Small Wars Journal

Asymmetrical National Security Policy – simple doesn’t mean stupid

Sun, 09/04/2011 - 9:20am

The United States and most of its allies are being forced to consider a new approach to geo-political security and stability driven a by war weary public and dire fiscal constraints.  As former U.S Defence Secretary, Roberts Gates, said the overarching goal will be to preserve a U.S. military capable of meeting crucial national security priorities, even if fiscal pressure requires reductions in the force’s size.” (Fmr U.S Defence Secretary Robert Gates 18 May 2011)   This paper contends that asymmetrical warfare should become the most important approach to contesting the open space in failing or failed states that have the potential to be filled by those seeking to threaten our national security and foreign policy interests.

Smaller and weaker opponents do not have a monopoly on asymmetric warfare and it does not need to be left to Guerrilla movements for us to romantically read about in the future.   We need to become better at fighting with very few resources and still be capable of a deep strategic presence with a light tactical and operational footprint; a military with a pioneering mindset.  We need a fighting force that is sharp, focused and unpredictable.  One that is aimed as much at undermining the insurgent’s or terrorist network’s psychological well-being as on their physical demise with simple instruments of persuasion.  This application of asymmetrical or irregular warfare tactics by the next generation of military leadership will be more affordable and politically acceptable at the domestic and international level.   The trap is that in the West we have forgotten how good we are at being resourceful and fighting for our own survival with nothing but our wits and what we find at our feet.

They don’t study Sun Tzu here…

When it comes to the theoretical and conceptual framework of asymmetrical warfare, we are all familiar with the great words of wisdom from the heroes in the Pantheon of military history.  Sun Tzu wrote, “if the enemy is superior in strength, evade him. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared. Appear where you are not expected.[1]”  Clausewitz 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…[2]” Exploiting an adversary’s weaknesses while exploiting one's own strengths is at the heart of the 'art of war. This type of kinetic engagement by opposing forces has been written about and taught to military leaders for more than 2,500 years, see Mac (1975)[3]; Metz & Johnson (2001)[4] and Arreguin-Toft (2005)[5].  In the history of conflict “[t]hose who adapt will survive; those who do not, die,” Hammond (2001)[6].  Superior strength is broadly understood to mean material power, such as a larger army, more sophisticated weapons and technology and an advanced economy. 

The irony is that the dominant U.S. standard of warfare gives its adversaries an incentive to differentiate, by adopting idiosyncratic technologies (the IED) or tactics (civilians as human shields).  The U.S. was differentiated from its Vietnamese opponents in level of resources available, level of military technology, type of warfare (conventional or guerrilla), and in perceived costs of conflict (the Vietnamese were —to take much larger casualties than the U.S.).  Also, as Enders and Sandler (1993) note, when terrorists have a choice of targets (e.g. different countries or different objectives within the same country) effort being put into defending one target will provide incentives for the terrorists to differentiate, to substitute alternative targets[7]

We have just been engaged in ten years of conflict with opponents who use asymmetrical tactics everyday with probably no intellectual framework of asymmetrical warfare as a concept.  The ability to apply asymmetrical tactics depends as much on a mindset as it does in how limited resources are utilised.  Ahmed Rashid, author of the Taliban and Decent into Chaos[8], explains this well.  Rashid suggests that the devastation and hardship of the Soviet invasion and the following civil war influenced Taliban ability to survive.   In my view the simplicity of life is a camouflage for their ability to prevail against asymmetrical threats – climate, environment, the terrain and technologically superior foreign forces.  They don’t study asymmetrical warfare and have probably never read Sun Tzu, Clausewitz or The Accidental Guerilla.  For the Taliban their method of engagement and how they deploy resources is a fact of life - they just do it.  

Andrew Mack argues that an actor's relative resolve or interest explains success or failure in asymmetric conflicts.   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 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.

As Ivan Arreguín-ToftIf, argues in How the weak win wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict, 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.  History suggests otherwise: weak actors sometimes do win.  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 unwinnable 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.

Frightened by what is simple

While this theoretical framework is important to conceptualise how to approach improving our asymmetrical war fighting capability, in reality it may require us to reward the simple and know how to do more with less.    The United States Marine Corp manual Warfighting  recognised  the factors that have collectively been called friction that makes the seemingly easy difficult and the difficult almost impossible[9]

How would we fight if our forces were stripped of technological and asset superiority - back to the bare minimum?  Think about our pioneering ancestors.  Separated from their Colonial base of money, power and equipment, especially as supply lines were stretched, the pioneers had to adapt very quickly with minimal resources to survive the environmental and physical terrain challenges let alone any kinetic engagement from local antagonists.

In the West we are so spoilt for wealth, technology and complex solutions that many of us have forgotten our ability to be adaptable and resourceful.  If there is one thing I’ve learnt from working in two war zones and leading groups up the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, it’s the simple things that get you; like the habits of life when operating low profile outside-the-wire or not drinking enough water even though you are wearing $500 trekking boots.  It’s the small things that have a big impact. Simplicity, not complexity, is the key when it comes to asymmetrical strategy, operations and tactics.  The post Afghanistan conflict environment, regardless of whether it is counter terrorism, counter radicalisation or stability operations, is going to require more simplistic driven resourcefulness than ever before.  This probably looks like a small teams approach with a light footprint in sensitive environments.    A very clinical operational style that rewards the simple in places where we may not be at war but if we curl-back then non-state actors will manipulate and exploit the vacant terrain to our severe expense down the track. 

We seek comfort in what is complex and yet we see intellectual weakness in the simple.  Certainly, like to think we have evolved considerably and unrecognisably since our pioneering ancestors.  Oscar Wilde wrote to a friend saying “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”  In fact being able to see the simple beyond the haze of complexity takes intellectual rigour and courage to make the case in a group and yet highly effective when executed.  In fact, a simple act doesn’t even have to succeed.  Take Richard Reid, the infamous shoe-bomber on American Airlines Flight 63.  He failed and yet his simple act of failure has resulted in a global airport security head-ache for passengers.

The weak psychological underbelly

It is also as much about our societal psychology as our abundance of resources that blocks our entrepreneurial asymmetric spirit.   We are required to go beyond the classic materialistic military definitions of asymmetrical warfare and look to the exploitation of an opponent’s moral weaknesses.    In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin[10], suggests that humans have a naturally selected propensity to moral virtue, that is, a willingness to sacrifice self-interest in the cause of group interest. Humans are above all moral animals because they are creatures who love their group as they love themselves.

Some may have come across Ibn Warraq’s Why I am Not a Muslim:

Americans tend to think that deep down we all have the same values. Americans believe that all these terrorists, if you scratch beneath the surface, are looking for religious equality and justice. That's complete and utter nonsense. Americans can't face the reality that different people have different values. (Ibn Warraq; Why I am Not a Muslim. 1995)[11].

For the global Salafi movement and its deployment of ideologically inspired violence, our weakness is in relation to actions that we cannot and would not contemplate using either pre-emptively or in response to an attack.     We are in a moral conflict with an adversary that suffers from acute narcissism.  Therefore, getting inside the moral-mental-time paradigm of these regional or even local narcissists is crucial.  

Michael Gross gives this notion a good shake that may make some feel uncomfortable in Moral Dilemmas of Modern War: Torture, Assassination, and Blackmail in an Age of Asymmetric Conflict[12].   A person, a tribe and a nation has to be placed into a position to ask whether they still have the ticker for the fight.    Proponents of the global Salafi movement have a sense of the effects their actions will achieve in the cultural and religious environment in which they operate.   We often misread the cultural context of this movement and misjudge is ability to undermine Western psychological and moral dimensions.   The Ismaili poem says; “by one single warrior on foot, a king may be stricken with terror, though he own more than a hundred thousand horsemen.”  This was the fear and terror unleashed by the Assassins or Hashishins from the order of Nizari Ismailis, that existed from around 1090 across Syria and Persia[13].   The Assassins tactic is a simple but effective act that psychologically undermined a more powerful opponent at little cost.

This does not mean we need to abandon our almost a priori notions of human rights and the rule of law.    In 1901, Winston Churchill said, “the wars of peoples will be more terrible than the wars of kings.[14]” While Churchill was not concerned with counterinsurgency he foresaw the challenges of implementing war in a democratic age, waged among a civilian population under the spotlight of Western democratic sensitivities.   For example, could resort to barbarism, which may be an effective strategy for defeating insurgents.   But as Arreguin-Toft (2005) point out, a quick look over postwar history illustrates that at best barbarism can be effective only as a military strategy: if the objective is long-term political control, barbarism backfires in the end.

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.  The Sri Lankan Government’s bombing campaign towards the end of the Sri Lankan civil war is another example brutality that won the fight but may cement an even deeper hatred with a new generation of dissidents. Barbarism thus sacrifices victory in peace for victory in war-a poor policy at best. 

US led strategy in Afghanistan has in some areas inflicted a simple, discriminate and psychologically effective tactic with the high rate of night-raids.  Even though President Karzai continues to call for an end to night-raids the US Commanding Generals in Afghanistan should be praised for resisting the pressure to stop the night raids.   The insurgents can’t stand these because they are effective and undermine an asymmetric weakness.  Karzai’s complaint is merely – political.  That is, he is expressing the frustration of constituents and perhaps letting it slip that this tactic undermines the insurgents will to fight.

As John Boyd argues in his 1986 slide presentation on Patterns of Conflict:

  1. Willingness to support and promote (unconventional or difficult) subordinates that accept danger, demonstrate initiative, take risks, and come-up with new ways towards mission accomplishment.
  2. Dedication and resolve to face-up to and master uncomfortable circumstances that fly in the face of the traditional solution.

This may seem incongruent to the theme running through this paper however Boyd’s summation goes to the heart of finding simple solutions that don’t just focus on the material but also the moral and psychological.  Simple things scar people especially when face with a moral conflict.

Essence of Moral Conflict

Create, Exploit and Magnify


Surface fear, anxiety, and alienation in order to generate many non –cooperative centres of gravity as well as subvert those that adversary depends upon thereby magnify internal friction.


Impressions of danger to one’s

well-being and survival.


Impressions or atmosphere, generated by events that appear ambiguous, erratic, contradictory, unfamiliar, chaotic etc.


Atmosphere of doubt and suspicion that loosens human bonds among members of an organic whole or  between organic wholes.


Destroy moral bonds that permit an organic whole to exists

Slide 122 John Boyd Patterns of Conflict 1986

What if for example in Afghanistan units of Coalition forces operated out of uniform?  How would this change the mindset of our opponents and the local population? 

This may seem a ridiculous suggestion and have certain echelons of the military fuming at the suggestion, especially from a civilian.  But it is a simple, cost effective tactic that may cause enough confusion and uncertainty among insurgent groups to give us the advantage.  This is as much of a psychological ploy as a physical shift in operating because it suggests we will no longer fight fair.  When strong actors employ a strategy that ignores restraints of fighting fairly, weak actors are unlikely to win.  Reminder, this does not mean debasing our own values and principles, the essence of which we are attempting to defend extend.


Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war. 

—Carl von Clausewitz

As we slowly move towards the post-Iraq and Afghanistan era how do we turn the strategy and tactics used by resourcefully weaker opponents to our advantage to protect and advance our national security and foreign policy interests?   Operating inside environments with factors that breed terrorists and their supporters will require careful study of exploiting simple weaknesses that inflict the greatest fear on the terrorist as much as reinforcing the positive decisions local people can make.  

Maybe this is what counterinsurgency is about and I missed that slide. However, I believe (with a few exceptions) the West suffers from a mental block when it comes to actually doing asymmetrical warfare.  We relish the intellectual and cerebral literature on the subject but have forgotten our pioneering past and that prevents us from just doing it.   We need to have our military operations trained by being tested against opponents who are non-military, who will not follow a recognised process of engagement and who will employ psychological tactics that we may find abhorrent. Whether re-discovering our pioneering spirit or borrowing from our insurgent enemies the better we are at asymmetrical strategies the less it will cost to defend our national interests in the long run.

[1] Sun Tzu The Art of War

[2] Clausewitz: On War

[3] Mack, Andrew J.R., (1975) "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict", World Politics, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 175–200

[4] Metz, Stephen and Johnson II. V. Douglass. (2001) Asymmetry and U.S. Military Strategy: Definition, Background, and Strategic Concepts. US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute

[5] Arreguin-Toft, Ivan, How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict, New York & Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005

[6] Hammond, G. T. (2001). The mind of war: John Boyd and American security. District of Columbia: Smithsonian Books.

[7] Enders, W., and Sandler, Todd., (1993) The Effectiveness of Antiterrorism Policies: A Vector-Autoregression-Intervention Analysis.  American Political Science Review. Vol. 87: pp.829-844

[8] Rashid, Ahmed. (2008) Descent into Chaos: The world’s most unstable region and the threat to global security. Penguin Books.

[9] Warfighting MCDP1. June 1997 Department of the Navy; Headquarters United States Marine Corp; Washington DC

[10] Darwin, Charles: The Descent of Man. First Published 1874:

[11] Ibn Warraq (1995) Why I am not a Muslim. Prometheus Books

[12] Gross, Michael (2009) Moral Dilemmas of Modern War: Torture, Assassination, and Blackmail in an Age of Asymmetric Conflict. Cambridge University Press

[13] The Assassins cited in Belfield, Richard (2005) Terminate with Extreme Prejudice. Robinson Books.

[14]  Churchill, Winston, Hansard Speech to the House of Commons 13 May 1901:

About the Author(s)

Dr. Jason Thomas teaches post-graduate risk management at Swinburne University and specialises in field-based assessments of complex project environments that has included Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Cote d’Ivoire, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Jordan, PNG and the Philippines. This has included working alongside US and other military partners.


I would take issue with the basis for the author’s argument that our nation’s military resources should be concentrated in conducting Asymmetrical Warfare. Such a military policy would reduce our military to one that is ineffective on the world stage The author states:

This paper contends that asymmetrical warfare should become the most important approach to contesting the open space in failing or failed states that have the potential to be filled by those seeking to threaten our national security and foreign policy interests.

Countless countries and their societies wish us ill and routinely threaten our society; but they lack the strength to effectuate that threat. Hunt down and kill the terrorists that attacked us on 9/11, destroy the societies that gave them sanctuary, etc; but don’t over react to a one time act cleverly thought out. The over reaction will economically and politically destroy us faster than some terrorist group can achieve. That over reaction on our part is one of their goals

Entering into long term COIN operations or participating in Asymmetrical Warfare is quicksand for modern military forces such as that of this country ─ unless our course of action is to restrict our participation to Airpower and Special Forces supporting an internally existing competing group with an established power base such as the Afghan Northern Alliance or Special Operations Groups to assassinate enemy leaders and the like using ground / air assaults or drone based killing.

Too much effort, intellectual and otherwise, such as in this paper, is being spent debating how to succeed when implementing COIN / Asymmetrical Warfare tactics ─ without addressing the strategic value of such involvement or intervention. I am hardly a pacifist, a former Naval Officer, a Vietnam Veteran, etc; and while often disagreeing with the philosophies of former General Colin Powell; his proposed military policy of fighting only those wars we intend to win, to ply maximum force, crush the enemy, and have a plan of withdrawal apply to our current military situation and to all military situations.

There are many rules of warfare, but key among them are to remember that military resources are in fact, from a budget prospective, scarce resources; as the costs of a conflict add up, popular support for that war will correspondingly decrease in this and in all Western countries; never fight a war on the enemy’s terms and always maximize the leverage or your strengths, regardless of the cost to your opponent; and do not enter into a war absent the intent to win in the shortest time possible, agin regardless of the cost to the enemy or his society. Add to those considerations; never enter into a prolonged conflict, if at all, where our national strategic interests are not at stake. The enemy and their society is not the concern of this country. Our nation’s economic and political health is of our concern, and only those concerns with all of its military ramifications. Who cares if they dislike us and their supporters riot in the streets. Don’t go to those parts of the world for vacation.

COIN / Asymmetrical Warfare is a wonderful academic textbook approach to warfare, but to often and under most, but not all, situations it is impractical. Humane, oriented to building politically viable semi-western societies, bringing peace, equality, economic benefit, and the like to a brutal corner of the world, and so on. The problem is that its costs are prohibitive for any country foolishly wanting to spend its capital, in massive amounts, with no prospective financial ROI; thereby, benefiting another nation’s people while ruining ours.
This nation has only two strategic interests in the (now expanded area) of the so-called Middle East: first and primary is insuring for some period of time that a sufficient amount of oil flows westward to fuel our economy and society; and second, to prevent the Islamic terrorist groups with who we are in a state of conflict from having a safe and stable base of operations. In short, to turn any area where they find sanctuary into a killing ground such that they are disposed of one way or the other. This is the work or Special Forces, Special Operations, Airpower including drones and if necessary B-52’s, and the like.

Who in the western world cares, such that they are willing to spend their nation’s economic fortune, on who rules Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc? To what material benefit is it to this country which essentially barbaric, dark ages group controls those countries? What real risk is it to this country such that a cost benefit analysis provides support for an extreme response? Osama bin Laden’s goal was not to militarily defeat this country, but to bankrupt it by causing it to waste its economic resources in a long drawn out Middle Eastern war or wars with no return on that investment. Their type of society is their choice and we should not drain the funds available to our military by redirecting it to low grade weapons systems and vehicles that will be disposed of and wasted on the sands of the Middle East.

From a tactical perspective, the writer’s analysis is flawed in several respects. First, if I defeat you, I don’t care if you or future generations hate me or my society. If necessary, we will crush you once again in the future. The government of Sri Lanka had the right approach and won the war. If the unhappy section of their society rises up again in the future, crush them more severly the next time, just utilize the more effective tactical approach early in the war ─ and don’t worry about public opinion. It dissipates quickly after a rapid win, exists only during drawn out conflicts, and so what. What are crowds in a city or on some college campus going to do to you ─ yell at you? Now there is a terrifying thought. Maybe the Press will complain, so what.

The French population was not interested in retaining Algeria as part of France because they did not want their population “polluted” by a massive number of Moslems and were unwilling to expend the lives of draftees fighting to retain an Algeria which was of no economic benefit to their country versus the costs of retaining that land. If the land had been economically beneficial many more French and other western immigrants would have been drawn to the area and wiped out the local population, as occurred in the western plains of this country. For obvious reasons, it did not occur in Algeria, therefore, there was no political of economic ROI to motivate expending the military funds to retain Algeria as a French province / colony at the cost of the lives of draftees. That is why the French withdrew from Algeria, not for the reasoning proposed or implied in the article being addressed. It is also the conceptual reason why, in the long run, i.e. post-withdrawal, our COIN efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan will find themselves in the dust heap of historical failures when our forces are withdrawn and those nations revert back to their past political and social methods of governance.

When a nation decides it has a combined economic and political interest in absorbing territory and crushing native opposition, it will apply the necessary force regardless of cost to the original population and repopulate the area with friendly persons. As an example, the American military’s campaign on our western frontiers against a far more numerous enemy ─ which original population was crushed by a mere five (750 man) regiments of cavalry; which succeeded because they applied General Sheridan’s designed approach of leveraging his strengths and not chasing the Indian cavalry over the huge western tracts of land. He simply directed his forces to wipe out their villages and to destroy their people’s food supplies. The Indian guerilla units could either surrender or they would find themselves fighting for nothing. They would have no families and lands to which to return; brutal, yes; successful, yes.

I would suggest the author of this article research how the South Korean forces (two ROK army divisions and one ROK Marine Brigade) pacified their area of South Vietnam, drove out the VC, and the NVA, and established such a peaceful area of responsibility, the beaches at Vung Tau were always fully occupied without threat by sun bathing vacationers.

The above several paragraphs digress from my point. Use Special Forces and / Special Operations Groups along with the necessary supporting Air Power and occasional Army or Marine Corps conventional units for temporary, not sustained, support in situations such as Afghanistan and Iraq (presuming the war was worthwhile) and discard COIN and sustained large scale Asymmetrical Warfare. The later are not in our nation’s interests. Invest our military resources facing our nation’s current and future threats. Increase our sea power, add to the army’s conventional forces, invest in antimissile systems (and yes they will work), etc. Our real threat comes from China’s increasing military capabilities along with that of India, possibly Brazil, Turkey’s attempt to reestablish itself as the new Ottoman Empire, Iran’s pending nuclear weapon’s, capabilities, etc.

I'm not opposed to the term asymmetric warfare, but I am opposed to Jason defining it as being weaker than your opponent. The Atom Bomb was our asymmetrical advantage against the Japanese, our Air Power was our asymmetric advantage against Saddam's forces, and our technical intelligence means, SOF and UAV operations are an asymmetrical advanatage against the Taliban.

While the author may have worked along side U.S. forces, he apparently didn't operate along side SOF who occassionally operate outside of uniform, and conduct small element tactics that terrorize the enemy. In short, I really don't know what point the author was trying to make. It is very difficult to become weaker militarily than the terrorist and insurgents (his definition of asymmetrical warfare), and we actually are still pretty good at this type of warfare when we have commanders who are willing to assume the risk.