A question of strategy

A thought that occurred to me during a conversation earlier today.

A popular buzzword lately has been “asymmetric warfare,” describing engagements between combatants with radically different strengths and weaknesses. One classic example is 9/11, but another example that we shouldn’t ignore is the present war in Iraq. In this case, though, it’s asymmetric in the other direction – we chose the manner of engagement to our maximum advantage. The fact that the war has gone as well as it has so far (knock on wood) is really due to the fact that in large part we set it up to play to our strengths.

This brought to mind a point which I don’t think has been discussed enough in relation to wars in general. Asymmetric warfare situations – which appear to now be the norm for war in general, not just terror activities – place an enormous premium on highly aggressive tactics. The basic reason is that the attacker gets to choose the nature of the engagement, and since asymmetric warfare by its nature is about focusing one’s strengths on the enemy’s weaknesses, this gives a much greater premium than it does in more symmetric conflicts.

If this is correct, then tactics and strategy need to be radically changed from the strategies of symmetric conflicts. Defenses need to be more uniform, not presenting any obvious weak points for an enemy to target. The absence of clear lines of engagement makes this even more severe, since the distinction between military and civilian targets has been eroded into invisibility in the past few years. But more importantly, it suggests that the only way to win an asymmetric conflict is by maximally aggressive tactics, continuously searching out enemy capabilities and striking them at their weakest points.

I’m not entirely happy with this thought, because it seems to argue in favor of several policies that I’m rather leery of – “preventive war,” for example. But I’m not certain if there’s any way around this in the context of highly asymmetric threats.

Published in: on April 8, 2003 at 13:37  Comments (21)  
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  1. Well, this isn’t a particularly cheery thought, eh?
    I’ve always been bad at strategy and tactics, and I am highly leery of the whole “pre-emptive strike” concept. Particularly with the number of nuclear powered nations out there these days. I’ve always theorized that, if we can justify attacking Iraq because they “might” have something there that “could” be a threat to us, then North Korea is morally justified in using their nuclear weapons on us for the same reason.
    And that conclusion is one I don’t like. Not just for the obvious reasons.
    One of the reasons our species survived this long after the creation of these weapons is based on the fact that there was no justification to strike someone *first.* Everyone understood that – it almost guaranteed that these would never be used.
    Man, am I going to be thinking about this concept for a while.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this a bit more, and I’m realizing that there’s a second issue mixed in with all of this, namely distributed threats. It’s a second side-effect of better force multiplication technology; suddenly Jim-Bob with a grudge is potentially as dangerous as an army was a few decades ago. It also means that small and large countries may find themselves in much more direct conflicts than they did in the past.
    In the case of North Korea, there’s still a possibility of deterrence because both groups have fairly symmetrical vulnerabilities – e.g. cities that can be hit with nuclear weapons. The asymmetry in this case is that even a relatively small amount of damage (one or two cities) is sufficiently enormous that North Korea can produce a credible threat despite its overall weakness. Even though the highly symmetrical “mutually assured destruction” isn’t an option, to achieve stable deterrence (on both sides) requires much less than that – North Korea has to be able to hit just enough of America to keep America from wanting to hit it.

  3. a little clarification, please…
    So I’m guessing “Jim-Bob with a grudge” was not a reference to G.W.?

  4. Re: a little clarification, please…
    In the interest of being politic, I decided to take all references to our Fearless Leader out of this post. So he wasn’t the Jim-Bob I was thinking of.
    (Actually, I wasn’t thinking of any particular lunatic for that one, just the general class of lunatics freshly armed with more powerful weapons. Ah, force multiplication at its best…)

  5. 😉

  6. Re: 😉
    “You don’t need to see our gun licenses.”
    “We don’t need to see your gun licenses.”
    “This is not the Jim-Bob you’re looking for.”
    “This is not the Jim-Bob we’re looking for.”
    “Move along.”
    “Move along, pardner!”
    (OK, I’m easily amused. I recognize this.)

  7. 😉
    The Force is with you, young Zunger…

  8. “…the only way to win an asymmetric conflict is by maximally aggressive tactics, continuously searching out enemy capabilities and striking them at their weakest points.”
    I’m not certain how strongly this leads to the conclusion that preventative war is optimal. For that, you need to be in a frame of mind where you are viewing some other country as an enemy. Ideally, one would only judge a group to be an enemy once they had done something sufficiently intolerable that war with them would be punitive as well as preventive – meaning that it wouldn’t be a preventive war as I understand the term to be used.
    This is a disturbing concept even aside from that, of course.

  9. I’m not necessarily thinking of the potential enemy as a country. The classic asymmetric opponent is the guerilla, one who appears out of nowhere, strikes a vulnerable target, and then disappears. Retribution in these cases is virtually impossible since you just can’t find the bugger. (This is part of the “distributed threats” problem) So in these cases, it seems like the only thing you can do is to try to hunt the people down proactively.
    Against a more fixed target like a country, there isn’t the problem of someone disappearing, and that opens up possibilities like deterrence. (Since effective retribution is now possible) In this case, though, the potential damage dealt is sufficiently higher that there’s the risk of a first strike being catastrophic, thus urging the other side to strike even sooner, and so on – the classic paranoia problem of the Cold War. But in this case we have at least one known solution to the problem, namely mutual deterrence.
    A subtler issue is in hybrid situations, where a country is acting indirectly through a guerilla agency. (e.g. like the way Iran powers Hezbollah by remote, feeding them arms and intelligence and giving them general direction but nothing specific) Deterrence is a bit harder against this, since one has to be able to follow up on the threat, and the act which provokes this followup may not be obvious. The catch is that deterrence has to be based on certain retribution, which requires certain detection or a very “trigger-happy” attitude.
    I don’t know – my hunch is that the only way to survive against highly distributed, potentially catastrophic asymmetric threats is to constantly be monitoring everything in search of potential enemies, and then get ready to gib them (again asymmetrically) at a moment’s notice. But this has some other rather nasty implications.

  10. When static defences don’t work anymore you have to be able to do one of three things:
    1) suck up the damage. This might work for a nation less media-driven than our own (though I can’t think of one). After all, look at 9/11. It really wasn’t that big a deal. A couple of buildings got knocked down, a few thousand people got killed and injured, and parts of one city (OK, a large and important city) became hard to drive through. Not exactly Pearl Harbor. But the emotional impact was huge. And the widespread effect of that emotional impact caused the economy to take a hit. But in strategic terms the damage was pretty minimal. A very large nation like the US, China or Russia can theoretically soak up a lot of these fleabites before anything happens to change its *military* effectiveness.
    2) kill everyone who looks at you funny. This is kind of a bad policy, and in practice doesn’t really work. But in theory if you were to ruthlessly exterminate anyone who said that they wished you harm (as you described above) you could, if nothing else, reduce the likelihood of sudden catastrophic strikes. Same goes for clamping down on the machinery of these strikes — trying to prevent NBC weapons falling into the wrong hands. Might be a little late now.
    3) get people to like you. Considering human nature, probably a little tricky. In the case of the US, its recent track record isn’t helping. But trying to create conditions where fewer people are willing to die as long as they take some of you out might be one strategy worth pursuing.

  11. Current method of maneuver warfare being employed in Iraq was developed by the Germans during WWII and refined by the United States.
    Asymmetric warfare is often discussed in terms of the smaller force or group leveraging capabilities against the weaknesses of an overwhelming force or state in order to gain limited objectives.
    Pre-emptive strategy is nothing more than destroying enemy capabilities before they have the opportunity to strike. Your assessment of the uniformly strong defense (an impossibility in a society/nation with limited resources) is accurate and therefore, bolsters the case for a pre-emptive security strategy.
    Asymmetric tactics are only effective when planned within a overarching campaign strategy with clear and limited objectives. Disjointed asymmetric attacks are basically harassment or terror attacks where the objective (however impossible) is attempted to be gained through constant pressure against the target. This is only effective in highly emotional/political situations where world opinion is a consideration, such as the Israeli/Arab conflict in West Bank and Gaza.
    PRC has developed effective campaign strategy that employs both conventional forces and asymmetric campaign to limit US influence during theater operations. Objective is not defeat of US forces, but merely to limit US influence until PLA has entrenched and has made the political cost of engagement and victory too high for US to achieve and, therefore, undertake.

  12. Thus the term “nuclear blackmail”.
    US attempting to develop policy to keep US influence and foreign policy free of nuclear blackmail. Thus the recent focus on missile defense, the development of precision capabilities (for limited escalation, and pinpoint destruction of enemy threats).

  13. In regard to defense and security:
    Or consider the implication of an extension of pre-emptive strategy to include conventional, unconventional, and WMD engagement of those powers the support groups waging asymmetric warfare against the US.
    Note the recent withdrawal of support by certain nations to certain terrorist organizations operating in Lebanon and West Bank.
    This is MAD extended beyond the nuclear boundary. Nations begin to understand that the US will respond to asymmetric attacks with overwhelming force. Deterence, therefore, strengthened.

  14. Well, I think (1) is out of the question, basically for the reason you stated. Looking at Israel too, I don’t see that the country is any more capable of soaking up the damage now than it was a decade ago; strains build. (2) is obviously a Bad Idea if taken to the extreme, but a moderated version may be necessary. (3) would be a fine idea, as would spreading actual democracy. But after reading this morning’s news reports and getting some pictures of what the plans for postwar Iraq are, I’m not too sanguine about this happening any time in the near future…

  15. This is only effective in highly emotional/political situations where world opinion is a consideration, such as the Israeli/Arab conflict in West Bank and Gaza.

    I think this depends on what you mean by “effective.” Especially when dealing with small-group actors, their own perception of effect may be very different from ours. While we may consider these to be simply “terror strikes,” that won’t stop the other side from seeing them as real accomplishments.
    But more significantly, a stronger enemy agent (al Qaeda being a classic example) may orchestrate large numbers of small attacks as a way of systematically achieving a larger objective. They can nonetheless maintain asymmetry both by attacking using these means and by leveraging our weaknesses to prevent us from attacking them. (Distributed command and financial structures, bases of operation in places we can’t invade for political reasons, like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, etc) So in this manner an asymmetric opponent could become a serious threat – perhaps not an existential threat in the same way the USSR was, but a threat of pulling America down into permanent, domestic low-level military engagement, which is bad enough.
    And the PRC are, well, canny bastards. Who seem to be achieving their goals.

  16. Focus.
    “Effective” always means achieving organizational objectives. One initiates conflict or struggle with achieving a particular objective in mind.
    If the objective of the small groups are to merely kill people, then you are correct – they are effective in their own eyes. As long as their own survival is not an objective.
    If their objective is to further the cause of Islam (which many have stated), then they are, perhaps, not effective since they cause the world to view them, and similar extremists, as fringe elements that must be minimalized and/or destroyed. They also cause division and contempt within Islam itself, forcing infighting between the more tolerant moderates and the counterculture extremists.
    If their objective is the destruction of the United States (as a few have stated), then I submit that they have not only failed, but they have encouraged the shift to a United States that acts in its own security interests and is unshackled by world opinion. If one wishes to limit the influence of the United States, history has oft demonstrated that attacking the US is definitely not the way to accomplish this. As post-911 demonstrates.
    If their objective is to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, attacks against the US only brings the nation closer to Israel. Continued attacks against Israel only generates sympathy for Israel. These actions are counter-productive to the peaceful engagement necessary for accord.
    There are no campaign strategies to these terror attacks. There are no attainable objectives. These groups merely strike out. That is the difference between a military campaign and terrorism. A military campaign has a strategy to accomplish the overall objective by accomplishing smaller mission objectives. Terrorism is killing people for the sake of killing people, or attempting to accomplish the impossible through murder. One is a struggle that can be won, the other is the futile struggle of the desperate.

  17. Regarding PRC:
    Concur. Pretty canny, indeed.
    However, I’m not sure I agree with the statement that they seem to be achieving their goals.
    They have moved away from socialism by instituting free market reforms. They are no closer to integrating Taiwan. They are overrun with illegal drugs and aids. They’re having troubles with Islamic extremists and various separatists. Overseas funding schemes are being shut down. Their society is in a slow crumble.

  18. Perhaps I should have said: They are achieving their goal of a sufficiently solid military position to be insulated against American attack and able to flaunt it, which helps with secondary goals of (e.g.) unrestricted arms sales, extortion of tribute, and I suppose even fits into their schemes of world domination, although I’d call those pretty unlikely.

  19. There are other available objectives, however; for example, al Qaeda had a stated objective of uniting the Islamic world against America. While the governments are hemming and hawing, it seems that they’ve made sharp gains among the populace in this regard in the past five years. The myth of the “Great Satan” has become remarkably widespread.
    The question of their long-term objective is a good one. While you are right that they are highly unlikely to ever topple the United States by these means, they may well be able to achieve other things, like forcing the US to withdraw from various regions. And some of their objective may well be simple bloody-mindedness; many countries encourage “heroic struggles abroad” (e.g. the Palestinian-Israeli conflict) for their own domestic purposes.

  20. True. They’ve been very effective in revitalizing their military forces. Especially amazing are the capitalistic schemes of the PLA itself – which, has internal political implications.
    PLA is very robust and would be able to adequately defend the PRC from any threat. It lacks, however, force projection. The integration of Taiwan is a key PRC objective, but the nation, quite simply, lacks the capability to face Taiwan and/or the US directly in this regard.

  21. While it is true that the Islamic world has a rather poor opinion of the United States, I would argue that Al Qaeda did more harm than good to themselves and to their objectives by attacking the United States directly:
    – disruption or destruction of their infrastructure
    – disruption or destruction of allied/friendly extremist groups
    – caused friendly regimes to cease or significantly curtail support for extremist groups
    – worldwide hunt of their members by many nations, including Arab/Islamic nations
    – uniting the world behind the United States – remember post-9/11?
    – caused an expansion of US global presence (increased number of overseas bases and troops)
    – the toppling of a regime most friendly to the cause (Taliban in Afghanistan)
    – caused further destabilization within Islamic/Arab regimes that further, not Islamic movements, but Western ideals and style of governments.

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