[koun-ter-fawrs, -fohrs]
Counterforce refers to the military strategy of targeting one's forces on the forces of the enemy.


In nuclear warfare, enemy targets are divided into two types; a counterforce target is an element of the military infrastructure, usually either specific weapons or the bases which support them. A counterforce strike is an attack which targets these elements whilst leaving the civilian infrastructure – known as countervalue targets – as undamaged as possible.

An ideal counterforce attack would kill no civilians. Military attacks are prone to causing collateral damage however, and this is especially true when nuclear weapons are employed. In nuclear terms many military targets are located in proximity to civilian centres, and a major counterforce strike employing even relatively small nuclear warheads against a nation like the United States of America would undoubtedly inflict millions of civilian casualties.

Counterforce targeting also undermines nuclear deterrence, in that both sides are more likely to believe in the possibility of a first strike attack, possibly preempting conflict.

Cold War

Counterforce is a type of attack which was originally proposed during the Cold War.

Both sides in the Cold War took steps to protect at least some of their nuclear forces from counter-force attacks. At one point the US kept B-52 Stratofortress bombers permanently in flight; these would remain operational after any counter-force strike. Other bombers were kept ready for launch on short notice, allowing them to escape their bases before intercontinental ballistic missiles could destroy them. The deployment of nuclear weapons on ballistic missile submarines changed this equation considerably – submarines launching from positions off the coast would likely destroy airfields before bombers could launch, reducing their ability to survive an attack. Submarines themselves, however, are largely immune from counter-force strikes and both sides fielded many such weapons during the Cold War.

A counter-force exchange was one scenario mooted for a possible limited nuclear war. The concept was that one side might launch a counter-force strike against the other; the victim would recognize the limited nature of the attack and respond in kind, leaving the military capability of both sides largely destroyed. The war might then come to an end because both sides would recognize that any further action would lead to attacks on the civilian population from the remaining nuclear forces – a counter-value strike. Critics of this idea claimed that since even a counter-force strike would kill millions of civilians it is unlikely that escalation to a full-scale counter-value war could be prevented.

MIRVed land-based ICBMs are considered destabilizing because they tend to put a premium on striking first. If, for example, each side has 100 missiles, with 5 warheads each, and further that each side has a 95 percent chance of neutralizing the opponent's missiles in their silos by firing 2 warheads at each silo. In this case, the side that strikes first can reduce the enemy ICBM force from 100 missiles to about 5 by firing 40 missiles with 200 warheads, and keeping the rest of 60 missiles in reserve. For such an attack to be successful, the warheads would have to strike their targets prior to the enemy launching a counter-attack. It is because of this that this type of weapon was banned under the START II agreement.

Counterforce disarming first-strike weapons

  • Peacekeeper. 10 MIRV warheads each with a 300 kt yield, CEP 100 m. Designed to destroy the heavy R-36M (SS-18). Decommissioned.
  • Trident II. Up to 14 warheads, 100/475 kt yield each, CEP 90 m. Main purpose is second-strike countervalue retaliation, but the excellent CEP and much shorter flight-time due to submarine launch makes it an ideal first-strike weapon.
  • Pershing II. Single warhead, variable yield 5-50 kt, CEP 50 m with active radar terminal guidance. Short, 7-minute flight-time and range of 1,800 km, designed to strike command, control, and communications installations, bunkers, air fields, air defense sites, and ICBM silos in the European part of the Soviet Union. Decommissioned.
  • R-36M (SS-18). Single (20 Mt) or 10 MIRV (550-750 kt each) warheads, CEP 500 m. Targeted against Minuteman III silos.


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