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


“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