Assassination in warfare


The early morning of March 19, 2003, U.S. forces abandoned the plan for initial, non-nuclear decapitation strikes against fifty-five top Iraqi officials, in light of reports that Saddam Hussein was visiting his daughters and sons, Uday and Qusay at Dora Farms, within the al-Dora farming community on the outskirts of Baghdad. At approximately 05:30 UTC two F-117 Nighthawks from the 8th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron[136] dropped four enhanced, satellite-guided 2,000-pound Bunker Busters GBU-27 on the compound. Complementing the aerial bombardment were 4 Tomahawk cruise missiles [...]

You most likely remember this short episode from the beginning of the stupid 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Battle of Mogadishu (1993) was also indirectly about an attempt to eliminate enemy leadership instead of taking on the whole enemy force.
Both were ultimately unsuccessful, but it shows a point just like the permanent aerial assassinations of Muslim extremists in foreign countries: Killing enemy leaders is "in".

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That was certainly not the case for many centuries. Shooting at officers or attacking major nobles as mere peasant was definitively "out" during the middle ages up until the middle of the 19th century. Wellington once got the proposal to kill Napoleon with a gun battery when Napoleon was in range - and denied the request!

The age of chivalry is certainly over.

Our modern ethics value lives quite simply; "we" are valuable, "the enemy" shall die - and all others are not terribly important in relation to us unless some camera is nearby.

It's ethical to kill enemy leaders today - even more ethical than to kill their simple combatants.

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The direct attack at the enemy leadership isn't new. Headquarters and army commanders have often been at serious risk.

Alexander the Great rested his reputation as an army commander very much (besides other very important factors) on his two direct attacks at Darius, the Persian king.
This notorious coward fled every time when Alexander threatened him with cavalry, and thus lost both great battles for the Persian empire. It was a kind of custom at that time to accept defeat and flee if the leader fled.
Alexander had a steadfast and robust infantry for the line and a heavy shock cavalry to penetrate the enemy's line and threaten Darius; that was the main ingredient in his recipe for success in battle.

Assassinations are often being attributed to ninjas and other historical semi-secret intelligence professionals. Killing leaders isn't new, although it wasn't a common approach for several generations.

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The USA seems to have a lasting interest in this "decapitation" even though the effects are relatively disappointing. A project called "HyStrike" was even meant to provide a super-quick (hypervelocity; several times the speed of sound) weapon for "time critical" targets - I read that as assassination missile.
It wouldn't have helped in 2003, but maybe it would make the difference in other scenarios in comparison to subsonic cruise missiles.

The Israelis, Russians and U.S.Army could use other relatively quick missiles if the target is close - LORA, Iskander or ATACMS.

The difficulty to 'decapitate' AQ and Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as the general difficulty of getting rid of Saddam Hussein are rooted in their awareness of the threat and their protective measures.
Leaders of ground forces changed their uniforms, insignia, means of mobility and behaviour to normal ones to become less conspicuous to enemy snipers.
Intelligence support and surprise are thus almost all-important for assassinations. Both are much more relevant than speed of execution.

Maybe that's why the new-found love for leader assassinations hasn't been much emphasized as art of war yet.

Assassination in warfare is a tactic for occasional use as it gets blunted by frequent use.

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Let's consider the military tactic of leadership assassination; it's not a tool that only we can use.

Postal packages sent to battalion leaders have "killed" many officers in NATO exercises. The successful German air attack on the Yugoslavian ministry of defence in 1941 prohibited an orderly Yugoslavian mobilization and defence and contributed greatly to the success in that eleven-day campaign.
The Russians boobytrapped castles and hotels (that were very popular for army, corps or division headquarters) with large bombs that were set to go off days after their withdrawal (in 1941/42). One or two German major headquarters were killed like that.
Air attacks on headquarters were also popular since WW2 - the difficulty was merely to identify headquarters. A part of the NATO craze about bunker-busting that was rampant from the early 90's till about 2003 can be explained with the desire to take out command/control bunkers.

Signals intelligence (in this case direction finding of radio signals and development of a map of radios and radio relationships) and aerial reconnaissance (visual, infrared, radar) can be used to locate suspected headquarters. Their destruction is relatively simple with air superiority, but also possible with many missiles (even in face of enemy air supremacy).

Camouflage, concealment and deception (including detached radio stations) should help to protect, but aren't 100% reliable.
We have become used to tent and container cities as headquarters because we fought enemies that weren't really able to hit these - we should drop that habit before the next conventional war.

Maybe we can learn a lot from the survival efforts of our enemies in this regard - many of them were able to stay alive for years in face of enemy air supremacy and impressive ISR efforts with very small resources.
The need to communicate a lot may compromise our leadership in war, but our headquarters should not need to stay alive for years anyway.

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There's also a political relevance in all this:
Maybe future political leaders will be aware of their exposure to assassination plans. This real threat to THEIR health and survival might influence their preference for peaceful policies.

Assassination in warfare is still not exactly gentleman-like. We should consider it as a part of the art of war, though. An armour raid deep into the enemy's rear area to force a collapse of the enemy's lines is no more art of war than a military decapitation.
Assassination won't solve many problems in warfare - it needs the element of surprise to succeed cad can thus only succeed occasionally, especially when the enemy is unaware of the threat.
It might become a tactic of choice early on in conflicts, albeit that could cause political problems.



  1. Not buying it. I think it has more to do with the American penchant for personalizing their disputes than any intelligent strategic analysis. Certainly Saddam's survival did not improve the performance of his army, and his capture had no effect on the insurgency. How many Al-Qaeda "Number Two men" have been assassinated to no avail?

    These are broad-based political movements, not rock concerts. Killing Bono will stop the U2 concert tour, but assassinating Saddam would have only moved up some other guy, who would have inherited Saddam's state apparatus and put it to different uses, but not very different.

  2. Maybe.
    That wasn't my interest, though.

    The aimed attack on leaders was the area of interest, and it's quite certain that this can have extreme effects if said leaders are competent.

    I always assume competent enemies. The incompetent ones will fail anyway.

  3. How can you possibly say the "Battle of Mogadishu (1993)" was a failure? The targets of the raid were most certainly removed from any further action or influence.

    And I don't consider quoting Wikipedia as a source to be an excuse for your ridiculous comment.

  4. Very hilarious name... Iskander is a central Asian (I cannot be more precise, university years are far away now) name corresponding to our Alexander!

  5. Military actions don't happen in a vacuum.

    The raid for capturing the two guys (one of them is very active as hostile diplomat in modern Somalia) was Pyrrhic victory that effectively prevented the success of the campaign.
    The purpose was to do a step towards a capture of Aidid, but the outcome was a step away from that goal due to political factors.

    Maybe it was a tactical success.
    Fact is: It as a disaster on the operational, strategic and political levels of warfare.
    That weighs heavier.

  6. Remember Chechnya and Dudajev? Please excuse the German text - yes, taken from Wikipedia:

    "Dudajew wurde am 21. April 1996 bei einem gezielten russischen Raketenschlag aus einer Suchoi Su-25 im tschetschenischem Dorf Gechi-Tschu im Rajon Urus-Martan getötet, nachdem es einer Mi-24 gelungen war, sein Satellitentelefonsignal zu orten."

  7. "The raid for capturing the two guys (one of them is very active as hostile diplomat in modern Somalia) was Pyrrhic victory that effectively prevented the success of the campaign."

    You have no idea what you are talking about, always a problem when you rely on Wikipedia for your "facts".
    I can assure you anybody captured in that raid does indeed have an active role in modern Somalia...producing humus. They were all washed out of the back of the trucks, after being hit by the fire and RPGs from their fellow countrymen.

    You will have to forgive TF Ranger for their mission that day, they don't have the experience and the competence planning military operations that you have.

  8. I considered blocking your comment for a combination of anonymous posting and offensive language, but I chose to show you your limits in another way.

    Mohamed Hassan Awale, one of the two targets, gave interviews after the withdrawal of foreign forces years after the Battle of Mogadishu. He's still a relevant foreign politician in one of the Somali factions - one that opposes the U.S.-friendly, Ethiopia-backed faction.

    Even if they were killed, you would just contradict yourself because capturing bodies wasn't the mission. The targets getting killed would have been a clear-cut tactical failure.

    I don't use Wikipedia for research (except for very small things like when I cannot recall how to spell a name).
    The wikipedia links are just for the convenience of those readers who don't recall abbreviations, names, events or items.

    Just to show how much you pull your comments out of your ass: Wikipedia doesn't even tell about the fate of the targets, no matter whether you implied so or not.

  9. @anonymous poster who didn't get his comment published:

    1) Learn manners.

    2) Learn logic.

    3) Tell your name or else refrain from claims about your vita.

    4) http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.com/2008/05/comment-policy.html

  10. Interesting piece.
    Personaly, I'm favour, and done properly, it should work wonders.

    Its just a more effective way of breaking the enemies communications network than blowing up bridges and telephone exchanges.

    Iraqs a bad example I think, but if we imagine a NATO army.
    It has a lot of constituant parts that dont speak across to each other but speak up and down the chain of command.
    Break a couple of those links and replacements step up and fill the gap seamlessly.
    Kill everyone Colonel and above and a massed army would 600 majors stumbling along with no idea who to contact to organise combined efforts, and the force would be taken apart piecemeal.

    The alternative usage in Afghanistan broken the insurgency, but an article recently noted that due to extensive predator strikes the average "Taliban Operations Chief" has a life span of 6 months.
    One has to wonder how effective they would be if their officer corps had a few years experience.