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Defining Asymmetric Warfare

October 1, 2006

The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States homeland1 captured the attention of the world and ushered in a new phase of warfare. Not that terrorism was new— it has been around since the dawn of time—but just as World War I and World War II elevated warfare itself to a worldwide level, 9/11 brought a global dimension to terrorism. The difference today is that the enemy takes on many faces and methods: terrorism, insurgency, war of information and ideas, war of disruptive threats, attacks using bioweapons through the mail or cyber-attacks on the Internet, war waged by non-state actors against the sole remaining superpower. The face and method not used by the current enemy is what is known as “traditional warfare”—warfare conducted by the legitimate military forces of nation-states, wherein the objective is either terrain- or enemy-focused. The 9/11 attacks did not signify an end to traditional warfare. On the contrary, in 2003 the United States fought a traditional war against the forces of Iraq’s Ba’ath Party government and won a regime change. But if warfare as the United States and its allies understand it is limited to military conflicts between nation-states, then what do we call the bloodshed and conflict we have seen and are currently experiencing throughout the world?

In the second half of the 20th century, the two great powers of the world waged what is known as the Cold War. Few strategists or theorists understood the concept or paradigm of a Cold War back in the 1940s. Yet the United States, its government, its bureaucracy and its military evolved to fight the Cold War. Nuclear technologies grew; Russia experts became prevalent in U.S. universities; students of Soviet strategy examined communist theory to better understand the enemy; clandestine intelligence organizations as well as high-tech intelligence platforms came into existence and became focused on the enemy of the United States.

Now that the Soviet Union is dissolved, now that the United States is the only superpower in the world, now that an enemy of the United States has launched an attack on the American homeland, this nation must once again evolve to face a new enemy. So what type of war is this? The President addressed this topic very eloquently to a West Point graduating class:

This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin—war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him. . . . It preys on economic unrest and ethnic conflicts. It requires in those situations where we must counter it, and these are the kinds of challenges that will be before us in the next decade if freedom is to be saved, a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of military training.2 

The statement seems to have hit the mark, but the speaker was President John F. Kennedy and he was addressing the West Point Class of 1962. The Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Armed Forces and the head of the U.S. bureaucracy called for evolution—forty years ago—to confront the type of war the United States is fighting today, yet most U.S. bureaucracies (including the Department of Defense) are still ill-equipped to face today’s opponent in the early part of the 21st century.

Many have tried to describe this new type of warfare, and many catchphrases and buzzwords have come and gone: low-intensity conflict, military operations other than war, asymmetric warfare, fourth-generation warfare, irregular warfare. To understand this type of warfare, one must first define “warfare” in general. Merriam-Webster defines warfare as military operations between enemies, an activity undertaken by a political unit (as a nation) to weaken or destroy another (e.g., economic warfare) or a struggle between competing enemies.3 Traditional warfare has taken the form of violent military action among nation-states. By its very nature, warfare is a struggle at the strategic level. Battles are fought at the tactical level and campaigns at the operational level, but warfare is waged at the strategic level. The great Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz understood that warfare is an extension of “politics4 through other means.”5

“Asymmetric warfare” is a term that waxed in the realm of U.S. government documents and academic writing in the late 1990s but waned in the year 2003, and it is now almost shunned. During its heyday, to scholars and government officials it meant everything from the 9/11 terrorist strikes to roadside bombs to supercomputer viruses to nuclear proliferation. Arguably, it meant so many different things that it became a useless, ambiguous term.

Understanding the concept of asymmetric warfare has always been challenging. During the Cold War, the two world superpowers participated in various arms races—each side always in fear of a gap in their capabilities when compared to the other. Peace was secured through mutually assured destruction (MAD). This bipolar order of the world’s military forces relied mainly on concepts of symmetry. Even if a perfect symmetry of forces could not be achieved, a balancing of qualitative advantage of the West versus quantitative numbers of forces in the East led to an arguable symmetry.6 Also during this time, much trust was placed in documents such as the Geneva Conventions7—whereby the great powers agreed to certain rules of war and thus dictated the management of violence. Building on the grand-scale conventional war fought during World War II, great-power warfare as understood during this time was a detailed, measured, ordered event, getting messy only on the periphery in places such as Afghanistan for the Soviets and Vietnam for the Americans. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, of course, changed many concepts. Taking place roughly a decade after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar order, 9/11 showed the West that their new enemy plays by no rules, respects no national boundaries and, although he wields little or no advanced technology or firepower, can wreak 3 more destruction upon American lives on U.S. soil in an hour than occurred in the nearly half-century of the Cold War. The attacks also demonstrated that a military could no longer guarantee its ability to serve as a buffer between the enemy and its own government or people. This shock to the Western psyche spurred much of the discussion that was already transpiring on the concept of asymmetric warfare—changing perceptions of strategy, tactics, security and threat forever.

However, the concept of asymmetric warfare has been around for centuries. Following the teachings of Sun Tzu, all warfare is asymmetric because one exploits an enemy’s strengths while attacking his weaknesses. The Greeks used the Phalanx to defeat a mounted enemy. Hannibal used a feint in the middle of his forces with a double-envelopment to achieve victory over the Romans. Every time a new tactic or invention changed the fortunes and power of one army or empire over another, an imbalance or asymmetry occurred— the weighting to one side created the conditions for victory.

Given the strict definition of symmetry, if any war were perfectly symmetrically weighted, then stalemate would be the norm and victory would be based solely upon luck. This truism, coupled with the ambiguous nature of the term “asymmetric warfare” as it was debated after the end of the Cold War, is the primary reason for the term’s waning and its current taboo status. However, while all warfare is asymmetric, not every battle in history lends itself to today’s concept—ambiguous though it may be—of asymmetric warfare.

When the term “asymmetric warfare” was used, it seemed to mean everything from catastrophic terrorist attacks to insurgents’ roadside bombs, to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), to advanced computer viruses. Understandably, when a term means so many different things to so many people, it easily loses its usefulness. Many scholars have attempted to define the term and its meaning. The U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute commissioned a three-year-long effort to grapple with the term and its implications. Yet, due to a lack of concrete understanding, the term became meaningless.