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Preparing for Asymmetry: As Seen Through the Lens of Joint Vision 2020

Authored by Ms. Melissa Applegate. | September 2001

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The U.S. military?s joint vision of how it will approach conflict in the future, Joint Vision (JV) 2020, is vulnerable to asymmetry. The tremendous relative military combat power of U.S. forces and our commitment to expanding that lead means that, for potential adversaries, asymmetric approaches will be their only recourse. Asymmetric strategies?intentional or opportunistic?will seek to counter the operational concepts underpinning JV2020. Successful asymmetric approaches could prevent the United States from fighting as designed or even at all. Alternatively, asymmetry may not defeat U.S. forces, but could prevent them from winning. Asymmetry affects the whole force and must be addressed in that context. Reliance on overwhelming offensive military power for warfighting and adopting a defensive strategy against asymmetric approaches will not ensure mastery of the asymmetric domain.

This monograph describes how the current vision invites defeat or slow degradation of military effectiveness by asymmetric means. It provides a background of why it is so hard to change and makes the argument for why we must adapt to the emerging potential of asymmetry. Gaining insight into the dynamics driving the significance, scope, and impact of this problem set leads to the conclusion that JV2020 operational concepts must be broader and more adaptive in nature. Mastering the asymmetric domain is a legitimate, challenging mission area that will require the same investment in time, energy, and intellectual capital that has been spent to achieve supremacy in conventional warfighting. This monograph proposes a set of complementary operational concepts that, incorporated into JV2020 through a transition process, will lead to an enhanced vision that incorporates asymmetric challenges,and result in a transformed vision that better supports U.S. forces to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to asymmetry.

This document is the output of The Army-Marine Corps Warfighter Working Group, Task 4 on Asymmetric Approaches. Army lead is the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (ODCSOPS) with the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence (ODCSINT) in support. Marine Corps lead is the Deputy Commandant for Policy, Plans, and Operations (DCPPO) with the Commanding General Marine Corps Combat Development Command (CG MCCDC) in support.


We used to worry about losing. Now we worry about winning perfectly.
Senior Defense official December 2000

Joint Vision 2020 (JV2020) represents a vision of how U.S. military forces can fight and win the nation?s wars of the future. It reflects the immense military power and capability that is expected to result from the bold orchestration of technology, people, and operational methods, blended in a way that constitutes the perfect application of the American Way of War. JV2020 envisions conflict and victory on U.S. terms through the application of power projection, precision, lethality, and speed. If allowed to fight as designed, the overwhelming force characterized in JV2020 is, in fact, perfectly unbeatable. While JV2020 acknowledges the diverse nature of asymmetric threats across the conflict spectrum, its application is most appropriate in traditional, force-on-force confrontations. The potential impact of asymmetry, as a conflict dimension of its own or as an intentional direct response to JV2020, demands an expansion of the way U.S. forces plan, prepare for, and respond to future operational environments.

Will the emerging global security environment provide the opportunity to execute JV2020 as envisioned? In the absence of Cold War ideological bipolarity and the historical precedent of the world wars, conflict has evolved (some would say devolved) into something not new and different, but more closely resembling Machiavellian struggles hopelessly intermixing the aspirations of individuals,groups, and states into a nameless mosaic. The basic nature of conflict may remain constant, but the quality and scale of conflict, like part of an historical cyclical continuum, has changed, at least for now and the foreseeable future. These changes?some fundamental, others subtle?have altered the dynamics of the protagonists, motives, objectives, and intent of various parties; the tools available; the threshold for justified military action; and the definitions of victory.

These changes present an asymmetry to the American Way of War. JV2020 implicitly assumes that conflict will take on a familiar form suited to the operational and enabling concepts more fitting of the old paradigm. It acknowledges the emerging threat asymmetry brings to the environment but does not acknowledge the possibility that asymmetry may be all there is.1The tremendous relative U.S. military advantage today, and our commitment to expanding that lead, force adversaries toward asymmetric approaches.

Ensuring American ?positive asymmetry? does have benefit; clearly it is in our best interest for adversaries to have to react to us.2 We are not looking for symmetric threats. However, steadfast pursuit of new and improved conventional capabilities?essentially getting better and better at what we are already the best in the world?may leave the United States without the proper tools and techniques to fight the emerging threat and shape the victories of the future. Worse, following a predetermined course based on past successes may create a false sense of security and blind the United States to problems just over the horizon or opportunities to shape our future.

Asymmetric approaches can no longer be considered secondary or peripheral to conventional threats; U.S. forces must master the asymmetric domain with the same intellectual energy devoted to conventional warfare?because asymmetry is not just a threat. To a large extent, asymmetry represents the challenge posed by the vast dissimilarity between our own capabilities andwarfighting methods and how they translate into effectiveness, or ineptitude, against the existing or emerging threats U.S. forces can expect to face. JV2020, as the symbol of American military preeminence in the future, is vulnerable to the application of asymmetric strategies, events, and situations. The strengths inherent in JV2020 operational and enabling concepts are countered by a relatively rigid reliance on?and anticipation of?familiar forms of conflict. Essentially this vision remains confident in and comfortable with the American Way of War.

To ensure U.S. forces are capable of operating effectively in a changing global conflict landscape, JV2020 concepts must be broader and more adaptive in nature. Understanding the complex cause and effect implications of asymmetry and using that understanding to adapt JV2020 will improve the ability of the U.S. military to conduct operations effectively. Adapting this vision to fit multidimensional contexts against a broad range of conflict environments, and at the same time reducing vulnerabilities, will be key to ensuring critical operational success. Operational concepts, force structure, joint planning, doctrine, and training and education all must evolve in a way that legitimizes and attacks the challenges of asymmetry. Successfully adapting the joint vision using these mechanisms will produce a force with true mission dominance.

This monograph will explore why and how the construct ofJV2020?indeed our approach to joint vision?needs to be adapted to compensate for asymmetric dynamics. It will show how the existing vision increases the attractiveness of asymmetric approaches to potential adversaries and how they will seek to exploit one or more of the operational and enabling concepts to preclude U.S. involvement or degrade the effectiveness of U.S. forces. It will then explore several compounding problems that exacerbate the potential effects of asymmetry on U.S. forces facing the complex conflict environments of today and tomorrow and contribute to the need for change. It argues that transformation and ?leapahead? concepts currently in vogue must legitimize the potential consequences of asymmetry and the environments and conditions under which they will flourish. The future vision must be adapted to successfully meet the challenges we undoubtedly will face, but not at the cost of ?dumbing down? the force to provide a level playing field for the rest of the world. Finally, it will offer a broad set of concepts for inclusion in the joint vision to take this strategic document beyond acknowledgement of asymmetry and toward an adaptive, more responsive model for planners and deci si on makers.


In today?s military where dominance theory prevails, and where the services compete fiercely for warfighting missions and capabilities, asymmetry is an orphan. Mastering the asymmetric domain will likely not offer opportunities for overwhelming victory associated with conventional warfare because asymmetry in any form is unlikely to ever threaten the nation?s survival. It is often considered a ?distracter mission? or is relegated to the purview of specialized units and organizations outside the mainstream of the conventional force. The asymmetric domain remains, however, a challenge worth pursuing because it will affect the whole force; it is this domain that offers adversaries opportunities to demonstrate that theU.S. military is not invulnerable; that if it cannot be defeated, then perhaps it can be prevented from fighting and winning.

We must accept that change is hard, and change is not welcome. For every leader who looks forward, there will be a hundred looking back. If the leadership is really determined to ?leap ahead? to the future, it cannot do so selectively?it must move the whole force. Skipping a generation of technology and weaponry may be a very smart move. This leap ahead, however, must be matched by a similar jump over the hurdles of the past and the realities of the existing and projected global security environment. It must bring forward strategy, doctrine, training, leadership, and manpower on parallel paths to meet the challenges out there as they are, and not as we would have them be, to fit the traditional American Way of War. We must realign the way U.S. forces think and plan for potential adversaries, and increase understanding of their motives, objectives, and intent. Disregarding asymmetry as an ?also ran? to conventional warfare will likely lead to a U.S. military ?all dressed up but not invited to the dance.? The answers exist; we can master the asymmetric domain, but only if there is a willingness to embrace its complexities, legitimize its existence, and use the brute force brainpower that exists within to adapt our capabilities to the realities of conflict in the 21st century.


1. Director for Strategic Plans and Policy, J5; Strategy Division, Joint Vision 2020, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, June 2000, p. 6. In the face of such strong (U.S.) capabilities, the appeal of asymmetric approaches and the focus on the development of niche capabilities will increase. By developing and using approaches that avoid U.S. strengths and exploit potential vulnerabilities using significantly different methods of operation, adversaries will attempt to create conditions that effectively delay, deter, or counter the application of U.S.military capabilities. The potential of such asymmetric approaches is perhaps the most serious danger the United States faces in the immediate future . . .

2. Steven Metz and Douglas V. Johnson II, Asymmetry and U.S. Military Strategy: Definition, Background and Strategic Concepts, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, January 2001. This monograph describes how America?s overwhelming power represents ?positive asymmetry? which can be used effectively to reduce or negate the effects of adversary?s ?negative asymmetry.?