Letter From MHQ, Spring 2016 | HistoryNet
The USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

Letter From MHQ, Spring 2016

3/4/2016 • MHQ Magazine


Being uncomfortable with surprise—that is, with an abrupt and unexpected change in circumstances—seems to be a longstanding and widespread human characteristic. Accordingly, in military terms, a surprise attack is an especially unwelcome challenge. The importance and effectiveness of surprise surely goes all the way back to the earliest iterations of warfare, as in the legendary Trojan horse episode.

Surprise attacks at the strategic level, relying on secrecy and deception, have often proved effective and occasionally decisive in wars. As recently as World War II and the Korean War, such attacks as those by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, the Chinese intervention across the Yalu River, and the UN forces’ invasion at Incheon dramatically altered the course of conflict.

But a long series of technological innovations and developments over the past century may have finally rendered the large-scale surprise attack a thing of the past. It may be a real challenge for military historians of the future to appreciate the sense of surprise that was once a commonplace, leading them to ask: “How could they fail to see what was about to happen?” and “How could an entire battle fleet fail to locate the enemy’s battle fleet?” That’s now hard to imagine.

Intelligence was always the major counter to surprise, and divining the imminent moves of an enemy force was long a matter of listening and watching for telltale signs via scouts, informers and spies, cavalry units, not to mention smoke and clouds of dust.

The breakthrough developments that have reduced the chances of major surprise include photography and aerial surveillance, first with lighter-than-air craft, then with airplanes, satellites, and drones. Electronic means of intelligence gathering, from acoustic listening devices, radio signal interception and direction finding have progressed through the major developments of radar, sonar, and infrared and heat-sensing technologies. Now, on land and sea and even under the sea, large-scale movement of enemy forces is all but impossible to conceal. Small-scale, small-unit surprise attacks remain possible and an effective tactic—used increasingly by nonstate terrorist operatives. But the likelihood of a successful deception on the scale of Operation Fortitude, the Allied campaign that convinced Hitler that Calais would be the site of the anticipated 1944 invasion at Normandy, has become vanishingly small.


—Michael W. Robbins

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