Deciphering Asymmetry's Word Game

By Thomas, Timothy L. | Military Review, July/August 2001 | Go to article overview

Deciphering Asymmetry's Word Game


Thomas, Timothy L., Military Review


[One] assessment listed four asymmetric responses that other nations could take to counter US superiority: acquiring weapons of mass destruction; acquiring high-technology weapons, acquiring cyberweapons; and fighting in environments that degrade US capabilities. The logic of considering these approaches asymmetric escapes reason, for the first three responses would improve symmetry.

THE TERMS "ASYMMETRY," "asymmetric warfare," "asymmetric approaches and "asymmetric options" are popular sound bites found in many military journals today. Asymmetric-related terms are commonly associated with a potential opponent's operations or actions against US interests or forces. The attacks are commonly described as chemical, biological, nuclear, terrorist or information attacks, or attacks against weak points. Arguably, these attacks are not asymmetric. In fact, except for the terrorist example, these are symmetrical attacks. The United States has chemical, biological, nuclear and information means; therefore, such attacks cannot be asymmetric.

The asymmetric aspect of a chemical, nuclear, information or traditional attack actually relates to asymmetries in capabilities, reliance, vulnerabilities and values. The capabilities of certain forces-some information systems can shut down command and control systems and prevent nuclear systems from launching-constitute one variable. A nation's reliance on a particular system is another. For example, both sides can have information weapons, but one side may rely more on them than the other. The vulnerability of a system or platform's performance parameters, operating principles or situational context is another asymmetric opening, the one most often associated with weak spots. Finally, cultural values determine whether a nation will or will not use one of these methods.

The Russo-US relationship provides an example of such reasoning. Both countries have had biological and nuclear weapons for decades, yet no one has called this an asymmetric Russian threat. Neither side has used these weapons because of discussions that led to a common understanding and because of a value structure that placed national interest above other interests. However, if a country that conducts operations based on very different values obtains biological weapons, then we should worry. In some cultures. social and religious reasons may override national interests when choosing whether to use such weapons.

What is Asymmetry?

Judging by the multiple applications of the term in military journals-"not fighting fair," "attacking a weak point," "information or cyberwar," "public relations war," "weapons of mass destruction"-- very few people understand asymmetry's formal definition. This is understandable since joint doctrine does not define the term.1 One civilian lexicon explains asymmetry using the mathematical term "incommensurability," the relationship between things which have no common measure.2 Another civilian definition refers to defective, disproportionate correspondence between things or their parts.3

Other non-English-speaking cultures define the term in more distinct ways. A Russian dictionary definition of asymmetry is "the absence or destruction of symmetry."4 This concept implies a more active role in changing symmetry's parameters than the US or British definition, even the creation of asymmetry. Compared to Western deductive thinking, the Russian dialectic thought process of thesis and antithesis encourages an analysis of a situation from a different, more confrontational perspective.

There is no distinct word for asymmetry in Chinese. To express this concept one would negate the word for "to be symmetrical." This word for symmetry, duicheng, is also comprised of two characters. The word dui in ancient texts means "to respond," "to face or face off," "to match"-both in the sense of complement but also in the sense of enemies matching in skill. The term cheng initially signified the concept of "a balance" and then evolved into a broader semantic sense of "to accord with.

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