Symmetry and Asymmetry in Strategy
27 December 2010
One of the consistent Cold War nightmares feared in the West was a massive Warsaw Pact armored spearhead into Western Europe. I discussed this a few days ago in Choke Points and Grand Strategy in relation to the Fulda Gap, which is one of the few geographical opportunities for a massive armored assault from east to west in Germany. This scenario so captured the imagination of Cold War military planners that NATO was largely constructed to counter such a Soviet armored thrust — a brute force frontal invasion expected from a regime that made no attempt to disguise its brutality in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. NATO plans were dominated by this nightmare, and much of NATO strategic doctrine can be derived it. For example, NATO’s repeated refusal to pledge “no first use” of nuclear weapons was entirely a matter of knowing Soviet superiority in armor. The worry was that if NATO forces could not stop a conventional assault with conventional means, it would have to resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) on the battlefield. This was also (in part) the impetus for the development of the neutron bomb, which could have spared much bomb damage to Western Europe even while stopping massed Soviet armor pouring through the Fulda Gap.
It will be immediately understood, then, that the dreaded mechanized armor duel in and over Western Europe was never conceived by NATO as a symmetrical peer-to-peer engagement. NATO possessed TNW and would not say that it would not use this. Thus TNW, despite their tactical character, had a strategic role as well. This strategic deterrent to a conventional Soviet thrust into Western Europe was given credibility by the development of miniaturized TNW (notably the W-48 and the W-54) and even miniaturized delivery systems (The Davy Crockett). Perhaps just as importantly, NATO did not seek parity in mechanized armor, which would have also required parity in crews, which would in turn have required an even more massive US troop presence, or European tank crews.
We think of asymmetrical warfare when we think of terrorism and insurgency and revolution, but asymmetrical warfare has been central to conventional engagements between great powers, and was central to the Cold War. In addition to the asymmetry in mechanized armor in Western Europe, there were many other notable asymmetries. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact made no attempt to engage the US and NATO at peer-to-peer parity on the world’s oceans. The US maintained a carrier fleet that could patrol all the world’s oceans, while NATO allies Great Britain and France also operated aircraft carriers. Instead of attempting to achieve parity in carriers, the Soviet Union developed hypersonic torpedoes (VA-111 Shkval) and ship-to-ship missiles (SS-N-22 Moskit) that, if employed in sufficient numbers, might well have neutralized these carrier assets.
There was also asymmetry in strategic nuclear arsenals. The Soviet Union eventually (though not yet at the time of the so-called “missile gap”) had far more land-based ICBMs that the US. The US accepted this, but for its own strategic security relied on the “tripod” of land-based ICBMs, the bombers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) under Curtis LeMay, and, in the later stages of the Cold War, when it became technologically possible, nuclear submarines mounting sea-launched ballistic missiles. This last leg of the tripod is a tale of asymmetry and competition in itself, since the Soviet Union did not concede the submarine asymmetry, but invested considerable resources in at least trying to catch up with NATO superiority. It took the Soviets longer to build missile boats, and when they built them they were louder and therefore easier to track, but they did build them, and once their spies told them that NATO simply listened for their noisy missile boats, they improved the stealth profile their subs.
Before the Cold War, in the most catastrophic of all conventional wars, World War II, there were also significant asymmetries. The Germans (like the Soviets later, both being continental land powers) had superior land forces, and as a result they conquered continental Europe. But early in their preparations for war they neglected to build a four-engine heavy bomber. In effect, the Germans conceded the bomber to the British. Once the Nazis occupied the whole of Western Europe, Britain had no way to strike back at the Nazis other than to wage unrestricted bombing campaigns against the Germans. This they did, with devastating results (I have called this the possible war for the British at the time). By the time the Germans realized their mistake, it was too late to build a heavy bomber, although when the Germans began to develop jet aircraft, Hitler repeatedly insisted that it should be built as a small bomber rather than as a fighter. There was by this time substantial public feeling against the mass destruction of German cities, and Hitler thought he needed to do something about it. Ultimately, the task fell to the so-called “vengeance weapons,” the V-1 and the V-2.
Also during the Second World War, as the British were waging an unlimited air war against the Germans, the Germans were waging unlimited submarine war against the allies. Once the Bismark was sunk, and Dönitz later became Großadmiral, the German surface navy was essentially abandoned and all crews were assigned to U-boats. Since peer-to-peer submarine combat was neither effective nor feasible at this stage of technological development (thought it became feasible during the Cold War), the Allies, who had the technological and industrial means to seek submarine parity, did not seek parity, but instead sought the development of anti-submarine warfare (airplanes with radar turned out to be highly effective in this role, e.g., the B-24 Liberator Mk.VI).
From these numerous twentieth-century examples, it is obvious that asymmetrical warfare is not a strategy pursued exclusively by poor, poorly equipped, and disadvantaged forces who seek an advantage that cannot be obtained through conventional means, which in this context might be understood as symmetrical means, but has been consciously pursued by great powers. The instances of asymmetry cited above could be characterized as military equivalents to comparative advantage. During the Cold War, it was in the interest of NATO to leverage its comparative advantage in technology, employing its technology against Russian numbers and brute force. The Soviets knew they could not compete peer-to-peer on technology, so it sought to neutralize NATO’s technological advantage with massive mechanized armor assets as well as cheap and plentiful counter-measures to advanced and expensive weapons.
Understood in this context, there has been no “rise” in asymmetrical warfare, and we are now no more living in an age of unconventional, asymmetrical warfare than any previous age. Asymmetrical warfare is a perennial aspect of warfighting, and represents a gradient of war that will be always be a part of military calculation. If objectives cannot be obtained the simplest, most straightforward way, then an oblique way will be found, and it is likely that this indirect approach to one and the same objective will be unconventional and asymmetrical.
And there is much to be said for unconventional warfare. It could be argued that those who possess an obvious advantage (which is itself an asymmetrical situation) are likely to become unimaginative in their planning. I argued this point in Choke Points and Grand Strategy. Thus the more “advanced” party to a conflict might well end up relying on brute force, whereas those who perceive themselves to be at a disadvantage may seek an innovative way to attain an objective without a frontal assault relying on brute force.
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