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Counterforce is a military targeting doctrine, historically associated with nuclear warfare but now possible with precision-guided munitions. Historically, less precise systems, such as the Japanese attack at the Battle of Pearl Harbor, used "dumb" weapons with varying levels of effectiveness.

A counterforce attack concentrates on enemy military systems, with several variants depending on the concern for damage to the civilian sector (i.e., counterforce). It is usually a term for strategic strike, or more rarely battlefield air interdiction mission, but not in close air support.

More counterforce tactics are emerging. Some would be vulnerable to information operations, using electronic attack or intrusion into computer centers. Specialized weapons may be useful for certain operations, such as the carbon-filament submunitions that can short out electrical power lines without permanent damage to generators. If the power lines to a uranium enrichment using centrifuges could be simultaneously disrupted, however, that could be catastrophic to the centrifuces

Cold war concepts

Herman Kahn proposed three basic models for counterforce, which have proven useful whether the targeting does or does not use nuclear weapons:[1]

  • counterforce with avoidance: danger to the civil sector is minimized, even if that might lower the probability of destroying the counterforce target
  • unmodified counterforce: the amount of force is optimized for the assured destruction of the target
  • counterforce with bonus: the attack is first intended to destroy the target, but also to maximize collateral damage to civilian resources in the area. For example, if a military base was near a city, a bonus counterforce attack might use a nuclear weapon with a larger effective radius, and aim it between the base and the city. The base would still be in the radius of total destruction of the weapon.

Of course, the wide area effects of nuclear weapons tend to risk civilians more than PGMs, unless the target (e.g., a missile silo or early warning radar) is in a remote location.


While preemptive counterforce was not a U.S. policy, and possibly not a Soviet policy, in the Cold War, the availability of conventional PGMs and other non-nuclear methods of attack make it more plausible as a counterproliferation mission against weapons of mass destruction[2] While there is a "There is a strong preference for pre-emption to take the form of conventional counterforce strikes, especially standoff attacks by precision-guided munitions"...neither large conventional military operations nor nuclear weapons have been ruled out in the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review of the George W. Bush administration.


  1. Kahn, Herman (1968), On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios, Penguin
  2. Russell, James A. (July 2002), "WMD Proliferation and Conventional Counterforce: The Case of Iraq", Strategic Insights Volume I (Issue 5)