Text Browser Navigation Bar: Main Site Navigation and Search | Current Page Navigation | Current Page Content

U.S. Army War College >> Strategic Studies Institute >> Publications >> Asymmetry and U.S. Military Strategy: Definition, Background, and Strategic Concepts >> Summary

Login to "My SSI" Contact About SSI Cart: 0 items

Asymmetry and U.S. Military Strategy: Definition, Background, and Strategic Concepts

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz, Dr. Douglas V. Johnson II. | January 2001

Share | |   Print   Email


In war, there are always differences between the opponents. At times these are insignificant, passing disparities with no bearing on the outcome. At other times, the differences between opponents are important, placing one in a position of advantage, the other at a disadvantage. This is a very simple observation, but from it flows one of the pressing issues faced by the United States today: strategic asymmetry.

Strategic asymmetry is the use of some sort of difference to gain an advantage over an adversary. It is an idea as old as warfare itself, appearing under a number of guises. Among strategic theorists, Sun Tzu placed great stock in psychological and informational asymmetry, writing that:

All warfare is based on deception. When confronted with an enemy one should offer the enemy a bait to lure him; feign disorder and strike him. When he concentrates, prepare against him; where he is strong. avoid him.1

In the middle of the 20th century, the British strategic theorist B.H. Liddell Hart advocated ?the indirect approach? in strategy. The wisest strategy, he contended, avoids the enemy?s strength and probes for weakness.2 Edward Luttwak, who is one of the more astute contemporary strategic theorists, has extrapolated a general rule from it. Strategy, L uttwak contends, involves actual or possible armed conflict between thinking humans and thus is dominated by a ?paradoxical logic? based on the ?coming together and even the reversal of opposites.?3 What appears best, more effective, or most efficient, in other words, often is not.

Asymmetry is certainly not limited to strategic theory. Many of history?s greatest generals also had an instinctive feel for it. Like the U.S. military in the Gulf War, the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his successors often used superior mobility, operational speed, intelligence, synchronization, training, and morale to crush enemies in lightning campaigns. When necessary, the Mongols used the superior technology of Chinese engineers to undertake successful sieges. Other conquerors, whether Romans, Europeans, Aztecs, or Zulus, brought superior technology, discipline, training, and leadership to the battlefield. Rebels in anti-colonial wars also relied on asymmetry, weaving guerrilla operations, protracted warfare, political warfare, and a willingness to sacrifice into Maoist ?People?s War,? the Intifada, and the ?Troubles? of Northern Ireland. Asymmetry is as old as warfare itself.

Throughout the Cold War, asymmetry was an important element of U.S. strategic thinking, but was seldom called by that name. Matching Soviet quantitative advantages in Europe with American and NATO qualitative superiority was integral to U.S. strategy. Other concepts such as Massive Retaliation of the 1950s or the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s elevated asymmetry to an even higher plane.4 Beginning in the 1990s, thinking within the Department of Defense (DoD) began to shift with growing recognition of the potential for asymmetric threats to the United States. This was part of DOD?s increasingly sophisticated understanding of the post-Cold War security environment. Since the global distribution of power was asymmetric, it followed that asymmetric strategies would be a natural evolution.

Explicit mention of asymmetry first appeared in Joint Doctrine in 1995.5 The concept, though, was used in a very simplistic and limited sense. The doctrine defined asymmetric engagements as those between dissimilar forces, specifically air versus land, air versus sea, and so forth.6 This very narrow concept of asymmetry had limited utility. The 1995 National Military Strategy approached the issue somewhat more broadly, listing terrorism, the use orthreatened use of weapons of mass destruction, and information warfare as asymmetric challenges. In 1997, the concept of asymmetric threat began to receive greater attention. The Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) stated,

U.S. dominance in the conventional military arena may encourage adversaries to use . . . asymmetric means to attack our forces and interests overseas and Americans at home.7

The National Defense Panel (NDP), a senior level group commissioned by Congress to provide an assessment of the long-term defense issues the United States faced, was even more explicit. The Panel?s report stated:

We can assume that our enemies and future adversaries have learned from the Gulf War. They are unlikely to confront us conventionally with mass armor formations, air superiority forces, and deep-water naval fleets of their own, all areas of overwhelming U.S. strength today. Instead, they may find new ways to attack our interests, our forces, and our citizens. They will look for ways to match their strengths against ourweaknesses.8

The NDP specifically mentioned the danger from enemy actions that might cause greater than expected U.S. casualties, the use of weapons of mass destruction to delay or complicate U.S. access to a region and inflict casualties, attacks on U.S. electronic and computer-based information systems, the use of mines and missiles along straits and littorals, terrorism, and similar threats.

Following this, there was a flurry of activity to flesh out the meaning and implications of strategic asymmetry, particularly within the intelligence community and the Joint Staff.9 The most important single study was the 1999 Joint Strategic Review, Asymmetric Approaches to Warfare. This provided a conceptual framework of asymmetric threats, and a number of recommendations. Joint Vision 2010, a 1995 document prepared by the Chairman that was to provide a conceptual template for the future developmentof the U.S. armed forces, did not mention asymmetry but Joint Vision 2020, the follow-on document released in 2000, did, labeling asymmetric approaches like long range ballistic missiles ?perhaps the most serious danger the United States faces in the immediate future.?10 Finally, the Secretary of Defense?s Annual Report to Congress in 1998 and 1999 noted that U.S. dominance in the conventional military arena encourages adversaries to seek asymmetric means of attacking U.S. military forces, U.S. interests, and Americans. The 2000 Annual Report, while retaining the description of asymmetric threats used in the previous reports, dropped the word ?asymmetric.?

This treatment of asymmetry in official strategy documents indicates that the concept is an important one that, according to most experts, may grow even more significant. Yet the development of strategy and doctrine to both deal with asymmetric threats and take advantage of the U.S.? own asymmetric capabilities requires greater conceptual rigor. Phrased differently, asymmetry is important to strategy, but not everything is asymmetry. Strategic leaders and thinkers must be clear on what asymmetryis and what it is not. This special report seeks to help clarify this with an eye toward doctrinal clarity by suggesting a definition and conceptual foundation for thinking about strategic asymmetry. It will then provide an overview of the U.S. situation in terms of strategic asymmetry, and propose some strategic concepts dealing with asymmetry.


1. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Samuel B. Griffith, trans., London: Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 66-67.

2. B. H. Liddell H art, Strategy, 2d revised edition, New York: Signet, 1974.

3. Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1987, p. 5 and ff.

4. The most cogent expression of Massive Retaliation is in John Foster Dulles, ?The Evolution of Foreign Policy,? Department of State Bulletin, Vol. 30, January 25,

1962, pp. 107-10.

5. Joint Publication (herafter Joint Pub) 1, Joint Warfare of the Armed Forces of the United States, January 10, 1995, pp. I V-10 through IV-11.

6. The same discussion of symmetrical and asymmetrical actions is included in the Joint Doctrine Encyclopedia, July 16, 1997, pp. 668-670, and Joint Pub 3-0,

Doctrine for Joint Operations, February 1, 1995, p. III-10.

7. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, May 1997, Section II.

8. Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century, Report of the National Defense Panel, Washington, DC, December 1997, p. 11.

9. For instance, in 1998 CENTRA Technologies formed a blue ribbon panel on asymmetric warfare on a contract from the intelligence community. One workshop, held in December 1998, included Dr. John Hillen, Mr. Richard Kerr, Dr. Steven Metz, Admiral William Small, USN (Ret.), Professor Martin van Creveld, and Lt. General Paul Van

Riper, USMC (Ret.). The project seems to have been dropped after this meeting.

10. Joint Vision 2020, Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2000, p. 5.