By Jason Sherman / December 8, 2008 at 5:00 AM

As if the incoming Obama administration doesn't already have enough on its plate -- with forecasts of a protracted and deep recession, a half-million workers knocked off the payrolls last month, and the Big Three automakers on the brink of insolvency -- a new Army War College monograph warns that the new leadership team should brace in its early days for a challenge akin to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

That's the the advice of Nathan Freier, visiting professor of strategy, policy, and risk assessment at the U.S. Army’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute and a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Just as President George W. Bush faced a strategic shock in his first eight months, President-elect Barack Obama “would be well-advised to expect the same,” writes Freier, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense preparing the 2005 National Defense Strategy.

Defense-relevant strategic shocks jolt convention to such an extent that they force sudden, unanticipated change in the Department of Defense’s perceptions about threat, vulnerability, and strategic response. Their unanticipated onset forces the entire defense enterprise to reorient and restructure institutions, employ capabilities in unexpected ways, and confront challenges that are fundamentally different than those routinely considered in defense calculations...

They will rise from an analytical no man’s land separating well-considered, stock and trade defense contingencies and pure defense speculation. Their origin is most likely to be in irregular, catastrophic, and hybrid threats of “purpose” (emerging from hostile design) or threats of 'context' (emerging in the absence of hostile purpose or design). Of the two, the latter is both the least understood and the most dangerous.

The 2008 National Defense Strategy, singed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in June, warns that strategic shocks “could potentially change the rules of the game and require a fundamental re-appraisal of the strategy.”

For more than two years, the Pentagon’s policy shop has spearheaded a project examining “trends and shocks” looking across a range of non-military disciplines for hints of where the next set of challenges that might require a military response could come from.

In September 2007, we explored that construct, which is poised to play a pivotal role in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, now that Defense Secretary Robert Gates will continue to head the Pentagon during the Obama administration:

The project, led by Thomas Mahnken, deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy planning in the Pentagon’s policy shop, has been endorsed by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England. The goal is to assess the potential defense implications of consequential events -- “shocks” -- that could include major changes in global climate, a nuclear attack against a major western city, a new technology revolution or a financial market collapse that triggers a global depression.

“It really is an effort to get the department to think about long-term trends, particularly those the department hasn’t thought about systematically in the past, and explore their implications for the department,” said a senior Pentagon official in a July (2007) interview with