Research Brief

Operations that threaten the person and power of senior enemy decisionmakers have long been considered to be promising instruments for shortening wars, affecting other changes in enemy policy and behavior, and degrading enemy war-fighting capability. Over the years, the United States has mounted both overt and covert operations to kill enemy leaders directly or to secure their overthrow either by indigenous coup or rebellion or by external invasion and takedown. In Operations Against Enemy Leaders, Stephen T. Hosmer analyzes some two dozen cases of attacks on leadership from World War II to the present. From this information, he distills policy and operational lessons regarding the comparative efficacy and prerequisites for success of different forms of attack, their potential coercive and deterrent value, and the possible unintended consequences of their ill-considered use.

Direct Attacks, Coups, and Rebellions Have Poor Results

Because enemy leaders devote priority attention and abundant resources to the protection of their persons and power, they are hard to kill and overthrow. With the single exception of the shootdown of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's aircraft in World War II, all U.S. efforts to directly attack senior enemy leaders—from Fidel Castro to Muammar al-Qaddafi to Saddam Hussein to Slobodan Milosevic—have failed. Direct attacks typically do not succeed because the targeted leaders are protected by elaborate security measures that deny the attackers access to their persons and timely intelligence about their locations. These leaders tend to move frequently, and when threatened they often relocate to "safe houses" in civilian residential areas or to hardened facilities. Self-imposed humanitarian, political, and legal constraints also limit the means by which enemy leaders can be attacked.

The only coups d'etat explicitly sponsored or sanctioned by the United States that have succeeded have been against leaders who had lost the support of significant elements of their own military—Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. The one successful ouster of a leader by a rebellion organized by the United States—Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala—was accomplished by limited air attacks and ground force demonstrations against a government that was again denied backing from its own armed forces. Coups and attempted rebellions have failed when the targeted leaders—such as Qaddafi, Manuel Noriega, and Saddam—have been protected by ubiquitous intelligence and internal security services, large praetorian guard forces, or other loyalist units.

Even Successful Attacks Often Do Not Produce Desired Results

While the capture and subsequent apostasy of charismatic guerrilla leaders—such as Abimael Guzman in Peru—have seriously weakened some antigovernment rebellions, the demise, capture, or incapacitation of an enemy leader typically does not result in a favorable change in enemy policy or behavior. The frequent futility of leadership attacks is borne out by the Israeli attempts to suppress Palestinian terrorism and by the Russian attempts to pacify Chechnya. Indeed, previous analyses of the effects of political assassinations from antiquity through modern times document the infrequency with which the killing of a particular leader has produced the results the assassin hoped for.

Experience also shows that ill-considered leadership attacks can produce extremely harmful unintended consequences. The U.S. helicopter gunship attack on Somali National Alliance leaders in Mogadishu on July 12, 1993, proved to be a major blunder because it dramatically increased support for General Aideed and generated such strong anti-American sentiments that Somalis were thereafter motivated to kill U.S. troops.

Because attacks on enemy leadership can be counterproductive, U.S. decisionmakers must be confident that their benefits will outweigh possible costs. To make such assessments, U.S. officials should consult knowledgeable area experts to determine the likely reactions of enemy and other publics to a successful leadership attack, its possible effects on power relationships within the enemy camp, and how it is likely to affect the enemy policy and behavior that the United States wishes to modify.

Coercive Effects of Attacks Have Been Uneven

The prospect that the United States might attack a leader directly or attempt to foment his overthrow by a coup d'etat seems to have had little deterrent or coercive effect. Enemy leaders, including Castro, Qaddafi, and Saddam, all continued to pursue policies harmful to U.S. interests after being targeted by such U.S. operations. Among the possible reasons for this defiant behavior may be the enemy leaders' belief that their enhanced security measures will allow them to survive any future U.S attacks, their fear that acquiescence to U.S. demands might undermine their credibility and authority among the key constituencies that maintain them in power, or their willingness to die for their cause.

However, there also have been instances when enemy leaders have preferred to yield rather than risk intensified U.S. air attacks that could spark sufficient domestic discontent to produce their ouster. Such was the case with Milosevic during the conflict over Kosovo. In some instances, the United States has also been able to create coercive leverage by supporting indigenous rebellions. The U.S. arms and logistical support to rebel and resistance movements in Angola, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan produced useful bargaining leverage for the United States in those Cold War conflict situations.

Air Power Can Sometimes Be Used in Attacks on Leadership

The historical record suggests that U.S. decisionmakers will be willing to sanction direct attacks against enemy leaders if they can be

  • justified by the right of self-defense,
  • said to be directed against facilities that serve a military or security function,
  • conducted by uniformed members of the armed services in accordance with the law of armed conflict, and
  • embedded in a larger military campaign.

Decisionmakers will be most willing to sanction such attacks when they believe the targeted leader is the key promoter or facilitator of the policy and behavior that the United States wishes to change.

Because enemy leaders frequently change locations and resort to deception and camouflage to mask their whereabouts, the success of any air attack will depend heavily on the availability of accurate, near-real-time or predictive intelligence. Special penetrating weapons will be required to effectively attack command bunkers located deep underground; and accurate, low-yield munitions will be needed to strike leaders who relocate to civilian residential areas.

If circumstances permit, the intervention of U.S. air power could enhance the prospects of a coup or rebellion that might otherwise fail because the anti-regime forces lacked the firepower and other combat capabilities to prevail. Providing effective air support to a coup would likely pose difficult operational problems because the outcomes of most coups are decided within hours rather than days. Washington decisionmakers would have to be prepared to commit forces promptly, and U.S. air elements would have to be poised for immediate action. Providing combat support to a rebellion, while operationally less taxing, could prove difficult to sustain politically given that it might take years for an opposition group to gather sufficient strength to overthrow an entrenched government.

External Takedowns Remain the Most Certain Way to Remove Enemy Leaders

The surest way to unseat a hostile regime, Hosmer writes, is to oust it with external military force. Since the takedown of the Axis powers in World War II, the United States has employed its armed forces to remove hostile regimes in Grenada and Panama and to force the abdication of a ruling military junta in Haiti. The decision to order these takedowns was undoubtedly made easier by the fact that all three of the targeted governments possessed extremely weak military forces.

Generally, U.S. decisionmakers will be reluctant to sanction the invasion and occupation of enemy states because of the likely costs involved. However, there may be contingencies—such as an attack with weapons of mass destruction on the U.S. homeland—that would impel U.S. decisionmakers to order the takedown of an enemy state that possessed large and well-equipped military forces. For some enemy leaders, the threat of overthrow and punishment by external military force may have a greater deterrent and coercive effect than the threat of death or removal by other means. To persuade adversaries that it has the political will and military capability to conduct such takedowns, the United States will need to maintain robust air, ground, and naval forces capable of expeditionary operations. Indeed, the potential need for takedowns should be included among the major contingencies that size U.S. forces.

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