The seductive lure of a hidden strategy
Why concealment matters less in strategy than in tactics
Sometimes you make ideas. Sometimes they come to you.
Not long ago, Jon L. wrote in, “Does preventing your opponents from knowing your strategy yield tangible results?”
He continued, “I am assuming that an excellent strategy is one that the opponent cannot pre-empt. Is secrecy a necessity to making your strategy stronger in relation to the opponent’s?”
Let’s start with a basic premise. A strategy begins its life completely hidden from the world in that it’s contained in one person’s mind. (That isn’t to say that several people, even many, may not have the same ideas at the same time.)
To be successful, knowledge of a given strategy must then grow to include the efforts of others, likely many others, who aim to carry it out. There is an execution phase, when the rest of the world learns of this strategy’s existence because it will have changed the world in some meaningful way.
Strategy, then, is like a viral idea. Success means spread. It’s a new way of thinking about the world that catches on, and then adjusts the way other people see the world.
For strategy to succeed, it necessarily reveals itself.
The important question is when?
Or is it?
I actually think of this in two parts. There are tactics that form the essential building blocks for a larger straegy. Think of Eisenhower’s amphibious landings as a tactic, designed to serve his strategy to focus all combat power from the West to annihilate German opposition and seize Berlin. In that case, secrecy was crucial to ensuring the Allies landed successfully. In turn, those tactical landings enabled the Allies to move on to achieve their higher strategic aim.
At the same time, Adolf Hitler likely had no doubts about Allied strategy. He knew Ike had been named commander, and his major directives at the time suggest he knew the size of the attack to come from the West.
In this case, the tactic underpinning the strategy required secrecy for a time, but the strategy itself might as well have been put on a billboard in Berlin.
With that throat clearing, it’s time to take direct aim at Jon’s questions.
I think secrecy is overblown. A recent book on intelligence estimated that 80 percent of the information intelligence agencies deal with is freely available is in the public sphere. Secrets are on the way out.
Which is fine. The grand American approach for dealing with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, NSC 68, was likely known by Stalin a few milliseconds after the ink was dry. Still, the design worked.
Preventing your opponent from knowing your strategy yields tangible results if it enables tactical gains that support your strategic aims.
Secrecy, then, is of greatest value when it advances critical tactical objectives.