You are here

The Challenges of Asymmetric Warfare

Col. K C Dixit was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • March 09, 2010

    After the end of the Cold War several military and security experts thought that conflicts will involve conventional warfare against an opponent of comparable might, using similar weapons on a known battlefield. However, there were also experts, who have pointed out for years that insurgent forces conduct a very different kind of war in which a relatively small and lightly equipped force attacks points of weakness of a stronger opponent by unorthodox means. They thus force the opponent to fight on their own terms by utilizing human bombs against important personalities, petrol bombs against tanks, civil aircraft against skyscrapers, improvised explosive devices (IED) against vehicles and military convoys, crude bombs on railway tracks and inside coaches, and indiscriminate shooting of people in crowded public places. This new form of fighting is commonly known as asymmetric warfare. The 26/11 type of attack in Mumbai, the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in the United States, the bomb blast near the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the bomb blast in the German Bakery in Pune in February 2010, are some examples of asymmetric warfare. The idea behind such attacks can be extended to any military situation in which a technically weaker opponent is able to gain an advantage through relatively simple means. An obvious example is the landmine or IED, which is not only cheap and easy to distribute, plant and activate but is also difficult for an opponent to detect or counter.

    The earliest recorded example of asymmetric warfare is contained in the Bible as the fight between David and Goliath. The story is usually cited as a triumph of the weak over the strong or the oppressed over the mighty, but in simple military terms it represents the triumph of planning and skill over brute force. In modern terms, it could be thought of as the use of ranged weapons and high maneuverability over contact weapons and armour (stone launched from sling versus thrusting spear).

    The CIA defines asymmetrical warfare as the use of innovative strategies, tactics and technologies by a weaker state or a sub-state adversary that are intended to avoid the strengths and exploit the potential vulnerabilities of a larger and technologically superior opponent. This includes two aspects. Firstly, the selective use of weapons or military resources by a state or sub-state group to counter, deter, or possibly defeat a numerically or technologically superior force; and secondly, the use of diplomatic and other non-military resources or tactics by a state or sub-state group to discourage or constrain military operations by a superior force.

    ‘Asymmetrical Threat’ is a new term used to describe the weapons and tactics that relatively weak enemies use to foil or circumvent the technological superiority of advanced nations. The aim is not to claim territory or to even threaten the sovereignty of the opponent. The primary objective is to weaken the adversary’s resolve and ability to use its superior conventional military capability effectively to intervene in regional conflicts or to thwart the goals of rogue states or other subversive groups.

    Possible Tactics

    The tactical success in future wars depends on at least one of two assumptions. Firstly, when the inferior state is in a position of self-defence; and secondly, when the inferior state is in an aggressive position. In the former, under attack or occupation from a superior power, it may be possible to use unconventional tactics such as hit-and-run and selective battles as an effective means of harassment without violating the laws of war. This was for instance practiced in the Vietnam War and American Revolutionary War. In the latter case, the inferior power is in an aggressive position but turns to tactics prohibited by the laws of war, as was the case in Chechnya.

    Future threats embrace the full spectrum of disproportionate intimidation with which the countries might be faced, from international civil disobedience to criminality and right up to low intensity conflicts. Such threats range from cyber warfare through terrorism or rogue state nuclear blackmail to even use of weapons of mass destruction as much as national destabilization arising from mass migration.

    Unlike conventional wars, where one army fights another army in open battlefields, asymmetric wars of the foreseeable future will tend to take place inside densely populated urban areas. Fighting wars in built-up areas is going to be the most commonly employed tactic in future conflicts, since the weaker party would wish to ensure that the takes place inside its own cities for several reasons. A populated city is much harder to conquer as compared to an open field. The urbanized city is much easier to defend because it consists of tall buildings, narrow alleys and sewage tunnels. The buildings provide excellent sniping posts while the alleys are ideal for planting booby traps. If the attacking force is from a developed or developing nation adhering to international law and Western moral values, it must restrain from using heavy fire power and indiscriminate bombing. Since such an attacking force will invariably observe the principle of minimum force, the party barricading the city won’t have to face warplanes, heavy artillery and massive tank assaults. A war in the urban terrain is bound to cause some civilian casualties and extreme damage to civilian and public property. The broadcast of photos of dead civilians and ruined streets make a strong impact in favour of the party barricading the city and undermine the morale of the attacking force. Often, the barricading party is using the immunity that civilians have under international law in order to prevent attacks on its combatants. It mainly does this by using ‘Human Shield’ – a tactic which is otherwise a declared war crime, but which is also mostly ignored by the international media and human rights organisations.

    Tackling Future Challenges

    The asymmetrical threat will have an effect on warfare at strategic, operational and tactical levels. The threat will be most dramatic at the operational level. Leaders at the strategic level must continue to be concerned with the entire spectrum of national and international security issues regardless of the source, and must operate within the political arena to seek solutions to develop strategies for addressing grievances. They should also design policies and guidelines for setting up the framework within which operational level commanders and their civilian counterparts in government and non-governmental agencies will operate to address perceived threats. While tactical level commanders must acquire new skills and employ their forces in different operational arenas, their leadership role will not change appreciably. However, the challenge for operational level leaders has changed drastically. It will be the operational level leaders who will have the responsibility for the defence of the nation and their military forces involved in operations. It is the responsibility of the operational level leaders to coordinate defence activities with many other agencies such as police and other para-military forces, intelligence agencies and emergency response organisations.


    Countries now face a new type of adversary who will fight electronically and psychologically, not just only physically. These new adversaries might shun the traditional battlefield, seize no territory and seek no victories in the conventional sense. The primary strategy will be to exploit the asymmetries or supposed weaknesses inherent in the technologically superior nation. Asymmetrical threat refers to the huge differences that exist today between conventional forces and what an opposing force might consist of especially with respect to the quality of technology. Likewise, the quantitative asymmetry is no less significant between opposing forces. On the one hand, guerrillas who have limited access to technology often outflank high-tech armies as illustrated during the Vietnam War. On the other hand, the latest technology in the hands of a few individuals and relatively unsophisticated terrorists can tie down the combined capability of regular forces equipped with the latest technology, as the Afghan rebels are doing so effectively to US forces in Afghanistan.

    Let us not deny the fact that the challenges posed by the future of warfare merit serious consideration by militaries the world over. The threat of catastrophic terrorism spans the globe. The fundamentalist, the revolutionary, the terrorist and the rogue state all can advance their cause in the face of the apparently overwhelming odds of developed and developing countries who continue to deploy organised military forces in the mistaken belief that they are superior and will not be militarily challenged. To effectively address the counter-revolution in military affairs and the increased threat from futuristic warfare, militaries must develop strategies and plans for applying armed force to frustrate the violent actions of their opponents at the least possible cost in time, resources and disproportionately unacceptably high casualty rates.