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Thomas G. Mahnken. Uncovering Ways of War: U.S. Intelligence and Foreign Military Innovation, 1918-1941. Cornell Studies in Security Affairs Series. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002. x + 190 pp. Tables, figures, index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8014-3986-8.

Reviewed by James J. F. Forest, Assistant Dean for Academic Assessment and Assistant Professor of Political Science, United States Military Academy, West Point.
Published by H-Diplo (July, 2003)

A Balanced View of Military Intelligence during the Interwar Years

The years between World War I and World War II witnessed a considerable shift in the balance of power in Europe and Asia as well as the emergence of new ways of war, including carrier aviation, amphibious operations, and combined-arms armored warfare. A new book by Thomas G. Mahnken, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, focuses on these innovations and American perceptions of them, framed by a comprehensive analysis of the successes and uses of military intelligence during this time period. In his book, Mahnken examines why intelligence organizations often fail to detect the development of innovative technology and doctrine by allies and adversaries, and suggests implications of his analysis for how these organizations could more effectively address the challenges faced by our current security environment.

The book is organized around six chapters. First, Mahnken offers a brief review of the existing literature on intelligence and military innovation, highlighting several reasons why military intelligence organizations may undermine their own ability to effectively identify new or uniquely innovative weapons or systems. He argues that because of an organizational culture that relies too heavily on historical experiences, intelligence agencies are more inclined to monitor the development of established weapons than search for new military systems, and tend to focus their efforts on identifying incremental changes to existing weaponry rather than seeking and understanding entirely new ones. Following this, the author provides an historical overview of U.S. military intelligence during the period between the two World Wars. This chapter presents the "who's who" and "who did what" framework for the discussion in the remaining chapters.

The next three chapters of the volume offer a series of case studies exploring the challenges, successes, and missteps of organizations charged with gathering intelligence on Japan, Germany, and Great Britain. These chapters form the core of the book, and provide a relatively balanced view of how well U.S. Army and Navy intelligence organizations understood innovations in the Japanese, German, and British armed forces between 1918 and 1941. Japanese innovations included new weaponry and operational measures designed to circumvent the technological superiority of the European and American adversaries. Unfortunately, according to Mahnken's analysis, Japanese secrecy--combined with American preconceived misperceptions about Japan's capabilities and ways of war--led to a striking inability for the West to adequately understand and develop appropriate responses to these innovations. In the case of German innovations, talented attaches and a close relationship with members of the German armed forces allowed the United States to gather information on some of Germany's most closely held military secrets. However, American intelligence organizations were relatively unsuccessful in gaining a thorough understanding of German air doctrine and capabilities, or their ballistic and cruise missiles.

Mahnken's analysis of the historical record indicates that intelligence services had mixed success; in some cases, they completely missed the advent of new technology and doctrine, while in other cases, they collected accurate information but failed to understand its significance. Mahnken's book challenges the assertions made by earlier studies of U.S. intelligence during the interwar years, which typically portrayed Army and Navy intelligence as ineffective. He concludes that despite limited funds and personnel, America's military intelligence organizations achieved a number of successes, and the information they gathered had some influence in developing U.S. technology and doctrine. For example, intelligence gleaned from German and British forces helped shape the doctrine and organization of American tank forces, while observation of Japanese landing operations in China influenced the design of American landing craft.

Overall, this book--a volume in the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs series, edited by Robert Art, Robert Jervis, and Stephen Walt--offers a unique set of insights that inform our understanding of contemporary intelligence challenges faced by our military agencies. From the nine case studies presented in his book, Mahnken highlights three patterns that may hinder the effectiveness of these organizations. First, intelligence agencies are more inclined to monitor the development of established weapons than to search for new military systems. Second, intelligence agencies are more inclined to identify incremental changes to weapons whose value has been demonstrated in war, rather than seeking to understand technology and doctrine that have not been demonstrated in combat. Finally, it is easier to identify innovation in areas that one's own services are exploring than those they have not examined, are not interested in, or have rejected.

These three patterns frame important questions about contextual frameworks through which our military intelligence organizations gather and analyze new information. Naturally, an initial and critical question is how to better equip our intelligence organizations for success in meeting the information needs of our military leaders. What are we not seeing, where are we not seeing it, and how do our expectations distract from our ability to see and understand the unknown? Like any researcher, if we begin our journey looking for something within a predetermined framework of expectations, we run the risk of closing ourselves off from discoveries that may be of vital importance. Indeed, some of the greatest scientific and medical breakthroughs of our time have actually come about by researchers stumbling upon an answer to a puzzle they did not initially set out to solve. Clearly, intelligence gathering demands flexibility, contextual awareness on multiple levels, and a unique ability to "connect the dots" in a fast and fluid information environment.

Through his extensive mining of archival material, Mahnken's analysis sheds light on a critical set of issues which our military intelligence agencies should take to heart. His analysis has important implications for assessing the balance of military power, identifying emerging technologies that may have military uses that have not yet been implemented on the battlefield, and avoiding the dangers of dismissing potentially viable technologies that the United States has deemed unworthy or unnecessary to pursue. In today's security environment, there can be no doubt that an effective intelligence capability will be an increasingly critical component to our eventual success in ensuring peace and stability throughout the twenty-first century.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 04/03/04 05:07:27
S D Stein

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