The Asymmetric warfare reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Jul-2004
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Asymmetric warfare

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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.

In modern context, asymmetric warfare is increasingly considered a component of fourth generation war. When practiced outside the laws of war, it is often pejoratively characterized as "terrorism."

Table of contents
1 Roots of the Concept
2 Post-Soviet incentives for asymmetric war
3 Tactical basis
4 Asymmetric warfare and terrorism
5 War by proxy
6 Not the end of conventional war
7 Urban warfare in asymmetric warfare
8 References

Roots of the Concept


As inspiration, the biblical story of David and Goliath 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 David's victory also symbolized the triumph of the new and advanced versus the old and outdated; his superior planning, skill, and knowlege, defeated Goliath's dependence on overt force, intimidation, and heavy weapons.


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]

Post-Soviet incentives for asymmetric 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. In the rivalry that arose, small powers, especially those described as comprising 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 lead to a great deal of interest in ways to oppose these superpowers, nearly always using alternative tactics from which these powers have been accustomed to.

Tactical basis

The tactical success of asymmetric warfare is dependent on at least one of two assumptions:

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.

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.

An example of war by proxy is where an insurgent group exists within the sovereign territory of another state, but disassociates itself from that state, as the Irish Republican Army in the Republic of Ireland. The IRA is banned in Ireland and it would be a considerable reach to suppose that they were secretly supported by that government, but the disassociation is intended to blunt the lesser charge that the government is not controlling a hostile group within its borders.

Another example of war by proxy is 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 apparently 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.

Not the end of conventional war

Throughout the 20th century, for small scale conflicts, armies relied increasingly on tactics of the guerilla, spy, saboteur, provocateur, double agent and even terrorist. 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 (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 and coalition forces battle an insurgency by Iraqi and foreign militants. See 2003 Occupation of Iraq

Urban warfare in asymmetric warfare

Unlike in conventional wars - where one army fights another army in wide open battlefields - asymmetric warfare tends to take place inside densely populated urban terrain. Therefore, urban warfare is a prominent part of asymmetric warfare. Usually, the weaker party desires the war to take place inside of its own cities for several reasons:

1. A populated city is much harder to conquer than an open field.

2. The urbanized city is much easier to defend because it is full of tall buildings, narrow alleys and sewage tunnels. The building can provide excellent sniping posts while the alleys are ideal for planting booby traps.

3. If the attacking force is a Western army, adhering to international law and western moral values, it must restrain from using heavy fire power and indiscriminate bombing. Thus, the party barricading in a city won't have to face warplanes, heavy artillery and massive tank assult.

4. "Media War": a war on urban terrain is bound to cause some civilian casualties and extreme damage to civilian property. Photos of dead civilians and ruined streets broadcast on TV make a strong impact in favor of the party barricading in the city and undermine the morale of the attacking force.

5. Often, the barricading party is using the immunity that civilians gain under international law in order to prevent attacks on its combatants. It mainly does it by using "Human Shield" - a tactic which is declared a war crime. The use of the weaker party in Human Shield is mostly ignored by the world media and different human rights organizations.