originally referred to war
between two or more belligerents whose relative military power differs significantly. Contemporary military thinkers tend to broaden
this to include asymmetry of strategy or tactics; today "asymmetric warfare" can describe a conflict in which the resources of two belligerents
differ in essence and in the struggle, interact and attempt to exploit each other's characteristic weaknesses. Such struggles often involve strategies and tactics of unconventional warfare
, the "weaker" combatants attempting to use strategy to offset deficiencies in quantity or quality.
Typically at least one of the parties involved may be referred to as partisans
. One theory says "partisan" comes from the Tuscan
word, "partigiano", meaning a member of a party of light or irregular troops engaged in harassing an enemy, especially a member of a guerrilla
band engaged in fighting or sabotage
against an occupying army. The other theory says the word comes from the Persian
word Parti-san; in Persian, san means similar and Part is a name of an Aryan
tribe living in the northeast of Iran
who are said to have invented and developed the first partisan war tactics.
The first known wide usage of asymmetric war was by Parthians
, who freed Persia
rule (remaining from Alexander
's invasion) and continued the same techniques against Romans
and other invaders from the north of the empire.
In most conventional warfare, the belligerents deploy forces of a similar type and the outcome can be predicted by the quantity of the opposing forces or by their quality, for example better command and control of their forces. There are times where this is not true because the composition or strategy of the forces makes it impossible for either side to close in battle with the other. An example of this is the standoff between the continental land forces of the French army
and the maritime forces of the United Kingdom
's Royal Navy
during the French Revolutionary
and Napoleonic Wars
. In the words of Admiral Jervis
during the campaigns of 1801
, "I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea", and a confrontation that Napoleon Bonaparte described as that between the elephant and the whale.
The tactical success of asymmetric warfare is dependent on at least some of the following assumptions:
- One side can have a technological advantage which outweighs the numerical advantage of the enemy; the decisive English Longbow at the Battle of Agincourt is an example. The advantage may also be the other way around. For example, the vast numerical superiority of the Chinese forces during their initial involvement in the Korean War overwhelmed the technological superiority of the United Nations forces. As was said by Stalin, "Quantity has a quality all its own."
- Training and tactics as well as technology can prove decisive and allow a smaller force to overcome a much larger one. For example, for several centuries the Greek hoplite's (heavy infantry) use of phalanx made them far superior to their enemies. The Battle of Thermopylae, which also involved good use of terrain, is a well known example.
- If the inferior power is in a position of self-defense; i.e., under attack or occupation, it may be possible to use unconventional tactics, such as hit-and-run and selective battles in which the superior power is weaker, as an effective means of harassment without violating the laws of war. Perhaps the classical historical examples of this doctrine may be found in the American Revolutionary War and movements in World War II, such as the French Resistance, and Soviet and Yugoslav partisans. Against democratic aggressor nations, this strategy can be used to play on the electorate's patience with the conflict (as in the Vietnam War, and others since) provoking protests, and consequent disputes among elected legislators.
- If the inferior power is in an aggressive position, however, and/or turns to tactics prohibited by the laws of war (jus in bello), its success depends on the superior power's refraining from like tactics. For example, the law of land warfare prohibits the use of a flag of truce or clearly-marked medical vehicles as cover for an attack or ambush, but an asymmetric combatant using this prohibited tactic to its advantage depends on the superior power's obedience to the corresponding law. Similarly, laws of warfare prohibit combatants from using civilian settlements, populations or facilities as military bases, but when an inferior power uses this tactic, it depends on the premise that the superior power will respect the law that the other is violating, and will not attack that civilian target, or if they do the propaganda advantage will outweigh the material loss. As seen in most conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries, this is highly unlikely as the propaganda advantage has always outweighed adherence to international law, especially by dominating sides of any conflict.
The use of terrain in asymmetric warfare
Terrain can be used as a force multiplier
by the smaller force and as a force inhibitor against the larger force. Such terrain is called difficult terrain
The contour of the land is an aid to the army; sizing up opponents to determine victory, assessing dangers and distance. "Those who do battle without knowing these will lose." ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Tactics usually attributed to guerrilla warfare are often used in asymmetrical warfare by the smaller side. In both cases, the forces may rely on a friendly population to provide supplies and intelligence and difficult terrain for cover and escape. The population and terrain are often well-known to native forces, who can use both to escape reprisal from conventional armies and supply themselves to continue their operations. Both the Vietnam war and the Boer wars are examples of this. The use of asymmetrical tactics by outside forces often requires extensive reconnaissance to make use of terrain characteristics.
Minority forces often operate in regions providing plenty of cover and concealment, especially heavily forested and mountainous areas. This tactic takes advantage of the relative immobility of a larger army in such terrain. In urban areas they will blend into the population and are often dependent on a support base among the people to hide their whereabouts.
The guerrillas must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea. ― Mao Zedong.
For a detailed description of the advantages for the weaker force in the use of built-up areas when engaging in asymmetric warfare, see the article on urban warfare.
War by proxy
Where asymmetric warfare is carried out (generally covertly) by allegedly non-governmental actors who are connected to or sympathetic to a particular nation's (the "state actor's") interest, it may be deemed war by proxy.
This is typically done to give deniability
to the state actor. The deniability can be important to keep the state actor from being tainted by the actions, to allow the state actor to negotiate in apparent good faith by claiming they are not responsible for the actions of parties who are merely sympathizers, or to avoid being accused of belligerent actions
or war crimes
Asymmetric warfare and terrorism
There are two different viewpoints on the relationship between asymmetric warfare and terrorism
. In the modern context, asymmetric warfare is increasingly considered a component of fourth generation warfare
. When practiced outside the laws of war
, it is often defined as terrorism
, though rarely by its practitioners or their supporters.
The other view is that asymmetric warfare is not synonymous with terrorism. It is typical, in an asymmetric conflict, for the stronger side to accuse the weaker side of being bandits, pillagers or terrorists. These accusations are usually part of propaganda campaigns, although they are sometimes true. Some argue that asymmetric warfare is called "terrorism" by those wishing to deny the political aims of their weaker opponents and to exploit the negative connotations of the word. There are those who hold the view that "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." An example of this is over Kashmir: the Pakistanis claim that a war of freedom for the Kashmiris is being fought with the Indians, who in turn, label them as terrorists. The Iraqi insurgency is similarly labeled as terrorism by its opponents and resistance by its supporters.
One example of asymmetric warfare involving terrorism is the use of terror by the much lesser Mongol forces in the creation and control of the Mongol empire. The other is the use of terrorism by the superior Nazi forces in the Balkans, in their attempt to suppress the resistance movement.
Examples of asymmetric warfare
The American Revolutionary War
From its very beginning, the American Revolutionary War
was, necessarily, a showcase for asymmetric techniques. In the 1920s, Harold Murdock
attempted to solve the puzzle of the first shots fired on Lexington Green
, and came to the suspicion that the few score militia men who gathered before sunrise to await the arrival of hundreds of well-prepared British soldiers were sent specifically to provoke an incident which could be used for propaganda purposes. The return of the British force to Boston following the search operations at Concord
was subject to constant skirmishing
, using partisan
forces gathered from communities all along the route, making maximum use of the terrain (particularly trees and stone field walls) to overcome the limitations of their weapons- muskets
with an effective range of only about 50-70 metres. Throughout the war, skirmishing tactics against British troops on the move continued to be a key factor in Patriot
success; however, they may also have encouraged the occasional incidents, particularly in the later stages, where British troops used alleged surrender violations as a justification for killing large numbers of captives (e.g. Waxhaw
and Groton Heights
Another feature of the long march from Concord was the urban warfare technique of using buildings along the route as additional cover for snipers, which provoked the logical response from the British force - destruction of the buildings. When revolutionary forces forced their way into Norfolk, Virginia, and used waterfront buildings as cover for shots at British vessels out in the river, the response of destruction of those buildings was ingeniously used to the advantage of the rebels, who encouraged the spread of fire throughout the largely Loyalist town, and spread propaganda blaming it on the British. Shortly afterwards they destroyed the remaining houses, on the grounds that they might provide cover for British soldiers. On the subject of propaganda, it should be borne in mind that, contrary to the impression given in the popular US movie "The Patriot", British forces never adopted a popular response to partisan-style asymmetric warfare; retribution massacres of groups selected on a semi-random basis from the population at large.
The rebels also adopted a form of asymmetric sea warfare, by using small, fast vessels to avoid the Royal Navy, and capturing or sinking large numbers of merchant ships; however the British responded by issuing letters of marque permitting private armed vessels to undertake reciprocal attacks on enemy shipping. John Paul Jones became notorious in Britain for his expedition from France in the little sloop of war Ranger in April 1778, during which, in addition to his attacks on merchant shipping, he made two landings on British soil. The effect of these raids, particularly when coupled with his capture of the Royal Navy's HMS Drake- the first such success in British waters, but not Jones's last- was to force the British government to increase resources for coastal defence, and to create a climate of fear among the British public which was subsequently fed by press reports of his preparations for the 1779 Bonhomme Richard mission.
From 1776, the conflict turned increasingly into a proxy war on behalf of France, following a strategy proposed in the 1760s but initially resisted by the idealistic young King Louis XVI, who came to the throne at the age of 19 a few months before Lexington. France also encouraged proxy wars against the British in India, but ultimately drove itself to the brink of state bankruptcy by entering the war(s) directly, on several fronts throughout the world. The later entry of Spain (and the Dutch Republic, providing a lesson on the limits of neutrality which the Americans had to learn for themselves in 1812) into the war, against Britain but not for America, effectively reversed the asymmetry- most obviously from August to October 1781- and an interesting aspect of this war is what might be described as an asymmetric peace, in which America and Spain received almost everything they demanded, but were forced into conflict with each other, while France and the Dutch Republic both did so badly that they suffered total state collapse within a few years.
The Vendée revolt
The revolutionary government which emerged from the French state collapse in 1789 became notorious for the "Reign of Terror
" in which thousands of opponents of the state, or of individuals claiming loyalty to the state, were executed. In 1793 a counter-revolutionary movement
arose in the Vendée
region of western France, which very effectively used against the Government forces the sort of tactics seen in the American revolution. The official response to this was at the time called "populicide"- the extermination of the "rebel race" (though "good citizens" were to be sent out of harm's way). Announcing a genocidal
intent proved to be counter-productive, as the rebels were left with no choices but to kill or be killed, a fact which the government realised in the spring of 1794 after twelve columns of soldiers had been sent through the area, committing a wide variety of atrocities but failing to stop the revolt. The Government's willingness to kill so many of its own citizens without trial was also a factor in its own brutal end in July 1794.
20th century asymmetric warfare
Second Boer War
The Second Boer War was the first major war of the 20th century and one in which asymmetric warfare featured prominently. After an initial phase, which was fought by both sides as a conventional war, the British captured Johannesburg, the Boers' largest city, and captured the capitals of the two Boer Republics. The British then expected the Boers to accept peace as dictated by the victors in the traditional European way. However instead of capitulating, the Boers fought a protracted guerrilla war. Between twenty and thirty thousand Boer commandos were only defeated after the British brought to bear four hundred and fifty thousand troops, about ten times as many as were used in the conventional phase of the war. During this phase the British introduced internment in concentration camps for the Boer civilian population and also implemented a scorched earth policy. Later, the British began using blockhouses built within machine gun range of one another and flanked by barbed wire to slow the Boers' movement across the countryside and block paths to valuable targets. Such tactics eventually evolved into today's counter insurgency tactics.
The Boer commando raids deep into the Cape Colony, which were organized and commanded by Jan Smuts, resonated throughout the century as the British and others adopted and adapted the tactics used by the Boer commandos in later conflicts.
World War I
Post-World War I
World War II
Post-World War II
The end of World War II
established the two most powerful victors, the United States of America
and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
(USSR, or just the Soviet Union) as the two dominant world superpowers
Cold War examples of proxy wars
- See also proxy war
Various conflicts throughout Africa, Latin America and Asia throughout the Cold War saw the US (and allies) and USSR (and allies) supporting their proxies financially and militarily.
A smaller example of war by proxy was East Germany's covert support for the Red Army Faction (RAF) which was active from 1968 and carried out a succession of terrorist attacks in West Germany during the 1970s and to a lesser extent in the 1980s. After German reunification in 1990, it was discovered that the RAF had received financial and logistic support from the Stasi, the security and intelligence organization of East Germany. It had also given several RAF terrorists shelter and new identities. It had not been in the interests of either the RAF or the East Germans to be seen as co-operating. The apologists for the RAF argued that they were striving for a true socialist (communist) society not the sort that existed in Eastern Europe. The East German government was involved in Ostpolitik, and it was not in its interest to be caught overtly aiding a terrorist organization operating in West Germany. For more details see the History of Germany since 1945.
In the Korean War the Soviet Union aided the communists in North Korea and China against the United Nations forces led by the United States, but the Soviet Union did not enter the war directly.
In the Vietnam War the Soviet Union supplied North Vietnam and the Viet Cong with training, logistics and materiel but unlike the United States Armed Forces they fought the war through their proxies and did not enter the conflict directly.
The war between the mujahadeen and the Red Army during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a classic asymmetric war. The aid given by the U.S. to the mujahadeen during the war was only covert at the tactical level, the Reagan Administration told the world that it was helping the "freedom-loving people of Afghanistan". Of all the proxy wars fought by the USA against the USSR during the Cold War this was the most cost effective and politically successful, as it was the USSR's most humiliating military defeat, and that defeat was a contributing factor to the implosion of the Soviet Union.
During the Croatian War of Independence - Operation Flash and Operation Storm are examples of intentional asymmetric warfare.
In the rivalry that arose during the Cold War, small powers, especially those described as composing the Third World
, were able to seek protection from one power or the other, or play the powers off against each other, to try to achieve their own national or regional goals.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, powers that had been client states of the Soviet Union, states that were able to gain aid and support from the United States as bulwarks against Soviet power, and states that had successfully played the superpowers against each other, found themselves with fewer options to oppose the USA or gain material advantages from either of the former rivals.
The battle between the Israelis
is a classic case of asymmetrical warfare. Israel has a powerful conventional army, while the Palestinians do not have a regular army
; instead, organizations (such as Hamas
and Islamic Jihad
) utilize asymmetric tactics, principally cross-border sniping and rocket attacks, but also including suicide bombing
, to combat the larger, more well equipped Israeli forces. The Palestinians deploy their forces inside civilian areas in an attempt to prevent Israel from responding with conventional forces and tactics. Israel tends to use focused targeting tactics, including intelligence-based assassinations
of individual leaders, and assigns the responsibility for any resulting civilian casualties to Palestinian forces for their use of human shielding
. In addition, Israel has adopted policies of restricting Palestinian movement, using physical barriers and of collective punishment
, by restricting supplies to Palestinian territories.
The victory by the US-led led coalition forces in the 1991 Gulf War
and the 2003 invasion of Iraq
, demonstrated that training, tactics and technology can provide overwhelming victories in the field of battle during modern conventional warfare. After Saddam Hussein's regime was removed from power and the 2003 occupation of Iraq
began, the Iraq campaign moved into a different type of asymmetric warfare where the coalition's use of superior conventional warfare training, tactics and technology were of much less use against continued opposition from the various insurgent groups operating inside Iraq.
Guantanamo Bay detention camp
The US government has used the term to describe the suicide
of internees at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp
- ... two Saudis and a Yemeni were "committed" and had killed themselves in "an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us".
- Christopher Hemmer, "Responding to a Nuclear Iran"
- Robert B. Asprey, "War in the Shadows, The Guerilla in History", William Morrow, 1994, ISBN 0-688-12815-7, 1279 pages. Authoritative survey from Darius the Great to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
- Robert D. Kaplan, "The Coming Anarchy", The Atlantic Monthly, 1994?.
- Barbara Tuchman, "The Proud Tower, Europe 1880–1914" re: anarchist assassins.
- UN reports on use of child soldiers as assassins.
- Sun Tzu 6
- Mackey, Robert R. (2004). The UnCivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861–1865. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3624-3. Asymmetric warfare as practiced by the Confederate States in the American Civil War. Includes detailed information of U.S. Army counter-irregular operations as well as CSA irregulars.
- Arreguin-Toft, Ivan, How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict, New York & Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005 ISBN 0-521-54869-1
- Barnett, Roger W., Asymmetrical Warfare: Today's Challenge to U.S. Military Power, Washington D.C., Brassey's, 2003 ISBN 1-57488-563-4
- Bing, Stanley, Sun Tzu Was a Sissy: Conquer Your Enemies, Promote Your Friends, and Wage the Real Art of War, New York, HarperCollins, 2004 ISBN 0-06-073477-9
- Crawford, George, Manhunting: Reversing the Polarity of Warfare, Baltimore, PublishAmerica, 2008 ISBN 1-6-441-332-8
- Friedman, George, America's Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle between the United States and Its Enemies, London, Little, Brown, 2004 ISBN 0-316-72862-4
- General Sir Rupert Smith, "The Utility of Force: The art of war in the modern world", Allen Lane, 2006.
- Giap, Vo Nguyen, People's War, People's Army, Honolulu, University Press of the Pacific, 2001 ISBN 0-89875-371-6
- Guevara, Ernesto "Che", Guerrilla Warfare, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1998 ISBN 0-8032-7075-5
- Kaplan, Robert D., Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, New York, Vintage, 2003 ISBN 0-375-72627-6
- Jon Latimer, Burma: The Forgotten War, London: John Murray, 2004 ISBN 0-7195-6576-6
- Liang, Qiao and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare: China's Master Plan to Destroy America, Panama City, Pan American Publishing Company, 2002 ISBN 0-9716807-2-8
- Metz, Steven and Douglas V. Johnson II, Asymmetry and U.S. Military Strategy: Definition, Background, and Strategic Concepts, Carlisle Barracks, Strategic Studies Institute/U.S. Army War College, 2001 ISBN 1-58487-041-9
- Poole, H. John, Tactics of the Crescent Moon: Militant Muslim Combat Methods, Emerald Isle, NC, Posterity Press, 2004 ISBN 0-9638695-7-4
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War, New York, Dover Publications, 2002 ISBN 0-486-42557-6
- Tse-Tung, Mao, On Guerrilla Warfare, Champaign, IL, University of Illinois Press, 2000 ISBN 0-252-06892-0
Articles and papers
- Ivan Arreguin-Toft, "How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict", International Security, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Summer 2001), pp. 93–128.
- J. Paul Dunne, et al., "Managing Asymmetric Conflict," Oxford Economic Papers, Vol. 58 (2006), pp. 183–208.
- C. A. "Bert" Fowler Asymmetric Warfare: A Primer -- IEEE Spectrum, March, 2006. A mathematical approach to the concept.
- Marcus Corbin '' Reshaping the Military for Asymmetric Warfare CDI website October 5, 2001.
- Vincent J. Goulding, Jr. Back to the Future with Asymmetric Warfare From Parameters, Winter 2000–01, pp. 21–30.
- Andrew J.R. Mack, "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict", World Politics, Vol. 27, No. 2 (January 1975), pp. 175–200.
- Montgomery C. Meigs Unorthodox Thoughts about Asymmetric Warfare (PDF)
- Richard Norton-Taylor Asymmetric Warfare: Military Planners Are Only Beginning to Grasp the Implications of September 11 for Future Deterrence Strategy, in The Guardian, October 3, 2001
- Michael Novak, "Asymmetrical Warfare" & Just War: A Moral Obligation in NRO, February 10, 2003
- Toni Pfanner, Asymmetrical warfare from the perspective of humanitarian law and humanitarian action, International Review of the Red Cross Vol. 87 No. 857 (March 2005), p. 149-174.
- Sullivan, Patricia. 2007. War Aims and War Outcomes: Why Powerful States Lose Limited Wars Journal of Conflict Resolution 51 (3):496-524.
- Jonathan B. Tucker Asymmetric Warfare, a 6 page analysis, Summer 1999.
- Asymmetry and other fables, Jane's Defence Weekly, 18 August 2006
- David Buffaloe 'Defining Asymmetric Warfare' September 2006
- Gates Assails Pentagon on Resources for Battlefields Washington Post April 22 2008