Asymmetric warfare

Asymmetric warfare is a military term to describe warfare in which the two belligerents are mismatched in their military capabilities or accustomed methods of engagement such that the militarily diasadvantaged power must press its special advantages or effectively exploit its enemy's particular weaknesses if they are to have any hope of prevailing.



Strategic basis

Usually in warfare at the start of the conflict, the belligerents deploy forces of a similar type and the outcome of the war can be determined by the quality and quantity of the opposing forces. Unless one side calculates that the cost of war is offset by advantages to be gained, there is no point in going to war, otherwise one would assume that the potential belligerents will either be deterred from war or will agree terms without resorting to warfare.

Often when the belligerents deploy forces of a similar type the outcome of a battle and a campaign can be determined by the side which has as slight numerical advantage or slightly better command and control of their forces. There are times where this is not true because the two belligerents have developed strategies which makes it impossible for them to bring forces to bear against the other. An example of this is the stand off between the continental land forces of French army and the maritime forces of the United Kingdom's Royal Navy during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. In the words of Admiral Jervis during Campaigns of 1801 "I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea".

Tactical basis

The tactical success of asymmetric warfare is dependent on at least some of the following assumptions:

  • One side can have a technological advantage which outweighs the numerical advantage of the enemy for example the decisive English Longbow at the Battle of Agincourt. The advantage may be the other way around, for example the attacks by overwhelming numbers of Chinese "volunteers" during their initial involvement in the Korean War overwhelmed the technological superiority of the United Nations forces.
  • Training and tactics as well as technology can prove decisive and allow a smaller force to overcome forces much larger than they are. For example, for several centuries the Greek hoplites (heavy infantry) use of phalanx was far superior to that of any enemies they encountered. The Battle of Thermopylae, which also involved good use of terrain, is a well known example.
  • If the inferior power is in a position of self-defense; i.e., under attack or occupation, it may be possible to use unconventional tactics, such as hit-and-run and selective battles where the superior power is weaker, as an effective means of harassment without violating the Laws of war. Variations of this tactic succeeded for the North Vietnamese and its allied forces in the Vietnam war, in that the local forces did not win the war by a straightforward defeat of the US forces, but rather tired out the superior power. Similar tactics worked for the American colonists in the American revolutionary war and the Soviet partisans against German occupation on the Eastern Front during World War II. It should be noted, however, that in these cases, traditional battles were also fought in addition to guerilla tactics.
  • If the inferior power is in an aggressive position, however, and/or turns to tactics prohibited by the laws of war (jus in bello), its success depends on the superior power's refraining from like tactics. For example, the Law of land warfare prohibits the use of a flag of truce or clearly marked medical vehicles as cover for an attack or ambush, but an asymmetric combatant using this prohibited tactic depends on the superior power's honoring the corresponding rules prohibiting attacking those displaying a flag of truce or a medical vehicle. Similarly, laws of warfare prohibit combatants from using civilian settlements, populations or facilities as military bases, but when an inferior power uses this tactic, it depends on the superior power respecting the law that they are violating, and not attacking that civilian target.

The use of terrain in asymmetric warfare

Terrain can be used as a force multiplier by the weaker force and as a force inhibitor against the stronger force.

Guerrilla warfare can be classified into two main categories: urban guerrilla warfare and rural guerrilla warfare. In both cases, guerrillas rely on a friendly population to provide supplies and intelligence.

"The guerrillas must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea."
- Mao Tse-Tung.

Rural guerrillas prefer to operate in regions providing plenty of cover and concealment, especially heavily forested and mountainous areas. Urban guerrillas, rather than melting into the mountains and jungles, blend into the population and are dependent on a support base among the people.

"The contour of the land is an aid to the army; sizing up opponents to determine victory, assessing dangers and distances... those who do battle without knowing these will lose."
-Sun Tzu, The Art of War

For a detailed description of the advantages for the weaker force in the use of built up areas when engaging asymmetric warfare see the article on urban warfare.

War by proxy

Where asymmetric warfare is carried out (generally covertly) by allegedly non-governmental actors who are connected to or sympathetic to a particular nation's (the "state actor's") interest, it may be deemed war by proxy. This is typically done to give deniability to the state actor. The deniability can be important to keep the state actor from being tainted by the actions, to allow the state actor to negotiate in apparent good faith by claiming they are not responsible for the actions of parties who are merely sympathizers, or to avoid being accused of belligerent actions or war crimes.

Asymmetric warfare and terrorism

Asymmetric warfare is not synonymous with terrorism. Rather, terrorism is sometimes used as a tactic by the weaker side in an asymmetric conflict. Terrorism is sometimes called asymmetric warfare by advocates for partisans using terrorist methods to avoid the pejorative connotations of the word; likewise, occupying powers often label partisans "terrorists" as part of propaganda campaigns to maintain support in the occupying power's home country, and to win over the occupied people so as to cut off the partisans' principal support base. This is the root of the phrase "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

Not the end of conventional war

This is section is a mess and needs a clean up with a split between theory and examples.

Throughout the 20th century, for small scale conflicts, armies relied increasingly on tactics of the guerilla, spy, saboteur, provocateur, double agent, even terrorist and assassin. This underscored that the advantages of having no tactical unit organization were greater than the control such units provide:

"Therefore when you induce others to construct a formation while you yourself are formless, then you are concentrated while the opponent is divided... Therefore the consummation of forming an army is to arrive at formlessness. When you have no form, undercover espionage cannot find out anything, intelligence cannot form a strategy."
- Sun Tzu The Art of War

(Alternately: "The pinnacle of military deployment approaches the formless. When it is formless, the deepest spy cannot discern it, nor the wise make plans against it.")

Nonetheless, large scale conflicts remain the province of tightly organized armies, as evidenced most recently, in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

However, the 2003 invasion of Iraq campaign has now moved into an asymmetric warfare phase as US alliance and coalition forces battle an insurgency by Iraqi and foreign militants. See 2003 Occupation of Iraq

Morality of Asymmetric Warfare

In the classic rules of war, in particular in many of the Christian theological systems, asymmetric warfare is completely moral in and of itself, all other rules of war being obeyed. This entails:

  • Civilians cannot be attacked (thus terrorism is outlawed)
  • The war is a properly declared war, with an accountable authority on both sides who can also put an end to the war

Examples of asymmetric warfare

Pre-20th century asymmetric warfare


The biblical story of David and Goliath -- in which David slew Goliath with "five smooth stones" hurled from a sling -- is often cited as the inspiration for the triumph of the weak and the oppressed over the strong and the mighty. David's victory also symbolized the triumph of the new and advanced versus the old and outdated; his superior planning, skill, and knowledge, defeated Goliath's dependence on overt force, intimidation, and heavy weapons. What most people don't know in this story is that David actually killed Goliath through taking his sword, after knocking him unconcious, and then chopping his head of.


Hannibal attacked Roman forces on the Italian peninsula with a small military force, bolstered by loose alliances. He successfully used raids and threats to survive a Roman force that at times consisted of as many as 23 Legions, with another 15 Legions and two Consuls retained in Italy to thwart Hannibal. This expensive response almost bankrupted the Roman Republic.[1] (

20th century asymmetric warfare

Cold War

The end of World War II established the two most powerful victors, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union) as the two dominant world superpowers.

Cold War examples of proxy wars

An example of war by proxy was East Germany's covert support for the Red Army Faction (RAF) which was active from 1968 and carried out a succession of terrorist attacks in West Germany during the 1970s and to a lesser extent in the 1980s. After German reunification in 1990, it was discovered that the RAF had received financial and logistic support from the Stasi, the security and intelligence organization of East Germany. It had also given several RAF terrorists shelter and new identities. It had not been in the interests of either the RAF or the East Germans to be seen as co-operating. The apologists for the RAF argued that they were striving for a true socialist (communist) society not the sort that existed in Eastern Europe. The East German government were involved in Ostpolitik, and it was not in its interest to be caught overtly aiding a terrorist organisation operating in West Germany. For more details see the History of Germany since 1945.

The war between the mujahadeen and the Red Army during Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a classic asymmetric war. The aid given by US to the mujahadeen during the war was only covert at the tactical level, the Reagan Administration was only too pleased to be able to tell the world that it was helping the freedom-loving people of Afghanistan. Of all the proxy wars fought by the USA against the USSR during the Cold War this was the most cost effective and politically successful, as it was the USSR's most humiliating military defeat, and that defeat was a contributing factor to the implosion of Soviet communism and some 1.5 million Afghan deaths.

Post Cold War

In the rivalry that arose during the Cold War, small powers, especially those described as composing the Third World were able to seek protection from one power or the other, or play the powers against each other, to try to achieve parochial goals.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, powers that had been client states of the Soviet Union, states that were able to gain aid and support from the United States as "bulwarks" against Soviet power, and states that had successfully played the superpowers against each other found themselves with fewer options to defy US influence or extract material advantages from either of the former rivals.

Additionally, substantial powers that had been secondary to the two former superpowers, especially the nations of the European Union and the People's Republic of China have seen an opportunity to become the counterbalancing superpower to the United States.

These and other motivations have led to a great deal of interest in ways to oppose these superpowers, nearly always using alternative tactics from those to which these powers have become accustomed.

21st century

21st century military buildup

Asymmetric warfare has also had a direct influence on the modern countries' strategic buildup. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the leading military buildup strategy was mainly armored army vs. army combats (composed primarily of armored tanks and artillery) where the leading methodology was the western's quality vs. the eastern's quantity.

The collapse of the Soviet Union caused a paradigm shift in which the eastern countries couldn't rely on a strong supremacy to back them up. Today the strategic buildup in the West is mainly composed of strong hi-tech military components (focused more on air superiority and advanced long-ranged weapons and less on tanks and APCs) while the East relies more on guerilla tactics (small ground commando-like units) and extending current existing military platforms instead of buying new ones.


In the last two decades of the 20th century along with the globalisation of the world economy and to a lesser extent a world popular culture, came a new phenomenon, a new organisation which was not organised tribally, regionally or nationally but internationally under the banner of an international muslim jihad. It was in these decades that emerged the multi-national presence of Al-Qaida, accused of carrying out the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and many other terrorist attacks worldwide. The organization had been (and may still be) headquartered in Afghanistan, but has members and operatives in many countries. The argument is proposed that this prevents an aggrieved nation from launching a military attack within a nation harboring Al-Qaida members since such a nation can argue that Al-Qaida might be within its borders but is an independent organization which the government does not support, whether or not the government sympathizes with their cause. The counter-argument is that Al-Qaida members and other international terror groups do not exist in "disembodied space" or in international territory (i.e., the open seas, as pirates were claimed to do) but within the borders of a sovereign state, which is responsible to capture or expel members of such groups, or to allow aggrieved nations to attack them.

See also


de:Asymmetrische Kriegfhrung fi:Epsymmetrinen sodankynti fr:Guerre asymtrique nl:Asymmetrische oorlogsvoering


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