Asymmetric Warfare: Combat in the 21st Century (part 1)

I originally wrote this paper back in December 2001 for the UK Defence Forum.  At the time, I subtitled it “The shape of things to come?” – in the time since, we’ve certainly seen that it is no longer a question, it is a fact…


The terms “asymmetry”, “asymmetric warfare”, “asymmetric tactics”, “asymmetric options” and other variations on this theme have also become very much en vogue in military journals and studies – the asymmetric aspect relating to imbalances in force capabilities, reliance, strengths / weaknesses and values.  In the time since the devastating terrorist attacks in the U.S. on 11 September, the popular press has also been using the term to describe the tactics of the suicide-hijackers.


New World Order?

It has become the accepted thinking in the West that no single nation on earth can match the US in terms of equipment and firepower – as “proven” by Operation Desert Storm.  However, as the United States continues to spend heavily on high-tech weapons systems and equipment, an interoperability gap may begin to grow within the ranks of NATO.  A fact highlighted in the after-action comments following the conflict over Kosovo, in which U.S. Department of Defence (DOD) officials admonished other NATO countries that their equipment was not compatible with or as capable as US equipment.

Another equally worrying trend in thinking has also begun to emerge.  If an opponent does not fight in the same way we do, then we automatically label his fighting technique “asymmetric” and “unfair”. The reality is that threats are often considered asymmetric because they involve operational or strategic methods for which our armed forces are not well designed.  For instance, the problems in Somalia were caused not by a lack of armoured forces, but by a failure to understand the local, clan-and-tribe-based mix of cultural-social-political values and power structures.


Any hardware-centric solution will be vulnerable and sub-optimal in an environment determined predominantly by “asymmetries” in operational values and cultural beliefs. The side that is weaker in resources or complex command and control systems can balance that with superior cleverness, morale, offensive attitude, security, surprise, flexibility, and an organizational design that fit the task at hand. These Post-Cold War changes in the military environment have come to be known as “4th Generation Warfare” (4GW)[1].

The genesis of 4GW operational art is in fact visible in certain aspects of modern terrorism.  This is not to say that terrorism is fourth generation warfare, but rather that some elements of it provide kite-marks of what are the salient features of 4GW.   The first is greater dispersion on the battlefield: The successful terrorists appear to operate on broad mission orders that carry down to the level of the individual terrorist.  Second is decreasing dependence on centralised logistics: The terrorist lives almost completely off the land and the enemy.  Third is more emphasis on stealth and precision: Terrorism is very much a matter of stealth and manoeuvre – the terrorist’s firepower is limited so where and when he applies it is critical.  Fourth is a goal of collapsing the enemy internally rather than physically destroying him: Terrorism attempts to bypass the enemy’s military entirely and strike directly at critical or vulnerable civilian targets.


The Shape of Wars to Come?

At Biddulphsberg a handful of Boers employing asymmetric tactics defeated two British Guards battalions that fought as if on parade.  Today, whilst the United States spends $500 million apiece for stealth bombers, a terrorist stealth bomber is a car with a bomb in the boot. 

So is high technology irrelevant to 4GW?  No, but it must fit into its rightful and appropriate place in the historically proven trinity of people, ideas and technology. For instance, if we combine the above general characteristics of fourth generation warfare with new technology, it is possible that relatively small units could have the same battlefield effect as a current brigade. 


Small, highly mobile elements composed of self-reliant and motivated soldiers armed with advanced weaponry and equipment could range over wide areas destroying critical targets or seizing strategic locations.  Stealth, speed, agility and precisely concentrated firepower will be the new force multipliers.  The ability to generate and exploit the chaos caused by dagger-thrusts to disparate but critical nerve-centres and arteries will be the new war winner. [As we indeed saw a short while later in the spec ops driven campaign in Afghanistan]

In the dispersed 4GW battlefield, the concepts of “Frontline” and “Rear Area” will become irrelevant.  “The Front” will be more like a series of oil-spots shifting across the surface of a body of water, with locations and structures defined as either “Targeted” or “Untargeted”.  “The Rear” will become a collection of safe harbours where stores and personnel could be gathered in relative security.


Leaders and commanders will have to be masters of both the arts of war and the arts of peace, as targeting and objective selection may have long-term political and cultural, as well as immediate military, consequences.  A major challenge for commanders will also be processing and analysing a tremendous amount of data from battlefield command and control systems without losing sight of the operational and political objectives. 

Psychological operations (the battle for hearts and minds) will become a dominant strategic weapon in the form of public and media relations management to shape and influence domestic and international opinion.  Skilful use of psychological operations will sometimes preclude the commitment of combat forces. Television news may become a more powerful operational weapon than armoured divisions.


Weapon requirements, as well as development and procurement programmes, will need to be altered as well to keep up with the fluid and multi-facetted nature of 4GW conflicts.  This may have serious ramifications for the process by which defence budgets are defined and allocated – and also lead to further restructuring of the shape and focus of Britain’s defences. 

The high-profile Strategic Defence Review of 1998 in the end offered little more than a rationalised form of business as usual, with the promise of better management and coordination.  There is a distinct disconnect between the assessment of possible threats and the over-reliance on traditional responses – e.g., commissioning two 21,000 tonne aircraft carriers – central to the force projection concept which the SDR embraced.

A 4th Generation SDR could analyse the requirement from a National Defence vs. International Security perspective – then task and organise the armed forces accordingly.  On the international security front the forces would need to be fully tasked and equipped for dealing with situations like those in Rwanda, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, etc.  In essence this breaks down into two groups of permanently integrated joint-service elements: Operational Forces and Enablement Forces.

What good is a new aircraft carrier here?

What good is a new aircraft carrier here?



Operational Forces would comprise all necessary air-sea-land elements to provide the spearhead of force projection – this spearhead would be structured around the trinity of Seek-Strike-Secure.  “Seek” elements are those air-sea-land assets, both upfront and remote, that deliver theatre or tactical level recon and intelligence capabilities to fix and target the threat.  “Strike” elements are those air-sea-land assets, both manned and unmanned, that provide interdiction capabilities to remove the threat, either destructively or non-destructively.  “Secure” elements are those air-sea-land assets that provide defensive or occupational capabilities to sustain operations.

Enablement Forces would comprise all necessary air-sea-land elements to provide a virtuous circle of Information-Mobilisation-Stabilisation support services to the Operational Forces – these should also include close liasing with, perhaps even reliance upon, civilian and governmental assets.  “Information” elements are those assets that provide strategic military and crucial non-military (i.e., political, historical, cultural, economic, ethnic) intelligence data.  “Mobilisation” elements are all air-sea-land assets that provide transport, supply and logistical support.  “Stabilisation” elements are those military, and civilian, assets that can provide post- or concurrent-operations infrastructure development, social assistance and humanitarian support capabilities. 



The technical difficulties involved in constructing and delivering either a nuclear weapon or a lethally large quantity of chemical or biological agents have been the most effective deterrents against terrorists employing Weapons of Mass Destruction.  Yet our pre-occupation with such symmetrical threats to our national defence has caused us to over-look more low-tech and asymmetrical threats to international security.  Consider the following casualty figures caused by such proven weapons of mass destruction as Kalashnikovs and machetes[2]:

Algeria – 1,000,000 (incl. 100,000 since 1992)

Congo – 2,500,000 (since 1998!)

Rwanda – 800,000 (in 3 months!)

The increasing number of “brush-fire” wars, counter-insurgency campaigns, hostage-rescue operations, drug wars, inter-ethnic and religious conflicts, and peace-keeping / peace-support operations will require a vastly different set of tactics, equipment, training and skills than conventional military engagements of the past. 


Success in this “brave new world” will depend heavily on effectiveness in joint or combined operations as lines between responsibility and mission, political and military become ever more blurred.  Armed forces in this environment will have to deliver the seamless inter-service integration and mission-flexibility necessary to address the threats and requirements of 4th Generation Warfare. 


[1] First generation warfare was the era of massed lines and columns of troops, and the muzzle-loading musket. Rigid drill generated an orderly rate of fire and wars were won or lost on the battlefield.

Second generation warfare was based on linear movement of units – with heavy reliance on massed firepower as the decisive factor. Wars became industrialised and were decided on the basis of attrition.

Third generation warfare introduced radically new tactics based on manoeuvre rather than attrition. The attack relied on infiltration to bypass and collapse the enemy’s combat forces rather than seeking to close with and destroy them – as demonstrated with ruthless efficiency by the Blitzkrieg of 1940.

[2] A Swift, Elusive Sword”, presented by Dr. Chester W. Richards at the Fall 2001 Boyd Conference, MCB Quantico, Virginia.

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