Asymmetric Warfare

Asymmetric Warfare


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 doctrine—first formally proposed by the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu—oftens 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 warfare—particularly 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.



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.


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

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