Asymmetrical Warfare: Nature, Scope & Threat

Introduction Asymmetrical Warfare

There is growing evidence that asymmetrical warfare has become a strategy of choice among dissident, extremist political groups and will be the most likely national and international security threat.

Operating in small, covert groups, and having no recognized sovereign territory or population to defend. Asymmetrical combatants can engage in violent, lethal activities with far less risk of being totally overwhelmed by reprisals that a nation-state might face.

A great many lessons have been learned over the years on how to counter asymmetrical threats, and the breadth, complexity, and international scope of the threat are now generally recognized.

This article is going to be so helpful on the subject of CSS International Relations. I am going to discuss here the Asymmetrical warfare, its nature, scope, and how to counter this threat.

Nature of Asymmetrical Warfare

Asymmetrical warfare refers to armed conflicts to achieve political objectives, and as the name implies, involves a disproportionate distribution of power.

Unlike most conventional warfare, it is usually initiated by the weaker side. Perhaps the first question needs to be addressed.

One popular explanation commonly heard is that asymmetrical combatants are either mentally deranged, morally depraved, or a combination of both.

Simply stated, the psychology behind unsanctioned lethal violence is normal psychology, abnormal only in the intensity of the group dynamics that link causes with comrades.

Asymmetrical warfare is generally a strategy of last resort, and those who engage in it are convinced that their political ends are so morally imperative.

Another explanation often applied to Islamic Jihadism, is that the extremist ideology espoused by asymmetrical organizations is itself a primary motivating factor in convincing people to commit evil, immoral lethal acts by imbuing them with hatred toward the perceived enemy.

According to social psychology, fear and grievance, not dogma, are the two root causes of anger which for some can lead over time to hostility.

In addition, virtually all major political ideologies, sectarian as well as secular, present a wide array of peaceful as well as violent alternatives.

Thus, one cannot adequately understand why people engage in lethal asymmetrical acts. In sum, one does not normally “learn” hostility from exposure to extremist dogmas.

Group psychology can also play an important role in motivating people to join asymmetrical organizations. Many combatants have already bonded before joining an asymmetrical organization.

Moreover, asymmetrical organizations often tend to develop fanatical countercultures with their own codes of behavior.

Asymmetrical Strategic Objectives

Although all armed political conflicts have much in common, their strategic objectives can differ widely.

The primary strategic, objective of asymmetrical warfare is psychological, not military.

In more descriptive terms, it is, the combined use and threat of violence that is directed at one set of targets to compel compliance or allegiance from another set of targets.

Asymmetrical combatants generally use covert terrorist and unconventional guerrilla warfare tactics and seek to avoid direct military encounters with their adversaries.

This is in sharp contrast to conventional military warfare.

The second but vital, strategic objective in asymmetrical warfare is to win the hearts and minds of potential sympathizers and supporters. Thereby gaining financial and Logistic support, safe haven, and the ability to recruit new combatants.

Organizational And Operation Scope

Asymmetrical warfare organizations come in all sizes. From small independent local groups to large multi-national operational organizations and support networks, terrorist and insurgency support groups.

There are two general types of organizational structures: individual terrorist attacks and broader insurgencies.

Although the latter is generally carried out by larger dissident national or sub-national organizations, asymmetrical organizations can be involved in both terrorist and insurgent operations.

If successful to the degree that asymmetrical combatants can challenge a regime militarily, the nature of the conflict changes from asymmetrical warfare to conventional military warfare.

In the past, asymmetrical organizations were primarily concerned with sub-national, national and regional political issues.

Despite the globalization of asymmetrical warfare, however, even the largest organizations are not monolithic in scope with a unified chain of command.

Nevertheless, globalization of the threat has increasingly made asymmetrical warfare the strategy of choice in the 21st century for many sub-national and multinational dissident groups.

Tactics: A Work in Progress

Asymmetrical tactics are many-faceted and constantly changing. The choice of attack as well as the target depends on the element of surprise and the greatest psychological impact for the least amount of downside risk of failure. Both are therefore subject to change.

The element of surprise is crucial, creating a constant “cat and mouse” relationship between attackers and defenders. Attackers constantly seek the most unanticipated attacks on targets with the greatest amount of vulnerability.

Defenders must not only reduce the vulnerability of likely targets but must also anticipate new tactics and new target choices. For example, although there has yet to have been a catastrophic WMD or cyber-attack, a future such attack to create massive social, political, and economic costs and casualties cannot be ruled out.

Countering the Asymmetrical Threat

Asymmetrical warfare is as old as recorded history, and lessons have inevitably been learned at each stage of its evolution. Modern asymmetrical warfare has evolved primarily since the beginning of the Cold War in the wake of World War II.

The first major post-war insurgency of note occurred in Malaya where the British waged a twelve-year counter-insurgency campaign (1948-1960).

The British finally succeeded in putting down the insurgency by adopting a joint civilian-military strategy that combined regaining and maintaining civil order with winning the hearts and minds of non-combatant’ supporters of the insurgents.

The strategic components for how effectively to counter asymmetrical threats are well known and understood by most professionals.

The absence of a new, comprehensive, and integrated grand strategic vision, therefore, is not due to the lack of lessons learned. It is due more to the reluctance to change entrenched, outdated national security policy mindsets and also to inefficiencies created by internal bureaucratic politics.

Outdated National Security Policy Mindsets

There is still a strong predilection to view asymmetrical warfare as a low-intensive subcategory of military conflict in general. This mindset substantially reinforces the mindset that overwhelming military superiority alone can effectively counter asymmetrical threats.

Leaving aside the fact that asymmetrical warfare can involve conventional as well as unconventional tactics and could potentially adopt WMD tactics, a conventional military mindset is inadequate in countering asymmetrical threats.

While, it is theoretically possible to pacify asymmetrical adversaries and their supporters through a strategy of tactics of restricted brutality and ferocity, in reality, the use of such a strategy is not only proscribed by international law.

More important it would be virtually certain to be psychologically counter-productive in the war on hearts and minds. In short, asymmetrical threats cannot be countered successfully by armed forces alone.

Internal Bureaucratic Politics and Rivalries

Due to the multifaceted nature of asymmetrical warfare, a successful strategic vision to counter it requires the integration of a wide variety of capabilities. Also, close cooperation and coordination among an unprecedented number of bureaucracies of many agencies and services.

Achieving an integrated strategic vision is a major challenge. Nevertheless, changing outdated mindsets and overcoming bureaucratic politics and rivalries are vital.

Applying Basic Assumptions

The following are some basic assumptions derived from lessons learned from past experience and from the current state of evolution of asymmetrical warfare:

The Grand Strategic Vision must be Multi-Faceted

Because asymmetrical warfare is multifaceted and international in scope, a counter-strategy involves must utilize multiple capabilities from multiple sources, civilian and military, public and private.

The Grand Strategic Vision Must be Comprehensive, Integrated, Coordinated, and Cooperative, and Where Appropriate, International

Because of overlapping capabilities, missions and jurisdictions, no single agency, company or government can successfully exercise exclusive responsibility or control for all the assets required.

The Organizational Structure Under the Chief Official Must Maximize Coordination and Cooperation at Every Level

The organizational structure must incorporate horizontal as well as vertical coordination and cooperation at every level to ensure adequate managerial and operational coordination, particularly where bureaucratic capabilities overlap.

Overall Responsibility for a Counter Strategy must Reside at the Highest Senior Level of Government

That official must have the power, delegated from the chief executive, to insure adequate coordination and cooperation.

At the same time, his principal task is to coordinate, not manage the operations of the agencies tasked with specific duties.

The Grand Strategic Vision must be Flexible

Asymmetrical warfare is a constant evolutionary work in progress. It must maintain the flexibility to respond quickly, choosing the most appropriate capabilities required for countering each individual threat.

The overall goal of the grand strategic vision must provide a blueprint for reducing asymmetrical threats to manageable proportions, Not to try to eradicate them.

You may also like these:

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x