"Shock", "Shock effect"

There's much talk about "shock" in military (history) literature. The Soviets even designated entire armies to be "Shock armies". It's widely acknowledged that cavalry had a "shock" role in battle till the 19th century and that armour has taken over this role.

Yet, I've been unable to locate literature on what "shock" really means in a military context. I have thus deduced this unsatisfactory definition based on the observation of the word in use:

Shock is the defence-diminishing psychological effect of an attack with unusually quick effect.

Now there's a relatively recent article by Jim Storr who attempts to define and research the phenomenon a bit better:

‘Shock effect’ is a state where all or part of the enemy is rendered numb, lifeless, inactive or acting irrationally. ‘Shock action’ is the sudden, concentrated application of violence. It has been associated with rapid approach, such as a cavalry or bayonet charge, a tank attack, or a dive bomb attack. More importantly, it also includes the effect of concentrated HE fire.

This is really basic research on the topic. That's astonishing given the widespread use of the term in military writing for about 80 years.

I don't really like his idea because the infantry gun concept is unnecessarily elaborate for indirect fires (in comparison with mortars) and extremely risky for direct fire (in face of enemy indirect fire support). There's furthermore the question whether it's competitive (against portable grenade projection weapons or even an automatic grenade launcher on wheels).
His example scenario includes the pursuit of the enemy by attack helicopters - a form of support that should make infantry guns unnecessary in the first place.

The general idea of irresistible direct HE support fires is valid, of course. It's proved its ability to push defenders out of most defensive positions in many wars. Its limitations in a mountainous/hilly terrain (as in Storr's example) is that direct fire weapons can only defeat forward slope positions, and rarely ridge positions. A competent enemy will prefer reverse slope positions and use the ridge only for observation and rarely for firing.
The real challenge in hill/mountain fighting* is thus out of the field of fire of such direct fire weapons, which can often be substituted for by slower indirect fires.

In the end, I'm much more interested in a theory of shock in the context of conventional ground combat. How could shock tactics contribute to the ability to knock out, overrun and disintegrate an enemy brigade quickly and without incurring huge KIA counts? How does shock help us to turn enemies into prisoners of war?

Shock is an interesting patch of the huge mosaic picture that we call "warfare". We should understand it better than we do, and that would then be the starting point for a cascade of considerations and conclusions that could contribute to better tactics and operational art.

Sven Ortmann


*: I'm preparing a long blog post on this.


1 comment:

  1. I would liken the military term "shock" to that of the medical term. In the body, shock is a physiological phenomenon caused by a traumatic physical or psychological blow. It interrupts the normal body processes and puts the victim in a dreamlike state.

    So, with that in mind, how about this for a definition:

    "Shock is a state that interferes with the normal process of command-and-control, rendering an army helpless to respond to the movements of the enemy.

    "It is generally caused by a combination of overwhelming force and tactical surprise."

    Heavy firepower alone cannot create shock; armies can survive almost anything if they are forewarned and prepared. Shock is closely linked to surprise. In order to create shock the enemy must be vulnerable to being shocked. The same tank armies that scattered the French at the Meuse failed to move the Red Army at Kursk. An atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1942 would not have ended the war as long as the Japanese Navy still intact and capable of offensive action. Japan was not yet weakened to the point where militarily significant shock was possible.