Are surprise attacks a thing of the past?

Apologies if I’ve blogged about this before, but reading Micah Zenko’s excellent post on "ten things you didn’t know about drones" reminded me of something I’ve pondered a bit over the past couple of years. To be specific: I wonder if we are reaching a moment in which traditional "surprise attacks" are less and less ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Apologies if I've blogged about this before, but reading Micah Zenko's excellent post on "ten things you didn't know about drones" reminded me of something I've pondered a bit over the past couple of years. To be specific: I wonder if we are reaching a moment in which traditional "surprise attacks" are less and less likely, at least between major powers.

Genuine "surprise attacks" are pretty rare already -- at least at the strategic level -- for the simple reason that mobilizing large military forces is a huge undertaking and hard to conceal. Hence, opponents are likely to see what you're doing and know that you're coming. The United States fought Iraq twice, for example, and though Saddam apparently clung to the hope that we wouldn't actually fight, it can't have been a complete surprise to him when the bombs started falling. After all, in both cases we'd been talking about it for months while building up our forces right next door.

To be sure, in some cases information may be ambiguous and you can imagine how one side might be able to mask its intentions or create sufficient ambiguity so as to pull off the surprise. And it helps if the victim is complacent or misreads the available intelligence (as Israel did in 1973), or if it stubbornly refuses to believe that an attack is coming (Stalin in 1941). And surprise may be achieved if the attacker is both lucky and surveillance is hard (Pearl Harbor), or if the target doesn't "connect the dots" (the US on 9/11). But in a world where communications are instantaneous and surveillance is increasingly widespread, pulling off a genuine strategic surprise is bound to get more difficult.

Apologies if I’ve blogged about this before, but reading Micah Zenko’s excellent post on "ten things you didn’t know about drones" reminded me of something I’ve pondered a bit over the past couple of years. To be specific: I wonder if we are reaching a moment in which traditional "surprise attacks" are less and less likely, at least between major powers.

Genuine "surprise attacks" are pretty rare already — at least at the strategic level — for the simple reason that mobilizing large military forces is a huge undertaking and hard to conceal. Hence, opponents are likely to see what you’re doing and know that you’re coming. The United States fought Iraq twice, for example, and though Saddam apparently clung to the hope that we wouldn’t actually fight, it can’t have been a complete surprise to him when the bombs started falling. After all, in both cases we’d been talking about it for months while building up our forces right next door.

To be sure, in some cases information may be ambiguous and you can imagine how one side might be able to mask its intentions or create sufficient ambiguity so as to pull off the surprise. And it helps if the victim is complacent or misreads the available intelligence (as Israel did in 1973), or if it stubbornly refuses to believe that an attack is coming (Stalin in 1941). And surprise may be achieved if the attacker is both lucky and surveillance is hard (Pearl Harbor), or if the target doesn’t "connect the dots" (the US on 9/11). But in a world where communications are instantaneous and surveillance is increasingly widespread, pulling off a genuine strategic surprise is bound to get more difficult.

This is not to say that unexpected and small-scale attacks cannot occur when the necessary forces are already in place, which is why North Korea could suddenly shell a South Korean island in 2010. Surprise can also work if the target is undefended and it doesn’t take a lot of mobilization, which is how Argentina could seize the Falklands in 1982. Similarly, tactical surprise is commonplace once forces are engaged in the field.

But for today’s major powers, it is hard to imagine conventional forces inflicting a genuine strategic surprise attack. Reconnaissance satellites can monitor global hotspots on a more-or-less real-time basis and let leaders know if forces are being moved and prepared for combat. Drones can provide even more detail, and electronic surveillance capabilities of various sorts can monitor message traffic. And the victim doesn’t have to be the party that detects the preparations, if the party that does is willing to blow the whistle. It is possible that these capabilities could be disrupted by countermeasures or a cyber-attack, but a large-scale effort of that sort would itself be a warning sign.

This means that large-scale surprise attacks may be increasingly rare, except in certain special circumstances. What might those circumstances be? First, states that lack advanced surveillance capabilities are still vulnerable, unless someone tips them off in advance. Second, we will still see surprise attacks by airplanes, drones, or missiles, particularly if the attacks don’t require a lot of advanced preparation and/or involve short distances. A third possibility are cyber-attacks or attacks by terrorist groups, especially because the latter operate in clandestine fashion. Nor can one rule out really elaborate efforts at deception (such as staging an attack in the context of a previously announced exercise, or something like that).

But notice that most of these scenarios depict attacks of rather limited effect. Air strikes can destroy specific facilities (e.g. Osirak, or the Syrian reactor site), but can’t topple a government all by themselves or enable an attacker to take over territory.

None of this is to say that major power war is gradually becoming obsolete (though some have argued that it is for other reasons). Rather, I’m just suggesting that the sort of "3 AM phone call"/bolt-from-the-blue scenarios much beloved of strategists may be less and less relevant, because global transparency has made it very hard to mask the preparations.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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