State-Sponsored Asymmetry

25 July 2011


Last Friday in Report: China building electromagnetic pulse weapons for use against U.S. carriers, the Washington Times reported on China’s development of an EMP weapons system. The story has subsequently been picked up by several media outlets that have repeated its content and elaborated in some cases.

The EMP weapons system in question is said to be an element of China’s so-called “Assassin’s Mace” (shashou-jian, 手锏), which is not a single weapons system but an umbrella term drawn from traditional Chinese strategic thought, to indicate a range of weapons systems being developed by the Chinese to counter overwhelming US military force. While China’s growing economic power is allowing the expansion of Chinese military forces, these forces are not now, nor are the likely to be in the near future, peer competitors with US military forces. Therefore, non-peer scenarios are developed.

This situation of the US vis-à-vis its largest strategic competitor is not new. During the Cold War the Soviet Union had more tanks in Europe than NATO forces, and more ground-based ICBMs, but it was common knowledge that Soviet technology lagged behind US technology, and that the Soviets were not peer competitors with NATO, especially on the world’s oceans, which have been controlled and policed by the US Navy since the end of the Second World War. The Soviets, like the Chinese, were primarily a land power. The US, with coasts on two oceans and trade that spans the globe, is a sea power that need not even be concerned with its territorial integrity, dominating North America as it does.

Russian made P-270 Moskit, AKA 'Sunburn' supersonic anti-ship missile.

I have several times written about the weapons systems developed by the Soviet Union to counter disproportionate US advantages, especially technological advantages, including the development of hypersonic missiles such as the P-270 Moskit (cf. The Political Context of Striking a Carrier) and hypersonic cavitating torpedoes such as the VA-111 Shkval (cf Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept). These products of late Soviet military technology still represent a viable and inexpensive option to countering the overwhelming US aircraft carrier presence on the world’s oceans. Appropriately updated, such asymmetrically conceived weapons systems would be appropriately devastating.

Late Soviet military technology: the VA-111 Shkval supersonic torpedo, skill a formidable counter-measure to large, expensive ships.

The principles of asymmetrical warfare are perennial, so that we can expect the Chinese, formulating their plans under similar constraints to those of the Soviet Union, and in the context of a world not dramatically different in political structure, to follow in the steps of the Russians, though they may well pursue asymmetry with Chinese characteristics. Actually, to be more accurate and to express myself in accord with the concepts I developed in Axioms and Postulates of Strategy, I should say that the axioms of warfare are perennial, and they are supplemented by the postulates of asymmetrical warfare, which latter take account of particular circumstances but still embody a high degree of generality.

Recently in The Shadow of War I defined asymmetrical warfare as follows:

“We can define symmetrical warfare as peer-to-peer conflict, and from this point of departure we can define asymmetrical warfare as anything other than peer-to-peer conflict — in brief, non-peer conflict. It is not so easy to arrive at a similarly neat distinction between conventional and unconventional warfare. This is because, while the peer-to-peer concept can be given an absolute formulation in terms of identity, with imperfect real-world instances approximating identity to some degree (or perhaps invoking essential identity, notwithstanding contingent differences), the difference between conventional and non-conventional warfare is a much more gradual scale in which incremental, contingent differences are important.”

To define asymmetrical warfare as “anything other than peer-to-peer conflict” is admittedly very broad. We tend to think of asymmetrical conflict as a sub-category of conventional warfare, and therefore a more limited notion. Here the recent recognition of asymmetrical conflict in strategic thought works against us. The novelty of the idea should not prevent us from seeing that most conflict throughout human history has been asymmetrical, though it is only in recent decades that the term has been employed. That being said, peer-to-peer conflict, which has implicitly defined conventional warfare, is almost as broad a category of thought once we allow from the qualifications of conditions that all ideas must make in accommodating themselves to the actual world.

Within the concept of asymmetrical warfare we can make a distinction between non-state asymmetrical warfare and state-sponsored asymmetrical warfare. As soon as we make this distinction we see that, just as we have implicitly thought of conventional warfare as the paradigm, such that any deviation from the paradigm yields strategic heterodoxy, so too we have implicitly thought of asymmetrical warfare as intrinsically non-state warfare. But this is not the case. State-sponsored asymmetry is not new to the strategic posture of nation-states. State-sponsored terrorism has long been an asymmetrical weapon of war, while state-sponsored irregular militant proxies was the asymmetrical weapon of choice during the Cold War, humbling the US in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

I hope to return to this idea, as a more thorough and complete treatment of these questions implies a schema of distinctions that would recognize state vs. state, state vs. non-state, non-state vs. state, and non-state vs. non-state (assuming that in this two-term relationship the first term is the attacker and the second term is the defender). I will leave this explication for a later time.

When a nation-state puts its resources into asymmetrical weapons systems it can take these systems far beyond the bricolage of irregular guerrilla forces. We have seen this recently with many initiatives undertaken by Iran. Iran cannot control the Strait of Hormuz, but it is positioned to harass any power that would attempt to control the Strait of Hormuz, and to harass a conventional force and lower its efficacy in achieving its mission is pretty much the original intent behind all asymmetrical initiatives.

While a nation-state brings uncharacteristic levels of resources to asymmetrical weapons systems, its also brings weaknesses peculiar to the institutional character of the nation-state. Among these weaknesses are the lack of a coherent and systematic doctrinal context for the use of asymmetrical weapons systems. For irregular fighters employing asymmetrical weapons systems, there is an immediate feedback on the battlefield, at which time a squad of irregular fighters will expect to improvise and to adjust their tactics on the run. Institutionalized military forces cannot rely on improvisation, or an expectation that its forces will appropriately improvise on the battlefield. Thus conventional military forces formulate doctrine, and they deploy their assets according to doctrine.

It should be easy to see intuitively that a conventional military force making use of unconventional, asymmetrical weapons systems is going to be a compromise. Asymmetrical weapons systems are most devastating in the hands of asymmetrical, unconventional, and irregular forces whose only doctrine is to be found in the instincts of the loosely organized band of fighters. Since fighters with poor instincts are quickly killed off, there is strong selective pressure on the battlefield that yields instinctively astute fighters who know how to hit and run with a high level of efficacy.

A conventional military institution is a very different creature. Its weapons systems have established training procedures, its soldiers are uniformly trained, and its commanders work their way up through a strictly defined hierarchy peculiar to the institution. In so far as I have previously defined war as the institutionalization of human violence (in The Shadow of War), well, a standing conventional army is the institutionalization of the institutionalization of human violence. In other words, conventional military forces constitute institutionalization of a higher order of magnitude.

One way to describe this difference between conventional and unconventional forces is by way of the Boyd Cycle. Success in implementing the Boyd cycle is predicated upon getting inside the decision loop of the adversary, anticipating and preempting every action of the adversary even before it is taken. Unconventional forces can do this nicely, since it is individuals on the battlefield making these decisions. Any conventional, institutionalized military cannot reduce its decision cycle to the level of the individual unless it explicitly delegates this power (which delegation is, in itself, an institutional action) to some particular individual. As an institution, a conventional military, with its rules and regulations and procedures and chain of command, can never preempt decisions taken on the ground by individuals with full freedom of action.

For these reasons, state-sponsored asymmetry will always be a compromise. That does not mean that this compromise will always be ineffective, only that it will not be as effective as asymmetrical action undertaken by irregular forces. Thus there is a balance: the nation-state brings disproportionate assets to asymmetrical conflict, but is hampered in the employment of these assets due to its institutional structure. On the other hand, irregular forces are able to bring far fewer assets to the theater than a nation-state, but is able to better deploy those assets that it does possess. The Chinese pursuit of a suite of “Assassin’s Mace” weapons systems as state-sponsored asymmetry must be seen in this context, and in so far as it is seen in this context, any adversary will exploit the intrinsic weaknesses present in this compromise.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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4 Responses to “State-Sponsored Asymmetry”

  1. Wondering if you have read Virilio’s Speed and Politics.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Not yet, but I’m looking for a copy, as I am also seeking a copy of Pure War.

      Best wishes,


  2. YT said


    It should have been 殺手鐧.

    May I suggest War & Politics: the Logistics of Perception.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear YT,

      The Chinese language consultant for Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon, with whom I vetted my use of the characters in question, tells me that 殺手鐧 are traditional Chinese characters that are used in Taiwan and Hongkong (and apparently also in Malaysia), while 杀手锏 are simplified Chinese characters that are used in Mainland China.

      Thanks for your book suggestion. I was not able to find a reference to this exact title, but there is a book titled War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, also by Virilio. I’ve never heard of this previously, which shows how little I know of Virilio’s thought. Was this the intended reference?

      Best wishes,


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