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Shock and awe

Shock and awe is a military doctrine that calls for attempting to directly influence your adversary's will, perception, and understanding of events by inducing a state of Shock and Awe. It is not intended to replace the traditional military aim of destroying the adversary's military capability, but instead to integrate that destruction into a larger suite of actions intended to produce the psychological effect of "breaking the enemy's will to fight". There are indications that it was first applied systemically as a war doctrine by the United States in its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Opinion as to its success there remains divided as of early 2003. The expectation that most Iraqi forces would capitulate after the shock and awe campaign appeared to have been discredited when, during the second week of the invasion, coalition forces met stiff resitance from irregular infantry units in many cities of southern Iraq. However, the complete collapse of organized Iraqi resistance one week later countervails this. A military-historical consensus is thus not likely to be achieved until later, when Iraqi soldiers and officers can be interviewed and the impact of America's fighting doctrine on their actions be better ascertained.

Table of contents
1 The doctrine of Rapid Dominance
2 "Shock and awe" in the 2003 invasion of Iraq
3 Criticisms and historical comparisons
4 Commercialization of the term "Shock and awe"
5 External Links

The doctrine of Rapid Dominance

The first detailed description of this doctrine was in Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, a book written by Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, and published by the National Defense University in 1996.

In the closing days of the twentieth century American military planners believed that the US had virtual military supremacy over any potential adversary. Looking ahead, however, it was believed that the military would be required to maintain the same level of supremacy with fewer resources, greater constraints, and an increased tempo of operations. The concept of Rapid Dominance was proposed as one way to achieve these goals.

The aim of Rapid Dominance is to reduce an adversary's understanding, ability, and will to respond to an attack; to create sufficient "shock and awe" to render the enemy impotent. Methods of inducing "shock and awe" can include direct force applied to command and control centers, selective denial of information and dissemination of disinformation, overwhelming combat force, and rapidity of action. The development of precision guided munitions is one enabling technology for the doctrine of Rapid Dominance.

"Shock and awe" in the 2003 invasion of Iraq

Shock and Awe has been referred to as the official strategy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and was widely talked about in the press in the weeks leading up to the opening of action. During this time the concept of shock and awe was not well explained by the press, who generally described it as simply being a larger version of the air campaign carried out in the 1991 Gulf War.
NASA Landsat 7 image showing shock and awe effects, Bagdad, April 2, 2003

The campaign was, in keeping with the doctrine, aimed almost entirely at a limited set of command and control targets, a number of them in downtown Baghdad. When the air campaign opened these targets were all hit within a period of about 15 minutes, and follow-up raids have continued around the clock. In particular, key members of the Iraqi leadership were targeted, leading to speculation about the possible death of Saddam Hussein.

Although American officials had announced for weeks in advance of the invasion that they intended an unprecedented bombing campaign, the actual campaign seemed restrained to many observers. In addition, the selection of targets in 2003 was much more limited than in Desert Storm, and many economic targets, most notably communication, electricity, and other infrastructure, were initially spared.

Some military analysts questioned the ability of the United States to carry out a program of shock and awe by pointing out that Baghdad has extensive batteries of surface-to-air missiles which limit the ability of aircraft to stay near Baghdad, and has been in extensive contact with Serbia to gain information on how to resist an American air attack. The first night of targeted bombing of Baghdad cast doubt on the validity of this claim.

Thus far, the United States has attempted to resolve the contradiction between psychological impact on the enemy and PR impact at home by primarily targeting the symbols of the power of the Iraqi regime and by using third generation "smart bombs" when those targets are close to civilian structures. However, it has been pointed out that this strategy allowed the Iraqis to avoid military damage by basing military assets in civilian areas.

The Iraqi regime claimed that two civilians were killed and about 200 injured in the massive March 22 attack on Baghdad. The electrical, sewer, water and other public infrastructure of the city were still functional after this attack. This was intended to prevent a humanitarian crisis within Baghdad in which the santitation system breaks down before the city is taken. Later in the war, the electricity supply to much of the city was knocked out. Also, after initially sparing it, the United States attacked Iraqi state television after it broadcast pictures of American prisoners of war.

The United States claimed that the attacks greatly interfered with the Iraqi ability to command and control troops. The complete collapse of Iraqi forces during the third week of the invasion, plus the lack of serious resistance preceding the fall of Baghdad lends ostensible credence to this view. More compelling support is found in a preliminary interview[1] of Iraqi soldiers in an April 27 article from the Washington Post. Specifically:

Criticisms and historical comparisons


The doctrine is based on the concept of robbing an enemy of the ability to properly conduct an organized battle. It is not clear that this improves the situation in many instances. US military force is already dominant to the point that organized defensive manuvering is likely to simply present their air power with more targets in the open.

Many of the criticisms against the doctrine have been based on an incorrect understanding of the doctrine. It has repeatedly been equated with either a larger and more concentrated general air campaign similar to the one in the Gulf War, or alternately any fast-moving tactics like the Blitzkrieg.


Some have compared the doctrine of "Rapid Dominance" with the doctrine of blitzkrieg, first widely used in World War II. There are similarities in terms of the tempo of actions, but key differences in the way the ends are achieved.

Blitzkrieg is based on the idea of massing the entirety of an army's mobile forces at a single point in front of the enemy, breaking through due to the local superiority, and then running to the rear areas to cut off the front lines. Executed properly, a blitzkrieg will happen so fast that the enemy will have little idea what is going on. Attempts to set up a coherent defense or counterattack are difficult to organize, by the time one is ready the battle is already behind you.

Rapid Dominance, on the other hand, is based on a direct and furious attack on the command headquarters, both at the armed forces central commands, as well as the unit headquarters closer to the front. The aim is to cut off the troops from information and command, as opposed to supplies.

So both strategies do attempt to confuse the enemy fighting force to the point of inaction, but this is where the similarities end. In one case the target is commanders, the other supplies. Another difference is where the battle takes place, one in the air hundreds of kilometres from the enemy front lines, the other at and just behind the front lines on the ground.

The capitulation of Japan

The magnitude of "shock and awe" that the Rapid Dominance doctrine seeks to impose is the (non-nuclear) equivalent of the impact that some claim the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on the Japanese at the end of World War II. Edney, et al., wrote, "The Japanese were prepared for suicidal resistance until both nuclear bombs were used." [1] Ullman maintains that the impact of those weapons was sufficient to change both the attitude of the average Japanese citizen and the outlook of the Empire's leadership through this condition of shock and awe, that they were stunned by the destructive power carried by a single airplane, which produced a state of awe and the inability to resist. This view remains controversial, however, and is criticised for ignoring other major factors and being over-simplified.

It has been pointed out that Japan was defeated only at the end of a long and bloody war and that the Japanese decision to surrender was motivated not only by the atomic bomb but also by the collapse of Japanese armies in Manchuria. In addition, it has been pointed out that the Japanese surrender was greatly facilitated by the belief that the Allies would spare the Emperor of Japan upon surrender.

Carpet bombing / Strategic bombing

Some critics have even accused the Shock and Awe strategy of being a repackaging of carpet bombing. Carpet bombing deliberately targets dispersed targets with massive numbers of "dumb" bombs, and is effectively a long distance artillery. World War II British policy was to deliberately target civilian centers in order to destroy homes, thereby reducing Germany's industrial output as workers were displaced.

Rapid Dominance is not similar to carpet bombing. It has very specific targets, ones that are attacked with precision guided weapons. Other military analysts find the comparison of modern precision weapons to the indiscriminate high-altitude bombing of sixty years ago to be absurd, and ridicule the idea that the US would have any problem establishing air superiority.

Comparison with the Air-Land Doctrine of the 1991 Gulf War

There has also been confusion between the doctrine of shock and awe and the doctrine of air-land battle used in the 1991 Gulf War. In contrast to shock and awe, in air-land battle, the focus of the bombing are command and control units rather than supply lines and military units deep in the rear. Furthermore, air-land battle focuses on destroying military units and supply rather than shocking them psychologically. Finally, air-land doctrine involves a long period of bombing rather than a short period as with shock and awe.

Commercialization of the term "Shock and awe"

Since the end of the
2003 invasion of Iraq, at least 28 applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office have been made for use of the term "shock and awe" for use in marketing of a variety of products. The first application came on March 20, the day that the United States first started bombing Baghdad. The application was for a fireworks company.

Other applications have come for "Operation Iraqi Freedom" firearms, a "Baghdad Bob" bobblehead doll, and key chains picturing Saddam Hussein on an ace of spades with a target on his face. Midway Games video game manufacturer is seeking to use the term in its video games. Sony also filed for use of the term in its video games, but has since dropped its application.

A Salem, New Hampshire-based company applied to use the term for golf equipment, and an Irving, Texas-based company wants to use the term for its insecticides.

The number of applications exceeds the applications for the term "Let's roll" filed after the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack. The only use of that term has been granted to the Todd Beamer Foundation, a charity.

External Links