The link I posted this morning to an article on how intelligence agencies can improve the accuracy of their forecasts puts me in mind of the next Defence White Paper, and the job involved in planning for defence capabilities decades into the future.

There's solid research that political experts of all kinds, intelligence analysts included, have a pretty poor record when it comes to predictions: 'experts perform only marginally better than dart-throwing chimps', the article says, before offering some methods for improving this record.

But even if the intelligence world took up these suggestions — quantify the level confidence for each prediction so that they can be scored for accuracy; nominate specific signposts on the way to a predicted future state; exploit the wisdom of crowds — the authors of the article make only very modest promises about the benefits, since they claim that their methods work best for short-term forecasting and 'we are skeptical that even the most astute analysts working with the best methodological tools can see 15 or 20 years into the future.'

The problem for the Defence White Paper team is that they have no choice but to plan this far ahead, because it takes years and sometimes decades to develop new military capabilities. The process that led to the Collins class submarine, for example, started in 1983.

But what's the point of committing to military systems you won't acquire for a decade or more if you have no idea of the military threats you will face at that time? Did previous White Papers predict our commitment to the war on terrorism, or to East Timor?

The answer to this dilemma, it is sometimes argued, is just to give up on prediction altogether and develop a 'balanced force', one which can respond to all sorts of unknowable contingencies. But that's not a neutral choice. A jack-of-all-trades Defence Force will be master of none.

So what's the best way to deal with strategic uncertainty? Send me your views: blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org.

Photo by Flickr user mukul.soman.