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In the theory of nuclear warfare, a decapitation strike is a first strike attack that aims to remove the command and control mechanisms of an opponent, in the hope that it will severely degrade or destroy its capacity for nuclear retaliation.
Strategies against decapitation strikes include:
- Distributed command and control structures.
- Dispersal of political and military leadership in times of tension.
- Delegation of launch capability to local commanders in the event of a decapitation strike.
- Distributed and diverse launch mechanisms.
A failed decapitation strike carries the risk of immediate, massive retaliation by the targeted opponent. Many countries with nuclear weapons specifically plan to prevent decapitation strikes by employing second strike capabilities. Such countries may have mobile land-based launch, sea launch, air launch, and underground launch facilities so that a nuclear launch on one area of the country will not totally negate its ability to retaliate.
Other nuclear warfare doctrines explicitly exclude decapitation strikes on the basis that it is better to preserve the adversary's command and control structures so that a single authority remains that is capable of negotiating a surrender or ceasefire.
Implementing fail-deadly mechanisms can be a way to deter decapitation strikes and respond to successful decapitation strikes.
- In April 1865, Abraham Lincoln's assassination by John Wilkes Booth was part of a larger plot to kill Lincoln, then-Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward, targeting the presidential line of succession and, with it, the leadership of the United States at the close of the Civil War.
- In 1944, a group of German military personnel around Klaus von Stauffenberg planned an assassination of Adolf Hitler and his inner circle, which ultimately failed.
- The 2003 invasion of Iraq began with a decapitation strike against Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi military leaders. These air strikes failed to kill their intended targets.
- In July 2012, a bombing killed three of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's senior defense leaders.
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- In the movie Dr. Strangelove, Senator Buford complains that the U.S. nuclear deterrent lacks credibility. If the President were killed in a decapitation strike, retaliation would be impossible. Wing Attack Plan R is devised to close this loophole.
- In the essay The Cuban Missile Crisis: Second Holocaust, an alternate history in which the 1962 crisis developed into war, the Soviets manage to destroy Washington, D.C., and kill President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and most of their political and military advisors. This coup, however, works disastrously against the Soviet Union. Had Kennedy survived, he might have ordered a measured response. Since he did not, surviving American generals order a total attack, which continues long past the breaking of any Soviet military capacity and results in killing some 80% of the entire Soviet population, and later results in the United States being accused of genocide.
- In the 1994 Tom Clancy novel Debt of Honor, a Japan Airlines pilot flies a fully fueled, passenger-less Boeing 747 into the U.S. Capitol during a joint session of Congress. The pilot had been distraught after watching the deaths of his brother and his son in a short-lived war between the United States and Japan. This is not an attack by a government, but it has the effect of removing the top tier of each branch of the United States government—all of Congress, the President, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The only survivors are two men each claiming the vice presidency, and thus the presidency by succession. The dispute is resolved in the next novel, Executive Orders.
- In the 1983 film WarGames, the master computer WOPR is programmed to interpret a sudden power loss as the result of a decapitation strike and automatically launch all weapons in retaliation. During the crisis in which the computer mistakenly thinks it is engaged in an actual nuclear war, this feature makes simply depowering the system an obviously unacceptable option and the computer must be made to stop in a different way.
- In the made-for-cable film By Dawn's Early Light, the Soviet Union launches nuclear strikes against key U.S. targets including a failed decapitation strike at Andrews Air Force Base which would presumably have been the departure point for the President and his advisors.
- In the 2002 film The Sum of All Fears, neo-Nazi terrorists attempt to start a war between the United States and the Russian Federation by (among other things) detonating a nuclear device during a football game at which the American President is in attendance.
- In the 2013 film White House Down terrorists capture the White House intending to kill the President of the United States. They subsequently strike a plane which also houses the Vice President of the United States
- "Words of Intelligence: An Intelligence Professional's Lexicon for Domestic and Foreign Threats", Jan Goldman. Scarecrow Press, Jun 16, 2011. ISBN 0-8108-7814-3, ISBN 978-0-8108-7814-3
- "U.S. Launches 'Decapitation' Strike Against Iraq; Saddam Personally Targeted". Fox News Channel. 20 March 2003. Retrieved 9 September 2013.
- "Cruise missiles target Saddam". CNN. 20 March 2003. Retrieved 9 September 2013.
- "Airstrikes on Iraqi leaders 'abject failure'". New York Times News Service. 13 June 2004. Retrieved 9 September 2013.