Strategic Surprise .. Why do countries fail to anticipate military attacks?

Political and military analysts differ in their assessment of the role that surprise plays in war‭. ‬While the Chinese military perspective‭, ‬represented by Sun Tzu‭, ‬emphasises the significance of the element of surprise for winning wars‭, ‬considering it one of the main components of victory‭, ‬Carl von Clausewitz‭, ‬the Prussian military thinker‭, ‬is the only one who contradicts this trend‭, ‬downplaying the value of surprise as a fundamental criterion for success in wars‭.‬

In reality‭, ‬political and military leaders in the United States were surprised by their inability to turn military victory into‭ ‬positive political and strategic outcomes multiple times‭.‬

From a military standpoint‭, ‬the advantages gained from achieving strategic surprise are invaluable‭. ‬A successful unexpected attack makes it easier to destroy a significant portion of the enemy’s forces at a lower cost to the attacker by disrupting the military balance of the defender‭, ‬thus temporarily diminishing their resistance capability‭. ‬In more general terms‭, ‬the numerically inferior side can take the initiative by concentrating its superior military strength in the time and place of its choosing‭, ‬significantly improving the likelihood of achieving a decisive victory‭.‬

Strategic surprise‭, ‬often referred to as a‭ (‬surprise attac‭), ‬occurs when a conflict happens at an unexpected time or place‭. ‬Surprise can occur at all levels of war‭, ‬including strategic‭, ‬operational‭, ‬and tactical‭. ‬This study seeks to clarify the types of strategic surprises‭, ‬the reasons for their occurrence‭, ‬and how countries can avoid them‭.‬

Types of Strategic Surprise‭:‬

The goal of a strategic attack is to inflict a major defeat on the opponent‭, ‬altering the military situation and significantly determining the outcome of the conflict‭. ‬Naturally‭, ‬the opponent seeks to conceal their movements and use deception‭. ‬

However‭, ‬this definition precludes the use of nuclear weapons or the involvement of a major power from the strategic dimension‭: ‬but rather relates to the goal and context of the attack‭. ‬

Moreover‭, ‬the Four types of strategic attacks can be categorised as follows‭:‬

Sudden Military Attack‭: ‬This refers to a state launching an unexpected attack against another state‭, ‬such as the Japanese surprise attack on the Russian fleet in Port Arthur in 1904‭ ‬or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II‭. ‬In the latter‭, ‬the surprise was the‭ ‬location‭, ‬not the timing‭, ‬as the United States knew at the time that a battle with Japan was imminent‭.‬

One reason for the U.S‭. ‬failure to anticipate the attack was that the American military dismissed the possibility of Tokyo launching an attack on a distant port‭, ‬such as Pearl Harbor‭, ‬due to their belief that the Japanese did not have the necessary military capabilities to achieve it‭. ‬Another famous surprise attack was made by Al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center buildings in Washington‭, ‬along with the Pentagon‭, ‬using three civilian planes on September 11‭, ‬2001‭.‬

Opening a New Operational Theatre‭: ‬This refers to unexpectedly opening a new front in a broader military conflict‭, ‬such as the German invasion of Norway in 1940‭. ‬Also within this context‭, ‬the Communist forces from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong launched an attack on January 30‭, ‬1968‭, ‬known‭ ‬as the‭ (‬Tet Offensive‭), ‬against South Vietnam and its American allies‭. ‬This attack was one of the largest military operations in the Vietnam War and became a major turning point in the conflict‭.‬

The Tet Offensive consisted of a series of surprise attacks launched during the Tet festival‭, ‬the Vietnamese New Year‭. ‬Many South Vietnamese forces were on leave when the attacks began‭, ‬catching the South Vietnamese Army off guard‭. ‬

The campaign initially targeted over 100‭ ‬cities and towns‭, ‬including the strategic southern capital‭, ‬Saigon‭, ‬now known as Ho Chi‭ ‬Minh City‭. ‬

Approximately 50,000‭ ‬Communist soldiers were killed in an attempt to control the southern part of the country‭. ‬The overall losses for South Vietnamese and American forces were limited compared to the losses of North Vietnamese forces‭. ‬

Despite the military setback‭, ‬the Tet Offensive succeeded in shifting the tide of the war in favour of North Vietnam‭, ‬when Viet‭ ‬Cong forces infiltrated rural areas controlled by the South Vietnamese government‭, ‬ultimately contributing to North Vietnam’s victory over the South‭.‬

Using New Tactics‭:‬‭ ‬This refers to the adoption of a new pattern of warfare that was not prevalent before‭, ‬such as the United States bombing Japan‭ ‬with nuclear bombs during World War II‭. ‬

Throughout military history‭, ‬some armies surprised their enemies on the battlefield by adopting new tactics‭, ‬bold strategies‭, ‬or‭ ‬employing a high degree of strict military discipline‭. ‬

Examples of these new tactics include Napoleon’s wars to control European countries‭, ‬where he introduced institutional changes that allowed him to manage a massive army‭, ‬achieving significant victories over his opponents and occupying major European cities‭. ‬

Similarly‭, ‬the Blitzkrieg tactics employed by the Germans at the beginning of World War II represent another example of new tactics‭.‬

Another example is the success of Japanese torpedo planes in sinking the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the HMS Repulse battle cruiser a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor‭.‬

Such military surprises were achieved by successfully combining tactics and technology‭. ‬Senior British naval officers failed to‭ ‬recognize the possibility of major warships being threatened by air attacks‭, ‬including the task force commander‭, ‬Admiral Tom Phillips‭. ‬

These ships operated from Singapore without air support‭, ‬and the Japanese managed to locate Phillips‭’ ‬force and launched an attack using torpedo bombers‭, ‬resulting in the loss of both ships and 840‭ ‬sailors in an operation later described as marking‭ (‬the end of the era of battleships‭). ‬

The subsequent surprise and shock were profound for crews‭, ‬military personnel‭, ‬and political leaders outside the direct battle‭.‬

Sudden Natural Disasters‭:‬‭ ‬Unexpected environmental events can generate strategic surprises‭, ‬such as natural disasters like earthquakes‭, ‬volcanoes‭, ‬and tsunamis‭, ‬which may develop unexpectedly‭, ‬causing devastating losses‭, ‬as seen in the tsunami disaster that hit the Japanese Fukushima nuclear reactor in March 2011‭.‬

Reasons for Surprise Attacks‭:‬

Upon reviewing the insights of military experts and strategists‭, ‬who base their assessments on past war experiences‭, ‬the reasons‭ ‬for the occurrence of a surprise attack were as follows‭:‬

Deception‭:‬‭ ‬Deceiving the enemy is the primary reason for strategic surprises‭. ‬One cannot overlook the perspective of the Chinese military‭ ‬leader‭, ‬Sun Tzu‭, ‬who stated that‭ (‬all wars are based on deception‭).‬

Moreover‭, ‬the concept of the‭ (‬Fog of War‭), ‬which describes the uncertainty inherent in warfare‭, ‬reflects the inability of warring parties to be certain about their capabilities when transitioning from planning to execution‭. ‬

In this regard‭, ‬the German Marshal Moltke famously remarked‭, (‬No plan of operations survives the first encounter with the main hostile force‭).‬

Additionally‭, ‬there are two main types of military deception‭: ‬the‭ (‬feint attack‭) ‬which involves executing a completely fake attack or simulating preparations for an imminent assault and the‭ (‬military pretence‭), ‬which involves real movement of forces‭, ‬aiming to lure the enemy forces and draw its reserves into a marginal battle‭. ‬

The latter type of engagement risks the loss of a significant number of forces and military equipment so it must be employed judiciously or under restricted conditions‭, ‬especially in extreme circumstances‭.‬

Historical examples of deception include the Allies deploying a massive number of inflatable rubber tanks and aircraft in the Kent region of Britain to mislead German reconnaissance planes during World War II‭, ‬specifically in 1944‭.‬

These dummy weapons‭, ‬coupled with leaking false information to the Germans about the landing site‭, ‬convinced the German military‭ ‬leadership‭, ‬including Adolf Hitler‭, ‬of an inevitable military landing at the Pas-de-Calais region‭, ‬while the actual landing took place on the beaches of Normandy‭. ‬

Using this plan‭, ‬the Allies‭, ‬led by Washington and London at the time‭, ‬successfully landed 135,000‭ ‬soldiers in Normandy‭, ‬establishing a bridgehead that allowed them to land over a quarter of a million troops‭, ‬50,000‭ ‬vehicles and military machinery‭, ‬and 100‭,‬000‭ ‬tons of other military equipment within one week‭.‬

Similarly‭, ‬upon reviewing the Russian-Ukrainian war‭, ‬we find that Ukrainian forces sought to launch a counterattack against Russian forces in mid-2023‭ ‬on three fronts along the front against Russian forces in the south and east of Ukraine‭, ‬spanning an area‭ ‬of approximately 600‭ ‬miles‭. ‬

The aim was to scatter Russian defences and mask the main attack point‭. ‬Ukrainian forces planned to attack three fronts‭: ‬Miltipol‭, ‬Berdyansk‭, ‬and Bakhmut‭. ‬However‭, ‬the United States objected to such a plan‭, ‬preferring Ukrainian forces to launch their attack at one point towards the Sea of Azov‭. ‬The argument was that launching attacks on three fronts would reduce the density of Ukrainian firepower‭, ‬rendering them incapable of breaching Russian defences‭.‬

Regardless‭, ‬the Ukrainian counterattack failed significantly‭, ‬and Alexander Syrsky‭, ‬the new overall commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces‭, ‬admitted that his country had underestimated the capabilities of the Russian army‭.‬

Military Technology‭:‬‭ ‬Military technology plays a significant role in surprising adversaries during wars‭. ‬Countries tend to conceal certain aspects of their military capabilities to achieve the element of surprise in warfare‭. ‬

Numerous examples illustrate this‭, ‬such as the United States dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II‭. ‬This act served as a message about the weapon’s destructive power‭, ‬showcasing Washington’s willingness to use it regardless of the catastrophic consequences on civilian lives‭, ‬ultimately forcing Japan to surrender‭.‬

Surprises in the military realm usually take one of two forms‭: ‬the adoption of innovative technology by adversaries or the failure of military technology for a state seeking to employ it against its foes‭.‬

In other words‭, ‬surprise occurs either due to the technical superiority of adversaries or the technical failure of a weapon produced by a state aiming to surprise its opponents‭.‬

An example from the Russian-Ukrainian war highlights Russia’s ability to destroy approximately 30‭ ‬German Leopard 2‭ ‬tanks during‭ ‬the first three months of the Ukrainian counterattack‭. ‬These tanks‭, ‬once considered by the West to bring about a military surprise and inflict severe losses on the Russian army‭, ‬proved to be less effective than anticipated‭. ‬

Moreover‭, ‬Moscow successfully destroyed a significant number of these tanks using drones‭, ‬particularly the Lancer drones‭. ‬

Major General Vadim Skibitski‭, ‬the Deputy Commander of the Ukrainian Military Intelligence‭, ‬confirmed this‭, ‬stating to The Wall‭ ‬Street Journal in September 2023‭: (‬Today‭, ‬a column of tanks or a column of advancing forces can be detected within a period ranging from three to five minutes and hit in another three minutes‭. ‬The ability to survive while moving doesn’t exceed 10‭ ‬minutes‭),‬‭ ‬adding that attaining strategic surprises has become extremely challenging‭.‬

Dominant Mentality‭:‬‭ ‬One of the reasons for military surprises lies in military closed-mindedness and a refusal to respond to military data revealing shifts in the adversary’s strength‭. ‬This is often aided by excessive self-confidence based on a sense of military superiority‭.‬‭ ‬Additionally‭, ‬not testing weapons in real combat conditions may give a false or exaggerated impression of their military capabilities‭.‬

While overly pessimistic estimates about the adversary pose a problem‭, ‬exaggerating the estimation of the military capabilities‭ ‬of the attacking state appears to be the most frequently recurring and costly mistake in military history‭.‬

In many historical cases‭, ‬a combination of excessive optimism about oneself‭, ‬downplaying threats from the adversary‭, ‬and making‭ ‬incorrect assumptions about their capabilities played a role in achieving a‭ (‬surprise attack‭).‬

An outstanding historical example is General Douglas MacArthur’s confirmation to President Harry Truman in October 1950‭ ‬that the‭ ‬Chinese would not militarily intervene in the Korean War‭, ‬and if they did‭, ‬it would be with small numbers that would be easily‭ ‬defeated‭. ‬Despite warnings about China’s intention to intervene more significantly in Korea‭, ‬along with evidence confirming the‭ ‬presence of Chinese forces in North Korea‭, ‬MacArthur and senior intelligence officers ignored such warnings‭. ‬

This resulted in the defeat of the Eighth U.S‭. ‬Army at the Yalu River on November 24‭, ‬1950‭, ‬the loss of thousands of American soldiers and Washington’s withdrawal from North Korea‭.‬

Countering strategic surprises‭:‬

Preparing for a surprise attack is no easy task‭. ‬Reviewing military history reveals that even the strongest armies have been subjected to unexpected military assaults‭. ‬Nevertheless‭, ‬the following factors can help counter countering strategic surprises‭: ‬

Quick Adaptation‭:‬‭ ‬Rapid adaptation on the battlefield is a crucial factor in facing a surprise attack and avoiding shock‭. ‬Leaders and soldiers must quickly adapt to unforeseen developments by understanding what is happening‭, ‬selecting appropriate tactics to counter the attack‭, ‬and executing them steadfastly‭.‬

Without understanding the situation‭, ‬appropriate actions cannot be executed‭, ‬turning the surprise into shock and defeat on the battlefield‭.‬

This can be seen in Russia’s experience in Ukraine‭. ‬After the Russian forces retreated in the face of the Ukrainian attack in late 2022‭, ‬particularly in Kharkiv‭, ‬and the withdrawal from the western part of the Kherson region‭, ‬Russia assessed the shortcomings it faced‭. ‬These included a lack of sufficient forces‭, ‬prompting Russia to recruit around 300,000‭ ‬additional soldiers‭.‬

‭ ‬Moreover‭, ‬defensive lines were constructed in the areas it controlled in Ukraine‭, ‬known as the Suruvikin Line‭, ‬which destroyed‭ ‬most of the forces and equipment that Ukraine had prepared for its counterattack since mid-2023‭. ‬This adaptation allowed Russia‭ ‬to prepare for a prolonged war rather than expecting a quick resolution‭.‬

Learning from others‭’ ‬mistakes‭:‬‭ ‬Every military battle worldwide provides valuable lessons for armies globally‭. ‬These lessons include new tactics that have proven successful or failed‭, ‬as well as the effectiveness or failure of certain weapons‭.‬

However‭, ‬looking to the past alone is insufficient‭, ‬as lessons from the past will only be valuable if they are formulated considering the needs of the future‭. ‬A military institution that fails to balance looking to the past and the future risks being prepared only for the last war fought‭, ‬rather than the wars it might face in the future‭.‬

In conclusion‭, ‬surprise military attacks will remain a prominent feature of warfare and a persistent part of international politics‭. ‬This is especially true with the return of major power conflicts‭, ‬the resurgence of regional wars‭, ‬as seen in the Russian-Ukrainian war‭, ‬the escalating tensions between China and the United States over Taiwan‭, ‬and the renewed military confrontations between Israel and the Palestinians‭.‬

‮«‬By‭: ‬Dr‭. ‬Shadi Abdelwahab
‭(‬Associate Professor at the National Defence College‭ – ‬Abu Dhabi‭)‬

Al Jundi

Please use portrait mode to get the best view.