Recovery from battlefield surprise requires more than fingers-crossed strategy.

Last month, the Pentagon released the 2015 version of its National Military Strategy. As a real Pentagon strategist reminded me, the Pentagon doesn’t really post its real strategy on the Web as a PDF. But even this public relations exercise was disconcerting in its telegraphed inflexibility. The document waxes on about deterring, denying, disrupting, degrading, and maybe even defeating adversaries, as if these were deterministic events. For wars don’t always go according to plan, and as the Economist noted in its review of Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History (Oxford University Press, 2013), “a strategy is not a plan.” Or as Gerard de Groot wrote in his review of the same, the boxer Mike Tyson may have put it best: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

In their new novel Ghost Fleet, P. W. Singer, a strategist at the New America Foundation, and August Cole, our director of the Art of Future Warfare Project, conjure up a future scenario which calls for such a face-punched fall-back plan. Admiral Stavridis of the Fletcher School describes the work as “the best source of high-tech geopolitical visioneering since Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War.” In the 1980s, these were the books that helped us think through how to deal with a surprise Soviet assault on NATO. Earlier this month, the authors spoke together at the Council on once again “how to write and fight World War III.” On Reuters on Monday, they forewent the fiction, but made much the same point about “the weapons the U.S. needs for a war it doesn’t want.” Therein, they describe the Pentagon’s approach to planning as fingers-crossed strategy.

What could go wrong? They suggested some candidate problems for the big war. If the F-35s’ electronics are jammed, the pilots may actually need to dogfight at some point. As Singer and Gary Knepper wrote in “Short Legs Can’t Win Arms Races” (War On The Rocks, 20 May), the aerial tankers refueling them may be vulnerable to long-range Chinese fighters. Down on the ocean’s surface, those Littoral Combat Ships were built to outrun and outgun Iranian Boghammers, so they may not handle heavy damage well. The whole surface fleet still lives under the shadow of the Schulte Thesis: missile defenses at sea have never worked well in actual combat. The whole of the Army and the USMC’s organization and supply is predicated on the presumption that the enemy won’t have the sort of reconnaissance-strike complex that devastated the Iraqis in 1991 and 2003. And everything depends to a frightening degree on secure communications and navigation from satellites.

All this means, as Franz-Stefan Gady wrote on The Diplomat this month, there may be “no more easy victories for the U.S. military.” As Colonel Meir Finkel wrote in On Flexibility (Stanford University Press, 2010), recovery from surprise on the battlefield requires advance preparation, with “conceptual, doctrinal, cognitive, command, organizational, and technological elements.” So here’s my question for strategists in government and industry: if the balloon goes up, and badly, what are your fall-back plans? How will you recover control of the sea and skies? How could you reorganize and reequip forces to weather massive missile attacks? What could you build in a hurry to make up losses? I ask now, because none of these problems should first be considered on December the 8th.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Related Experts: James Hasik and August Cole