Shock and Awe

Shock and awe, technically known as rapid dominance, is a military doctrine based on the use of overwhelming decisive force, dominant battlefield awareness, dominant maneuvers, and spectacular displays of power to paralyze an adversary's perception of the battlefield and destroy its will to fight. The doctrine was written by Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade and is a product of the National Defense University of the United States in 1996.

Doctrine of rapid dominance

Rapid dominance is defined by its authors, Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, as attempting "to affect the will, perception, and understanding of the adversary to fit or respond to our strategic policy ends through imposing a regime of Shock and Awe."[1] Further, rapid dominance will
"impose this overwhelming level of Shock and Awe against an adversary on an immediate or sufficiently timely basis to paralyze its will to carry on . . . [to] seize control of the environment and paralyze or so overload an adversary's perceptions and understanding of events that the enemy would be incapable of resistance at the tactical and strategic levels."[2]

Introducing the doctrine in a report to the United States' National Defense University in 1996, Ullman and Wade describe it as an attempt to develop a post-Cold War military doctrine for the United States. Rapid dominance and shock and awe, they write, may become a "revolutionary change" as the United States military is reduced in size and information technology is increasingly integrated into warfare.[3] Subsequent U.S. military authors have written that rapid dominance exploits the "superior technology, precision engagement, and information dominance" of the United States.[4]

Ullman and Wade identify four vital characteristics of rapid dominance: "near total or absolute knowledge and understanding of self, adversary, and environment; rapidity and timeliness in application; operational brilliance in execution; and (near) total control and signature management of the entire operational environment."[5] Shock and awe is most consistently used by Ullman and Wade as the effect which rapid dominance seeks to impose upon an adversary. It is the desired state of helplessness and lack of will. It can be induced, they write, by direct force applied to command and control centers, selective denial of information and dissemination of disinformation, overwhelming combat force, and rapidity of action.

The doctrine of rapid dominance has evolved from the concept of "decisive force." Ullman and Wade enumerate the elements between the two concepts in terms of objective, use of force, force size, scope, speed, casualties, and technique.

Civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure

Although Ullman and Wade claim that the need to "Minimize civilian casualties, loss of life, and collateral damage" is a "political sensitivity [which needs] to be understood up front", their doctrine of Rapid Dominance requires the capability to disrupt "means of communication, transportation, food production, water supply, and other aspects of infrastructure"[6] and in practice, "the appropriate balance of Shock and Awe must cause ... the threat and fear of action that may shut down all or part of the adversary's society or render his ability to fight useless short of complete physical destruction."[7]

Using as example a theoretical invasion of Iraq 20 years after Operation Desert Storm, the authors claimed that "Shutting the country down would entail both the physical destruction of appropriate infrastructure and the shutdown and control of the flow of all vital information and associated commerce so rapidly as to achieve a level of national shock akin to the effect that dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on the Japanese."[8]

Reiterating the example in an interview with CBS News several months before Operation Iraqi Freedom, Ullman stated "You're sitting in Baghdad and all of a sudden you're the general and 30 of your division headquarters have been wiped out. You also take the city down. By that I mean you get rid of their power, water. In 2,3,4,5 days they are physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted."[9]

Historical applications

Enlarge picture
According to its original theorists, Shock and Awe renders an adversary unwilling to resist through overwhelming displays of power. Ullman cites the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an example of "shock and awe.".
Ullman and Wade argue that there have been military applications that fall within some of the concepts of shock and awe. They enumerate nine examples:
  • Overwhelming force: The "application of massive or overwhelming force" to "disarm, incapacitate, or render the enemy militarily impotent with as few causualities to ourselves and to noncombatants as possible."
  • Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The establishment of shock and awe through "instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large, meaning its leadership and public, rather than targeting directly against military or strategic objectives even with relatively few numbers or systems."
  • Massive bombardment: Described as the "precise destructive power largely against military targets and related sectors over time."
  • Blitzkrieg: The "intent was to apply precise, surgical amounts of tightly focused force to achieve maximum leverage but with total economies of scale."
  • Sun Tzu: The "selective, instant decapitation of military or societal targets to achieve shock and awe."
  • Haitian example: The "imposing shock and awe through a show of force and indeed through deception, misinformation, and disinformation."
  • The Roman legions: "Achieving shock and awe rests in the ability to deter and overpower an adversary through the adversary’s perception and fear of his vulnerability and our own invincibility."
  • Decay and default: "The imposition of societal breakdown over a lengthy period, but without the application of massive destruction."
  • Royal Canadian Mounted Police: The selective application of force emphasizing "standoff capabilities as opposed to forces in place" to attain military objectives.

Iraq War


Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, officials in the United States armed forces described their plan as employing shock and awe.[10]

Conflicting pre-war assessments

Prior to its implementation, there was dissent within the Bush Administration as to whether the Shock and Awe plan would work. According to a CBS News report, "One senior official called it a bunch of bull, but confirmed it is the concept on which the war plan is based." CBS Correspondent David Martin noted that during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in the prior year, the US forces were "badly surprised by the willingness of al Qaeda to fight to the death. If the Iraqis fight, the U.S. would have to throw in reinforcements and win the old fashioned way by crushing the republican guards, and that would mean more casualties on both sides." [11]


Limited bombing began on 19 March 2003 as United States forces unsuccessfully attempted to kill Saddam Hussein. Attacks continued against a small number of targets until 21 March 2003, when at 1700 UTC the main bombing campaign of the Coalition began. Its forces launched approximately 1700 air sorties (504 using cruise missiles).[12] Coalition ground forces had begun a "running start" offensive towards Baghdad on the previous day. Coalition ground forces seized Baghdad on 5 April, and the United States declared victory on 14 April.

The operation "shock and awe" described the initiation of the Iraqi campaign and not the subsequent insurgency.

Conflicting post-war assessments

To what extent the United States fought a campaign of shock and awe is unclear as post-war assessments are contradictory. Within two weeks of the United States' victory declaration, on 27 April, the Washington Post published an interview with Iraqi military personnel detailing demoralization and lack of command.[13] According to the soldiers, Coalition bombing was surprisingly widespread and had a severely demoralizing effect. When United States tanks passed through the Iraqi military's Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard units outside Baghdad to Saddam's presidential palaces, it caused a shock to troops inside Baghdad. Iraqi soldiers said there was no organization intact by the time the United States entered Baghdad, and that resistance crumbled under the presumption that "it wasn't a war, it was suicide."

In contrast, in an October 2003 presentation to the United States House Committee on Armed Services, staff of the United States Army War College did not attribute their performance to rapid dominance. Rather, they cited technological superiority and "Iraqi ineptitude." The speed of the coalition's actions ("rapidity"), they said, did not affect Iraqi morale. Further, they said that Iraqi armed forces ceased resistance only after direct force-on-force combat within cities.[14]

According to National Geographic researcher Bijal Trivedi, "Even after several days of bombing the Iraqis showed remarkable resilience. Many continued with their daily lives, working and shopping, as bombs continued to fall around them. According to some analysts, the military's attack was perhaps too precise. It did not trigger shock and awe in the Iraqis and, in the end, the city was only captured after close combat on the outskirts of Baghdad."[15]

Criticism of execution

The principal author of Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, Harlan Ullman was one of the most vocal critics of the shock and awe campaign. Ullman stated, "The current campaign does not appear to correspond to what we envisioned." In addition, "the bombing that lit up the Baghdad night skies the next day, and in the following days, did not match the force, scope and scale of the broad-based shock-and-awe plan, Ullman and U.S. officials say." In a question directed to Ullman, asking if it is "too late for shock and awe now?" Ullman responded "We have not seen it; it is not coming."[16]

Ullman noted that plan called for "an attack into the center of Baghdad, taking it over, followed by successive takeovers expanding from the center of the city." Also the "bombing campaign did not immediately go after Iraqi military forces in the field, particularly the Republican Guard divisions and political levers of power, such as the Baath Party headquarters." Instead Ullman, states that the "shock and awe" implementation was more of a siege.<ref name="sperry" />

Apparently, the "Bush administration throttle[d] back on the Iraqi bombing" and the original plan was scrubbed days before its implementation as "political concerns over civilian casualties factored into the decision."<ref name="sperry" />

According to The Guardian correspondent Brian Whitaker in 2003, "To some in the Arab and Muslim countries, Shock and Awe is terrorism by another name; to others, a crime that compares unfavourably with September 11."[17] Anti-war protesters in 2003 also claimed that "the shock and awe pummeling of Baghdad [was] a kind of terrorism."[18] The radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has also accused the United States of engaging in "terrorism" in Iraq.[19]


A dossier released by Iraq Body Count, a project of the UK non-governmental non-violent and disarmament organization Oxford Research Group attributed approximately 6,616 civilian deaths to the actions of US-led forces during the "invasion phase", including the Shock and Awe bombing campaign on Baghdad.[20]

These findings were disputed by both the U.S. military and the Iraqi government. Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Boylan, the spokesman for the US military in Baghdad, stated "I don't know how they are doing their methodology and can't talk to how they calculate their numbers," as well as "we do everything we can to avoid civilian casualties in all of our operations." [21] National Geographic researcher Bijal Trivedi stated that "Civilian casualties did occur, but the strikes, for the most part, were surgical."[15]

Popular culture

Following the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003, the term "Shock and Awe" has been used for commercial purposes. The United States Patent and Trademark Office received at least 29 trademark applications in 2003 for exclusive use of the term.[22] The first came from a fireworks company on the day the United States started bombing Baghdad. Sony registered the trademark the day after the beginning of the operation for use in a video game title, but later withdrew the application and described it as "an exercise of regrettable bad judgment."[23] Miscellaneous other uses of the term include golf equipment, an insecticide, a set of bowling balls, a racehorse, a shampoo, and condoms.

In an interview, Harlan Ullman stated that he believed that using the term to try to sell products was "probably a mistake," and "the marketing value will be somewhere between slim and none." [24]

See also


1. ^ Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade, Shock And Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance (National Defense University, 1996), XXIV.
2. ^ Ullman and Wade, Shock and Awe, XXV.
3. ^ Ullman and Wade, Shock and Awe, Prologue.
4. ^ David J. Gibson, Shock and Awe: A Sufficient Condition for Victory? (Newport: United States Naval War College, 2001), 17.
5. ^ Ullman and Wade, Shock and Awe, XII.
6. ^ Ullman and Wade, Shock and Awe, Introduction.
7. ^ Ullman and Wade, Shock and Awe, Chapter 5.
8. ^ Ullman and Wade, Shock and Awe, Chapter 1.
9. ^ CBS Evening News (Jan. 24, 2003) Interview with Harlan Ullman accessed August 4, 2006.
10. ^ "Iraq Faces Massive U.S. Missile Barrage" (CBS News, 24 January 2003.
11. ^ David Martin. "Iraq Faces Massive U.S. Missile Barrage", CBS News, January 24, 2003. 
12. ^ "Operation Iraqi Freedom - By the Numbers", USCENTAF, 30 April 2003, 15.
13. ^ William Branigin, "A Brief, Bitter War for Iraq's Military Officers", Washington Post, 27 October 2003.
14. ^ "Iraq and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy", presentation by the United States Army War College to United States House Committee on Armed Services, 21 October 2003.
15. ^ Bijal Trivedi (February 14, 2005). Inside Shock and Awe. National Geographic Channel.
16. ^ Paul Sperry, "No shock, no awe, it never happened." April 3, 2003 at WorldNetDaily accessed August 3, 2003
17. ^ Whitaker, B. (March 24, 2003) "Flags in the dust" Guardian Unlimited Iraq special report at accessed July 30, 2006.
18. ^ "Antiwar Protesters Spar With Police", The Washington Post, March 22, 2003. 
19. ^ Escobar, P. (July 4, 2003) "Culture Shock and Awe"
Asia Times [1]''
20. ^ A Dossier of Civilian Casualties in Iraq 2003–2005. Iraq Body Count (July 18, 2005).
21. ^ "Iraq war takes heavy toll on civilians", Reuters/, July 19, 2005. 
22. ^ Robert Longley, "Patent Office Suffers 'Shock and Awe' Attack",, 27 October 2003.
23. ^ "Tech Briefs: Sony says it's sorry for 'shock and awe' idea", Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 18, 2003. 
24. ^ Agnes Cusack. "US companies battle over 'shock and awe' copyright", The World Today, 16 May, 2003. 

Further reading

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Harlan K. Ullman (born March 15, 1941), is a political author, commentator, and a retired United States Naval Commander. He is an advisor to government and the private sector and is active in transformation both of business and the Department of Defense.
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atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuclear attacks during World War II against the Empire of Japan by the United States of America under US President Harry S. Truman.
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Blitzkrieg   (German, literally Lightning war or flash war) is a popular name for an offensive operational-level military doctrine which involves an initial bombardment followed by the
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For the mathematician, see Sun Tzu (mathematician).
Sun Tzu (Chinese: ; Pinyin: Sūn Zǐ) ("Master Sun") is an honorific title bestowed upon Sūn Wǔ
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Roman Legion (from Latin legio "military levy, conscription", from lego — "to collect") is a term that can apply both as a transliteration of legio
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Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) (French: Gendarmerie Royale du Canada (GRC); literally "Royal Gendarmery of Canada") is both the federal and national police force of Canada.
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2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Poland and Denmark (other countries were also involved in its aftermath) began officially on March 20, 2003. The invasion launched the Iraq War, which is still ongoing.
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Sortie is a term for deployment or despatch of one military unit, be it of aircraft, ship or, in older times, of columns of troops from a fort. The unit usually has a purpose of accomplishing a specific mission, whether alone or with other aircraft or vessels.
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cruise missile is a guided missile which uses a lifting wing and most often a jet propulsion system to allow sustained flight. A cruise missile is, in essence, a flying bomb.
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