America's Frontier Wars: Lessons for Asymmetric Conflicts

By Skelton, Ike | Military Review, June 2008 | Go to article overview

America's Frontier Wars: Lessons for Asymmetric Conflicts


Skelton, Ike, Military Review


Congressman Ike Skelton suggests how to overcome the threat of asymmetrical warfare by examining yesteryear's battles to develop strategies and tactics for tomorrow's conflicts.

IN JULY 1755. Major General Edward Braddock, commander in chief of all British forces in North America and a 45-year career soldier. was killed along with 900 of his men by a smaller French and Indian force. On his way to capture Fort Duquesne. Pennsylvania. Braddock had split his force into two divisions. Because of the difficulty of crossing the wilderness, they opened a distance of 60 miles between the "flying column" division of rapidly moving soldiers and a support column hauling "monstrously heavy eight-inch howitzers and twelve-pound cannons" completely unsuited to the terrain.

The lead column stretched a mile in length and was attacked on the far side of the Monongahela River by Indians streaming along either British flank and hiding within the forest they had long used as hunting grounds. The British responded using traditional tactics-continuously trying to form companies and return fire but only concentrating their number further for Indian attack. Braddock ordered forward the main body of his troops, which then collided with retreating elements ahead. In the resulting confusion. 15 of the 18 officers in the advance party were picked off. Still, the remaining forces continued to fight the way they were taught: maintaining platoon formations and firing together even as they drew heavy fire to the line from well-hidden Indians. It was not until Braddock himself was shot in the back that the British broke in retreat, earning off the body of their commanding officer.1

Asymmetric Warfare: Yesterday and Tomorrow

Why do I begin an article addressing tomorrow's conflicts with an account of a battle fought two and a half centuries ago? As an avid student of history. I believe it is critically important for us to understand that asymmetric warfare is not something new. In fact, it has been a recurring theme of American military history and is familiar to main of today's military officers. Many of its best historical examples come from the series of conflicts we collectively refer to as the Indian Wars. Braddock's defeat highlights as many useful insights as contemporary examples of asymmetric action, like Russian battles with the Chechens. Overcoming future challenges will require that we both understand the lessons from the past and develop strategies and tactics appropriate to tomorrow's battlefield.

While asymmetric warfare is not something new. it is very much in vogue today in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. Given America's resounding success in that conflict, potential adversaries have learned Iraq's lesson that it is foolish to try to match us conventionally. Instead, they are seeking ways to turn our strengths against us. This is the heart of the concept of asymmetry, broadly defined by Steven Metz and Douglas Johnson of the US Army War College as: "In the realm of military affairs and national security, asymmetry is acting, organizing, and thinking differently than opponents in order to maximize one's own advantages, exploit an opponent's weaknesses, attain the initiative, or gain greater freedom of action."2

Asymmetry on the Future Battlefield

In operational terms, asymmetry derives from one force deploying new capabilities that the opposing force does not perceive or understand, conventional capabilities that counter or overmatch the capabilities of its opponent, or capabilities that represent totally new methods of attack or defenseor a combination of these attributes.1 The US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) now thinks of ways to characterize tomorrow's asymmetric challenges. ' In considering its arguments. I was struck again by the utility of lessons learned from earlier campaigns against Native Americans such as Braddock's defeat. So I have matched TRADOC's insights for the future with asymmetric examples from the past. …

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