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Examples of Asymmetric War Throughout History

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: History
Wordcount: 2958 words Published: 27th Aug 2021

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The conflicts of the 20th century are being replaced by hybrid Wars and asymmetric contests in which there is no clear-cut distinction between soldiers and civilians and between organised violence, terror, crime and war.

–Alan Dupont

Historical Examples of Asymmetric War

Asymmetric approaches unlike the coinage of expression are nothing new. The history of human conflict is replete with examples of `asymmetric’ thinking. The historical examples are tactics adopted by Germanic chieftain Arminius against roman legions in 9 AD, use of longbow in battle of Agincourt against French in 1415 AD, guerrilla campaign of Spanish irregulars against Napoleonic French army, Vietcong tactics against US troops in 1960 war and in recent times the tactics used by insurgents against coalition troops in IRAQ are some of the examples of asymmetric warfare from the history.

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The theology of war is not new. Asymmetric warfare is as old as warfare itself and as recent as the last terrorist outrage. The lesson, even from the time that military tactics and strategies were first being written down, is that those weak players who wish to emerge with the situational advantage will have to apply those tactics and strategies that will act most effectively against a certain opponent at a certain time. Often this will mean adopting tactics and strategies that are very different from those normally employed by the stronger opponent.

Some of the oldest written works on warfare refer to the principles of targeting vulnerabilities and of doing the radically different. Sun Tzu in 4th century BC highlighted the use of this philosophy in his book, The Art of War. He professed on aspect of how the weak can defeat the strong, while he wrote “Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak. As Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing”. These are philosophies that the inferior asymmetric players are constantly adopting in their attempt to defeat the superior forces. If the percentage of victory by strong and weaker players are represented of last two hundred years then it indicates that weaker players are winning the wars of today (Figure 1) and this is mainly by thinking differently and adopting philosophies advocated by likes of Sun-Tzu.

Current Philosophy to Win Wars

The developed nations like US now looks to high-tech systems to provide its forces with information dominance, unparalleled command and control networks, unrivalled weapons accuracy and unmatched firepower. Currently, such technologies as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) provide supreme war-winning potential, something shown to great effect in the wars in Iraq. It has five central attributes at present: the ability to strike with great accuracy independent of range; the ability, through the use of stealth, to penetrate defenses with impunity; the emergence of unmanned warfare; the tactical and operational exploitation of space; and the ability to move information rapidly and widely across a joint battle network and exploit the effects of increased joint force integration.

Military capabilities are being transformed because of advances in ten principal areas which are awareness (sensors), connectivity (communication), range, endurance, precision (munitions), jammers, stealth, speed, automation and simulation.

These are :-

  • Sensors. New classes of space- and ground-based, commercial and military sensors (electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar, moving target indicator, SIGINT geo-location, foliage penetration, see-through-wall radar, micro unmanned aerial vehicles and robots) and increasingly dense sensor webs will provide future forces with unparalleled transparency and increased awareness of the battlefield.
  • Communication. Space-based telecommunications constellations, robust network switching, fiber optic grids, and widely available cryptography will provide secure, broadband, long-haul communications.
  • Range. Emerging power projection capabilities (chiefly ballistic and cruise missiles and high-altitude, long-endurance UAVs) will likely witness a several fold increase in range.
  • Endurance. New classes of long loiter (both reusable vehicles and munitions) and unattended systems (e.g., missiles in a box) will significantly increase operational endurance.
  • Munitions. Wide area and very low circular error probability (CEP) precision strike will become ubiquitous, as new classes of munitions (e.g., GPS- and laser-guided, acoustic- and thermal homing, improved explosives) continue to be developed for an expanding set of delivery means.
  • Jammers. New methods of electronic attack, enhanced non-lethal capabilities (and perhaps the advent of precision biological weapons) will add additional precision to future military tool kits.
  • Stealth. Stealth will likely be applied to a wider range of air, ground, sea, and perhaps space assets.
  • Speed. Missile-based, long-range, precision-strike capabilities and applications of hypersonic technology and directed energy will increase significantly the speed of future operations.
  • Automation and Simulation. Unmanned systems will increasingly substitute for manned systems across warfare dimensions leading to automated warfare. Also, advances in simulation will transform military planning and training as close to reality as possible.

Reasons to why Asymmetric Challenges will be dominant in the 21st Century

The reasons can be explained as under following headings:-

  • Irrelevance of Symmetrical Conflict. Throughout our history the wars have been conventional wars with force-on-force methods. The forces of today are preparing to fight a major conventional/nuclear war with traditional enemies only and hence the emphasis on traditional weapons and technology such as aircraft, tanks, ships or submarines. The dazzling victory of US and its coalition forces in Gulf war has shown two major things to the world that is Western technology is superior to Eastern (Soviet) technology and that in any symmetrical conflict the victory will belong to force with better technology. Thus a traditional battle by a future enemy against a superior technological force would imply a definite high attrition and definite loss. Thus emphasis would be on to use anti-access strategy against technological advanced military forces as part of asymmetric warfare.
  • Changed Global Political Scenario. The demise of the former Soviet Union is has increased the threat of asymmetric warfare worldwide. Ironically, when the bipolar world existed with Soviet Union as military superpower and peer competitor of the United States; it caused a level of uneasy stability throughout the developing world. Consider the fact that during the cold war, many countries which are now posing a threat, or challenge, to single super power US interests and policies abroad were more or less forced to choose to be in either the US or Soviet camp to receive the foreign aid and military assistance they desired. Without bipolar world, much of the economic aid has disappeared, leaving all these developing weaker countries to contend with their problems on their own. Because many of these states have poor economies along with corrupt or inefficient governments, thus they are have issues of internal unrest, power struggles between various factionalized and disenfranchised segments among their population. Today with United States, being the sole superpower, becomes a propagated external threat, or ’cause of their misfortunes, which these disenfranchised segments target in order to rally domestic support for their cause.
  • Availability of Weapons and Technology. The availability of relatively low cost high technology weapons and their proliferation to rogue-nation or extremist group had made the prospects of waging asymmetrical conflict against superior forces a reality for a potential opponent. Today, it is seen that mainly Russian, Chinese and North Korean weaponry has been used by weaker asymmetric players around the globe. The proliferation has increase with the disintegration of former Soviet Union, and now a greater variety of sophisticated weapons and military technology has become easily available to buyers. In fact it is widely known that chiefly due to poor economy the Russian defence establishment sells anything they can get their hands on. Today the threat emanates also from the fact that besides weapons and technology, many unemployed, unpaid, or desperate Russian and Eastern European scientists, military, and intelligence officers are available for hire to any country or potentially to non-state actors as well. Today in a world governed by economics, many developed nations like France, Germany, and Japan have provided technical assistance or technology to countries like Iraq, Libya, and Iran in high technology areas such as Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) production besides carrying out sales of conventional weapons sales to many rogue-states e.g. Germany sale of 9 Type-209 class diesel-powered submarines to the Iranians in 1995 , French sale of Exocet missiles to IRAN and sale of SCUD missiles by North Koreans / Chinese, sale of Semtex plastic explosives by Czechoslovakia to Libya and Iraq etc. The argument here is that today a wide variety of potent, high-tech weapons are easily available from multiple sources, to whoever wants to buy them and this increases the asymmetric threat. It is definitive that availability of these weapons, technology, and expertise will give potential adversaries a greater means for waging asymmetrical war.
  • Ease of Availability of Information. Another contributor to the vulnerability is the inherent openness, laws, and national character and endemic Western beliefs. Today a vast amount of information is available in open sources like Google / Wikipedia etc, which can assist potential enemies in identifying and targeting key installations, personnel, technology, or strategic centers of gravity. This information cannot be denied by any government due to perceived notion of freedom of Information in a democratic country. It is easily imaginable that a foe can cause significant unrest among the civilian population by forcing the government to take actions towards security, secrecy, surveillance or causing government to impose martial law on its own citizens. This can assist in the goal of loss of popular support in any conflict.
  • Vulnerability in Information Domain. There is an increased dependence of on the information technology by all counties and in many cases routine affairs. Computers have taken a central place in our lives. They manage the passage of information and generate control of everything from the electricity, water supply in people’s homes to the transactions in world’s financial markets. The touted military capability of West’s armed forces can be attributed to the efficiencies provided by the today’s Information Technology (IT) capabilities. But the problem with the use of IT, of course, is that we have perhaps become too reliant on it. Without IT, it is sure that the Western way of life could possibly grind to a very quick halt, and the Western doctrines of warfare would likewise be severely circumscribed. The irony is that what is perceived to be a great strength appears to others as ‘great vulnerabilities’ and thus weaker player in asymmetric warfare seek to exploit it to gain advantage.
  • Lack of Will to Sustain Casualties. There is a trend of ‘zero-casualty foreign policy’ among liberal democracies. The US track record for casualty tolerance in insurgencies is very consistent. Without clear risks to national interests, the American public has little stomach for US casualties. The lessons of Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia are plain. Knowing this fact, insurgents would pay a heavy price-possibly including suicide attacks-to inflict US casualties. In the past, such attacks have usually triggered political crises in the US. To resolve such crises, presidents almost always order withdrawals and are loath to reintroduce any type of military force-including high-technology airpower-at a later date. Closer home, the casualties suffered by Indian Armed Forces in Srilanka Ops were one of the main reasons to return home prematurely. In any case, future foes are certainly likely to expend considerable efforts in attacking or exploiting national will to sustain large number of casualties or to endure a protracted conflict where national survival is not at stake.
  • A new sense of moral rectitude. Today superior powers tend to follow a international system of rules in wars in terms of ‘Rules of Engagements (ROE); which the asymmetric player may not follow. The Western powers are today more constrained by the laws of war than they ever were; Where ‘wars of choice’ are concerned, great care needs is taken in regard to the aspect of proportionality. The general understanding is to act restrained and in peaceful manner to resolve all conflicts. The use of violence should be targeted, precise and never inhumane. Other, smaller players feel no such compunction. China, for instance, in the guise of the two colonels has pointed out that international law is a bourgeois invention of the West. As the colonels put it, when it comes to warfare, `The first rule is that there are no rules. Nothing is forbidden.’ Today’s asymmetric opponents, unhindered by legal encumbrances, can and will use violence in ways that are far less restrained than the violence employed by the status quo powers – the Western liberal democracies. `Wars of choice’ throw up other issues. It is difficult to justify a war not affecting the own country but for a larger global security threat both in terms of economic losses and loss of soldiers. Thus the asymmetric player will resolve to affect masses psychology and thus alter the very core of national policy. Then the issue of legality of each war and creation of international pressure towards conflict termination is a major aspect; which are easily exploitable by asymmetric player.

Asymmetry techniques by State and non-state Actors.

In July, 2005, the Pentagon released a study of Chinese military capabilities in which asymmetrical warfare approaches included:

  • “Financial warfare,” the subversion of banking systems, commodity markets and currency instability, devaluation and currency collapse.
  • “Psychological warfare,” by chemical, biological or electronic means to manipulate perceptions, reduce will and increase population anxiety;
  • “Media warfare,” by the manipulation of foreign media, by compromising or intimidating journalists or the use of economic or other means to influence, impose, and/or distort reported events and information systems;
  • “Resource warfare,” by the seizing of vital natural resources, specifically water;
  • “Drug warfare,” which includes the weakening of societal boundaries through the flooding of a population with illicit, mind altering drugs;
  • “Smuggling warfare,” by sabotaging a rival country’s economy by flooding markets with illegal goods and jeopardizing economies with pirated and counterfeited products.
  • “Cultural warfare,” by influencing the cultural biases of a target country through the imposition of other worldviews.
  • “International-law warfare,” which includes the used of multinational organizations and political treaties to block enemy activity;
  • “Ecological warfare,” using scalar technology to induce tectonic and volcanic activity. 
  • “Technological warfare” to degrade technological superiority.

The ten capability areas of superior forces that the inferior asymmetric player tends to exploit are awareness, connectivity, range, endurance, precision, miniaturization, speed, stealth, automation, and simulation capability of superior forces. The conduct of war could be transformed in traditional air, land and sea dimensions, and also would emerge in several new dimensions of space, information and biological. These are described in detail in following chapters.

The dissertation is focussed on the exploitation of technology by a weaker player to degrade the technological superiority. Historically the warfare has seen an increase in the speed of information passage with increasing ability of military organizations to bring together and control greater mass and to act more swiftly in a more co-ordinated and targeted fashion. If it was telegraph in American Civil War or in the Franco-Prussian War, it was radio communication, without which the German Blitzkrieg tactics would have been impossible or radar information which gave Great Britain their distinct edge in the Battle of Britain. In recent Gulf wars, the war without the Internet and satellites and a host of other information force multipliers would have resulted into drawn-out mutually punishing slug-fests. Thus it can be easily deduced that today the society / military have become so dependent on technological advances; that any degradation would pose a severe limitation on combat power of a superior player.


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