Asymmetric Warfare: Like the Young David with His Sling-Shot, Hostile Nations Armed with Cheap but Effective Weapons Pose an Increasing Threat to the Goliath of U.S. Military Might

By Tucker, Jonathan B. | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Asymmetric Warfare: Like the Young David with His Sling-Shot, Hostile Nations Armed with Cheap but Effective Weapons Pose an Increasing Threat to the Goliath of U.S. Military Might


Tucker, Jonathan B., Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy


Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has been the world's sole superpower. It is the only country to maintain a global naval presence, a panoply of overseas bases, and the ability to deploy military forces to distant regions. The U.S. defense budget, at over $280 billion for fiscal year 2000, is several times larger than the combined spending of the countries generally perceived as the most likely future U.S. opponents: China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and Yugoslavia. (1) No potential adversary comes close in advanced conventional weaponry--such as cruise missiles, stealth fighter-bombers, laser-guided bombs--and supporting navigation, surveillance, target-acquisition, and communications systems. Even the Pentagon predicts that a peer competitor will not emerge until around 2010, and most analysts consider that possibility unlikely.

Given U.S. supremacy in conventional forces, few rational opponents would deliberately seek a direct military confrontation with the United States--although Iraq blundered into war by miscalculating Washington's response to the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and was soundly defeated. Instead, future adversaries who resort to military force against the United States will probably employ asymmetric, or David-and-Goliath, strategies involving innovative yet affordable weapons and tactics designed to weaken U.S. resolve and its ability to use its superior conventional military capabilities effectively.

A future opponent, for example, might employ nonconventional weapons--nuclear, chemical, biological, or radiological--or conduct terrorist attacks against military or civilian targets on American territory in a bid to deter or impede U.S. intervention in a regional conflict in the Persian Gulf, the Korean Peninsula, or the Balkans. Such an adversary could be selective in its objectives, timing the moment of an attack to maximize its strengths. Although the United States could ultimately prevail, the increased financial and human costs might undermine the political will of U.S. leaders to sustain the conflict or deter allies from providing assistance. (2)

U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen has warned that "a paradox of the new strategic environment is that American military superiority actually increases the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical attack against us by creating incentives for adversaries to challenge us asymmetrically." (3)

Hype or Threat?

To what extent is asymmetric warfare a new threat that poses a significant danger to the security of the United States? Three strategic assessments published by the U.S. Department of Defense have called attention to the issue.

The May 1997 Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review stated that a future adversary could "employ asymmetric methods to delay or deny U.S. access to critical facilities; disrupt our command, control, communications, and intelligence networks; or inflict higher than expected casualties in an attempt to weaken our national resolve." (4)

The National Defense Panel, a group of nongovernmental analysts commenting on the Quadrennial Defense Review, agreed that future opponents

will seek to disable the underlying structures that enable our military operations. Forward bases and forward-deployed forces will likely be challenged and coalition partners coerced. Critical nodes that enable communications, transportation, deployment, and other means of power projection will be vulnerable. (5)

Finally, Joint Vision 2010, a study of warfare in the next century by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted that our most vexing future adversary may be one who can use technology to make rapid improvements in its military capabilities that provide asymmetrical counters to U.S. military strengths, including information technologies." (6)

In response to these alarming declarations, skeptics have argued that military scenarios focusing on asymmetric threats tend to overstate the vulnerabilities of the United States, and that merely identifying theoretical windows of vulnerability does not necessarily mean that real-world adversaries could climb through them.

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Asymmetric Warfare: Like the Young David with His Sling-Shot, Hostile Nations Armed with Cheap but Effective Weapons Pose an Increasing Threat to the Goliath of U.S. Military Might
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