disquisition on the nature and eventuality of surprise in government, defence and general management is a profitable exercise in pondered reflection – ponderation that should lead to prudent recalculation of doctrine, policy and method.


Wohlstetter, R. (1962), Pearl Harbor, Warning and Decision, Stanford University Press Stanford, CA.

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