Decapitation strike

Decapitation strike

In the theory of nuclear warfare, a decapitation strike is a first strike attack that aims to remove the command and control mechanisms of the opponent, in the hope that it will severely degrade or destroy its capacity for nuclear retaliation.

Strategies against decapitation strikes include:

  • distributed command and control structures
  • dispersal of political and military leadership in times of tension
  • delegation of the ability to fire 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 undertaken by the targeted opponent. Many countries with nuclear weapons are specifically designed to make decapitation strike almost impossible with the second-strike strategy. Countries with nuclear weapons have mobile launch, sea launch, air launch and underground launch facilities so that a nuclear launch on one area of the country will not totally decapitate their retaliatory strike.

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 which is capable of negotiating a surrender or ceasefire.

Implementing fail-deadly mechanisms can be a way to deter decapitation strikes, and cope with a successful decapitation strike.

Decapitation strikes may also apply to conventional warfare methods, such as car bombings.

In fiction

  • In the movie Dr. Strangelove, Senator Buford complains that the US 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 alternative history in which the 1962 crisis developed into war, the Soviets manage to destroy Washington D.C. and kill Kennedy, Johnson and most of their political and military advisors. This coup, however, works disastrously against the Soviet Union. Had Kennedy survived, he might have ordered a measured response. Since he didn't, surviving American generals order a total attack, which continues long past the breaking of any Soviet military capacity and results in killing some 80% of the entire Soviet population, and later results in the United States being accused of genocide.
  • In the 1982 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. During the crisis in which the computer mistakenly thinks it is engaged in an actual nuclear war, this feature makes simply depowering the system an obviously unacceptable option and the computer must be made to stop in a different way.

See also


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