Basic Concepts

Identifying Threats

"Know the enemy's plans and calculate his strengths and weaknesses." - Sun Tzu

World

In the book1 on military strategy, author John M. Collins gives the following list of five criteria to use when evaluating a potential threat:

  1. How much military power of what kinds does each adversary possess and where is it deployed?

  2. What courses of action are open to each adversary, given its current and projected posture?

  3. What course(s) of action is each adversary likely to adopt, given apparent motives, opportunities, vulnerabilities, inhibitions, and historical precedents?

  4. What are enemy prospects for success, given the assets and liabilities of friendly armed forces?

  5. What enemy threats seem most important, given the comparative value of security interests involved?

Interestingly enough, given the fact that suppression or prevention of internal dissent is a national security matter of paramount importance, it is possible to argue that an adversary with sufficiently effective subversive propaganda and no other military forces could still be considered a threat. Of course, this is not a popular viewpoint, particularly in nations that pride themselves upon their guarantees of certain freedoms, such as freedom of speech.

Criterion #1

"How much military power of what kinds does each adversary possess and where is it deployed?"

This is clearly a question for intelligence agencies. In the real world, the United States would rely on an organization such as the CIA, while the Cold War USSR would have relied on the KGB. In Star Wars, the Old Republic relied on the Jedi and the Empire relied on the ISB (Imperial Security Bureau). In Star Trek, the Federation employs an organization known as Section 31, but the very existence of this organization is portrayed by the writers as a blemish on the good character of the Federation. One wonders how the writers would expect the Federation to collect vital intelligence data without an intelligence agency, and if they recognize the importance of this agency, one must wonder why it must be condemned to non-sanctioned "shadow agency" status.

In any case, one must determine not only an adversary's present military power, but also his potential military power. If he has large reserve forces, they must be accounted for in any assessment of his capabilities (the Soviet Union boasted tens of millions of reservists). If he has a militaristic culture and may be amenable to conscription, the possibility of an on-demand surge in the size of his armed forces must be considered. If he has extraordinary industrial capabilities, their potential influence on war-making must also be considered. For example, the United States had relatively limited military power at the beginning of WW2, but as Admiral Yamamoto put it, the country was a "sleeping giant". With a large and strongly patriotic population which was amenable to large-scale conscription and a huge industrial base that could churn out vast numbers of tanks, planes, ships, guns, and ammunition, the United States' true threat potential was vastly greater than one would expect from a "snapshot" of its military forces in 1940. Imperial Japan learned this painful lesson at great cost.

Moreover, one must assess not only the quantity but also the quality of an adversary's forces. If his forces are vast in number but have limited training and poor equipment, they may be less formidable than a much smaller but better-trained and better-equipped force. To take an extreme example, despite an extremely disadvantageous position, vastly outnumbered US Army Ranger forces in the Mogadishu raid of 1991 killed an estimated 1000 Somali militia personnel during the operation despite losing only 18 of their own, for an astonishing kill ratio of approximately fifty to one. The Somalis had far superior numbers, but the Army Rangers had better training and better equipment, including air support.

Level of experience is also important: have they fought in any wars recently, and if so, how did they perform, and against what type of enemy? An army which has very little fighting experience is going to invite questions about its likely performance when put to the test. A sufficiently under-utilized army may actually wind up with so little experience that even its "veterans" have never applied their skills in a real situation, and there is no one in the entire organization with any field experience to pass on to younger personnel. Alternatively, an army which has experience only in occupation duties may have under-developed war-fighting skills (conversely, an army with experience only in war-fighting will have problems if it is used as an occupation force). Moreover, such an army may also suffer from serious deficiencies in the area of planning, co-ordinating units and branches of the armed forces together, etc. Imagine a construction company that has no experience building large structures, suddenly being asked to hire and train large numbers of new personnel and then build a new record-setting skyscraper. A catastrophe would be almost inevitable.

In science fiction, we introduce an additional wrinkle: adversaries can be so wildly dissimilar in technologies and culture that their equipment, experience, and even their training may lose much of its value when facing a new opponent. Traditionally effective tactics and strategies may prove ineffective against an unfamiliar opponent using unfamiliar technologies, even if those technologies are not necessarily superior in an absolute sense. For example, an adversary which has weak planetary defences or excellent early warning systems will naturally prefer to employ tactics similar to those employed by American ships against Japanese kamikaze pilots in WW2, by detecting, intercepting, and attacking the enemy in deep space, long before he can approach his target. In contrast, an adversary with poor early warning systems or whose planetary defences can hold off an attacker long enough for reinforcements to arrive (either by virtue of very strong defences or very fast reinforcements) may be quite comfortable allowing combat to occur within a stone's throw of the planet itself. He might even choose to invest substantial resources into the construction of such impregnable planetary defences that littoral combat is actually advantageous for him. At the infantry level, we might see similar problems: infantry suppression tactics might prove useless against robotic troops which were programmed not to react the way humans would.

Assessment of military power is an extremely difficult task for intelligence agencies in the real world, and probably the single most difficult task for science fiction fans examining fictional worlds. Remarkable failures have occurred. In recent years, the most notable such failure is obviously the CIA's insistence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction capable of threatening the entire region in 2002: a completely erroneous and unfounded claim that was used in order to justify the subsequent Iraq invasion of 2003. At first blush, it might seem that the situation should be much easier for science fiction fans, since we see inside the worlds that the characters inhabit rather than having to study them from outside. However, real analysts have considerable resources at their disposal and real military concepts to work with, as well as weapon systems with relatively well-known characteristics. They don't have to make educated guesses about what a particular weapon does, gauge its performance from brief images of its effect on disparate targets with inconsistent results, or try to explain behaviour that is totally inconsistent with the laws of physics as we know them.

Criterion #2

"What courses of action are open to each adversary, given its current and projected posture?"

As with criterion #1, this is a question for intelligence agencies. Obviously, the options available to an adversary are dependent upon his military capabilities, but they are also dependent upon other factors. For example, cultural factors such as his population's willingness to make war can limit his options. If his population is weary of war or severely unenthusiastic about the prospect, this weakens his effective position. If, on the other hand, his population is warlike and enthusiastic about war, then he may be able to outperform expectations. Ever since the Vietnam debacle, adversaries of the United States have known that its population has little stomach for prolonged military conflicts, and have taken this into account when formulating their strategies. Some American military strategists react to this reality with a sullen display of resentment, arguing that they could accomplish much more if the population were more war-like. But that psychological limitation is just as real as any economic or logistical limitation, and should be treated as such, by both sides. Failure to do so only invites disaster.

Economics can also be a limiting factor. Despite the widespread belief that wars bring economic benefits, wars can actually drain an economy. The American economic boom after WW2 was caused by the growth opportunities presented by the need to rebuild the shattered infrastructures of Asia and Europe, not by any intrinsic economic benefit of war. In ancient times, wars were often good for imperial economies, but only because conquering armies took slaves and treasure from vanquished foes and distributed them among their home empires. These are rather specific conditions; if a war is not conducted with a specific economic objective in mind (such as seizing valuable assets), it is likely to be a huge economic drain, particularly if it drags on for a long time.

When examining the course of action an adversary is likely to take, it is important to examine the situation from his point of view. When the United States led by President George W. Bush presented an ultimatum to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, its conditions were that he surrender himself to face criminal proceedings. From Saddam Hussein's viewpoint, his options were as follows:

  1. Surrender to foreign forces. Probably stand trial for war crimes, most likely resulting in his lifetime imprisonment or execution.

  2. Flee to seek refuge in a friendly regime. This option was infeasible for numerous reasons, such as Hussein's lack of allies and the Bush Administration's eagerness to pursue him.

  3. Fight a defensive battle to delay and harass US forces for as long as possible, thus forestalling the eventuality of his capture and execution.

Of course, history shows that he pursued option #3. Since all three options were likely to lead his death anyway, the option which led to a delayed death was the most attractive course of action. If an option which did not inevitably lead to his death was available, there is a strong possibility that he would have taken it.

One can do the same exercise with a an imaginary science fiction foe: for example, after the destruction of Praxis at the beginning of Star Trek 6, the Klingon Empire had lost a crucial fuel production facility and suffered serious environmental damage on its homeworld Quo'nos. At this point, they were presumably relying on fuel reserves to operate their military machine, so they might have tried one of the following courses of action before those reserves ran out:

  1. Attack the Federation in the hope of assimilating some or all of their fuel production facilities before Klingon fuel reserves run out.

  2. Attack the (much weaker) Romulans in the hope of assimilating some or all of their fuel production facilities before Klingon fuel reserves run out.

  3. Attack both the Federation and the Romulans with every available weapon (including biological WMDs), in an attempt to destroy equipment, commit acts of mundicide (planetary depopulation, from the Latin mundi, meaning "world"), and degrade their war-fighting capabilities to the point that they cannot threaten the Klingon Empire while it rebuilds.

  4. Reduce military fuel consumption by withdrawing the fleet to a defensive posture around the Klingon core worlds. In the event of a Federation attack, allow outlying systems to defend themselves.

  5. Reduce military fuel consumption by decommissioning large numbers of ships. Negotiate bilateral arms reduction treaties with the Federation in order to shrink the Federation military to parity, using the settlement of longstanding territorial disputes as a bargaining incentive.

In the original story, Chancellor Gorkon pursued option #5, as did his daughter Azet'Bur after his assassination. General Chang, on the other hand, clearly intended to pursue option #1.

Criterion #3

"What course(s) of action is each adversary likely to adopt, given apparent motives, opportunities, vulnerabilities, inhibitions, and historical precedents?"

Once more, this is a question for intelligence agencies, but in this case they must accept considerably more subjectivity than would have been permissible for criterion #1 or #2. The intentions of another person are difficult enough to divine already, but when that other person is thousands of miles away and a product of a much different culture, the task can become insurmountable. If rebel groups in a disputed border region have been causing problems and a neighbouring state masses troops at the border, is he merely attempting to suppress the rebel activity? Does he intend to cross the border and eradicate the rebels in your territory as well? Or does he intend to seize and annex the entire disputed territory? The following quote from John M. Collins' book illustrates the problem well:

Even documents purloined from opponents' closely guarded, limited access files may be suspect because, as Sherman Kent sagely observed in his classic textbook Strategic Intelligence, none ever proclaim:

"I am not the offbeat thoughts and recommendations of a highly placed but erratic adviser; I am not a draft from high headquarters intended solely as a basis for discussion; I am not one of those records of decisions which will be rescinded orally the next day, or pushed under the rug and forgotten, or nibbled to death by disapproving implementers. ... I am authoritative and firm; I represent an approved intention and I am in effect."

Mr. Collins goes on to point out a particularly compelling example of official statements followed by contradictory behaviour: President Harry Truman himself declared in April 1948 that the US would not consider warfare in Korea to be cause for intervention, and in January 1950 described a US defence perimeter for the National Press Club: a perimeter that excluded Korea. Therefore, it must have come as quite a surprise six months later when the United States decided to intervene the moment North Korean troops crossed the border!

The situation is not hopeless. Historical analysis is often quite revealing; many leaders actually state their long-term plans openly, and then begin to follow them almost to the letter (Hitler and Mao are good examples), which allows observers to predict what they will do next, to a fairly high degree of accuracy. Examination of the historical record of an individual leader or the past actions of the dominant political movement of a nation-state can be very revealing. Internal dissent and debate can also sharpen the picture considerably and should be encouraged; strong pressure to support a particular conclusion can lead to a dysfunctional agency and erroneous conclusions, which is what apparently happened during the build-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003.

In science fiction, it is often very easy to tell what an adversary will do next, for the simple reason that, as ephemeral observers, we are able to witness high-level meetings inside enemy headquarters, hear orders being given, and see movements of assets even if they are intended to be hidden. Literary fiction may even describe the inner thoughts of a leader, thus making divination of his intentions into a trivial task. However, the same is not true when writing an original work of fiction or wondering what would happen in a hypothetical match-up. Of course, when writing an original work of fiction you can simply decide what a leader will do next, but if this decision does not follow from the motives of the character, the result will be confused and muddled. A good example is the movie Star Trek Nemesis, in which the arch-villain Shinzon decided to commit mundicide against the planet Earth for no apparent reason: an act which did not serve his personal interests in any way, or those of his Reman followers, yet one which he was willing to sacrifice his own life to accomplish. The result was to simply lose the audience.

Therefore, it behooves any science fiction writer or fan to seriously consider the question of why leaders do the things they do, and to maintain a consistent relationship between personality, motives, and decisions. Statements like "empire A would ally with empire B" are not worth much if they are made simply for the sake of convenience rather than considering each empire's motivations and opportunities. Statements like "empire A would fight to the death" or "empire A would never negotiate" are even worse, completely discarding realistic motives and behaviours.

Returning to the Star Trek 6 example from before, we had five options:

  1. Attack the Federation in the hope of assimilating some or all of their fuel production facilities before Klingon fuel reserves run out.

  2. Attack the (much weaker) Romulans in the hope of assimilating some or all of their fuel production facilities before Klingon fuel reserves run out.

  3. Attack both the Federation and the Romulans with every available weapon (including biological WMDs), in an attempt to destroy equipment, commit acts of mundicide (planetary depopulation, from the latin mundi, meaning "world"), and degrade their war-fighting capabilities to the point that they cannot threaten the Klingon Empire while it rebuilds.

  4. Reduce military fuel consumption by withdrawing the fleet to a defensive posture around the Klingon core worlds. In the event of a Federation attack, allow outlying systems to defend themselves.

  5. Reduce military fuel consumption by decommissioning large numbers of ships. Negotiate bilateral arms reduction treaties with the Federation in order to shrink the Federation military to parity, using the settlement of longstanding territorial disputes as a bargaining incentive.

Taking into account "motives, opportunities, vulnerabilities, inhibitions, and historical precedents," we can look at the history and violent racial supremacist culture of the Klingons at this time in their history to determine that option #1 had to be a serious likelihood. It is difficult to determine which side's military forces were more powerful (each leader's advisors claimed they would be victorious), but even if we assume qualitative and quantitative parity, the Federation's advantage in defence and relatively unrestricted use of fuel would have undoubtedly tipped the scales decisively in its favour, albeit at considerable cost in lives: a serious concern for a more democratic organization. Option #2 would have probably not received serious consideration, since the Federation could easily crush both the weakened Klingons and Romulans after such a conflict. Option #3 is more ambitious than the others, but also more likely to lead to catastrophe for the Klingon Empire, as their forces would be stretched thin against Romulan and Federation defences that had been fortified for decades, and if the attack failed or achieved only limited success, the ensuing retaliation would have probably destroyed the Klingons as an empire or even a coherent nation-state.

Option #4 would have probably led to serious incursions on Klingon territory from the Federation, the Romulans, or both. And finally, option #5 offered the highest likelihood of success at achieving the empire's top priorities (remember the fixed top priorities of survival, territorial defence, and internal stability). The rational choice would have been to take option #5, as the Chancellor did in the film, but a combination of racial pride, belligerence, and possibly a serious underestimation of their own strategic and tactical limitations led the Klingons to seriously consider option #1, to the point that Chancellor Gorkon was assassinated by those who preferred it. Take note: they would probably not have preferred option #1 if they did not believe they could succeed. A Federation analyst would have probably been able to eliminate options #2, #3, and #4 for the reasons given above, but he would have had difficulty determining whether option #1 or option #5 was more likely. Of course, the prudent decision would have been to assume option #1, and mass his forces at the border accordingly (indeed, one wonders why no mention was made of such actions in the film).

Criterion #4

"What are enemy prospects for success, given the assets and liabilities of friendly armed forces?"

This is a question for the generals. Intelligence agencies collect information on the enemy's strength, options, and likely decisions, and then generals determine whether they can defeat the enemy's plans with the assets at their disposal. Such determinations call upon what strategists call "net assessments", where enemy and friendly forces are compared to each other, in order to determine areas of relative strength or weakness.

Such determinations are rather complex, involving trend tracking, thorough understanding of battlefield tactics, logistics, manpower, and even seemingly unrelated factors such as economic strength and domestic politics. Assessors have to determine how well weapon systems compare to their enemy counterparts and counter-measures. These assessments will involve many classes of weapon system on land, in the air, at sea, and in space, as well as a host of other military and non-military concerns.

Even the best analysis, with the most perfect information, can be subject to uncertainties. Unforeseen events can occur in war. Mistakes can be made. Men can fall victim to fear, or fatigue, or confusion at critical times. Equipment can malfunction at critical junctures. The so-called "fog of war" can lead to critical misjudgements. Entire books have been written about the grievous mistakes committed during the confusion of war, and the mysterious happenstances that can turn defeat into victory. Nevertheless, in the so-called "big picture", it is often possible to arrive at a fairly reliable estimate of the larger outcome, particularly when disparities of power are large.

Unfortunately, in science fiction, all of these complex assessments spanning across various fields of both civilian and military life from economical to political, logistical, tactical, and other areas are often heavily simplified by writers or fans until they devolve to simple "slugging matches" between "hero" units such as favoured warships (following clichéd conventions, the battle usually hinges upon a "hero" ship piloted by the film's main character). Rather than ask how an enemy might deploy his ships for greatest strategic effect, it is not uncommon for fans or writers to assume that the enemy will simply hurl his ships at either every friendly asset in range or the greatest available friendly strong-point. In the Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode "A Call to Arms", the enemy Dominion did almost exactly that, hurling most of their forces at the Deep Space Nine station itself even though its capture was not their mission objective at all. Their actual objective was to stop the USS Defiant from laying mines to block the wormhole through which reinforcements could come, and for this task they allocated only a relatively tiny force. This kind of sloppy writing is only excused insofar as many fans do not think to ask why such decisions are made, save that they result in exciting on-screen action.

Also, rather than try to imagine the enemy's plan and then determine friendly chances of success against it, it is common for science fiction fans to simply assume that the enemy has no plan at all, apart from engaging in battle. Overall force comparisons are often made with no regard for strategic deployment of forces, campaign plans, logistics, or any non-military factors whatsoever. Writers, desperate to create exciting battle scenes but ignorant of how to resolve them logically, tend to create "Achilles Heel" gimmicks through which victory can be won through trickery, luck, or technobabble (often involving the aforementioned hero units). As a result, many fans are led to believe that a mastery of such tricks is the most important strategic factor of all, and they may even come to construct entire tactical scenarios or even entire campaigns around such tricks. In some cases, writers actually depict characters becoming so over-reliant upon these tricks that they cannot function without one. The most egregious example would be the Gimmick Battle in the film Star Trek Generations, in which the Klingon ship uses a gimmick to attack the Federation ship, which puts up only token resistance until its crew comes up with a gimmick of their own. They literally did not know how to respond to the attack until they could come up with a gimmick, even though they out-gunned the enemy ship ten to one and probably could have destroyed it by simply opening fire with all available weapons.

Criterion #5

"What enemy threats seem most important, given the comparative value of security interests involved?"

Ideally, a nation-state will have sufficient resources to address 100% of threats to its complete satisfaction. It is, however, something of an understatement to say that this is unlikely in the real world. In the real world, one must decide which is more important, not just within a category but across many categories. To quote Mr. Collins again, "military threats occupy at least eight categories: global and regional; short-, mid-, and long-range, low-, mid-, and high-intensity; receding, expanding, and steady; national, multinational, and subnational; military and nonmilitary; lethal and nonlethal; nuclear, biological, chemical, radiological, traditional, and unconventional. When perceived threats are hydra-headed, wise Chiefs of State and their advisers couple comparative capabilities with probable courses of enemy action, establish priorities according to imminence and intensities, then concentrate on the greatest hazards." It is not difficult to see how these categories could be applied to science fiction with only minor modification.

Of course, Chiefs of State do not necessarily make these judgements wisely. Emotion may cloud rational judgement, and political pressure may be applied to intelligence agencies and military planners to induce a preferred result. If, for example, the Chief of State makes it clear that he is looking for evidence to support a particular conclusion, that will tend to produce an investigative bias. Imprudent use of public rhetoric can also have a powerful effect: if the Chief of State publicly commits the nation to action, intelligence agencies will be pressured to justify that decision, and military planners will be pressured to conclude that this threat is greater than all others. In fact, such reckless public rhetoric can actually change the threat landscape: if a nation commits to action and then fails to follow through, the nation can suffer a loss of credibility which weakens its position in future.

It is a matter of cliché that in science fiction as well as action movies, Chiefs of State often seem to be either fools or madmen, or perhaps both. They are usually autocratic. Their behaviour is frequently similar to that of a belligerent high school bully, taking offence at the slightest provocation, regardless of the real strategic situation, and then committing their nations' military forces to action, often on a grandiose scale, with no apparent regard for any vulnerabilities they might create in the process. Because of this, we rarely see Chiefs of State in science fiction who request extensive intelligence briefings and then carefully weigh their choices to evaluate the threats they face. In science fiction, one generally does not see an analogue to iconic image of John F. Kennedy grimly pondering his choices during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Decisions are made on the spot, often with almost nothing in the way of deliberations.

In Star Trek 6, the Federation president makes a decision about whether to go to war with the Klingon Empire based on a meeting with three military officers and (inexplicably) the Romulan Ambassador, with no input from any intelligence agencies whatsoever and after asking only the simplest questions of this paltry group of advisers. In Deep Space Nine, the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon eagerly declares war on any potential adversary at the first opportunity, even firing on his own allies if they get in the way. In Babylon5, the Minbari decide to commit genocide against the human species after their leader is killed by an Earth captain whose reckless belligerence conveniently drives the plot forward, and then they ignore repeated attempts to sue for peace because they are apparently racially incapable of changing their minds (at one point, one of them even says they have gone mad; surely if they had truly gone mad, they would not be able to determine that they had gone mad). And of course, Emperor Palpatine makes what is probably the worst threat evaluation in science fiction history: deciding that the threat posed by allowing a Rebel incursion onto the Endor moon and subsequent Rebel attack on the half-completed Death Star was less important than his objective of converting Luke Skywalker to his Sith ideology.

Summary

To reiterate the five basic criteria under evaluation when determining the threat level of an adversary, they are:

  1. "How much military power of what kinds does each adversary possess and where is it deployed?" This task is difficult at the best of times, and made even more difficult for science fiction fans because the technologies and even physics principles involved are not real, and hence their mechanisms and capabilities can only be roughly estimated from sketchy evidence at best, perhaps with very serious inaccuracies.

  2. "What courses of action are open to each adversary, given its current and projected posture?" When examining his options, it is important to examine a strategic situation from the enemy's point of view rather than your own. His options will be limited by his needs and capabilities, not your fears.

  3. "What course(s) of action is each adversary likely to adopt, given apparent motives, opportunities, vulnerabilities, inhibitions, and historical precedents?" Again, it is important to try to immerse yourself in the enemy's point of view when examining this question, and remember that realistically, he will tend to choose based on his own perceived personal and/or national self-interest, not your expectations. While action movie and science fiction cliché may say otherwise, any kind of realistic writing would respect this truism.

  4. "What are enemy prospects for success, given the assets and liabilities of friendly armed forces?" In reality, this question is one for well-paid analysts. Among science fiction fans, this question is usually not asked at all, because they would rather devise their own plans for friendly forces and ignore the question of what the enemy might be planning. In some cases, they don't even ask themselves how the enemy might react to their own plans. Unfortunately, there are those who would employ this myopic approach in reality as well.

  5. What enemy threats seem most important, given the comparative value of security interests involved? Real leaders must weigh this carefully, although not all of them actually do. Unfortunately, there is a considerable body of research which shows that human beings have extremely poor risk assessment skills and react emotionally rather than rationally, and this is supported by quite a few historical precedents. In science fiction, heads of state seem almost oblivious to threat assessment, and will often rush into conflicts with no regard whatsoever for the effect on their readiness to face other threats (of course, those other threats tend to conveniently remain dormant in these stories).

In reality, threat assessment is what we do to determine which potential adversaries we should be most concerned about. In action and science fiction movies, the convention is to simplify the threat landscape until there is an obvious enemy, and then focus on the desire to attack this enemy at the cost of all other concerns. Unfortunately, many science fiction fans and writers are all too eager to emulate this convention. Some might even employ this approach in reality.


Footnotes

1. Military Strategy: Principles, Practices, and Historical Perspectives, John M. Collins, Brasseys Inc, 2002.


Continue to Strategic Models

Jump to: