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In military doctrine, countervalue is the targeting of an opponent's assets that are of value but not actually a military threat, such as cities and civilian populations. Counterforce is the targeting of an opponent's military forces and facilities.[1][2] The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., records the first use of the word in 1660 and the first use in the modern sense in 1965 in which it is described as a "euphemism for attacking cities".


In warfare, particularly nuclear warfare, enemy targets can be divided into two general types: counterforce military targets and countervalue civilian targets. Those terms were not used during the Second World War bombing of civilian populations and other targets that were not directly military.

The rationale behind countervalue targeting is that if two sides have both achieved assured destruction capability, and the nuclear arsenals of both sides have the apparent ability to survive a wide range of counterforce attacks and carry out a second strike in response, the value diminishes in an all-out nuclear war of targeting the opponent's nuclear arsenal, and the value of targeting the opponent's cities and civilians increases. That line of reasoning, however, assumes that the opponent values its civilians over its military forces. One view argues that countervalue targeting upholds nuclear deterrence because both sides are more likely to believe in each other's no first use policy. The line of reasoning is that if an aggressor strikes first with nuclear weapons against an opponent's countervalue targets, such an attack, by definition, does not degrade its opponent's military capacity to retaliate. The opposing view counters that countervalue targeting is neither moral nor credible because, if an aggressor strikes first with nuclear weapons against only a limited number of a defender's counterforce military targets, the defender should not retaliate in this situation against the aggressor's civilian populace, as this would likely constitute a major escalation of such a conflict. However, another position is that because the aggressor starts the conflict, it should not be treated with a "gloves-on" approach (i.e., severity of retaliation should not be reduced deliberately to avoid escalation), which would give a further incentive to be an aggressor, or produce a presumptively weaker deterrent effect.

Use in modern warfare[edit]

Countervalue operations are a standard part of Russian military doctrine,[3] in particular the shelling of cities and civilian populations with rocket and conventional artillery.[4] Russian countervalue operations in Ukraine have led to international condemnation.[5] The attack on the Nord Stream pipelines, blamed by some western sources on Russia, is considered a countervalue attack on EU infrastructure.[6]

International law[edit]

The intentional targeting of civilians with military force, such as nuclear weapons, is prohibited by international law. In particular, the Fourth Geneva Convention forbids attacks on certain types of civilian targets, and Protocol I states that civilian objects are not acceptable military targets. (Not all states are party to Protocol I.) Nonetheless, "proportional" collateral damage is allowed, which could justify attacks on military objectives in cities. Many strategic military facilities like bomber airfields were located near cities. Command and control centers were located in Moscow; Washington, DC; and other cities.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kristensen, Hans M.; Robert S. Norris; Ivan Oelrich (April 2009). "From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons" (PDF). Occasional Paper. FEDERATION of AMERICAN SCIENTISTS & THE NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL. 7. Retrieved 19 September 2010. }
  2. ^ Corcoran, Edward A. (29 November 2005). "Strategic Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence". Retrieved 19 September 2010.
  3. ^ "Russian Military Strategy: Operational Concepts" (PDF). CNA.
  4. ^ Victor, Daniel; Nechepurenko, Ivan (15 July 2022). "Russia Repeatedly Strikes Ukraine's Civilians. There's Always an Excuse". The New York Times.
  5. ^ "Russian attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine could be a war crime: UN rights office". 11 March 2022.
  6. ^ "Permanent Rupture: The European-Russian Energy Relationship Has Ended with Nord Stream". War on the Rocks. 2022-10-03. Retrieved 2022-10-26.