ASYMMETRIC warfare is a form of warfare used by the weak to defeat the strong. A classic example is found in the Bible – the story of David and Goliath. Goliath was a giant of a man, clad in full battle gear, with heavy armor, spear and an extra-large sword. David was a simple shepherd boy, barefoot, with only his slingshot to fight Goliath. But as everyone knows, David knocked the giant down with a slingshot to the forehead and then beheaded him.
The basic principle in asymmetric warfare is to avoid the enemy’s strength and attack his weak points. If your opponent is Mike Tyson, do not fight him in the ring. Force him to fight your way. If you are good in chess, challenge him to a game of chess. Force your opponent to fight your way – in your own element.
Asymmetric warfare may be likened to a lion invading a pool full of piranhas. The lion may be considered the king of beasts, fierce and strong, but its ferocious fangs and sharp claws are rendered useless against the piranhas in their watery environment. It will be the tiny creatures that will eat the lion alive. Or take a king cobra invading a colony of fire ants. The cobra’s potent venom is useless against the tiny creatures that will eventually devour the cobra alive. The same thing happened to superpower America in Vietnam against the “ill-clad, ill-fed, and ill-armed” Vietcong, or to the former Soviet superpower against the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, or the French colonialist forces against the Vietminh in Dien Bien Phu in Indochina. The same thing happened to the American-led coalition forces in Iraq and the NATO forces that fought in Afghanistan.
Since the United States is now the lone superpower in the world, its adversaries in the future will be resorting more and more to asymmetric warfare to stand a chance of winning against its superior forces. America is particularly vulnerable to asymmetric attacks. A classic example is September 11, 2001. Nineteen determined attackers, armed with nothing but box cutters, succeeded in toppling the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, causing the death of some 3,000 people. Notice the asymmetry of casualty ratio as well – one of the most lopsided casualty ratios ever recorded in history.
China, Russia, and Iran also possess asymmetric weapons that are designed to neutralize and defeat a superpower like America in a conventional conflict. Modernized supersonic and now, hypersonic cruise missiles in their inventories can defeat and sink US aircraft carriers. They also have medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles with maneuverable, hypersonic, and terminally guided re-entry vehicles (DF21Ms, DF26Cs), bottom-rising, rocket-propelled sea mines (EM52s), and super-cavitating rocket torpedoes (SHKVAL or “Squall”). The US Navy has no known defense against these weapons.
China successfully tested an anti-satellite missile (DF21 variant) on January 11, 2007. If a Chinese medium-range ballistic missile can hit a small satellite traveling in outer space at hypersonic speed (five times the speed of sound), then more so will the same type of missile hit a lumbering aircraft carrier traveling at a snail’s pace at sea. The asymmetry here is that, even if China and Iran do not possess a single operational aircraft carrier, they can defeat such carriers with missiles now in their inventories. And they do not have to spend for the acquisition and maintenance of such expensive platforms as aircraft carrier battle groups. Even though China does not possess the highly sophisticated and advanced C4ISTAR of the US, it can neutralize this system in a major conflict with its much cheaper ASATs. Herein lies the hidden secret power of asymmetric warfare.
Asymmetric warfare may take other forms. Iraqi insurgents are already conducting a type of asymmetric warfare by using improvised explosive devices, car bombs, booby traps and landmines against the most modern army the world has ever seen. The US’s huge advantage in weaponry is negated by the fact that its soldiers cannot see their adversary. They are fighting against a “phantom” enemy.
And how can anyone possibly win against an enemy one cannot see? This may be one reason why massacres of Iraqi civilians by US soldiers have been increasing. But turning sophisticated weapons against civilians will never win wars for America. It will only heighten the rage of the victimized population and increase suicide bombings against US forces.
The US may possess the most sophisticated weapons system on earth. It may have the most modern planes, helicopters, ships, precision-guided weapons, sophisticated sensors and command and control systems, but if its adversary is neither identified nor seen, and, as a result, [the US forces]confront either an “invisible” enemy or the shadows of its foes, then such sophisticated weapons systems are useless.
In asymmetric warfare, most of the fighting is conducted at the team level. Thousands of agile and elusive teams consisting of two to five members equipped with man-portable surface-to-air missiles, portable anti-tank guided weapons, sniper rifles, man-portable mortars, anti-tank mines, anti-personnel mines, sea mines, C4 explosives (for making car bombs, booby-traps and improvised explosive devices or IEDs) moving on foot or riding on bicycles and motorcycles and fast boats will make the lives of any invading or occupying forces extremely miserable.
These “invisible” agile teams can merge with the population most of the time and come out only when there is a vulnerable target to strike at. Then, they disappear into the shadows. They communicate via runners bringing coded written messages, so there are no electronic signals to track. They operate semi-autonomously, so there are no centers of gravity that can be targeted.
And since they are indigenous to the area and are one with the local people, their human intelligence (HUMINT) is far more superior compared to that of the invaders. They will also enjoy a tremendous advantage in psychological operations (PSYOPS), for it is much easier to mobilize nationalist sentiment against a foreign occupier, than for an aggressor to justify its occupation.
The US may possess the most state-of-the-art satellites for gathering electronic intelligence (ELINT); but China’s advantage in HUMINT is not bound by national borders because it maintains a truly global presence unmatched by any country. Now consider this: Is it easier plucking a constellation of satellites out of the sky or rooting out millions of Chinese patiently and covertly harvesting secret information worldwide?
Complementing asymmetric warfare is asynchronous warfare, where the weaker side bides its time to strike back. And it strikes at a time and place where the adversary is totally unprepared.
For example, if the US were to strike Iran’s so-called underground nuclear facilities with bunker-busting tactical nuclear warheads, Iran could bide its time until it develops its own nuclear weapons. Iran can then retaliate by using its own Kilo class submarines, equipped with long-range Kh 55 cruise missiles (bought from Ukraine) and supersonic “Yakhont” or “Club” cruise missiles armed with its own nuclear or EMP-enhanced warheads, to hit the northeastern United States and California. Or, the Iranians can infiltrate nuclear scientists into the US who will fabricate a “dirty” bomb to be detonated near the US Congress in full session while the President is making his annual state of the nation address.
The possibilities for asymmetric and asynchronous warfare are limitless. Various weapons are available to the asymmetric or asynchronous attacker. If a simple box cutter produced such devastating results on September 11, 2001, imagine what chemical or biological weapons dropped from a private aircraft or a quad-rotor drone could do to a crowded city; or trained hackers attacking the US banking system and other key infrastructure and basic services; or man-portable surface-to-air missiles attacking US airlines taking off or landing in various airports around the globe; or non-nuclear suitcase EMP weapons hitting New York City or the US Capitol. Even the best intelligence in the world cannot stop a determined asymmetric attacker.
A graduate of the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1967, and an MPA 1990 from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, retired Brig. Gen. Victor N. Corpus spent five years with the New People’s Army (1971-1976). He was detained for 10 years under martial law and sentenced to death by musketry, but later became Chief of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. firstname.lastname@example.org