decapitation strike
n. A military attack designed to kill the enemy's leaders or knock out their ability to communicate with and control their troops.
The bombing raid, which lasted no more than 30 minutes, was what military officials call a decapitation strike. The apparent aim was to kill the Iraqi dictator and either prompt his army to surrender or, at the very least, create chaos in the upper echelons of Iraq's leadership at the outset of the war.
—Paul West, “First Strike,” The Baltimore Sun, March 20, 2003
SEN. BIDEN: The thrust of your statement, Professor, is that if we're going to go, we should go at Saddam with a serious force; that this idea being discussed of inside-out and a relatively small number of people and decapitation, I would assess from your comments, you think would not be a prudent way to proceed. Am I misreading you?

MR. CORDESMAN: Senator, I think that, first, you can always try a decapitation strike and you might get lucky. Though I don't think it was made a big issue, we thought we'd killed Saddam during the Gulf War, and there actually was a celebration of the fact. It didn't quite work out that way, as General Horner would be the first to tell you. Is it worth trying? Of course. Can we count on it? No.
—“Hearing of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations,” Federal News Service, July 31, 2002
1982 (earliest)
As part of the continuing global chess game known as nuclear-war strategy, American planners convene once a year or so to fight what former CIA director William Colby once called "pencil-and-paper wars": simulated superpower showdowns that lead inexorably to the nightmare of nuclear exchange. This year, for five days at the beginning of March, war-gamers staged one of the most extensive simulations in more than two decades. It ended in a full frontal Soviet attack and the "death" of the President in the White House Situation Room — but with the country's ability to retaliate still intact. The exercise reassured President Reagan and his top advisers — and unintentionally undercut Administration claims of American vulnerability to the Soviet Union.

As reconstructed by the Wall Street Journal last week, the doomsday exercise was designed to test the government's ability to function in the event of a "decapitation strike" — a nuclear attack aimed at the central nervous system of military and civilian control.
—Peter McGrath, “The Doomsday Exercise,” Newsweek, April 05, 1982
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