Thinking Asymmetrically in Times of Terror

By Gray, Colin S. | Parameters, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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Thinking Asymmetrically in Times of Terror

Gray, Colin S., Parameters

In American common usage today, asymmetric threats are those that our political, strategic, and military cultures regard as unusual. Such threats differ significantly in character both from those that we anticipate facing from putative enemies and from the methods with which we plan to menace them. Much as international lawyers thus far have failed to define terrorism to the general satisfaction, so US national security specialists have found that the endeavor to define asymmetric threats has proved generally unproductive. Borrowing from the terrorism case, the most fruitful approach to the better understanding of asymmetric threats is not via a forlorn quest for the perfect definition, but rather by the identification of the principal characteristics of, and corollaries to, asymmetry.

Characteristics of Asymmetry

A problem with efforts to define an asymmetric threat is that they imply strongly that the universe of threats divides neatly into the symmetric and the asymmetric. Indeed, by definition we can make it so. Of course, this is at best misleading, if not downright nonsensical. Notwithstanding the apparent clarity of some cases, there is no more definitive a universal test for what is an asymmetric threat than there is for who is a terrorist. If one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, so one culture's asymmetric threat is another's standard modus operandi. Let us proceed by listing the characteristics of, and usual corollaries to, threats we generally deem to be asymmetric.

Asymmetric threats tend to be:

* Unusual in our eyes.

* Irregular in that they are posed by instruments unrecognized by the long-standing laws of war (which are keyed to control the conduct of regular military machines engaged in open combat).

* Unmatched in our arsenal of capabilities and plans. Such threats may or may not appear truly dangerous, but they will certainly look different from war as we have known it.

* Highly leveraged against our particular assets--military and, probably more often, civil.

* Designed not only to secure leverage against our assets, but also intended to work around, offset, and negate what in other contexts are our strengths.

* Difficult to respond to in kind. This is less true than we usually allow. For example, special forces can be unleashed to operate as "terrorists in uniform." Unconventional warfare of all kinds, including terrorism (and guerrilla operations), is a politically neutral technique.

* Difficult to respond to in a discriminate and proportionate manner. It is of the nature of asymmetric threats that they are apt to pose a level-of-response dilemma to the victim. The military response readily available tends to be unduly heavy-handed, if not plainly irrelevant, while the policy hunt for the carefully measured and precisely targeted reply all too easily can be ensnared in a lengthy political process which inhibits any real action.

* Friendly to the frightening prospect of the "unknown unknown." By analogy, if we do not scan the skies, including those of the southern hemisphere, comprehensively and routinely, we will probably not spot the asteroid (or other "Near Earth Object") that poses the ultimate asymmetric menace to our security. But even a superior defense community is going to miss some "unknown unknowns." We do not look for what we do not know to look for.

Undoubtedly some works of frontier social scientific scholarship one day will dissect the concept of the asymmetric threat and argue that it has N categories, Y subcategories, and who knows how many intriguing, and not wholly implausible, variations. To be useful to US policy, however, an understanding of asymmetric threats should focus only upon the core of the matter. In addition to the eight broad and overlapping characteristics itemized above, it is only a special class of asymmetric menace that need attract official US concern today.

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