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Rethinking Asymmetric Threats

Rethinking Asymmetric Threats - Cover

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank.

December 2003

69 Pages

Brief Synopsis

For several years U.S. policymakers, officials, and writers on defense have employed the terms "asymmetric" or "asymmetry" to characterize everything from the nature of the threats we face to the nature of war and beyond. The author challenges the utility of using those terms to characterize the threats we face, one element of the broader debate over the nature of war, U.S. strategy, and the threats confronting us. As a work of critique, it aims to make an important contribution to the threat debate. A correct assessment of the nature of the threat environment is essential to any sound defense doctrine for the U.S. Army and the military as a whole. That correct assessment can only be reached through a process of critique and debate.


For the last several years, the U.S. strategic community has used the terms “asymmetric” and “asymmetry” to characterize everything from the threats we face to the wars we fight. In doing so, we have twisted these concepts beyond utility, particularly as they relate to the threats we face. As one writer cited here observed, we have reached the point where the German offensives of 1918 are considered asymmetric attacks. Clearly this use of the term asymmetric or of the concept of asymmetry does not help us assess correctly the threats we face. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has voiced his discomfort with the term asymmetry, indicating his unease with its use. This monograph presents a substantive critique of those terms insofar as they relate to the threats, not to the nature of war or strategies that might be formulated against us.

In this critical attempt to “deconstruct” those terms, several critiques of them are presented that embrace what might be called linguistic as well as strategic challenges to the concept of asymmetric threats. What is at stake here is not just philological or philosophical exactitude, but rather getting the threat right. That is a critical strategic level responsibility of commanders and policymakers as they formulate policy and strategy. This monograph argues that our misuse of the terms asymmetry and asymmetric distorts those vital processes and leads us to make major strategic blunders. For example by focusing on threats rather than enemy strategies we fail to understand their strategic nature, goals, and overall concepts of operations. Clearly something like this happened on September 11, 2001, where we suffered grievously for our failure to understand the nature of the terrorists’ strategy and hence the real threats they could pose. We had concentrated instead on what are called here tactical level threats, not a strategic threat to the existence of our national command authority or financial system.

But beyond simply criticizing the misuse of the terms relating to asymmetry and asymmetric threats, this monograph presents an alternative way of thinking about the kinds of threats we face from both states and nonstate actors in the contemporary strategic environment. It argues that threats should be categorized on the basis of the significance of the target. In that case the threats displayed on September 11, 2001, would clearly be recognized as strategic, while attacks like those on the USS Cole in Yemen a year earlier would be seen as tactical level. We do not disparage the seriousness of the latter event or of other similar cases, but rather we gain a better and more accurate perception of a threat environment that is now multidimensional, can be launched from anywhere on earth, or, in the not too distant future, from space. Threats also can be launched from underwater to space and vice versa, or through the ether, land, sea, air, underwater, and from space to any of the other media enumerated here. These threats, both strategic and tactical, comprise traditional anti-access strategies along with proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and potential information warfare. Indeed, foreign military analysts believe that, in some cases, their countries have already been subjected to these new forms of threats. They also cite the possibility that the new technologies coming into being could lead to innovative and unprecedented fusions of information and biological warfare.

This assessment of the broader threat environment suggests that the Bush administration has grasped correctly that the strategic environment it inherited has changed, dramatically and substantively. Indeed, that environment might have been changing in this direction even without the attacks of September 11. In such a dramatically transformed strategic environment, not only must our forces and organizations be transformed, so too must our thinking undergo transformation. And transformation of our thinking about the nature of the threat environment confronting us is essential to the development of a sound defense strategy and policy, and operational concepts that will prevent future defeats and contribute to the ensuring victory in forthcoming contingencies.

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