The Theory of Surprise

One of the core requirements of manoeuvre theory is the need for surprise. It is only when this facet is present can manoeuvre warfare work most effectively – taking the victim in unexpected ways where the risk was considered beyond the appetite of an attacker. Perhaps only then can an attack be made that really unhinges the enemy, their will and cohesion undermined to the extent that results in collapse. Surprise makes all that possible: it is an implicit requirement for both manoeuvre warfare and the contemporary version of the Western Way of War.

It is somewhat peculiar, therefore, for to find so little has been written about surprise as a concept. What there is (see reading list at the end of the article for some of the best bits) usually resides and examines the areas of strategic surprise and/or intelligence failure. The military aspects of surprise-theory and reality-seem to lack a good research base.

“Carl von Clausewitz: Surprise is over rated”

One might, of course, start with Carl von Clausewitz who – of course – addressed the issue. His views might surprise modern military leaders: that surprise was “overrated” as a facet of war and military strategy in that the costs to obtain it were too large to be considered worthy of the potential benefits that might be achieved. This argument has met with considerable resistance since being raised, particularly because during the Prussian’s era technology, logistics, and engineering where not developing at a sufficient pace that made surprise possible or worthy of the risks involved.

To Clausewitz, the logic around the risks in employing forces for surprise needed to be weighed against the opportunities they could deliver. In the Napoleonic era, gains made through surprise where often fleeting and rarely altered the overall outcome of a battle or campaign.

Even today, a sudden, unexpected raid on an adversary command node is performed in order to paralyse and perhaps unhinge an adversary. Surprise is a key element of that as raiding forces are usually lack depth and support, are seemingly always overwhelmingly outnumbered, and often lightly armed. Yet, importantly, even if a raid of this type is successful it requires an adversary to be systemically susceptible to the impacts of it. If it is not (perhaps as illustrated by the continuing highly successful attacks on Russian C2 nodes in Ukraine), the risk does not make the possible outcomes worthwhile.

“To presumption that a surprise attack leads to the inexorable defeat of the victim lacks supporting evidence.”

Other views are equally compelling. Edward Luttwak has noted that surprise on the battlefield, when executed correctly, could do more than render the victim unhinged – but changed the very nature of a dynamic competition. In theory, if surprise really can paralyse the victim, war loses its dialectic nature and “becomes simply an exercise in mere administration”. What is meant by this? Luttwak’s concept of the theory of surprise is that the victim becomes so dislocated from the fight that they become inactive and the attacker can impose their will without opposition. His administration is about the logistics to enable destruction in detail. Those that have experienced the shock [surprise] of combat, will recognize part of this: those moments when the brain becomes overwhelmed by the unfamiliar and unexpected resulting in passivity and inaction. But those same people would also recall that this moment passes, mostly quite swiftly, and the dynamic of the fight continues with both belligerents seeking to reimpose their will on the other, and to gain the initiative. The idea that a surprise attack leading to the inexorable defeat of the victim lacks supporting evidence.

While the opinions of both Clausewitz and Luttwak are valid, they both acknowledge that surprise itself is hard to achieve: its outcomes unpredictable and present considerable difficulty in mapping the subsequent orders of effect. As James Wirtz lucidly articulates, this is because, “Surprise is not a structural or systemic phenomenon – it is about human cognition, perceptions and psychology. It exists in the mind of the victim.”

The successful application and enactment of surprise happens when a victim is not able to predict and respond to the actions of an attacker. But it is not a necessary condition that the victim has not foreseen the eventuality of a direction of attack by the attacker completely: this is often a misunderstood element of the theory. Rather, it is that the victim considers the risks of that course of action to be too great to be undertaken by the attacker. In many cases, professional foresight analysis has highlighted a risk in that area already; many states had acknowledged that a global pandemic, for example, was a possibility and that the impacts could be extremely severe but it was also considered unlikely to occur. COVID 19 surprised the global community.

In retrospect, actions that take a victim by surprise are clearly identifiable – predictable even. Before an attack however, those that attempt to highlight indicators that should change the perception of risk from that vector are often viewed as Cassandras by the senior level decision-makers and commanders. It is these lower-level analysts, often more in tune with the attacker’s mindset, intent and risk appetite who have a better understanding and perception of what might be within a plan of attack for the adversary. Yet due to their position and part in the process, they are often ignored. Thus it is not uncommon for victims often fall foul of process and bureaucracy get in the way of good analysis: a hierarchy that is unwilling to be challenged and hear alternative views, as well as to amend their own belief system, are the hallmarks of a victim that will be susceptible to surprise.

“The weaker side becomes mesmerized by the potential opportunity created by surprise”

There is a related issue for attack planners too. As James Witz identifies, “…. divergence in perceptions of risk and opportunity set the stage for human cognition and psychology to create the phenomenon of surprise. The weaker side becomes mesmerized by the potential opportunity created by surprise (i.e., suspending the dialectic of war), while the stronger side fails to consider possible courses of enemy action based on stochastic estimates because it becomes focused on estimates of the enemy’s wartime capabilities. This cognitive divergence, for example, sets the stage for the use of denial and deception.”

Within manoeuvre warfare theory, surprise (and attrition) are key dependencies. Military planners relying on surprise can become blinded by their own assumptions and theories of war, imposing their own set of perceptions, risk appetite, and context on the victim. The verso also applies.

In becoming dependent on surprise within the theory of warfare (an ‘operating concept’ in today’s confusing doctrinal taxonomy), the risks of doing so are often discounted. Indeed, it is puzzling that so little thought is given to the theory of surprise by political and military leaders, war planners and strategists today. Without more attention, we will all be surprised by actions and events that are more predictable. More worryingly, our foresight analysis will become captured by group-think that mirror-images our own mindset, heuracies, biases, and preconceptions: this will prevent us from understanding the signals from others when conflict is preventable.

Further reading on the Theory of Surprise:

James J. Wirtz, “The Intelligence Paradigm,” Intelligence and National Security Vol. 4, No. 4 (October 1989), pp. 829-837.

Michael Handel, “The Yom Kippur War and the Inevitability of Surprise,” International Studies Quarterly Vol. 21 No. 3 September 1977, p. 468.

Michael Handel, “Crisis and Surprise in Three Arab-Israeli Wars,” in Klaus Knorr and Patrick Morgan (eds.), Strategic Military Surprise (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1983), p. 113.

Michael Handel, “Intelligence and the Problem of Strategic Surprise,” The Journal of Strategic Studies Vol. 7, No. 3 September 1984, pp. 229-230.

Michael Handel, “Technological Surprise in War,” Intelligence and National Security Vol. 2, No 1 (January 1987), pp. 1-53.

Michael Handel, “The Politics of Intelligence,” Intelligence and National Security Vol. 2 No. 4 (October 1987), pp. 5-46;

Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in World Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976);

Ephraim Kam, Surprise Attack: The Victim’s Perspective (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

Roy Godson and James J. Wirtz, Strategic Denial and Deception (New Brunswick: Transaction Publisher, 2002), pp. 181-221.

Edward Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 8.

Richard Betts, Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense Planning (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1982), especially pp. 88-92.


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