Bad Guys Know What Works: Asymmetric Warfare and the Third Offset

June 23, 2015

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“There are only two ways to fight the US: stupidly [conventionally] or asymmetrically”

— Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster


The Department of Defense is preparing the groundwork for a technology-focused third offset strategy while simultaneously working to turn the page on more than 12 years of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. During this time of transition from small wars to a focus on big ones, the department and the defense industry risk focusing too much time and money on the anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) threat posed by China in the Western Pacific at the expense of preparing for asymmetric warfare — particularly against sophisticated non-state groups and great powers employing similar tactics. These malicious actors are increasingly using a combination of defense and commercial technology, underscoring the need for the U.S. military and defense industry to start thinking like asymmetric bad guys, to both counter and create hybrid-defense technologies and programs through the third offset strategy. America’s post-World War II history has shown that low-intensity conflicts against insurgents and small powers are far more likely to occur, and can significantly damage U.S. interests, exact an outsized toll, and give future enemies a playbook from which to work.

We have seen how America’s struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan have made it more reluctant to use ground forces against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and how insurgent tactics in Iraq migrated to Afghanistan and other theaters of conflict. If the United States decides to relegate insurgent and hybrid warfare to the heap of less-serious future threats, it risks expending more money and lives re-learning how to protect its interests abroad against future foes. The strategies and tactics of Russia and China, not to mention Iran or ISIL, may have more in common with insurgent forces than the kind of conventional air or naval engagements the U.S. military expects in a great power showdown. The explosion of commercial technology, repurposed for military capabilities and possibly supplemented by state-backed systems and training, only exacerbates this trend. The U.S. defense industry’s unique knowledge of U.S. and allied military requirements and capabilities means it can play a valuable role identifying and adapting commercial technology for our national security — as well as countering adversaries who may use similarly hybridized technologies against us.

Despite the technological advantage of the U.S. military, insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven their resilience in the face of large-scale campaigns. Groups like these are constantly innovating on the tactical and strategic levels because they are constantly at war, and defeat, for them, has existential consequences. Their military innovation curve is much faster by necessity. Insurgents tend to use new combinations of available commercial technologies to great military effect. Insurgents in Iraq combined cheap, commercially available cell phones and service with rudimentary explosives to create improvised explosive devices, and with the aid of Iranian designs, also produced explosively formed penetrators, which proved costly for U.S. forces. In the future, insurgents armed with commercially available drones or state-provided technology, could deny the U.S. military the staples of low-intensity conflict such as MQ-9 Reapers or Blackhawks in a strategically meaningful manner. Hezbollah has already demonstrated its ability to use anti-ship missiles against Israeli ships, and Hamas is trying to develop “suicide” drones.

Nor are non-state actors the only ones who will be likely to use commercially available technology and asymmetric tactics to achieve their military ends. China has used swarming fishing boats to bolster its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas and could use them for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or offensive operations in a time of war. Russia has shown its willingness to use unconventional tactics to occupy Crimea and eastern Ukraine. With new unmanned, communication, and remote sensing commercial and military technology, asymmetric warfare will cut across all military domains by actors small and large. If the third offset does not account for the diversity of enemies, asymmetric tactics and strategies, and their potential for military innovations, the military will run needless risks in the most common types of future conflicts.

The reason our technological advantage in Iraq and Afghanistan did not translate into a strategic advantage is because the technology we were using was not designed for that type of war. For example, precision-guided munitions, a staple of counter-insurgent/terrorist operations, were initially designed in the second offset to destroy massed Soviet armor in a war on the plains of central Europe. These munitions showed their effectiveness in accomplishing that objective by destroying Iraq’s Soviet-modeled army in the First Persian Gulf War. However, precision-guided munitions have not produced the same strategic advantage in Iraq and Afghanistan because that enemy did not rely on massed armor. The insurgents’ strategy was to use small-scale attacks, predominantly with improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers, against allied forces in order to slowly bleed us until we packed up and left. Our most advanced technology could not change this basic strategic fact. As commercial and military technology develops and proliferates, insurgents and hybrid forces will have yet more resources to execute an asymmetric strategy unless we develop counter-measures.

Proponents of a third offset based on conventional state-on-state war want to develop technology to counter A2/AD strategies that potential enemies may deploy. According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, key elements of a new offset strategy should include technologies that allow a persistent U.S. forward military presence to project power against adversaries with robust A2/AD networks and rely more on deterrence by denial and punishment. This strategy is clearly aimed at countries like China, Russia, and even Iran who have the potential to develop large-scale A2/AD networks and who have an address to punish. The Department of Defense is eager to invest in cutting-edge technologies and big-war operational concepts behind “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons,” such as unmanned undersea vehicles and longer-range precision-guided munitions. Yet, these efforts risk easily eclipsing more suitable weapons and strategies that can counter adversaries using hybrid warfare tactics. Insurgent and hybrid armies of the future will likely not have the A2/AD capabilities to deny access to F-35’s or the 7th Fleet, but it would be a mistake to underestimate our asymmetric adversaries because they do not spend as much on exotic weapons programs as the United States does.

There are a number of technological investments that could be featured in the third offset in order to counter future asymmetric tactics. The military will need the ability to identify, track, and defeat small drones that pose a security risk in civilian-rich environments. The military will also need unmanned aerial vehicles that can deliver supplies to soldiers and civilians in remote areas in contested environments. If the United States had a means of easily blocking insurgents’ recruitment messages via social media and spreading disinformation among their ranks, it could disrupt one of their prime means of strategic communication and intelligence.

As the United States prepares to address multiple threats across multiple geographies with a flat defense budget in the third offset, the need for allies to jointly invest in technological innovation is real. However, allies’ threat perceptions are quite different depending on their geography and strategic culture. Japan and Taiwan are concerned with the Chinese A2/AD threat; Israel and Arab allies with the Iranian nuclear program and ISIL/Al-Qaeda; and European allies with terrorism and Russia. In the previous two offset strategies, large investments in military capabilities against the Soviet threat also reassured NATO allies that the United States would come to their aid and pressured them to spend on their own militaries. A narrow focus on Chinese A2/AD threat may reassure Asian allies, but it may not help American relationships with NATO members and Middle Eastern allies. As it did with the F-35 development, the Pentagon could jointly fund research with European and Middle Eastern allies to counter hybrid technologies and tactics, and to reduce cost and promote strategic cooperation.

Defense companies could play a valuable role in this part of the third offset, and stand to gain by investing in these technologies because they would be able to address larger adjacent markets like homeland security, law enforcement, and transportation. In the future, domestic security agencies, power plants, and airports will need the ability to identify, track, and defeat small drones that pose a security threat in a civilian setting just as much as the military will on the battlefield. Likewise, research into the delivery of goods and people by unmanned platforms could usher in a new age of transportation and logistics.

The United States has learned a great deal about how to wage counterinsurgency and counterterrorist campaigns — and how difficult and costly they can be. This is a unique opportunity to make smart and targeted investments in technologies suited for low-intensity military operations that will continue to be a staple of future conflicts. There are big strategic and military challenges for America, particularly in the Pacific with China. But as history has shown, asymmetric warfare is not going away and if anything, it is only going to get more dangerous.


Benjamin Locks is a Senior Analyst at Avascent, where he supports a wide variety of strategic project engagement types including: competitive niche technology product evaluations, due diligence, merger & acquisition support, adjacent market studies and federal procurement assessments in both national and international markets.


Photo credit: Spc. Eric James Estrada, U.S. Army

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7 thoughts on “Bad Guys Know What Works: Asymmetric Warfare and the Third Offset

  1. The answer is pretty simple. What are the ramifications of not winning the war against radical Islam? Well, about the same as it’s been the last 50 years – minor annoyance in the grand scheme of things. How about losing a war against China or Russia. Yeah.

  2. Bad Guys Know What Works: Asymmetric Warfare and the Third Offset

    In many respects an interesting article, but one resting on a somewhat debatable understanding or belief. A belief summed up in the opening statement reportedly made by — Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, that “There are only two ways to fight the US: stupidly [conventionally] or asymmetrically.”

    First, the Chinese Army in 1950 defeated, in fact routed, Mac Arthur’s 8th Army in North Korea and drove it out of that country using conventional war methods. A situation that was reversed by General Ridgeway’s competent leadership of that force – using conventional methods of warfare. The lesson from that experience is that we should grasp that an adversary as large as China can be competent at conventional warfare.

    Second, while China’s “Salami Slicing” strategy in the South China Sea is well thought out and based (in part) on their use of fishing boats and Coast Guard vessels – it also succeeds because backing up that effort is a rather large conventional PLA Air Force, located on land bases in that part of China which borders directly on the South China Sea. Absent that conventional power, the Chinese strategy in the South China Sea could easily be successfully resisted by the other local (and comparatively small and weak) nations also bordering on the South China Sea.

    Presuming it is this Nation’s strategic objective to stop (and reverse) China’s advancement into that area, we have zero probability of achieving that objective unless we have offsetting conventional capabilities in that area of operations that are sufficiently powerful and technically capable of defeating the Chinese – and if they believe that would be the result of any conflict between on forces.

    However, the above paragraph leads directly into a more searching strategic inquiry which the political (and military leadership) of this country needs to ask of itself. In a sense the statement by General McMasters, from an implied historical perspective is correct. To date, the Nations that have gone to war with the U.S. using conventional methods have achieved at best limited success as in Korea or met with defeat as in Japan in World War II and Iraq in 1990 / 1991, and (without the need for actual conflict) the Soviets found their goals of World Domination frustrated by the costs of fielding competing conventional military forces.

    Contrarily, those Nations or peoples with whom we have engaged or warred unsuccessfully have relied on asymmetric warfare to frustrate this Nation’s attempt to achieve the political goals which motivated out inserting ground forces of one size or the other into their lands. That has occurred in (at least) Vietnam, Lebanon in 1982, Somalia, Iraq from 2003 forward, and soon to be admitted (by realists) in Afghanistan. Interestingly, on the other side of the COIN, the Army has had (rarely recognized) success in other operations in locations such as the Philippines, El Salvador, etc. Accordingly, the question perhaps should be why has this nation found itself involved in so many military interventions in foreign lands, wherein a conventionally weak and comparatively poorly armed opposing force was able to frustrate this Nation’s achievement of their political goals in that endeavor.

    When one (Nation or Military) consistently fails at something, one should ask the question, Why are we doing this over and over again. Are we simply repeating the “beat your head into the wall” methodology of the World War I Generals and Politicians on the Western Front – hoping that some other group will miraculously arrive and save us, or hoping the other guy will be exhausted before we reach the end of our endurance?

    And, the answer is not the oft repeated mantra (now of almost God spoken stature in the Military) that “The enemy has a vote.” Wrong, the enemy does not have a vote concerning this Nation’s decision to militarily intervene in a foreign land; they do not get a vote as to how this Nation responds to an attack against its (alleged) interests, they do not get a vote as to whether or not we actually have a truly meaningful strategic (political) goal in a given foreign land or area worth engaging in a costly protracted conflict; they do not have a vote as to whether we apply a standoff response at some given level of intensity, a direct raiding style intervention, a long term intervention, etc. Our leaders need to think strategically, need to realize that winning is not always required when the cost of that win far exceeds the benefit that could possibly be obtained from that success – were it even probable or possible.

    It is time for this Nation to realize that other Nation’s around the World such as the Russians in its bordering lands and the Chinese in their bordering lands have a strategic “Sphere of Influence,” and should we attempt to intervene in those areas, not only is there nothing for us to gain – we will most assuredly strategically fail. Second, we must only enter into those conflicts where we are willing to apply the brute force accompanying conventional operations that leads to strategic success, or stay out of an area of conflict. We will, as in the past, most assuredly again strategically fail should we allow our military to be drawn into a protracted occupation of a foreign land; so end that approach to conducting military operations. Third, if the Nation has some burning desire to attempt to shape the outcome in a given area of conflict, determine how to leverage the parties involved by aiding those whose success will (in the long run) achieve the political goal one strives for, recognize that having one’s chosen opponents engaged in a protracted conflict they cannot win is a plus and act to encourage and sustain that protracted conflict. In short, apply against our opponents the same strategy applied against us – and make certain our costs are low. For instance, if this country had thinking leaders, they would realize that ISIS serves a valuable purpose for this country. They are capable, at great cost to themselves, to engage the Iranians and Hezbollah in a protracted campaign which will drain those parties. What more, at what low cost, could the U.S. (thinking pragmatically) strategically desire?

    It is time for this country to carefully assess the opening words of the statement appearing above this article and respond, not by trying to achieve the unachievable, but by developing a new strategic approach. We must cease dumbing down the fighting capabilities of our military and cease fighting on our enemy’s terms. If so called “Bad Guys Know What Works: Asymmetric Warfare,” don’t give them that opportunity – it is just strategic common sense.

    1. So you may want to look at your Korean War history a little closer or the context people use when discussing asymmetry (certainly true for McMaster’s quote). The Chinese were asymmetric in the Korean War – compared to the U.S. They walked, used rough terrain. While they fought in large numbers, they did so in a guerrilla-like fashion. Asymmetry is about going after enemy weaknesses (e.g. understanding US forces confinement to roads) not their strengths. Asymmetric attacks have their own weaknesses – you correctly point out better military operations/strategy on the US side could have led to success.
      I’m with you on understanding others have spheres of influencing and choosing wise battles. However, the enemy’s “vote” in our decision to act somewhere is the level of resistance they offer. No resistance = I don’t care vote. Heavy resistance = if you do this will be costly.
      PS we won the Cold War because we fought asymmetrically – with our economy.

    2. I want to point to a flaw in your reasoning by particularly in the example about leaving the islamic state to drain iran and hezbollah , i would like to point out that i live in the middle east lebanon in particular, and even among the so called liberal forces and parties there is mistrust towards american foreign policies to say the least, an american strategy such as this will only help to draw liberal and pro west forces further away from the USA and towards the parties that are engaged in armed struggle with the islamic state, which has already happened, hezbollah is gaining approval among the christian populace as well as among some sunnis. So strategy like this is kinda counterintuitive and would only harm american interest and present iran and hezbollah as legitimate actors which i repeat again is already happening.

    3. CB,
      Very much enjoyed reading your response.

      “To date, the Nations that have gone to war with the U.S. using conventional methods have achieved at best limited success….”

      I wonder how you see the North Vietnamese in the context of your statement above? Thanks.


  3. Just a few points.

    • Let’s stop using Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD), it’s a completely meaningless term that originated in the wargame and research lab community in the mid-2000s and frankly it has no place on discussions regarding our future doctrine and certainly those of our adversaries. In fact let’s do away with all the buzzwords at all like Offset

    “During this time of transition from small wars to a focus on big ones, the department and the defense industry risk focusing too much time and money on the anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) threat posed by China in the Western Pacific at the expense of preparing for asymmetric warfare — particularly against sophisticated non-state groups and great powers employing similar tactics.”

    Have you actually read the current National Security Strategy and Defense Strategy and QDR?
    You might want to check those out, because they actually address a range of threats no one is focusing only on China. I understand that does get a bulk of the media coverage, because they are an emerging regional economic power and have been increasing their defense spending and modernization, however I can assure you the military and the Intel community are still focused on a range of issues. As far as the defense industry side, they’ll go wherever the RFPs take them…..

    “These malicious actors are increasingly using a combination of defense and commercial technology, underscoring the need for the U.S. military and defense industry to start thinking like asymmetric bad guys, to both counter and create hybrid-defense technologies and programs through the third offset strategy”

    yeah….we’ve been there are done that. I would suggest reading up on the various Red Teaming efforts that have come and gone that last 15 years from the OSD level on down, within the research labs, within the wargame community, within the Intel Community and on out to the operational units……..

    Some good resources are the OSD Report on Red Teaming from 2003, The Red Team Conferences from 2005-2008, Red Team Cookbook available through DTIC, Red Team Journal by Dr Mateski to name a few