Image China’s Surprise Attack Preparations: Defensive Posturing or Strategic Signaling?
China’s Surprise Attack Preparations: Defensive Posturing or Strategic Signaling?

China’s Surprise Attack Preparations: Defensive Posturing or Strategic Signaling?

Last Wednesday, China reportedly conducted military exercises as a means to cope with a sea-based “surprise attack” emanating from the Korean peninsula. On the surface, the story isn’t all that interesting. However, when one considers why a country would advertise its military exercises in such a context, it is worth pondering if there is any message encoded in the rhetoric. After all, broadcasting one’s readiness for a “surprise” attack seems to undermine one’s efforts to counter its potential impact. Then again, perhaps it is an artful way of engaging in diversionary deception.

Image A Chinese Xia-class nuclear-powered submarine (Kyodo photo)
A Chinese Xia-class nuclear-powered submarine (Kyodo photo)

Having telegraphed its motives for a military drill, China is operating somewhat contrary to the key insights that students of surprise attack literature have learned over the decades.

In order to demonstrate why this is a deviation from the diplomatic signaling norm, it is worth reviewing some of what has come to be held as common knowledge regarding surprise attacks. For instance, historically “successful” surprise attacks are normally short-lived experiences. Typically, the long-term consequences of such an enterprise are counterproductive and devastating for the attacker.

Many famous empirical examples are drawn from, but not limited to, World War II: Germany’s swift conquest of France in 1940; its similar eastward attempt the following year toward the Soviet Union; and a desperate 1944 westward push toward Antwerp (memorialized as the “Battle of the Bulge”). Seared in the minds of many Americans is, of course, Japan’s simultaneous attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines in 1941. In the Middle East, the combined Arab assault on Israel in 1973 fits this model as well.

Image Egypt and Syria caught Israel off-guard when they attacked on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar in 1973 (AP)
Egypt and Syria caught Israel off-guard when they attacked on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar in 1973 (AP)

There are other times, however, when a surprise attack shifts not the balance of power, but the balance of opinion, which can generate significant policy consequences. This is especially so in a democracy such as the U.S., where media opinions may cue public opinion, inevitably impacting politicians’ decision calculus. An instance such as the 1968 Tet Offensive illustrates this phenomenon. Although on the surface it appeared to be a strategic blunder for the North Vietnamese Army to transition to a conventional attack against a superior adversary, it may have defined the tipping point for enough Americans to call for the end of our involvement in the conflict.

However, this principle doesn’t particularly translate in the case of China for two reasons. First, China’s military maneuvers are being carried out within its territorial waters against a potential attack on its homeland. Second, where democracy doesn’t thrive, the public opinion impact is normally negligible and is often intentionally shaped by the government itself.

Image China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning sails into Hong Kong, China, July 7, 2017. (REUTERS / Bobby Yip)
China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning sails into Hong Kong, China, July 7, 2017. (REUTERS / Bobby Yip)

So, what makes a surprise attack successful?

The consensus is that psychological features of the victim state militate against adequate anticipation. The following is a distillation of some key insights gleaned from what many scholars attribute to intelligence failures that enable surprise attacks to be successfully carried out.

  • The attacker can generate “alert fatigue” by persistently feigning preparations for attack:
    • This can lead to the victim being lulled into a state of complacency;
    • This can also lead to a sense that bluffing is the norm, calling into question the enemy’s ability to follow through.
  • The defender may form an image of their adversary that deems an attack to be imminent only if certain thresholds are met:
    • Myopia can occur at any level within a government, most often among leadership;
    • It is far more difficult to un-learn and re-learn when one is predisposed toward certain conclusions;
  • The signal-to-noise ratio can hinder the discovery of relevant, actionable and timely information (intelligence):
    • The attacker has an advantage in that this normally occurring condition can be manipulated;
    • The defender must consistently seek to discern what signals, if any, are embedded in ordinary noise:
      • This is sometimes lamented as a process akin to sipping water from a firehose.
    • There are organizationally derived impediments that may cause competition among service branches, or violate an organization’s essence:
      • The intelligence services within the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are likely to perceive threats through a prism that invokes strategies for which they are best equipped;
        • This is sometimes symbolized by the phrase “when all one has is a hammer, everything appears to be a nail” (attributed to either Mark Twain or Abraham Maslow).

In considering China’s pronouncement that it is training for a potential surprise attack, one may want to pause and consider what the value of such a declaration actually is. Are they signaling defensive readiness to North Korea, or the U.S., in an effort to bolster their security profile abroad? Are they swaggering for domestic consumption? Are they acting in a manner that seeks to thwart a surprise attack from one direction (the Yellow Sea), yet actually preparing for an attack from another (e.g., a cross-border land-grab)?

Resolving such unknown intentions is the province of a professional intelligence corps, which consists of members who actively seek to reduce their own biases, while attempting to temper those of their policy consumers.


Hearing that China is “preparing” for a “surprise attack” is a behavior that seems out of step with the need for secrecy in defending against one. Nonetheless, it seems that the likely impetus for speaking in defensive terms centers on signaling to adversaries that they are alert and capable of implementing countermeasures.

Perhaps that is the full extent of China’s rhetoric, but only time will tell if it was designed as a ruse to conceal an ulterior motive.

David Firester, Lima Charlie News

David Firester is the founder and CEO of TRAC Intelligence, LLC. He is also a combat veteran, who held three Military Occupational Specialties in the U.S. Army and has served in a variety of domestic law enforcement roles. He holds advanced degrees in political science and serves as an adjunct instructor at Baruch College in New York City.

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Lima Charlie provides global news, insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.

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The forgoing analysis was based on a multitude of academic sources, which include but are not limited to the following.

Relevant Books:

Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense Planning

Surprise Attack: The Victim’s Perspective

Preventing Surprise Attacks: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of 9/11

Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning

Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision

Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American National Security

Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War

Remaking Domestic Intelligence

Best Truth: Intelligence in the Information Age

Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napolean to Al-Qaeda

Perception and Misperception in International Politics

The Logic of Images in International Relations

The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion

Relevant Scholarly Articles (some of which may be accessible through Google Scholar):

Allison, Graham T., and Morton H. Halperin. “Bureaucratic politics: A paradigm and some policy implications.” World Politics: A Quarterly Journal of International Relations (1972): 40-79.

Bar–Joseph, Uri, and Arie W. Kruglanski. “Intelligence failure and need for cognitive closure: On the psychology of the Yom Kippur surprise.” Political Psychology 24.1 (2003): 75-99.

Betts, Richard K. “Surprise, Scholasticism, and Strategy: A Review of Ariel Levite’s Intelligence and Strategic Surprises (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).” International Studies Quarterly 33.3 (1989): 329-343.

Betts, Richard K. “Analysis, war, and decision: Why intelligence failures are inevitable.” World Politics 31.1 (1978): 61-89.

Byman, Daniel. “Strategic surprise and the September 11 attacks.” Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 8 (2005): 145-170.

Chan, Steve. “The intelligence of stupidity: understanding failures in strategic warning.” American Political Science Review 73.1 (1979): 171-180.

Gazit, Shlomo. “Estimates and Fortune-Telling in Intelligence Work.” International Security 4.4 (1980): 36-56.

Handel, Michael I. “Surprise and Change in International Politics.” International Security 4.4 (1980): 57-85.

Heuer Jr, Richards J. “Strategic deception and counterdeception: A cognitive process approach.” International Studies Quarterly 25.2 (1981): 294-327.

Hilsman, Roger. “Intelligence and policy-making in foreign affairs.” World Politics 5.1 (1952): 1-45.

Levitt, Barbara, and James G. March. “Organizational learning.” Annual review of sociology 14.1 (1988): 319-338.

Levy, Jack S. “Learning and foreign policy: sweeping a conceptual minefield.” International organization 48.2 (1994): 279-312.

Shlaim, Avi. “Failures in national intelligence estimates: The case of the Yom Kippur War.” World Politics 28.3 (1976): 348-380.

Rose, P. K. “Perceptions and Reality: Two Strategic Intelligence Mistakes in Korea, 1950.” Inside CIA: Lessons in Intelligence (2004): 210.

Simon, Herbert A. “Bounded rationality and organizational learning.” Organization science 2.1 (1991): 125-134.

Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases.” Utility, probability, and human decision making. Springer Netherlands, 1975. 141-162.

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