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Asymmetric Warfare: Definition, Tactics & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Not all wars are equal. In this lesson, you are going to see what happens when armies of greatly different character fight each other, and consider how this changes military tactics and ideologies.

Asymmetric Warfare

Famed policymaker and diplomat Henry Kissinger once commented that ''the guerilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.'' What Kissinger observed was that armies with different sizes and resources can fight in different ways. This has been true throughout human history, but since the mid-20th century we've developed a name for this: asymmetric warfare. Something that is asymmetrical is uneven, unequal, or imbalanced. Asymmetric warfare exists when the two main armies are of unequal size or strength. It's a different way to wage war, when the sides of the conflict don't look the same.

Tactics

In a traditional war, you have two professional armies who have roughly the same experience, resources, and technologies. The only real difference is how they execute their strategies. We call that symmetrical warfare, because both sides essentially look the same. For example, when the Allies fought the Axis, it was a conflict between professional, national armies that were all basically the same.

That's how we expect war to be fought. But what happens if one of the combatants is not a professional army, but a smaller group of insurgents or rebels? The traditional military tactics used to fight a professional army may no longer work. Asymmetrical warfare is most often fought using guerilla tactics, which are aimed at harassing the enemy more than trying to obliterate them.

French resistance forces fought an asymmetrical war against the Nazis, and used guerilla tactics like sabotaging trains and railroad lines
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Guerilla warfare is used by smaller forces to weaken the resolve of the larger army to continue fighting. By damaging infrastructure, conducting small-scale raids or invasions at unexpected times, and even resorting to tactics like assassinations, guerilla fighters manage to slowly dissolve the will of the larger army; they make the fight more trouble than its worth. Since the nature of this sort of conflict is so different from traditional warfare, larger and more power armies often have a very hard time adjusting. Asymmetrical warfare can be surprisingly effective for the weaker force.

Examples

Let's look at a few real-world examples of asymmetrical warfare.

Vietnam

After World War II, France reasserted its colonial control over Indochina (Vietnam). As a result, Vietnamese insurgents arose and started waging war against the French. This was an asymmetric war, waged between a large colonial power and small groups of freedom fighters. Yet, the Vietnamese insurgents were so successful that France was forced to call in another traditional army to help (thus bringing the United States into the Vietnam War). In the end, the insurgents defeated the USA as well.

So, how did this smaller coalition of rebels with inferior weapons technology defeat the combined strength of France and the United States? One advantage of asymmetrical warfare is the ability to fight without a consistent base of operations. The Vietnamese insurgents didn't have bases or airfields or infrastructure the USA could attack. Instead, these were fighters who hid in local villages in between raids. The United States tried to attack the Vietnamese rebels like a traditional army, and ended up bombing towns full of innocent civilians, much to the outrage of the world. In the end, the cost and frustration of fighting this war were higher than the potential gains, and the US withdrew.

American forces had a hard time fighting the non-traditional tactics of the Vietcong.
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Global Terrorism

Asymmetric warfare encourages the use of non-traditional military tactics, used generally by the weaker force to balance out the power inequity. Sometimes this means cutting telephone lines or destroying railroads, but it can also become quickly more destructive from there. Often, the goal of asymmetric warfare is to weaken the enemy's resolve. Few things threaten to do that as quickly as terrorism.

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