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A Viet Cong base camp being burned during the Vietnam War. An American private first class (PFC) stands by.

Asymmetric warfare (or asymmetric engagement) is a type of war between belligerents whose relative military power, strategy, or tactics differ significantly. This type of warfare often, but not necessarily, involves insurgents or resistance movement militias who may have the status of unlawful combatants against a standing army.[1]

Asymmetrical warfare can also describe a conflict in which belligerents' resources are uneven, and consequently, they both may attempt to exploit each other's relative weaknesses. Such struggles often involve unconventional warfare, with the weaker side attempting to use strategy to offset deficiencies in the quantity or quality of their forces and equipment.[2] Such strategies may not necessarily be militarized.[3] This is in contrast to symmetrical warfare, where two powers have comparable military power, resources, and rely on similar tactics.

Asymmetric warfare is a form of irregular warfare – conflicts in which enemy combatants are not regular military forces of nation-states. The term is frequently used to describe what is also called guerrilla warfare, insurgency, counterinsurgency, rebellion, terrorism, and counterterrorism.

Definition and differences

The popularity of the term dates from Andrew J. R. Mack's 1975 article "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars" in World Politics, in which "asymmetric" referred simply to a significant disparity in power between opposing actors in a conflict. "Power," in this sense, is broadly understood to mean material power, such as a large army, sophisticated weapons, an advanced economy, and so on. Mack's analysis was largely ignored in its day, but the end of the Cold War sparked renewed interest among academics. By the late 1990s, a new research building off Mack's works was beginning to mature; after 2004, the U.S. military began once again to prioritize responding to challenges presented by asymmetric warfare.[4]

Since 2004, the discussion of asymmetric warfare has been complicated by the tendency of academic and military officials to use the term in different ways, as well as by its close association with guerrilla warfare, insurgency, terrorism, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism.

Academic authors tend to focus on explaining two puzzles in asymmetric conflict. First, if "power" determines victory, there must be reasons why weaker actors decide to fight more powerful actors. Key explanations include:

Second, if "power," as generally understood, leads to victory in war, then there must be an explanation for why the "weak" can defeat the "strong." Key explanations include:

Asymmetric conflicts include interstate and civil wars, and over the past two hundred years, have generally been won by strong actors. Since 1950, however, weak actors have won the majority of asymmetric conflicts.[10] In asymmetric conflicts conflict escalation can be rational for one side.[11]

Strategic basis

In most conventional warfare, the belligerents deploy forces of a similar type, and the outcome can be predicted by the quantity or quality of the opposing forces, for example, better command and control of theirs (c2). There are times when this is the case, and conventional forces are not easily compared, making it difficult for opposing sides to engage. An example of this is the standoff between the continental land forces of the French Army and the maritime forces of the United Kingdom's Royal Navy during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. In the words of Admiral Jervis during the campaigns of 1801, "I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea",[12] and a confrontation that Napoleon Bonaparte described as that between the elephant and the whale.[13]

Tactical basis

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Oil-drum roadside IED in Northern Ireland removed from culvert in 1984

The tactical success of asymmetric warfare is dependent on at least some of the following assumptions:


There are two opposing viewpoints on the relationship between asymmetric warfare and terrorism. In the modern context, asymmetric warfare is increasingly considered a component of fourth generation warfare. When practiced outside the laws of war, it is often defined as terrorism, though rarely by its practitioners or their supporters.[17] The other view is that asymmetric warfare does not coincide with terrorism.

Use of terrain

Terrain that limits mobility, such as forests and mountains, can be used as a force multiplier by the smaller force and as a force inhibitor against the larger one, especially one operating far from its logistical base. Such terrain is called difficult terrain. Urban areas, though generally having good transport access, provide innumerable ready-made defensible positions with simple escape routes and can also become rough terrain if prolonged combat fills the streets with rubble:

The contour of the land is an aid to the army, sizing up opponents to determine victory and assessing dangers and distance. "Those who do battle without knowing these will lose."

The guerrillas must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.

In the 12th century, irregulars known as the Assassins were successful in the Nizari Ismaili state. The "state" consisted of fortresses (such as the Alamut Castle) built on strategic mountaintops and highlands with difficult access, surrounded by hostile lands. The Assassins developed tactics to eliminate high-value targets, threatening their security, including the Crusaders.

In the American Revolutionary War, Patriot Lieutenant Colonel Francis Marion, known as the "Swamp Fox," took advantage of irregular tactics, interior lines, and the wilderness of colonial South Carolina to hinder larger British regular forces.[18]

Yugoslav Partisans, starting as small detachments around mountain villages in 1941, fought the German and other Axis occupation forces, successfully taking advantage of the rough terrain to survive despite their small numbers. Over the next four years, they slowly forced their enemies back, recovering population centers and resources, eventually growing into the regular Yugoslav Army.

Role of civilians

Civilians can play a vital role in determining the outcome of an asymmetric war. In such conflicts, when it is easy for insurgents to assimilate into the population quickly after an attack, tips on the timing or location of insurgent activity can severely undermine the resistance. An information-central framework,[19] in which civilians are seen primarily as sources of strategic information rather than resources, provides a paradigm to understand better the dynamics of such conflicts where civilian information-sharing is vital. The framework assumes that:

Given the additional assumption that the larger or dominant force is the government, the framework suggests the following implications:

A survey of the empirical literature on conflict,[19] does not provide conclusive evidence on the claims. But the framework gives a starting point to explore the role of civilian information sharing in asymmetric warfare.

War by proxy

Where asymmetric warfare is carried out (generally covertly) by allegedly non-governmental actors who are connected to or sympathetic to a particular nation's (the "state actor's") interest, it may be deemed war by proxy. This is typically done to give the state actor deniability. The deniability can be crucial to keep the state actor from being tainted by the actions, to allow the state actor to negotiate in apparent good faith by claiming they are not responsible for the actions of parties who are merely sympathizers, or to avoid being accused of belligerent actions or war crimes. If proof emerges of the true extent of the state actor's involvement, this strategy can backfire; for example, see Iran-contra and Philip Agee.


American Revolutionary War

From its initiation, the American Revolutionary War was, necessarily, a showcase for asymmetric techniques. In the 1920s, Harold Murdock of Boston attempted to solve the puzzle of the first shots fired on Lexington Green and came to the suspicion that the few score militiamen who gathered before sunrise to await the arrival of hundreds of well-prepared British soldiers were sent to provoke an incident which could be used for Patriot propaganda purposes.[20] The return of the British force to Boston following the search operations at Concord was subject to constant skirmishing by Patriot forces gathered from communities all along the route, making maximum use of the terrain (particularly, trees and stone field walls) to overcome the limitations of their weapons – muskets with an effective range of only about 50–70 meters. Throughout the war, skirmishing tactics against British troops on the move continued to be a key factor in the Patriots' success; particularly in the Western theater of the American Revolutionary War.[21][22][23][24]

Another feature of the long march from Concord was the urban warfare technique of using buildings along the route as additional cover for snipers. When revolutionary forces forced their way into Norfolk, Virginia and used waterfront buildings as cover for shots at British vessels out in the river, the response of destruction of those buildings was ingeniously used to the advantage of the rebels, who encouraged the spread of fire throughout the largely Loyalist town and spread propaganda blaming it on the British. Shortly afterwards, they destroyed the remaining houses because they might provide cover for British soldiers.[25][26][27]

The rebels also adopted a form of asymmetric sea warfare by using small, fast vessels to avoid the Royal Navy and capturing or sinking large numbers of merchant ships; however the Crown responded by issuing letters of marque permitting private armed vessels to undertake similar attacks on Patriot shipping. John Paul Jones became notorious in Britain for his expedition from France in the sloop of war Ranger in April 1778, during which, in addition to his attacks on merchant shipping, he made two landings on British soil.[28][page needed] The effect of these raids, particularly when coupled with his capture of the Royal Navy's HMS Drake – the first such success in British waters, but not Jones' last – was to force the British government to increase resources for coastal defense, and to create a climate of fear among the British public which was subsequently fed by press reports of his preparations for the 1779 Bonhomme Richard mission.[28][page needed]

From 1776, the conflict turned increasingly into a proxy war on behalf of France, following a strategy proposed in the 1760s but initially resisted by the idealistic young King Louis XVI, who came to the throne at the age of 19 a few months before Lexington. France ultimately drove Great Britain to the brink of defeat by entering the war(s) directly on several fronts throughout the world.[28][page needed]

American Civil War

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The American Civil War saw the rise of asymmetric warfare in the Border States, and in particular on the US Western Territorial Border after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 opened the territories to vote on the expansion of slavery beyond the Missouri Compromise lines. Political implications of this broken 1820's compromise were nothing less than the potential expansion of slavery all across the North American continent, including the northern reaches of the annexed Mexican territories to California and Oregon. So the stakes were high, and it caused a flood of immigration to the border: some to grab land and expand slavery west, others to grab land and vote down the expansion of slavery. The pro-slavery land grabbers began asymmetric, violent attacks against the more pacifist abolitionists who had settled Lawrence and other territorial towns to suppress slavery. John Brown, the abolitionist, travelled to Osawatomie in the Kansas Territory expressly to foment retaliatory attacks back against the pro-slavery guerrillas who, by 1858, had twice ransacked both Lawrence and Osawatomie (where one of Brown's sons was shot dead).

The abolitionists would not return the attacks and Brown theorized that a violent spark set off on "the Border" would be a way to finally ignite his long hoped-for slave rebellion.[29][time needed] Brown had broad-sworded slave owners at Potawatomi Creek, so the bloody civilian violence was initially symmetrical; however, once the American Civil War ignited in 1861, and when the state of Missouri voted overwhelmingly not to secede from the Union, the pro-slavers on the MO-KS border were driven either south to Arkansas and Texas, or underground—where they became guerrilla fighters and "Bushwhackers" living in the bushy ravines throughout northwest Missouri across the (now) state line from Kansas. The bloody "Border War" lasted all during the Civil War (and long after with guerrilla partisans like the James brothers cynically robbing and murdering, aided and abetted by lingering lost causers[30][page needed]). Tragically the Western Border War was an asymmetric war: pro-slavery guerrillas and paramilitary partisans on the pro-Confederate side attacked pro-Union townspeople and commissioned Union military units, with the Union army trying to keep both in check: blocking Kansans and pro-Union Missourians from organizing militarily against the marauding Bushwhackers.

The worst act of domestic terror in U.S. history came in August 1863 when paramilitary guerrillas amassed 350 strong and rode all night 50 miles across eastern Kansas to the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence (a political target) and destroyed the town, gunning down 150 civilians. The Confederate officer whose company had joined Quantrill's Raiders that day witnessed the civilian slaughter and forbade his soldiers from participating in the carnage. The commissioned officer refused to participate in Quantrill's asymmetric warfare on civilians.[31][full citation needed]

Philippine–American War

The Philippine–American War (1899–1902) was an armed conflict between the United States and Filipino revolutionaries. Estimates of the Filipino forces vary between 100,000 and 1,000,000, with tens of thousands of auxiliaries.[32] Lack of weapons and ammunition was a significant impediment to the Filipinos, so most of the forces were only armed with bolo knives, bows and arrows, spears and other primitive weapons that, in practice, proved vastly inferior to U.S. firepower.

Remnants of rifles used by Filipino soldiers during the War on display at Clark Museum

The goal, or end-state, sought by the First Philippine Republic was a sovereign, independent, socially stable Philippines led by the ilustrado (intellectual) oligarchy.[33] Local chieftains, landowners, and businessmen were the principales who controlled local politics. The war was strongest when illustrados, principales, and peasants were unified in opposition to annexation.[33] The peasants, who provided the bulk of guerrilla forces, had interests different from their illustrado leaders and the principales of their villages.[33] Coupled with the ethnic and geographic fragmentation, unity was a daunting task. The challenge for Aguinaldo and his generals was to sustain unified Filipino public opposition; this was the revolutionaries' strategic centre of gravity.[33] The Filipino operational center of gravity was the ability to sustain its force of 100,000 irregulars in the field.[34] The Filipino General Francisco Macabulos described the Filipinos' war aim as "not to vanquish the U.S. Army but to inflict on them constant losses." They initially sought to use conventional tactics and an increasing toll of U.S. casualties to contribute to McKinley's defeat in the 1900 presidential election.[34] Their hope was that as president the avowedly anti-imperialist future Secretary of state William Jennings Bryan would withdraw from the Philippines.[34] They pursued this short-term goal with guerrilla tactics better suited to a protracted struggle.[34] While targeting McKinley motivated the revolutionaries in the short term, his victory demoralized them and convinced many undecided Filipinos that the United States would not depart precipitously.[34] For most of 1899, the revolutionary leadership had viewed guerrilla warfare strategically only as a tactical option of final recourse, not as a means of operation which better suited their disadvantaged situation. On 13 November 1899, Emilio Aguinaldo decreed that guerrilla war would henceforth be the strategy. This made the American occupation of the Philippine archipelago more difficult over the next few years. In fact, during just the first four months of the guerrilla war, the Americans had nearly 500 casualties. The Philippine Revolutionary Army began staging bloody ambushes and raids, such as the guerrilla victories at Paye, Catubig, Makahambus, Pulang Lupa, Balangiga and Mabitac. At first, it seemed like the Filipinos would fight the Americans to a stalemate and force them to withdraw. President McKinley even considered this at the beginning of the phase. The shift to guerrilla warfare drove the U.S. Army to adopt counterinsurgency tactics.

20th century

Second Boer War

Asymmetric warfare featured prominently during the Second Boer War. After an initial phase, which was fought by both sides as a conventional war, the British captured Johannesburg, the Boers' largest city, and captured the capitals of the two Boer Republics. The British then expected the Boers to accept peace as dictated in the traditional European manner. However, the Boers fought a protracted guerrilla war instead of capitulating. 20,000-30,000[ambiguous] Boer guerrillas were only defeated after the British brought to bear 450,000 imperial troops, about ten times as many as were used in the conventional phase of the war. The British began constructing blockhouses built within machine gun range of one another and flanked by barbed wire to slow the Boers' movement across the countryside and block paths to valuable targets. Such tactics eventually evolved into today's counterinsurgency tactics.[35]

The Boer commando raids deep into the Cape Colony, which were organized and commanded by Jan Smuts, resonated throughout the century as the British adopted and adapted the tactics first used against them by the Boers.[35]

World War I

Between the World Wars

World War II

A Finnish soldier demonstrating a molotov cocktail
United States

After World War II

Cold War (1945–1992)

The end of World War II established the two strongest victors, the United States of America (the United States, or just the U.S.) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or just the Soviet Union) as the two dominant global superpowers.

Cold War examples of proxy wars

See also: Proxy war

In Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam, the Viet Minh, NLF and other insurgencies engaged in asymmetrical guerrilla warfare with France. The war between the Mujahideen and the Soviet Armed Forces during the Soviet–Afghan War of 1979 to 1989, though claimed as a source of the term "asymmetric warfare,"[38] occurred years after Mack wrote of "asymmetric conflict." (Note that the term "asymmetric warfare" became well-known in the West only in the 1990s.[39]) The aid given by the U.S. to the Mujahideen during the war was only covert at the tactical level; the Reagan Administration told the world that it was helping the "freedom-loving people of Afghanistan." Many countries, including the U.S., participated in this proxy war against the USSR during the Cold War.[40]

Post-Cold War

The Kosovo War, which pitted Yugoslav security forces (Serbian police and Yugoslav army) against Albanian separatists of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army, is an example of asymmetric warfare, due to Yugoslav forces' superior firepower and manpower, and due to the nature of insurgency/counter-insurgency operations. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (1999), which pitted NATO air power against the Yugoslav armed forces during the Kosovo war, can also be classified as asymmetric, exemplifying international conflict with asymmetry in weapons and strategy/tactics.[41]

21st century


Main article: Israeli–Palestinian conflict

The ongoing conflict between Israel and some Palestinian organizations (such as Hamas and PIJ) is a classic case of asymmetric warfare. Israel has a powerful army, air force and navy, while the Palestinian organizations have no access to large-scale military equipment with which to conduct operations;[42] instead, they utilize asymmetric tactics, such as paragliding, small gunfights, cross-border sniping, airstrikes,[43] and others.[44][45]

Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Civil War, which raged on and off from 1983 to 2009, between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) saw large-scale asymmetric warfare. The war started as an insurgency and progressed to a large-scale conflict with the mixture of guerrilla and conventional warfare, seeing the LTTE use suicide bombing (male/female suicide bombers) both on and off the battlefield use of explosive-filled boats for suicide attacks on military shipping; and use of light aircraft targeting military installations.


This Cougar in Al Anbar, Iraq, was hit by a directed charge IED approximately 300–500 lb (140–230 kg) in size.

The victory by the US-led coalition forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrated that training, tactics and technology could provide overwhelming victories in the field of battle during modern conventional warfare. After Saddam Hussein's regime was removed from power, the Iraq campaign moved into a different type of asymmetric warfare where the coalition's use of superior conventional warfare training, tactics and technology was of much less use against continued opposition from the various partisan groups operating inside Iraq.


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Much of the 2012–present Syrian Civil War has been asymmetrical. The Syrian National Coalition, Mujahideen, and Kurdish Democratic Union Party have been engaging with the forces of the Syrian government through asymmetric means. The conflict has seen large-scale asymmetric warfare across the country, with the forces opposed to the government unable to engage symmetrically with the Syrian government and resorting instead to other asymmetric tactics such as suicide bombings[46][47] and targeted assassinations.


Main article: Russo-Ukrainian War

The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a classical asymmetrical warfare scenario. Russia's superior military might, including its vast nuclear arsenal, larger economy and population, and seemingly superior armored forces have not helped Russia surmount fierce opposition from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which has inflicted severe blows against the Russian Armed Forces by relying on technologically advanced weaponry supplied by the outside Ukraine supporting parties.[48][49][50] The use of MAGURA V5 unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) to attack Russian Black Sea Fleet ships such as the Tsezar Kunikov has been cited as example of asymmetrical warfare by analysts.[51]

Semi-symmetric warfare

A new understanding of warfare has emerged amidst the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.[52] Although this type of warfare does not oppose an insurgency to a counter-insurgency force, it does involve two actors with substantially asymmetrical means of waging war. Notably, as technology has improved war-fighting capabilities, it has also made them more complex, thus requiring greater expertise, training, flexibility and decentralization. The nominally weaker military can exploit those complexities and seek to eliminate the asymmetry. This has been observed in Ukraine, as defending forces used a rich arsenal of anti-tank and anti-air missiles to negate the invading forces' apparent mechanized and aerial superiority, thus denying their ability to conduct combined arms operations. The success of this strategy will be compounded by access to real-time intelligence and the adversary's inability to utilize its forces to the maximum of their potential due to factors such as the inability to plan, brief and execute complex, full-spectrum operations.[53]

See also


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  36. ^ Lawson, George (2019). "Revolutionary Trajectories: Cuba and South Africa". Anatomies of Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 149. ISBN 9781108482684. Retrieved 2020-04-03. Like many other radical groups in southern Africa, the ANC was deeply influenced by the Cuban Revolution, in part because of its successful use of asymmetrical warfare, in part because of its transition from a grassroots, nationalist insurgency into a people's war, and in part because of the organic link made by Cuban revolutionaries between its political and military wings [...].
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Further reading



Articles and papers