Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 08:33 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 08:33 | SYDNEY

On asymmetric war


Mark O'Neill

1 September 2008 17:38

A colleague recently drew my attention to ‘The Folly of ‘Asymmetric War’, in The Washington Quarterly. The author, Michael J. Mazarr , equates ‘insurgency’ style warfare (of the type occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan) with ‘asymmetric warfare’ and argues against any marked changes to US defence priorities to meet requirements to fight such wars. 

Anyone who has read anything about military strategic affairs over the last decade will have come across the term ‘asymmetry’ – its use has become so common that it is often cliché. Elements of Mazarr’s argument are sound, yet he fails in his task of convincing of the folly of ‘asymmetric war’ because he clearly misses the point about asymmetry.

A 1999 RAND Corporation study explains that: 'Asymmetric strategies attack vulnerabilities not appreciated by the “target” (victim) or capitalize on the victim’s limited preparation against the threat.'

The history of all warfare is of the protagonist’s quest to gain an asymmetric advantage over the enemy. The US (and its allies) destruction of Saddam Hussein’s armed forces in 1991, and again in 2003, with their technologically superior military forces, provide ready examples of an asymmetric approach. Labelling insurgent-style warfare as ‘asymmetric warfare’, then, is almost tautological, as all warfare by nature strives to be asymmetric. This directly challenges the logic of Mazarr’s title.

Where insurgency does achieve the ‘acme’ of asymmetry, it invariably does not come from any one tactic, method or characteristic of the insurgent. Rather, it arises from State failure to recognise the true nature of insurgency and respond comprehensively across the full spectrum of government and societal endeavour. The insurgent has chosen the social and political fabric of the State as his battle space; it is the counterinsurgent that inadvertently makes the fight asymmetrical by acting in this battle space with military-centric responses. 

Despite the confusion regarding asymmetry, the article has merit. Mazarr correctly asserts that the military instrument of statecraft is the wrong tool to use as a primary response to insurgency. This is borne out by both the historical record and contemporary practice. And he is right that it would be foolish for the US to abandon its military prowess in ‘conventional warfare’ to pursue specialisation for counterinsurgency. But this is actually a false dilemma. The force structure choice confronting the US (and many of its allies) is not between a force optimised for either ‘conventional’ or ‘counterinsurgency and stabilisation’ warfare, but how to reconcile within one force structure the ability to handle both demands with the resources available.