Asymmetric Warfare-A Timeless Classic

Asymmetric warfare, although certainly the current rage among strategic thinkers, is not really a new concept in warfare. The basic definition of asymmetry-‘having two sides or halves that are not the same: not symmetrical’ really applies to warfare from antiquity. Generals have always sought an advantage during warfare, whether at the strategic or tactical level, and the current discussion of asymmetric warfare is really only a discussion of means, not ends in warfare. The great philosophers would have quite a bit to say about “asymmetric warfare.” Sun Tzu in particular was a great proponent of using psychological warfare, intelligence, maneuver and deception to bring about military victory. Clausewitz would probably have labeled asymmetric warfare to be ‘warfare by another means’ and would likely to have put a different spin on it, but basically agreed with Sun Tzu on the advantages in waging this type of combat.

Sun Tzu provides a great deal of discussion on asymmetrical warfare, in particular methods by which a weaker army can successfully attack a stronger foe. Because warfare was such a constant condition in his time, Sun Tzu placed a great deal of emphasis in his strategic writing on preparing for war and ensuring as many advantages as possible before combat begins. [1] His overall philosophy, which can be seen in current U.S. strategic thinking and doctrine, is to defeat the opponent with the minimum actual combat necessary, both to ensure a speedy conclusion to the war and to ensure the minimum casualties to your own forces. Sun Tzu had some keen early insights on both the psychological aspects of warfare, in particular a prescient understanding that it was far better to defeat the enemy leadership, both political and military, rather than have to fight a costly battle with the enemy army. [2] In fact, in a hierarchy of Sun Tzu’s strategic targets for a commander to attack, the enemy army is far down the list after attacking his plans and disrupting his alliances. Sun Tzu actually noted that the most successful general has, in fact, won the war before a shot is even fired. [3]

Clausewitz is actually very prophetic in his chapter on insurgencies and revolts to the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan and shows an excellent grasp of not only the tactical and operational limits of guerilla forces and how to employ them, but his five conditions of a successful uprising show a profound grasp of the political and social nature of an insurgency and closely mirror the situation currently facing American forces. [4]

One of the reasons asymmetric warfare has become more common and more difficult to deal with is that military technology previously reserved for nation-states is now widely available. In addition, the explosion of the internet, communications technology and global media have allowed groups like Al Qaeda to recruit, move money and perform other logistical operations that previously required large and well established organizations.

Similar to the issues the American military has with ‘unconventional warfare’, the U.S. has not dealt well with asymmetrical warfare, particularly in those areas where American forces are in direct combat, Iraq and Afghanistan. Operationally, American forces have clearly attempted to move from a Clausewitz model of fighting a massive campaign of firepower and attrition to a more Sun Tzu model based on deception, maneuver, subterfuge and co-opting our enemies. In the initial phases of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces were able to quickly achieve their initial goals of toppling both hostile regimes, and in the case of Afghanistan, scattering the Al Qaeda forces in the country. However, American strategy has not completely followed Clausewitz’s first maxim on strategy to understand the nature of the war being fought and comprehending that each war has unique attributes that separate it from other conflicts. Beyond the conventional phase of each campaign, the U.S. and our allies have not been as successful at achieving successful termination of the conflict. The U.S. did not really understand the culture in either country, or the Islamic world in general, and the failure to quickly and effectively initiate post-conflict political efforts helped exacerbate insurgences in both countries. The U.S. has also not clearly understood our opponent and what motivates them and has done a poor job in many cases of differentiating between political and religious enemies, undercutting our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to a considerable degree. The greatest challenge American strategy has faced from 2001-2009 has been the need to successfully tie military prowess with political purpose.

Because of the radically changed global environment and the political nature of terrorism and insurgency, this will continue to be a challenge for American strategy. The U.S. and other Western powers have not learned that to the asymmetric warrior, YouTube and CNN are weapons just as much as an AK-47 or an RPG-7. [5]

As the U.S. begins to shift resources and attention from Iraq to Afghanistan and also begins it next strategic assessment, a return to a more balanced look at potential threats and challenges will likely require another look at ends, ways and means. Although the threat of transnational terrorism and continued combat in Afghanistan will be a primary focus of attention in the near-term, threats of a more conventional nature that have been less emphasized over the last eight years will likely return to prominence. Even conventional adversaries like China have embraced the notion of asymmetric warfare in their doctrine—using cyber, space and types of psychological warfare to paralyze American decision makers and blunt areas of American technological superiority. [6]

The U.S. military is still coming to grips with the issues of “generational” versus “asymmetric” warfare and has only begun to understand the “hybrid” wars that it is likely to face in the 21st century. As information technology and sophisticated weaponry become more ubiquitous, the technology advantage that Western armies have long enjoyed over potential adversaries will continue to dissolve. Once again, issues of training, moral, willpower and even simple numbers will become decisive factors on the battlefield. The issues of generational warfare involving weapons and tactics and conventional versus asymmetrical warfare must merge into developing a doctrine to wage some combination of conventional, information, and psychological hybrid warfare to attack not only an opponent’s military but their entire society and will as the U.S. military seeks some weakness of our opponent, whether that opponent is a Hezbollah fighter or a Chinese tank commander. [7]

[1] Ralph D. Sawyer, trans., The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, trans. Ralph D. Sawyer (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1993), 184-186.
[2] Chester Richards, "A Swift, Elusive Sword: What if Sun Tzu and John Boyd Did A National Defense Review?," Center for Defense Information (Washington, DC, 2003), 17-20.
[3] Michael I Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought, 3rd (New York, NY: Frank Cass Publishers, 2001), 61.
[4] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 479-483.
[5] Daniel Marston, "Lessons in 21st Century Counterinsurgency: Afghanistan 2001-2007," in Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare, 220-240 (New York, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2008); Carter Malkasian, "Counterinsurgency in Iraq: May 2003-January 2007," in Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare, 241-259 (New York, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2008).
[6] Michael Mazarr, "The Folly of 'Asymmetric War'," The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2008: 33-53.
[7] Charles Dunlap, "21st-Century Land Warfare: Four Dangerous Myths," Parameters (U.S. Army War College), Autumn 1997: 27-37.