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Strategic assessment is often 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 analysing 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.


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.” The static use of counting numbers and units was at fault in the French military assessment of a potential German attack in 1939. 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.”  

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.

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 “centre 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.”


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:

  • Foreseeing potential conflicts
  • Comparing strengths and predicting outcomes in given contingencies
  • Monitoring current developments and being alerted to developing problems
  • Warning of imminent military danger.

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.”

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.

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