Skip to main content

Asymmetric Warfare

Asymmetric Warfare

K. LEE LERNER

In contrast to traditional warfare or "linear warfare," asymmetric warfare refers to operations that do not rely on masses of troops or munitions to destroy and/or control an enemy. Asymmetric warfare most commonly refers to warfare between opponents not evenly matched where the smaller or weaker force must exploit geography, timing, surprise, or specific vulnerabilities of the larger and stronger enemy force to achieve victory.

At the tactical level, asymmetric warfare doctrinefirst formally proposed by the ancient military strategist Sun Tzuoftens attempts to specifically avoid a confrontation with the enemy's strengths, preferring instead to disrupt or impair command functions (intelligence gathering and communications) or logistics (supply and medical care) so as to prevent the larger enemy from effectively bringing their larger force to bear in an effective manner.

At a strategic level, asymmetric war is designed to discourage and demoralize enemy forces and political leaders of those forces from using their greater strength.

The high effectiveness and low cost of asymmetric warfare has led to the inclusion of smaller and more agile units within large power forces that can specifically disengage from the larger force so as to allow larger force commanders to use asymmetric techniques.

Terrorist organizations have embraced many of the concepts of asymmetric warfareparticularly when planning operations against Western power forces. After the American-led invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, enemy Taliban forces utilized local tribal forces to attack civilian populations and destroy food supply infrastructure in an attempt to create a humanitarian aid crisis that would slow Western coalition forces.

Because of the superpower status of United States, enemy small state and terrorist groups must utilize asymmetric warfare techniques to bolster hopes of achieving limited victories. For example, terrorist organizations hope to exploit the vulnerabilities of a free and open society in the United States and Europe. By attacking infrastructure and civilian populations, terrorist groups hope to cause political turmoil, dissent, and ultimately to change United States and European foreign policy without exposing themselves to the might of Western military forces.

FURTHER READING:

BOOKS:

Bailey, Kathleen C. Iraq's Asymmetric Threat to the United States and U.S. Allies. Fairfax, VA: National Institute for Public Policy, 2001.

Rogers, Paul. Political Violence and Asymmetric Warfare. (U.S.-European Forum Paper) Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2001.

SEE ALSO

Biological Warfare
Chemical Warfare
Electronic Warfare
Guerilla Warfare
Information Warfare
Terrorism, Philosophical and Ideological Origins

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Asymmetric Warfare." Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security. . Encyclopedia.com. 13 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Asymmetric Warfare." Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/politics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/asymmetric-warfare

"Asymmetric Warfare." Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security. . Retrieved December 13, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/politics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/asymmetric-warfare

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.