Winning: Asymmetric Echoes


May 4, 2021: Israeli military commanders have long warned their subordinates to be alert to new forms of asymmetric warfare. This form of conflict is ancient and nothing more than gaining the element of surprise by developing a tactic or weapon the enemy is not aware of or not prepared to defend against. The latest asymmetric threat is off the coast, where Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and a Hamas in Gaza are trying out new tactics and weapons. In the north the main threat is to the new source of Israeli wealth in the form of offshore natural gas deposits worth billions of dollars and now in production. So much gas is now available that Israeli domestic needs are already met and export customers are sought. More gas is being produced than Israel needs and this surplus is going to exist for at least a decade or more. New offshore gas and oil exploration techniques that Israel used have been adopted by Lebanon, Egypt, Greece and Turkey. Iran sees this offshore asset as an Israeli vulnerability and wants to attack Israeli offshore facilities. To further complicate the situation Turkey is seeking to take possession of offshore areas that belong to Greece and, it is feared, eventually Lebanon as well. This Iranian threat has generated blowback in the form of a Lebanese effort to reduce Hezbollah control over southern Lebanon and disruption of the democracy Lebanon is seeking to preserve.

For decades Israelis have developed conventional or asymmetric responses to the Iranian asymmetric threats and so far are in the lead. Asymmetric warfare is a constantly evolving process and the Israeli military goes public with this threat because they know solutions often come from Israeli technical entrepreneurs and the troops who constantly face the threat up front and personal.

“Asymmetric warfare” as “something new and different” has been all the rage since 2001 for everyone in the Middle East. The prime example given is the Islamic terrorist use of roadside bombs, terrorizing locals overseas working for the Americans, and propaganda on the Internet to spin the mass media against the much more powerful (in a conventional sense) American forces. To the surprise of many, who observed all this via the mass media, the U.S. defeated al Qaeda, and many other Islamic terror groups.

What the media missed was that the military, at least the American forces, are trained to deal with asymmetric situations as a matter of course. To a soldier, asymmetric means the unknown. All warfare is asymmetric, as you always seek to utilize deception and surprise against your opponent, as those two elements are seen as the most effective methods for surviving, and winning, in combat.

In the opening stages of any war there will be many asymmetric elements in play. Although armies try to figure out their opponents beforehand, the planners rarely get it completely right. That means the opening stages of any war are full of unpleasant surprises. In 2003, Saddam Hussein thought he could hold the American/British invasion long enough to get the UN, or Russia, or the Moslem world, to intervene and impose a ceasefire. It was over too quickly for that. But Saddam had a Plan B, to wage a terror campaign against the Americans and their new allies, in the form of the 80 percent of Iraqis, the Kurds and Shia, who had been fighting Saddam for decades. Plan B meant to wear the Americans out, and intimidate the Kurds and Shia into accepting another Sunni Arab dictator. That didn't work either. Similar situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban seek to use drug gangs and terror to intimidate the majority of Afghans into accepting a return of religious dictatorship.

While "asymmetric warfare" makes for a great headline, and journalists seek out pundits who will testify to how ill-prepared American troops are to deal with it. Ask the troops about it, and you'll get a, "well, duh, dude" reaction. That does not make for attention grabbing journalism. Post-2001 innovations like AWG (Asymmetric Warfare Group), an American collection of military historians, combat veterans and analytic experts, began to discover new asymmetric threats before the Islamic terrorists or Iranians could and had to keep their work secret. It was successful because it defeated more of the enemy asymmetric threats before they could be useful. How asymmetric warfare was portrayed in the news over the last decade is more of a story about how the media, rather than the military, operates. But that's a story that will rarely be covered.

Another new buzz word among Western military pundits was “ambiguous war.” This is meant to describe situations where a major power seeks to gain something, like more territory or revenge, indirectly and discreetly in order to avoid open warfare with a stronger rival. While this sort of thing is often described as a startling new technique, its use is actually quite ancient. It goes back thousands of years. Avoiding nuclear war is the latest excuse for this sort of thing. The object was always to grab something you wanted as cheaply and with as little risk as possible. Long before nukes were available national leaders, usually monarchs of one form or another, who paid attention to economics knew that a major war was enormously expensive, mainly for the general population. Inflict enough pain on your subjects and they will rise up and replace you with someone more considerate of the needs of the majority. Thus the “one percent/99 percent” situation is also ancient, not something invented in the 20th century.

If you reach the top economic brackets and want to stay there you need peace, or at least only wars that you can politically and economically afford. This produced another curious pattern. Because democracies have a way for the 99 percent to quickly assert their displeasure, this gave rise to the American “three-year rule”. Any war that lasts more than three years becomes unpopular, no matter how popular it was in its early stages or how righteous it is. Examples could be seen in the American Civil War (1861-65) Abraham Lincoln faced real political opposition in the third year of that war. Even World War II (1941-45 for the U.S.) found Americans getting really tired of this righteous conflict by 1944. The three-year rule applies in all nations. Democracies are only different because after three years the unrest cannot easily be hidden or suppressed.

Now we have Russia and China, both enjoying previously unknown prosperity and run by men who know that if they threaten that good life, the 99 percent will be very unhappy with whoever screwed up a good thing. Russia and China, despite possessing the military power to just grab territory from weaker neighbors, resort to indirect forms of combat whose main objective is to steal without triggering a major war that would, at the very least cause enormous economic hardship on the home front.

China also realized, more so than Russia, that the Internet provides huge opportunities to steal without providing an “act of war” the victims can use as justification to fight back with more conventional means. Even the Internet approach is not new. In the past countries would quietly support rebels in neighboring countries in order to weaken a potential battlefield foe and use bribes and other less obvious schemes to steal useful information. In addition to aiding rebels next door, rumors and lies were used to cause dissent and rebellious attitudes next door. It’s all ambiguous/asymmetric/indirect war and you can find out all about it by reading some history books. As has been observed many times; the clever past is prolog to the ambiguous future.




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