A decapitation strike is a military strategy aimed at removing the leadership or command and control of a hostile government or group. The strategy of shattering or defeating an enemy by eliminating its military and political leadership has long been utilized in warfare.
In nuclear warfare
In nuclear warfare theory, a decapitation strike is a pre-emptive first strike attack that aims to destabilize an opponent's military and civil leadership structure in the hope that it will severely degrade or destroy its capacity for nuclear retaliation. It is essentially a subset of a counterforce strike but whereas a counterforce strike seeks to destroy weapons directly, a decapitation strike is designed to remove an enemy's ability to use its weapons.
Strategies against decapitation strikes include the following:
- Distributed command and control structures.
- Dispersal of political leadership and military leadership in times of tension.
- Delegation of ICBM/SLBM 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 ballistic missile 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 conventional warfare
Decapitation Strike strategy has been employed in conventional warfare.
- The 2003 invasion of Iraq began with a decapitation strike against Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi military and political leaders. These air strikes failed to kill their intended targets.
- The U.S. and its NATO allies have, and continue to pursue this strategy in its efforts to dismantle militant Islamic fundamentalist networks, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIL, that threaten Western Europe, Canada and the United States.
- April 14, 1865: The assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth was part of a larger plot to disrupt the presidential line of succession by also killing then-Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward, at the close of the American Civil War
- February 1, 1908: King Carlos I of Portugal was assassinated along with his son the Crown Prince Luís Filipe by Alfredo Costa and Manuel Buiça, both connected to the Carbonária (the Portuguese section of the Carbonari)
- July 17, 1918: Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and the Imperial Family were executed by a Bolshevik firing squad under the command of Yakov Yurovsky
- July 20, 1944: Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate German Führer Adolf Hitler and his inner circle of advisers as part of a broader military coup d'état against the Nazi government, which ultimately failed
- September 11, 2001: The September 11 attacks involved Islamic terrorists using four airplanes to destroy the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Capitol in an attempt to decimate the United States federal government, the center of its defense, and its economy.
- In 2017 in response to North Korean nuclear program, the United States threatened to conduct a decapitating strike on North Korea in order to eliminate its current government and leadership.
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- The character of Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities personifies both the Reign of Terror and the concept of a decapitating strike through her knitting.
- In the film 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.
- 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. 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—most 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.
- 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.
- 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. The story continues with the suggestion of a retaliatory decapitation strike strategy, referred to as "The Grand Tour".
- 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 in Baltimore at which the American President is in attendance.
- In the 2013 science fiction film Star Trek Into Darkness, a majority of Starfleet Command's senior officers and Admiralty are killed in a surprise attack in San Francisco by Khan Noonien Singh after being tricked into attending an emergency meeting following a bombing in London.
- 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
- The 2016 TV series Designated Survivor stars Kiefer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who becomes President after a terrorist attack kills the President, the Vice President, and all other members of the Cabinet.
- Continuity of government
- Designated survivor
- Preemptive war
- Preventive war
- Targeted killing
- List of military strategies and concepts
- List of military tactics
- Operation Looking Glass
- Wittmann, Anna M. (2017). Talking Conflict: The Loaded Language of Genocide, Political Violence, Terorism, and Warfare. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. p. 92. ISBN 978-1-4408-3424-0.
- "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
- Documents on Predelegation of Authority for Nuclear Weapons Use | http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/news/predelegation/predel.htm
- "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 27 August 2017.
- Shinkman, Paul D. "Obama: 'Global War on Terror' Is Over". U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved April 4, 2017.