Asymmetric warfare

Contractors that want to do business with the U.S. Army would be well advised to heed the service's intensifying stress on asymmetric warfare.

Jan 1st, 2001

by John Rhea

WASHINGTON — Contractors that want to do business with the U.S. Army would be well advised to heed the service's intensifying stress on asymmetric warfare.

As discussed in detail at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) last October in Washington, the term reflects the proliferation of global threats and the wide range of American responses that will be required to deal with those threats.

The focal point of the discussions is Presidential Decision Directive 62, issued by the White House in May of 1998, which lays the issue on the line this way: "America's unrivaled military superiority means that potential enemies ... that choose to attack us will be more likely to resort to terror instead of conventional military assault."

As cited by Joseph Cyrulik, a research fellow at AUSA's Institute of Land Warfare, the directive also warns of the down side of relying on readily available commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology.

"Moreover, easier access to sophisticated technology means that the destructive power available to terrorists is greater than ever," the directive notes. "Adversaries may thus be tempted to use unconventional tools, such as weapons of mass destruction, to target our cities and disrupt the operations of our government."

Asymmetry is not new to warfare. The Cold War was asymmetrical in the sense that it represented a confrontation between a large land power (the former Soviet Union), which was rightly concerned about its vulnerability, and a maritime power (the United States), which was isolated on the other side of the globe and dependent on overseas sources of supply for the raw materials necessary for its economic well being.

In that bipolar world we at least faced a more or less measurable threat and were able to tailor our forces accordingly. We combined the nuclear stalemate and our ability to project force abroad as needed in order to maintain a reasonably stable world order.

In today's multipolar world we no longer have that ability to identify the threat with sufficient precision and thus have to transform our forces to respond to a variety of ill-defined threats.

That's what the Army is grappling with now, and it is in the market for some innovative thinking on the part of its suppliers. As was pointed out at AUSA, today's Army is equipped with major weapon systems that were technologically conceived in the 1970s, built in the 1980s, and used successfully in the 1990s.

That doesn't mean we have to scrap those weapons, but it does mean we have to upgrade them to function in this age of asymmetry. As Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki pointed out in a directive of his own in June 1999, "our heavy forces are too heavy and our light forces lack staying power."

Implicit in these discussions is the realization that air power and force projection ashore from the sea alone are not sufficient to maintain international stability. Troops are going to have to be put on the ground.

Moreover, those troops are going to have to accomplish their mission speedily and with a low level of casualties that is acceptable in democratic societies. Popular support can be sustained only for a while and only if the cause is perceived to be just. The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant observed that democratic countries never go to war with each other — but, as the 20th century has shown, they will beat the tar out of dictatorial countries if provoked.

The issue will be scrutinized in detail at this year's scheduled Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, in which military planners from all the services will take a bottom-up approach to analyze the threat and focus on a workable response.

The suppliers to the U.S. Department of Defense could usefully take those findings as the starting point for a top-down approach of their own to get ready to develop the necessary hardware.

In the case of the Army, according to Shinseki, this hardware must be more versatile, agile, lethal, and survivable to operate throughout what he defines as the range of conflict, particularly low-intensity operations. He goes on to define the necessary hardware this way:

"It must be able to provide early entry forces that can operate jointly without access to fixed forward bases, and still have the power to slug it out and win campaigns decisively ... Heavy forces must be more strategically deployable and more agile with a smaller logistical footprint, and light forces must be more lethal, survivable, and tactically mobile."

One of the ground rules for the transformation process is that the Army cannot depend on overseas bases and will have to deploy its forces from the continental United States. This, in turn, dictates families of smaller weapon systems that can share logistic support and be transported to the conflict area by C-17 and C-5 cargo aircraft and within the theater of operations by C-130-type aircraft.

This is where the electronics industry can play a key role, particularly with COTS to upgrade today's legacy systems. As spelled out by the trade association Electronic Industries Alliance, the electronics content in all weapon systems is rising. Even though COTS devices are available to virtually all interested buyers, even the likes of Saddam Hussein, the United States still has at least a temporary technological edge.

Twenty years ago the electronics content of top-of-the-line fighter aircraft reached 40 percent of the fly away cost. The Future Combat System envisioned by the Army isn't there yet, but it's going in that direction.

Where the Army needs the most help — and the exhibits at last year's AUSA conference were tangible proof of this need — is in what is now called command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or C4ISR.

While the technological means to accomplish the C4ISR function may be new, the concept of information warfare is ancient. Napoleon is credited with refining the concept of command and control in order to focus forces on the enemy's points of weakness and thus win decisively, but the underlying idea goes back more than 2,000 years to the Chinese military scholar Sun Tzu.

What he said in his classic The Art of War could be useful guidelines for anybody trying to respond to the challenge of asymmetric warfare: "To achieve victory without fighting is the acme of skill. Thus, what is of supreme importance in warfare is to attack your enemy's strategy."

More in Communications