What is Asymmetric Warfare?

Reed Hepler, Christopher Muscato, Lesley Chapel
  • Author
    Reed Hepler

    Reed Hepler received an M.L.I.S. from IUPUI, with emphases in Digital Curation and Archives Management. He received a Bachelor’s in History from USU, with minors in Religious Studies and Anthropology. He also earned a Certificate in Museum Studies. He has worked in museums, libraries, archives, and historical sites for the past four years.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

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

  • Expert Contributor
    Lesley Chapel

    Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Asymmetric warfare has become increasingly prevalent, but what is asymmetric warfare? Learn the asymmetric warfare definition and study examples of asymmetric wars. Updated: 03/24/2022

What is Asymmetric Warfare?

Asymmetric warfare can be defined as a war that occurs between two forces of uneven strength and size. The most common methods used in asymmetric war are guerrilla tactics and elements of psychological warfare. Guerrilla tactics are mostly used by insurgents or rebels, but organized militaries can counter with strategic or fear-promoting isolated actions, or reprisals, in return. Organized militaries frequently counter guerrilla tactics with the institution of military law and psychological warfare. This may involve the use of propaganda to frame the guerrilla soldiers as threats to the security of the government and the safety of citizens. In addition to suppressing the opposite force, asymmetric warfare may also involve intimidating civilians who are not participating in either side of the conflict.

Guerrilla Tactics

The use of guerrilla tactics is one of the most prevalent types of asymmetric warfare. They are mostly utilized to weaken an enemy's will to fight. Guerrilla fighting occurs when the smaller force repeatedly uses isolated but powerful attacks on an enemy force or a prominent city or region of the state. Guerrilla forces create relatively small but strategic disturbances that present a persistent problem for civilians and the opposing force.

One of the great risks of guerrilla warfare is the fact that the asymmetry results in the blending of civilians and combatants. The more organized forces (usually the military) often view the opposing force as merely a group of normal civilians. Thus, military forces and their allies can blur the lines between actual combatants and civilians. In this way, the actions of guerrilla combatants can result in military reprisals on uninvolved community members.

Guerrillas utilize this misconception by the military to their advantage. Fighting against unarmed civilian communities can frighten the population of a state to acquiesce to whichever side harms them the most. Frequently, one of the only ways in which guerrilla tactics are successful is when non-combatants supply information, transportation, or other resources to the rebels. Here, the guerrillas raise awareness to the brutality of the military toward civilians, framing themselves as the supporters of the people. In some instances, they may threaten to create worse destruction for the people than the military has. Bombings by the guerrillas on civilian groups may underscore this threat. These actions are intended to scare civilians into assisting guerrilla forces.

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.

Examples of Asymmetric Wars

There are several prime examples of asymmetric wars. While they share similar characteristics and underlying motivations, these examples were fought in different contexts and for different goals. Generally, the motivation for these conflicts was revolution and independence. However, especially as in the case of global terrorist attacks, asymmetric wars have been fought for religious or social reasons as well as political ones.

French Indochina War (Vietnamese insurgents against French colonizers)

The French Indochina War is also referred to as the First Indochina War. Most of the insurgents in this state were poor, rural farmers who did not have formal military training. They organized in loose, community-based coalitions and did not have a centralized director to give orders for attacks. Eventually, the rebels, a coalition of Viet Minh and non-communist nationalists, won in 1954 and created North Vietnam and the State of Vietnam. The French lost control of these places several years before, but it waited to grant autonomy. As a result of the fighting, France had granted independence to Laos and Cambodia earlier as a means to gain public support for their imperialist policies in the region.

Arab Revolt (regional Arab forces fighting against the Ottoman Empire)

The Arab Revolt, which began in 1916 during World War I, involved the efforts of many leaders to remove the yoke of the Ottoman Empire from their operations. These groups engaged in guerrilla warfare against multiple strategic locations and tools of the Ottoman Empire. They attacked the crucial Hejaz Railway multiple times throughout the revolt. Although they were acting with the support of Great Britain and other external forces, these guerrilla forces were only loosely organized. In some instances, their attention was diverted toward fighting against each other rather than their common enemy. Notable among these groups were the forces of Faisal I, who was a local shaykh. One of the most significant and enduring effects of this conflict was that Faisal became the king of Iraq.

Mexican Revolution (rebels vs. the national government)

The first part of the Mexican Revolution took only six months to complete, largely because of the success of the guerrilla tactics of the rebels. They easily unseated Porfirio Díaz, who had been an oppressive dictator for years. Even before guerrilla tactics were instigated, a flood of complaints about Díaz's national government had been reported. These problems were brought to a head in 1910 when Díaz used a fraudulent, manipulated election to legitimize continuing his presidency.

When guerrilla warfare began, Díaz's troops were spread throughout Mexico, which gave ample opportunity for the rebels, led by Francisco Madero, to overturn divided regional military groups. Once he took control of the presidency, Madero in turn fought against a group of guerrilla soldiers who had previously been his allies. This group, led by Emiliano Zapata, fought against Madero for three years until he was assassinated and replaced by Victoriano Huerta.

Yet another guerrilla group, the Constitutionalist Army, arose in 1913, led by politician Venustiano Carranza. Zapata's and Carranza's armies continuously fought until the death of Zapata in 1919.

Global Terrorism (organized armies against armed, covert terrorist groups)

This form of asymmetric warfare has caused countries and communities to significantly alter their conceptions of security and warfare since the 1990s. Some of the most prolific examples of global terrorism asymmetric warfare include the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, and a series of attacks in November 2015 carried out by ISIL terrorists in Paris.

Russo-Ukrainian War

Some have stated that this is not an entirely asymmetric war. They would note that Ukraine is a state that is just as organized as Russia. However, the fact remains that the enormous military might of Russia far outpowers any native forces possessed by Ukraine. The stated purpose of Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine was a ''swift and harsh'' retribution toward individuals who had attempted to sever ties with Russia.

Symmetric Warfare

Symmetric wars, in contrast to asymmetric wars, more closely mirror the structure of traditional warfare. This occurs when two armies of similar size and technology fight each other on a battlefield. There are rules, regulations, and norms associated with symmetric warfare.

Other Types of Warfare

While asymmetric warfare and symmetric warfare are the most common and traditional forms of warfare, they are not the only forms. Other types of warfare include:

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
null

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 powerful 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.
null

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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Additional Info

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
null

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 powerful 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.
null

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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  • Activities
  • FAQs

Prompts About Asymmetric Warfare:

Essay Prompt 1:

In approximately one paragraph, write an essay that defines asymmetric warfare and contrasts it with symmetric warfare.

Tip: Consider the definition of the word "asymmetric" and synonyms for it.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay of about one to two paragraphs that explains guerrilla warfare, its tactics, why it is often considered part of asymmetric warfare, and why it is often successful.

Example: One tactic of guerrilla warfare is launching surprise invasions.

Presentation Prompt:

Create a PowerPoint presentation that details the use of asymmetric warfare in the Vietnam War as well as in global terrorism. Be sure that your presentation includes examples.

Example: In global terrorism, asymmetric warfare often involves targeting civilians in their everyday activities.

Research Prompt:

Choose a war or terrorist event from history that utilized asymmetric warfare. Conduct research on it and write an essay of at least three to four paragraphs that describes the kinds of asymmetric warfare tactics used in this conflict and whether they were effective. Your essay should also address why asymmetric warfare was used in this conflict.

Example: Asymmetric was a component of the American Revolutionary War. The colonial militia was smaller than their British counterparts, and engaged in guerrilla warfare.

What is an example of asymmetric warfare?

There are many examples of asymmetric warfare. One of the most striking is the guerrilla tactics used by Arab nationalists in their fight against the Ottoman Empire. They split up into small groups and attacked various strategic places used by the Ottoman Empire. For instance, they repeatedly attacked the Hejaz Railway in a variety of ways throughout the revolt.

How do you counter asymmetric warfare?

One of the most common tools of counter-insurgency is to threaten the civilians who are not participating. This intimidation by the larger force is intended to convince citizens to fight against the guerrillas.

What is the main characteristic of asymmetric warfare?

The main characteristic of asymmetric warfare is that the two forces involved in the war are unevenly matched. This usually requires one of the forces to resort to using guerrilla tactics.

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