Surprise, Initiative, and Battlefield Superiority

by Dr. Derek Povah

    It is 1 July 1863, the first day of the Civil War battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Confederate Brigadier General Alfred Iverson's brigade has crossed the Mummasburg Road with flags flying. At about 3 p.m., the soldiers enter an unobstructed grassy field. Unbeknown to the Confederate leaders, Federal troops of the 83d New York, 97th New York, and 88th Pennsylvania Regiments have formed under cover of woods and behind a stone wall.

    As Iverson's men march across the field, they are drifting in and out of formation. This indicates to the Federal troops a lack of leadership, which is indeed the case because Iverson is well to the rear of his brigade. The Federal soldiers just watch the Confederate advance and wait for the order to begin shooting. At 80 yards, the Federal troops open fire, totally surprising the approaching Confederates. From the first volley, almost 500 Confederate soldiers go down. After approximately 5 to 10 minutes, almost all of Iverson's brigade is annihilated. Those who were not hit lay on the ground and attempt to surrender by waving their hats, clothing, or anything else available to attract attention. The New York and Pennsylvania troops, seeing an opportunity to inflict further damage, advance from their cover toward the downed Confederates with muskets and bayonets.


    The fate of Iverson's men at Gettysburg shows how lack of good leadership, inaccurate gathering of data, poor situational analysis, and poor communications and guidance can provide an opponent with the opportunity to deliver a devastating surprise attack. The concept of surprise is still vital to today's Army. In Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, surprise is included under "The Foundations of Army Operations" as one of "The Principles of War," where it is defined as the ability to "strike the enemy at a time or place or in a manner for which he is unprepared." Surprise can decisively shift the balance of combat power.

    In reality, surprise can be a factor in the success of any organization. In the private sector, when a company is beaten by its competition, the reason usually is that its leaders were caught off guard, surprised, or outmaneuvered. The leaders had not kept themselves apprised of current events and had not attempted to safeguard the future. To enable organizations to stay ahead of their competition, leaders must develop skills in outmaneuvering the opposition (maneuver dominance). Today's organizational leaders have become very conscious of building up their organization's security (security dominance), which enables them to protect their products, research and development, marketing niches, and customer base in order to survive.

    From the single Gettysburg incident, we can learn the importance of good leadership. Leaders should look ahead (be visionary), collect and analyze data and intelligence, use the data to make good decisions—and avoid being caught off guard and surprised. Most importantly, leaders should develop their subordinates' trust in their leadership, so that those subordinates know that their leaders will be around in times of trouble.


    "The Foundations of Army Operations" in FM 100-5 also includes initiative as one of "The Tenets of Army Operations." In general, initiative is the ability to see and take advantage of an opportunity or to initiate a course of action that will prove beneficial to an organization. The Army views initiative as an action that sets or changes the terms of battle; it implies an offensive spirit in the conduct of all operations.

    An Army example of initiative is the deception operations phase of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The purpose of the deception operations was to mislead the Iraqi enemy and cause him to unwittingly plan and conduct activities that actually benefited the objectives of the U.S.-led coalition force. The deception operations were very successful in attaining those objectives.

    The coalition commanders ascertained that the Iraqi Republican Guard was the enemy's center of gravity. The coalition forces then took the initiative to launch deception operations designed to make the Iraqis believe that the main attack was going to be delivered from the Persian Gulf. By building up Navy and Marine Corps assets in the Gulf and south of Kuwait, the deception operations gradually began to affect the Iraqi commanders' decision making. Information age technology and aerial attacks further deceived the Iraqis into thinking that the main attack was coming from the east and south. Even the mass media were manipulated into reporting the coalition buildup.

    While all of these deception operations were being implemented, a large coalition force was moving over the western desert to deliver the actual main attack. That attack, called the "left hook," was going to hit at the Republican Guard's rear. The positioning of the coalition forces in the left hook configuration also cut off the enemy's escape route back to Baghdad and left them with only one actual line of retreat. The Iraqis concentrated their forces to the east and were totally surprised when the attack came from their rear.

    This account of deception operations shows how the coalition commanders, by applying the Army's tenet of initiative, took the first step during the Gulf War in creating advantages that enabled them to obtain their overall objective.

Maintaining Battlefield Superiority

    Army Vision 2010 identifies six patterns of operations that will ensure that Army forces maintain battlefield superiority: project the force, protect the force, shape the battlefield, achieve decisive operations, sustain the force, and gain information dominance.

    When the Army refers to projecting the force, it is attempting to create an image in the minds of any adversary of an unstoppable force of unequaled competence. This is achieved by obtaining the upper hand through constant dominant maneuvering. Projecting the force requires anticipation, careful planning, second guessing, and staying ahead of the enemy at all times. All of these will present to an enemy a force ready and willing to fight under great leadership, able to use the best technology, and able to fight for the duration of the conflict due to an enormous sustaining base capability.

    To reach its objectives, the whole Army must be protected. This protection is derived through a holistic approach. Constant reliance on technological advances and operational intelligence remains the means of providing a protective shield over the entire force both at home and abroad. Private industry plays a big part in protecting the force by conducting research and development, manufacturing materiel, and providing delivery systems and services.

    Linked to protecting the force is information dominance. Information dominance is achieved by information operations. Information operations consist of both offensive and defensive efforts to create a disparity between what the Army knows about the battlespace and operations within it and what the enemy knows about his battlespace. Psychological operations, deception operations, and feints are all used to obtain information dominance. Information dominance is achieved by continued sharing of information among all services, allies, and coalition partners.

    Shaping the battlefield is linked directly to decisive operations and begins with obtaining early information dominance. By achieving information dominance, the commander can better decide on high-value targets, detect those targets, and deliver the correct munitions to destroy them. After the initial attacks have been carried out, an assessment of the targets determines battle damage and the need for reengagement.

    Having pre-positioned stocks of equipment available to be delivered at a moment's notice anywhere in the world only provides a limited amount of support to the troops. During a conflict, the Army will not take long to run out of equipment, food, water, petroleum, spare parts, clothing, tents, ammunition, personnel, medical materiel, and many other necessities. The Army must be replenished on a timely basis with the correct supplies delivered to the right location. This pattern of operations is called sustaining the force. Sustaining the force depends on communications (information dominance again), a large transportation capability, trained personnel, technology to track assets at all times, tailored delivery packages, commonality of weapon systems, and maintenance capabilities. Sustaining the force depends not only on delivering the goods but also, in many cases, on bringing them back home as well across long distances and over all types of terrain.

    The six patterns of operations identified in Army Vision 2010 do not stand alone: they are linked to each other. Nor does the Army stand alone; achieving the patterns of operations depends in part on continued acquisition of advanced technologies, partnering with industry, and maintaining quality people. These patterns of operations will continue to ensure that the Army maintains battlefield superiority and will be able to exercise those historically vital factors of battlefield success: surprise and initiative.

    Dr. Derek Povah is a logistics management specialist in the Power Projection Logistics Division, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, Army Forces Command, at Fort McPherson, Georgia. He is a graduate of the Army Management Staff College Sustaining Base Leadership and Management Program.