Deterrence and Strategic defence in context of strategic surprise attacks

Back in 2010 I wrote "On defensive power". The core idea of that blog post can be described with a simple two-power model:

Country A has 80 units power when attacking and 120 units power when defending.
Country B has 100 units power when attacking or defending.
This imbalance of power is stable, as neither country has a reason to expect being able to win a war. It's even more stable than a 100:100 power equality would be, for that would look more like a toss-up.

So I wrote about how spending on military power that's more useful for strategic defence (than for strategic offence) can stabilise peace.

Today I'd like to add a different thought on deterrence and strategic defence, I referred to this thought before as well and this time it's rather about saving useless expenses:

The former model had country A with "120 units of power when defending". This is a non-trivial statement, for that figure of military power in the case of strategic defence (defending a country or alliance when another power chose to start a war) may differ very much depending on the kind of initial attack.

The most challenging case for the defenders would be a strategic surprise attack. I wrote about this a couple times before. A strategic surprise attack can be expected to knock out many high value targets (HVT) on the first day if not the first two hours. Examples for such high value targets may be bridges (such as the Vistula and Oder bridges), but also long span railroad bridges that are impossible to repair on short notice, which makes rapid deployment of tracked vehicles to the battlefield challenging.

Expensive combat and AEW aircraft are other high value targets and most of them could easily be wrecked by an opening salvo.

Egyptian aircraft destroyed by Israeli strategic surprise attack, 1967. The reaction was the construction of hardened aircraft shelters, but those are useless against precision-guided bombs, even the rather light small diameter bomb (mere 129 kg).
High value targets are usually high value targets because of the important role they're expected to play in wartime and because few of them are affordable. High value targets are expensive - much more expensive than an aggressor's preparation to knock them out in a strategic surprise attack.

To spend much on dedicated military high value targets is thus wasteful unless they are well-secured against strategic surprise attacks. Germany could base its Typhoon combat aircraft in Canada, for example. They wouldn't be wrecked there by a non-nuclear surprise attack. Key vehicles of air defence batteries could be kept moving as a 'Flying Circus', moving from military base or exercise area to another every day. Oder and Vistula bridges could at the very least get protection by some soft kill defences to render the success of a missile attack less reliable to foreign war planners.

We could also de-emphasize high value targets in favour of other military preparations. A reduction of spending on air force high value targets by two billion Euros combined with an increase of spending on non-HVT military assets could very well increase the aforementioned figure of "Country A: (...) units of power when defending". This could save expenses AND improve deterrence at the same time.

Let's summarise it with the model:

Country A has 80 units power when attacking, 120 units power when defending unless in case of strategic surprise attack when it has only 90 units of power.
Country B has 100 units power when attacking or defending.

The necessity of paying attention to this issue should be obvious. It requires to think in terms of us getting caught by surprise attack. Feelings of sympathy for cool supersonic jets or air force generals' bias towards piloting are poor guidances for force design.



  1. Good 'scene' from an old documentary "British Army Documentary Ticking with the Crows/Officers' mess" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4zK9h3InPY

    1989, British Army in Berlin. Step one when the balloon goes up, 2 hours to all rally in rank with your kit on the parade square. As one of the squaddies says, "nice target".

    I'd assume justification for the arrogance you note comes from a certainty that any head to toe surprise attack would be picked up by the rats in the opfor structure (as AI and unmanned systems proliferate, obvious opportunities).

    Six day war shows the limitations of that thinking. 9/11 is another, no QRA for the whole CONUS. The first fighter to take off was unarmed.

    If they couldnt maintain a decent level of readiness in the cold war I think its unreasonable to expect it now.

  2. I think you look to much on the military side of war and overlook therefore the massive changes in the todays societies which are very important for the outcome of any war today or in the near future. A suprise attack could not only be aimed at military targets, but with very little effort at the civilian society. Instead of hitting high value military targets modern western tm societies could be broken completly by suprise attacks on high value civilian targets which would then leave the attacked society in a state in which it would not be able to fight a protracted war or to fight any kind of war any more. And because modern western tm societies are so vulnerable, much more vulnerable than societies in earlier times, the civilian part of an state becomes more and more the achilles heel which could be attacked and sufficently destroyed very easily.

    Moreover it is more and more difficult to defend the civilian part - to the opposite, especially with the digitalisation and the still increasing complexity and dependency on the existence of very specific circumstances and very specific assets, a suprise strategic attack on the civilian part of an western tm state could collaps this state with the first attack or leave it in an status in which it then inevitable will loose the war.

    Therefore in my opinion the most needed military capacity for the next war is an primarly offensive one which is so strong, large and has an non destroyable counterstrike offensive capacity against the enemy, that he will be deterred. I believe therefore, that defence has not much value war the next war, but only offensive capacities and detterence.

    Deterrence is much more important than defence. And for the future deterrence results imo only from offensive capacities and not from defensive ones. The modern technology and the modern western tech-societies are not able to fight a protracted defensive war. They would collapse in such a war very fast. So everything depends on keeping the war as short as possible and bring any kind of war to an end as fast as possible. This is only thinkable if we attack the enemy relentless and also have the ability to do so after an enemy suprise attack. This needs more forces overall, more offensive forces, because after the enemy suprise attack much of the forces would be destroyed. Therefore after such an attack there must still be enough offensive forces for the counterstrike and for the relentless offensive to the extreme against the enemy.

    Only such an capacity would imo ensure deterrence. Defensive oriented forces to the opposite would not ensure deterrence but because the civilian part of the western socities has become so vulnerable and is not defencable, you cannot defend it, and so any offensive oriented enemy would not be dettered by an defensive force, but would hit the civilian part and would collapse us without the risk that his society will be attacked fast, in the beginning of the war in the same way.

    To summarize my thesis up: We need larger forces, highly offensive oriented and a doctrine of a short decisive war and a military structure and equipment to ensure that even after an suprise attack enough forces can as fast as possible attack and destroy the enemy in an offensive à outrance.

    Historically this doctrine did not worked well, but today the technology, the society, the complexity, the available forces overall, the relation between troops and space etc, nearly everything has changed. Only in as aggressive and as offensive as possible armed forces we can ensure deterrence or at least punish any attack on us and shorten the war. Any longer or defensive war on the opposite would destroy us completly.

    1. Well, nukes serve the purpose that you describe.

      You have a disconnect between your idea that attacks on civilians could collapse the attacked party's will and your recommendation to focus on counterattack. There's a magic asteriks in between.

      Next point; you misunderstood me. This blog post was about defending country's military power and how much of it is effective under different circumstances. This means nothing about whether the power would be used defensively or offensively in wartime.
      "attack" and "defence" in this blog post were all about which party chooses to initiate warfare.

      And then there's the problem that a military focused on operational/tactical attack would be considered to be a preparation for attacking other countries. This would destabilise peace and provoke an unnecessary and thus wasteful arms race.

    2. Isn't your definition of, attack and defence in direct opposition to your suggestion of not being focused on operational/tactical attack?

      The size of one's force allows it to take and hold ground. So having a smaller military that can work at maximum capacity to defend the country is a strong defence. But being small it has no capacity to project power much beyond it's borders.

      What if the defensive country desperately wants to emulate Switzerland but they are geographically located at intersecting roads and not tucked away like Switzerland?

      My point here is that Switzerland is out of the way literally and just not worth the effort of an enemy. A country like Germany is in the way by their very location on the map. If I decide to attack France and you're in the way, well it sucks to be you. Germany as a country can try to emulate Switzerland's ideals, but they will never be treated the same by both friends and enemies.

      The potential enemy gets a vote. If I wish to attack your country, HVT's are on the list. If your country has self selected to remove some of those targets then all the better for my forces. I can just move down the list. The fact that you have AEW or a bridge isn't why I'm attacking you. If properly sized they are no threat to me. After I decide for war I'm attacking these items because they allow you to defend yourself. One does not equal the other. By getting rid of force multipliers you don't make your defence stronger. You make me want to attack you as a weak country. Size of a large force is threatening. Effectiveness of a small force is defensive.

      Weak small forces IMO are just a waste of money.

    3. Another attempt to clarify: What I wrote here about defence is about the country that's getting attacked. It's not about how it fights the war.

      The whole concern is about the problem that ana ggressor gets to choose the time and place to strike, and can launch a surprise attack to take out HVTs. So deterrence needs to assume such a successful surprise attack in order to learn how much military power is needed to still deter.

      It's essentially about subtracting your first day losses and still having the military power to frustrate the aggressor.

      The money spent on one Typhoon aircraft might be better spent on night vision devices or on building an airbase for allied airpower that would deploy from safe bases to where it's needed.

      And seriously, forget about the whole "force multiplier" idea. There's hardly ever such a thing.

    4. I see where you are coming from. Thanks for the clarification.

      "And seriously, forget about the whole "force multiplier" idea. There's hardly ever such a thing."

      Saddam Hussein would tend to disagree, as would many other's in history that were routed by much smaller forces. Capacity does not in and of itself equal effective strength. It's a balance. Which I think is where you are coming from. So perhaps we are just talking past each other a bit?

      Your idea of alliances for airbases for safe use is absolutely a, "force multiplier". And they do work.

      With all of the negative talk about NATO, the alliances' ability to defend each other can allow each country to have a much smaller military than it would otherwise need. That is also true of industrial capacity dedicated to defence. Sadly, much of NATO's cold war structure and goals are outdated. Many are downright useless in today's environment. The talk of 2% budgets instead of effective and efficient power is making NATO more and more ineffective. So the ability of each country to have an effective and efficient force that is relatively small largely depends on it's alliances.

    5. No, "force multiplier" is almost always a marketing myth. A "multiplier" multiplies how effective the rest of the force is (such as x1.05).
      It doesn't work like that.

      There are proper mathematical ways of expressing the beneficial relationship between different efforts and capabilities, but plain multiplication doesn't work.

      Airbases for alliance air forces is plain infrastructure, not a multiplier of any sort. Even the effect of sorties is no multiplying relationship; airbases farther forward simply hasten the point when maintenance backlog and pilot fatigue force the wings to reduce the sortie rate (or flying hours/day) to the sustainable pace (down from an unsustainably high rate).

      "(...)the alliances' ability to defend each other can allow each country to have a much smaller military than it would otherwise need."
      True, but I've argued against the idea that entering an alliance means a need to increase military spending for a reason (earlier). Lots of people have the 180° wrong idea about this. The same lot of people doesn't recognise that the ongoing peace means that current spending levels are almost certainly sufficient.

    6. Perhaps it's a language thing? No one I've ever known suggested that those items of military spending that tended to bring more capabilities per unit bought or brought more capability out of existing units by way of enhanced usage through pairing was a factor of mathematical multiplication. In fact the method of representing that force is part science tending to show each technology's ability and part, "art of war" where various means of using or pairing the technology in a system to achieve a country's strategy. We discuss these ideas and sometimes use scientific words, but by and large it is an art. What is good for one country isn't necessarily good for another. And what is good strategy for one country can be gained through different means with associated risk for each.

      As for alliances you are correct there could be other spending involved. The idea for enhanced security comes from a perceived trade off and thus a smaller force. So I have an extra airbase and so does my ally. But we trade that off with a less planes and more dispersal, etc.

      An example could be as simple as an ongoing rotation of visiting troops that train together. I send a small amount of forces to your country and your forces to mine. The benefit over and above learning from each other is the deterrent effect and having a squadron out of the country during a surprise attack. Now striking one country is actually striking a unit from two countries. That could give a potential enemy pause and have a deterrent effect.

      Now alliances can be perceived as negative because the current environment is peaceful. That is true. Alliances are like friends, they sometimes ask for more than you are willing to give. This is a sign of a broken alliance. The alliance needs to change otherwise it will fail when it is needed most. And of course alliances take a long time to nurture and there is often no visible sign of success. How does one know a potential enemy was effected in such a way to deter war? Usually we don't. This leads citizens in many countries toward a more isolationist trend. If they are correct then the country made a good choice. Sometimes they are incorrect and then make excuses for the coming war requiring massive military spending. Democracy and human nature has a way of making us look at the last decades and think the next decades will be the same. That would be very dangerous. This is IMO a large part of the cyclical nature of war in Europe or on a larger time frame Asia.

      Of course these are all opinions that get mixed up in the nature of political democracies. Such is life. As I said earlier it's a discussion not a math equation. There is very little right and wrong but more discussions of efficiency mixed with long term risks.

      We have two simple sayings in my profession:

      "You make your choices and take your chances."


      "It's all fun and games until someone gets killed."

    7. "The benefit over and above learning from each other "

      You seem to vastly overrate the ability of armed bureaucracies to learn, and to underrate their habit of forgetting. An occasional reality check helps, but not in itself.

      "That is true. Alliances are like friends, they sometimes ask for more than you are willing to give. This is a sign of a broken alliance. The alliance needs to change otherwise it will fail when it is needed most."

      Or one doesn't think of an alliance as being an alliance only and understands that it keeps countries from becoming antagonists.

    8. "Or one doesn't think of an alliance as being an alliance only and understands that it keeps countries from becoming antagonists."

      That is true. But a weak or broken alliance doesn't keep anyone safe. In that case one party doesn't want to do their part and the alliance then falls apart.

      This could describe NATO today. But it could also describe the EU. Self interest may not overcome the good that comes from the alliance.

      Alliances must by their nature be a win/win for the countries. Otherwise it's just lip service. At that point it becomes an incubator for the next war.

    9. I think you underestimate how people change their thinking when the stuff hits the fan for real. I've observed this many times in other people; they look at the way people behave and appear to think in peacetime and project those observations on a scenario of SHTF.
      Just have a look at how the entire USA turned mad in 2001 because of one single attack. An attack on an alliance would trigger a reaction that's way beyond the behaviour during calm times.
      War planners have to take this into account, and a 60% probability of an alliance working as intended is already intolerable if said alliance is vastly superior in conventional terms.

      And frankly, I know a lot about world history, but I cannot think of any war starting because an old alliance was considered to be shaky. There should be plenty examples if what you wrote there last was true.

    10. Are you suggesting that once allies cannot become enemies? I'm confused here. Isn't the entirety of Euro history the best example of changing alliances over time leading to war. Are there not multiple wars to use as examples. U.S. against Germany in WWI and II. U.S. and Germany allies today. Strain on the relationship makes that alliance shaky at best. Germany making overtures to Russia. U.S. talking of ending the alliance with NATO and let's be frank, it's Germany they wish to distance themselves from. The U.S. is in lockstep with Britain and has continuing relations even with France.

      In my example could we not replace a weakening U.S. with resurgent France and have much the same danger for Germany?

      So is Germany the next Switzerland? Or the subject of the next world war? NATO has in no way, shape or form anything to do with that outcome. Neither does the EU which is showing some significant cracks.

      As I said, NATO and EU are just incubators for the resentment caused by differing self interests of the countries. It keeps the parties from changing their alliance and agreements to something that would move away from war instead of toward it. As the U.S. falls and stumbles from empire those old resentments and self interests will become more and more front and center.

      So if NATO or the EU is a shaky alliance as you put it or as I put it no longer a win/win for the countries involved, then it is dangerous to believe that those alliances will keep war from happening between the parties. Some of the same resentments that keep the alliance from being strong often boil over to end the alliance and some time later war.

      So is NATO or EU an effective deterrent for aggression between member parties? I think not. The U.S. with all of it's faults was a deterrent of aggression between European states. Now? Not so much.

      So in this context how long does it take a country to go from an ineffective military and isolationist/pacifist political majority to a strong military one? How long does it take those alliances to change and cause war. Sometimes there is enough time to prepare. Sometimes not. Such are the dangers of having an ineffective military when ones is in the middle geographically. As Sun Tzu would suggest, "make alliances". As history in Europe has shown us, "Choose wisely."

    11. "Are you suggesting that once allies cannot become enemies? I'm confused here. Isn't the entirety of Euro history the best example of changing alliances over time leading to war."

      I suppose things have changed. NATO is unique.

  3. I agree that HVT's are an issue in case of a surprise attack, but there are steps that can be taken to make them more survivable, and sometimes (most?) it would be better to take those steps than to buy more of your HVT's.
    For example, better dispersion of aircraft at Pearl Harbor, or hardened shelters, would have allowed the fielding of a small but effective number of aircraft much better than marshalling a large number of aircraft in plain sight and having them all shot up. (AFAIK, the only aircraft that survived and went up against the Japanese were the handful dispersed to smaller fields in the islands).
    In the same way, having extra shelters or small dispersal fields provides more targets for an enemy to hit, some of which are empty, increasing the likelihood that some of your HVT's survive a surprise attack. Of course, putting them a place the enemy doesn't know about is better, but with widespread information and surveillance information and abilities you have to assume that an enemy knows where, or approximately where, your HVT's are.

    A fitional example of the effect a dispersed and unknown force can have is the relocated F-22's effect on an alien invasion fleet in David Weber's Out of the Dark, or the 'lost platoon' in Harold Coyle's Against all Enemies that allies with two local turncoats and takes out their enemy's HQ.

    If you know where your enemy is, you can hit him, and eventually you WILL destroy him. This is why US nuclear control moved from underground bunkers to airborne systems; staying in a place the enemy knows about gives him more of a vote than being in a place he doesn't know about.

    An interesting side note is that as far as I know, the US has few to no passive decoys in inventory - things like fake planes, trucks, headquarters, etc. I know that Russia and some Scandinavian countries are working hard on decoys and have fielded quite a few in recent years, probably in response to the overflight and recon abilities of the US or other potential adversaries.

    1. Decoys won't help much in a strategic surprise attack. The attacker has time and peace conditions for preparing the strike.

      Adding more HVTs is a losing proposition if one HVT costs 100 million € and two missiles with 75% hit probability cost 2 million € total.

      Hiding, moving around, keeping out of range - yes, but that's not what we do with our Typhoons, for example. Almost all of them are in dedicated shelters, maintenance hangars and in a handful of buildings of the industry.

  4. @Last Dingo:

    >>This would .... provoke an unnecessary and thus wasteful >>>arms race.

    Such an arms race would be to our (western tm countries) advantage, because our economies are much stronger and therefore such an arms race would weaken our potential enemies in every aspect of their economy and society.

    In a game in which everybody looses, but we loose not as much as the enemy, we are the winner.

    >>>Well, nukes serve the purpose that you describe.

    Nukes are suprisingly expensive and moreover: the todays societies are much more vulnerable and therefore you do not need nukes to achieve similar levels of destruction. So you can achieve the same with much fewer weapons and other different kind of attacks (cyber, sabotage, terrorism etc)

    >>>you misunderstood me. This blog post was about defending >>>>country's military power and how much of it is effective >>>under different circumstances. This means nothing about >>>>whether the power would be used defensively or >>>>offensively in wartime.

    Alright, but: if you want so survive a as high part of your army as possible a suprise attack you have to determine the very nature of this force before the suprise attack. A highly offensive oriented force would therefore be more capable in the offensive after such an suprise attack in comparison to an more defensive oriented force, which after an suprise attack would be still be better in the defence.

    That said, your argument that you do not say anything about in which way someone will use its forces after an suprise attack is senseless. If you want to use your forces after an suprise attack in an highly offensive warfare you need a offensive oriented force before the suprise attack. You cannot use an defence oriented force in the same way after an suprise attack.

    So the structure, the equipment and the doctrine of an army before such an suprise attack are of the outmost importance for the question how such an force will act after an suprise attack.

    >>>And then there's the problem that a military focused on >>>>operational/tactical attack would be considered to be a >>>>preparation for attacking other countries.

    Which would lead inevitable to an arms race, which is an advantage for us in the long term. An military focused on the attack would be especillay an advantage for our western tm societies. Moreover one could more easily attack other countries with such an military if the need arises. So i see only advantages here.

    1. "Such an arms race would be to our (western tm countries) advantage"

      No, it would be wasteful. There's no prize being handed out for "winning" an arms race that could make up for hundreds of billions of Euros wasted on unproductive means. You have an incorrect idea of what is advantageous.

      "Nukes are suprisingly expensive (...)"

      The costs are largely sunk.

      "A highly offensive oriented force would (...)"

      This doesn't matter. I wrote here about the (im)balance of military strength after a surprise attack and thus its ability to deter aggression. How to prosecute the war wasn't the topic.