Information Warfare: September 7, 2003

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Asymmetric warfare has been a hot topic, portraying the fearsome prospect of high tech American troops brought low by less well equipped, but better thought out, foes. Somalia, in 1993 (Black Hawk Down), and Iraq, in 2003 (RPGs from every direction) are touted as meaningful lessons of the power of asymmetric warfare.

But let us know forget that asymmetric warfare works both ways. In Somalia, the Somalis took over 30 casualties for every American killed or wounded. That was done through the use of superior American training, firepower (on the ground, and in helicopters overhead) and situational awareness (helicopters and more radios.) The battle in Mogadishu is only considered an American defeat because the American government considered 18 dead G.I.s a defeat, even if over 500 Somali fighters died as well. At the time, the Somalis considered themselves defeated, and feared the return of the Army Rangers the next day to finish off the Somali militia that was terrorizing Mogadishu. The media declared the battle an American defeat, and thats how it became known. Asymmetric warfare includes having the media in your corner, for that can easily turn a military defeat into a media victory.

The same thing almost happened in Iraq in 2003. During the first two weeks of the American advance into Iraq, any real, apparent or imagined delay of the coalition forces was instantly declared the beginning of a coalition defeat. Even as American troops moved within sight of Baghdad, the pundits were still gravely talking about bloody house to house fighting. There was much talk of asymmetric warfare by the Iraqis, and there was a lot of guerilla type attacks. But the American troops came up with new tactics faster than the Iraqis could think of ways to get around the American advantages.

Using the media as an asymmetric warfare weapon is pretty common, and sometimes it works. It worked in Somalia. It worked several times in the Balkans during the 1990s. Islamic fundamentalists use the media as one of their more potent weapons. The use of imbedded reporters during the Iraq war is seen by the Department of Defense as a use of asymmetric warfare against potentially dangerous media. Indeed, many media pundits have said as much, and darkly warn that the media cannot tolerate more such "defeats" in the future. 

It's no accident that all this talk of asymmetric warfare began in the United States during the 1980s. America has long been a user of asymmetric warfare. During the colonial period, wars with Indians and other colonial powers were full of new developments in asymmetric warfare. Today, the Department of Defense is full of organizations that specialize in dreaming up new asymmetric warfare tactics, and figuring out how to defeat those potential enemies might develop. At the same time, many of the Department of Defense establishment (senior generals and civil service officials), are hostile to asymmetric warfare. After all these nasty little tricks can make trouble for the major weapons development projects that occupy so much attention in the Pentagon and Congress. Expensive new weapons systems that can be compromised by some minor flaw makes it difficult to get the votes, and billions of dollars, to justify these projects. But asymmetric warfare is all about taking advantage of the status quo, and hoping the other guys doesn't wise up before you beat him to death. 

 


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