Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Best Commanders in the German Wehrmacht: Part IV; The Kriegsmarine

When Adolf Hitler and the Nazis assumed power they initially had grand designs for the development of a large, ultra-modern, three-ocean navy that would bring Germany on a par with all the other naval powers in Europe, including the historically powerful British Empire. In the grand scheme of things, Hitler and the German Navy high command (OKM) envisaged the creation of a powerful surface fleet based around the inception of four large fleet aircraft carriers, 10 modern battleships and more than 200 battle-cruisers, light cruisers and destroyers; complimented by an underwater fleet of some 250 submarines or U-boats. This wholesale expansion of the German Navy was dubbed Plan Z in 1939, after Hitler had abrogated every last constraint levied against his nation by the Treaty of Versailles. But soon after Germany went to war Hitler was compelled to pare down his naval expectations considerably by devoting Germany’s limited war production capacity toward the building of a large and powerful conventional army and air force instead. Hitler’s pursuit of empire-building and world domination came with a decidedly continental slant, which left him prone to limiting his aggressive visions primarily toward objectives within the domain of purely ground-based intervention. His limited strategic grasp of naval power ultimately led him to abandon his pursuit of a large-scale, global navy for the alternative of a maritime military force built around the commerce-raiding tendencies of submarine warfare.

Germany’s naval performance during WWII was largely disappointing compared to the illustrious military feats of its army and to a lesser extent, the Luftwaffe. Much of this was because of the inadequate resources Germany’s war machine devoted to naval production, especially after Plan Z was effectively terminated in exchange for a commitment strictly toward the building of submarines. The Kriegsmarine’s primarily tactical, surface fleet, with its small but powerful assortment of heavy cruisers and pocket-battleships, was never powerful enough to take on the naval might of the British Empire on an even keel, thus it was forced to resort to a ‘fleet-in-being’ posture, restricting its major warships to their own ports, apart from an occasional commerce-raiding sortie to intercept Allied convoys in the Atlantic or Arctic Oceans. Germany’s naval high command considered their surface warships too vulnerable to the combined might of British and American naval forces; so were indisposed to seeking out the pivotal confrontation on the open seas that typified naval engagements in the Pacific Theater. And because the Soviet Union’s diminutive naval surface fleet was effectively blockaded in the North Baltic for most of the war, Germany’s only maritime threats emanated from the west, which gave prominence to the one-directional, ‘fleet-in-being’ defensive stature the Kriegsmarine rendered their surface fleet for the duration of the war.

At the opening to hostilities in WWII Germany’s surface fleet made a considerable impact in the taking of Poland’s Westerplatte Fortress in Danzig Harbor but its powerful battleships, pocket-battleships and heavy cruisers were left back home to defend the North Sea approaches to its principal navy bases in Kiel and Bremerhaven. It wasn’t until the German invasion of Denmark and Norway in April of 1940 that the Kriegsmarine was given its first and only chance to decide the outcome of a major Wehrmacht operation. Operation Weserubung, the plan for the German invasion of Denmark and Norway was a military endeavor fashioned exclusively by the navy high command (OKM) and their conceptual overlords in the Wehrmacht high command, (OKW). Most of Germany’s naval surface fleet was to play a pivotal role in the transport and landing of ground force contingents as well as preparatory bombardment of ports and harbor facilities; intercession against Allied naval penetration of the landing areas and the neutralizing of Norwegian and Danish naval assets. Germany’s navy did an admirable job in fulfilling its main objective to transport more than 100,000 German troops into six separate landing zones on the Norwegian peninsula but it later suffered significant losses to its destroyer fleet as well as the loss of a heavy cruiser and two light cruisers. These considerable losses compelled Hitler to forego using the navy’s dwindling surface fleet in anymore military operations of an amphibious nature.

Because of the surface fleet’s diminished capacity for large-scale naval operations the navy’s commander-in-chief, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder revised the Kriegsmarine’s wartime strategy to elicit an indiscriminate naval blockade of the British Isles in order to starve his mortal enemy into submission. For this military endeavor Raeder conscripted Adm. Karl Doenitz’s U-boat fleet to undertake a comprehensive submarine blockade of British ports and the maritime interception of British and Allied merchant shipping to and from the isles. But just like in WWI when German U-boat operations alternately yielded the hostility of the USA for interfering with their commerce shipping, so too did Doenitz’s U-boat wolfpacks raise the ire of the American government for intermittent damage caused to its merchant fleet. After the USA entered the war in 1941 Doenitz initiated a virtual free-for-all on all Allied shipping plying the waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea. For the first few years of the war Doenitz’s wolfpacks wreaked extensive havoc on Allied merchant shipping which nearly brought Britain to her knees but by the middle of 1943, with newer convoy escort tactics thriving and improved radar and sonar technology giving the defenders a unique advantage, the roles were swiftly reversed and Germany’s U-boat menace gradually subsided. Once the Allied air forces decisively reduced their Luftwaffe opponents, Germany’s vulnerable surface fleet began to diminish one ship at a time as their home ports increasingly fell victim to the Allied strategic bombing campaign.

By the end of the war the German Kriegsmarine’s dwindling rolls were increasingly absorbed into the beleaguered army to refill depleted infantry divisions or to constitute new fighting formations. Many of the makeshift navy formations were amalgamated in with their equally inept Luftwaffe brothers for which a whole slew of inexperienced, infantry combat formations were sacrificed to forestall the inevitable collapse of Nazi Germany. Probably the one lasting impression posterity would have for the WWII Kriegsmarine was that Adolf Hitler thought enough of its last wartime commander-in-chief, Adm. Doenitz to designate him as his political successor and final president of the thousand-year Third Reich. In the end, Germany’s Kriegsmarine had made its most impressive contributions to modern warfare in the field of submarine technology. Its development of the schnorkel, underwater air filtration system more than doubled the amount of time submarines could operate submerged and in its introduction of the Type XXI and XXIII electro boat models, the submarine was finally adapted to operate submerged for an indefinite period; bringing forth a whole new meaning for the term submersible vessel. But probably its greatest legacy lay in the German Navy’s use of the enigma, signals encryption device for which the Allied war effort would gain immeasurable intelligence breakthroughs that enabled them to stay one step ahead of the German war machine for nearly the duration of World War Two. The following is our list of the ten greatest officer-sailors in the German Navy throughout WWII.  

Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz: Germany’s U-boat guru might not have been the navy’s most distinguished seaman but he was certainly its most renowned and eminently feared high admiral during the Second World War. During the interwar years Doenitz was Germany’s foremost advocate of unlimited submarine warfare against the British Empire, for which he believed was the only plausible way to inhibit British war production if they should revert to war against Nazi Germany. Once Germany initiated the war in Europe in 1939 Doenitz was given his chance to implement these naval strategies after being promoted to lead the Kriegsmarine’s submarine arm. For the next three years Doenitz’s U-boats proved quite a profitable investment to the German war effort by securing a virtual siege perimeter around the British Isles which nearly starved the British into submission. The U-boats immediately brought huge dividends by sinking the British aircraft carrier HMS Courageous in the North Sea and brazenly torpedoing the battleship HMS Royal Oak at anchorage in its base at Scapa Flow. Doenitz devised and oversaw the development of the originally successful ‘wolfpack’ sub tactics as a way to defeat the Allied convoy system and then boldly sent his submersibles to wreak havoc along America’s eastern seaboard after the USA entered the war. Doenitz’s ‘wolfpack’ system proved to be the only fruitful undertaking Germany’s undersized navy introduced throughout the war. In 1943 Doenitz acceded to the highest position in the German Navy after succeeding Grand Admiral Erich Raeder as commander-in-chief, but spent the rest of the war in frustration after the Allies finally cracked the key to the U-boat’s success and formulated their own war-winning strategy to neutralize Germany’s submarine menace. Doenitz’s loyalty to Adolf Hitler was duly reciprocated at the end of the war when the fuehrer appointed him as his political successor and commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht in his final will and testament. Ultimately it was Doenitz who eventually ended the war when he ordered his military underlings to accept the Allied conditions for surrender on May 7, 1945. Doenitz’s ill-fated post-Nazi German government in Flensburg lasted only sixteen days before the Allies shut it down and took all its members into custody. As one of the high commanders in the Wehrmacht, Doenitz was tried as a war criminal at the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal and convicted of waging aggressive war and other war crimes charges. Most of these came as a result of his order to U-boat commanders to forego the rescuing at sea of enemy sailors that survived the sinking of their vessel. He spent ten years in confinement at the Allied war crimes prison in Spandau before being released in October of 1956.

Adm. Gunther Lutjens: As one of the Kriegsmarine’s most capable, capital surface fleet skippers, Gunther Lujens was involved in many of the German Navy’s most notable engagements on the high seas. His glaring reputation as a naval tactician made him the obvious choice to command Germany’s high-seas fleet for the invasion of Normandy in 1940. Taking command from his flagship aboard the battle-cruiser Gneisenau, Lutjens oversaw the transport and amphibious landings of more than 60,000 German troops at six separate landing areas along the Norwegian coast and then directed naval fire support operations in the various fjords that channeled the landing zones. Although the operation was ultimately successful, Germany’s capital warships took heavy losses in the various skirmishes they fought against the British Navy and the Norwegian coastal artillery batteries. Lutjens later went on to author the navy’s operational plans for the later cancelled Operation Sea Lion; the amphibious invasion of the British Isles. Later in the winter of 1941, Lutjens took to sea with the Gneisenau and the battleship Scharnhorst during Operation Berlin; a deep sea commerce-raiding voyage that destroyed 22 allied merchant ships in the mid-Atlantic, along with more than 100,000 tons of British war material. He attempted a similar voyage several months later aboard the battleship Bismarck and her escort cruiser Prinz Eugen during Operation Rheinubung. Lutjens oversaw the breakout from the Baltic of both warships but immediately ran into the British battleships HMS Hood and the HMS Prince of Wales. In the ensuing battle off the coast of Iceland, Bismarck hit the Hood with a broadside salvo with her 16-inch guns that tore into the ship’s gun magazine and set off a cataclysmic explosion that sank her in minutes. Bismarck also damaged the Prince of Wales extensively and forced the British to break off the action. However Bismarck was to suffer debilitating damage to her rudder that left her oozing a trail of oil in her wake, wherein the mighty battleship was quickly tracked down and blasted by shore-based British Mosquito bombers. Lutjens and more than 2,000 of his crew went down with the Bismarck on May 27, 1941. 

Admiral Oskar Kummetz: Was one of the Kriegsmarine’s premier capital warship commanders and its last commanding admiral of the Baltic Fleet. His first notable performance during the war came at the bridge of the heavy cruiser Blucher when he gallantly led a naval task force of cruisers and destroyers into Oslo fjord during the invasion of Norway in an attempt to seize the Norwegian capital and capture its ruling monarch, King Haakon VII. During the close order action inside the fjord the bridge of Blucher was destroyed by artillery fire from shore-based naval guns from the Norwegian fortress at Oscarsbourg. Kummetz barely escaped death when the Blucher subsequently capsized and sank inside the fjord but he later went on to neutralize the enemy fire and direct naval support of the German troops inside the city. Two years later Kummetz directed one of the two surface task forces designated to intercept and destroy the Allied PQ-17 convoy as it entered the Barents Sea on its way to the North Russian port of Murmansk. But Kummetz’ most distinguished performance during the war came at the head of Operation Hannibal, the naval evacuation of more than a million German civilians and soldiers from the besieged province of East Prussia during the waning months of the war. In a 15-week span between January and April of 1945, Kummetz directed more than 1,000 German naval vessels, merchant ships, trawlers, passenger liners, barges, tugs and private pleasure craft in an immense rescue operation to liberate millions of his threatened kinsfolk from the vengeful Red Army as they ran roughshod over the first German province to fall behind enemy lines. Kummetz’ humanitarian operation was roughly four times larger than the Allied evacuation that rescued 330,000 British and French troops from the beaches at Dunkirk in 1940. Although Hannibal would witness the tragic loss of more than 7,000 civilians from the Soviet sinking of the passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff and a further 10,000 casualties from the dual sinking of the passenger ships Goya and the merchantman Admiral von Steuben, Kummetz’ rescue flotilla did manage to bring out more than 1.2 million civilians and Wehrmacht personnel before the operation came to an end with the Soviet seizure of the East German province. Kummetz’ humanitarian rescue mission was and still is the largest military evacuation at sea in world history and perhaps the German Navy’s greatest operational performance in all of WWII.

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris: This enigmatic but distinguished German admiral made his mark in WWII not in the field of naval operations but in the clandestine realm of military intelligence. Canaris was the Wehrmacht’s top spymaster during much of the Second World War and played an integral part in Adolf Hitler’s initial foreign policy triumphs before the opening of hostilities. But in the process of machinating the numerous intelligence bonanzas that enabled Hitler to embark on his quest for world conquest, Canaris became disillusioned with the path the Nazi regime was taking the German people. His disenchantment with the Nazis’ gradually turned to covert opposition wherein he began to secretly conspire with Germany’s numerous anti-Nazi resistance groups to put an end to Hitler’s disastrous adventures. As head of the Abwehr, the Wehrmacht’s semi-independent intelligence branch, Canaris was properly positioned to direct a small cadre of subordinate co-conspirators to elicit collaboration with Germany’s numerous foreign enemies to bring a semblance of legitimacy to the Nazi resistance circles. Canaris was instrumental in uniting the various resistance groups toward one prompt endeavor and supervised a coordinated campaign to deceive and divert the attention of the Nazi secret police services away from the main conspirators. For four years Canaris and his secret operatives played a cat and mouse game with the Gestapo to conceal the activities of the Wehrmacht officers involved in the anti-Nazi resistance while continuously feeding a steady stream of disinformation and semi-legitimate, intelligence data to Hitler’s trusted confidantes in the military high command and the Nazi’s own parallel spy service in Reinhard Heydrich’s SD. Ultimately Canaris and his cohort’s involvement in the anti-Nazi resistance was exposed after the failed assassination of Hitler on July 20, 1944; a conviction that would lead to his execution at the hands of the Gestapo barely ten months later. 

Captain Otto Kretschmer: “Silent Otto” was the celebrated moniker given to this stealthy and brilliantly capable U-boat commander and even though his combat career was cut short in 1941, four years before the end of WWII, his legendary exploits and submarine tactics were simulated and duplicated by every standing member of the U-boat’s command fraternity for the duration of the war. Kretschmer was after all, the most successful U-boat commander of the Second World War and one of the legends of submarine warfare since its inception early in the Twentieth Century. His career yield of 47 enemy ships sunk and more than 275,000 tons of destroyed allied shipping in just the first eighteen months of WWII was a mark that was never matched by any other U-boat commander nor any enemy submarine commander either. This mark is all the more impressive considering that it was accomplished in the days before the German Navy paired up its teams of U-boats in order to perfect the wolfpack tactics that soon became the calling card of German submarine assault operations. All his successful U-boat assaults were performed in solo attacks on enemy ships plying the waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Yet Kretschmer was never one to taunt his beleaguered quarries that were suddenly cast into the frigid waters of the northern seas. He regularly aided his unfortunate victims by providing life-saving provisions to the lifeboats of stranded sailors and more than once he was noted for bringing some on board his vessel to deliver more acute medical care. Kretschmer’s U-99 was finally forced to surface from a British depth-charge salvo on March 17, 1941, for which he promptly scuttled his ship and went off into captivity alongside his crew for the next seven years. But Germany’s foremost U-boat commander was abruptly called back to service to help build the post-Nazi, German Navy and he later went on to serve as chief-of-staff to NATO’s naval command in the early 1960’s. 

Lt. Commander Gunther Prien: Another elite commander of Germany’s U-boat fraternity, Prien is listed as his navy’s ninth most successful submarine commander of the Second World War. His Type VIIB, U-47 is credited with sinking 30 allied merchant ships and over 200,000 tons of enemy shipping in just the ten missions it sailed in over the first eighteen months of the war. However Prien’s most celebrated accomplishment was his audacious sinking of the British battleship HMS Royal Oak while it sat at anchorage in the Home Fleet port at Scapa Flow on October 14, 1939. Prien’s ‘do-or-die mission’ with an all-volunteer crew was one of the most daring naval operations in all of WWII. His U-47 was forced to navigate through an extensive, naval defense screen, formidable shore batteries and perilous shallow waters to deliver a seven-torpedo salvo on the exposed British battleship. Although five of the torpedoes failed to detonate, the two that managed to explode were enough to sink the mighty warship in 100-feet of water. When Prien returned home after the mission he was immediately elevated to national hero status wherein his celebrated prestige is often likened to American aviation hero Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, as his nation’s first soldier to bring defeat on the enemy. Prien and the crew of U-47 were killed in action after being torpedoed by the British destroyer HMS Wolverine as it shadowed convoy OB-293 off the coast of Ireland. News of the celebrated U-boat commander’s death was deliberately postponed for more than two months by the German media to delay the inevitable shock to national morale that Prien’s death was sure to provoke. 

Captain Wolfgang Luth: Was the second most successful U-boat commander and probably the most prolific merchant vessel hunter out of all the submarine aces in the Second World War. His 46 merchant ship kills and more than 230,000 tons of allied shipping was second only to Otto Kretschmer as his nation’s foremost submarine commanders. Luth traveled far and wide in his five-years at the helm of four different U-boats and is credited with sinking merchant shipping from more than a dozen enemy countries. Many of these merchant kills occurred in seas more than 10,000 miles from his home port in Lorient, France; often in the far Southern Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. He is one of only two navy sailors to be awarded Germany’s highest military medal for battlefield bravery, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. In September of 1944 and after more than 600 days in submarine service on the open seas, Luth was promoted to command the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat command school where he became intricately involved in adapting the tactical skills of Germany’s remaining U-boat commanders to the newest developments in submarine warfare ingrained from the Type XXI and Type XXIII electric boats. Five days after the end of WWII Luth was mistakenly shot and killed by a German sentry as he attempted to gain entrance to the new government’s naval command facilities in Flensburg. He was the last German soldier to be given a distinctly Nazi, state funeral and was widely honored by Admiral Karl Doenitz’s short-lived Flensburg government.  

Admiral Theodor Burchardi: Was one of the senior admirals in the Kriegsmarine and surface fleet commander in the Eastern Baltic for most of WWII. He acceded to head Fleet Command-Ostland after the launching of Operation Barbarossa and then oversaw a collective effort by German and Finnish surface warships in effectively blockading the huge Soviet naval base at Krondstadt for the next three years. Burchardi supervised naval operations along the Baltic coast, including the destruction of the Soviet’s Red Banner Fleet in Tallinn Harbor in the fall of 1941; the offshore shelling of Tallinn and the subsequent evacuation of German and Axis forces from that port when the Soviets cut them off in the autumn of 1944. Burchardi’s warships then supported the ground operations of Army Group North during their debilitating retreat from the coasts of Estonia and Latvia in the latter half of 1944; including the evacuation of civilians and military personnel from Memel and Riga. He later teamed up with Admiral Oskar Kummetz in coordinating the extensive evacuation-by-sea of millions of soldiers and civilians from East Prussia during Operation Hannibal. Burchardi’s organizational talents were instrumental in transferring hundreds of thousands of German troops to different parts of the front after the Soviet offensives of 1944-45’ effectively cut them off by land from their lines of communications and retreat. He is widely considered to be one of the Kriegsmarine’s most effective, surface fleet commanders during the Second World War and its most capable tactician in the operations of capital warships in shore defense and coastal support of operations on land. 

Captain Albrecht Brandi: This bold and courageous U-boat commander led all German submarine aces in the sinking of enemy warships throughout WWII. Brandi is credited with destroying 12 enemy warships, including a British and an American destroyer and the British minelayer HMS Welshman, in the crowded and often perilous Mediterranean Sea. In 1943 Brandi navigated through the formidable British defense picket across the Strait of Gibraltar and then remained on station in the Mediterranean for the next ten months during the most brutal period of fighting in the heavily contested theater. Brandi’s U-617 set up shop in the waters off of Malta and proceeded to wreak havoc on the allied supply lines to and from the strategic island and their bases in North Africa. U-617 destroyed more than 60,000 tons of allied shipping in the Mediterranean during the ten months it was on active patrol but made more of an impact interrupting the allied navies in their own anti-shipping operations against the Axis supply-lines to Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The U-617 was eventually forced to surface and abandoned off the coast of Spanish Morocco and the crew was subsequently detained by Spanish authorities. Brandi nevertheless found his way back to Germany and went back to sea at the helm of U-967 when he once again defied the British Navy by sneaking into the Mediterranean and sinking the American destroyer, USS Fechteler in May of 44’. After he returned from this operation Brandi was promoted to command all German U-boats in the Eastern Baltic, where he once again proved an energetic and palpably aggressive high commander in destroying mostly Soviet shipping during the waning months of the war. Brandi partnered with Capt. Wolfgang Luth as the only two sailors in the German Navy to be awarded the coveted Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. 

General Admiral Wilhelm Marschall: This celebrated U-boat commander of the First World War would spend the interwar years refining his tactical skills in the command of capital warships and at the outbreak of WWII he led the first German naval task force in the sinking of an enemy warship off the Faroe Islands. Marschall went to sea aboard his flagship battleship Gneisenau and immediately sank ten enemy merchant ships during commerce raids in the North Atlantic in 1939. In 1940 during the German invasion of Norway Marschall once again led a surface fleet task force based around the pocket battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, with the express orders to draw away British capital warships from the German landing zones but not to engage them on the open seas. But when the aggressive Marschall saw a chance to hit a British aircraft carrier during the waning days of the Norwegian Campaign he opted to disregard his standing orders and confront the enemy while he had the advantage. In a three hour battle which pitted his battleship task force against the British carrier HMS Glorious and her destroyer escort force, Marschall scored a resounding victory by sinking the enemy carrier and two of her destroyer escorts. However Scharnhorst suffered serious damage by an enemy torpedo and had to be towed back to port at Trondheim, Norway. For his disobedience in ignoring a standing order, Marschall was relieved of his command and assigned to shore commands for the next three years. In 1942 he was rendered fit for promotion and given command of Germany’s Western Fleet based out of France, but his inability to get along with Admiral Doenitz once again forced him from a command position. He later oversaw Germany’s small flotilla of barge craft and patrol boats on the Danube River. Marschall was an extremely capable naval tactician who was simply a victim of the Nazi’s overly conservative handling of their navy’s surface fleet. 

Honorable Mention:

Grand Admiral Erich Raeder: Germany’s original navy commander-in-chief was one of the chief proponents of the Nazi’s Plan Z naval expansion. When those plans were eventually disregarded in exchange for a far less expensive buildup of submarine craft, Raeder became increasingly disillusioned with Hitler and the Wehrmacht high command. He finally resigned from his position after arguing with Hitler over naval strategy in the Atlantic. Raeder was a steadfast advocate of the sinking of American merchant vessels destined for the British Isles before the USA entered the war in December of 1941. He was tried and convicted of waging aggressive war at the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released early because of health reasons after serving ten years in Spandau Prison.

Captain-Lieutenant Otto Pollmann: This clever destroyer skipper was the navy’s foremost submarine hunter in WWII; credited with the destruction of 14 enemy submarines. He later went on to serve as the post-Nazi German Navy’s premier expert in anti-submarine warfare. He died on active duty serving as a NATO coast patrol liaison with the Dutch Navy.                         


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Military Intelligence: Identifying Strategic Threats and Enigmas

One of the fundamental purposes of providing strategic threat assessments at the national and international level is to stimulate contingency planning in the diplomatic, economic and military fields to prepare for all eventualities that may pose a serious threat to a country’s national interests. These timely recitals from the nation’s intelligence apparatus are the single most important considerations that the executive branch of government must utilize to formulate coherent and effective policy on the global stage; where the vast stew of foreign interests are allowed to comingle and often compete with one another. The value of the strategic threat assessment cannot be diminished as a tool of sound operational policy and although their significance is often opened to wider interpretations and perceptions by each successive head of state, its relevance as a guide to unify inter-governmental coordination and response make it an essential instrument to the continuity of government during times of national emergency. 

Anticipation and preparation are the cornerstones of a nation’s national defense capabilities because it is not so much the suddenness of a cataclysmic event that can evoke panic, chaos and disorder but more the government’s response time to garner the resources needed to mitigate the disaster that most determines the level of suffering experienced by the victims. America saw the failure of government to exhibit a sound national civil-defense policy firsthand in 2004 through its failure to coordinate a rapid response to the tragedy that befell the citizens of New Orleans, following the catastrophic flooding brought about by Hurricane Katrina. This was a prime example of the failure of the executive branch to activate defensive contingency plans even though the threat assessment had already been widely illustrated and conveyed to the offices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. What made the government’s response to this particular disaster event more shocking was the fact that it came so closely on the heels of the tragic 9-11 terrorist bombings, revealing a potentially fatal flaw in the government’s contingency planning for domestic disaster events of a non-manmade nature.

But it is one thing to make a strategic threat assessment in anticipation of a naturally occurring disaster such as a hurricane, flood or earthquake because these events can never be adequately defended. Their threat assessment merely requires a sustained level of civil defense coordination and contingency planning to utilize transportation and communications networks to channel disaster-relief resources to the affected areas. It is only through a timely and well-sustained response after the event has happened which will best mitigate the extent of the overall suffering of the victims. But man-made threats require a far more vigilant introspection and a closer level of inter-governmental coordination to parley investigative resources. Deterrence is the crucial denominator that accentuates the importance of the strategic threat assessment in analyzing the potential of economic and military dangers. It is also the main reason why strategic threat assessments on economic or military foes must be made far in advance as possible of the presumed threat in order to formulate an effective deterrent strategy. 

During the Cold War America’s vast intelligence apparatus was primarily committed to countering the Soviet Union by fomenting political and military opposition against communist-run countries in the Third World and keeping democratically-run governments militarily capable of quashing communist agitation from within. In those days the ideological divide between east and west was much more pronounced and this black and white chasm made it much easier to differentiate friend from foe. Even in the highly contentious, sectarian strife of the Arab Mideast, the political divide between Washington and Moscow took center stage and served to stifle the region’s acute religious animosities by the fa├žade of political Pan-Arabism. All this made it much simpler for the two side’s intelligence agencies to formulate long-range strategic planning since the international chessboard ran distinctly parallel to the game of dominoes Moscow and Washington had arrayed against each other. The common denominator that defined each other’s grand strategy and prevented them both from overlapping too far into the other’s domain was the persuasiveness of nuclear deterrence. 

It now seems rather ironic that the world in which we live in today is seemingly far more dangerous than the world that for nearly fifty years threatened us all with nuclear annihilation at the whim of a lone air force pilot. What is perhaps more telling is the fact that with every noticeable stride that modern technology makes to enrich and simplify our lives, the danger increases that someone or something might utilize that same technology to bring harm and misfortune in a catastrophic way to those least likely to benefit from these advances. In coping with the advancement of modern communications networks, social media and the harvesting of information technology, today’s intelligence community is now imminently threatened by the same scientific forces that it helped create and monopolize for decades. One of the greatest examples of this phenomenon is the copious amounts of disinformation that is regularly disseminated in the modern media and is now frequently used to incite political and sectarian rivalries at home and abroad. As the availability and usefulness of information proliferated throughout the masses, it perhaps became inevitable that that same data could be used quite maliciously by more nefarious characters with ulterior and not-always-innocent motives.

Today’s intelligence and counter-intelligence technicians are constantly adapting, refining and contriving new methods and countermeasures to thwart the enemy’s ability to communicate with each other over a wide spectrum of avenues and frequencies and to preempt their operational tendencies. It is a never-ending battle of detection, evasion and improvisation. Conversely, the enemy comes replete with their own set of invasive, high-tech tricks and gadgets to infiltrate the most modern and secure computer networks; giving today’s intelligence technician a dizzying array of threats and dangers they must continuously defend against. And these threats are no longer emanating solely from today’s high-tech inventories of the more organized and bellicose, state intelligence services such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran; more and more of today’s electronic threats stem from novice, computer-hackers under the employ of radical Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. These groups are now constantly interfering with critical electronic transmissions in the commerce and financial industries, as well as their infiltration of vital civil infrastructure such as electrical grids, air-traffic and control and public transportation traffic.

The evolution of communications technology in just the Twenty-first Century alone continues to expand at a mind-boggling and often alarming rate. If you can imagine that your state-of-the-art, high-tech cell-phone that you bought in January of 2014 is now impractically obsolete, than you’d be hard-pressed to realize just how far other, more sophisticated computing devices and their accompanying security systems have already fallen by the wayside. These developments compel today’s intelligence community to work infinitely harder to detect and track the most viable electronic threats in an ever-shrinking timeframe, lest their most applicable technological breakthroughs be discovered and exploited before the source of the threat is identified. This also makes it extremely difficult to furnish a timeframe estimate of the strategic threat assessment; with the unintended consequence that the threat might be ignored or mitigated through political negligence or bureaucratic inertia. These are very real possibilities, especially in an age where governments focus disproportionately on the “here and now” rather than further on down the road. 

These are just a snapshot of the harrowing challenges that the intelligence community is continuously subject to in devising a coherent strategic threat assessment and equating that threat to its proper level of risk appraisal. Today’s color-coded, risk assessment index to correlate terrorist threats is a handy tool to use in boosting the level of vigilance for the nation’s emergency first-responders but it has no relevance to the formulation of sound national policy or political grand strategy in setting that policy to achieve long-term goals. Thus the terrorist threat index is not to be confused with a strategic threat assessment; the latter deals exclusively with future risks as they correlate to national grand strategy while the former is a rather abstract, early-warning system to stimulate national vigilance at the local level. The one common denominator in both intelligence agendas is the overarching reach of international terrorism and asymmetric warfare on the part of non-state entities. As they both stand today, these are the most cogent, long-term threats to the democratic free world and the most viable threats which will inevitably require a sustained military effort somewhere down the line. For example, the strategic threat assessment against ISIS clearly portends a progressively worsening threat to the west the longer the group remains in conventional existence.
ISIS on the march

However, this doesn’t negate the threat the radical Islamic jihadist group will most assuredly become if it reverts back to its former incarnation as a small-band group of militant suicide-bombers, should its expanding base be decisively beaten on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. But it clearly is a more persuasive and regional threat to the whole Mideast the longer its conventional elements remain dug in around Eastern Syria and Anbar Province. Its entrenched presence in Iraq and Syria is clearly more than just a military threat, giving that its toehold on some of the richest oil deposits in the Persian Gulf is bound to have a serious, destabilizing effect on the global economy. Clearly this makes ISIS more than just a threat to its Arab neighbors yet its menacing presence doesn’t seem to have registered more than a distant blip on the radar screens of most other nations of the western world, especially those in Europe. This is not because these nations don’t run their own strategic threat assessments from time to time rather it seems to have a lot to do with these nation’s reluctance to venture militarily outside of their own continent. Europe’s intransigence to military adventurism seems to be an acute byproduct of its decades-long, Cold War posture as a defensive bulwark against conventional Soviet ground attack.

But deterrence need not always assume a defensive posture and because outside threats are not always plainly discernible it is oftentimes wise to expand the nation-state’s security perimeter to encompass forward asymmetric outposts far from the nation’s borders where proactive, unconventional forces can be tactically positioned to preempt the threatening source through intervention or interference. This holds especially true when the threatening source has taken the form of the non-state entity, whether it be an individual terrorist cell, a regional guerrilla army such as ISIS or the command and control center of a major terrorist organization. Every nation’s military high command has their own innate, strategic master plan for dealing with outside threats that could endanger the welfare of their citizens or the country’s sovereignty, yet for the most part, only the USA, Russia and Israel enforce a defensive perimeter that extends far beyond their sovereign frontiers. It is no coincidence that these three nation’s biggest external threats hail from non-state entities without natural borders. Thus they must travel far and wide to elicit a sound judgment as to what kind of threat presents a more imminent danger.

The Arab and Islamic worlds have still not grasped this strategic concept, especially its more hallowed religious institutions and spiritual leadership. The more radical imams might be spiritedly inclined to send forth an army of youthful jihadists to rid their sacred lands of infidels and other malicious interlopers yet they don’t seem to fully comprehend that it is exactly this kind of hostile response that is working counter to their overall objective. It is precisely the radicalism and violence of their message that sustains America’s paramilitary presence in their homelands because this is the clearest option the USA has in preventing another 9-11 terrorist attack from ever coming to fruition again. Soon Europe will also awaken to the threat of radical Islam and they too will move to fashion a buffer between themselves and the imminent threat from violent jihad. And as the jihadists become more brazen and violent, so too will America and the west be forced to elevate their presence in the Islamic holy land until the threat of its unwelcome export abroad dissipates. But it’s hard to foresee any radical change of posture from the jihadists since they’re currently riding the bubble of ISIS’s recent military victories and for all intents and purposes, will have to be forcefully dragged from their current positions in Syria and Iraq. 

Which brings us back to those hard-pressed intelligence techs in the gloomy catacombs underneath CIA Headquarters in Langley. Once the wonder-wizards of the intelligence community, these covert technocrats now find themselves on the frontline of America’s War on Terrorism because terrorists have gradually come to the conclusion that the key to the whole Western World’s hold on political power lies increasingly on its technological prowess. That technology is at the heart of America and Europe’s ability to detect threats and protect its people from them. Governments and civil defense infrastructure increasingly rely on high technology to safeguard the well-being of their societies. Hence it makes sense that the group with the most unbounded hatred for America and the west will attempt to strike out at it vast domestic infrastructure from the one area its internal defenses are most vulnerable; its electronic communications. And as ISIS acquires more and more oil wealth from their occupied territories and begins to accumulate their own high-tech gadgets and ultra-modern tools of war, they will no doubt, be lured to attempt to infiltrate America’s electronic firewalls from the safety of their own desktop terror centers in the Islamic heartland. 
European leaders at EC conference in Brussells

This potentially ominous development brings a heap of credibility to the assertion that America and Europe harbor the same mutual enemies. Consequently, they must be guided by the same strategic threat assessments wherein cooperation and mutual trust are essential to combat these threats wherever and whenever they emerge. Only when the west consents to combining their resources for the sake of strategic necessity can they begin to wholeheartedly confront their most menacing nemeses from a position of sound and unadulterated strength. Both America and Europe must resolve to attain an awareness that they share a common bond that transcends all foreign obstacles that would attempt to divide them and permeate their shared strategic goals. However, Europe’s relationship with their American allies has been palpably strained since the fall of the Iron Curtain and not all of Europe’s leaders are comfortable with ceding the political lead to a government that has increasingly focused its attention on Asia as its new strategic center of gravity. 

Obviously there are sizeable differences in the way America and her European allies interpret their strategic threat assessments. Currently Europe, for good cause, seems fixated on Russia’s newly invigorated, aggressive tendencies thus they can’t help but look beyond the imminent threat of ISIS materializing in the Levant. As a result, America’s strategic threat assessment of ISIS can only be viewed as exaggerated by European standards. But just because Europe and the current administration in the White House are not overly alarmed by the distinct warning signs’ being signaled from Langley and the Joint Chiefs of Staff doesn’t mean they’re not there. Sooner or later both Europe and Washington will be forced to come to the conclusion that airpower alone cannot rid the Levant of this violent scourge and just as things were during the Cold War, they will be compelled to pool their resources behind one collective military doctrine and resolve to destroy ISIS on the field of battle, once and for all. This is the one strategic threat assessment with overarching repercussions for both the USA and Europe. It must be attended to before the threat becomes a terrible, hard-to-believe tragedy.