By Barbara Starr
If there is one thing U.S. military commanders don't like, it's a surprise on the battlefield.
Generally it means bad things are happening.
So the Defense Intelligence Agency - which is responsible for gathering military intelligence - is undertaking a new effort to keep that from happening. A new classified DIA project is aimed at reinvigorating the military's ability to understand global events and threats before they become crises that impact U.S. troops and interests.
The new process involves convening special classified panels of experts inside the Pentagon from both the military and intelligence communities to look at particular problems.
By ensuring everyone is looking at the same set of intelligence indicators and warnings, and then sharing that information, the hope is the broader "warnings" will get to commanders and key administration policymakers. When those panels then reach their conclusions on a potential threat or warning, they also assess in a traditional sense, with a level of confidence and certainty that can help back up their conclusions.
The concept is known as "Strategic Warning." The idea has been around for decades, but interest has been renewed as a vital tool to anticipate problems in the wake of unfolding global events such as the Arab Spring, the new government in North Korea and continuing threats from Iran, according to defense officials.
The DIA plan centers around trying to warn commanders and policymakers when certain things are happening. It could be a change in a situation already being watched by the military and intelligence community, such as a new nuclear development in Iran. Or it could be the emergence of an underlying trend such as the Arab Spring that has significant widespread impact.
Perhaps one of the most recent example of how problems can unfurl with a lack of strategic warning is the spate of recent insider attacks in Afghanistan, a defense official told CNN.
The sense is that the Pentagon thought for too long the attacks were individual events and didn't realize the emerging trend and capability to launch those attacks would impact morale and military operations.
"We now have a dedicated effort to focus on what a combatant commander or leader inside the Pentagon, or in the national security community, might all view as signs or indicators of either a change in an existing scenario or a significant change in a pattern of a long term trend," Deputy DIA Director David Shedd told CNN.
Shedd says the rapid evolution of the Arab Spring movement is another case in point. "We did not appreciate how profound the dissatisfaction was" nor did the U.S. realize its lack of attention to how that dissatisfaction was growing.
Shedd said it is broad changes the military is looking to eyeball, not specific events such as a particular threat of an attack.
The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is perhaps an example of how not recognizing the underlying pattern can lead to disastrous consequences.
"It's not a surprise they could do it," Shedd said of the militants. "But it's that they would be able to step into an opportunistic event."
Now the question for DIA may be whether the United States needs to analyze whether al Qaeda and other militant groups have a new capability to organize and be ready to standby waiting for opportunities to strike.