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Letter from Military History - April/May 2009

By Michael W. Robbins 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: February 27, 2009 
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No More Surprises

Reading recent history, it comes as a shock to realize that even in wars of living memory—World War II, Korea, Vietnam—just finding a major enemy force was far from a sure thing. Whole fleets could cruise undetected in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Whole armies could lurk just across the border and over the horizon, screened by no-fly weather conditions, radio silence and the dark of night. Large army units could intrude and infiltrate under cover of darkness. A surprise attack was an ever-present possibility. And surprise is a truly major advantage in a battle situation. If leaders on one side cannot see the enemy forces, or cannot determine their true strength or disposition, the advantage of surprise may outweigh all other factors—at least while the surprise lasts. Consider such nasty unexpected clashes as Red Cliffs, in ancient China, or Pearl Harbor, Barbarossa and Normandy, in World War II.

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Now, in an age when satellite imagery can readily catalog an enemy's inventory of armor, aircraft, railroad cars, ships, missiles; when satellite navigation systems can pinpoint locations with street-level accuracy; when television-equipped drone aircraft can bring a Hellfire missile to bear on a single speeding automobile; when the many varieties of ELINT (electronic signals intelligence) can snatch all varieties of enemy communications, from cell phone calls to e-mails, out of the ether in real time; when even Google Earth can deliver a comprehensive look at a waterfront, a forest or an intersection halfway around the globe—it's time to ask whether the age of surprise in warfare is over.

Perhaps not. Because surprise, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. All kinds of hardware and other military assets may be arrayed in plain sight, but as long as the beholder cannot discern an enemy's intentions, cannot penetrate the minds of its leaders and accurately answer the question, "What are they up to?" then surprise! remains a dangerous possibility.

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