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Asymmetric Warfare 101 July 21, 2015

Posted by Chris Mark in Risk & Risk Management, weapons and tactics.
Tags: , , , , , ,

With the current state of affairs I thought it appropriate to ‘republish’ this blog post from 2012. You can also read the article from Secure Payments Magazine on the same topic applied to InfoSec.

Asymmetric Warfare can be described as the strategy of using weapons, tactics, and methods to render the asymmetry that exists between two adversaries as moot.  Consider the US Military for a moment.  Since the end of World War II, which is arguably the start of US hegemony, the United States has fielded what many believe is the most powerful conventional military in the history of the world (or at least modern world).  In spite, of this fact the US, and her allies) have struggled in conflicts in Vietnam, Somalia, and most recently in Iraq, and Afghanistan.  In each of these theaters it was groups of lesser-trained, relatively ill-equipped insurgents that created significant challenges to the US military.  By applying guerilla tactics, and employing IEDs and other technologies, the adversaries were able to balance the perceived asymmetry between the might of the US and their own capabilities.

The US is not alone in this dubious distinction of struggling with conventionally weaker adversaries.  The Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and a much weaker France, led by Napoleon, defeated the powerful Prussian Military.  France, in turn, lost French Indochina with the coup-de-grace coming in the surrender at Dien Bein Phu in 1954.  If each of these countries were militarily superior to their foes, how did they end up losing their respective wars?  These examples outline the effectiveness of asymmetric warfare.

While there exist a number of different definitions of Asymmetric Warfare, in a basic sense it applies to the strategies and tactics employed by a militarily weaker opponent to take advantage of vulnerabilities in the stronger opponent.  As an example, few military forces on the planet would face the US military and her allies in open combat either on land or the sea.  Doing so would be certain suicide.  A look at the Persian Gulf War in 1991 shows the result of taking on the military might of the Western World in open combat.  The Battle of Medina Ridge is a prime example.  In this battle between the US 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division against the Iraqi, 2nd Brigade of 2nd Medina Luminous Division the US recorded 1 killed, and 30 wounded while recording 4 tanks as being damaged.  The Iraqis, meanwhile, reported “heavy manpower losses” while reporting 186 tanks destroyed and 127 Armored Fighting Vehicles destroyed.

If a militarily inferior opponent cannot face the US, or Western powers in open combat, how do they fight?  It is fair to day the days of Mahanian sea battles are behind us.  Quite simply, they employ strategies that render the superior military might irrelevant or at least less relevant.  Guerilla warfare is an example of an asymmetric strategy against a militarily superior foe.  As stated in the military classic “On Guerrilla Warfare” by Mao Tse-Tung:

“At one end of the spectrum, ranks of electronic boxes buried deep in the earth hungrily spew out endless tapes.  Scientists and engineers confer in air conditioned offices; missiles are checked by intense men who move about them silently, almost reverently….in forty minutes the countdown begins.

At the other end of the spectrum, a tired man wearing a greasy felt hat, a tattered shirt, and soiled shorts is seated, his back against a tree.  Barrel pressed between his knees, butt resting on the moist earth between his sandaled feet, is a browning automatic rifle. ..Draped around his neck, a sausage-like cloth tube with three day’s supply of rice…In forty minutes his group of fifteen men will occupy a previously prepared ambush.”

This is warfare today.  Unfortunately, the US, and her allies have learned that technology alone cannot win a war against a determined, creative enemy.

As discussed earlier the concept of Asymmetric Warfare is a field of some debate.  When applying the concept to the business, and specifically the Information Security arena, it is more appropriate to apply the concept of Asymmetric Threats posited by C.A. Primmerman.  Without going through too much of the math, and modifying Primmerman’s original theory, we can state that a threat can be expressed using the following two statements:

  1. Adversary A could & would attack Adversary B by doing X
  2. Adversary B could & would respond to Adversary A by doing X.

Now we have the simple conclusion that statement (1) represents an asymmetric action if statement (2) is false, and it represents a symmetric action if statement (2) is true.

As an example of this concept working in practice, consider the following:

1a. Adversary A would attack Adversary B by using terror tactics against the civilian population.

2a.  Adversary B would respond to Adversary A by terror tactics against the civilian population.

If statement 2a is false then the threat in 1a is asymmetric.

According to Pimmerman, an Asymmetric Threat must meet three criteria.  These have been modified for our purposes and include:

  1. It must involve a weapon, tactic or strategy that the adversary both could and would use against another adversary.
  2. It must involve a weapon, tactic, or strategy that the would not or could not be be employed by one adversary.
  3. It must involve a weapon, tactic, or strategy that, if not countered, could have serious consequences. If a threat meets these three criteria, it would be considered asymmetric.

As any student of military strategy can attest, being in a purely defensive mode is a losing proposition.  Unfortunately, in many instances asymmetric threats place one adversary in an almost purely defensive position.  One of my favorite quotes that appears appropriately relevant now is by Julius Ceasar:

“There is no fate worse than being continuously under guard, for it means you are always afraid.”

While not intended to be a comprehensive discussion of Asymmetric Threats the basic concepts are relevant in today’s world.


1. Copying of GlobalRiskInfo Blog? | Global Security, Privacy, & Risk Management - April 24, 2012

[…] “Asymmetric Warfare 101″ other blog- “Asymmetry Warfare 101″ (really?..can’t even bother to change the […]

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