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Rethinking Asymmetric Threats

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | September 2003

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For the last several years, the U.S. strategic community has used the terms ?asymmetric? and ?asymmetry? to characterize everything from the threats we face to the wars we fight. In doing so, we have twisted these concepts beyond utility, particularly as they relate to the threats we face. As one writer cited here observed, we have reached the point where the German offensives of 1918 are considered asymmetric attacks. Clearly this use of the term asymmetric or of the concept of asymmetry does not help us assess correctly the threats we face. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has voiced his discomfort with the term asymmetry, indicating his unease with its use. This monograph presents a substantive critique of those terms insofar as they relate to the threats, not to the nature of war or strategies that might be formulated against us.

In this critical attempt to ?deconstruct? those terms, several critiques of them are presented that embrace what might be called linguistic as well as strategic challenges to the concept of asymmetric threats. What is at stake here is not just philological or philosophical exactitude, but rather getting the threat right. That is a critical strategic level responsibility of commanders and policymakers as they formulate policy and strategy. This monograph argues that our misuse of the terms asymmetry and asymmetric distorts those vital processes and leads us to make major strategic blunders. For example by focusing on threats rather than enemy strategies we fail to understand their strategic nature, goals, and overall concepts of operations. Clearly something like this happened on September 11, 2001, where we suffered grievously for our failure to understand the nature of the terrorists? strategy and hence the real threats they could pose. We had concentrated instead on what are called here tactical level threats, not a strategic threat to the existence of our national command authority or financial system.

But beyond simply criticizing the misuse of the terms relating to asymmetry and asymmetric threats, this monograph presents an alternative way of thinking about the kinds of threats we face from both states and nonstate actors in the contemporary strategic environment. It argues that threats should be categorized on the basis of the significance of the target. In that case the threats displayed on September 11, 2001, would clearly be recognized as strategic, while attacks like those on the USS Cole in Yemen a year earlier would be seen as tactical level. We do not disparage the seriousness of the latter event or of other similar cases, but rather we gain a better and more accurate perception of a threat environment that is now multidimensional, can be launched from anywhere on earth, or, in the not too distant future, from space. Threats also can be launched from underwater to space and vice versa, or through the ether, land, sea, air, underwater, and from space to any of the other media enumerated here. These threats, both strategic and tactical, comprise traditional anti-access strategies along with proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and potential information warfare. Indeed, foreign military analysts believe that, in some cases, their countries have already been subjected to these new forms of threats. They also cite the possibility that the new technologies coming into being could lead to innovative and unprecedented fusions of information and biological warfare.

This assessment of the broader threat environment suggests that the Bush administration has grasped correctly that the strategic environment it inherited has changed, dramatically and substantively. Indeed, that environment might have been changing in this direction even without the attacks of September 11. In such a dramatically transformed strategic environment, not only must our forces and organizations be transformed, so too must our thinking undergo transformation. And transformation of our thinking about the nature of the threat environment confronting us is essential to the development of a sound defense strategy and policy, and operational concepts that will prevent future defeats and contribute to the ensuring victory in forthcoming contingencies.


This monograph aims to improve the way we think about threats to U.S. security and interests, and consequently about our enemies? strategies. It attempts to clarify our thinking so we may better understand those challenges and the strategies of which they are a part. Reconceptualizing the threats we face is important because as our thinking about potential enemies becomes sharper, the responses and strategies that we can then devise should also become sharper. Then our responses to threats would be more likely to attain either lasting victory in war or enduring deterrence of threats.

This work analyzes the concept of ?asymmetric threats.? It suggests that continuing to use that concept or the related notion of ?asymmetry? with regard to threat assessment (not strategy) impedes clear thinking and sound strategic planning thereby complicating our commanders? and leaders? jobs. And by confusing us or leading us astray concerning threats to our interests and the strategies that comprise them, the use of these terms heightens the risk that we may fail to understand and then overcome our enemies. Instead, we should return to classifying threats flowing from asymmetric enemies and their equally asymmetric strategies or war plans on the basis of their scope and magnitude, or to their effect upon us. This would mean reserving the terms ?asymmetry? and ?asymmetric? for the actual conduct of a war, our enemies, and their strategies. Obviously, the asymmetric strategies directed against us comprise numerous and diverse threats. But while the strategy and our enemies may be asymmetric to our strategies and forces, the threats may or may not be. Moreover, threats to our security are generally not mounted strictly for their own sake without any kind of strategic planning or objective in mind. Rather they are invariably part of a strategy, misguided or not. Therefore, calling both threats and strategies asymmetric at the same time means falling into one of the oldest of epistemological fallacies, namely substituting the part for the whole.

For example, the use of a contemporary version of shore batteries to thwart an American strategy based on forward presence may be part of a larger asymmetric strategy for waging the overall war. This kind of deployment is often known as an anti-access strategy or as part of such a strategy. But anti-access strategies date back centuries and, strategically speaking, are a perfectly symmetrical response to a fundamental postulate of U.S. strategy, namely our efforts to secure forward presence in combat theaters. Moreover, as recent testimony on intelligence before Congress underscores, this anti-access strategy is increasingly likely to be carried out using relatively high-tech and modern weaponry: cruise missiles, submarines, mines, long-range interdiction and denial technologies, as well as possibly weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Indeed, some authorities go beyond calling this an anti-access or sea denial strategy to labeling it an area denial strategy ?whose defeat or negation will become the single most crucial element in projecting and sustaining U.S. military power where it?s needed.? And it is acknowledged that the use of such weapons, especially WMD, can frustrate American planning.1

Therefore, to avoid using terms relating to asymmetry for designating threats, this monograph suggests reclassifying threats to our interests, forces, homeland, and allies according to their effect or the magnitude of their impact upon us. In that context, a threat commensurate with what happened on September 11, 2001, would be labeled a strategic threat, whereas the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000 would be of a lesser magnitude, i.e., a tactical threat, even though both were terrorist operations and part of a broader and clearly articulated asymmetric strategy.

Refining our thinking about future war and the pursuit of greater clarity about it before having to wage it is essential. As the U.S. military well understands, our current technological superiority cannot be taken for granted. As NATO advisor Chris Donnelly recently observed, ?technological advantage is always transient.?2 And as the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated in Joint Vision 2020 (henceforth JV 2020),

We will not necessarily sustain a wide technological advantage over our adversaries in all areas. Increased availability of commercial satellites, digital communications, and the public Internet all give adversaries new capabilities at a relatively low cost. We should not expect opponents in 2020 to fight with strictly ?industrial age? tools [indeed al-Qaida in 2000-01 had already proven quite adept at using the new technologies listed above - author]. Our advantage must, therefore, come from leaders, people, doctrine, organizations, and training that enable us to take advantage of technology to achieve superior warfighting effectiveness.3

Conclusions: Toward a New U.S. Strategy.

The foregoing discussion outlines only a few ways in which the strategic threat environment is changing, mainly with regard to proliferation. But the instances discussed hardly exhaust the possibilities for proliferation, not to mention other forms of revolutionary transformations that make asymmetrical strategies and their embodied threats more likely. While the associated and new trends in weapons development arguably can be used to justify the new U.S. strategy of preemption and preventive war that is most prominent vis-à-vis Iraq, we need to anticipate as best we can a range of asymmetric strategies employing both old and innovative ways of threatening our assets, forces, and interests. Moreover, we must do so with the certain knowledge that our capabilities, though large and extensive, are also finite; then we must devise new ways and new organizations, including new force packages, to rebuff those threats.

Because the range of asymmetric strategies and threats derived from them that we will face are not confined to nuclear or general WMD threats, the question of conventional force packages and of an appropriate strategy for meeting these threats becomes paramount. Here it is also imperative to remember that the point of asymmetry is the leveraging of capabilities where one has an advantage to achieve strategic objectives. The effects of asymmetric attacks (to use that term) are intended to have either a climactic or cumulative effect upon the enemy, but this does not mean that the purveyors of those attacks can gauge accurately the consequences of their actions. Butwhat it does mean is that asymmetry is a strategy, and the individual operations or attacks that comprise it are intended towards such strategic objectives. Therefore we must recognize asymmetry, not as an individual action or threat, but as a strategy that is consciously employed to appropriate aims. Consequently, a strategic level response to asymmetric strategies is necessary.

This is especially the case in the light of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that highlighted the increasing tendency for our forces to acquire an expeditionary character and the emphasis upon speed of operation.149 Given the conventionality of the threat that appeared on September 11, albeit one using conventional instruments in wholly innovative ways, it then becomes clear that not only do we need new approaches to force structures, but that we also need new approaches to strategy and the fulfillment of strategic missions to eliminate those threats.

Fortunately, if not fortuitously, the new emphasis on jointness is critical because many of those threats originate in places that cannot be directly accessed by any one service or else individual services cannot sustain forces in that theater on their own for a long engagement.150 As in Iraq and Afghanistan, effective military action to uproot these threats entails jointly planned and executed operations. No single service can reliably or realistically claim that its contribution alone, no matter how great, can counter asymmetric strategies or the threats that flow from them. This observation applies not only to terrorism and the use of intelligence and police forces on a global scale against that threat. It also applies to counterproliferation operations, and no less critically to ensuring that our forces have direct access to a theater of operations and can overcome enemy anti-access strategies that can include terrorism, WMD, and traditional forms of denial of access to the theater. But beyond those operations, contemporary trends point to the need for forces optimized, as well, for the whole spectrum of conflict, including post-conflict stability operations.

The multiple and concurrent revolutions in strategic affairs since the end of the Cold War have led to the following situation. One important implication has been that Western armed forces, and especially U.S. forces, are expected to possess a range of capabilitiesfor every conceivable kind of military operation, i.e., full spectrum dominance.151

The need to optimize scarce resources under contemporary conditions not only puts a premium on forces? agility and responsiveness to the wide range of possible contingencies that they may encounter. If anything, it puts even more of a burden upon them and their commanders?right up to the heads of state and their policymaking institutions?for mental agility and clear thinking. Although we undoubtedly face threats that are rooted in asymmetric strategies, these threats are not necessarily or even, in fact, asymmetric threats. While lower-level tactical planning must devise specific responses to specific threats emanating from these strategies, our commanders need to keep in mind that we face not only discrete threats, but also enemy strategies. An emphasis by them on the so-called asymmetric threats deflects us from understanding and countering the strategic challenges we face, and reduces the impact of the agility we seek to impart to our armed forces. This monograph does not argue for any specific force structure or sizing packages. Instead, it calls for sharper, clearer thinking so that we are never victims again to the kind of strategic surprise that occurred on September 11. Since there is good reason to suspect that those attacks were intended as a decapitation strike and since such operations are evidently now returning to warfare, as in Iraq, readiness to guard against this kind of threat is essential. Although such a threat is not in and of itself an asymmetric one, it certainly is a strategic one and part of a larger plan of attack against us.

That is the point we have tried to establish. Labeling current and future threats as asymmetric diminishes our understanding of the threat environment. In an age of new threats, new and even revolutionary technologies, and new forms of military operations, the requirement for clear thinking increases commensurately. Information about threats is not enough, notwithstanding our enormous capabilities to gather and exploit it. Indeed, that enhanced capability for data retrieval obligates us to understand our enemy as never before, lest we drown in data. Carefully delineating and understanding the difference between so-called asymmetric threats and asymmetric strategies becomes more important than ever in the current environment. And to the extent that current strategic debates and assessments help us achieve that understanding, they will have served us well.


1.Federal News Service, Testimony of Andrew Krepinevich to the Senate Committee on the Budget 107th Congress, February 12, 2001, Retrieved from Lexis-Nexis; Admiral Vern Clark (USN), ?Sea Power 21: Projecting Decisive Joint Capabilities,? Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, October 2002, pp. 36-37. Admiral Clark is the current Chief of Naval Operations, so this may be taken as representing the official Navy view; see also Captain Sam J. Tangredi, USN, ?Rebalancing the Fleet Round 2,? Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, May 2003, pp. 37-38; Bryan Bender, ?U.S. Response: WMD Threat Frustrates Iraq Invasion Plan,? Global Security Newswire, www.nti.org, July 18, 2002.

2. Chris Donnelly, ?Defence, Security, and Intelligence in the 21st Century: New Challenges and New Responses,? Acque et Terre, No. 2, 2003, p. 57.

3.Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Vision 2020 (henceforth JV 2020), Washington, DC, 2000, p. 4.

149. Wolfowitz, Testimony; Stephen Blank, The American Strategic Revolution in Central Asia, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, forthcoming.

150. Ibid.

151. JV 2020, pp. 4-7.