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Warning and Surprise: Tradeoffs for the Planner

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Throughout the history of warfare, antagonists have attempted to employ surprise to gain an advantage. There are two forms of advantage to be gained by surprise. The first is tactical, in that the aggressor hopes to profit from the victims lack of preparation by destroying forces and equipment, seizing a key objective, or attaining a superior position, before his opponent can react. The second form of advantage is psychological. Stunned and paralyzed by disbelief, a victim may put up less resistance than would otherwise be the case, or may become convinced that the situation is hopeless. The psychological effects can backfire on the aggressor, however. If the initial battle is not decisive, the victim of a surprise attack may use the attack as a rallying cry. The counterpoint to surprise is warning. From the viewpoint of the intended victim, warning would ideally provide enough notice of a pending attack to allow its neutralization. For this reason, war plans typically include an assumption that a certain amount of warning time will be available. As is the case with other assumptions in the planning process, the actual amount of warning provided may or may not match that assumed in the plan. If more warning is available than was planned for, so much the better. But a shorter than planned warning time may well lead to a disaster. Warning time in plans allows a tradeoff. The alternative to advance warning is preparedness. To repulse a completely unexpected attack no warning implies that the victim was at a very high state of readiness. At the other extreme, a nation that lacks a military establishment or defense industries would require a very long warning time to meet an attack. Somewhere between these extremes of constant readiness for war and total disarmament is a practical continuum along which a certain amount of warning substitutes for a greater degree of preparedness. Part of the planners art lies in correctly selecting a point on that continuum.

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  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics

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