Caught Off Guard

By Vice Admiral William Lee, U.S. Coast Guard, Lieutenant Commander Leah Cole, U.S. Coast Guard, and Joe DiRenzo III

To frame this discussion properly, it is imperative to provide and reflect on key definitions. In their essay “Ahead of The Curve: Anticipating Strategic Surprise,” researchers Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall noted that a strategic surprise differ from a “run of the mill surprise” in that it produces significant organization and societal impacts, challenges conventional wisdom, and is hard to imagine. 1

Think about these three characteristics and reflect on the Haitian earthquake, which measured 7.0 magnitude on the Richter scale and killed more than 230,000 people. Were we ready? Did our operational and tactical commanders really understand the devastation possible in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation? Did we have the readiness level needed to respond to such a catastrophe?

In 2012, strategist and retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Walter Jajko, writing for the Institute of World Politics, added to Schwartz and Randall’s perspective on strategic surprise, noting that historically surprise is perspective-driven. Meaning we can develop biases, sensitivities, or even blind spots over time from culture, experience, time, weakness, and our needs. 2 An example of this would be the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Prior to this day, America falsely believed that the vastness of the Pacific Ocean served as an impregnable barrier to our shores.

Schwartz and Randall conclude that “the myth about strategic surprise is that the surprise is difficult to identify. Yet, if uncertainties in the world around us are recognized and explored, important phenomena can often be seen—and monitored—as they emerge.” 3 In other words, it is easier for people to imagine how they might deal with danger they recognize rather than one that comes out of left field. 4

Predicable failures correspond to and reflect conventional wisdom. Good leaders within the maritime realm who are knowledgeable of their areas of responsibility can reasonably predict possible challenges and outcomes that may occur during their tenure. These maritime leaders know the historical data, as well as the capabilities and limitations of all areas, agencies, and assets—both people and equipment—under their authority. These failures have varying degrees of organizational and/or societal impact, are supported by conventional wisdom, and are easy to imagine—perhaps they have even happened in the past.

The significant impact of acknowledging predictable failures is that it will drive decision makers to action that will prevent, mitigate, or blunt the consequences of a failure. Sub-optimal budgets adversely affect operational hours and the impact on training and readiness is still being evaluated. Addressing predictable failures goes beyond today’s issues. Annually, the Coast Guard, our maritime partners, federal, state, local, and tribal authorities, along with regulated industry bodies that we have relationships with, respond to real-time issues and conduct exercises. From those exercises we collect lessons learned and share best practices. With this information we should potentially have a foundation to address and disrupt a predictable failure. We still fail because we often overlook the obvious and ignore the difficult.

Stop and think about your area of responsibility and what predictable failures come to mind. What readiness measures do you currently employ to ensure that you are able to prevent or are capable of successfully responding to such an incident? What kinds of steps can you take to help detect and derail a predictable failure before it occurs? These are the questions leaders need to ask themselves, their staffs, and their partners.

Surprises, Failures, and the Maritime Transportation System

If there were an 8.0 magnitude earthquake in the middle of the United States tomorrow would it be a strategic surprise or a predictable failure? Consider the New Madrid Fault Line, which is a significant seismic zone not widely known or discussed in the United States, unlike the more famous west coast San Andreas fault line. Based on U.S. Geological Survey data, the zone extends into both the mid-west and southern regions stretching to the southwest from New Madrid, Missouri. Although this fault line was responsible for the 1811–12 New Madrid earthquakes and is the potential center of gravity for an even larger event, most people have never even heard of it. This earthquake and its two aftershocks had a significant impact on the Maritime Transportation System (MTS). The U.S. Geological Survey “Historic Earthquake” site noted,

Some of the most dramatic effects of the earthquakes occurred along rivers. Entire islands disappeared, banks caved into the rivers, and fissures opened and closed in the riverbeds. Water spouting from these fissures produced large waves in the river. New sections of river channel were formed and old channels cut off. Many boats were capsized and an unknown number of people were drowned. 5

Most Americans, though, have neither considered nor prepared for a major earthquake in the Midwest and its impact on the MTS. Nor is industry fully prepared for this event. However, one person’s surprise is another’s predictable failure. A December 2009 FEMA-funded research project at the Mid-America Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois concluded that the resulting damage of a major Central U.S. earthquake could result in several thousand fatalities and approximately $300 billion in direct economic loss. This was well over three times the amount predicted and would be the single greatest economic loss due to a natural disaster in the United States. 6 According to the U.S. Maritime Administration, “The inland waterways system includes about 12,000 miles of commercially navigable channels and some 240 lock sites. America’s ‘marine highways’ move commerce to and from 38 states, from Canada to the Gulf, from the Atlantic almost to the Rockies and in the Pacific Northwest, too.” 7 Every year, about 624 million tons of waterborne cargo transit the inland waterways, a volume equal to about 14 percent of all intercity freight. This commerce has an overall value of about $70 billion with a standard dry–cargo barge moving as much cargo as 70 trucks and 16 rail cars.

Another emerging threat to consider is the rise of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the United States. The country has seen a meteoric rise as an LNG producer and exporter. As LNG is produced in the Midwest it will need to be transported to shipping points, and one of the methods used will be multi-barge tug transits along the Western rivers. At the same time, an increasing number of companies are shifting from carbon-based fuel plants to LNG, which will further drive the need for this fuel. Herein lie two predictable failures that could conceivably wreak havoc within the MTS.

First, as companies slowly enter the field of LNG propulsion, the use of LNG as a fuel will reach a tipping point, which is occurring in Europe at a significant rate. This is creating an energy revolution that we need to plan for now. For example, the Coast Guard’s Eighth District, which encompasses America’s heartland, saw an increase in proposals for the construction of LNG-powered off-shore supply vessels (OSVs). Harvey Gulf currently has four duel-fuel diesel/LNG-powered OSVs under construction this year alone. The company is also currently constructing their own LNG refueling station.If this approach is financially successful, other owners of OSVs and tugs will quickly decide to switch to LNG propulsion because it is cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Are we ready? The occurrence of this potential conversion within the MTS is the key issue. Although there is no set line or metric for this to occur, once the line is crossed there will be trouble ahead.

Second, since there is no LNG barge-distribution scheme to service the refueling stations—the quantity in demand is too large for trucks—as the river traffic increases it will likely induce industry to conduct at sea (or at anchor) bunkering, similar to what is done with ships using oil. Are we ready for an LNG barge carrying this fuel to collide with a bridge or another vessel? Although the LNG industry has a superb safety record over more than 40 years, this unprecedented growth underscores the need to take a close and hard look at how commodities will move within the MTS over the next two decades. We must get ahead of the planning curve or else we risk being caught off guard. We must identify weak links, address the difficulties, and find mechanisms that will allow government regulators and responders to keep pace with industry. We must collectively plan for contingencies; analyze alternatives; assess outcomes; and model possible tactics, techniques, and procedures for each possible scenario. In short, our thinking must go beyond the obvious and be deliberate.

Preparation: The Best Defense

Leaders who do not possess the requisite skills and foresight to acknowledge and address both predictable failures and strategic surprises will inevitably fail when one or both occur. How can staffs at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels carve out the time and engagement needed to address strategic surprise?

It would be highly beneficial to develop some informal scenarios that illustrate possible predictable failures or significant surprises that may arise in your AOR. When developing these scenarios, seek perspectives beyond the norm and discuss them through a simple table top. Use the existing quick-response practices as a guide to see how you would react. In a similar exercise, identify your capability and capacity gaps based on scenarios that could occur in your AOR. Additionally, identify local experts, including those who might not be an obvious choice. For example, regarding the increase in LNG barge traffic, consider speaking with local academics who may have knowledge on LNG properties and response issues or the local power company that could be using this fuel source already. As simple as it sounds, establish these unique partnerships and relationships before the emergency occurs. Consider the Area Maritime Security Committee and its members as a starting point.

Additionally, to reduce the group-think mentality, consider “disruptive think” and inject some junior officers and mid/senior-grade enlisted into the discussion, asking them what they think might be a strategic surprise. Another option to break out of a certain mindset is to review published work on possible strategic surprises. While articles about strategic surprises in manufacturing may not seem to have an application in maritime-security operations, if you step back and look at the bigger picture the framework for analysis could be exceptionally useful. Finally, establish a command climate that fosters discussion about strategic surprises. Encourage your staffs to write about the issue and get published. From a tactical perspective, what may be a strategic surprise or predictable failure in one port may be something senior decision makers in another port have not yet thought of. An op-ed in a regional paper on strategic surprise may spark a very positive interagency/industry/NGO discussion that finds common ground and solutions.

The call to arms for leaders at all levels is the same: We must get ready. We cannot afford to be caught by surprise as industry evolves and expands its use of the Maritime Transportation System. Admiral Zukunft’s firsthand experience with the strategic surprise of 2010, Deepwater Horizon, helped shape his guiding principles, which he outlined in his Commandant’s Direction, 2014:

Excellence is our standard. The American public knows that when the Coast Guard is called into action, we will respond courageously and effectively. To do this, we must strive to achieve the highest standards of readiness and proficiency. This is our responsibility—not only to the public—but to each other. We don’t know when we will encounter the next unanticipated natural disaster or national crisis, or when a search and rescue case will suddenly turn life threatening, but we must remain true to our Service’s motto— Semper Paratus —and be Always Ready. 8

1. Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, “Ahead of the Curve: Anticipating Strategic Surprise,” in Francis Fukuyama, ed., Blindside: How To Anticipate Forcing Events and Wild Cards In Global Politics (Baltimore: Brookings Institute Press, 2007) 93–108.

2. Walter Jajko, “Strategic Surprise,” Institute of World Politics, Eagle Online, 19 September 2012, .

3. Schwartz and Randall, “Ahead of the Curve,” 95.

4. Maren Leed, Hilary Price, and Tara Murphy, “Surprise Is Inevitable; Vulnerability Is Not: Improving the Defense Department’s Readiness to Address Key Areas of Potential Surprise,” (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2010) 6–19, .

5. U.S. Geological Survey, “New Madrid 1811–1812 Earthquake,” September 2012, .

6. A. Elnashai, T. Jefferson, F. Fiedrich, L. Cleveland, and T. Gress, Impact of New Madrid Seismic Zone Earthquakes on the Central USA , (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2009), vi.

7. U.S. Maritime Administration, “Waterways: Working for America,” .

8. ADM Paul F. Zukunft, USCG, “Commandant’s Direction, 2014,” .

Vice Admiral Lee is Commander Coast Guard Atlantic Area.

Lieutenant Commander Cole is the Executive Assistant to the Atlantic Area Deputy Commander.

Dr. DiRenzo is the Atlantic Area’s Senior Adviser for Science, Technology, Innovation, and Research and a frequent Proceedings contributor.




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