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Following the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, U.S. leaders recast the national security strategy to place greater emphasis on the threats posed by terrorists and by states from which they might acquire weapons of mass destruction, and announced that in the future the United States would take advantage of opportunities to strike at potential adversaries before they attacked.

RAND Project AIR FORCE examined the nature and implications of this doctrine of striking first. This study focused on three central questions: First, under what conditions is preemptive or preventive attack worth considering or pursuing as a response to perceived security threats? Second, what role should such strategies be expected to play in future U.S. national security policy? Finally, what implications do these conclusions have for planners and policymakers in the U.S. Air Force and the other armed services as they design military capabilities and strategies to deal with national security threats in the next decade?

The study concluded preparing for such operations should not be a key driver for change in U.S. military capabilities because large-scale U.S. first strikes will be infrequent and present few unique operational military requirements, although the intelligence requirements for these strategies are highly demanding. Planners should also recognize that this doctrine may affect the types of threats posed against U.S. forces and interests by potential adversaries.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Striking First: Preemptive and Preventive Attacks

  • Chapter Two

    The Best Defense? When and Why States Strike First

  • Chapter Three

    Attacking in Self-Defense: Legality and Legitimacy of Striking First

  • Chapter Four

    Preemptive and Preventive Strategies in Future U.S. National Security Policy: Prospects and Implications

  • Appendix A

    U.S. Preventive Attack Cases

  • Appendix B

    Israeli Preemptive and Preventive Attack Cases

  • Appendix C

    Counterterrorist Anticipatory Attack Cases

  • Appendix D

    NSS Statements on Preemptive and Preventive Attack

"This book is very useful in that it provides an appreciation for the doctrine [of anticipatory attack], its recent antecedents, its components, the legal issues, the value or lack thereof in diplomatic and military strategy, and finally, its utility. I found this work to be very useful and very readable."

- Air Power History, Summer 2008

" 'Striking First' analyzes preventive and preemptive attacks, which the authors combine under the term anticipatory attack, in US national security policy. The authors offer much cogent analysis on the causes, consequences, and future of preventive and preemptive military action. Scholars and, to a greater degree, policymakers, will benefit from a careful reading of this book."

- Journal of Strategic Studies, June 2007

"Preventive attacks on the sweeping scale and with the oversized ambitions of the Iraq war will not soon be undertaken again, at least not by the United States. But preventive and preemptive military action, or what the authors of this useful book term 'anticipatory attack', remain important policy instruments… [The author's] recommendations for the U.S. defense posture are sensible, and they wisely warn that anticipatory attack can only be an occasional policy tool, not a cornerstone of grand strategy… The case studies are well done, and they are interesting in their own right. U.S. forces will eventually withdraw from Iraq, but the United States will undoubtedly employ military force preventively in the future. For concerned citizens who want to know more about the logic and challenges of preventive attack, this is a good place to start."

- Political Science Quarterly, Winter 2007-08

"'Striking First' offers a fine survey of the theoretical literature on preventive war and pre-emption, the factors that increase 'preventive motivations' for war, the issues that policymakers need to consider when contemplating preventive war, and what amounts to a lively legal debate about the potential circumstances when 'attacking in self-defense' might be justifiable under international law… Mueller and his colleagues have succeeded in providing a concise and balanced overview of theory, practice and limits of preventive war and pre-emption."

- Survival, Winter 2007–2008

"Our friends at RAND Corporation continue their production of quality and insightful works related to the future of defense planning with 'Striking First: Preemptive and Preventative Attack in U.S. National Security Policy' by Karl P. Mueller, et al. The authors examine the controversial doctrine outlined in the 2002 National Security Strategy that addressed circumstances where America might strike first against its enemies. Of particular interest is the authors' treatment of preemptive attacks against possible threats from terrorists or rogue states. Not only do the authors examine the costs, benefits, and risks associated with first strikes, they also analyze the legal and moral considerations that must be taken into account. They conclude with a warning to policymakers and military planners that this strategy may have unintended results, the greatest of which is encouraging an enemy to initiate his own preemptive strike."

- Parameters, the US Army War College Quarterly, Spring 2007

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The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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