Academic journal article Parameters

Beyond Surprise Attack

Academic journal article Parameters

Beyond Surprise Attack

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: This article explores the use and value of surprise attacks in modern warfare.

A surprise attack, conceived with cunning, prepared with duplicity, and executed with ruthlessness, provides international history with its most melodramatic moments. A state believes itself to be at peace then suddenly finds itself at war, in agony and embarrassed that it failed to pick up the enemy plot and will now suffer the consequences of blows from which recovery will be hard. Melodramas along these lines play out not only in the worst-case scenarios of military planners and alarmist commentators but also in movies and novels. They offer a compelling narrative: the most powerful states are humiliated and the course of history altered as one power sees possibilities for action that its victim misses completely. It is also a credible narrative as surprise attacks have been regular occurrences throughout history. They make military sense as defeating a strong opponent is always going to be difficult unless the first blows really count. Maximizing operational secrecy is essential to maximizing operational success.

Surprise makes the most sense when battles are decisive. Otherwise, the effect will be to start a war--with all the pain, risk, and uncertainty--without ensuring victory. A decisive victory forces the enemy hand. An important legacy of the Napoleonic Wars was the conviction that such a victory depended on the effective elimination of the enemy army. At some point surprise could make the critical difference when two essentially symmetrical armies, relying on superior tactics, organization and armaments, faced each other. Catching an unprepared enemy with an early blow from which it could never really recover, even if it tried to fight on, should allow the whole business of war to be concluded quickly.

The Franco-Prussian War underscored the importance of early battlefield success. The Prussians were astonished when the French, having declared war, were slow to mobilize. They did not make the same mistake. The efficiency of their mobilization, along with the innovative tactics of Helmuth von Moltke, caught France unaware, leading to its defeat at the Battle of Sedan at the start of September 1870. Germany executed the ideal campaign, quick and truly decisive, spoiled only by the refusal of the French population to accept the verdict of battle until their unexpected resistance was crushed. Moltke showed how to surprise the enemy, and his successors in the German general staff took note: To win a war, mobilize early and strike hard and fast.

The German victory also led to speculation about how other powers might be caught out by a ruthless and resourceful enemy, including books imagining how other great powers might also suffer sudden and catastrophic defeats. An early example of this genre was The Battle of Dorking, written by a British Army officer. Appearing in 1871 just after von Moltke's victory, Dorking described a German invasion from across the channel in which telegraph cables were cut to prevent advance warning. The Royal Navy, which had allowed itself to become overextended because of colonial commitments, lost its warships to "fatal engines which sent our ships, one after the other, to the bottom." The drama concluded with a last stand on a ridge near Dorking in southern England, where a brave combination of regulars and reserves were let down by the army's miserable organization. And so, the accumulated prosperity and strength of centuries was lost in days. A once-proud nation was stripped of its colonies, "its trade gone, its factories silent, its harbours empty, a prey to pauperism and decay." (1)

As with so much writing about the future of war, this example essentially made a point about the present, in this case the need for army reform, a statement about what might happen if sensible measures were not taken urgently. Other books followed with similar themes about the dangers of spies or readying young men for the demands and sacrifices of war, or sometimes in counternarratives to the gloom, demonstrating how a brave nation could cope with all challenges. …

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