Shock and awe: Rapid Dominance

The United States has relied on its superiority in technology, training, mobility and flexibility to win wars for as long as anyone can remember. During the administration of Ronald Reagan, low collateral damage also became a priority. The doctrine of Rapid Dominance attempts to affect the will and ability of the enemy to fight, physically and psychologically. Rapidity should be aimed for in all aspects of the operation - deployment, combat, post-combat resolution. The pipe dream associated with this is the ability to stop an invasion in its tracks. Dominance refers to the ability to take control of battlefield conditions as much as possible, denying the enemy of information, achieving perfect information for your own force, and crushing the enemy while his will is down and his mind confused.

Shock-and-awe bombardment is a means to the end of Rapid Dominance. There are many different types of shock-and-awe bombardment - some countervalue, some counterforce. I shall examine some of these types and historical precedents for them, as well as looking at the relevency to our current situations in the Iraq crisis and the Korean crisis. This is about military practicality as well as ethics and public opinion - do not assume that I have dismissed the latter merely because I spend some time discussing the former.

World War II

In World War II, the United States Air Force dropped 2,150,000 tonnes of bombs. 537,000 tonnes of these were dropped on Japan during the Pacific War, which as we all know ended when the Enola Gay and its sister aircraft dropped atomic weapons on Hiroshima (6th August) and Nagasaki (9th August). This sort of shock and awe bombardment is an attempt to achieve rapid dominance by the

"delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed on influencing society writ large"1

In the jargon of nuclear deterrence, this is known as a "countervalue" attack. Rather than targetting and neutralizing military-strategic targets, it aims to deliver a massive shockwave of destruction that totally destroys the target society's will to fight. Minutes of the Target Committee's meeting at Los Alamos National Laboratory on May 10-11, discuss targets that "the Air Force would be willing to reserve until August."2 This is because one of the main factors under discussion was the psychological damage done to the Japanese people and government by such maximum damage being delivered in such a short period of time - tactically, conventional bombing could have achieved the same level of destruction over a longer period of time. Kyoto was originally classed an AA target because it was an intellectual center, where it was felt people would be more able to appreciate the implication of an atomic weapon.

In the modern World, the United States does not and is not likely to face an adversary which would make it necessary to carry out a massive countervalue nuclear attack (China, maybe, eventually.) Obviously, the moral and political implications of this sort of attack are massive, and no-one wants to have to do it. Debate about the conclusion of the Pacific War abound today, but it must be understood that we are viewing the event through fifty years - at the time, the atomic bomb was seen as just another weapon in the quiver. This view would persist among some Pentagon officials for years to come (we shall return to the subject of nuclear contingencies in Vietnam below.) Nowadays, especially after the horror of the Cold War, the public in the West is not likely to tolerate the first-use of nuclear weapons in a countervalue attack in a situation any less grave than those faced by the Allied powers in World War II.

Whether you today agree with the use of atomic weapons against the Empire of Japan, what is important is the perception and mindset dominant in the West. And that mindset is very different today than what it was in 1945.

The Vietnam War / South East Asia

Prior to the American war in Vietnam there was the French conflict of 1946-54, the First Indochinese War, or Franco-Vietminh War. This war, "the handwriting on the wall that America ignored", ended with the fall of the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the ensuing Geneva Accords. By the end of the war America was paying 90% of the French war costs, and the only time a nuclear strike was seriously considered in Indochina was to lift the siege of Dien Bien Phu. French officials are described as "obsessive" in their attempts to persuade America to intervene in the siege. When analysing even this we must put it in context and give it careful consideration: there is no direct evidence that the United States made an offer to provide France with atomic weapons, nor that France even seriously considered requesting such. All that is known is that a Pentagon study group concluded that three A-bombs could "destroy" the Viet Minh positions around Dien Bien Phu. The fact this study took place does not really imply that use was seriously considered.

Fast forward to 1966, and a member of the JASONs (the official name of the group was the Defence Communications Planning Group) hears a high-ranking Pentagon official say something blithe along the lines of "It might be a good idea to toss in a nuke from time to time, just to keep the other side guessing." The JASONs were a group of about 40 scientists with a massive fiscal and decision-making carte blanche to study defence issues relevent to the Pentagon. In The Electronic Battlefield, Paul Dickson quotes a member of the JASONs saying that if they "needed 10,000 chocolate cream pies from the army by noon the next day, it would get them and without questions." The JASONs used this flexibility to produce a report entitled Tactical Nuclear Weapons in South-East Asia, which they handed to their sponsors within the Defence Department. While the report was produced out of fear that the remark by the Pentagon official was made in all seriousness, there is no evidence that nuclear weapons were ever seriously considered for use in any part of the South East Asian theater.

The JASONs came to many conclusions about why tactical nuclear weapons would have minimal practical value in Indochina, and many of these are still relevent today in the War on Terrorism. The War on Terrorism is a war for hearts and minds and is a war against nonconventional forces. This makes massive countervalue shock-and-awe tactics ineffective (the extremists involved are not likely to have their will to fight broken by such) and counterforce attacks impractical (target acquisition is difficult and forces too dispersed to make the use of a nuclear weapon worthwhile.) What makes nuclear attacks against such a nonconventional enemy even more unpalattable is the large amount of collateral damage that they would cause - these terrorist forces tend to live in populated areas.

There is another big problem with employing nuclear weapons in any war that the U.S. is likely to face in the near future, especially in the War on Terrorism. The JASONs felt that by using atomic weapons against North Vietnam or the Viet Cong, the Americans would up the ante and escalate the war to a point where North Vietnam's patrons (China and the Soviet Union) would not be so shy in providing them with atomic weapons3. While I cannot conceive of an American use of nuclear weapons against any state that is likely to survive such an onslaught long enough to hand its own weapons over to non-state actors (terrorists) which might them use them against the United States, North Korea might feel it could get away with proliferation of nuclear weapons if, say, one was dropped on Iraq. Non-state actors which can move quickly and openly (like the Viet Cong or terrorists) have a lot to gain by a nuclear attack on United States interests. For a start, they're big, fixed, and don't have any real protection against such an attack. The terrorists are mobile and not inviting targets for a nuclear strike. Their numbers are also so small that such an attack is not likely to be effective4

Gulf War

"If there is one attitude more dangerous than to assume that a future war will be just like the last one, it is to imagine that it will be so utterly different that we can afford to ignore all the lessons of the last one."

Former RAF Marshal, Sir John Slessor, Air Power and Armies, 1936

(The war of 1991 is sometimes known as the Second Persian Gulf War (the first being the Iran-Iraq war), but with the current U.S. plan to invade Iraq also getting this name, Desert Storm is increasingly known merely as "the Gulf War.")

What was amazing about the Gulf War and its meaning for the doctrine of shock-and-awe bombardment was not the massive quantity of bombs expended or sorties flown (neither of which were exceptional), but the decisive effect that the air campaign achieved in a very short amount of time. Over the 140 months of the Vietnam War 6,162,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on South East Asia, at a rate of 44,014.29 tonnes a month5. In the Gulf War, 60,624 tonnes were dropped over 1.5 months, giving a tonnage per month of 40,416.00. Yet when Operation Desert Sabre kicked off, the Iraqi army was sufficiently tired, hungry and war-weary to call it a day by the thousands after only 100 hours.

In terms of shock and awe, the air campaign achieved many things. It significantly lowered the ability of Iraq's very authoritarian6 command structure to function, compelled Saddam Hussein and other key officials to travel more (to avoid being bombed), and compelled them to use less secure transmissions which provided vital intelligence for the coalition forces. Rapid Dominance was achieved in the air - most Iraqi aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and their ability to wage aerial warfare at all was destroyed mostly in the first two weeks of the air campaign. Within six weeks the World's sixth largest air force had been decimated. Within the 37 days of the air campaign, the Iraqi regular Army and Republican Guard units within the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO) had their combat effectiveness severely weakened by coalition air strikes. Units in the planned line of coalition ground movements were hit especially hard, with a focus on armour and artillery. The degree of destruction and damage metered out by the coalition air forces, especially considering the low amount of collateral damage, was almost unprecedented in warfare. That glazed expression that was seen on the survivors of trench warfare could be seen on the faces of surrendering Iraqi troops.

On the issue of collateral damage, it was extremely low for the level of effectiveness the campaign had on the Iraqi army. While we frequently hear that "90% of the bombs dropped on Iraq were dumb bombs", in populated urban areas the policy was always to use smart bombs. Plans of flight were planned to keep the possibility of errant ordinance causing damage to a minimum, and pilots sometimes turned back because they could not be sure their weapon would guide properly or could not identify their target. Saddam Hussein frequently made the situation worse by putting military installations in civilian areas or forcing or encouraging people to be "human shields."7

In the coming war, shock-and-awe is going to reach a level again unprecedented. The air campaign is earmarked to last only a week, but with the amount of ordinance being dropped similar to last time. This time, the coalition forces have another type of shock and awe on their side, called the "Roman Legion" effect. United States military superiority is apparently so recognized by the army of Iraq that right now pretty much all they're discussing is how to surrender when the bombs start dropping ("including the Republican Guard stationed with us", said an Iraqi deserter quoted in Time magazine.) The conscripts sat behind defensive lines which lack totally air defence are easy prey for coalition fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, and it's likely after the last war that they know it. The perceived invincibility of coalition forces is likely to be as important factor in shocking and awing the Iraqis this time as the actual destruction wrecked on them by the coalition air campaign8.

On collateral damage

This is a tricky subject to deal with, and a highly emotional one. Some people would rather the phrase "collateral damage" were not employed, and as I am now leaving the arena of military practicality and entering the field of morals, public opinion, and uncertainty, I shall now refer to "civilian deaths" and "damage to civilian infrastructure." Civilian deaths are never an actual objective in modern warfare, as the modern global 24-hour media means it is impossible for modern governments to hide the brutality of what goes on in a war zone (contrast this to the countervalue efforts of terrorists to murder noncombatants.) There are other expedients against a high rate of civilian deaths or damage to civilian infrastructure: the death of civilians leads to a reduction in the post-war labour force. Combined with the cost of rebuilding civilian infrastructure after a war, if the aggressor is going to be shouldering this cost (as the United States frequently has done in the last half-century), it gives another reason for keeping civilian casualties low. Not only these expedients, but it is also inherently immoral and undesirable. The slaughter of noncombatants is despicable to almost all of the public. Attacks on civilian infrastructure are sometimes called for as an actual objective, however - a lot of civilian infrastructure can have a dual-use, in that it can be harnessed by the military for use against our own forces.

The relevent question here then, is what is the effect of shock and awe on civilian deaths and damage to civilian infrastructure? As we have done already, we need to look at different types of shock and awe. Clearly, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki example of shock and awe, or events such as the Tokyo Air Raid or firebombing of Dresden, do not limit civilian deaths. In fact, part of what they were about was causing massive civilian deaths as well making a big countervalue statement. As we have discussed, big countervalue gestures of this type have little place in the War on Terrorism, or in fact anywhere in modern U.S. doctrine. They are deplorable in objective terms, perhaps some would say justified and called for in the "heat of the moment."

Counterforce shock and awe, of the type displayed in the Gulf War, has the effect of drastically shortening a war. The "Roman legion" shock and awe mentioned above might even prevent one (so, yes, the United States does have a vested interest in making themselves look very militarily powerful.) Airstrikes nowadays are very carefully targetted (I didn't say perfectly targetted, but the situation is better now than it ever has been), which tends to limit civilian deaths and damage to infrastructure that wasn't targetted. Once a war has started, the objective of each side is to end it as quickly as possible by neutralizing the enemy. We can see this need in the root of the development of shock and awe - it is designed to confuse and confound the enemy, physically and psychologically, so that he can be defeated as quickly as possible.

If we look at alternatives to shock and awe bombardment, we tend to find that they are likely to lead to less favourable outcomes in terms of civilian deaths, civilian infrastructure damage, and combatant deaths. Prolonged ground campaigns are likely to have this effect for obvious reasons, as well as probably leading to the aggressor losing the initiative. The idea of not practicing shock and awe is now somewhat archaic - why would we not want to target the enemy's military infrastructure quickly and effectively in a way they will help neutralize his ability to mobilize? As with the atomic bombings that ended the Pacific War, slower bombings could have achieved the same effect. But while this was going on, we could have had a dozen more Iwo Jimas, with enormous amounts of noncombatants killed. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were actually thought to have saved lives in the long run (it was estimated about a million American soldiers would have died trying to take mainland Japan.)

So shock and awe shortens wars, which saves lives. I'm going to go out on a limb and say we'll see this effect in the next Persian Gulf conflict (there will probably be more civilian deaths than the Gulf War, but the center of gravity is different this time). If we and its citizens are lucky, there might not even be a Battle of Baghdad.

1. Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade,

2. Minutes of the second meeting of the Target Committee Los Alamos, May 10-11, 1945,

3. There were other fears not entirely relevent to this discussion - the Viet Cong's state sponsors had little interest in supplying them with nuclear weapons for first use, but this might quickly fade away if the U.S.A turned the Vietnam War nuclear. A threat to China from the U.S. is one example.

4. What it might be effective against is the "Asian hordes" of North Korea, those 1 million troops with 7 million in reserve. There are strategic benefits to be gained from the use of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula, but thankfully there are also many alternatives. Achieving Rapid Dominance of the situation if North Korea invaded the South would be very tricky, however.

5. The usage of aerial bombardment during the Vietnam War often beggars belief. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was constantly bombarded indiscriminate of collateral damage and the attrition rate was around 300 bombs dropped for every insurgent killed. U.S. air wars no longer follow this pattern - they don't have to. A major conflict would tend to lean further in this direction, however.

6. Saddam Hussein reserves an awful lot of power for himself, not even allowing his Army a surplus of ammunition in peace time.

7. For a short, digestable document on Saddam's use of human shields, see

8. Hopefully, fear of reprisals (perhaps why the Bush administration has put out implicit warnings about the usage of nuclear weapons) will compel Saddam Hussein and his underlings not to deploy any WMD. Chemical warfare suits are inconvienient on both sides, but we never know what a desperate dictator might do...

Sources other than those cited:

Federation of Atomic Scientists,

Giles, Frank. The Locust Years: The Story of the Fourth French Republic: London, 1991.

Levi, Michael. JASON's Tactical Lessons :

Maclear, Michael. Vietnam: The ten thousand day war: London, 1981.

Stanley, Willis. From Vietnam to the New Triad: U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Korean Security,

Tannenwald, Nina and Hayes, Peter. Nixing Nukes In Vietnam: