Asymmetric warfare is war between belligerents whose relative military power differs significantly, or whose strategy or tactics differ significantly. Such struggles often involve strategies and tactics of unconventional warfare (such as subversion and sabotage); the ‘weaker’ combatants use strategy to offset their deficiencies. Such strategies may not necessarily be militarized, involving combatants with widely varying degrees of training and support.
This is in contrast to symmetric warfare, where two powers have similar military forces and resources and rely on tactics that are similar overall, differing only in details and execution. The term is frequently used to describe what is also called ‘guerrilla warfare,’ ‘insurgency,’ and ‘terrorism’ (as well as ‘counterinsurgency’ and ‘counterterrorism’), essentially violent conflict between a formal military and an informal, poorly-equipped, but resilient opponent.
The battle between the Israelis and some Palestinian organizations (such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad) is a classic case of asymmetric warfare. Israel has a powerful army, air force, and navy, while the Palestinian organizations have no access to large-scale military equipment with which to conduct operations; instead, they utilize asymmetric tactics, such as: small gunfights, cross-border sniping, rocket attacks, and suicide bombing.
The popularity of the term dates from political scientist Andrew J.R. Mack’s 1975 article ‘Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars’ in World Politics, in which ‘asymmetric’ referred simply to a significant disparity in power between opposing actors in a conflict. ‘Power,’ in this sense, is broadly understood to mean material power, such as a large army, sophisticated weapons, an advanced economy, and so on. Mack’s analysis was largely ignored in its day, but the end of the Cold War sparked renewed interest among academics. By the late 1990s new research building on Mack’s insights was beginning to mature, and after 2004, the U.S. military began once again to seriously consider the problems associated with asymmetric warfare.
Academic authors focus on the puzzle of weak actor victory in war: ‘If ‘power,’ conventionally understood, conduces to victory in war, then how is the victory of the ‘weak’ over the ‘strong’ explained?’ Key explanations include (1) strategic interaction; (2) willingness of the weak to suffer more or bear higher costs; (3) external support of weak actors; (4) reluctance to escalate violence on the part of strong actors; (5) internal group dynamics, and (6) inflated strong actor war aims. Asymmetric conflicts include both interstate and civil wars, and over the past two hundred years have generally been won by strong actors. Since 1950, however, weak actors have won a majority of all asymmetric conflicts. However, technological advances in developed nations continue to widen the gap in military strength between them and their target. For example, the use of targeted killings by unmanned drones has risen dramatically.
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 Crécy is an example. Technological inferiority usually is cancelled by more vulnerable infrastructure which can be targeted with devastating results. Destruction of multiple electric lines, roads, or water supply systems in highly populated areas could have devastating effects on economy and morale, while the weaker side may not have these structures at all. 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, 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 Israel-Palestinian conflict is one recent example. Islamist warfare uses asymmetric status to gain a tactical advantage against Israel. Hezbollah and Hamas exploit their own civilians as well as enemy civilians, in part by using the media to influence the course of war.
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. Sun Tzu, wrote in ‘The Art of War’: ‘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.’ A good example of this type of strategy is the Battle of Thermopylae, where the narrow terrain of a gorge was used to funnel the Persian forces, who were numerically superior, to a point where they could not use their size as an advantage. Weaker forces may also gain the advantage from the use of built-up areas, engaging in urban warfare. In the words of Mao: ‘The guerrillas must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.’
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. If proof emerges of the true extent of the state actor’s involvement, this strategy can backfire; for example the Iran-contra scandal)
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 (which is characterized by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, soldier and civilian). 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 does not coincide with terrorism. For example, in an asymmetric conflict, the dominant side, normally as part of a propaganda campaign, can accuse the weaker side of being bandits, pillagers, or terrorists. Others argue that asymmetric warfare is called ‘terrorism’ by those wishing to exploit the negative connotations of the word and bring the political aims of the weaker opponents into question. The Iraqi insurgency is similarly labeled as terrorism by its opponents and resistance by its supporters. Similarly, the use of terror by the much lesser Mongol forces in the creation and control of the Mongol empire could be viewed as asymmetric warfare. The other is the use of state terrorism by the superior Nazi forces in the Balkans, in an attempt to suppress the resistance movement.
From its initiation, the American Revolutionary War was, necessarily, a showcase for asymmetric techniques. In the 1920s, Harold Murdock of Boston 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 meters. Throughout the war, skirmishing tactics against British troops on the move continued to be a key factor in Rebel 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.
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 pressed 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 American film ‘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 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.
Asymmetric warfare featured prominently during the Second Boer War (between Dutch and British colonists in South Africa). 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 war between the mujahideen and the Red Army during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has been claimed as the source of the term ‘asymmetric warfare,’ although this war occurred years after Mack wrote of ‘asymmetric conflict,’ it is notable that the term became well known in the West only in the 1990s. 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.’ This proxy war was aided by many countries including the USA against the USSR during the Cold War. It was considered cost effective and politically successful, as it gave the USSR a military defeat which was a contributing factor to its collapse.