What’s “asymmetric” in asymmetric warfare?

Many of the situations in terrorism and insurgency are forms of so-called asymmetric or 4th generation warfare. But what is it that characterises this kind of warfare?

The usual answer is something like: large, developed nations have large militaries with well-developed and sophisticated arms and infrastructure, while terrorist groups or insurgents are small, with few resources.

There are, of course, advantages to being big and well-equipped. But it’s worth remembering that off-the-shelf technology is often, dollar for dollar, much better than specially-developed military hardware. Obviously this isn’t true across the board — if you don’t have cruise missile technology, you can’t really approximate it with parts bought from your favourite electronics retailer.

Nevertheless, a small group with few resources is not as badly off compared to a large, developed nation as the ratios of technology and military budgets suggest.

A second, more sophisticated, view of asymmetry is that it’s an asymmetry of costs. A small group can impose costs on a large group with a much better force multiplier than a large nation can do the converse. The September 11th attacks have been variously costed, but let’s say $500,000 to carry out, the number used in the 9/11 Commission Report. The consequences are estimated to have cost more than $100 billion, depending what you count as consequences.

Another way to think about asymmetry is that it’s asymmetry of the difficulty of defence. A small group is hard to find, easy to move, and hard to attack if found. In contrast, a nation has targets that are easy to find, hard to move, and often, because there are so many potential targets, easy to attack.

The fundamental asymmetry that lies behind all of these is the asymmetry of risk. A large nation must succeed in defending itself on every occasion; a terrorist or insurgent group needs only to attack successfully a few times in many attempts.

That’s why knowledge discovery is so important. Collecting and analysing large volumes of data provides the countervailing force to the ability of small groups to act and move invisibly. Knowledge discovery recreates the balance of power in favour of large nations.

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