Air Marshal lAyaz's Article

Contributing Editor Air Marshal (Retd) AYAZ AHMED KHAN does a detailed
analysis on the implications of terrorism.
The title “asymmetric warfare” given to terrorism and guerrilla warfare
enables a scientific study of the phenomenon of terrorism, which has gripped the
world since September 11, 2001. Terrorism, guerrilla warfare and wars between
un-equals now called asymmetric warfare is not something new. These are a part
of human history. It can be a war between a state and a group of diehard
terrorists, or committed patriots who are seeking their legitimate rights by armed
struggle. The old observation that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom
fighter”, could be applied to the freedom struggles in Vietnam, Afghanistan,
Kashmir, Palestine and Chechnya.
But there are several instances of small
groups of terrorists who bomb and gun down innocent civilians in wars of
The war between Afghan Mujahidin and the Red Army (1979-89) was a
classical example of “asymmetric warfare”. Here the weaker adversary prevailed,
because the stronger i.e. the Soviet Union could not sustain the attrition, the
casualties, and the economic cost of the war. US and Pakistan’s support was a
decisive factor. The Zionist movement in Palestine was terrorist in nature. It was
an asymmetric war in the beginning, but gathered momentum because of
material and moral support of the United States, UK and European countries.
The Palestine struggle for statehood is an example of a prolonged asymmetric
war in pursuit of legitimate rights. Israel could neither end the 1987-93 Intifada on
its terms, nor in the current uprising could find an effective way to crush the
Palestinian resistance. In the asymmetric war between the Chechens and Russia
the Chechens were defeated, because they were fighting a major power, were
besieged, and had no channel of outside support.
Asymmetric War Scenarios
Mao Zedong’s famous dictum that “The guerrilla swims like a fish in the
sea of the people”, could be applied to the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War
proves that asymmetric war against a super power could be won with the support
of the masses. In the latest asymmetric war in Afghanistan, the Taliban were
defeated, because they neither had the support of Afghan masses, nor could
muster any outside support. Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan collapsed in the face of US
and Coalition air power. Hamas, Islamic Jehad, Abu Nidals Al Fatah Group, the
Hawari Group, and pro-Libya and Pro-Syria Arab Fadayeen have been engaged
in asymmetric struggle against Israeli occupation since decades. The Hamas
attacks on Israeli civil and military targets forced Israel out of South Lebanon,
and the Al-Fatah struggle succeeded to project the legitimacy of the Palestinian
cause. The Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan (IMU), Algeria’s Islamic group, the
Salafist Preaching and Combat group, the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines
the Chechens and the Catalan Red Liberation Army have waged asymmetric
wars and inflicted sustained material and psychological damage on their
adversaries. But these groups have failed in what they have set out to achieve.
The asymmetric warfare is now targeted against the US for its total
support for Israeli aggression and occupation of Arab lands. On September 11,
2001 Al-Qaeda attacked America in total secrecy and inflicted grievous damage
by asymmetric warfare on the heart of Untied States. The material and
psychological damage inflicted on the United States has made the world unsafe.
The whole world appears vulnerable to terrorist and suicidal attacks. The
American led war against terrorism spear headed by air power has eliminated the
Taliban regime, destroyed the Al-Qaeda turned Afghanistan into rubble, but the
fear of terrorist strikes and asymmetric warfare remains. Terrorism will be around
unless its causes are rectified.
Asymmetric War against Pakistan
Ethnic, religious and sectarian terrorism has afflicted Pakistan since two
decades. Foreign funded saboteurs and ethnic and religious extremists have
indulged in terrorism with the motive to destabilize national polity. Kidnappings
and killings, spraying of bullets in mosques, gunning down pedestrians and bomb
blasts in market places is the ugly face of asymmetric war waged against
Pakistan by Indian intelligence agencies and rabid extremists. Klashnikov drug
culture, and religious violence is the fallout of two decades of civil war in
Afghanistan. Private armies and well-armed lashkars were formed for Jehad in
Kashmir and Afghanistan. The Jihadi parties could not be controlled and become
a menace for national security. In early November, Mullah Sofi Mohammad of
TSNM assembled a ten thousand strong Lashkar, blockaded Karakorum highway
for several days, took forcible control of the district administration and the airport
at Chilas, and caused a rebellion in Kohistan. He later took his Lashkar to
Afghanistan in support of the Taliban. Out of the ten thousand pro-Taliban
Jihadi’s only five hundred have returned alive. Indian subversion, religious
fanaticism, sectarianism, culture of violence and terrorism continue to threaten
public safety and national security. Law and order has been seriously disrupted
and Pakistan has been turned into a soft state.
Asymmetric War in Kashmir
In the asymmetric war in occupied Kashmir, the lightly armed Kashmiri
freedom fighters are confronting seven hundred thousand strong Indian Army
and para-military forces. In this asymmetric war the Kashmir freedom fighters
have suffered but India has failed to subdue and silence the Kashmiris. India now
is trying to tarnish and crush the freedom struggle by virulent propaganda that it
is Pakistan sponsored terrorism. Terrorism has been used as an instrument of
state policy by India since 1989 to crush the Kashmiri’s asymmetric war for
freedom. Suicide bombings by Indian renegades or desperate militants is a
dangerous dimension in the asymmetric war in Occupied Kashmir. The suicidals
are trying to hijack the Kashmiris’ freedom struggle, and this has a dangerous fall
out for Pakistan. Massacres in Held Kashmir were perpetrated by the Indian
intelligence agencies, but Pakistan was immediately blamed by Delhi. Pakistan
was blamed for the suicide bombings of the Kashmir Assembly on October 12,
and of Indian Parliament on December 13. These incidents are being used as a
pretext by India for aggression against Pakistan. Entire India’s military power i.e.
Army, Air Force and Navy is now poised along the common border and the L.O.C
for a major war against Pakistan. Unable to contain the freedom struggle, India
is resolved to make Pakistan pay the price for the asymmetric war being waged
by the Kashmiri freedom fighters. How to safeguard the Kashmir cause, and
national sovereignty is a major challenge for the government and the people of
The Asymmetric War in Palestine
State terrorism is part of the Israeli policy in the Middle East, especially in
its dealings with the Palestinians. This has given rise to an asymmetric warfare
called “Intifadas”. With overwhelming military power, and superior technology
Israel has done massive damage to Palestinian life and property. In this
asymmetric war which has raged since decades, the end is not in sight.
Palestinian Fidayeen or suicide bombers are no match for Israel which has full
support of the United States and other Western powers. In recent weeks Israeli
military response to Palestinian suicide bombing attacks has been brutal and
ruthless. The asymmetric war in Palestine is the cause of world wide terrorism
since decades. Israel supported by the US has labelled Palestinian resistance as
terrorism, and demanded its end. In this asymmetric war the weaker is the loser.
Because of the asymmetric war, the Palestinians have paid a very heavy price,
and have achieved little so far. Yet Israel is unable to claim victory in this
asymmetric war.
Osama Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda
Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda group has been engaged in an
asymmetric war against the United States since 1993. Al-Qaeda is an
international terrorist movement. It is allied to several extremist groups world
wide. Supported by Mullah Omar it also drew support and strength from the
about fifty thousand Afghan war veterans, including the Taliban. Al-Qaeda has
cells in many countries including: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Uzbekistan,
Syria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Lebanon, Iran, Bosnia- Herzegovina,
Kosovo, West Bank and Gaza, UK, USA, France, Spain and Germany. Osama’s
assets reportedly are worth 300 million dollars, but Al-Qaeda has money making
front organizations, which collect donations for it. Osama and Al-Qaeda’s bank
accounts and assets have been frozen in the US and in many other countries. Its
defeat in Afghanistan does not mean its end, because mushroom group all over
the world, reportedly in sixty countries are its adherents.
Terrorist Attacks by Al-Qaeda
Al-Qaeda seems to have a hand in almost every terrorist act world wide
since 1993. Al-Qaeda’s major terrorist attacks were: February 26,1993 — World
Trade Centre bombing in New York that left six dead and one thousand New
Yorkers injured — 1994 Bombing of Philippine Airline that killed one and hurt ten.
1995 — Assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during his
visit to Ethiopia. November 13, 1995 — Car bombing in Saudi Arabia, which
killed five American servicemen. June 26,1996 — Terrorist bombing attack on
Khobar military barracks in Dharan, Saudi Arabia that killed 19 US soldiers, and
wounded four hundred Saudi citizens and US servicemen. August 7, 1998 —
Bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 235 people
including ten US diplomats and injured 5,500 local citizens. December 1999 —
Jordanian intelligence uncovers an Al-Qaeda plot to bomb US installations during
millennium celebrations. October 12, 2000 — Suicide bombing attack on U.S.S
Cole in Yemen harbour that killed 19 US Navy sailors and injured 39. The U.S.S.
Cole, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer equipped with Aegis battle management
system and thus one of the world’s most sophisticated warships, was severely
damaged by two men in a small rubber boat, killing 19 US sailors and wounding
39. A state of the art vessel designed to protect a carrier battle group against all
incoming threats, equipped with powerful defences was totally disabled by two
men, and had to be towed all the way back to the US.
Attack on America
On September 11, 2001 the massive attack unleashed against America
the only super power, by nineteen hijackers of Arab background was executed
with demonic professional efficiency. Simultaneous hijacking of four passenger
jets, and ramming them into the most vulnerable part of the twin towers of the
110 storey World Trade Centre and into Pentagon, surely required years of
research, training by dedicated terrorists of high expertise. They took fullest
advantage of the lack of security at Boston, J.F.K. and Newark airports. The long
distance passenger liners with quarter million pounds of jet fuel each, when
ignited on impact had the explosive power of tactical nuclear weapons. About five
thousand office workers including four thousand three hundred American citizens
were killed instantaneously. This terrorist attack in the heart of Manhattan has
created deep anger and a sense of insecurity among the US leaders and the
public. It has shaken America out of its belief that mainland America was
invulnerable to aggression. US federal and state governments, and all US
institutions, especially the banking, investment, trading, consumer and airline
industry suffered billions of dollars in losses. These bombing attacks were part of
the asymmetric war Osama bin Laden and the
Al-Qaeda had waged against the United States
The September 11 attacks on the United States were the epitome of
asymmetric warfare says Richard Norton Taylor Security Editor of Guardian
London. “A few pilots armed with Stanley cutter knives launched an assault on
the world’s only super power, with its arsenal of nuclear weapons, cruise
missiles, aircraft carriers, bombers equipped with state of the art weapons and
self-defence technologies.” In the asymmetric war Al-Qaeda’s had imposed
unacceptable death and destruction on the United States of America. This would
inspire hate filled terrorists to cause still greater devastation, perhaps by using
weapons of mass destruction. By unusual tactics the terrorists destroyed
symbols of American financial and military power. But the terrorists were made to
pay a heavy price. They have been killed by the thousands in the aerial bombing
of Afghanistan, The Taliban and the Al-Qaeda have been crushed. President
George Bush Junior has vowed to destroy international terrorism. But have the
terrorists learnt a lesson? Fear hate and revenge is ingrained in terrorism
American resolve to defeat terrorism by a sustained war will hopefully bring an
end to this scourge. But the world will have to reach out to help frightened and
insecure people to overcome their grievances and fears.
That the US the only super-power is so vulnerable, has caused shock
waves which will take time to settle. Such attacks will be planned in the future
with greater innovative skills to exploit the vulnerabilities of the strong. Outgoing
New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani has said that he expected another terrorist
attack on the city. “I anticipate another attack, and try as much as I can, I cannot
figure out what it would be, where it would be, are we prepared for it, are we
doing all the things that we can to prepare for it or prevent it”. America continues
to feel highly vulnerable.
The Motivation behind Al-Qaeda Terrorism
Al-Qaeda has emerged as the most organized and motivated terrorist
organization during the last decade. During the ten years of Mujahidin-Soviet war
in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda were adequately funded by
the C.I.A. and other agencies. He was a leading pro-American and pro-Mujahidin
foreign warrior who fought the Red Army till Soviet occupation was defeated. But
after 1992 he fell out with the US. After Soviet exit from Afghanistan, Osama’s
services were no more required. He was jettisoned by Washington along with his
Al-Qaeda. With the end to the generous flow of US Dollars into his pockets,
Osama decided to blackmail and bite his benefactors. In an open letter to King
Fahd on August 3,1995, Osama alleged lack of commitment to Sunni-Wahabi
Islam, squandering of public funds and oil money, inability to conduct a viable
defence policy, and dependence on non-Muslims for protection. He called for
guerrilla attacks to drive US forces out of Saudi Arabia. Why did Osama resort to
this calumny in 1995 and not before is a moot question. On July 10, 1996 in his
statement to daily “Independent” London, Osama Bin Laden said, “Saudi Arabia
is the largest oil producer, yet it is suffering from taxes and bad services. Now
people understand the sermons of the ulema’s urging them to kick the Americans
out of Saudi Arabia, for making this country their colony. He talked or, “the huge
anger of Saudi people against America... The Saudi’s now know that their real
enemy is America”. He was all praise for the Saudi rulers and America before.
America and Saudi Arabia became the targets of Osama’s wrath after his funds
and services were terminated. His hate filled “fatwas”, affected the minds of
extremist Ulema’s and unwary, susceptible and frustrated youth especially in the
Arab countries.
On August 23, 1996 after he was expelled from Sudan, Osama issued a,
“Declaration of War Against Americans who Occupy the Land of the Two Holy
Mosques”. He declared, “Muslims burn with anger at America. For its own good
America should leave Saudi Arabia. There is no more important duty than
pushing the American enemy out of the Holy Land”. He urged Saudi’s to wage an
armed struggle against “the invaders”. He advocated that, “DUE TO IMBALANCE
declaration made on August 23, 1996 Osama bin Laden had launched his
asymmetric war against the United States of America. He had comprehended the
principals of asymmetric warfare, which were successfully employed in
subsequent Al Qaeda terrorist attacks.
Illegitimacy of Terrorism
Terrorism when called asymmetric warfare acquires a kind of legitimacy, it
does not deserve. In her book “Terrorism in the Twenty First Century”, Cindy C.
Combs defines terrorism as, “A synthesis of war, a dramatization of most
proscribed form of violence — that is perpetrated on innocent victims and is
played before an audience in the hope of creating fear for political purpose”.
Clearly violence to draw the attention of millions, even hundreds of millions is
endemic to terrorism. The motive of the terrorists is to create widespread fear
and terror by surprise and shock, by doing unthinkable outrage and horror in
pursuit of political goals. Killing innocents is collateral damage for the terrorists,
and they remain unconcerned at the death and destruction they inflict on ordinary
people who have done them no harm.
Osama and Al-Qaeda did not realize that crime cannot be justified by
committing more crime and killing innocent people. Terrorism cannot be justified
by responding to state terrorism by suicide bombings of civilian life and property.
Hate and revenge clearly was the motive of Osama and Al-Qaeda in their
asymmetric war on America and American people. He had a deep psychotic
grouse to hurt America and the Americans. All terrorists have a grievance or a
grouse, some time justified, more often totally unjustified. In March 1997 in an
interview to the CNN Bin Laden said, “We have declared Jihad against the US
Government, for it has committed hideous and criminal acts directly and through
its support of the Israeli occupation”. That the festering Palestine problem is the
cause of much of terrorism worldwide, needs serious attention of the US
Administration and of the government of Israel.
Guerrilla Warfare Versus Terrorism
Guerrilla warfare is different from terrorism. General George Grivas
founder head of Cypriot EOKA asserted in his memoirs that, “We did not strike
like a bomber at random. We only shot British servicemen, who would have killed
us if they could have fired first. We shot civilians who were traitors or intelligence
agents”. The Kashmiri freedom fighters are guerrilla fighters in the classical
sense. They target Indian military personnel, renegades and traitors, command
headquarters, installations, vehicles and bunkers. They ambush and attack
military patrols, convoys, munition stores, and POL dumps. It is hoped that the
asymmetric guerrilla war in Kashmir does not explode into a full scale war
between the two nuclear armed neighbours.
Both terrorism and guerrilla wars are asymmetric warfare, but terrorism is
distinguished from guerrilla warfare by deliberate attacks on innocent persons,
and the separation of the victims from the ultimate goal. David Fromkin states
that, “An ordinary murderer kills someone he wants dead, but a terrorist will kill
with complete indifference to him whether the person lives or dies”. Thus the act
of terror is far more heinous than the act of murder. “To get anywhere you have
to walk over the corpses.” This ruthless declaration by Ilyvich Ramirez Sanchez
in 1975 while forcibly holding eleven OPEC Ministers as hostages reflects the
ugly face of international terrorism. Terrorism can never be justified, even when
waged as a asymmetric war. Terrorism targets innocent third parties in an effort
to coerce the adversary into desired political course of action. Guerrilla War can
be justified but not terrorism, even when named asymmetric war. Terrorism is a
war against humanity. It must be eradicated by solving the root cause, by
keeping close vigilance on its instigators, and by dealing firmly with the
perpetrators before they strike.
Effect of Suicide Attacks on Asymmetric Wars
Having suffered heavy casualties and destruction at the hands of state
sponsored terrorism, genuine freedom struggles for self-determination and
statehood have turned into Intifada’s and guerrilla wars. Frustrated youths are
becoming suicide bombers to avenge the slaughters of their kith and kin and
comrades. These so-called terrorists are patriots and freedom-fighters who are
sacrificing their lives for the sake of their cause. Asymmetric warfare has been
the methodology of last resort for liberation movements, when facing occupation
and exploitation by fascist regimes. Unfortunately asymmetric warfare in
Occupied Kashmir and Palestine is becoming self-demolishing. The negative
world response to suicide bombings and terrorist attacks on civilians is the
reason of their failure. Such senseless attacks must be stopped. The line
between the freedom struggle and terrorism is becoming blurred because suicide
bombers are killing civilians. Terrorism directed against civil targets is a clear
negation of the aims and methodology of freedom struggles for political and
economic rights.
Terrorism a Global Phenomenon
Terrorism is a global phenomenon, and all countries must gear up their
resources, and cooperate to deal with this menace. The terrorist attacks of
September 11 on the US symbols of financial and military prowess were forecast
fairly accurately by eminent scholars in the United States some years earlier.
Clark L Staten Executive Director of Emergency Response and Research
Institute (ERRI) USA in his research paper of 27 April 1998 titled “Asymmetric
warfare, the Evolution and Devolution of Terrorism” has concluded that
“Terrorism will remain a major transnational problem. It will be driven by
continued ethnic, religious, nationalist, separatist, political and economic
motivations. Future conflicts in the near term may not involve massive number of
troops to fixed battle zones. But will involve combating small numbers of fanatical
terrorists using WMD’s i.e. weapons of mass destruction and other sophisticated
technologies and tactics. They will have to be destroyed before they strike. It
would appear that smaller splinter groups are breaking from the main force body.
These ultra radicals have become the enforcers of the extreme ends of an
ideology or belief, and it is they who use unconventional tactics to carry out
compartmentalized groups makes detection of these small cells increasingly
more difficult, and intelligence gathering and analysis efforts even more valuable.
There are terrorist cells of what he calls “sapper squads”, that are put together
just for the purpose of committing one act and then disbanded for dispersing
back into the population of a friendly nation”. ERRI had recognized that the plan
for the World Trade Centre bombing of 1995 had obscured the identities of the
perpetrators, enabling their escape and evasion to further complicate the process
of ascertaining their motives. Such asymmetric warfare strategy confuses the
issue of tracing ties between the operatives to global terrorist organizations or
states, who sponsor, finance and offer refuge to these killers. International legal
and moral justification of military retaliation by the victim state may also become
even more difficult, if not impossible.” He adds that, “By the advent of the 21st
century many of the conflicts facing the United States and her allies will be of an
asymmetrical and devolving nature. It is also likely that the threats will come from
diverse and differing vectors. Particularly of concern is the possibility that
conventional terrorism and low intensity conflict will be compounded by
computer/infrastructure attacks that may cause damage to vital commercial,
military and government information and communications networks. All countries
will become increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks from its adversaries i.e.
terrorist organizations. Developed countries must anticipate computer generated
terrorist attacks against military installations, electrical/ and nuclear power plants,
water installations, banking systems, information and emergency response
systems, vital infrastructure like bridges, airports, rail junctions. The terrorist
enemy could use multiple tactics involving conventional explosives, and or
chemical, biological, and nuclear devices. Even a country as large and
sophisticated as the United States could suffer greatly at the hands of an
educated, equipped, trained and committed group of fewer than fifty people.
Such an attack could realistically cause and effect vastly disproportionate
destruction to the resources expended to undertake it.”
Asymmetric wars are being waged for political, religious, ethnic, economic
and criminal reasons. Terrorism as asymmetric warfare threatens global security
today. Suicide bombings is an extremely dangerous dimension of asymmetric
warfare, and everything must be done to stop these. All nations must unite and
extend support to the United States and to the United Nations in the war against
terrorism. But some countries are taking advantage of the prevailing anger
against terrorism to settle scores with their weaker adversaries and neighbours.
Israel has labelled the Palestinian struggle for statehood as terrorism. And India
very cleverly has used this opportunity to label the Kashmir cause and the
Kashmiri’s freedom struggle as Pakistan sponsored terrorism. This is unjust.
Under this motivated pretext India is all set to impose a major war on Pakistan. It
is the responsibility of all states especially of the United States of America to see
that legitimate aspirations, fundamental rights of Palestinians and of the
Kashmiri’s are not trampled under foot by Israel and India. Asymmetric wars,
guerrilla warfare, and even terrorism cannot be eradicated by crushing the
legitimate rights of aggrieved people. Extremist groups like Al-Qaeda will keep
sprouting and will continue their asymmetric struggles till justice is done to the
aggrieved. The United States cannot become a permanent global cop. A just
world order is the best solution to defeat terrorism and bring an end to
asymmetric wars.
Cohen Says "Superpower" Label Attracts Asymmetrical Threats
(BY Office of International Information, US Department of State)
Since no other country has the military capability of the United States,
some states may seek to challenge this country in indirect ways "in the form of
chemical or biological or even cyber (warfare)," Defence Secretary Cohen told
the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Milwaukee, Wisconsin August 21.
"What we have to do is intensify our anti-proliferation types of measures to cut
down on the technology that so many of our friends or allies or adversaries are
helping to spread around the world," he said. Cohen described the steps the
Defence establishment is taking to prepare U.S. citizens for the kinds of conflict
that they are likely to face in the future.
He also spoke of past challenges, such as the war in Kosovo, and the
ways the nation faced them, and of U.S. troop forward deployments "to send a
signal to all of those in the world that we are there not to conquer territory. . . .We
are there to promote stability because where there is stability, investment will
follow." With investment, he said, a nation "has a chance to develop and promote
prosperity (with) a much greater chance of promoting democracy."
Following is the text of Cohen's address as issued by the Defence
National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and The Ladies (Auxiliary
Midwest Express Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin)
Mon day, August 21, 2000
“Thank you, Commander [John] Smart, everyone's Mr. Wonderful, for your warm
words and also for your leadership of this great organization. Let me also extend
our words of congratulation to Heather French, Miss America, for all that you've
done on behalf of our veterans and our soldiers. We look forward to a very
special ceremony later.
Lorraine Fryer, the National President of the Ladies Auxiliary, congratulations on
your award as well. You have just done an outstanding job. And as you pointed
out, your organizations work together. You bring together all of the forces that
help support our [men and women] in the field and the veterans who have
served, so we are truly indebted to you and the Ladies Auxiliary as we are to the
veterans themselves.
Let me say to all the members of the VFW, Janet [Langhart Cohen] and I were
just talking as we were looking out into this vast audience, [and discussing] how
proud we are to be here amongst those of you who have done so much not only
for our veterans, but for those who serve and for the contributions you make to
humanity through the charitable efforts that you undertake. We are truly proud to
be here to share just a few moments with you today.
Also, I want to say that you have been such a powerful voice not only for our
veterans, but for everybody who serves today in uniform. You do so by standing
up for our forces, their families, their quality of life, by sustaining the ties of
friendship that bind this extended family together in such an extraordinary
fashion, and by ensuring that the fundamental principles at the heart of our
democracy are preserved and passed on to future generations.
I also want to say on a personal note of privilege that I am delighted to be here
today to address this distinguished gathering because this afternoon you're going
to be honoring my wife Janet for her extraordinary work on behalf of all who
serve in uniform today. I can think of few, if any, who have been more active -and none more committed -- to the cause of service of our members in uniform
and those who have served in the past than my wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, and
I wanted to be here today to pay special tribute to her.
Ladies and gentlemen, I can't see all of you. I can feel you out there in the
audience. But I must say that Janet and I have not had an opportunity to address
an audience this large since we were privileged to help kick off the Indy 500
where there were 500,000 patriots in that audience. We spoke and then were
able to take the lead car around the lap. I recall that day very vividly. Both of us
do. We had a Harrier that flew over that crowd and then did a 360 [degree turn] in
front of everyone there that day. I recall the words of everybody who was
speaking and passing by, with the roar of that crowd and everybody firing their
engines. They looked up and they saw that Harrier and they said, that is the
sound of freedom, and thank God, those planes are ours.
I can't tell you how proud we felt at that particular moment, and virtually every
day that we are privileged to serve this country.
First, I want to make one point. When I decided to leave public service after over
a quarter of a century of serving in public office, I never expected to be called
back. I never expected to receive a call from President Clinton. I was on my way
out the door into the privacy and the anonymity of private life and I got a call from
the White House asking whether I would be willing to serve as his Secretary of
I asked the President at that time, "Why do you want to do this? You're a
Democratic administration, I'm a Republican." He said, "I want to send a signal. I
want to send a signal to the country and to the Congress that when it comes to
national security there is no party label. We are not Republicans, we are not
Democrats. It's not a question of moving left or right, Republican or Democrat, it's
really [a question] of moving forward. I want to send that signal."
I said, "Mr. President, on those terms I am happy to go back into public service." I
want you all to know that it's been the greatest experience of my life and that of
my wife, Janet. Every day that we go to the Pentagon we are uplifted. To be the
civilian head of the greatest military on the face of the earth is the most exciting,
extraordinary experience that one could ever hope to achieve. We are grateful
every day.
I want you to know that we have done a lot of traveling. I have traveled almost
700,000 miles during the past three and a half years. Janet has been on at least
300,00 to 400,000 of those miles. We have been to Bosnia, to Kosovo, to Korea,
to the Gulf, to the deserts of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and I want you to know
how proud we are and how proud you should be of the men and women who are
serving us. They are serving without complaint, they are serving with distinction.
They are happy to be doing the job that they're doing. They are helping to spread
the flag of freedom the world over. And today, more people are sleeping under
that blanket of freedom than any time in the history of the world, thanks to our
men and women in the military.
I know that there's always controversy in dealing with the military. When I first
took office I looked at what was happening and we were on a downward descent.
Frankly, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union there
was a tremendous demand for a peace dividend. I heard it when I was on Capitol
Hill and serving in the Senate. My constituents from Maine were demanding it, as
were people around the country. [They were] saying that now that we no longer
have this visible enemy on the horizon, we need to restructure and downsize; we
need to start pouring more of our resources into building our economy and to
modernizing for the future with a smaller, more capable, more agile, more lethal
force. So spending started to go dramatically lower.
When I arrived in office, I took a look at what we had and I saw that Congress
and the administration had taken the highest figure of what they could agree
upon and what we should spend for national security. I was essentially told that
this is what Congress and the administration have agreed on, and that's likely to
be the [level of Defence spending] for the foreseeable future.
Well after just 18 months, we decided that wasn't enough. We have now begun
the largest sustained increase in our military spending in a generation. We were
looking at $42-$43 billion being spent for procurement, an all time low. This year
- just three and a half years later -- we have [increased procurement spending] to
$60 billion. Within five years we'll be at $70 billion and [we'll continue] to climb
into the future in order to recapitalize and rebuild this wonderful military that we
So we have looked at the men and women and said, we can never pay them
enough, but we can pay them more. And that's precisely what we recommended
and what we've done. We now have secured the largest pay raise in a
generation. We now have returned retirement benefits from 40 percent back up
to 50 percent. We are now focusing on rebuilding our housing and our healthcare
system, and as a result, we're starting to see retention and recruitment increase
once again.
It's been a tough environment. It's been a very tough environment. We have the
strongest economy we've had in over two decades, and we're competing for the
same people that the private sector wants. They want the people that we want as
well. They can pay two, three, four times as much, so we've got to draw from that
same pool, and not only draw them in but then hold them. So recruitment and
retention are now starting to stabilize and increase as a result of what we've been
able to do on a bipartisan basis.
Again, I come back to this point: I am not here as a Republican. I am not here on
behalf of the Democratic administration. I came here today to simply talk to all of
you who have supported our military because the contributions that you've made
as members yourselves [has helped to] sustain this great military that we have
That's the reason I wanted to be here today to talk to you. Yes, we can always do
better, and national Defence is certainly a subject matter that is open to debate
and improvement. Hopefully that will be the case whatever administration comes
in next year. But I want you to know something. We have the finest, the best led,
the best equipped, the best educated, the finest fighting force in the history of the
world. We have that today.
I can point to any place on the globe, but I want you to think back just about a
year ago. We were waging a war in Kosovo. It seems like a lot longer in terms of
the timeframe, but a year ago we waged the most successful air campaign in the
history of the world, and I want you to think about it. We had 38,000 sorties that
were flown during that campaign. We lost two aircraft and no pilots. That's a
record that has never been equaled.
And let me say something to [Slobodan] Milosevic, Saddam Hussein or anyone
else who would ever want to challenge the United States again. Saddam has
been put into a box, and if he tries to move out of that box and in any way
threaten his neighbors, he's going to be hit and hit hard.
We have been able [to contain Hussein] as a result of the commitment that we've
made globally to help stabilize the world for peace and security and prosperity.
That's the reason we're forward deployed. That's part of our strategy to shape
and respond [to world events] and prepare [for the future]. We need to be forward
deployed to send a signal to all of those in the world that we are there not to
conquer territory. We're not there to try to grab land. We are there to promote
stability because where there is stability, investment will follow. And if investment
follows, it has a chance to develop and promote prosperity. And if you have
prosperity, you have a much greater chance of promoting democracy. And when
you have democracy you have less chance for conflict and warfare.
That's why we are forward deployed around the world. That's why we have
100,000 people spread throughout the Asia Pacific region. Why are we there?
Because if we were not there, who would fill the vacuum? If we were to pull our
forces out tomorrow, who would move into the Asia Pacific region? Would it be
China? Would it be Japan? Would it be India? Would it be Pakistan? Who would
move to fill the vacuum? And what would that mean for stability in that part of the
The same thing applies to Europe where we have 100,000 [service members]
and in the Gulf where we have some 23,000. Yes, this puts a strain and burden
upon our country, but we are a superpower.
[Surely,] we have to continue to always examine what [being a superpower]
means? What are the benefits? What are the burdens? Are we prepared to
assume those benefits and burdens? And if we look at the history of what we
have done during the past 50 years you see that we are the leader for freedom.
Every other country looks to us as the model - and to the Statue of Liberty
holding up that flame - and says, this is the country whose ideals we want to
If you look across the globe, you will find that freedom is ascendant. Countries
from Europe to Central Asia are looking to the United States and saying, we want
to embrace free market ideas. We know that through a free market that we are
able to prosper in a way that we could never do under the old Soviet concept of a
centralized economy.
So yes, [our global engagement] is costly; it's burdensome. Can we do better?
You bet. Can we improve in the future? We need to. But I hope that during the
course of this year and next year, whoever is in office, that we always maintain
that commitment to serve the men and women who are serving us. And you play
a vital role in that. You who served, and you who serve as the models for them,
are the ones who help carry the torch on behalf of the United States of America.
So I wanted to thank you for all of that.
Ladies and gentlemen, it's my job as Secretary of Defence not only to talk about
current threats to our security, and there are a number. I mentioned Saddam
Hussein, I mentioned Milosevic. There may be others that I could talk about
today. But we're looking at what I call a Superpower Paradox. There is no other
country that can challenge us directly. No other country has the capability that we
do, be it ground forces, be it our warships, be it our aircraft. No other country can
challenge us directly. So they look for indirect ways to challenge us through
asymmetrical types of conflicts. That can come in the form of chemical or
biological or even cyber [warfare]. And those are the kinds of threats that we're
seeing emerge today and that we will have to face tomorrow.
Let me give you an example. There are probably at least two dozen countries or
more that are seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction and the means to
deliver them. So what we have to do is intensify our anti-proliferation types of
measures to cut down on the technology that so many of our friends or allies or
adversaries are helping to spread around the world. [That is a] big challenge.
[We also have] to deter those weapons of mass destruction from ever being used
against our troops or against our population.
We have to be concerned about terrorists, those who are being supported by
people like Usama bin Laden. We know that threat is out there. We saw the
bombing of our embassies in East Africa. We know that the same groups are
seeking to develop and acquire chemical and biological weapons.
We know a group in Tokyo a few years ago released sarin gas in a subway. We
know that that same group was also trying to release a chemical weapon against
American forces.
We know that Usama bin Laden is trying to acquire weapons of mass
destruction. We know that in the bombing of our [World] Trade Center a couple of
years ago the [culprits] were also experimenting with chemical weapons. So all of
that is out there, and we have to be prepared to fight against that.
We know that other countries are forming cells of professionals dedicated to
finding ways to interrupt our [information] infrastructure. If you can shut down our
financial system, if you could shut down our transportation system, if you could
cause the collapse of our energy production and distribution system just by
typing on a computer and causing those links to this globalization to break down,
then you're able to wage successful warfare, and we have to be able to defend
against that. We're taking these measures.
This morning is not the time for me to go through on a case by case
demonstration all that we're doing, but let me just talk about a couple. Yes, we
are concerned that some country will seek to release a chemical or biological
agent on American soil sometime in the future. Some time ago a poet imagined
[a scenario of] a man clutching a little case, walking out briskly to infect a city
who's terrible future has just arrived.
We are anticipating that kind of terror. We are preparing our citizens by going out
to 120 different cities and preparing those who will be required to respond to a
chemical or biological attack. We are doing all of those things in anticipation of
the kinds of threats that we are likely to face in the future. So I want you to know
that we're not only looking at what we have to defend against today, we are also
preparing ourselves for the kind of conflicts that we're likely to face in the future.
I want you to know, once again, that our men and women in uniform are
performing magnificently. They are doing everything that we are asking from
them, and more. I wanted to be here today to say that to all of you.
[The futurist Alvin] Toffler reminded us more than 25 years ago about Future
Shock --that we're going to have the winds of change sweep across our country,
our culture and our ideals. And we've seen that take place. He said that
technology has the potential to benefit all of mankind, and we know that. Today,
technology is empowering the average citizen in ways that none of us
contemplated just 10 or 20 or 25 years ago.
But there are two edges to this sword. The hand that wields it, as Toffler pointed
out, can sever the hand that's holding it. It's a double-edged sword, and we have
to be very, very concerned about how we are empowering our citizens, our
businessmen and women and our consumers. We also have to be concerned
that it is not turned and used against us. So we are preparing for that eventuality
as well by devoting vast resources to developing the capability of protecting our
infrastructure, protecting our citizens and protecting our soldiers.
I feel like I am a former Senator just warming up. As you know, Senators have
the capacity to speak at length. I've put away my senatorial robes as such, and
assumed that of a chief executive for the Pentagon.
So I want to conclude this morning by again telling you how very proud I am to be
in this position. I never imagined I would be here. I never thought that anyone
would call me and ask me to serve in this capacity. And I will tell you once again
that my wife and I have never ever had the opportunity to be around people who
are so devoted to duty, so dedicated to their country, so patriotic, so
hardworking, so gifted, as we have in the military today, and we are terribly,
terribly proud. We have been blessed to have had this opportunity.
We also had the opportunity just a couple of months ago to attend the opening of
the D-Day Museum in New Orleans. Steven Ambrose [Chairman of the National
D-Day Museum] orchestrated that, and he also had Stephen Spielberg, Tom
Hanks, Tom Brokaw and others who arrived to participate in this great opening.
Steven Ambrose has many books, but the one that always stayed with me is
Citizen Soldier. And in the end of Citizen Soldier he asks, "How was it possible
for this country of ours, so diverse and at that time disorganized in terms of its
military might, to take on this mechanized evil that was going across the entire
continent of Europe? How were we able to defeat that enemy?" He said it all
came down to the citizen soldier. He said, "The citizen soldier knew the
difference between right and wrong, and he was unwilling to live in a world in
which wrong triumphed, and so he fought and we prevailed, and all of us are the
grateful beneficiaries of their sacrifice."
Ladies and gentlemen, many of you in this audience were part of that greatest
generation. You have been part of the generations that have followed. And you
have held up the torch of liberty and freedom, and all of us here are the eternal
beneficiaries for what you've done. God bless you.”
Thinking asymmetrically in times of terror
By Colin S. Gray
In American common usage today, asymmetric threats are those that our
political, strategic, and military cultures regard as unusual. Such threats differ
significantly in character both from those that we anticipate facing from putative
enemies and from the methods with which we plan to menace them. Much as
international lawyers thus far have failed to define terrorism to the general
satisfaction, so US national security specialists have found that the endeavor to
define asymmetric threats has proved generally unproductive. Borrowing from
the terrorism case, the most fruitful approach to the better understanding of
asymmetric threats is not via a forlorn quest for the perfect definition, but rather
by the identification of the principal characteristics of, and corollaries to,
Characteristics of Asymmetry
A problem with efforts to define an asymmetric threat is that they imply
strongly that the universe of threats divides neatly into the symmetric and the
asymmetric. Indeed, by definition we can make it so. Of course, this is at best
misleading, if not downright nonsensical. Notwithstanding the apparent clarity of
some cases, there is no more definitive a universal test for what is an asymmetric
threat than there is for who is a terrorist. If one person’s terrorist is another’s
freedom fighter, so one culture’s asymmetric threat is another’s standard modus
operandi. Let us proceed by listing the characteristics of, and usual corollaries to,
threats we generally deem to be asymmetric. Asymmetric threats tend to be:
Unusual in our eyes.
Irregular in that they are posed by instruments unrecognized by the
long-standing laws of war (which are keyed to control the conduct
of regular military machines engaged in open combat).
Unmatched in our arsenal of capabilities and plans. Such threats
may or may not appear truly dangerous, but they will certainly look
different from war as we have known it.
Highly leveraged against our particular assets--military and,
probably more often, civil.
Designed not only to secure leverage against our assets, but also
intended to work around, offset, and negate what in other contexts
are our strengths.
Difficult to respond to in kind. This is less true than we usually
allow. For example, special forces can be unleashed to operate as
“terrorists in uniform.” Unconventional warfare of all kinds, including
terrorism (and guerrilla operations), is a politically neutral
Difficult to respond to in a discriminate and proportionate manner. It
is of the nature of asymmetric threats that they are apt to pose a
level-of-response dilemma to the victim. The military response
readily available tends to be unduly heavy-handed, if not plainly
irrelevant, while the policy hunt for the carefully measured and
precisely targeted reply all too easily can be ensnared in a lengthy
political process which inhibits any real action.
Friendly to the frightening prospect of the “unknown unknown.” By
analogy, if we do not scan the skies, including those of the southern
hemisphere, comprehensively and routinely, we will probably not
spot the asteroid (or other “Near Earth Object”) that poses the
ultimate asymmetric menace to our security. But even a superior
Defence community is going to miss some “unknown unknowns.”
We do not look for what we do not know to look for.
Undoubtedly some works of frontier social scientific scholarship one day
will dissect the concept of the asymmetric threat and argue that it has N
categories, Y subcategories, and who knows how many intriguing, and not wholly
implausible, variations. To be useful to US policy, however, an understanding of
asymmetric threats should focus only upon the core of the matter. In addition to
the eight broad and overlapping characteristics itemized above, it is only a
special class of asymmetric menace that need attract official US concern today.
Specifically, the United States is interested not simply in threats that are unusual,
different, or designed to evade American strengths. Instead, the United States
has to focus on threats, which in this case happen to warrant description as
asymmetrical, that if executed could wreak great damage upon American
interests. In other words, it is not sufficient just for a threat to be different, also it
would need to be prospectively effective. Many candidate asymmetric threats are
not threats to achieve a measure of physical control, but rather work ju-jitsu
fashion with the inadvertent cooperation of the victim. It follows that the
effectiveness of those threats is not some absolute quality and quantity, but is
very much ours to determine. This points to a general truth about the strategic
utility of terrorism in particular, with the same rule applying to perpetrator and
Typically, terrorists win when their outrages, though generally very minor
as compared to the extraordinary events of 11 September or the kind of costs
inflicted by regular warfare, induce the state-victim to overreact. The regular
belligerent takes action which fatally imperils its own political legitimacy.
Similarly, terrorists lose when their outrages delegitimize their political cause; this
is what can be termed the mainstream strategic explanation of why terrorism
succeeds or fails in particular cases. It is all but impossible for terrorist
organizations themselves to inflict truly major physical damage upon the
capabilities of states. For the parallel point, it is close to impossible for the forces
of counterterrorism to root out all of the would-be warriors-by-terror. Each side
usually has to be encouraged to defeat itself politically. The historical record on
these points is quite clear--indeed, is overwhelming--though it is less well
understood than it should be.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not suggesting that the “regular”
state party to an asymmetrical conflict should tolerate terrorist outrages. Under-
reaction, let alone no reaction, most likely would be interpreted as weakness,
perhaps as evidence of successful intimidation. Nonetheless, when dealing with
terrorists, a low-key response usually is preferable to heavy-handed action which
both dignifies the enemy by signalling a large significance to his misdeeds and
risks alienating political opinion. Though the attitudes and policies of most
irregularly asymmetric foes will be accessible by carefully crafted threats and
bribes, usually there is a hard core among the adversary whose mode of
rationality literally will brook no compromise. In those instances, the rejectionists
(of any compromise whatsoever) either have to be killed or placed in permanent
detention. Ideally, the messy task of dealing with the hardest of hard-core among
irregular enemies can be left to their former comrades-in-arms (as happened in
Ireland, for example, in the early 1920s).
It will be abundantly clear by this juncture that for our current policy and
operational purposes the asymmetrical threats of most interest are understood to
be militarily, or even quite non-militarily, irregular in character. Nonetheless, we
can conceive of asymmetrical threats very different indeed from menaces posed
by irregular forces. Most obviously, the United States has to be ready to cope
tactically, operationally, and strategically with the smart and unusual employment
of regular armed forces by an enemy. Not all of America’s foes, current and
future, lack a regular military machine. Tactically, operationally, and strategically
adroit belligerents use their regular forces in unexpected ways.
It is not obvious that smart tactics, refined operational artistry, and adroit
military strategy warrant the ascription “asymmetric,” even though they can
manifest themselves in “different” behaviours. Indeed, careful reconsideration of
the whole subject area of asymmetric threats, and responses to the same, leads
the theorist and the practitioner at least to the working conclusion that good
strategy on both sides is what this is all about. Because choices for asymmetric
activity merge with common-sense approaches to strategy (e.g., doing what the
enemy does not expect, generally practicing the precepts advanced by Sun Tzu),
there is virtue in fencing off for distinctive discussion the phenomenon of hugely
irregular asymmetric threats. This is not to suggest that asymmetry in conflict is
synonymous with belligerency between regular and irregular foes, or between
regular and irregular forces (regular security communities can license and
employ irregular forces and methods), but that is the core of our current concern.
How do asymmetric threats work? To repeat, although we must not equate such
threats strictly with terrorism, by and large it is terroristic behaviour that is the
focus here.
Every security community is the prisoner of its own strategic
expectations. Recall that efforts at strategic deception tend
to work when they show enemies what they expect to see.
Our historical experience, culture, and geopolitical context,
as well as the practical constraints of government (limited
information, time, money, flexibility), direct us to prepare for
some contingencies, but not others. We prepare against
threats that our community agrees consensually merit
contingent responses. It may be unjust, certainly strictly
inaccurate, to identify failure of imagination as the strategic
culprit, when really the problem reduces to knowing how to
act in face of the full array of imaginative possibilities. More
often than not, the difficulty lies not so much in a failure of
imagination--someone will have thought of the threat at
issue--but rather in an understandable failure of confidence
in imaginative threat identification.
Experience suggests powerfully that the US Defence
community, with its hundreds of planning staffs, study
groups, and respected theorists, has little difficulty imagining
dire asymmetric threats (e.g., to the twin towers in New York
City, a target previously assaulted unsuccessfully). The
problem lies in locating decision rules to filter threats worthy
of serious attention from the rest. Even the wealthiest
country on Earth cannot afford to invest in protection against
all conceivable threats.
Asymmetric threats work by posing possible menaces so
awful and awesome that countries dare not respond, at least
not until actual experience provides incontrovertible evidence
of the threat
It is well worth remembering that the asymmetric danger
leveled by terrorism can work strategically only with the
unwitting cooperation of the victims. If we permit acts of
terror to spread fear, despondency, and drive us into a
variant of a garrison state, then at best we accept a very
high price as the cost of living with this asymmetric foe. At
worst, and this is the strategic logic of the terrorist, we find
the responses we have initiated to counter terrorism so
burdensome that we become discouraged and amenable to
effecting a political deal (always assuming, of course, that
our asymmetric foe is “dealable,” which he may not be). Note
that the (Provisional) IRA has bombed and shot its political
wing, Sinn Fein, into government in Northern Ireland. While,
for the least ambiguous, if in the long term historically ironic,
example, Jewish terrorists bombed and shot the state of
Israel into existence, as they rendered Britain’s mandate
over Palestine unsustainably costly.
Because most imagined threats do not occur, it follows that
most of them can be safely ignored. Of course, it can be
difficult to know with high assurance which threats can be
ignored with impunity, and which cannot. Such “acts of God”
as giant tsunamis (e.g., triggered by the collapse of a
mountainside in the Canary Islands) or collision with a Near
Earth Object, tend to be classified in official and popular
minds along with mass bio-terrorism and even nuclear
missile strikes, as events so awful as to be all but beyond
prudent policy response. Apart from the obvious danger of
public panic, which may be gratuitous (since nothing can be
truly certain until it happens), the difficulty and cost of
suitable anticipatory responses are self-deterring. Even
plausibility and amenability to a fairly reliable solution--as, for
example, with the menace of rogue missile attacks-government and public are likely to opt for the non-response
of psychological denial. After all, it may never happen.
Asymmetric threats work by challenging successfully our
ability to respond effectively
By its nature the executive agency for asymmetric threats,
and possibly the political force behind that instrument, will be
dissimilar to us. Ideally, from his point of view, the purveyor
of asymmetric threats does not leave a business card with
an address at the scene of the crime. The highly irregular
warriors of asymmetry can succeed tactically only in the
mercifully rare cases when they are indifferent to personal
survival, or when they can merge anonymously into the
urban human mass or into forbidding physical terrain. Since
strategy is not solitaire, even a country as powerful as the
coordinates as a necessary condition for chastisement.
Although irregular foes generally can function only with the
willing or coerced acquiescence of host polities, it is by no
means an elementary matter for the United States to drain
expression has it.
Among other difficulties: the state-swamps at issue are
inhabited by many people deemed to be innocent; they will
have civilizational affiliates elsewhere, some of whose official
and popular opinion we will need to take seriously; and
operational problems most likely would make a mockery of
robust intentions and muscular language (e.g., draining the
swamp) on our part. It is not sufficient for American
responses to asymmetric threats to be effective; in addition,
they must be politically and morally tolerable in our culture.
The Roman Republic and Empire devised and practiced
exceedingly brutal standard operating procedures against
irregular foes, domestic and foreign, that were extremely
effective. Those procedures could not be followed today by
our society in the contexts of the laws of war (as revised, to
accommodate internal strife) and the CNN factor.
Americans will need to decide whether asymmetric foes are
criminals or enemy soldiers. If we redefine what the concept
and legal idea of “war” encompasses, then so also will we
have to redefine who can wage it legitimately, which is to say
who, and what kinds of behavior, enjoy some legal
recognition and protection. In addition, there will have to be
reconsideration of the precise meaning of a distinction that
has been fundamental to the development of the laws of
(“innocents”). At present the civilized world is trapped
somewhat in a timewarp of arguably obsolescent political,
ethical, and strategic assumptions and practices. Had three
thousand Americans been killed on 11 September 2001 in a
regular attack by the conventional forces of a state-enemy,
the US response would have been swift and bloody indeed.
Given the terrorist nature of the attack, the US Defence
community had to adjust to an unfamiliar strategic context.
There is a considerable danger that today’s new (sometimes
asymmetric) menaces will be addressed by thoughtways and
operating procedures of unduly conventional character.
Asymmetric threats work by acting against what appear to be
our strengths
Bearing in mind the restricted domain allowed asymmetric
threats in this discussion--confined largely to the terroristic
outrages committed by the physically relatively very weak--it
is the symbols, the apparent exemplars, of our strength that
must attract the hostile strategist of asymmetry. In
comparatively minor key, the attack on USS Cole in
November 2000, and in truly major key, the assaults on the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon, both illustrate our
argument all too clearly. Notwithstanding even horrific
scenarios, the Osama Bin Ladens of this era cannot wreck
US global military or financial hegemony, or the political
context which lends a widespread legitimacy to that
preeminence--only ill-judged US policy itself can do that. But
the asymmetric threat posed by expressive acts of terror can
occasionally succeed in inflicting damage on a scale and of
a kind that could be truly damaging to US political prestige in
the world.
While US policy and operations must seek to prevent and, if
need be, thwart, acts of terror, the impracticality of achieving
permanent 100-percent protection (of what?) suggests the
wisdom in a policy which scores well at political damage
limitation. Given the very restricted physical damage that
most asymmetric threats could pose (weapons of mass
destruction generally are another matter), we have to think
innovatively about ways to minimize loss of prestige when
such outrages succeed tactically (as they will, from time to
Fortunately, our problem is noticeably strategic in form. The
Osama Bin Ladens are not literally madmen. They are highly
intelligent, resourceful, and bent upon acting in ways that, in
their reasoning, will have beneficial effects. If we are to
perform competently in deterrence we need to address
empathetically the issue of how, by our policies, we can
negate the political effects of tactically successful terrorism.
Some Working Propositions
Let us now turn to how we can best prepare for and shape our responses
to these threats.
We cannot predict specific asymmetric threats (unless we
have excellent intelligence) and therefore we cannot protect
everything at risk. What this means is that, as in any war, the
friendly side will take losses. While the United States should do all
that it can, consistent with maintenance of decent standards of
behavior, to make life difficult for would-be terrorists, this character
of asymmetric conflict is peculiarly unrewarding to careful Defence.
The reason should be obvious. Simply stated, we and our friends
and allies offer too many targets around the world for preclusive
protection to be anything other than a worthy policy goal.
Deterrence will be especially important, despite the likely fact that it
will be unusually (culturally) difficult to achieve. A confident
assumption that Americans are very good at deterrence--witness
the course and outcome of the Cold War--needs to be jettisoned
forthwith. We are urgently in need of culturally sophisticated profiles
of asymmetric foes, so that we may stand some chance of
understanding what might best discourage them from proceeding.
We tend to lock onto yesterday’s event and project it forward
as the menace of the era. It is of the essence of the irregular,
asymmetric threat that it will not comprise a replay of yesterday’s
outrage (though the World Trade Center was attacked more than
once). We must not give the impression that we believe that our
asymmetric enemies always will be successfully cunning and
proficient. From time to time they will succumb to unduly routinized,
incompetently, and “friction” of several kinds can thwart them. All of
which is both true and somewhat comforting to recognize, but alas
it cannot serve as the basis of our policy. Bureaucracies--military
and civilian--and indeed any hierarchical organization which
rewards rule-following, are inherently ill-suited to think innovatively
about asymmetric threats. The US armed forces have handfuls (no
more) of people amongst their substantial special operations forces
who truly can think “outside the box,” and who can reason and, if
need be, behave like “terrorists in uniform.” It is not likely that even
an elite group of US officials blessed with relatively unconventional
mindsets would offer much of value with respect to specific
asymmetric threat-spotting; there are just too many possibilities out
there. But at the least such a group should be able to frame an
intelligent generic strategy for response, and therefore deterrence.
Although we are not likely to perform well at the identification
of very specific dangers, we should be able to identify, and
therefore plan how to protect against, the kind of threats that
would do us major harm. This thought really is complementary to
the merit in the idea of trying to access the enemy’s culture. Since
his exact operational choices are likely to remain a mystery to us,
we at least should know what we value most, and take measures to
afford such protection as is feasible. The lore on sound principles
for the guidance of Defence planning includes the injunction not to
avoid being surprised, but rather to avoid serious damage from the
effects of surprise. The more one thinks about the problems of
coping with asymmetric threats, the more relevant do traditional,
historically founded approaches to Defence planning appear to be.
We need to be especially alert to the possibility that
asymmetric threats can wreak their greatest damage through
ill-judged measures of response that we ourselves choose to
undertake. While we do need to worry about, and plan to prevent,
the damage that asymmetric threats might cause, we have to be
particularly alert to the danger that relatively minor physical damage
inflicted by terrorists may be translated--by us--into truly major
societal and economic costs as we dignify the asymmetric
belligerent by overreacting. If decisive action against asymmetric
threats is possible, ideally after the fashion of defeating piracy by
burning out the pirates’ lairs, all to the good. However, the
challenge to US policy lies not so much in those cases where there
is a military option, but rather when there is not. The temptation to
do something, for the sake of being seen to be doing something-even something strategically stupid--can be politically irresistible.
One should not forget a basic rule outlined above: the terrorist (as
an asymmetric opponent) can succeed only with our assistance. He
lacks the resources himself to inflict significant direct damage upon
us. Even if armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the
scale of the terroristic asymmetric menace is but a pale shadow of
the damage that the superpowers might have inflicted in a World
War III. This is not to suggest that terrorists with WMD are
insignificant--far from it. But it is to say that we need to keep a
sense of proportion. There may be a great Sino-American struggle
in our future, a possible conflict which, in its potential for harm,
would demote today’s roguish terroristic perils to the second-order
problems that they are, historically. Less than 20 years ago we
faced some danger of a war wherein casualties easily could have
numbered in the many millions. Without diminishing the tragic loss
of three thousand lives, it cannot be strategically sound for America
to allow itself to be permanently traumatized by such an outrage, or
consequently to recast its national security policy on a grand scale.
We need to identify and think hard about threats to which we
lack obvious responses. In effect, this point advises asymmetric,
even unconventionally irregular, approaches on our part. We have
to learn to respond differently, but effectively, to threats which
cannot be answered in kind. The United States has to ask
imaginatively what it is that its asymmetric foes value highly, and
devise ways and prepare means to hurt those values severely. If
there are cultural barriers on our side to incorporating particularly
murderous options into our policy, strategy, or operational intent,
then we may need to reconsider some of our attitudes and rules of
engagement. After all, war is war. Combat against terroristically
asymmetric foes is likely to be about as far removed from the
“clean” conditions of, say, war at sea or in the desert (where there
are no civilians) as can be imagined.
A Skeptical End-Note
In the history of strategic ideas, the contemporary American fascination
with asymmetry comprises rediscovery of the stunningly obvious. To behave in
ways different from those expected by an enemy can be simply good tactics,
operational art, and strategy. Since asymmetrical merely means different, it is a
little hard to understand quite why the notion has been elevated as the latest
fashionable Big Idea (following on from the concept of a revolution in military
affairs). In this essay I have confined asymmetrical threats to those emanating
from an irregular foe. However, with equal, if not greater, justification I might have
set out to diminish this Big Idea by pointing out that all of America’s wars have
been asymmetrical contests. Even aside from the bloody, two and a half centurylong experience of struggle against native American irregulars, when has the
country waged a plausibly symmetrical conflict? Imperial Britain was radically
different--grand strategically--from the revolting Colonies, as the Confederate
States were from the Union, as Germany, Japan, and then the Soviet Union were
from the United States in the 20th century.
Defence and war planning always have a significant asymmetrical
dimension, which should find expression at every level--tactical, operational, and
strategic. Competent tacticians, operational artists, and military strategists are
obliged to be aware of salient actual and possible asymmetries. In fact, the
quality of being or behaving differently--which is all that asymmetrical means--is
so natural to effective Defence professionals that they can be excused wondering
why the US Defence community today is so excited by the concept. Historically
assessed, symmetrical warfare has been the rare exception, not the rule.
Belligerents always differ from each other, usually in ways that are or could be
strategically significant.
It is entirely admirable for the US Defence community to recognize the
potential importance of asymmetry. This recognition should help offset the peril of
indiscriminate strategic autism to which very great powers are prone. A less
happy consequence of the current fascination with asymmetry is the imputing of
extraordinary efficacy and significance to it. To a greater or lesser degree, all
tactical, operational, and strategic behavior is asymmetrical. There are no
identical belligerents, with identical forces, who behave identically. But to listen in
to the current American Defence debate is to hear senior officials talking as if
they had just discovered extraordinarily dangerous asymmetrical enemies who
pose similarly awesome asymmetrical threats. To be different, or to behave
differently, is not necessarily to be strategically effective. There is nothing
inherently strategically magical about different--i.e., asymmetrical--behavior.
There is some excuse for journalists who become overexcited when exposed for
the first time to the apparently new Big Idea of asymmetry, but we Defence
professionals should know better. From the time of its founding, the United
States repeatedly has waged war asymmetrically, as it was obliged to do against
a series of “different” enemies.
A little reflection reveals that asymmetry essentially is a hollow concept.
As a relational variable, that which is asymmetrical can be labeled as such only
with reference to that which is symmetrical--and what is that? The concept may
have some limited merit if it is corralled, as in this essay, with a carefully
specified meaning (focused on an irregular foe favoring terroristic activity). As a
contribution to the general lore of strategy, however, asymmetry is a complete
non-starter. Given that competent American military planners have always
plotted how to defeat particular enemies in the distinctive ways best suited to the
individual cases at issue--albeit in ways preferred by American strategic and
military culture--what exactly is novel or even especially interesting about the
concept of asymmetry? Because all warfare is asymmetrical (there are no sets of
identical belligerents), in effect no particular wars or warfare is distinctly so. In
this respect, a course of instruction on “asymmetrical warfare” would be contentfree.
By Lieutenant General Patrick M. Hughes, USA
Director, Defence Intelligence Agency
Gen Hughes Comments:
“Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to have the opportunity to provide a Defence
Intelligence Agency perspective on the threats and challenges facing the United
States and its interests, now and well into the next century. It is important to note
at the outset that this testimony directly reflects the baseline threat assessment
DIA has provided to the Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defence in
support of the ongoing Quadrennial Defence Review. This review of the global
security environment assumes that the United States remains a global power
politically, economically, and militarily, and that our country continues its active
engagement in world affairs. If either of those assumptions are wrong, then the
threat picture depicted here would change significantly. Finally, this analysis
presents a global overview of the future in somewhat linear form -- that is, we are
providing our best estimate, from today's perspective, under the working premise
that current trends and conditions will continue to evolve along discernible lines.
We recognize, however, that the future is non-linear, and that what we present
here is likely to change. To address that concern, DIA analysts will continue to
examine and study alternatives and excursions to each specific condition, event,
and circumstance.”
The New Order...Transition, Turmoil, And Uncertainty
lead in the introduction of a new order of things." MACHIAVELLI
The world is in the midst of an extended post-Cold War transition that will
last at least another decade. Many factors and forces are at work during this
transition and some aspects of it have so far been very positive. The community
of democratic states is expanding, the world economy has largely recovered from
the decline of the late 80's and early 90's, and most experts expect steady,
positive global economic growth -- on the order of four percent per year -- well
beyond the next decade. From a national security standpoint, the threats facing
the United States have diminished in order of magnitude, and we are unlikely to
face a global military challenger on the scale of the former Soviet Union for at
least the next two decades. The world is spending in real terms some 30-40
percent less on Defence than it did during the height of the Cold War, the "rogue"
states are relatively isolated, and at least one -- North Korea -- is probably
But despite these and other positive developments, this era of transition
remains complex and dangerous. In much of the world, there still exists a
potentially explosive mix of social, demographic, economic, and political
conditions which run counter to the global trend toward democracy and economic
reform. I will highlight the most significant of these.
Demographic Trends
Global population will increase some 20 percent between now and 2010,
with 95 percent of that growth occurring in the developing areas that can least
afford it. Many of these states will experience the "youth bulge phenomena" (a
relatively high percentage of the population between 18 and 25 years of age)
which, historically, has been a key factor in instability. At the same time, we are
witnessing virtually unchecked urbanization in many developing regions as
millions of the world's poorest people move from rural to urban areas each year.
These factors are straining the leadership, infrastructure, and resources of many
Growing Humanitarian Needs
A combination of several factors -- the great disparity in north-south
distribution of wealth, rising nationalism, the violent fragmentation of existing
states due to ethnic, religious, political, and economic strife, and the steady
occurrence of natural disasters -- has led to dramatic increases in both the
number and scale of humanitarian operations. Compared to the 1980's, such
crises are four times more frequent, last longer, and are more dangerous to
respond to because they more frequently involve large numbers of internally
displaced persons located in remote, conflict-ridden regions. One measurable
consequence of these trends is the significant increase in the number, size, cost,
and intensity of UN Peace Operations over the past decade. While there is some
evidence that these trends have levelled off over the past few years, the plateau
is a high one, and we expect no significant decrease over the next decade or so.
Resource Scarcity
While most experts predict global resource availability will keep pace with
increased consumption, local and regional shortages will occur more frequently,
particularly in areas experiencing rapid population increases and/or expanded
environmental progress, and will frequently be seen by affected peoples and
states as a distribution contest in which the needs of others have been given
priority for political, economic, or social reasons. Such perceptions will increase
the potential for violence -- moves by individual nations to control fresh water
supplies already contribute to tensions among nations and future conflicts over
water are increasingly likely. On a global scale, the worldwide demand for
Persian Gulf oil will remain high and, for regions such as Asia, dependency on
Gulf oil could reach 90 percent of total oil imports by the end of the next decade.
This dependence places a very high premium on ensuring stability in this
troubled region.
WMD and Missile Proliferation
Proliferation -- particularly with regard to nuclear, chemical, and biological
weapons and missile delivery systems – constitutes a direct threat to US
interests worldwide. Many states view the acquisition of these capabilities as vital
to countering US conventional war-fighting superiority and to providing an
unparalleled measure of power, respect, and deterrent value within a regional
context. Currently some two dozen states remain actively engaged in the pursuit
of weapons of mass destruction -- we do not expect that number to grow
substantially. While nuclear technology is difficult and expensive to obtain,
counter-proliferation efforts are not perfect, and one or more of the determined
rogue states are likely to develop or acquire nuclear weapons over the next
decade. One complicating factor is the security of weapons-usable materiel
within the former Soviet Union. Although the Russians are working in good faith
to protect such materiel and related capabilities, the potential for loss of control
will remain with us into the foreseeable future, in part because of the unstable
conditions in Russia.
Chemical and biological agents are likely to be more widely proliferated.
Chemical weapons are easiest to develop, deploy, and hide and the technology
and materials to produce relatively sophisticated weapons are readily available,
often as dual-use items in the commercial world. Similarly, biological weapons
technology is also widely available but handling and weaponizing is more difficult.
In my view, ballistic and cruise missile proliferation presents one of the greatest
emerging threats to US regional interests and deployed forces. The types of
missiles most likely to be proliferated in significant numbers -- SCUD upgrades
and UAV-like cruise missile variants -- and the nations which field them, will
generally not have the technical sophistication or targeting support which is
available to more advanced military powers. But these missiles will have
sufficient range, accuracy, and payloads to deliver WMD or conventional
warheads inter-regionally to the vicinity of an intended target. As such, they pose
a direct threat to fixed targets such as large personnel and equipment
concentrations, airfields, seaports, ships at pier or anchor, C3 nodes,
logistics/transportation centres, and amphibious assault zones. Possession of
such weapons by adversaries complicates US and Allied planning, decisionmaking, and operations, and is a source of local and regional instability.
Regarding longer range missiles, fewer than five nations now possess
operational theatre ballistic missiles with ranges greater than 500 km -- that
number could grow to more than 10 by 2010. In terms of intercontinental
missiles, it is unlikely that any state, other than the declared nuclear powers, will
develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could
directly target the United States. However, in this key area, I believe we could
encounter some form of technical surprise, where a rogue state could acquire the
capability to build and use a missile which could threaten our vital interests. We
must carefully monitor this potential threat.
The Rejection of Western Culture
The abrupt end of the Cold War, the rapid spread of western values,
ideals, and institutions, and the dramatic personal, societal, and global changes
underway as a result of the global village phenomenon and broad technology
proliferation, are changing fundamental concepts, beliefs, and allegiances in
many areas of the world. Those peoples, groups, and governments who are
unable to cope with or unwilling to embrace these changes frequently resent the
dominant role played by the United States in the international security
environment, and attempt to undermine US and western influence and interests.
Two aspects of this condition are particularly noteworthy. First, although there is
not at present an ideology that is both inimical to our interests and widely
appealing, one could conceivably arise under the rhetoric of providing a
counterpoint to western culture.
Second, the perception of western political, economic, and especially
military "dominance" means that many of our enemies will choose asymmetric
means to attack our interests -- that is, pursuing courses of action that attempt to
take advantage of their perceived strengths while exploiting our perceived
weaknesses. At the "strategic" level, this probably means seeking to avoid direct
military confrontation with US forces; at the operational and tactical levels it
means seeking ways of "levelling the playing field" if forced to engage the US
Terrorism will remain a major transnational problem, driven by continued
ethnic, religious, nationalist, separatist, political, and economic motivations. One
worrying trend is the rise of terrorists groups that are more multinational in scale
of operation and less responsive to domestic or external influences. Middle Eastbased terrorism, especially that supported by Iran and private sources in several
other countries, remains the primary terrorist threat to US interests. While
advanced and exotic weapons are increasingly available, their employment is
likely to remain minimal as terrorist groups concentrate on peripheral
technologies -- communications, more sophisticated conventional weapons, and
weapon disguise techniques -- that improve the prospects for successful
execution of attacks. If weapons of mass destruction are used, chemical or
biological agents would likely be the choice, since they are easier to build, hide,
and transport. The Japanese experience with the Aum Shin-Rykyo sect is a
harbinger of what is possible in the future.
The Drug Trade
The international drug trade is becoming more complex as new areas of
drug cultivation and transit continue to emerge and international criminal
syndicates take advantage of rapid advancements in global communications,
transportation, and finance to mask their illicit operations. Drug-related crime and
corruption will remain endemic throughout the major drug source and transit
countries. Non-democratic states, or those with weak democratic traditions, are
particularly susceptible to criminal penetration of police, security, legislative,
judicial, banking, and media organizations, and to insurgency which is supported
by narco-trafficking. Drug money will retain its influence in populations with little
or no opportunity for equivalent, legitimate sources of income and employment.
This situation produces a newly moneyed element in drug-producing and transit
countries, and engenders serious, often violent clashes between and among
these elements, established social structures, and national governments. These
drug trafficking constituencies also contribute to tensions between their countries
and other governments, notably consumer nations. One especially troublesome
trend is the rise of urban drug production using non-organic chemicals. These
production facilities are relatively easy to conceal, their product is easy to
transport and distribute and, since the distance between producer and consumer
is minimal, the supply is difficult to interdict.
Critical Uncertainties
Beyond the obvious challenges outlined above, there is significant
uncertainty surrounding today's international security environment. The end of
the Cold War had three key strategic consequences -- the collapse of
international communism, the demise of the USSR, and a hiatus in bipolar
competition. These consequences, in turn, are affecting power and security
relationships throughout the world. One result is the relative dispersal of power
away from the states of the former Soviet Union toward regional power centres.
Another is the potential struggle within regions as the dominant states vie for
position within the emerging power hierarchy. A third is that in many regions the
"lid has come off" long simmering ethnic, religious, territorial, and economic
disputes. These conditions are taxing the capabilities of what are still largely Cold
War era international security concepts, institutions, and structures. The process
of adapting the old security structures and developing new ones is often complex
and confrontational. This will be particularly true within the remnant states of the
former Soviet Union.
Beyond 2010, as the world becomes more multi-polar, there is the
potential for increased competition among and between the major powers for
access to or control of resources, markets, and technology. The nature and
extent of that competition will be a key determinant of international stability. One
potential consequence of that competition would be the formation of strategic
alliances between two or more major powers that directly challenged US security
(Military planners are only beginning to grasp the implications of September 11
for future deterrence strategy)
Richard Norton-Taylor, security editor
Wednesday October 3, 2001
The Guardian
The new buzz phrase of the moment is "asymmetric warfare": the
September 11 attacks on the United States were the epitome of this. A few pilots
armed with Stanley knives launch an assault on the world's only superpower,
with its arsenal of nuclear weapons, cruise missiles, aircraft carriers, bombers
equipped with state-of-the-art weapons and self-defence technology.
There is nothing new in asymmetric warfare. In the battle of Agincourt in
1415, English infantry armed with longbows crushed shining French knights on
horseback. Excluding the shared American and Soviet cold war concept of MAD
- mutually assured destruction - all warfare has been asymmetric, says Phillip
Wilkinson of King's College, London. "The smaller power applies its strengths
against the weaknesses of the larger power," he says. The last leader who
ignored this obvious notion was Saddam Hussein. Guerrilla fighters have applied
it in South America, Cuba, and Chechnya. As have terrorists in Northern Ireland.
Britain has more experience than most, certainly more than the US. Ministry of
Defence sources are making it clear that, in the new, long-term international
campaign against terrorism now being planned in Whitehall, special forces will
play a key role.
They point to the experience of the SAS during the communist insurgency
in Malaya in the 1950s, in Oman during the 60s and 70s fighting rebels, and in
Bosnia where they have seized indicted war criminals. The operations in Malaya
and Oman did not only involve shooting the enemy. Part of the strategy was
psychological - to turn them in a battle for "hearts and minds". This is what the
US now appreciates must be one of the elements in the new, and unprecedented
"war" against terrorism which will be fought on many fronts - political, diplomatic,
financial, and economic.
Britain's colonial past also provided this country with experience in
multifaceted unconventional warfare not shared by the US. You cannot apply a
simple military response when you are challenged politically. The Americans tried
in Vietnam and failed, says Wilkinson.
He is about to go to Washington at the invitation of the Pentagon - the US
defence department - to discuss, among other things, the development of "logic
and language" and political discourse in "complex emergencies". What exactly is
meant by "war" or "victory"?
These are good questions in a world which has said goodbye (though
many, perhaps most, military leaders are slow to recognise the fact) to the era of
Clausewitz, the great 19th century German strategist, who was preoccupied with
wars between states and the conventional enemy's "centre of gravity".
But if asymmetric warfare is not a new concept, it has taken on new,
broader, dimensions. Osama bin Laden may have been the instigator of the
attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon. Those
attacks, and the earlier suicide bomb attacks on US embassies in east Africa and
the USS Cole in Aden, may have not happened without Bin Laden. He is a
target, as are his band of an estimated 200 close associates and bodyguards,
and his training camps in Afghanistan.
But he has spawned and inspired - if that is the right word, certainly it is
the one used by counterterrorist agencies - al-Qaida (the Base), a loose network
of fanatical Islamist supporters and extremists with links to jihads with origins in
other Muslim countries.
Asymmetric warfare will be fought on every front, including its root causes,
according to Whitehall officials who have set up a special committee in the
Cabinet Office to think about its many facets. But it does have specifically military
implications. What use is heavy metal - notably the battle tank - against terrorist
groups hidden in tunnels and caves, or in urban apartments, with millions of
pounds deposited in concealed bank accounts at their disposal?
What is needed, instead, are small groups of highly skilled and mobile
special forces, and highly accurate weapons fired from manned or unmanned
aircraft, backed up by good intelligence. What is needed, says Wilkinson, are
flexible forces with a long reach.
The challenge for the military is to strike as precisely as possible at an
elusive enemy. The September 11 attacks, which killed more than 6,000 people,
were devastating and shocked governments around the world, but they had no
"strategic effect", says a senior defence source.
The military response, therefore, was not to escalate. It would have been
had the attack been by a state using military weapons. This has huge
implications for deterrence theory, including nuclear weapons which are at the
opposite end of the spectrum from the sophisticated, precise, and effective
strategy of asymmetric warfare military planners and politicians are now talking
If nuclear weapons are of no use against such an enemy, there are also
questions about the deterrent value and purpose of the Bush administration's
missile defence project. Those who were behind the attacks on the US - an
atrocity condemned by most of the "rogue" states the project is supposed to
deter - do not have intercontinental missiles, are unlikely to possess them and do
not need them. Trucks with conventional explosive would do.
Fears are being expressed that they will get their hands on nuclear,
biological, or chemical, weapons - weapons of mass destruction. Though the
ease with which terrorists could obtain such material and use them as weapons
is exaggerated, this is clearly a priority for international agreements, and national
security, intelligence, and civil defence agencies - all part of the arsenal of
asymmetric warfare.
mailto:[email protected]
How the Weak Win Wars
A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict
By Ivan Arreguín-Toft
No one had given Muhammad Ali a chance against George Foreman in
the World Heavyweight Championship fight of October 30, 1974. Foreman, none
of whose opponents had lasted more than three rounds in the ring, was the
strongest, hardest hitting boxer of his generation. Ali, though not as powerful as
Foreman, had a slightly faster punch and was lighter on his feet. In the weeks
leading up to the fight, however, Foreman had practiced against nimble sparring
partners. He was ready. But when the bell rang just after 4:00 a.m. in Kinshasa,
something completely unexpected happened. In round two, instead of moving
into the ring to meet Foreman, Ali appeared to cower against the ropes.
Foreman, now confident of victory, pounded him again and again, while Ali
whispered hoarse taunts: "George, you're not hittin'," "George, you disappoint
me." Foreman lost his temper, and his punches became a furious blur. To
spectators, unaware that the elastic ring ropes were absorbing much of the force
of Foreman's blows, it looked as if Ali would surely fall. By the fifth round,
however, Foreman was worn out. And in round eight, as stunned commentators
and a delirious crowd looked on, Muhammad Ali knocked George Foreman to the
canvas, and the fight was over.
The outcome of that now-famous "rumble in the jungle" was completely
unexpected. The two fighters were equally motivated to win: Both had boasted of
victory, and both had enormous egos. Yet in the end, a fight that should have
been over in three rounds went eight, and Foreman's prodigious punches proved
useless against Ali's rope-a-dope strategy.
This fight illustrates an important yet relatively unexplored feature of
interstate conflict: how a weak actor's strategy can make a strong actor's power
irrelevant. If power implies victory in war, then weak actors should almost never
win against stronger opponents, especially when the gap in relative power is very
large. Yet history suggests otherwise: Weak actors sometimes do win. The
question is how.
Understanding the conditions under which weak actors win wars is
important for two reasons. First, if there are dynamics unique to asymmetric
conflicts--or if their analysis provides fresh insights into symmetrical conflicts--a
general explanation of asymmetric conflict outcomes is not only desirable but
necessary, both to reduce the likelihood of un-winnable wars and to increase the
chances of U.S. success when a resort to arms is necessary. Second, because
asymmetric conflicts ranging from catastrophic terrorism to military intervention in
interstate, ethnic, and civil wars are the most likely threat to U.S. security and
interests, only a general theory of asymmetric conflict outcomes can guide U.S.
policymakers in their efforts to build the kinds of armed and other forces
necessary to implement an effective U.S. strategic response.
Thus far, only one scholar has advanced a strong general explanation of
asymmetric conflict outcomes. In "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars," Andrew
Mack argues that an actor's relative resolve or interest explains success or failure
in asymmetric conflicts. In essence, the actor with the most resolve wins,
regardless of material power resources. Mack contends that this resolve can be
derived a priori by assessing the structure of the conflict relationship. Power
asymmetry explains interest asymmetry: The greater the gap in relative power,
the less resolute and hence more politically vulnerable strong actors are, and the
more resolute and less politically vulnerable weak actors are. Big nations
therefore lose small wars because frustrated publics (in democratic regimes) or
countervailing elites (in authoritarian regimes) force a withdrawal short of military
victory. This seems true of some conflicts, but not of others.
In this article I argue that the best predictor of asymmetric conflict
outcomes is strategic interaction. According to this thesis, the interaction of actor
strategies during a conflict predicts conflict outcomes better than do competing
explanations. The first section lays out the puzzle of strong-actor defeat in
asymmetric conflicts and Mack's interest asymmetry argument more fully. The
second section introduces the strategic interaction thesis, which holds that strong
actors will lose asymmetric conflicts when they use the wrong strategy vis-à-vis
their opponents' strategy. The next two sections offer quantitative and qualitative
tests of the argument. The article concludes by drawing out theoretical and policy
implications of the strategic interaction thesis and suggests avenues for further
Explaining Asymmetric Conflict Outcomes
Since Thucydides, the root principle of international relations theory has
been that power implies victory in war. Thus, in asymmetric conflicts the strong
actor should almost always win. Indeed this expectation is on balance supported.
Yet if one divides the roughly 200-year period covered in the Correlates of War
data set, two related puzzles emerge. First, weak actors were victorious in nearly
30 percent of all asymmetric wars, which seems high given the > = 5:1
asymmetry represented here. Second, weak actors have won with increasing
frequency over time. If relative power explains outcomes, and structure of the
conflict is held constant and conflict outcomes should not shift over time as they
have. What explains both strong-actor defeat in asymmetric wars and the trend
toward increasing weak-actor victories over time?
Interest Asymmetry, or Relative Power Revisited
Andrew Mack's explanation for how weak states win asymmetric wars
comprises three key elements: (1) relative power explains relative interests; (2)
relative interests explain relative political vulnerability; and (3) relative
vulnerability explains why strong actors lose. According to the logic of this
argument, strong actors have a lower interest in winning because their survival is
not at stake. Weak actors, on the other hand, have a high interest in winning
because only victory ensures their survival. Mack introduces the concept of
political vulnerability to describe the likelihood that an actor's public (in
democratic regimes) or competing elites (in authoritarian regimes) will force its
leaders to halt the war short of achieving its initial objectives. A strong actor's low
interests imply high political vulnerability. In contrast, a weak actor's high
interests imply low political vulnerability. Mack argues that this political
vulnerability explains why the strong lose to the weak: Delays and reverses on
the battle-field will eventually encourage war-weary publics or greedy elites to
force the strong actor's leaders to abandon the fight. Mack's argument therefore
reduces to the claim that relative power explains strong-actor defeat in
asymmetric wars: Power asymmetry determines interest asymmetry (high power
equals low interest). Interest asymmetry is the key causal mechanism, and
Mack's thesis is in this sense an interest asymmetry argument.
Mack applies this logic to the case of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, where
it appears to provide a strong explanation of that war's unexpected outcome.
According to Mack, the United States lost the war because it had less at stake
than did North Vietnam. Over time the United States failed to coerce North
Vietnam and was eventually forced by an angry and frustrated American public to
withdraw short of achieving its main political objective: a viable, independent,
non-communist South Vietnam.
Mack's interest asymmetry thesis has at least three problems. First,
relative power is a poor predictor of relative interest or resolve in peace or war. In
peacetime, a strong state may act as if its survival is at stake when it is not. A
state that imagines itself "leader of the free world," for example, might rationally
calculate that although the defeat of an ally in a distant civil war would be
materially insignificant, its own survival as a free-world leader depends on a
favourable outcome. These calculations are often intensified by domino logic, in
which a series of individually insignificant interests are linked so that their
cumulative loss constitutes a material threat to survival. Prior to the South African
War (1899-1902), for example, Great Britain had calculated that the fate of its
empire hinged on protecting India, which demanded that Britain secure the sealanes of communication passing the Cape of Good Hope. This in turn required
control of Cape Colony, which made it imperative to resist with force the
independence demands of two tiny republics in the hinterlands of the
southernmost region of Africa. Similarly, both identity survival and domino
rationales influenced the U.S. decision to intervene in the civil war in Vietnam.
Once strong actors enter into a conflict--even one acknowledged to have been
initially peripheral to their interests--their resolve to win may increase
dramatically. This was as true of Soviet calculations in Afghanistan as it was of
U.S. calculations in Vietnam. Second, the operation of political vulnerability,
which Mack uses to explain weak-actor success, presupposes a span of time.
But nothing in the interest asymmetry thesis explains why some asymmetric
conflicts end quickly, yet others drag on. Third, if the interest asymmetry thesis is
right, there should be little or no variation over time in the distribution of
asymmetric conflict outcomes when relative power is held constant. But weak
actors are increasingly winning asymmetric conflicts.
In sum, Mack's interest asymmetry thesis is weakest when explaining
actor interests as a function of relative power, and strongest when explaining
strong-actor failure as a consequence of political vulnerability. In the next section
I present a theory of asymmetric conflict outcomes that subsumes Mack's thesis
by bracketing the conditions under which political vulnerability causes strong
actors to lose asymmetric wars.
The Strategic Interaction Thesis: (A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict)
This section introduces the strategic interaction thesis as a general
explanation of asymmetric conflict outcomes. It begins with definitions of key
terms, followed by an exploration of the theory's logic, and concludes with
several derived hypotheses.
Strategy, as defined here, refers to an actor's plan for using armed forces
to achieve military or political objectives. Strategies incorporate an actor's
understanding (rarely explicit) about the relative values of these objectives. In
this sense, strategy should be distinguished from two closely related terms:
grand strategy and tactics. Grand strategy refers to the totality of an actor's
resources directed toward military, political, economic, or other objectives.
Tactics refers to the art of fighting battles and of using the various arms of the
military--for example, infantry, armour, and artillery--on terrain and in positions
that are favourable to them. Grand strategy, strategy, and tactics all describe
different points on a continuum of a given actor's means toward a single end:
compelling another to do its will.
The following typology of ideal-type strategies is a useful starting point for
Attack (strong actor) strategies:
Direct attack
Defence (weak actor) strategies:
Direct Defence
Guerrilla warfare strategy
This typology includes two assumptions: (1) strong actors initiated the
asymmetric conflict in question, and therefore "strong actor" and "attacker" are
synonymous; and (2) these ideal-type strategies are war-winning rather than wartermination strategies.
Direct Attack. Direct attack means the use of the military to capture or
eliminate an adversary's armed forces, thereby gaining control of that opponent's
values. The main goal is to win the war by destroying the adversary's capacity to
resist with armed forces. Both attrition and blitzkrieg are direct- attack strategies.
Some readers may find inclusion of the blitzkrieg in this definition puzzling,
because it seems the very definition of an indirect attack strategy. But because
armoured formations target enemy armed forces (the adversary's capacity to
resist) in a blitzkrieg, it counts as an indirect tactic but a direct strategy.
Historically, the most common pattern of a direct-attack strategy has been one in
which an attacker's forces advance to capture a defender's values (a capital city,
an industrial or communications centre, or a bridge) or strategic assets
(defensible terrain or a fort) and the defender moves to thwart that effort. A battle
or series of battles ensue, sometimes marked by lulls lasting entire seasons, until
one side admits defeat.
Barbarism. Barbarism is the systematic violation of the laws of war in
pursuit of a military or political objective. Although this definition includes the use
of prohibited weapons such as chemical and biological agents, its most important
element is depredations against non-combatants (viz., rape, murder, and torture).
Unlike other strategies, barbarism has been used to destroy an adversary's will
and capacity to fight. When will is the target in a strategic bombing campaign, for
example, the strong actor seeks to coerce its weaker opponent into changing its
behaviour by inflicting pain (destroying its values). When will is the target in a
counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign, the strong actor attempts to deter would-be
insurgents through, for instance, a policy of reprisals against non-combatants.
Strong actors can also target a weak actor's capacity to sustain an insurgency
by, for example, the use of concentration camps. Historically, the most common
forms of barbarism include the murder of non-combatants (e.g., prisoners of war
or civilians during combat operations); the use of concentration camps; and since
1939, strategic bombing against targets of no military value.
Direct Defence. Direct Defence refers to the use of armed forces to thwart
an adversary's attempt to capture or destroy values such as territory, population,
and strategic resources. Like direct-attack strategies, these strategies target an
opponent's military. The aim is to damage an adversary's capacity to attack by
crippling its advancing or proximate armed forces. Examples include limited aims
strategies, static Defence, forward Defence, Defence in depth, and mobile
The inclusion here of limited aims strategies may seem counterintuitive.
Like preemptive or preventive attack strategies, these strategies begin with an
initial offensive--say, attacking concentrations of enemy armed forces across an
international border--but their ultimate aims are defensive.
Limited aims
strategies target an adversary's capacity to attack by destroying vital strategic
forces or by seizing key strategic assets (territory, bridges, promontories, etc.).
They are most often employed by weak actors that have initiated wars against
strong actors. Examples include Japan's air assault on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and
Egypt's attack on Israel in 1973.
Guerrilla Warfare. Guerrilla warfare strategy (GWS) is the organization of
a portion of society for the purpose of imposing costs on an adversary using
armed forces trained to avoid direct confrontation. These costs include the loss of
soldiers, supplies, infrastructure, peace of mind, and most important, time.
Although GWS primarily targets opposing armed forces and their support
resources, its goal is to destroy not the capacity but the will of the attacker.
GWS requires two elements: (1) physical sanctuary (e.g., swamps,
mountains, thick forest, or jungle) or political sanctuary (e.g., weakly defended
border areas or border areas controlled by sympathetic states), and (2) a
supportive population (to supply fighters with intelligence and logistical support,
as well as replacements). The method of GWS is well summarized by perhaps its
most famous practitioner, Mao Tse-tung: "In guerrilla warfare, select the tactic of
seeming to come from the east and attacking from the west; avoid the solid,
attack the hollow; attack; withdraw; deliver a lightning blow, seek a lightning
decision. When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he
advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary; pursue him
when he withdraws. In guerrilla strategy, the enemy's rear, flanks, and other
vulnerable spots are his vital points, and there he must be harassed, attacked,
dispersed, exhausted, and annihilated."
GWS is not a strategy for obtaining a quick, decisive defeat of invading or
occupying forces. Moreover, because guerrillas cannot hold or defend particular
areas, they do not provide security for their families while on operations or when
demobilized to await new missions. GWS is therefore a strategy that requires
placing key values (e.g., farms, family, religious or cultural sites, and towns)
directly in the hands of the adversary. Logically then, important costs of adopting
a GWS depend on both the purpose and the restraint of the adversary. When
invading or occupying forces do not exercise restraint in the use of force, or when
their purpose is the destruction of a weak actor's people, GWS can become a
prohibitively expensive defensive strategy.
The Logic of Strategic Interaction. Every strategy has an ideal
counterstrategy. Actors able to predict their adversary's strategy can therefore
dramatically improve their chances of victory by choosing and implementing that
counterstrategy. Mao, for example, argued that "defeat is the invariable outcome
where native forces fight with inferior weapons against modernized forces on the
latter's terms." Mao's maxim suggests that when the weak fight the strong, the
interaction of some strategies will favor the weak, while others will favor the
Building on Mao's insight, I argue that the universe of potential strategies
and counterstrategies can be reduced to two distinct ideal-type strategic
approaches: direct and indirect. Direct approaches target an adversary's armed
forces in order to destroy that adversary's capacity to fight. Indirect approaches
seek to destroy an adversary's will to fight: Toward this end, a GWS targets
enemy soldiers, and barbarism targets enemy non-combatants. Same-approach
interactions (direct-direct or indirect-indirect) imply defeat for weak actors
because there is nothing to mediate or deflect a strong actor's power advantage.
These interactions will therefore be resolved quickly. By contrast, oppositeapproach interactions (direct-indirect or indirect-direct) imply victory for weak
actors because the strong actor's power advantage is deflected or dodged.
These therefore tend to be protracted, with time favouring the weak.
In asymmetric conflicts when strategic interaction causes an unexpected
delay between the commitment of armed forces and the attainment of military or
political objectives, strong actors tend to lose for two reasons. First, although all
combatants tend to have inflated expectations of victory, strong actors in
asymmetric conflicts are particularly susceptible to this problem. If power implies
victory, then an overwhelming power advantage implies an overwhelming--and
rapid--victory. As war against a Lilliputian opponent drags on, however, dramatic
overestimates of success force political and military elites in the strong state to
escalate the use of force to meet expectations (thus increasing the costs of a
conflict) or risk looking increasingly incompetent. Either way, domestic pressure
to end the conflict is likely to result. And as Mack highlights in his discussion of
political vulnerability, the longer a war drags on, the greater the chances are that
the strong actor will simply abandon the war effort, regardless of the military state
of affairs on the ground. Strong actors also lose asymmetric wars when, in
attempting to avoid increasing costs--such as declaring war, mobilizing reserves,
raising taxes, or sustaining additional casualties--they yield to the temptation to
employ barbarism. Barbarism conserves friendly forces, but even when militarily
effective it is risky: Barbarism carries the possibility of domestic political
discovery (and opposition) as well as external intervention.
Strategic Interaction. Explaining the trend, my explanation for the trend
toward increasing strong-actor failure is suggested both by the timing of the
biggest shift in outcomes favouring weak actors (1950-98) and by the logic of
Kenneth Waltz's argument that actors in a competitive international system
"socialize" to similar policies and strategies. As Waltz argues, "The fate of each
state depends on its responses to what other states do. The possibility that
conflict will be conducted by force leads to competition in the arts and the
instruments of force. Competition produces a tendency toward the sameness of
the competitors."
This said, what is the appropriate spatial context for socialization? I argue
that socialization works regionally, and that after World War II two different
patterns of socialization emerged in two different regions of the world. In the
blitzkrieg pattern, success was measured by the capacity to produce and deploy
large mechanized and combined-armed forces designed to destroy an
adversary's armed forces and capture its values without costly battles of
annihilation. This model was imitated by the United States, its European allies,
the Soviet Union, and to some extent Japan. In the guerrilla warfare pattern,
success was measured by the ability to prosecute a protracted conflict against a
technologically superior foe. Mao's long fight for, and eventual conquest of, China
was a model copied by Algerian rebels, the Vietminh, the Hukbalahap, Cuban
insurgents, Malayan communists, and to a large extent the Mujahideen. The
blitzkrieg model emphasizes direct strategic approaches; the guerrilla warfare
model, indirect strategic approaches. When the two interact systematically,
strong actors should lose more often.
These patterns of socialization suggest that actors on the threshold of
armed conflict are not entirely free to choose an ideal strategy for two reasons.
First, forces, equipment, and training--all closely integrated--are not fungible.
Moreover, the development and prosecution of an actor's ideal strategy may be
blocked by contrary organizational interests or traditions. Second, actors
prioritize threats: If the United States and Soviet Union, for example, identified
each other as the primary threat, and both calculated that the most likely area of
direct confrontation would be the heart of Europe, then adopting war- winning
strategies, forces, equipment, and doctrines favorable to winning that sort of war
would be a sound strategy.
Hypotheses: (Strategic Interaction and Conflict Outcomes)
This section explores the logic of four distinct strategic interactions and explains
how hypotheses derived from each can be reduced to a single hypothesis.
Direct Attack Versus Direct Defence. In this interaction both actors make
similar assumptions about the priority of values over which they will fight. Both
can therefore be expected to agree about the implications of a catastrophic loss
in battle, the rules of war, or the capture of a capital city. Because in this
interaction nothing mediates between relative material power and outcomes,
strong actors should win quickly and decisively.
Hypothesis 1: (When strong actors attack using a direct strategy and
weak actors defend using a direct strategy, all other things being equal, strong
actors should win quickly and decisively.)
Direct Attack Versus Indirect Defence. Unlike direct strategies, which involve
the use of forces trained and equipped to fight as organized units against other
similarly trained and equipped forces, indirect Defence strategies typically rely on
irregular armed forces (i.e., forces difficult to distinguish from non-combatants
when not in actual combat). As a result, an attacker's forces tend to kill or injure
non-combatants during operations, which tends to stimulate weak-actor
resistance. Most important, because indirect Defence strategies sacrifice values
for time, they necessarily take longer to resolve so long as weak actors continue
to have access to sanctuary and social support. In asymmetric conflicts, delay
favours the weak.
Hypothesis 2: (When strong actors attack with a direct strategy and weak
actors defend using an indirect strategy, all other things being equal, weak actors
should win. )
Indirect Attack Versus Direct Defence. Because the overwhelming force
available to the strong actor implies success against a weak adversary that
attempts a direct Defence, an attacker's use of an indirect strategy in this context
targets the defender's will to resist. Prior to the advent of strategic air power and
long-range artillery (e.g., the V-1 and V-2 rockets in World War II), blockades and
sieges were the only means of coercing adversaries in this way. Today strategic
bombing campaigns are the most common form of indirect attack against direct
As coercive strategies intended to destroy an adversary's will to resist,
strategic bombing campaigns tend to backfire, stimulating precisely the sort of
resolve they aim to break: German bombing of London did not cow the British
into surrender, as Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring expected. Instead it stiffened
British resolve. Strong actors will lose these interactions because they are timeconsuming and tend toward barbarism.
Hypothesis 3: (When strong actors attack using an indirect strategy and
weak actors defend using a direct strategy, all other things being equal, strong
actors should lose.)
Indirect Attack Versus Indirect Defence. Indirect Defence strategies presuppose a certain level of moral restraint on the part of attackers. When strong
actors employ a strategy that ignores such restraint, weak actors are unlikely to
win--both because there would be no one left to win for, and because GWS
depends directly on a network of social support for intelligence, logistical
assistance, and replacements. Barbarism works as a COIN strategy because by
attacking either or both of the essential elements of a GWS--sanctuary and social
assistance--it destroys an adversary's capacity to fight. For example, in the Murid
War--the Russian empire's struggle to conquer the Muslim tribes of the Caucasus
Mountains from 1830 to 1859--the Russians found that they could not make any
headway against the mountain Murids because of severe attrition and supply
problems associated with passing through the heavy beech forests of Chechnya.
The Murids raided Russian forts and settlements from mountain fortresses that
were virtually impregnable to attack except by heavy artillery. Masters of
marksmanship and hit-and-run tactics, the Chechens would strike heavily armed
Russian columns and then vanish into the forest before the Russians could
mount a counterattack. The Russians ultimately fought back by felling thousands
of trees, virtually deforesting Chechnya. By 1859 they were finally able to use
their heavy artillery to blast Murid mountain strongholds into rubble, and
resistance soon collapsed.
Hypothesis 4: (When strong actors employ barbarism to attack weak
actors defending with a GWS, all other things being equal, strong actors should
Each of these hypotheses describes an interaction of either same-approach or
opposite-approach strategic interaction. It follows that all four may be tested as a
single hypothesis.
Hypothesis 5: (Strong actors are more likely to win same-approach
interactions and lose opposite-approach interactions.)
A First Test: (Strategic Interaction and Asymmetric War Outcomes,
The aim of this section is to determine whether a statistically significant
correlation exists between strategic interaction and asymmetric conflict
outcomes. It begins with a discussion of how cases were coded and then
analyzes three key relationships: (1) strategic interaction and conflict outcomes,
(2) strategic interaction and conflict duration, and (3) strategic interaction and the
trend toward increasing strong-actor failure over time.
Coding and Cases
The basic method of coding cases was to examine the history of each war
in the Correlates of War data set. A conflict was coded asymmetric if the halved
product of one actor's armed forces and population exceeded the simple product
of its adversary's armed forces and population by >= 5:1. If the strong actor used
armed forces to attempt to destroy a weak actor's forces or capture values, it was
coded as a direct attack. If the weak actor used armed forces to attempt to thwart
these attacks, it was coded as a direct Defence. A coding of barbarism was
reserved for strong actors that systematically targeted non-combatants,
employed illicit weapons, or accepted collateral damage in a strategic bombing
campaign after bomb damage assessments cast considerable doubt on the
efficacy of the campaign as a whole. A weak actor was coded as using a GWS if
it sought to impose costs on the strong actor with armed force while avoiding
pitched battles. Each conflict dyad was coded with one of four strategic
interactions (direct-direct, direct-indirect, indirect-direct, or indirect-indirect),
before being reduced to one of two interaction types (same approach or opposite
The key variable of analysis is strategic interaction (STRATINT) as
compared to conflict outcome (OUTCOME). If strategic interaction causes
change in conflict outcome, then a shift in the value of strategic interaction across
the case universe should be matched by a corresponding shift in outcome. The
STRATINT variable was coded 0 if the strategic interaction was same approach
(direct-direct or indirect-indirect), and 1 if it was opposite approach (directindirect or indirect-direct). The OUTCOME variable was coded 0 if the strong
actor lost, and 1 if it won.
Strategic Interaction and Conflict Outcomes
Running correlations established both that strategic interaction and
asymmetric conflict outcomes are associated, and that the relationship is
statistically significant. The results thus support hypothesis 5. Strong actors won
76 percent of all same-approach interactions, and weak actors won 63 percent of
all opposite-approach interactions.
Strategic Interaction and Conflict Duration
The key causal mechanism of the strategic interaction thesis is time:
Same approach interactions should be over quickly, whereas opposite-approach
interactions should be protracted (with weak actors tending to win drawn-out
wars). An analysis of the average duration of same-approach and oppositeapproach interactions supports this claim: Same-approach interactions lasted
2.69 years on average (2.98 years was the overall mean); opposite-approach
interactions lasted an average of 4.86 years.
Strategic Interaction and Long-term Trends
Both opposite-approach interactions and strong-actor failures have
increased over time: From 1800 to 1849, 5.9 percent of interactions in thirty-four
asymmetric conflicts were opposite approach. From 1850 to 1899, 10.1 percent
of interactions in sixty-nine asymmetric conflicts were opposite approach. From
1900 to 1949, 16.1 percent of thirty-one asymmetric conflicts were opposite, and
from 1950 to 1998, 22.2 percent of thirty-six asymmetric conflicts were opposite.
In sum, the data analysis supports three key hypotheses relating strategic
interaction to asymmetric conflict outcomes. First, strong actors are more likely to
lose opposite-approach strategic interactions. Second, opposite-approach
interaction conflicts take longer to resolve than do same-approach interactions.
Third, the frequency of opposite-approach interactions has increased in
proportion to strong-actor failure over time.
The analysis is limited, however, because some data are missing: Many
civil and colonial wars recorded neither the quantity of forces committed nor the
strategies employed. Although these defects are balanced by statistical controls,
even a perfect data set would support only a correlation between variables, not
causation. Thus, although the data analysis might have refuted the strategic
interaction thesis, only in combination with a careful comparison of historical
cases could the thesis be confirmed.
U.S. Intervention in the Vietnam War
In this section I present a synoptic case study of U.S. intervention in
Vietnam (March 1965 to January 1973) as a preliminary test of the causal logic of
the interest asymmetry and strategic interaction theses. The Vietnam War
represents the strongest case study for Mack's interest asymmetry thesis. If
strategic interaction can explain the war's outcome better than can interest
asymmetry, then all other things being equal, it should be considered a better
U.S. military intervention in Vietnam began soon after the defeat of France
at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The commitment of U.S. combat troops, however, did
not occur until eleven years later. In 1965 the U.S. population was about 194
million, while North Vietnam's stood at approximately 19 million. U.S. and North
Vietnamese armed forces totalled about 2.5 million and 256,000, respectively.
Adding in allies that contributed combat troops (negligible), multiplying population
and armed forces, and dividing the strong actor's total by two results in a relative
force ratio of about 53:1. Even allowing for the fact that the United States did not
actually devote half of its armed forces and half of its population to the conflict,
there is no question that (1) this was an asymmetric conflict, and (2) the United
States and its allies were the strong actor.
U.S. Military Intervention, 1965-73
U.S. military intervention involved four distinct strategic interactions: (1)
barbarism (Rolling Thunder) against a direct Defence, (2) a direct attack against
a direct Defence (the main-force units war), (3) direct attacks against a GWS (the
guerrilla war in the South I), and (4) barbarism against GWS (the guerrilla war in
the South II).
Interaction 1:
Rolling thunder, 1965-68. The first strategic interaction of the war began in
March 1965 with a U.S. strategic bombing campaign, later named Rolling
Thunder. Its main goal was to destroy the willingness of North Vietnam to support
the guerrilla war campaign in the South, and as its name implied, the campaign
was expected to take time: "Instead of a coordinated air campaign . . . which
would destroy the enemy's ability to wage war and break their will to resist, air
operations over the North were designed as a diplomatic 'slow squeeze'
signalling device. As Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara said on
February 3, 1966, 'U.S. objectives are not to destroy or to overthrow the
Communist government of North Vietnam. They are limited to the destruction of
the insurrection and aggression directed by North Vietnam against the political
institutions of South Vietnam.'"
The United States wanted to inflict enough pain on North Vietnam to
compel it to stop supporting the GWS in the South. North Vietnam's Defence
against Rolling Thunder was direct: It sought to thwart U.S. military attacks on its
infrastructure and forces by means of fighter aircraft and an increasingly dense
radar and surface-to-air missile Defence network.
U.S. Air Force generals and civilian leaders shared a theory about the
general effectiveness of strategic bombing. Strategic bombing should have both
hampered North Vietnam's war effort and coerced its leadership into giving up.
When neither expectation was realized, military and civilian elites faced a stark
choice: either reject the theory or blame failure on some flaw in implementation.
The Air Force chose to emphasize flaws, while the Johnson administration was
increasingly split: Some agreed that the United States was hitting the wrong
targets--or not hitting the right targets hard enough. Others, including eventually
Defence Secretary McNamara, concluded that against North Vietnam strategic
bombing could not work. McNamara's reports indicated that the military value of
Rolling Thunder's destroyed targets was zero. Bombing that accepted collateral
damage subsequent to this recognition was therefore a war crime: barbarism.
Rolling Thunder continued until a week before the November 1968 U.S.
presidential election. It was an interaction in which a strong actor (the United
States) employed an indirect strategy against a weak actor (North Vietnam) using
a direct strategy, and lost.
Interaction 2:
The main-force units war, 1965-69. This phase of the war featured a
series of pitched battles between North Vietnamese regular units and those of
the United States and the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). In a sequence of
engagements that lasted throughout the war, U.S. forces proved overwhelmingly
successful at destroying North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong (VC) mainforce units.
Examples of this interaction, in which a strong-actor direct-indirect
opposed a weak-actor direct strategy, include Operation Starlite (August 1965),
the Battle of Ia Drang (October-November 1965), Masher/White Wing (JanuaryMarch 1966), and Phase II of Operation Attleboro (October-November 1966). As
the ground war continued into 1968, the frequency of these interactions
dwindled, and U.S. forces in the South focused increasingly on the problem of
Part of the decreasing frequency of this direct-direct interaction reflected
engagements carefully and concluded that U.S. forces were so adept at
combining manoeuvre and firepower that, unless the encounter took place
between dramatically mismatched forces (as at LZ Albany in November 1965),
NVA and VC main-force units would invariably be destroyed. In the context of
Mao's warning above, native forces were fighting with inferior weapons on U.S.
terms; and as predicted, they lost.
As the loser in this interaction, the North began to innovate tactically and
strategically. In tactical terms, NVA units attempted to "cling to the belt" of U.S.
and ARVN forces, getting so close so quickly that allied forces could not benefit
from close air or artillery support. In strategic terms, the North shifted more of its
resources into the guerrilla campaign in the South.
Interaction 3:
The guerrilla war in the south i, 1965-73. Guerrillas in the South waged
their campaign with considerable skill and were countered with a bewildering mix
of professionalism, passion, sadism, and incompetence. In this dimension of the
conflict more than any other, U.S. efforts were heavily filtered through, and
constrained by, the United States' South Vietnamese allies.
In U.S. Army areas of responsibility, the first attempts to defeat the VC
insurgency involved search and destroy missions. In this type of mission, regular
army units, acting on intelligence that had located enemy unit concentrations,
would seek to make contact with these concentrations and destroy them. Largescale examples of this type of interaction include Phase I of Operation Attleboro
(September-October 1965), Operation Cedar Falls (January 1967), and
Operation Junction City (February-May 1967); but these interactions repeated
themselves on a smaller scale throughout the war. Forces were killed on both
sides, but the strategic balance slowly shifted to favour the VC, largely because
U.S. forces relied heavily on indirect firepower--tactical air and artillery support--a
consequence of which was considerable death or injury to non-combatants.
Not all U.S. COIN efforts failed outright or succeeded through barbarism.
U.S. Marine Corps forces in the mountainous northernmost area of South
Vietnam, for example, pursued a COIN strategy combining local and highly
motivated (but poorly trained and equipped) villagers with direct support from
U.S. Marine combat platoons. These combined action platoons (or CAPs)
operated on an "inkblot" principle: Secure a village or hamlet, than patrol out in
widening circles until intersecting with another CAP's secured area. The strategy
had two major disadvantages, however. First, although it protected South
Vietnamese citizens from immediate danger of terror attacks by VC guerrillas, it
could achieve success only in the long term--and time favoured the VC. Second,
although militarily effective, CAP success only highlighted the inability of the
South Vietnamese government to protect its own citizens.
Ultimately, the United States lost this interaction. Its combat forces had
been trained and equipped to fight a uniformed regular adversary using massive
firepower, not an invisible enemy that refused to meet it in battle. The
indiscriminate impact of the U.S. Army's heavy reliance on artillery and air
support progressively alienated potential allies among South Vietnam's people.
As losers, however, U.S. forces were not slow to innovate a strategic response.
Interaction 4: the guerrilla war in the south ii, 1965-73. U.S. strategic
innovations that aimed at seriously undermining the VC guerrilla campaign in the
South took two forms. The first was the Strategic Hamlets program, and the
second was the Phoenix program.
The U.S. Strategic Hamlets program was modelled after a French
program in which South Vietnamese villagers were forced from their homes and
relocated to fortified hamlets. Where implemented effectively, the U.S. program
had the military benefit of severely damaging VC intelligence and supply
networks, but it also extracted a significant political cost: As nightly news
broadcasts flashed images of more and more wailing peasants being forced to
leave their villages, U.S. public opinion began to turn against the war. The
program, however, was rarely implemented effectively. In most cases, corrupt
officials failed to deliver weapons and embezzled funds and supplies intended to
turn the hamlets into functioning communities. As a result, the program alienated
the people whose good will the United States and South Vietnam needed to win
the war: Forced to leave their homes and then abandoned, many South
Vietnamese turned against their government and became active supporters of
the VC. By decreasing the program's COIN benefits and increasing its political
costs, the South Vietnamese government's corruption and incompetence
eventually rendered the Strategic Hamlets program a disaster.
The second U.S. innovation was the Phoenix program, whose aims and
legitimacy continue to provoke sharp debate. The overall military view is that
Phoenix was essentially a legitimate military operation. It relied on special
intelligence to target and destroy VC leadership, and it proved to be the single
most successful strategic initiative pursued by U.S. forces during the war. To
most observers, participants, and historians, however, the sustained effort to kill
non-combatants raised troubling questions about the program's legitimacy as an
extension of U.S. policy, or as a COIN strategy, regardless of its effectiveness.
Overall, the United States won this interaction. The Strategic Hamlets
program was never implemented properly, so its contribution to U.S. success in
this interaction was negative. By contrast, the Phoenix program, which
eviscerated the VC command infrastructure in the South, may have even
provoked the North into its premature and disastrous direct confrontation with
U.S. regular forces during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Because both strategies
systematically and deliberately targeted non-combatants, both must be counted
as barbarism--albeit barbarism at the mildest end of the violations spectrum.
Two political aspects of the war deserve special attention. First, why did
the United States think it necessary to send combat troops into South Vietnam?
Was Vietnam a vital or peripheral U.S. interest? Second, why did the United
States withdraw? Was it fought to a stalemate on the battlefield or forced to
abandon the war by U.S. domestic opposition?
The United States never entirely decided whether Vietnam was a vital or
peripheral interest. If there is a consensus view among historians, it is that the
United States got into Vietnam incrementally, confident that after just one more
escalation U.S. forces could "stabilize" South Vietnam and exit. Eventually the
fate of South Vietnam became inextricably linked with perceptions of the United
States' own credibility, and in that sense constituted a vital interest.
The United States withdrew from Vietnam when and how it did because
U.S. public opinion had shifted against the war. The United States did not fight as
effectively as it could have. But even given the limitations of placing a force
trained and equipped to fight and win a land battle in Europe in the mountains,
jungles, and marshy river deltas of Indochina, the United States proved
remarkably successful at innovating tactical and strategic responses to North
Vietnam's strategic initiatives. As a result, by 1969 U.S. forces had achieved the
military defeat of the North. Nevertheless, the war dragged on for another four
The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973 was a consequence of two
unrelated problems. First, successive U.S. administrations incorrectly assumed
that the defeat of North Vietnam's military forces would lead the North to accede
to U.S. demands. George Herring characterizes this problem well: "Nixon's
secret diplomacy and implied military threats failed to wrench any concessions
from Hanoi. . . . Still hurting from those losses suffered in the Tet Offensive but
by no means ready to quit the fight, Hanoi in 1969 shifted to a defensive,
protracted war strategy, sharply curtailing the level of military activity in the south
and withdrawing some of its troops back across the demilitarized zone. Certain
that American public opinion would eventually force Nixon to withdraw from
Vietnam, the North Vietnamese were prepared to wait him out, no matter what
additional suffering it might entail."
Second, the military defeat of North Vietnam and the VC insurgency in the
South took too long to accomplish. The American public had been led to believe
that victory would come quickly--not only because the United States fielded the
most powerful and technologically advanced armed force on earth, but because
as in past wars, Americans believed its cause to be just. Political and military
elites in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations did little to temper this
expectation, and in most cases encouraged it.
This synoptic presentation describes the Vietnam War in terms of four
roughly simultaneous strategic interactions. These interactions and their
contributions to the outcome of the war are summarized in.
In Vietnam, the weak actor had two entirely distinct militaries ready to
oppose U.S. forces: one trained and equipped to fight an indirect war, the other
trained and equipped to fight a direct war. Thus the North could be far more
nimble than the United States in shifting its strategic approach. As Andrew
Krepinevich, Donald Hamilton, and others have argued, with the possible
exception of the U.S. Marine Corps--which had considerable operational
experience with COIN operations--the U.S. military could never reconcile itself to
the demands of a COIN war. These demands do not imply the necessity of
creating a force capable of barbarism: As the CAPs demonstrated, it was
possible to fight a GWS in the South within the framework of the laws of war.
What it was manifestly not possible to do was defeat a people in arms quickly.
Thus the CAP example only underscores the importance of the key causal
mechanism of the strategic interaction thesis: When the power relationship
implies a speedy victory, and the interaction implies a delay, the way is clear for
the operation of what Mack calls political vulnerability. That is, even an ideal
COIN strategy--one that destroys enemy forces without destroying enemy
values--takes time. If such strategies are to become a model for future COIN
operations, this implies a counterintuitive policy: Strong-actor political and military
elites must prepare their publics for long-delayed victories against even very
weak adversaries when those adversaries employ indirect Defence strategies.
Explaining Vietnam: (Interest Asymmetry and Strategic Interaction)
Strategic interaction provides a powerful way to explain asymmetric
conflict outcomes--not only individual wars but the observed trend toward
increasing strong-actor failures over time. But the interest asymmetry thesis has
the same goal, and it too appears to explain U.S. failure in the Vietnam War.
Although the United States ultimately quit Vietnam because of domestic political
pressure, as Mack's thesis suggests, the strategic interaction thesis offers two
important qualifications of his explanation of the war's outcome.
First, Mack argues that theoretically, at least, actor resolve can be derived
from relative power: That is, relative power and political vulnerability vary directly.
In Vietnam, however, U.S. resolve had nothing to do with relative power. In fact,
U.S. interests in the security and stability of South Vietnam were far greater than
those predicted by the interest asymmetry thesis. Vietnam was a "limited" war
not because South Vietnam's fate was a peripheral U.S. interest, but because
U.S. political elites believed that the use of force in proportion to U.S. interests
might provoke Chinese military intervention and lead to a third world war. In the
case of North Vietnam, its legendary resolve was not a consequence of its being
a weak actor fighting for survival. As many commentators have since observed,
the true sources of North Vietnam's resolve were nationalism and revenge for the
suffering caused by the U.S. strategic bombing campaign against the North
Vietnamese people. According to Stanley Karnow, "As a practical strategy,
however, the bombing backfired. American planners had predicted that it would
drive the enemy to capitulation, yet not only did the North Vietnamese accept the
sacrifices, but the raids rekindled their nationalistic zeal, so that many who may
have disliked Communist rule joined the resistance to alien attack."
Second, Mack is right that the United States was politically vulnerable, and
that this vulnerability ultimately drove it from Vietnam in defeat. But his thesis
assumes that political vulnerability will generally affect the ability of strong actors
to defeat weak actors. The strategic interaction thesis brackets the conditions
under which political vulnerability operates: It does so only when there is an
unanticipated delay between the commitment of armed forces and victory.
Strong actors lose asymmetric conflicts when they adopt the wrong
strategy vis-à-vis their weaker adversaries. Same-approach interactions--whether
direct-direct or indirect-indirect--favor strong actors because they imply shared
values, aims, and victory conditions. Because nothing therefore intervenes
between raw power and goals, strong actors will win same-approach interactions
in proportion to their advantage in relative power. Opposite-approach
because they sacrifice values for time. This results in a significant delay between
the commitment of armed forces and the attainment of objectives. Time then
becomes the permissive condition for the operation of the political vulnerability
that Mack and others rightly identify as attaching to strong actors in asymmetric
Theory and Policy Implications
The strategic interaction thesis simultaneously supports, and in key ways
mediates, the importance of relative material power in explaining conflict
outcomes. As has often been observed, material power is useful for theory
building because it is quantifiable and measurable in a way that courage,
leadership, and dumb luck are not. This study has demonstrated empirically that
on balance, relative material power is more than simply a methodologically useful
concept; taken alone, it explains a majority of conflict outcomes since 1800. The
strategic interaction thesis makes clear, however, the limitations of relative
material power by highlighting the conditions under which it matters more or less.
This analysis suggests key policy implications for both weak and strong actors.
For weak actors, successful Defence against strong actors depends on an
indirect strategy. Because indirect strategies such as GWS rely on social
support, weak actors must work tirelessly to gain and maintain the sympathy or
acquiescence of a majority of the population in question. Given the risks involved
in either aiding or taking part in a guerrilla resistance, this in itself is no mean
feat. Additionally, weak actors must have or gain access to the physical or
political sanctuary necessary to make an indirect strategy a viable choice. For
strong actors, the strategic interaction thesis suggests that weak adversaries
employing an indirect Defence will be difficult to defeat. Of course, not all or even
most asymmetric conflicts need follow this pattern, but when they do, and when a
resort to arms is the only viable option, how should a strong actor such as the
United States react?
One response might be a resort to barbarism, which appears to be an
effective strategy for defeating an indirect Defence. But even a cursory review of
post-war histories reveals that at best barbarism can be effective only as a
military strategy: If the desired objective is long-term political control, barbarism
invariably backfires. The French, for example, used torture to quickly defeat
Algerian insurgents in the Battle of Algiers in 1957. But when French military
brutality became public knowledge, it catalyzed political opposition to the war in
France and stimulated renewed and intensified resistance by the non-French
population of Algeria. Within four years, France abandoned its claims in Algeria
even though it had "won" the war. Barbarism thus sacrifices victory in peace for
victory in war--a poor policy at best.
An ideal U.S. strategic response in an asymmetric conflict therefore
demands two central elements: (1) preparation of public expectations for a long
war despite U.S. technological and material advantages, and (2) the
development and deployment of armed forces specifically equipped and trained
for COIN operations.
Without a national consensus and realistic expectations,
the United States would be politically vulnerable in an asymmetric conflict.
Without more special operations forces--the self-reliant and discriminate armed
forces necessary to implement an ideal COIN strategy--what begins as a military
operation against an isolated violent minority will tend to escalate into a war
against an entire people.
The United States must be prepared to fight and win both conventional
and asymmetric or "small" wars. The strategic interaction thesis shows why the
two missions demand two kinds of armed forces: one to defend U.S. interests in
conventional wars, and one to defend them in asymmetric wars. If the United
States, in other words, is to win future "boxing matches" against lightweight
opponents who use their own version of the rope-a-dope, it will need fighters with
more initiative than discipline, and more endurance than punching power.
Ivan Arreguín-Toft. is a postdoctoral fellow in the International Security Program
at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's
John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The author wishes to thank Stephen Biddle, David Edelstein, John Garafano,
Charles Glaser, John Mearsheimer, Sharon Morris, Jordan Seng, Jessica Stern,
Ward Thomas, Monica Toft, Stephen Walt, participants in the Program on
International Security Policy at the University of Chicago, participants in the
1999-2000 National Security Seminar at the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic
Studies at Harvard University, and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful
comments. He also gratefully acknowledges support from the Institute for the
Study of World Politics and the Smith Richardson Foundation.
By David L. Grange
“By indirection find directions out.”
—Shakespeare, Hamlet
Strategists define asymmetric warfare as conflict deviating from the norm,
or an indirect approach to affect a counter-balancing of force. Such warfare is not
new. Combatants throughout the ages have continually sought to negate or avoid
the strength of the other, while applying one’s own strength against another’s
weakness. Asymmetric warfare is best understood as a strategy, a tactic, or a
method of warfare and conflict. Because no group or state can defeat the U.S. in
conventional warfare, America’s adversaries and potential adversaries are
turning to asymmetric strategies. We must therefore understand asymmetric
warfare, and be able to respond in kind.
“When conventional tactics are altered unexpectedly according to the
situation, they take on the element of surprise and increase in strategic value.”
—Sun Bin, The Lost Art of War.
Though there are numerous examples of asymmetry in 20th century
warfare, its use was not as pronounced between adversaries as it is today. Wars
were primarily fought by nation-states with balanced, conventional fighting
capabilities. When asymmetric methods were used, usually in the form of
manoeuvre or technological advantage, they had a dramatic effect.
Three prominent examples of asymmetric actions that counterbalanced
established force are: the sturmtrupp assault tactics that broke the trench-line
stalemate and three-dimensional warfare as a result of the airplane during World
War I; the panzer blitzkrieg through France in World War II; and the Strategic
Defence Initiative that helped end the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and
the Soviet Union. The kind of asymmetric strategy and tactics seen in the
Vietnam War were termed guerrilla warfare. These asymmetric actions, however,
did not produce the dramatic, day-to-day effects on operations that we have seen
since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
At the present time the U.S. has no identified conventional, war-making
peer, as we had prior to Desert Storm. This absence of global peer competitors
makes the world more uncertain, unstable, and difficult to anticipate. As the sole
superpower, with the accompanying expectations placed on the U.S. and our
extensive presence around the world, the U.S. has become a big and inviting
target. The U.S. engages in humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and
enforcement of UN or NATO sanctions, and maintains bases necessary for force
projection worldwide. Our adversaries confront and confuse us with a multitude
of asymmetric actions that catch us by surprise, to which we continue to respond
with a Cold War mentality.
Since Desert Storm, our adversaries have learned not to come at us in a
symmetric way since it is impossible for any country to engage the U.S. in an
arms race. By using asymmetric actions, our adversaries exploit our
vulnerabilities; taking advantage of the global information environment, they are
also able to do so on the cheap.
Reality of the Operational Environment
“Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.”
—Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince
Today we see an ambiguous world, with people, groups, and governments
pursuing complex goals. The borders have blurred between governments and
people, military and populace, public and private. New fourth-generation
warriors1, non-national and trans-national groups based on ideology, religion,
tribe, culture, zealotry, and illegal economic activities, have pushed many regions
of the world into anarchy.
Russia is in disarray, with increased fighting within its Muslim states in the
oil-rich Caspian Sea region. The Balkans, though somewhat stabilized, have
enormous corruption problems with no real peace in sight. The counter-drug war
in Colombia and Mexico has intensified. Israel, the Middle East, North Korea, and
Taiwan remain powder kegs.
This dangerous environment, coupled with the increased use of our
military as an extension of U.S. diplomacy, has placed us in a situation where our
adversaries employ asymmetric tactics to negate superior conventional strength.
We Americans look at conflict through a winner’s eyes-usually from a past war.
Setbacks cause concern, and if our quick-fix for the conflict at hand derails, due
to unintended consequences, we usually overreact and are unable to deal with
reality. Our standard approach to adversary actions means that we have trouble
adapting to what we actually find on the ground. Planned intervention on the
cheap, with awkward constraints, is inflexible and pompous. Past high-tech,
adversaries. We continue trying to play American football on a European soccer
Captain Larry Seaquist notes, “While the U.S. military pushed toward high-
tech, low-casualty combat, war went the opposite direction-toward brutal
neighbor-on-neighbor killing, carried out by ragtag collections of citizen-warriors,
some of them just children.”
These low-intensity conflicts have no quick-fix solutions. They have
complex cultural, religious, and historical origins where criminality, population
coercion, and extremist politics abound. Asymmetric tactics, usually conducted
out of necessity by our adversaries, are an economy of force and a weapon of
As Liddell Hart explained, “Campaigns of this kind are more likely to
continue because it is the only kind of war that fits the conditions of the modern
age, while being at the same time suited to take advantage of social discontent,
racial ferment, and nationalist fervors.”
Our diplomats, commercial investors, and military will continue to
experience the unpredictability, chaos, and asymmetric threats that are becoming
the norm around the world. The greatest threat to world stability appears to be
small, regional wars with which the U.S. will be forced to contend.4 Are we ready
for this type of threat?
The Threat
“It is every Muslim’s duty to wage war against U.S. and Israeli citizens anywhere
in the world.”
—Osama bin Laden
Americans separate war and peace; most of our enemies today do not.
Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, the “Army of Mohammed” in Yemen, and
narco-guerrillas in Colombia are but a few groups that threaten America, our
allies, and regional stability. The extensive, twisted links between terrorism, black
marketers, drug lords, arms dealers, and zealots have created a formidable
international and trans-national criminal organizations, or insurgents). They have
a completely different mindset, believing they are continuously at war. Violence is
a way of life. They know violence is an excellent tool against a democratic people
worried about any threat to its way of life. Taking advantage of the information
age, our adversaries are able to show atrocities, abuse, and destruction on our
television screen daily. The values of enemies are different from ours, making it
very difficult for us to understand why they don’t behave the way we believe they
Operating in agrarian cultures, with a small toolbox of dangerous, high-
tech capabilities, they maintain power with machete-wielding intimidation. Most
are predators that take advantage of weak states for refuge, and the discontent
of the local populace for support. If they cannot inspire support from the people,
they coerce recalcitrant members. Once established, they operate in and out of
these areas with impunity.
“Greater powers and resources do not guarantee tactical superiority.”
—Sun Bin, The Lost Art of War
These fourth-generation enemies have become very adept at using the
asymmetric tactics of information warfare. They manipulate print and radio,
distort images with perception management and background film clips (or “B
Roll”) on global television, and disrupt the Internet. The infosphere has become a
new battleground suited for asymmetric attack from across the globe. Serbian
President Slobodan Milosevic was an expert at using the media as a weapon.
Through deception, disinformation, and the “CNN factor,” he excelled at this
cerebral form of competition.
Saddam Hussein has convinced most of the Iraqi population, many of our
Western allies, and the Arab world that the UN-U.S. sanctions are directed
against the people, not his tyranny. For 10 years, through the use of asymmetric
actions, he has tied up countless ships, troops, and aircraft without reinstating
sanctioned compliance inspections.
The Chinese have taken serious steps in their war-fighting strategy for
future conflict. Not only have they steadily enhanced their conventional arsenal
with high-tech innovation, but they have learned the pronounced effect
asymmetric actions have had on the U.S. and its allies over the last 10 years.
Two modern-day strategists, Senior Colonel Qiuo Liang and Senior Colonel
Wang Xiangsui, have laid out in detail how to conduct full-spectrum warfare
against the U.S., using asymmetric strategy, in their book Unrestricted Warfare.
This warfare strategy doesn’t follow any rules, counters the U.S.’s high-tech
advantages, and optimizes the electro-magnetic spectrum. All dimensions of
space are considered the battleground.
Adversary Actions
“Water shapes its course according to the ground over which it flows;
the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is fighting.”
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Recent examples of asymmetric actions abound around the world. Riots
planned by faction leaders, made up of coerced non-combatants, and
manipulated by gangster police, were effective against NATO troops keeping the
peace in Bosnia. Milosevic was able to move special police troops and other
thugs at will throughout Kosovo, destroying life and infrastructure, while NATO’s
unmatched air power was incapable of stopping him.
A group of Palestinians redirected British funds earmarked for education
programs to further ideals of tolerance, mutual respect, and peace, instead using
the money to send children to guerrilla training schools and then put them on the
streets of Israel to fight. This was a successful deception of the British
government’s generosity.
Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), has nationally threatened every
Colombian millionaire and corporate CEO unless a tax is paid for protection. This
action has produced immense pressure from the upper class on government
authorities in Colombia. The FARC has also leveraged the Colombian
government into conceding a portion of the country to their control, separated by
a recognized and accepted demilitarized zone. Colombia now has more
displaced citizens (one million) than Kosovo experienced during their war.
Chechen rebels in Russia have demonstrated time after time the
effectiveness of asymmetric action against conventional forces by capitalizing on
local support, information warfare, terror, cutting critical supply lines, and using
urban areas to render irrelevant the superiority of the Russian armored forces.
Our national expectation of a casualty-free, high-tech conflict is
challenged, for example, by rogue-state impertinence, setbacks dealt by the
warlords of Mogadishu, and terrorist attacks, like those on the USS Cole and our
embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. We have been forced to pull back in fear,
changing our operational effectiveness around the world.
What Can We Do?
“He will conquer who has learnt the artifice of deviation”
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Our response to asymmetric actions has usually been to react with
defensive, hunkering-down, panic decisions; or in some cases to retaliate
ineffectively with air or cruise missile attacks, occasionally injuring non-
combatants or disgracing ourselves in the media. We continue to restrict
ourselves to unrealistic rules of engagement, regardless of the situation.
Deception, psychological operations, cyberwar, disinformation, “softwar,” are all
non-kinetic ingredients in the toolbox of fourth-generation warriors, that should, in
turn, be used against them.
We must understand that relative strength is situational; it is based on
time, speed, location, and conditions. These intangibles are harder to define and
offer strength in different circumstances. 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
organizational design that fit the task at hand. We must preempt enemy
asymmetric actions by attacking the cohesion and flow of their operational cycle.
An adversary must plan, gain support, move, stage, attack, and regroup during
any operation or in pursuit of a cause. We can cause him to fail anywhere along
this process-optimally, prior to his attack phase. It’s all a matter of gaining
positional advantage, mentally or physically, over an opponent. Our adversaries
have been very adept at gaining positional advantage with asymmetrical action
against our moral and organizational domain. We can reverse this advantage by
doing the same.
Asymmetrical targeting (deny, destroy, disrupt, dislocate, degrade) of
adversary moral and organizational domains, instead of our typical, predictable,
standard, conventional approach against physical strength provides a faster,
effective defeat. Indirectly preventing our enemy from gaining ascendancy over
the local population, denying organizations the use of safe areas, disrupting
cash-flow and other supplies, negating effective use of the media, exposing
corruption, disgracing the leadership, breaking power relationships, will put
adversaries on the defensive and force them off balance.
This requires initiative, momentum, out-of-the-box thinking, flexibility, and
a winning mindset. Crimes against humanity, small wars, and probable megaterrorist (biological, chemical, nuclear, information) disasters are threats worthy
of our attention. We must turn the tide on these fourth-generation warriors using
asymmetric actions with a preemptive strategy. It’s a matter of being the hunter
or the prey.
by Lester W. Grau, Foreign Military Studies Office
Initial Troubles. When the Chechen troubles began, the Russian Army
had been operating with little money and bare bones logistical support. It had not
conducted a regiment- or division-scale field training exercise in over two years,
and its battalions were lucky to conduct field training once a year. Most battalions
were manned at 55% or less. Approximately 85% of Russian youth were exempt
or deferred from the draft, forcing the army to accept conscripts with criminal
records, health problems or mental incapacity. The Russian Army lacked housing
for its officers and had trouble adequately feeding and paying its soldiers. It
invaded Chechnya with a rag-tag collection of various units, without an adequate
support base. When the Chechens stood their ground, the sorry state of the
Russian Army became apparent to the world.
Before invading with regular forces, the Russians had trained and supplied
the rebel Chechen forces that were hostile to the incumbent Chechen
government. A force of 5,000 Chechen rebels and 85 Russian soldiers with 170
Russian tanks attempted to overthrow the Chechen government with a coup de
main by capturing Grozny "from the march" as they had in years past captured
Prague and Kabul. They failed and lost 67 tanks in city fighting.
A Second Mistake
Instead of regrouping and waiting to regain surprise, Russian leaders
ordered the army into Chechnya with no fully ready divisions. The Russian Army
was forced to combine small units and send them to fight. Infantry fighting
vehicles went to war with their crews, but with little or no infantry on board. In
some cases, officers drove because soldiers were not available. Intelligence on
the situation in Grozny was inadequate. Only a few large-scale maps were
available, and there were no maps available to tactical commanders. To make
matters worse, because the city was not surrounded and cut off, the Chechen
government was able to reinforce its forces throughout the battle.
When the Russians first attempted to seize Grozny the last day of 1994,
they tried to do it with tanks and personnel carriers but without enough
supporting infantry. The available infantry had just been thrown together, and
many did not know even the last names of their fellow soldiers. They were told
that they were part of a police action. Some did not have weapons. Many were
sleeping in the carriers even as the columns rolled into Grozny. Tank crews had
no machine gun ammunition. Lax preparation for this assault reflected the
attitude of the Defence minister, General Pavel Grachev, who had boasted
earlier that month that he could seize Grozny in two hours with one parachute
regiment. So the Russians drove into Grozny expecting to capture the city center
and seat of government with only token resistance.
But, tanks and personnel carriers, in the city without dismounted infantry
support, were easy targets to antitank gunners firing from the flanks or from
above. The initial Russian armored columns were swallowed up in the city streets
and destroyed by Chechen gunners. After losing 105 of 120 tanks and personnel
carriers the Russians fell back to consolidate for the long, building-by-building
Planning for Urban Combat. Russian intelligence missed the rapid
construction of robust Chechen Defences in Grozny. The Russian columns,
moving on parallel but non-supporting axes, were cut off and destroyed by
Chechen forces. Russian planners concluded that high-tempo mounted thrusts to
seize defended cities are both ineffective and unjustified in terms of the attrition
of personnel and equipment. They concluded that contemporary urban combat
requires the following steps.
All approaches to the city must be sealed off while detailed
reconnaissance proceeds.
Key installations and buildings on the outskirts of the city must be
taken once artillery has suppressed defenders and assault
positions have been occupied.
The city's residential, industrial and central sections must be taken
Trapped enemy units must be eliminated, mines cleared, weapons
collected and military control and curfew established.
These steps obviously suggest to planners that the first objective should
be major industrial plants on the outskirts of cities covering axes into the city.
Because such plants, with their concrete and stone walls and underground
rooms and passages, are ideal for a lengthy, stubborn Defence they must be
captured before the city can be attacked. Within the city, attacking forces must
anticipate (1) defending tanks and direct-fire artillery in corner buildings or behind
breaks in walls, (2) dismounted infantry on any story of buildings, (3) snipers and
artillery observers in high-rise buildings, attics, and towers.
Collateral damage, not a major consideration when fighting on foreign soil,
becomes a particular worry when fighting in your own cities where your own
people live.
Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield. The Russians did their initial
planning on 1:50,000 and 1:100,000 scale maps. They lacked necessary,
detailed, larger-scale maps in scale 1:25,000 or 1:12,500. Essential aerial
photographs were not available for planning, because Russian satellites had
been turned off to save money and few aerial photography missions were flown.
Lower-level troop commanders never received vital aerial photographs and largescale maps.
Despite the unclear intelligence picture, planners failed to take elementary
precautions or to forecast how the Chechens might defend the city. As the
Russian columns moved to Grozny, they were surprised by snipers, road blocks
and other signs of Chechen determination to defend the city.
methodology called for organizing storm groups and storm detachments for city
fighting. A storm group is usually a motorized rifle company reinforced with a tank
platoon, artillery battery, mortar platoon, AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher
platoon, engineer platoon and chemical troops. It advances with a covering and
consolidation group (a motorized rifle platoon reinforced with antitank guns,
grenade launchers and 82mm mortars) and an obstacle clearing party (combat
engineers and mine-sweeping tanks). A storm detachment is usually a motorized
rifle battalion reinforced with at least a battalion of artillery, a tank company, an
engineer company, an air Defence platoon, flamethrower squads and smoke
generator personnel. Artillery and air support are available from division assets.
Although storm groups and detachments were formed for urban combat
following the New Year's Eve defeat, their formation was often counterproductive
because it destroyed what unit integrity existed in platoons, companies and
battalions and gave commanders more assets than they could readily deploy and
control. It would have been better to use the standard tactical unit, then reinforce
it with select weapons systems where needed. For example, a motorized rifle
platoon could field storm squads and cover and support squads, and a motorized
rifle company could field storm platoons and cover and support platoons. The
cover and support units would pin the enemy down by fire while the storm unit
attacked. After the attack, the cover and support unit would become a reserve.
Early Lessons
The Russians successfully used direct-fire artillery, RPGs, automatic
grenade fire and machine gun fire to pin-down the Chechens while attacking
through smoke to seize a building. They tossed grenades through windows and
doors before entering.
Engineers effectively blew entry ways into the walls. Two three-man
combat teams cleared each room. Once a building was captured, it was prepared
for Defence. Sewer approaches and enemy approach paths were mined and
booby trapped.
Since the battle for a city continues non-stop, the Russians learned that
they needed fresh troops and adequate reserves. Soviet doctrine called for a 4:1
advantage in troops for urban combat. Some 60,000 Russians and 12,000
Chechens fought in Grozny, yet the Russian's 5:1 advantage was sometimes not
enough, because they had to guard every building that they took.
The Russians also learned that troops need to wear something distinctive
(and easily changeable) during the assault to avoid fratricide.
Tactics, Techniques and Procedures
Soviet and Russian tactics specified that tanks would lead the assault in
city fighting followed by infantry fighting vehicles and dismounted infantry. Tank
columns would move in herringbone formation along city streets. This proved
disastrous in Grozny where the high density of antitank weapons threatened
armored vehicles, while the depression and elevation limitations of Russian tank
guns kept them from engaging targets located in basements or in the upper
floors of multi-storied buildings. Antiaircraft guns, such as the ZSU23-4 and 2S6,
were effective against these targets. In Grozny, tanks and personnel carriers
were formed into armoured groups used to seal off captured areas, serve as a
counterattack force, provide security for rear installations and support advancing
infantry from outside the range of enemy antitank weapons.
The Russians began to take special precautions to protect their tanks and
personnel carriers. Besides keeping them behind the infantry, they outfitted some
with a cage of wire mesh some 25-30 centimetres away from the hull armour.
These cages can defeat the shaped charge of the RPG-7 antitank grenade
launcher, as well as protecting the vehicle from a Molotov cocktail or a bundle of
antitank grenades. The Chechens fielded antitank hunter killer teams which
moved toward the sound of engine noise to kill armoured vehicles with volley
RPG-7 antitank fire from above, the flanks and behind. The Russians learned to
counter these teams by establishing ambushes on all approach routes and then
running vehicles into selected areas as bait.
City fighting in Grozny required much larger stocks of hand grenades,
smoke grenades, demolition charges and disposable, one-shot antitank grenade
launchers (similar to the U.S. light anti-tank weapon) than expected. Each
infantry soldier needed a rope with a grappling hook for entering buildings. Lightweight ladders were also very valuable for assaulting infantry. Trained snipers
were essential, but were in short supply.
Tank-mounted and dismounted searchlights were useful for night assault
in the city. Searchlights (as well as pyrotechnics) temporarily blinded enemy
night-vision equipment and dazzled enemy gunners. They produced a
psychological attack against the enemy, while helping prevent fratricide in the
Artillery. The Russians learned that conventional artillery fires are best
used while approaching the city and while capturing the city outskirts. Then, they
would deploy the bulk of their self-propelled artillery in direct-fire support of tanks
and infantry. Because massed artillery fires create rubble in the very areas
through which a force wants to advance, direct-fire is preferable. Direct fire can
be conducted by guns, howitzers, multiple rocket launchers and the 82mm
Vasilek automatic mortar. When Russian forces arrived at Grozny, they had few
fire support coordinators and forward air controllers. Motorized rifle officers were
not skilled in adjusting indirect artillery fire, but could readily aim and adjust direct
Air Power. The Russians used a lot of fixed-wing aircraft, but they were of
limited tactical value in Grozny. They were used to provide support while artillery
was moved into range. Because air strikes could not be precisely targeted, attack
fighter bombers concentrated on large "free-fire" zones. Fixed-wing aircraft
proved of more value in attacking targets outside the city. Helicopter gunships
were of much more value. They were used against snipers and weapons in the
upper floors. The helicopters flew in behind captured high-rise buildings and
would "pop-up" to engage these targets, but had to fly to and from the
engagement area using the shelter of captured buildings.
Smoke and Tear-Gas. Smoke and white phosphorus rounds were useful
in Grozny. White phosphorus, which burns upon explosion, creates a smoke
screen and, because smoke is essential for movement in city fighting, every
fourth or fifth Russian artillery or mortar round fired was a smoke or white
phosphorus round. The Russians point out a side benefit of white phosphorus is
that white phosphorus smoke is toxic and readily penetrates protective mask
filters. White phosphorus is not banned by any treaty. Tear gas grenades were
also useful in the fighting in Grozny.
By Jonathan B. Tucker
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has been
the world’s sole superpower. It is the only country to maintain a global naval
presence, a panoply of overseas bases, and the ability to deploy military forces
to distant regions. The U.S. Defence budget, at over $280 billion for fiscal year
2000, is several times larger than the combined spending of the countries
generally perceived as the most likely future U.S. opponents: China, Cuba, Iran,
Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and Yugoslavia. No potential adversary
comes close in advanced conventional weaponry—such as cruise missiles,
communications systems.
Pentagon predicts that a peer competitor will not emerge until around 2010, and
most analysts consider that possibility unlikely.
Given U.S. supremacy in conventional forces, few rational opponents
would deliberately seek a direct military confrontation with the United States—
although Iraq blundered into war by miscalculating Washington’s response to the
1990 invasion of Kuwait and was soundly defeated. Instead, future adversaries
who resort to military force against the United States will probably employ
asymmetric, or David-and-Goliath, strategies involving innovative yet affordable
weapons and tactics designed to weaken U.S. resolve and its ability to use its
superior conventional military capabilities effectively.
A future opponent, for example, might employ non-conventional
weapons—nuclear, chemical, biological, or radiological—or conduct terrorist
attacks against military or civilian targets on American territory in a bid to deter or
impede U.S. intervention in a regional conflict in the Persian Gulf, the Korean
Peninsula, or the Balkans. Such an adversary could be selective in its objectives,
timing the moment of an attack to maximize its strengths. Although the United
States could ultimately prevail, the increased financial and human costs might
undermine the political will of U.S. leaders to sustain the conflict or deter allies
from providing assistance.
U.S. Secretary of Defence William Cohen has warned that "a paradox of
the new strategic environment is that American military superiority actually
increases the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical attack against us by
creating incentives for adversaries to challenge us asymmetrically."
To what extent is asymmetric warfare a new threat that poses a significant
danger to the security of the United States? Three strategic assessments
published by the U.S. Department of Defence have called attention to the issue.
The May 1997 Report of the Quadrennial Defence Review stated that a future
adversary could "employ asymmetric methods to delay or deny U.S. access to
critical facilities; disrupt our command, control, communications, and intelligence
networks; or inflict higher than expected casualties in an attempt to weaken our
national resolve."
The National Defence Panel, a group of nongovernmental analysts
commenting on the Quadrennial Defence Review, agreed that future opponents
will seek to disable the underlying structures that enable our military operations.
Forward bases and forward-deployed forces will likely be challenged and
coalition partners coerced. Critical nodes that enable communications,
transportation, deployment, and other means of power projection will be
Finally, Joint Vision 2010, a study of warfare in the next century by the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted that "our most vexing future adversary may be one
who can use technology to make rapid improvements in its military capabilities
that provide asymmetrical counters to U.S. military strengths, including
information technologies."
In response to these alarming declarations, skeptics have argued that
military scenarios focusing on asymmetric threats tend to overstate the
vulnerabilities of the United States, and that merely identifying theoretical
windows of vulnerability does not necessarily mean that real-world adversaries
could climb through them. These analysts allege that the Department of Defence
has exaggerated the asymmetric threat in order to justify its inflated budget in the
post-Cold War era.
The following analysis concludes that while the threat of asymmetric
warfare on U.S. territory is of real concern, a more likely scenario is that such
tactics will be used to constrain the ability of U.S. forces to intervene in regional
conflicts rapidly and at relatively low cost.
The Asymmetric Arsenal
Numerous asymmetric strategies could be used to disrupt U.S. military
capabilities and bring the conflict to the U.S. homeland. For example, high-tech
and low-tech countermeasures could exploit the vulnerabilities of advanced U.S.
weapons and their supporting systems. Information warfare could be used to
disable computer networks, paralyzing communications, transportation, power
systems, and industrial enterprises. Public-relations warfare might allow
opponents to exploit the international news media to weaken the resolve of U.S.
decision makers. Non-conventional attacks by special forces armed with
chemical and biological agents could disrupt U.S. military operations. And foreign
states could sponsor terrorist attacks against civilian targets to undermine public
support for foreign intervention or to deter states from joining a U.S.-led coalition.
Given the Pentagon’s heavy reliance on high technology, future
adversaries might develop relatively simple countermeasures designed to turn
countermeasures, such as aluminium reflectors that confuse targeting radars and
heat generators that deceive infrared sensors, are cheap and easy to use. During
the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq employed several deliberate countermeasures and a few
inadvertent ones. Although these tactics did not have a significant impact on the
outcome of the war, they did reduce the effectiveness of some high-tech
weapons in the U.S. arsenal.
For example, Iraq foiled intensive Coalition efforts to find and destroy its
Scud missile launchers by deploying decoy missiles together with barrels of
diesel fuel to simulate secondary explosions when hit.8 A crude Iraqi mine put out
of action the Aegis missile cruiser U.S.S. Princeton, one of the U.S. Navy’s most
advanced ships. Baghdad hampered sophisticated efforts to eavesdrop on its
military communications by relying on buried coaxial and fiber-optic landlines that
were hard to cut or tap, rather than using radio or satellite communications. And
Iraq’s extended-range Scud ballistic missiles were so poorly constructed that
they broke up under the stress of reentry, effectively creating a swarm of
"decoys" around the warhead that confused the guidance system of the Patriot
antimissile Defence system. As a result, few if any Patriot interceptions were
A more sophisticated adversary might attempt to jam transmissions from
the U.S. Global Positioning Satellite system, which aids many precision-guided
weapons, or to sabotage critical command, control, and communications nodes
such as satellite terminals and switching stations. Knocking out a few key nodes
might disable a larger network of facilities supporting U.S. military operations.
countermeasures might delay a U.S. victory and make it more costly, they would
probably not change the outcome of a conflict, given the overwhelming
superiority of U.S. military forces.
Information Warfare
The Pentagon is concerned that adversaries or terrorists might employ
software commands or malicious programs to shut down or disable key military
computer systems. The fact that young hackers have been able to break into
U.S. Navy and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
computers suggests that determined cyber-warriors from a hostile nation or a
Programmable weapon systems may also be vulnerable to attacks by selfreplicating computer viruses that erase stored data. According to Defence
Secretary Cohen, "We have to spend a good deal more attention to looking at
ways in which our reliance upon technology can be undone by a simple
The cyber-terrorist threat also extends into the civilian sector. As the most
computerized country in the world, the United States relies on a vast number of
networked processors and databanks for the operation of its critical
infrastructure—the system of interdependent industries and institutions that
provide a continual flow of goods and services essential to the nation’s security
and welfare. Such systems include energy distribution, transportation, banking
and finance, water supply systems, emergency services, telecommunications,
and continuity of government. This dependence makes the United States
potentially vulnerable to deliberate cyber-terrorist attacks against critical
government or corporate computer networks, with the intent to create massive
disruption and chaos. According to the President’s Commission on Critical
Infrastructure Protection, "We must learn to negotiate a new geography, where
borders are irrelevant and distances meaningless, where an enemy may be able
to harm the vital systems we depend on without confronting our military power."
Some analysts have argued that cyber-attacks targeted at computerized
systems for air-traffic control, the switching of commuter trains, or the control
systems of a nuclear power plant or a chemical factory could kill large numbers
of people. This threat appears to have been exaggerated because air-traffic,
train, and power-plant and industrial control systems are not accessible through
the Internet but have their own internal networks. For those networked computers
that are potentially vulnerable to information attacks, Defences can be enhanced
by investing in greater redundancy, encryption, electronic firewalls that insulate
classified computers from the outside world, tagging of data to detect outside
manipulation, and compartmentalization of computer systems so that they fail
gracefully rather than catastrophically.15 The challenge is not the lack of available
Defences but rather the will of government and industry to invest in them.
Public-Relations Warfare
A potentially more effective form of information warfare in the military
context is an enemy’s manipulation of the mass media to influence American
public opinion, thereby restricting the U.S. government’s ability to employ its
overwhelming military superiority. During the Vietnam War, the enemy’s use of
asymmetric guerrilla tactics and its ability to endure massive firepower while
continuing to inflict American casualties gradually turned public opinion against
the war and undermined the political will of policy-makers to sustain the conflict.
Since Vietnam, the U.S. public has become highly sensitive to casualties,
particularly in military operations perceived as peripheral to the nation’s core
security interests. During the U.S. intervention in Somalia in October 1993,
irregulars associated with Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed killed 18
American soldiers in the streets of Mogadishu, stripped a dead soldier’s body,
and dragged it behind a truck in view of press cameras. These horrifying images
aroused U.S. public opinion against the intervention and precipitated a rapid
pullout. Given these precedents, a cunning adversary might take advantage of
the "CNN factor" to weaken the resolve of U.S. policy-makers undertaking or
merely contemplating a military intervention.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, for his part, has been able to exert
substantial leverage against a vastly superior foe by exploiting the reluctance of
the U.S. government to inflict civilian casualties, because of moral constraints
and concerns about the negative political fallout in the Arab world. Fully aware of
the American ability to strike at any target in Iraq, Saddam has situated key
strategic assets such as biological-weapons plants in densely populated areas.
Prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he also arranged for the transportation of
Iraqi citizens to potential bombing targets to serve as human shields. In this way,
Saddam has repeatedly used his own civilian population as pawns in an
asymmetric strategy designed to undermine the willingness of the United States
to employ its overwhelming offensive capabilities.
According to one analysis, "Iraq…[has] taught the world how to put the
most powerful military in history on a convincing America’s leadership
that political defeat will be the price of military victory.... The lessons of America’s
recent failure of nerve will not be lost on future opponents who lack its wealth, but
possess the strength of will to fight with unconventional means."
Military Targets
With the spread of chemical and biological weapons to states that sponsor
terrorism — such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and North Korea—the Pentagon is
increasingly concerned about the potential for non-conventional attacks against
U.S. forces. To be effective, such agents would not have to be delivered by
missile or tactical fighter. Instead, they could be spread by low-tech delivery
systems such as a modified agricultural sprayer mounted on a moving truck,
boat, or aircraft.
During the Gulf War, U.S. military planners feared Iraq might employ its
chemical and biological weapons against coalition forces deployed in Saudi
Arabia, but fortunately these attacks did not materialize.
Today, the massive battlefield use of chemical or biological agents is no
longer considered the most likely threat, because it could provoke a massive
retaliatory strike. A more plausible scenario would involve a series of
coordinated, low-level attacks by special-operations forces or terrorists, delivered
by covert means against multiple targets at home and abroad. Some chemical
agents such as mustard gas and VX nerve gas, and biological agents such as
anthrax spores, are highly persistent and could be used to contaminate airstrips
and ports in order to disrupt military operations.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon has closed several bases
overseas and at home and now relies far more heavily on a small number of
facilities within the continental United States that might be vulnerable to
A fictional scenario included in a 1997 Pentagon-sponsored study
envisions an asymmetric attack by a future enemy with small amounts of
chemical and biological agents to impede the U.S. ability to project power to a
regional theatre in a timely manner. In this scenario, Iraq again invades Kuwait,
this time with the assistance of its erstwhile enemy Iran. Both countries recognize
that if the invasion is to be successful, U.S. military intervention must be delayed,
and covert chemical and biological attacks are seen as potentially effective for
this purpose. Baghdad and Tehran decide to disrupt U.S. airlift and sealift
operations by using a persistent chemical-warfare agent to contaminate key
troop-deployment ports and airfields in the continental United States. They also
release an incapacitating biological agent upwind of U.S. naval ships and other
facilities on the island of Diego Garcia, the Indian Ocean base that was used in
the 1991 Gulf War and in Operation Desert Fox. The attack is timed to trigger a
major outbreak of incapacitating illness among American troops on the day of
This scenario is plausible in that airlift and sealift operations from U.S.
bases at home and abroad are a potential Achilles’ heel. Particularly vulnerable
are civilian support personnel such as stevedores and data-processing
specialists working at ports and control centres, since few of them have been
trained or equipped with protective gear against chemical or biological attacks. At
the same time, some of the assumptions underlying the scenario appear
unrealistic. How likely it is that Iraq would form a military alliance with Iran—its
archrival for hegemony in the Persian Gulf and former adversary in a bloody,
eight-year war—or that both countries would be capable of coordinating a
complex series of political, military, and terrorist attacks?
Civilian Targets
The United States, the sole remaining superpower, has become a
prominent terrorist target because of its global military presence, repeated
interventions in distant conflicts, and prominent role in security alliances and
peacekeeping operations. These activities have incurred the wrath of countries
and groups that resent America’s power and perceived arrogance, its tendency
toward unilateral action, its loyal support of Israel, and the corrosive effect of
American popular culture on social and religious values. Thus, terrorist outrages
against U.S. targets often represent a lashing-out against America’s predominant
military, economic, political, and cultural influence.
Given the emergence of international terrorist operations on U.S. soil,
such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York City, the
Pentagon worries that state-sponsored terrorists might bring a future conflict to
Main Street America by deliberately attacking civilian targets by asymmetric
means. Rather than employing long-range ballistic missiles for strategic attacks
on U.S. cities, hostile nations or state-sponsored terrorist organizations could
smuggle non-conventional weapons into the United States in crates or suitcases.
Multiple simultaneous attacks against domestic targets could constrain U.S.
military operations abroad by creating a major political crisis at home.
Alternatively, terrorist threats might be used for political blackmail, such as
compelling the United States to withdraw its forces from Saudi Arabia.
Biological or radiological attacks on U.S. citizens could have delayed
effects that might not be detected for days, giving the perpetrators time to escape
and the state sponsor a chance of avoiding identification. Some have argued that
if terrorists were to conduct an attack in a non-attributable manner, it would be
politically costly for the United States to retaliate without compelling evidence of
Nevertheless, the ability of U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement
agencies to track down the perpetrators of unclaimed terrorist incidents should
not be underestimated. Washington was able to link the 1986 bombing of a Berlin
discotheque frequented by U.S. soldiers and the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 to
Libyan agents, suggesting that it is not easy for a state sponsor to evade
Even so, some terrorists may not be deter-able. A few terrorist groups
may believe they can carry off a biological attack without attribution; others are
trans-national in nature and cannot be linked to one country, such as the Islamic
fundamentalists involved in the World Trade Centre bombing. Such groups are
only loosely associated with a state sponsor or may carry out terrorist attacks on
their own initiative. Moreover, some religious fanatics may be prepared to die for
their cause.
New Directions
In short, the primary aim of asymmetric warfare is to constrain the ability of
the United States to intervene rapidly and at relatively low cost. It is important,
however, to distinguish among the various asymmetric strategies, which range
from low-tech to high-tech. Only relatively developed countries with extensive
technical and financial resources have the potential to mount sophisticated
attacks on U.S. weapon systems and computer networks. Yet few such countries
currently have hostile or aggressive intentions toward the United States that
would lead them down this path. Other adversaries, such as Iraq or Yugoslavia,
may desire to bloody the United States’ nose, but they do not have the capability
to carry out sophisticated attacks. By conflating these various actors and
scenarios, the Department of Defence has tended to exaggerate the strategic
significance of asymmetric warfare. It is therefore necessary to disaggregate
these various threats if we are to assess them realistically.
Moreover, the Pentagon has so far made few real changes in force
structure, weapon procurement, or military doctrine to address the purported
vulnerabilities it has identified. To minimize the threat of asymmetric warfare to
U.S. forces and weapons, the Department of Defence should consider some new
policy options.
First, instead of devoting scarce resources to procuring Cold War-legacy
weapon systems, the Pentagon should place greater reliance on long-range
guided weapons that can hit targets from a safe distance, without the need for
manned ships or aircraft to penetrate enemy Defences. The United States should
also cut expenditures on a costly yet ineffective national antiballistic missile
system and place greater emphasis on other types of homeland Defence, such
as enhanced protection of U.S. cities against terrorism with non-conventional
weapons. "Star Wars" systems are impotent against the terrorist threat, which is
far more likely to arrive by suitcase than by ballistic missile.
Second, if nuclear, chemical and biological weapons continue to
proliferate, U.S. willingness to confront future aggressors may be sharply
reduced. The Pentagon should retool its military strategy for a major ground war
to minimize the number of lucrative targets vulnerable to non-conventional attack,
such as dense concentrations of forces and centralized staging areas for logistics
and reinforcements. U.S. troop units and weapon platforms should be reduced in
size and increased in number to permit greater mobility and dispersal across the
battle zone, thereby avoiding the creation of valuable targets. U.S. armed forces
should also improve their capabilities to rapidly decontaminate large aircraft and
ships, and—assuming that foreign nations will allow the establishment of new
bases abroad—create multiple trans-shipment points to limit the vulnerability of
airlift and sealift operations.
Third, the United States should enhance its ability to prevent and mitigate
the consequences of chemical and biological attacks. On the prevention side, the
intelligence community should upgrade its technical and human resources for
monitoring enemy and terrorist acquisition of relatively small quantities of
chemical or biological warfare agents. To mitigate the consequences of a
possible attack, the armed services should develop and deploy improved sensors
to detect and identify battlefield contamination, including low-level exposures to
chemical nerve agents, which have cumulative toxic effects. The armed forces
also need to provide protective training and equipment to key civilian Defence
workers. If the United States enhances and publicizes its ability to cope with the
medical consequences of chemical or biological warfare, this capability would
help deter such attacks.
Fourth, it is not clear that in the post-Cold War era, military intervention is
always desirable or in the national interest. In the past, unilateral U.S.
involvement in a regional conflict—particularly on behalf of one side in a civil war
as in Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Somalia—has often proved counterproductive,
eliciting widespread hostility on the part of those who resent perceived U.S.
arrogance. Thus, one way to minimize the future threat of asymmetric warfare
would be for the United States to employ greater restraint towards intervention in
regional conflicts. Some analysts contend that by disengaging from secondary
military commitments around the globe, the United States could reduce the
incentive for terrorist attacks against Americans at home and abroad without
adversely affecting its core security interests. Obviously, an activist U.S. foreign
policy requires overseas bases and operations. As the world’s sole remaining
superpower, the United States should be prepared to intervene when necessary
to prevent genocide, to halt massive violations of human rights, or to contain
regional aggression. Wherever possible, however, Washington should act as a
member of a multinational coalition.
Finally, not all security threats are best addressed through military means.
By strengthening non-proliferation treaties and export-control regimes designed
to halt the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and by
promoting diplomatic settlements of the festering conflicts in Yugoslavia, the
Middle East, Southern Africa, and the Korean Peninsula, the United States can
minimize the need for military intervention in the future. This diplomacy-centred
strategy would require a much greater investment in non-military instruments
such as negotiation, foreign assistance, the promotion of democracy, and the
effective use of the United Nations—including the full payment of back dues—
backed up existentially with the big stick of U.S. military power.
By John Keegan
Friday 14 September 2001
President Bush has announced that the US will take military action against
those who have perpetrated the "acts of war" that led to the destruction of the
World Trade Centre and damage to the Pentagon. He has not specified a time
for counter-action, nor has he threatened any particular geographical target.
There lies the difficulty. Acts of war have been committed but the enemy is
waging not war but "asymmetrical warfare", a form of violence that apparently
cannot be matched by conventional military response. "Asymmetrical warfare"
has been popular with strategic analysts for years, but, in so far as it had any
substance, that took the form of theoretical and difficult articles in obscure
military journals. Suddenly, "asymmetrical warfare" knocks down giant buildings
and kills thousands. The US urgently needs to discover how to get on to an equal
footing with the asymmetrical warriors.
It will not be impossible. For once Bush spoke a profound truth: that,
against a state bent on retaliation, as the US is, its enemies will not be able to
hide forever and cannot hope for permanently safe harbours.
The idea that gives terrorism so much of its psychological power, that its
agents operate in free space, without bases, without residences, is completely
wrong. Terrorists, like any other group of human beings, need places to live and
work and, in their case, to train.
Such places may lie in remote areas and be concealed in difficult terrain
but they exist, can be found and will be hit. What military means will the US use?
Air power has near immediacy of response, outreach to any distance from
America's shores and - a recent development but a now established quality - high
precision. Missile bombardment has the same characteristics but, if retaliation
became protracted, it would be limited by numbers. Air-dropped bombs, even of
the smart sort, are far more plentiful.
If American intelligence decides, sooner or later, that it knows the Islamic
group responsible for Tuesday's terrorism, an air or missile attack, separately or
combined, on a training area is likely to follow.
There are several in south-easts Afghanistan. They have been attacked
before, but not with determination. America is now likely to persist and, if
attacked repetitively, effective damage would be done. The US also has the
option to employ its now very effective Special Forces in a penetration role. The
Israelis, at Entebbe, demonstrated the feasibility of such intrusions even at very
long range and, although the US failed memorably in the hostage rescue attempt
against Teheran, its Special Forces are now far more efficient and better
equipped. Terrorists, who do not enjoy the early warning and air defence
capabilities available to conventional forces, are vulnerable to surprise attacks.
Bombardment and penetration operations might entail the violation of national
But it seems that the US is not in a mood to care. Indeed, if American
intelligence is able to establish state complicity in the outrages, Bush may well
resolve to mount major conventional operations, Gulf War-style, against the
culpable government. At the outer limits of the effort to restore symmetry to warmaking, it is possible to glimpse what might be thought an almost inconceivable
military measure: interference with electronic communications. The Internet and
the mobile telephone have become so central to everyday life that it might be
thought impossible to carry on without either. It should be remembered, however,
that neither existed 20 years ago and the world managed perfectly well.
development of completely free communication, beyond government control,
could easily give rise to evil consequences. So it undoubtedly has in this case.
The mobile telephone and e-mail, probably encrypted, must have been the
means by which the atrocities were co-ordinated.
The American intelligence community must now undoubtedly be
considering measures to take management of radio telephone communications
under state control, and the distributors of e-mail as well. Those who will not
obey will suffer the consequences, because their installations do indeed provide
conspicuous and fragile targets. These include satellites.
Offensive action against what seem to be the links of modern life may
seem the most improbable of military options. But the links have just shown
themselves to be those of death also. When death stares in the face, the
harshest choices become acceptable.
The "Love Bug," Asymmetric Warfare, and Other Computer Attacks; Future
National Security Implications...
by C. L. Staten, CEO and Sr. Analyst
Emergency Response & Research Institute (ERRI)
"Only civil virtue can bring peace to an empire; only martial virtue can quell
disorder in the land. The expert in using the military has three basic strategies
that he applies: the best strategy is to attack the enemies reliance on acuteness
of mind; the second is to attack the enemies claim that he is waging a just war;
and the the last is to attack the enemies battle positions." -- Sun-Tzu, The Art of
Has anyone noticed that the only thing that spread more rapidly than the
so-called "Love Bug Virus" was the proliferation of commentary about it. In fact,
the talk dominated many forums for several days after the virus was first
discovered. Given this level of interest that was demonstrated and the estimated
BILLIONS of dollars of damage that was been done by this has to
wonder what the intelligence and Defence community of the United States is
doing about taking a pro-active stance to protect our vital infrastructures?
Although costly to corporate America, it would appear that we as a
country, have again "dodged the bullet" of major damage to our military and
intelligence C4I networks. That may be due to the fact that most of the known
attacks so far have targeted commercial, business or other internet-related
organizations. But, the attacks that have taken place so far beg a question that
must be asked at this juncture: What is going to happen when a concerted effort
is undertaken by experts to use denial of service attacks, in concert with viruses,
root-cracking, and other computer-based infrastructure attacks to attack the
Defence/intelligence establishment of our country and her security alliances
throughout the world??
We see each of these recent sets of attacks as a potential "test of
effectiveness" trial. As previously discussed by this author and a number of our
other esteemed colleagues (Wilson and Fuller, Denning, Forno, Schwartau,
Toffler, etc.) one has to wonder when we are going to take these examples of 4th
Generation/Asymmetric warfare seriously enough to make them a formal and
more integral part of our future Defence preparedness and planning. Each wave
of these attacks continues to demonstrate a new and more evolved capability on
the part of our adversaries.
Given a natural evolution of these tactics and the stated intent of some our
trans-national enemies, We must suggest that serious consideration be given at
the highest levels of the U.S. and allied governments to the possibility that these
tactics may be COMBINED with the use of a series of conventional terrorist
attacks -- or worse yet -- unconventional weapons (WMD's), to cause a vastly
disproportionate effect on the both the economy of the USA and the overall
psyche' of the world.(3) In light of these circumstances, it would appear that we
may be quickly coming to a critical juncture in the way we respond to these
threats and ultimately defend our country.
Stock-market watchers might suggest that some of these electronic/
unconventional tactics have already had a preliminary intended effect on our
economy, shown by a recent decline in world stock markets. The insurgents are
spreading mistrust/a lack of confidence in the technology sector...the very place
where the U.S. economy has show the greatest increases in productivity and
where a majority of our advantages in international business and military
superiority have been shown in recent years. The economic capabilities of many
nation-states, including the United States, are increasingly becoming a "centre of
According to classic Clausewitzian theory, "a centre of gravity is always found
where the mass is concentrated most densely... Clausewitz argued that this is
the place where the blows must be aimed and where the decision should be
reached. He failed to develop the idea of generating many non-cooperative
centres of gravity by striking at those vulnerable yet critical tendons, connections,
and activities that permit a larger centre of gravity to exist."
Strategist and military thinker, Col. John R. Boyd, contradicts Clausewitz
by suggesting that the tactics of the future may: "Generate many non-cooperative
centres of gravity, as well as disorient or disrupt those that the adversary
depends upon, in order to magnify friction, shatter cohesion, produce paralysis,
and bring about his collapse; or equivalently, uncover, create, and exploit many
vulnerabilities and weaknesses, hence many opportunities, to pull adversary
apart and isolate remnants for mop-up or absorption."
"Perpetrated by mercenaries, ideological or religious zealots-- it doesn't
matter which -- corporations and business networks will undoubtedly become
future targets of terrorism. More enlightened terrorists have discovered (maybe
already in some countries), or will discover soon, that the path to the fear and
chaos that they crave most may be more easily achieved by a wide-scale attack
on infrastructure/economic targets, thus causing a general breakdown in
Particularly in those fractionalized nation-states that are already less
stable or suffering the pangs of religious and political separatist movements, the
targeting of economic targets may prove extremely successful in orchestrating
the eventual overthrow of the established government.
The Current "Anti-Capitalist Movement" and Similarities to "Classic"
Guerrilla Warfare Activities
Most informed observers have not, so far, drawn any linkage between
recent civil disturbances in several countries, sporadic terrorist acts, and an
increasing number of various kinds of attacks on computer systems...all of which
may be associated with an increasing re-emergence of what this author calls the
"old left." Yet, there are many parallels that can be drawn with regard to
strategies and tactics being used in recent events and those described by Mao
Tse-Tung in his classic work, "Mao Tse-Tung on Guerrilla Warfare."
Griffith succinctly describes a number of Maoist tactics that may have
been adapted and are being used by "anti-capitalist," Muslim extremist, FARC
guerrillas in Colombia, and any other number of separatists movements; "The
[the guerrillas] rely on imaginative leadership, distraction, surprise, and mobility
to create a victorious situation before the battle is joined. The enemy is deceived
and again deceived. Attacks are sudden, sharp, vicious, and of short duration.
Many are harassing in nature; others are designed to dislocate the enemy's plans
and to agitate and and confuse his commanders. The mind of the enemy and the
will of his leaders is a target of far more importance than the bodies of his
In other words, according to Griffith, "The enemy's rear is the guerrilla's
front...they [the guerrillas] themselves have no rear." With our increasing reliance
on technology for our success, America's computer infrastructure must presently
be considered one of the most essential parts of "our rear."
Clearly socialist, communist, or even anarchist in viewpoint, much of the
rhetoric contained within many recent hard-core "anti-capitalist" statements
would seem to advocate the future use of violence if non-violent measures and
actions do not accomplish their self-determined objectives. One must wonder
how long it will be before the more radical of the "anti-capitalists" decide that the
use of explosives or other weapons is the next logical step in their protest of
international trade.
China, Unrestricted Warfare, and Multi-Dimensional Conflict
One of the more troubling documents that this author has had occasion to
read in recent times is a book by two Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA)
colonels. The book is entitled "Unrestricted War." In it, are plans to utilize various
kinds of unconventional warfare methods to defeat a superior enemy (the
unnamed United States). Included would be the use of "conventional" terrorism,
the use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, and attacks on critical
computer infrastructure targets. By combining these various unconventional
tactics, "Unrestricted War" hypothesizes that the attacker can have a
advantageous disproportionate effect, even on a militarily superior enemy.
Admittedly, it is unlikely that attacks on America's computer infrastructure
will cause the kind of massive numbers of dead and wounded citizens that we
would normally attribute to either conventional terrorism or open warfare. While it
is possible that the right kind of cyber-attack, undertaken in the right way, and
attacking the right nodes of our critical systems could result in injuries or deaths,
it is far more probable that these attacks will be used as a "force multiplier" and
undertaken in concert with the use of other types of more conventional weapons.
In fact that is exactly what Liang and Xiangsui suggest in their work described
Maybe as problematic as the fact that Chinese strategists appear to be
exploring plans to defeat a superpower like the United States, is the fact that the
concepts outlined by the two Chinese colonels could almost immediately be
undertaken by any number of "rogue states," "non-state actors," or terrorist
"This revolution [in Information or Asymmetric Warfare] also requires the
political and military leadership to understand the purpose and consequences of
war and the risks that attach to any military action. On recent evidence, none of
these attributes are present to any degree, and across the world a risk-averse
approach to warfare in all its forms has seeped into the corridors of power. That
in turn will lead to an increasing dependence on IW (Information Warfare) as the
perfect solution for fighting wars with no risk of casualties and at relatively low
financial cost. But, that is to seek the very silver bullet that does not exist. As
David proved to Goliath, strength can be beaten. America today looks
uncomfortably like Goliath, arrogant in its power, armed to the teeth, and ignorant
of its weakness."
By Timothy L. Thomas
worst strategy--attack walled cities.”
-- Sun Tsu, Art of War
The battle for Grozny, the capital of the small Russian Republic of
Chechnya, took place in January 1995.
It pitted a hastily assembled and
unprepared Russian force against a Chechen force of regulars and guerrillas
equipped with Russian weapons and a belief in their cause. The Chechens held
their own for three weeks but eventually lost the city to the Russian armed forces
in late January (the Chechens retook the city in August 1996).
Both sides learned or relearned many lessons of urban combat, most of
them the hard way. This article examines the most important of those lessons,
the interesting and perhaps surprising conclusions drawn by the Russians about
modern urban warfare, and their implications for US soldiers and urban warfare
The Russian Republic of Chechnya is located in the south-eastern part of
Russia near the north-western end of the Caspian Sea. Chechnya declared its
independence from the Soviet Union in October 1991. This declaration by
Chechen President Jokar Dudayev was not unexpected; the region's history is
scored by episodes of intense Chechen-Russian battles that encouraged hatred
toward Russia and a desire for independence. Further, Russia was in disarray at
the time, with then Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin in confrontation with
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev over the issue of sovereignty. Yeltsin
encouraged Soviet republics (but not semi-autonomous ones like Chechnya) to
"take all the sovereignty they could swallow." Dudayev interpreted Yeltsin's
words to fit his situation.
Grozny had nearly 490,000 residents in 1994. It included many multiple-
story buildings and industrial installations and covered some 100 square miles
(by comparison, the Joint Readiness Training Centre for urban combat in the
United States covers less than a tenth of a square kilometre, offering but one
indication of how urban training can differ from reality). A Chechen opposition
movement developed in 1993, finally attempting to overthrow President Dudayev
in late November 1994 through an armed attack. The attack was repulsed by
Dudayev's forces. Russian complicity was at first denied by Moscow, but then
acknowledged when Dudayev paraded several captured Russian soldiers before
TV cameras. The indignity and embarrassment over the exposure of Russian
involvement caused Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin, in his third year
in office after ousting Gorbachev, to order troops to start moving into Chechnya
on 11 December. Planners had less than two weeks to move and position forces
and supplies. By New Year's Eve, Russian forces had Grozny surrounded on
three sides and entered the city from the north, moving headlong into hell.
The first unit to penetrate to the city centre was the 1st battalion of the
131st "Maikop" Brigade, the latter composed of some 1,000 soldiers. By 3
January 1995, the brigade had lost nearly 800 men, 20 of 26 tanks, and 102 of
120 armored vehicles. For the next 20 days and nights Russian artillery rounds
rained down on the city, sometimes at the rate of 4,000 an hour. Local residents
left the city or took refuge in basements while the Russian armed forces fought
Chechen "freedom fighters" or "bandits" (depending on one's perspective) on the
streets and in the buildings above them. When more captured Russian soldiers
were shown on TV, the mothers of some went to Grozny to negotiate their sons'
release. Those negotiations took place in the centre of the city without Russian
government assistance and while under Russian artillery bombardment. Dudayev
extracted a promise from the Russian soldiers he released of eternal
indebtedness to their brave mothers. The struggle continued until 20 January,
when the Russians finally took the city centre and raised the Russian flag over
the Presidential Palace. Before delving into the lessons learned from this battle,
we may note several contextual factors that conditioned the outcome.
The Chechen armed force spoke Russian, had served in the Russian
armed forces, and had Russian uniforms. This made it much easier to
understand Russian tactics and plans, and to use deception techniques. The
Chechen force was not a typical army but rather a composite force of armed
home guards (guerrillas) and a few regular forces. Much of the equipment in
their possession had been left by Russia's armed forces in 1993 when departing
Chechnya. By one account the Chechens had 40 to 50 T-62 and T-72 tanks,
620-650 grenade launchers, 20-25 "Grad" multiple rocket launchers, 30-35
armoured personnel carriers and scout vehicles, 30 122mm howitzers, 40-50
BMP infantry fighting vehicles,[3] some 200,000 hand grenades, and an
assortment of various types of ammunition.
The Russian armed forces that attacked Grozny, while well-equipped,
were not the same professional force that opposed the West during the Cold
War. Russian Minister of Defence Pavel Grachev, in a top-secret directive, listed
some of the problems of his armed forces just ten days before the start of the
war. He noted that the combat capabilities of the armed forces were low, the
level of mobilization readiness was poor, and the operational planning capability
was inadequate. Soldiers were poorly trained. Their suicide rates as well as the
overall number of crimes in the force were up. Knowing the situation so clearly,
Grachev's bold prediction that he could take Grozny with a single airborne
regiment in two hours is incomprehensible. Perhaps Grachev privately
understood the true problems in the force but put on the face of public bravado to
support the presidential directive he had received.
Other analysts confirmed the dismal state of readiness, estimating the
capability of the Russian armed force to carry out combat missions as five or six
times lower than what it had been in just 1991. Not only was the force poorly
trained, it also was undermanned.
On the eve of the operation, Grachev
apparently had a force of some 38,000 men, only 6,000 of whom entered Grozny
on New Year's Eve. Dudayev is believed to have had 15,000 men in Grozny.
This means that the 6:1 force ratio desired for attacking a city (a doctrinal norm
derived from combat experience in World War II) clearly was not attained. On
the contrary, the correlation of forces was 1:2.5 against Russian forces at the
start of combat. In addition, the force that entered Grozny was a composite
force, with some battalions composed of members from five to seven different
units. Crews often hardly knew one another. One Russian officer noted that a
rehearsal for taking a built-up area had not been conducted in the last 20 to 25
years, which contributed to decisions such as sending the force into the city in a
column instead of in combat formation. These facts, combined with the bad
weather, the hasty political decision to enter the city, and the lack of training,
offered the Russian force little chance for quick success.
Lesson One: (Know Your Opponent and His Turf)
Societies are run by different methods. Some are governed by the rule of
law, others by the rule of men. Some are governed by religious or local tradition,
and still others by the tradition or customs of the clan. Chechnya was a society
run by the rule of the clan.
Two traditions of the clan that unify the Chechen people are adat and teip.
Adat is an ancient system of retribution, an unwritten code that is followed more
closely than the Russian penal code or other imposed civil laws. The code is
reputedly based on revenge, incorporating "an eye for an eye" sense of justice.
For example, after two of their comrades had been killed, Chechen fighters took
a building in Grozny and seized some Russian prisoners. They killed two and let
the rest go. They had their revenge.
The tradition of clan or tribe (teip) relationships is equally important and
should have been stressed to Russian forces. Teip members fight fiercely to
preserve their clan's independence, culture, and separate identity. Relations
between teips "are based on blood feuds." There are more than 150 teips in
Chechnya, whose membership "ties a Chechen to a large extended family and to
an ancestral piece of land." If an opponent of the Chechens fails to take into
account both teip and adat (as well as the long Chechen tradition of looking to
older men for wisdom and to younger men for the "warrior" spirit), then he will not
understand the fundamental issues uniting Chechen society and their will to fight
foreign domination. Such will can outlast outside weaponry and presence. This
lesson becomes more and more important to US planners as the American
armed forces move to an expeditionary posture. An outside force can't stay
forever, and the will of the local populace may win in the end.
In Chechnya there was even more at work than these internal cultural
factors, however. There also existed an intense historical hatred of Russia and
Russians among elements of the population, a reaction to the lack of respect
shown by Soviet leaders and their Russian predecessors. In 1816, for example,
Russian Caucasus commander General Alexi Yermolov insisted that "the terror
of my name should guard our frontiers more potently than chains or fortresses."
He launched a scorched earth policy, treating the Chechens with extreme cruelty
to perpetuate his claim. In 1949 Soviet authorities erected a statue of General
Yermolov in Grozny. The inscription read, "There is no people under the sun
more vile and deceitful than this one." This unbelievably callous and calculated
insult by Soviet authorities ensured the eternal hatred of many Chechens,
demonstrating how poorly Soviet authorities understood their own people.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Chechens repeatedly attacked this statue.
Joseph Stalin earned the further enmity of the Chechen people by
deporting the entire population to Central Asia in 1944. Many died during these
deportations, which Chechens viewed as genocide.
They returned to their
homeland 13 years later during the premiership of Nikita Khrushchev.
Yeltsin and his military planners failed to consider the "receptivity" of the
people in Grozny to their demands and intentions. The Russian army lacks civil
affairs units, and this missing element compounded their problems. In the same
manner, any force considering an attack in an urban environment must evaluate
both the type of opponent it is attacking (guerrillas, regular forces, etc.) and its
If the opposing force has deep and persistent antipathy toward the
attackers, then it will be impossible to achieve victory without a decisive
confrontation and military conquest. The local force has the advantage; if it can
persevere, it can pick the attacker apart in both the short and long term,
eventually wearing him out. In this sense, the moral-psychological orientation of
the defenders adds an important element beyond mere weaponry to the
"correlation of forces."
In addition to understanding one's opponent, an attacker must know the
urban terrain over which he will fight. The Chechens obviously had a huge
advantage in Grozny, as does any native defender. Not only did they know the
city's sewer, metro, and tram systems intimately, they also knew the back alleys,
buildings, and streets.
Russian forces were not so prepared. They had
1:100,000 scale maps when a scale of 1:25,000 or even larger was needed. As a
result they often got lost, finding themselves in Chechen ambushes or
exchanging fire with friendly units. Chechens took down street signs and
repositioned them in cleverly misleading positions to confound the Russians. Unit
boundaries were almost impossible to coordinate because of the lack of
adequate maps. Tactical maps were often made from plain blank paper by hand,
with Russian soldiers filling in the sheet with the city vista (streets, buildings, etc.)
in front of them.
Modern urban sprawl continues to make this aspect of military operations
in urban terrain (MOUT) more appealing to the defender. The Chechens reverted
to a battle of "successive cities" after the Grozny battle ended, hoping to recreate
their Grozny successes elsewhere. They moved their operations base to Shali,
Argun, and other city centres. They recognized that they could accomplish two
things with this tactic: they could negate Russian advantages of firepower in the
open from helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and tanks, and they could blend in with
the local population to their advantage. This not only continued to make it difficult
to distinguish combatants from civilians, but it also helped the Chechens get the
local population on their side. This was usually the result when Russian forces
entered a city, destroyed property and buildings, and killed or wounded civilians
while searching for their armed opponent.
The average Russian soldier possessed neither the cultural savvy nor the
street smarts for such confrontations. Since urban combat is resolved at the
squad and platoon level, well-trained soldiers are essential. Too often this fact is
ignored by forces contemplating an urban action. For Western armies,
particularly expeditionary forces, there must be civil and public affairs units
attached to help the soldier prepare for urban combat. A cultural understanding
of the battlefield can greatly assist both the commander in understanding his
mission and the average soldier in fulfilling it. An understanding of the city
infrastructure offers similar advantages.
Lesson Two: (Don't Assume--Prepare, Prepare, Prepare)
When planning for the intervention into Chechnya, the Russian force
made several questionable assumptions. First was that the Chechen force would
not resist or stand up psychologically to the concentration of large groups of state
troops. Soviet forces had succeeded in Czechoslovakia in 1968 with such an
operation, and they may have banked on a repeat performance in Chechnya. A
second assumption was that qualified planners were still present on the General
Staff. Much of the intellectual strength of the General Staff probably had
atrophied along with the general dissipation of the armed forces over the
previous five years. But even if the General Staff was fully operational and
capable, any operation of this complexity may have been beyond their ability to
prepare in two weeks (in preparation for the Czech invasion, for example, there
were at least six extensive Warsaw Pact exercises over the course of several
months to practice ground operations, air Defence, logistics, and other elements
before the intervention). Finally, the plan presupposed a trained, coherent force
that was as capable as the old Soviet military. None of the Russians'
assumptions stood the test of reality.
Many outright errors were committed during the hasty preparation of the
force as well.
For example, the operations plan omitted technical support
resources (such as communication equipment) and there was no coordinating
agency linked with the president's administration to resolve political problems.
The administration's information/propaganda machinery also failed to prepare the
mass media to report positively on the reasons for the intervention or to
illuminate the national interests at stake. Thus Russia lost the political and
information battles in the first days of the conflict. Many of these problems were
aggravated by the fact that at the time of the intervention, Russia did not have a
national security concept, and only an outdated military doctrine.
In addition, three powerful ministers (Defence, Internal Affairs, and Internal
Security) all had troops in the fight but failed to integrate their efforts. As one
source noted, "The enormous losses of the early days were caused by the poor
level of professionalism of the command/staff element, which underestimated the
enemy and was staggeringly negligent in coordinating actions among individual
units and subunits as well as among the various types of forces."
Other Russian problems included complacency as to the location of the
main and reserve force, poor highway traffic control, a lack of knowledge of the
area, and no clear-cut troop instructions on how or when to use their weapons.
Soldiers were sometimes prohibited from massing fires and lacked clear rules of
engagement and target adjustment criteria. Some troops had just arrived from
training units and had no idea how to operate as part of a unit. All they knew
were individual soldier skills. According to one report:
“In the 81st Motorized Regiment of the 90th Tank Division, out of 56
platoon commanders, 49 were yesterday's [civilian college] students. More
than 50 percent of the men sent to war had never fired live shells with their
tank cannons, and had no idea of how to do so. Military cooks, signalers,
and mechanics were appointed to shoot antitank guns and missiles as
well as machine guns.”
Just days before kicking off the operation into Grozny, a unit that was
deployed at the Mosdok staging area conducted the following training: assembly
and disassembly of equipment; range firing and field training; company tactical
exercises and driving combat vehicles; battalion field training; driver testing; and
alert drills. Not a word about training on combat in cities.
Perhaps the most serious deficiency in the preparation phase was in
intelligence data. The Russians had almost no information about the situation in
the city, especially from human intelligence sources. Military intelligence did not
delineate targets for air and artillery forces, and electronic warfare resources
were not used to cut off President Dudayev's communications. Reconnaissance
was poorly conducted, and Chechen strong points were not uncovered. There
was little effective preliminary reconnaissance of march routes, reconnaissance
amounted to passive observation, and reconnaissance elements appeared
poorly trained. Simply put, the Russians did not do a proper intelligence
preparation of the battlefield--indeed, there does not seem to be an established
procedure for processing data for the intelligence preparation of the battlefield in
the Russian armed forces.
Commanders and troops tried to overcome this
shortcoming in the course of combat actions, leading to delays in operations and
reduced effectiveness.
These first two lessons (know your opponent and battleground, and the
importance of preparation) may seem elementary, but they may also reveal
aspects that US planners are most likely to miss. Analysts writing urban doctrine
should raise their focus from tactics to consider also overarching concepts such
as political considerations, limitations of city fighting, worldwide integration of
economic assets, characteristics and types of opposing forces (guerrillas, regular
force, willingness to violate international law), city size and infrastructure, and
probable enemy methods for negating US operating superiority. It is a
combination of these latter facts that will drive the tactics and operations when
going into a city. Neither strategy nor tactics can be developed in isolation from
them. US forces thus need an urban combat courses of action methodology to
help select the optimum approach to each situation.
Lesson Three: (Choose the Right Weapons)
The Chechen weapon of choice was the rocket propelled grenade
launcher (RPG). The RPG was most feared by the Russians because of its
multiplicity of uses. It could be used to shoot over buildings like a high-trajectory
mortar, and it could be used either as an area weapon when fired over troop
formations or as a precision weapon when fired directly at armored vehicles.
Some destroyed Russian tanks were hit more than 20 times by RPGs.
A second weapon of choice for the Chechens was not really a weapon at
all. It was the multitude of information-technology gadgets, especially cellular
phones and commercial scanner systems, that allowed the Chechens to
communicate easily with one another, ensured the coordination of combat
operations, and allowed Chechens to listen in on Russian conversations (thereby
proving to be a force-coordination multiplier). On many occasions, the Russians
felt the Chechens knew what they were going to do ahead of time, and for this
reason believed these communication devices were like weapons.
Chechens also used mobile TV stations to override Russian TV transmissions
and to deliver messages from President Dudayev directly to the people. The
Internet was also used, especially to raise funds and assistance from abroad.
Flame-throwers appear to have been a weapon of choice for the Russian
force. One article written after the fighting noted that the Kalashnikov assault
rifle, the Mukha grenade launcher, and the Shmel flame-thrower were a "soldier's
best weapons." The flame-thrower was chosen as much for its psychological
effect as its ability to flush people or snipers out of buildings at a considerable
range. Evidence supporting the view that this is an important Russian weapon
was provided when an improved, jet-powered model was advertised for sale
abroad in October 1998. It reportedly was capable of the same effectiveness as
152mm artillery rounds, and had a maximum range of fire of 1,000 meters (over
a half mile!). With its portability and range, it may prove to be an adequate
substitute where the use of supporting artillery would be difficult.
A "weapon" of choice for both Russians and Chechens was the sniper,
who caused panic and havoc with just a few well-placed shots. There are reports
that the Chechens employed female snipers from the Baltic region. Snipers were
extremely effective in slowing a convoy's movement and forcing a column to take
another route. One observer wrote:
“One experienced sniper is capable of doing what will prove to be beyond
the capability of a tank, gun, or entire infantry subunit: disable a
commander, destroy a gun or mortar crew, control one or two streets . . .
and, most important, instill in the enemy a feeling of constant danger,
nervousness, and expectation of a sudden shot.
Everyone fears the
Chechen snipers in Grozny. . . There are many cases where a sniper
wounds a serviceman, and then kills the wounded person and those who
come to his aid.”
The sniper could also use an RPG in conjunction with a sniper rifle. A real
problem for Russian troops was identifying snipers who shot at them and then
donned a Red Cross armband and mingled with the local populace and the
Russian soldiers he was killing. To counteract this, Russian checkpoints began
forcing the Chechen men to take off their shirts. Soldiers would look for bruises
on the shoulder from weapon recoil, for powder burns on forearms, or for a silver
lining around cuffs (from mortar or artillery propellant bags). They also smelled
clothing for gunpowder and looked for traces of it under fingernails or on arms or
legs. Russian forces also employed snipers, but not with the same degree of
success as the Chechens. A March 1995 article decrying the neglect of sniper
training attests to this fact.
The correct mix and employment of weapons in the city were also
important. Grozny was a three-tiered fight (upper floors of buildings, street level,
and subterranean or basement), and the weapons had to fit. Russian tanks
could not lower their main gun tubes and coaxial machine guns low enough to
shoot into basements harbouring Chechen fighters. To correct this problem, the
Russians put ZSU-23-4 self-propelled, multi-barrelled, antiaircraft machine guns
forward with columns to fire at heights and into basements.
The use of artillery and air power in the city was counterproductive in
many instances. Indiscriminate bombing and shelling turned the local population
against the Russians.
The locals included some Russian citizens who were
inhabitants of Grozny (and who found it incomprehensible that their own leaders
had such disregard for the lives of civilians). Most of the Russian population of
Grozny lived in the centre of the city. Since this is where the most severe fighting
took place, Russian civilian casualties were high.
Lesson Four: (Adapt Tactics to the Situation)
The principal Chechen city Defence was the "Defenceless Defence." They
decided that it was better not to have strong points, but to remain totally mobile
and hard to find. (Some strong points did exist but were limited to dug-in tanks,
artillery, or BMPs to engage targets head-on.) Hit-and-run tactics made it difficult
for the Russian force to locate pockets of resistance and impossible to bring their
overwhelming firepower to bear against an enemy force. Russian firepower was
diluted as a result and could be used only piecemeal. Chechen mobile
detachments composed of one to several vehicles (usually civilian cars or jeeps)
transported supplies, weapons, and personnel easily throughout the city.
Chechens deployed in the vicinity of a school or hospital, fired a few rounds, and
quickly left. The Russians would respond by shelling the school or hospital, but
usually after the Chechens had gone. Civilians consequently viewed this action
as Russians needlessly destroying vital facilities and endangering their lives, not
realizing who had initiated the incident. The Chechen mobility and intimate
knowledge of the city exponentially increased the effect of their "Defenceless
The slaughter of the Russian 131st Brigade was a result of this tactic.
Russian forces initially met no resistance when they entered the city at noon on
31 December. They drove their vehicles straight to the city center, dismounted,
and took up positions inside the train station. Other elements remained parked
along a side street as a reserve force. Then the Chechens went to work. The
Russian lead and rear vehicles on the side streets were destroyed. The unit was
effectively trapped. The tanks couldn't lower their gun tubes far enough to shoot
into basements or high enough to reach the tops of buildings, and the Chechens
systematically destroyed the column from above and below with RPGs and
grenades. At the train station, Chechens from other parts of the city converged
on the station and surrounded it. The commander of the Russian unit waited until
2 January for reinforcements, but they never arrived. His unit was decimated.
The most lethal Chechen force in those early days of January was led by
one of President Dudayev's most trusted warriors, Shamil Basayev. Basayev's
"national guard" force consisted of some 500 men who had fought in Abkhazia
against Georgians in 1992-93. Battle-hardened, they moved in groups as large
as 200 at times, showing up in cars with guns blazing. The more typical Chechen
combat group was a three- or four-man cell. Five of these cells were usually
linked into a 15- to 20-man unit that fought together.
Some Chechen soldiers pretended to be simple inhabitants of Grozny,
volunteering to act as guides since it was so difficult to navigate in the city. They
subsequently led Russian convoys into ambushes.
Russian forces tried to
counter Chechen ambush tactics by using a technique called "baiting," in which
they would send out contact teams to find Chechen ambushes. In turn, the
Chechens used a technique called "hugging," getting very close to Russian
forces. This technique eliminated the Russian use of artillery in many cases, and
it exposed baiting tactics.
The Chechens were proficient at booby-trapping doorways, breakthrough
areas, entrances to metros and sewers, discarded equipment, and the bodies of
dead soldiers. Some command-detonated mines were also used, but this
weapon found greater use in other cities the Chechens defended. (A detailed
1998 Russian article about the importance of initially using plenty of expert
engineer-reconnaissance forces in MOUT was published to teach how to
counteract such threats.) Russian forces became wary of moving into a building
and learned to proceed methodically. They began taking one building at a time,
and moving block by block instead of rapidly moving into the city centre as they
had at the beginning of the intervention.
Another significant Russian problem was the delineation of boundaries
between units owing to the nonlinear nature of urban combat. For the Russian
force, this problem was complicated by four factors: poor communications that
prevented units from knowing where other units were; the absence of an
integrated communications system tying together different units from the Ministry
of Internal Security, the army, and the other services; different operational
tempos in different parts of the city that caused one unit to get ahead of another;
and dealing simultaneously with both vertical and horizontal boundaries within a
building. This difficulty in ascertaining boundaries resulted in several incidents of
fratricide and instances in which units were pinned down by friendly fire for up to
an hour. Aware of these problems, the Chechens exploited boundary conditions
whenever possible. To help overcome such difficulties, a Russian expert
recommended that units wear pagers and use a map display system known as
Cospas-Sarsat during future operations. (Cospas-Sarsat is a system of
geostationary satellites that act as a global positioning system, especially for
search and rescue.)
A final tactical issue was the Russian use of assault detachments and
tanks to seize buildings and drive the Chechens from the city. Initially the
Russians relied heavily on tanks in Grozny, but this approach was soon
abandoned, with infantry and marines then becoming paramount. The initial
instruction pamphlet issued to Russian soldiers in Grozny noted that a tank
platoon should move at the head of the column, covered by motorized riflemen
and flame-throwers. Reserve teams advancing in armoured personnel carriers
behind the tanks would fire against second and third floors. Three months later
conflicting advice appeared in Russian army magazines. Tanks were advised to
seal off city blocks, repel counterattacks, and provide cover. In providing
supporting fires along streets, tanks were expected to occupy covered positions
or operate only in areas controlled by motorized rifle units. During movement,
tanks would move behind infantry at a distance beyond the effective range of
enemy antitank weapons, but close enough to support the infantry with grazing
fire from machine guns. The same principle was to be used for calculating the
follow-on distance for other armoured vehicles. Additionally, metal nets and
screens were mounted 25 to 30 centimetres away from the armour to create
protection from Chechen antitank rounds.
Lesson Five: (Anticipate and Resolve Communications Problems)
As we have seen, a lack of training was the biggest problem for Russian
troops and staffs in planning and executing the urban combat mission. The most
significant technical problem was establishing and maintaining communications.
In 1997-98, no issue received more attention on the pages of the Russian army's
most prestigious journal, Armeyskiy Sbornik. Obviously, this problem greatly
complicated the execution of missions. If you can't coordinate and control units,
how can they bring firepower to bear effectively?
The breakdown in communications occurred at the platoon, company, and
battalion levels. Some of the problems were clearly the fault of Russian planners,
such as the decision during the battle for Grozny to transmit all messages in the
clear. This misstep obviously allowed the Chechen force not only to monitor all
transmissions and thus prepare for what was coming next, but also to insert false
messages in Russian communications traffic. Later, the Russians used message
scramblers. The chief factor in the communications breakdown, however, was
simply the vertical obstacles posed by urban structures. High-rise buildings and
towers impeded transmissions, especially those in the high to ultra high
frequencies. Communication officers had to consider the nature of radio wave
propagation and carefully select operating and alternate frequencies, and they
had to consider the interference caused by power transmission lines,
communications lines, and electric transportation contact systems. Many radio
transmitter operators were killed in the initial battles, as Chechens focused on
soldiers carrying radios or antennas. To solve this problem, Russian radio
operators began concealing their antennas. However, this led them to hide their
whip antennas in a pocket or under a shirt, and in their haste to reassemble the
radio while under fire, forgetting to reconnect the antenna.
After-action recommendations by Russian communication specialists
included developing more convenient and lighter-weight gear for radio operators,
including wire-type antennas; outfitting units with cellular and trunk-adaptable
radios; putting an indicator lamp on the radio sets to highlight problems;
developing a common radio storage battery; and providing alternate antennas in
follow-on models, capable of automatic connections in case primary antennas
become disabled. The Russians noted that the Chechen forces used Motorola
and Nokia cellular radios, and leased satellite channels on foreign relays. This
enabled them to establish communications between base stations and to
maintain quality mobile radio communications.
Looking to the Future
When considering the initial failure of the Russian forces in Grozny in
January 1995, it seems apparent that the issues outlined above, drawn from one-
on-one discussions with participants as reported in Russian military literature
from January to March 1995, would be at the centre of the lessons-learned
discussion. But Russian conclusions about the types of weapons and methods
for attacking in future urban combat were much more imaginative than originally
expected, focusing largely on the low end of the technological hierarchy. Such
Chechen strategies as "Defenceless Defence" and "successive cities" seemed to
force an innovative response. For example, one of the lessons learned by
Russian forces and underscored in their critique of combat in Grozny is the
increasing utility of nonlethal weapons in future urban combat. This conclusion
primarily refers to chemical weapons not banned by the Geneva Convention,
such as tear gas and other agents. The principal lesson Russian commanders
seem to have learned is, "Don't fight this type of battle unless there is no other
option." Gas is an option because it debilitates opponents and allows friendly
forces to disarm them without lethal combat.
But the Russians are also considering high-tech, debilitating non-lethal
means (rays of light causing blindness or seizures, subsonic sounds that
penetrate concrete or metal and induce vomiting or spasms, electromagnetic
waves, etc.) New types of psychological operations, an old non-lethal technique,
were under discussion as well. Psychological warfare techniques have been
seriously upgraded through information technology developments. For US forces
concentrating on the high-technology solutions and approaches (firing around
corners, devices to measure heartbeats through walls, etc.), it is important not to
overlook counters to Russian innovations. At the very least, improvements
should be made to US soldier protective devices. Despite the standard US
aversion to the use of most of these Russian non-lethals, they may be more than
attractive to other armies, especially if they are under-budgeted, undermanned,
and under-trained.
The Russians learned other lessons from their Chechnya experience as
They will likely now do everything in their power to persuade political
figures to solve conflicts by peaceful means, and their preparation phase for
urban combat probably will be comprehensive and exhausting in the future, since
it is clear that Chechnya was not like Czechoslovakia. There will be more
instruction on urban combat in their academies. The correlation of "other forces"
(customs, religion, belief in the cause, receptivity to friendly forces, etc.) will be
considered during the preparation phase, as will such factors as types of forces
(guerrillas, regular, mercenaries), building materials, communications potential,
local customs and resistance, friendly forces available, and the use of chemicals.
Those chemicals may include "traction interrupters" to interfere with the working
parts of equipment or to change a road surface, pyrophoric materials to burn
non-flammables, or even biological materials to destroy electric and insulating
materials. It is clear that the Russian armed forces learned that if they can
disable a person or piece of equipment, then it will be much easier to achieve
their objective.
If force is used, there will be no preparatory fires (because it turns the
population against you), but only supporting fires during the operation. This
concept may result in an extended use of direct fire artillery and a greater
reliance on flame-throwers. It will be imperative to get civilians out of a city before
fighting starts.
Army aviation will be used to adjust artillery fires, provide
battlefield command and control of troops, mark and coordinate boundaries,
evacuate the wounded, and insert air assault forces at critical points in the city.
Finally, as the United States learned in Somalia, it is not always the bestequipped force that wins. Patience, discipline, and will play a greater role in the
long run than the Russians acknowledged going into Grozny. This lesson must
be learned by those who rely too heavily on precision weapons and think that
victory is possible in the short term. Long-term engagement works against the
intruding force; as civilian casualties mount, every move is scrutinized in the
media, and the international community bands together to scold the "perpetrator."
Finally, a lesson learned by medical personnel and participants was the
psychological stress of urban combat. Like the war in Afghanistan, the Chechen
conflict produced severe cases of combat stress and psychological trauma. A
psychologically well-prepared and trained Russian force was not available during
the initial fight for Grozny. As a result, Russian commanders began establishing
a reserve force only a few hundred meters away from the main force during the
fighting. This reserve acted as a relief force that replaced the main force when it
became psychologically spent. This usually occurred after about three hours of
house and booby-trap clearing, which were the most stress-inducing activities
other than clearing obstacles during the most intense days of the fight. A recent
article about Chechnya noted that younger members of the native population
there are also having serious troubles with stress-induced injuries from the war.
One physician in Grozny, speaking about the children, noted: "They have
become more aggressive, nervous, cruel. They have no respect for elders.
They're dangerous to be around. They have psychological illnesses, terrible
illnesses. Some can solve problems only with a gun."
The first visible indicator of the traumatic nature of the attack on the
Russian psyche was an article in The Journal of Military Medicine, just four
months after the start of serious fighting. Major General V. S. Novikov, a
professor in the medical service, gave a scathing account of the neurological
disorders he was observing in Chechnya. Novikov screened 1,312 troops in his
survey. He found that 28 percent were healthy, while the other 72 percent had
some type of psychological disorder (46 percent exhibited asthenic depression
symptoms--insomnia, lack of motivation, anxiety, neuro-emotional stress, or
tiredness--and the other 26 percent exhibited psychotic reactions such as high
anxiety or aggressiveness, a deterioration of moral values or interpersonal
relations, and excitement or depression). The longer a soldier was stationed in
the war zone, as expected, the more radical the change in his neuropsychological condition. Novikov termed this condition Post-Traumatic Stress
Syndrome, using the English acronym for this affliction in the Russian original.
He had obviously studied the US experience in Vietnam. The percentage of
troops with combat-induced deficiencies was higher than in Afghanistan.
Novikov's research also revealed that some 32 percent had experienced extreme
stress while preparing for combat actions. These soldiers were taught active and
passive muscular relaxation; others received psychological therapy or even
pharmacological treatment (to treat insomnia or stress). After their removal from
combat, troops' asthenic symptoms decreased while their psychotic disorders
The lessons of the fight for Grozny are several and sobering for anyone
who contemplates using troops in an urban environment. While some of the
lessons learned by Russian and Chechen combatants are peculiar to that region,
others have wider applicability. No army wants to engage in urban combat, but
increasing urbanization and the danger of strikes from high-precision weapons
may well force the fight into the city, where the defender has all the advantages.
Preparation for urban combat should begin in peacetime. There is a vast array of
possible courses of action, options, constraints, limitations, force mixes, enemy
compositions, legal factors, and city characteristics that must be studied and
understood. The most important point may be that there is no "standard urban
combat operation." Each is unique to the opponent, the city, specific operational
and tactical issues, and geopolitical considerations, among other factors.
Understanding the elements and ramifications of urban combat is a difficult but
crucial task for any army, but especially for one moving from a forward-deployed
to an expeditionary state. In the latter case, the tasks required to sufficiently
sustain or support urban combat are enormous.
By LTC Dan Daley, USA/CLASS OF 2000
In On War, Carl von Clausewitz states, “Every age has its own kind of war,
its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions.” Many studies,
panels and reviews have been conducted in the last decade that identifies
threats to United States’ survival and vital interests and the changing security
environment. Most studies agree that the United States will not face a single peer
competitor in conventional military terms in the next decade or two. They also
agree that the lack of a peer competitor does not mean that the United States
cannot be and will not be threatened. Many studies conclude that prudent
adversaries, competitors and enemies will avoid our conventional military
strength, but may seek to do us harm by identifying and exploiting our
weaknesses. Attacking our vulnerabilities has been dubbed asymmetric warfare.
Some would imply that this is a new way of war. In fact it is not. Exploiting an
adversary’s vulnerabilities has been an objective of military and political leaders
for centuries. Adversaries that we may face in the future will use asymmetric
tactics in order to have a military or psychological effect on the United States.
Although we may not be able to completely deter the use of these tactics we can
defend against them and mitigate their effects thereby ensuring continued
protection of our vital national interests.
This paper will show that asymmetric warfare is not new. What is new is
the fact that technology provides an adversary the ability to strike at the United
States itself. We are no longer invulnerable to attack on our shores. A review of
military theory will show that changing the character and conduct of warfare does
not change its nature. It will show how concern over asymmetric tactics has
been addressed from the National Security Strategy through joint doctrine, and it
will address how our national and military strategy is countering these tactics as
they are identified. It will also indicate areas where greater emphasis needs to be
placed and identify areas where risk or threats may exist that may not have been
We hear about asymmetric warfare, asymmetric threats, asymmetric
challenges and asymmetric approaches. These terms seem to be used
interchangeably. Webster’s New International Dictionary defines symmetry as,
“…due or balanced proportions.”
It merely defines asymmetric as, “not
symmetric.” Joint doctrine is not more specific. Joint Pub 1, Joint Warfare of the
Armed Forces of the United States illustrates how the entire character and
conduct of war has become asymmetric. It describes “symmetric engagements
[as] battles between similar forces where superior correlation of forces and
technological advantage are important to ensure victory and minimize losses. . ..
Asymmetric engagements are battles between dissimilar forces.” Examples given
for symmetric engagements are land versus of Meuse land, sea versus sea or air
versus air engagements. The examples -Argonne and the Battle of Jutland in
World War I are ancient in terms of technological advances since that war. Even
the air-to-air symmetric example, the Battle of Britain, fails to acknowledge the
asymmetric advantage that new radar technology provided to Britain and the
negative effects of Hitler’s decision to shift the German effort from the Royal Air
Force to England’s cities. Arguably, attacking the British will and morale was an
asymmetric tactic that failed. Joint Pub 1 emphasizes that asymmetric, “…
engagements can be extremely lethal, especially if the force being attacked is not
ready to defend itself against the threat.” What becomes apparent is that the
entire concept of joint operations is intended to pursue asymmetric operations
that render an opponent powerless to defend himself. “As we consider the nature
of warfare in the modern era, we find that it is synonymous with joint warfare.”
Joint warfare is synonymous with asymmetric tactics. Successful commanders,
given the option, will always attack adversary’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses
either by identifying the specific weakness to be exploited, or by creating one by
developing and implementing asymmetric tactics. Recent experience during
Operation Allied Force proves that asymmetric tactics will be incorporated at the
operational and tactical levels of future conflict. Slobodan Milosevic tried to
counter NATO military superiority using asymmetric tactics. “These tactics
created serious challenges for our forces, all of which we were able to overcome
thanks to excellent training, leadership, equipment and motivation.”
Asymmetric Tactics And Military Theory
In The Art Of War, Sun Tzu states that, “what is of supreme importance in
war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.” His focus was not purely on defeating the
enemy army, but on defeating the enemy’s plan. Defeating the enemy’s army
was of lower precedence than disrupting his alliances that were key to his plan.
Clearly Sun Tzu appreciated the need to weaken an adversary through many
approaches designed to affect his ability and willingness to wage war. He does
not advocate a symmetric approach to war where one attacks an adversary’s
army with an equal force, but he advocates a strategy that employs the cheng
(orthodox) force and the ch’I (unorthodox) force. Sun Tzu dedicates an entire
section of his work to “Weaknesses and Strengths”. “To be certain to take what
you attack is to attack a place the enemy does not protect. To be certain to hold
what you defend is to defend a place the enemy does not attack.” He frequently
refers to knowing your enemy and yourself and to shaping the enemy while
avoiding allowing him to shape you. This is very similar to dominant battlespace
awareness as articulated in Joint Vision 2010 and other joint publications. Sun
Tzu refers to direct and indirect approaches to warfare. Indirect approaches are
asymmetric. It is the ability to adapt to an adversary’s tactics and doctrine by
either developing new tactics or doctrine of your own or by employing new
technology in such a way as to overcome an adversary’s strength. “Thus, one
able to gain the victory by modifying his tactics in accordance with the enemy
situation may be said to be divine.” In his introduction to The Art of War, Samuel
B. Griffith states, “one of the most difficult problems which confront any
commander who has committed his forces in accordance with a well developed
plan is to alter this in the light of changing circumstances.” Sun Tzu also
cautioned that even as new indirect asymmetric tactics are employed, success
might be short lived as an adversary learns and adapts to the new character and
conduct of warfare.
Carl von Clausewitz defined war as, “…an act of force to compel our
enemy to do our will.” Although there is not a peer competitor to the United
States on the horizon, Clausewitz acknowledged that a nation might be forced to
fight even when its military is numerically and technologically inferior to its foe.
Clausewitz recognized that war might be unavoidable even though a nation may
not fight it from a position of superiority. He wrote that, “where the weaker side is
forced to fight against odds, its lack of numbers must be made up by the inner
tension and vigor that are inspired by danger….If an increase in vigor is
combined with wise limitations in objectives, the result is that combination of
brilliant strokes and cautious restraint that we admire…” An adversary to the
United States may not need to win a military conflict, but may only have to
prevent the United States from winning. To prevent the U.S. from winning, an
adversary may merely have to attack our strategy as identified earlier by Sun
Clausewitz also identified lines of communication as something a military
had to protect especially as these lines proceed into enemy territory. The United
States reliance on sea, air and electronic lines of communication is significant.
Today’s technology makes those lines vulnerable well beyond the physical
borders of an adversary. How we fight is driven by our ability to establish and
secure lines of communication that we are completely dependent upon, which if
severed or degraded can severely affect our strategy. “Thus, the position of lines
of communication and, hence, the route an invading army can use are matters of
free choice only up to a certain point: their exact location is determined by the
facts of geography.”
Possibly one of the most pertinent points raised by Clausewitz pertaining
to asymmetric tactics is that “…it is the natural law of the moral world that a
nation that finds itself on the brink of an abyss will try to save itself by any
means.” Asymmetric employment of weapons of mass destruction or information
warfare may be the only means an adversary to the United States has to bring
the war to the American homeland.
B.H. Liddell Hart wrote of the utility of indirect approaches to warfare. In
his preface to Strategy he argues that the development of nuclear weapons has
increased the use of indirect approaches and, rather than eliminating or deterring
war, has created an environment where all wars will be limited. “Ironically, the
further we have developed the “massive” effect of the bombing weapon, the more
we have helped the progress of the new guerrilla-type strategy.” In these limited
wars adversaries would use asymmetric tactics, “…not so much to seek battle as
to seek a strategic situation so advantageous that if it does not of itself produce
the decision, its continuation by a battle is sure to achieve this.” The focus was
on physical and psychological dislocation of the adversary by impacting his plan.
This approach is particularly effective against an adversary that relies on a single
inflexible plan. This adversary is unprepared to consider alternatives courses of
action to be executed when forced to deviate from the original plan.
Asymmetric Challenges In The Future Security Environment
As stated earlier, much has a been written about the future use of
asymmetric tactics directed against United States forces, United States citizens
or the United States itself.
The vast majority of Americans have not felt
threatened at home since World War II. Concern about a Japanese invasion of
the west coast, and the constant presence of German U-boats off the Atlantic
coast were minimal threats to the existence of the United States and the well
being of a vast majority of its citizens.
During the Vietnam War North Vietnamese involvement with American
anti-war groups brought the war onto U.S. soil, but most Americans failed to
realize it. In 1967, Hanson W. Baldwin, military editor for U.S. News & World
Report, wrote that the main battleground would become the United States.
“Intelligence appreciations are unanimous on one point, that the current winterspring offensive…is keyed primarily to strengthening opposition to the war…and
influencing American and world public opinion during a presidential election
year.” The full impact of North Vietnamese efforts on the anti-war effort and on
the outcome of the war can be debated. It is clear that they used asymmetric
tactics to influence and effect American will and resolve to fight the war, and
future adversaries perceive that this is a tactic that might be successfully
employed against the United States.
What is new in today’s environment is not that warfare is fought
asymmetrically, but that an adversary has a greater ability to strike at the United
States itself. The last several years have seen many studies and panels that
reviewed both the national security and national military strategies in the context
of the changing international environment. Although our National Security
Strategy does not specifically use the term asymmetric threat or tactics it does
state that, “potential enemies, whether nations, terrorist groups or criminal
organizations, are increasingly likely to attack U.S. territory and the American
people in unconventional ways.” Our National Military Strategy specifically
addresses “Asymmetric Challenges.” It describes these challenges as, “means
[that] include unconventional or inexpensive approaches that circumvent our
strengths, exploit our vulnerabilities or confront us in ways we cannot match in
kind.” Both documents refer to terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and
infrastructure attack.
Current U.S. joint doctrine and Joint Vision 2010 address the use of
asymmetric tactics by adversaries. These tactics are included in two major
themes from The United States Commission on National Security/21 st Century
America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on
our homeland and our military superiority will not entirely protect
Rapid advances in information and biotechnologies will create
new vulnerabilities for U.S. security.
A study conducted by the Science Applications International Corporation
at the request of the Office of the Secretary of Defence (Net Assessment)
specifically analyzed how different countries were developing asymmetric
responses to the United States’ military dominance and use of technology. The
study used a definition of asymmetric that is most useful. The study considered
the use of technology, doctrine and tactics, “that are designed not to emulate a
comprehensive spectrum of RMA capabilities, but to deter, if not defeat the
enemy’s perceived superiority by using a different balance of forces and a
dissimilar operational construct.”
Another way an adversary may employ asymmetric tactics is by attacking
our value systems or using our laws against us. An adversary not only may use
technology in a different way than we do, but they will likely think differently than
we do. “[e]ach civilization has its own notion of war which cannot help but be
influenced by its cultural background.” We are not only dealing with technological
advances and how they can be employed asymmetrically to counter our strength,
but we are facing cultural and societal differences that make it harder for us to
prepare to defend or respond against these types of tactics.
Liddell Hart wrote that the advent of nuclear weapons did not make war
any less likely. Our technological and military superiority also do not make war
any less likely. Our superiority only ensures that our adversaries will seek other
means to attack or counter our strength in the event we attack them.
Defending Against Asymmetric Tactics
Adversaries will seek asymmetric means to gain an advantage, but that
does not mean we are powerless to act. In addition to the several studies that
address the changing national security environment there have been many
decisions by the National Command Authority, the Department of Defence and
the Joint Chiefs of Staff to deter and counter these threats. The biggest challenge
will be to coordinate efforts that cross federal, state and departmental
Several Presidential Decision Directives (PDD) have been issued which
address some of these challenges.
PDDs 62 and 63 address combating
terrorism, in particular terrorist use of WMD, and protecting our nations critical
infrastructure respectively. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s
Federal Response Plan dictates federal response to national disasters.
Unified Command Plan 99 redesignated ACOM as the U.S. Joint Forces
Command (JFCOM). One of its missions is, “planning for the Defence of
CONUS, domestic support operations to assist government agencies, and the
binational Canada-United States land and maritime Defence of the CanadaUnited States Region.” Joint Publication 3-08, “Interagency Coordination During
Joint Operations,” addresses how the military will function in a complex
interagency environment.
Each of these documents is an effort to address the challenge of dealing
with asymmetric tactics, especially those directed against the continental United
States. Much of the guidance for implementing PPDs 62 and 63 comes from the
National Security Council. FEMA is clearly in charge of coordinating disaster
relief, but relies a great deal on other agencies. Joint doctrine for homeland
Defence has not been written even though JFCOM has stood up a Joint Task
Force for Homeland Defence. We have taken the lessons learned from major
national disasters, domestic and international terrorism and widespread
computer hacker attacks on government and commercial computer networks and
systems and developed responses to each event. The problem is that there is no
overarching policy or plan to integrate the disparate activities of multiple agencies
to deal with a large scale physical or cyber attack on the United States by an
adversary whether they employ asymmetric or symmetric tactics.
Our adversaries will use asymmetric tactics. The nature of the conflict will
determine what tactics will be used. We have shown that we can counter these
tactics at the tactical and operational level. We are not as prepared at the
strategic level of war. The intelligence community will be challenged to determine
capabilities and intent. We are developing concepts and plans for dealing with a
large-scale attack, but there is much work to be done. This process must be
exercised and refined before an attack. Legislation may be necessary to ensure
law enforcement and intelligence agencies will be able to collect on and
investigate potential adversaries. “Traditional distinctions between national
Defence and domestic security will be challenged further as the new century
unfolds, and both conventional policies and bureaucratic arrangements will be
stretched to and beyond the breaking point unless those policies and
arrangements are reformed.”
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