International Relations

On the meaning of asymmetrical warfare

Matt ODDY (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations.


The term asymmetrical warfare has been subject to a significant amount of disagreement amongst scholars. Whereas some, such as Michael Breen and Joshua A. Geltzer, define asymmetric strategies as those that ‘transform an adversary’s perceived strength into a vulnerability’, others such as Michael P. Fischerkellar have defined asymmetrical warfare largely in terms of conflicts in which the combatants possess radically different power capabilities.[1] [2] The use of the term ‘asymmetrical’ when describing war has also faced criticism. Colin S. Gray, for example, in his article ‘Thinking Asymmetrically’ criticised the US national security industry’s recent focus on ‘asymmetric warfare’ arguing that it is not a new phenomenon but rather the dominant style of warfare throughout history. The term ‘asymmetrical war’ was for Gray, therefore, a largely empty concept with little analytical meaning. [3] This interpretation was furthered by M.L.R. Smith who contends that terms used to describe low intensity conflicts such as ‘asymmetry’ and ‘guerrilla warfare’ actually hinder our understanding of warfare by undermining ‘the attempt to comprehend the complexity of warfare as a whole’.[4] Seeking to build on the work of Gray and Smith this essay will argue that ‘asymmetric warfare’ is not merely a term to describe the perennial battle between the weak and the strong, but rather a term used to describe any form of warfare in which the belligerents use different tactics. In doing this, this essay will demonstrate that in order to understand why asymmetrical warfare exists, one must examine cultural differences between combatants.

Since the end of the Cold War, asymmetrical warfare has become a subject of increasing interest amongst scholars. While no clear definition of asymmetry exists the term has been used, at least in regards to the United States, to refer to threats that ‘political, strategic, and military cultures regard as unusual’ and viewed as go against long-standing laws of war.[5] The term has in this sense, been largely used to describe conflicts in which opponents use radically different tactics in order to achieve their goals. In recent years this has applied more to insurgencies where powerful adversaries are forced to face an enemy who, in employing tactics that are considered unconventional, seek to compensate for the military superiority of their opponent. This is supported by Winn Schwartau who in ‘Looming Security Threats: Asymmetrical Adversaries’ highlights the tactical component of asymmetry by reinforcing the idea that asymmetry involves going beyond established codes of behaviour and utilising ‘low-cost, low-tech methods to offset capabilities of technologically superior adversaries’.[6]

This interpretation of asymmetrical warfare is shown by Michael P. Fischerkellar, who in his article ‘David versus Goliath’ defines asymmetry largely in terms of different power capabilities and uses the term almost exclusively to refer to conflicts between weak and powerful actors. Asymmetrical wars were, for Fischerkellar, largely the result of the ‘weaker state’s judgement of the target as culturally inferior’ that resulted ‘in a discounted capability evaluation of the quantitatively superior enemy’.[7] Asymmetric strategies are, according to this interpretation, largely seen as the province of non-state actors and states that lack the military capabilities to fight conventional wars. Montgomery C. Megis in ‘Unorthodox Thoughts about Asymmetric Warfare’ supports this analysis, asserting that asymmetry ‘means the absence of a common basis of comparison in respect to a quality, or in operational terms, a capability’.[8] The reason why asymmetric strategies are, therefore, favoured by non-state actors and weaker opponents is because they allow the weaker combatant to sidestep their opponents more powerful and expensive capabilities and compensate for their lack of strength in certain areas.[9]

The tendency of some scholars to see asymmetric strategies as undertaken exclusively by weak non-state actors does, however, largely obscure the fact that they can also be adopted by powerful states and are not always limited to weaker adversaries. This is supported by Michael Breen and Joshua A. Geltzer who in their article Asymmetric Strategies as Strategies of the Strong aimed to reconceptualise the meaning of asymmetry in war and questioned the ‘identification of asymmetric strategies as strategies of the weak’.[10] Breen and Geltzer instead maintained that strong adversaries are increasingly using asymmetric strategies in response to unconventional threats stating that ‘just as a muscular and skilled fighter may employ jujutsu techniques to devastate a physically weaker foe, strong states may employ asymmetric strategies to achieve dramatic results against weaker opponents’.[11] Asymmetric strategies are in this sense largely independent of the strength of the actors involved and should be judged by their ability to ‘transform an adversary’s perceived strength into a vulnerability’.[12] Although the term asymmetrical warfare can, therefore, be used to refer to conflicts in which there is unequal balance of military power, the fact that that these are asymmetric conflicts has nothing to do with the difference in power between the combatants but rather to the tactics that employ.

This tactical understanding of asymmetry has also led some to challenge the notion that asymmetry is itself a distinct form of warfare, as opposed to merely a tactic employed under certain circumstances in order to obtain a specific end. This is shown by M.L.R. Smith who in ‘Guerrillas in the Mist’ argues that while the ‘guerrilla method may exist as a tactic within war, it does not constitute a proper category of warfare itself’ and claims that what we refer to when we say low intensity conflict can not be understood without reference to ‘Clausewitzian parameters’ that ‘embrace the entire spectrum of war’.[13] [14] Asymmetrical warfare should, in this regard, be viewed as part of the broader category of ‘low intensity warfare’ along with insurgencies, wars of national liberation, and other conflicts of limited scope, and should not be seen as possessing a distinct nature. [15] This is perhaps best shown by Colin Gray who is highly critical of the idea of categorising different forms of conflict, arguing that while we may think it improve our understanding it often results in ‘encyclopaedic’ definitions which are ‘utterly indigestible’.[16] Terms such as asymmetrical warfare are, in this regard, largely flawed and rather than helping make sense of different approaches to conflict often undermine the complex nature of warfare.[17]

Asymmetrical warfare is, in this sense, not merely a term used to describe the perennial battle between the weak and the strong, but rather a term used to describe any form of warfare in which opponents use different tactics in order to achieve their aims.  As no two combatants possess equal resources, all wars possess an element of asymmetry. This is the position taken by Gray who claims that ‘to a greater or lesser degree, all tactical, operational, and strategic behaviour is asymmetrical’. [18] Moreover, despite recent fascination with non-state actors within the defence and security community, it should be noted that there is nothing exceptional about the challenges facing the military today.[19] [20] This is, again, show by Gray who argues that  ‘historically assessed, symmetrical warfare has been the rare exception, not the rule’.[21] Asymmetry in warfare should, in this sense, be viewed not as a new phenomena but rather a permanent feature of warfare. This interpretation is most succinctly surmised by Vincent J. Goulding Jr. who in ‘Back to the Future with Asymmetric Warfare’ claims that asymmetry is as ‘old as warfare itself’ and that, at least in recent history, weak adversaries have always used unconventional tactics ‘to neutralise their enemy’s technological or numerical superiority’.[22]

Asymmetrical war is in this sense, to use Gray’s words, an essentially ‘hollow concept’ and is of little use in explaining the nature of war. Despite this, the concept of asymmetry is still useful in determining the character of certain types of conflict and understanding why different actors engage in warfare in different ways. This is shown by Christopher Coker who in his article ‘What would Sun Tzu say about The War on Terrorism’ shows how different cultural and philosophical traditions have shaped the ways that societies believe wars should be fought. While in the West, for example, ‘war is seen as an instrument for obtaining a specific end’ in China war is seen as more a ‘product of necessity’ and is fought according to a tradition of warfare largely unknown to western societies.[23] In his review of John Leech’s Asymmetries of Conflict, Coker also demonstrates that while asymmetry has not proved to be a ‘vital part of war’ in conflicts between western societies, in confrontations between different cultures, asymmetry poses significant challenges.[24]

‘Asymmetrical warfare’ should, in this regard, be seen as largely a cultural phenomenon and should not viewed independently of a society’s social and historical conditions. This is supported by Gray who, in his discussion of ‘irregular warfare’ highlights the importance of understanding why the enemy fights in a particular way, and points to how the US military is slowly that ‘being encouraged to believe that understanding local culture is the key to victory’.[25] In doing this Gray is following in the tradition established by Sun-tzu, who Coker describes as the ‘acknowledged author of asymmetric (or ‘unorthodox’) warfare’, and the idea that in order to perform better on the battlefield you need to know your adversary.[26] In order to understand why asymmetry is a pervasive feature of warfare it is, therefore, necessary to recognise different societies understandings of warfare and their cultural and philosophical traditions.

In conclusion ‘asymmetrical warfare’ is not simply a term used to describe the ‘perennial battle’ between the weak and the strong but rather a term used to describe conflict between culturally dissimilar societies. While the term is often used to describe conflicts between actors that possess unequal power and technology capabilities, asymmetry has little relation to military strength and has more to do with the tactical differences. While all conflicts are asymmetrical to an extent, as no two combatants are the same, the level of asymmetry is largely dependent on the level of cultural similarity between the belligerents. The different tactics that actors employ in wars is, according to this interpretation, primarily the result of different cultural and philosophical traditions and understandings about the way wars should be fought. Conflicts in which the two sides employ radically different tactics, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, should in this regard, be viewed as largely the result of the fundamental cultural differences that lead to different understandings of the correct way to fight a war. Tactical disparity is, in this sense, ultimately an expression of inherent differences between different groups and societies that are largely independent of military capabilities. Asymmetrical warfare is therefore important in understanding both how different cultures understand war and in explaining why ‘conventional’ western forms of warfare are often met with so much resistance.


Breen, Michael and Geltzer, Joshua A. ‘Asymmetric Strategies as Strategies of the Strong’. Parameters. Spring 2011. pp. 41-55.

Carter, Timothy. ‘Explaining Insurgent Violence: The Timing of Deadly Events in Afghanistan’. Civil Wars. Vol. 13, No. 2. 2011. pp. 99-121.

Coker, Christopher. ‘What would Sun Tzu say about the war on terrorism?’. The RUSI Journal. Vol. 148, No. 1. pp. 16-20.

Coker, Christopher. Review of John Leech’s Asymmetries of Conflict. The International History Review. Vol. 25, No. 3. 2003. pp. 744-746

Fischerkellar, Michael P. ‘David versus Goliath: Cultural judgements in asymmetric wars’. Security Studies. Vol. 7, No. 4. pp. 1-43.

Goudling, Vincent J. ‘Back to the Future with Asymmetric Warfare’. Parameters. Winter 2000/2001. Vol. 30, No. 4. pp. 21-30.

Gray, Colin S. ‘Irregular Warfare: One Nature, Many Characters’. Strategic Studies Quarterly. Winter 2007. pp. 35-57

Gray, Colin S. ‘Thinking Asymmetrically in Times of Terror’. Parameters. Spring 2002. Vol. 32, No. 1. pp. 5-14.

Meigs, Montgomery C. ‘Unorthodox Thoughts about Asymmetric Warfare’. Parameters. Summer 2003. Vol. 33, No. 2. pp. 4-18.

Schwartau, Winn. ‘Looming Security Threats: Asymmetrical Adversaries’. Orbis. Spring 2000. pp. 197-205.

Smith, M.L.R. ‘Guerrillas in the mist: reassessing strategy and low intensity warfare’. Review of International Studies. 2003. Vol. 29. pp. 19-37.

[1] Michael Breen and Joshua A. Geltzer, ‘Asymmetric Strategies as Strategies of the Strong’, Parameters, Spring 2011, 41.

[2] Michael P. Fischerkellar, ‘David versus Goliath: Cultural judgements in asymmetric wars’, Security Studies, Vol. 7, No. 4, 1.

[3] Colin S. Gray, ‘Thinking Asymmetrically in Times of Terror’, Parameters, Spring 2002, Vol. 32, No. 1, 14.

[4] M.L.R. Smith, ‘Guerillas in the mist: reassessing strategy and low intensity warfare’, Review of International Studies, 2003, Vol. 29, 19.

[5] Gray, ‘Thinking Asymmetrically’, 5.

[6] Winn Schwartau, ‘Looming Security Threats: Asymmetrical Adversaries’, Orbis, Spring 2000, 200.

[7] Fischerkellar, ‘David versus Goliath’, 2.

[8] Montgomery C. Meigs, ‘Unorthodox Thoughts about Asymmetric Warfare’, Parameters, Spring 2002, Vol. 32, No. 1, 4.

[9] Breen and Geltzer, ‘Asymmetric Strategies’, 52.

[10] Breen and Geltzer, ‘Asymmetric Strategies’, 41.

[11] Breen and Geltzer, ‘Asymmetric Strategies’, 52.

[12] Breen and Geltzer, ‘Asymmetric Strategies’, 41.

[13] M.L.R. Smith, ‘Guerrillas in the Mist’, 22.

[14] M.L.R. Smith, ‘Guerrillas’, 19.

[15] Gray, ‘Irregular Warfare’, 39-40.

[16] Colin Gray, ‘Irregular Warfare: One Nature, Many Characters’, Strategic Studies Quarterly, Winter 2007, 37.

[17] M.L.R. Smith, ‘Guerrillas’, 19.

[18] Gray, ‘Thinking Asymmetrically’, 14.

[19] Gray, ‘Thinking Asymmetrically’, 13.

[20] M.L.R. Smith, ‘Guerrillas’, 20.

[21] Gray, ‘Thinking Asymmetrically’, 14.

[22] Vincent J. Goulding Jr., ‘Back to the Future with Asymmetric Warfare’, 21.

[23] Christopher Coker, ‘What would Sun Tzu say about the war on terrorism?’, The RUSI Journal, 148:1, 16.

[24] Christopher Coker, ‘Review’, The International History Review, 25:3 (September 2003), 745.

[25] Gray, ‘Irregular Warfare’, 52.

[26] Coker, ‘Review’, 745

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