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Naval War College Review, Summer 1998

Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance

Ullman, Harlan K., and James P. Wade, with L. A. Edney et al.
Washington, D.C.: National Defense Univ., 1996. 199pp. (No price given)

Sponsored by the National Defense University's Advanced Concepts, Technologies, and Information Strategies (ACTIS), a seven-member study group composed of distinguished scholars and retired general officers has sought to provide the national security community with a radically new military strategy for a rapidly changing world. The result of their endeavor is Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, a futurist-oriented work that seeks "to explore alternative concepts for structuring mission capability packages . . . around which future U.S. military forces might be configured."

At the outset the authors sound a cautionary note. The military and political leadership of the United States, confronting an uncertain world and an era of rapid technological change, must abandon the current military-industrial structure born of World War II and the Cold War. The authors seek to "replace or complement" the strategy of overwhelming force by exploiting the "revolutionary potential" of existing and emerging technologies for a new doctrine of "rapid dominance." While, as the authors note, it is not a panacea, the objective of rapid dominance is to "impose [an] overwhelming level of Shock and Awe against an adversary on an immediate or sufficiently timely basis to paralyze its will to carry on." Ideally, shock and awe would both paralyze and deter an opponent before the bullets fly. If deterrence fails, rapid dominance would "seize control of the environment and paralyze or so overload an adversary's perceptions . . . that the enemy would be incapable of resistance at tactical and strategic levels."

Unfortunately, it is the reader who is "shocked." While the authors are all eminently qualified to expound on military affairs and strategy, the text is rambling, repetitious, and at times incoherent. The authors did not intend this to be a scholarly tome but expected their work to spark thought and debate. Yet a number of egregious errors call its credibility into question. The reader learns, for example, that "Operation Rolling Thunder III," executed in November and December 1972, brought Hanoi back to the bargaining table, that terrorists bombed the "Kolbah barracks" in Riyadh in June 1996, and that the Israelis struck Syria's nuclear reactors in 1982.

The evidence used to support the concept of shock and awe is uneven. The authors make a strong case for Germany's blitzkrieg campaigns as an example of shock and awe, but sadly, the book's editors are obviously unfamiliar with that Wehrmacht strategy, consistently spelling the German word as "blitzkreig." As in blitzkrieg, rapid dominance produces shock and awe through four elements, including "rapidity." Yet the authors stretch their concept beyond credible limits, endowing the footslogging Roman legions with the ability to produce shock and awe. In an incomprehensible leap of logic, the Nazi Holocaust is classified a "state policy of Shock and Awe." The authors also tell us that it would be hard to "overstate the importance of information dissemination within Rapid Dominance"; indeed, much of the book is devoted to the critical importance of this strategy of information-based technology. Yet in a warning against "overvisualizing" the concept, the reader is informed that rapid dominance "must still confront the fog of war." While a prudent statement, it also casts doubt on the feasibility of the entire concept.

Shock and Awe offers a new strategy built from assertion and speculation, admittedly leavened with the authors' practical experience. Indeed, at the end of the book retired generals Charles Horner and Frederick Franks, and retired admiral L. A. "Bud" Edney provide the reader with insightful essays. Still, these brief appendices cannot salvage this work. Likewise, though the central proposition of Shock and Aweis valid, the principal authors have unfortunately cloaked some radical ideas in a poorly organized and edited treatise. Military professionals and national policy makers seeking new concepts for the nation's defense will find them here—but they will have to look past the text itself for the ideas it promulgates.

Major, U.S. Air Force