You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

20 years on, ‘shock and awe’ remains relevant

The Hill logo The Hill 3/20/2023 Harlan Ullman, Opinion Contributor
© Provided by The Hill

Twenty years ago, the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, an overpowering air and ground invasion of Iraq. A dozen years before, in 1991, the U.S. and some 50 partners undertook Operation Desert Storm, which needed only a 100-hour ground campaign to drive Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, obliterating much of it in one of the most lopsided battles in history. Initially, Iraqi Freedom was even more potent.

The overall commander, Army General Tommy Franks, called this onslaught “shock and awe.” It was decidedly not. The operation involved the use of overwhelming force to overwhelm a far inferior force. Shock and awe conceived an entirely different concept. I should know. I was the principal author.

The origins of shock and awe lay in Desert Storm and what seemed to be confusion in the Clinton defense programs. The upshot was to convene a small number of retired four star flag officers who played prominent roles in that war. Air Force General Chuck Horner led the air campaign. Army General Fred Franks headed the famous “left hook” meant to “cut off and kill” Saddam’s army, as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Colin Powell had directed.

Despite the massive air campaign that preceded that ground war, Horner was frustrated that he could not find the weak point that would force Saddam to quit or so cripple the army that it would be forced to surrender. In essence, Horner was taken by Sun Tzu’s advice that the best generals win without fighting or with using minimum force.

From there the group agreed that the aim of shock and awe was to affect, influence and ultimately control the will and perception of the target or the enemy. As former and future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld added in common sense terms, that means getting the other guy to do what you want or stop doing what you do not. That entailed using all tools and not only military force. 

Further, shock and awe had four components of equal importance and priority. Control of the environment meant precisely that — controlling all five dimensions of land, air, sea, space and the ether, including cyber. Shock and awe would enable dominating these dimensions, giving the ability to control what the adversary saw, actions it would take and what it would not see or be able to do. 

Second, near perfect knowledge and understanding of the environment likewise was critical. All the shock and awe group had served in Vietnam. The failure to know and understand the environment in which we were fighting was calamitous. This was reinforced in the interventions in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan two years before.

Third, rapidity, that is moving far faster than the adversary in all decision domains, made shock and awe decisive. And all operations had to be conducted with the fourth component, brilliance as the criterion and standard. The book on shock and awe, published by the National Defense University in 1996, laid out specific uses and examples of how this concept would be employed and the ranges of military and non-military tools used.

Interestingly, China published a million copies of “Shock and Awe” without any regard to copyright, and the People’s Liberation Army published “Unrestricted Warfare” in 1999 that also plagiarized the concept. But shock and awe was quickly discredited.

During the early planning phases for Iraq, Rumsfeld had sent Franks a copy of “Shock and Awe.” Franks liked the phrase but didn’t seem to understand the concept and used it promiscuously in the buildup to the war. When the Daily Telegraph ran a half-page photo of a bomb exploding in Baghdad under the headline “Baghdad Blitz,” shock and awe sank the next day without a trace.

U.S. military strategy is still focused on the replacement for “overwhelming force” called “decisive force” that is based on “fires and maneuver” in “distributed, multi-domain operations” —  jargon that is not easily put into simple English. But given that influence operations that do not require military force are ubiquitous across social media, whether for good or ill, the civilian technology for implementing shock and awe and affecting, influencing and controlling will and perception has long been present.

The U.S. faces the most unique strategic challenge in its history. In China it confronts a near peer economic superpower with the largest nuclear armed military in the Pacific. Russia is a nuclear superpower and energy giant that has invaded a neighbor. New strategic thinking is essential. Shock and awe, as originally conceived, is a good starting point.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.


More from The Hill

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon