The last thing Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler wants is to be caught by surprise.
He is the point man for the U.S. nuclear arsenal as well as space, cyber, ballistic missile and other capabilities. As commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Kehler’s job is to ensure U.S. deterrence remains so strong that it dissuades potential adversaries from challenging it.
In the days of the Cold War, the concept of deterrence was relatively straightforward, with both the United States and former Soviet Union recognizing that a nuclear attack by either side would result in “mutually assured destruction,” Kehler told the American Forces Press Service.
Today, deterrence is a whole different matter, he said, with a broader array of potential adversaries, all operating in different ways and guided by different motivations. The challenge is to ensure that as the United States confronts this whole new ball game, it doesn’t get dealt a devastating curve ball.
So Kehler regularly challenges his staff to think about the unthinkable to ensure they’re ready for whatever comes their way.
“The question for us is, ‘Are we ready to deal with uncertainty?’” he said. “Have we prepared ourselves in a way that acknowledges that surprise is going to happen – and that surprise can be deadly if we allow it to be so?”
Being open to “alternative futures,” he said, “helps us think about things we are not thinking about today, and therefore, prepare as a matter of course for things that may not unfold the way we think they will.”
Kehler is such a firm believer in out-of-the-box thinking that he’s made “prepare for uncertainty” one of his top five command priorities. He and his senior staff regularly gather around a conference table to ponder “what ifs” that may seem inconceivable to many.
“This isn’t about what happens if Martians land,” Kehler said. “This is about coming up with some plausible scenarios that make you step back and go, ‘Hmmm …’”
Doing so presents situations in a new light, and sometimes with new insights, the general said.
“I believe you can train yourself to recognize that you probably don’t have it right, and that there is going to be something else out there,” he said.
Kehler cited historical examples when an unrecognized “something else out there” had a devastating effect on the United States.
“I think it’s our responsibility to go back and ask ourselves, ‘What were we thinking on Dec. 6, 1941, and then on Dec. 8, 1941?” he said, referring to the dates surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor. “And what were we thinking on Sept. 10, 2001, and then on Sept. 12?”
Kehler said he largely agrees with those who blame the 9/11 attacks on “a failure of imagination.”
“If that is so, then we had better be imaginative now,” he said. “Because as complex and uncertain as the world is, we are not going to get all this right. It is not going to be all neatly presented to us in a planning problem. And that makes it more important than ever that we understand the things that are out there.”
Tabletop exercises and brainstorming sessions might not identify the exact next threat or predict who will launch it, and when, he acknowledged.
“But at least we will have given ourselves a bunch of challenges to think about that I believe help us prepare for the day when something has happened that you just didn’t foresee,” Kehler said. “That way, we’re not left flabbergasted and flat-footed here because something happened, because we weren’t so locked in on things that we didn’t recognize that it could happen.”