Asymmetric Warfare: Redefining Standard Terms

“As soon as technological advances may be applied to military goals and … are already used for military purposes, they almost immediately seem obligatory, and also often go against the will of the commanders in triggering changes or even revolutions in the modes of combat.” – Frederich Engels

Within the last few decades there have been profound changes in the way that war is conducted, and this has led to many other changes – in the uses and discussion of weaponry, for example, and in the public’s perception of warfare. Today, one of the most important, most complex, and most misunderstood topics in the field of international conflict is the global proliferation of what usually are called weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Unfortunately, at least some WMDs also have been called WMEs (weapons of mass effects) and/or WMD/Es (weapons of mass destruction or effect), and this has led to considerable confusion.

Two documents of fairly recent vintage, both of them produced by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, should help by redefining the standard term WMD for future use: the National Military Strategy (NMS), released in 2004; and the National Defense Strategy (NDS), released earlier this year. Both documents include discussions about “weapons of mass destruction or effect,” and both also use the term WMD/E to describe a broad range of adversary capabilities. The umbrella term WMD/E, as used in these documents, includes chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and enhanced high explosive weapons as well as a number of other weapons that might be used in what is called asymmetric warfare (another somewhat ambiguous term).

There are, however, other “weapons” of various types – here the term is used much more generically – that to do their damage rely more on the impact of the disruption they can cause, rather than on the destructive kinetic effects involved. NMS cites cyber attacks, for example, against U.S. commercial information systems, and/or attacks against various modes of the nation’s interconnected air, sea, and land transportation network. Such attacks, even though non-lethal, might well have a greater and more damaging economic or psychological effect than would be caused by a relatively small release of a lethal chemical agent, and for that reason might justifiably be described as asymmetric warfare.


However, asymmetric warfare is not synonymous with terrorism. It is, rather, a military term used to describe warfare in which two opponents are so mismatched in their military capabilities (and/or accustomed methods of engagement) that, if the militarily disadvantaged power hopes to prevail, it must use any special advantages it possesses or effectively exploit its enemy’s particular weaknesses. It is in that context that terrorism sometimes is used, as a tactic, by the weaker side in an asymmetric conflict. Following are just a few of the countless historical anecdotes that might be cited to illustrate how asymmetric warfare has been waged in the past:

–In the biblical tale of David and Goliath, David defeated the physically more powerful Goliath with “five smooth stones” launched from a sling. David’s victory was a triumph in warfare tactics, with the new and advanced prevailing over the old and outdated. Goliath relied on size, intimidation, and what today would be termed heavy weapons; David used advance planning, stealth, skill, and knowledge to defeat his much more powerful opponent.

–In the 6th Century B.C., the Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with a fungus that caused delusional effects – an early example of biological warfare – and in 184 B.C. Hannibal of Carthage not only used elephants to carry his troops and equipment over the Alps but also instructed his soldiers to throw clay pots filled with poisonous snakes onto the decks of enemy ships. Both of these innovative tactics caused havoc in the ranks of Carthage’s enemies in the short term, but did not result in a final victory. Carthage “must be destroyed” (delenda est), said the Roman Senate – and it was.

–Classic literature also reveals a number of incidents in which the fractious nations of the Mediterranean waged chemical warfare against one another. The Spartans, for example, used arsenic smoke against their enemies during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), and more than a thousand years later the Byzantine Greeks used “Greek fire” (a mixture of petroleum, pitch, sulfur, and various resins) at the siege of Constantinople (637 A.D.) to overcome their adversaries.

In modern times – more specifically, during the Gulf War – Dutch crackers stole information about U.S. troop movements from U.S. Defense Department computers, and then tried to sell the information to the Iraqis. However, the Iraqis thought the deal was a hoax and turned down the offer.


The way in which war is carried out is governed both by the principles of strategy and tactics and by the type of weapons available to the two sides. But confusion arises when technology has advanced to the point that a term that once defined a specific weapon or of weapons is being used, in a more or less evolutionary way, to describe new weapons that are almost the same – but not quite.

Similarly, by changing the terms defining asymmetric warfare and/or the tools of war, one may inadvertently also be redefining the boundaries encompassing the very concept of asymmetric warfare as well as the weapons and the laws of war (jus in bello). If the war god’s face has changed so much over the past few decades, it seems safe to suggest, then the laws of war and conduct of warfare may also have changed as well. That is particularly true today, when the U.S.-led war on international terrorism is being waged against ideological enemies who have pledged a global battle without borders. Whether the weapon used is an explosive device left on a sidewalk or a grenade hand-launched at a visiting U.S. president – or a computer virus encrypted in an email – the American people, and the citizens of all other Free World nations, have become increasingly and inevitably vulnerable to attack anywhere, at any time. Whether the attacker uses conventional or non-conventional weapons is no longer important – or, at best, describes a distinction without a difference.

That said, it still is imperative that the terms and definitions of war, and of the weapons used in war, be both clear and consistent. Here the place to begin is federal law (Title 18 USC 2332a), which defines the term ”weapon of mass destruction” explicitly as follows:

  • Any destructive device as defined by this federal law;
  • Any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;
  • Any weapon involving a disease organism; or
  • Any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to humans.

This useful definition should be sufficient to block any attempt to use WMD to describe anything other than true weapons of mass destruction, which can be more specifically identified as chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives (CBRNE) weapons. However, WMD also has been used in recent years to describe weapons of indiscriminate destruction, weapons of mass disruption, and weapons of mass effects. Modern U.S. military doctrine, as spelled out in JP 3-05 (“Doctrine for Joint Special Operations”), defines WMD as weapons that are capable of a high order of destruction and/or used in such a manner as to destroy large numbers of people.


That perhaps should be sufficient, but it is not. What further confuses the picture is that the Laws of War (as defined by the United Nations Charter, the Geneva conventions and the Hague conventions) describe a weapon as a tool that can be used during combat to kill or incapacitate, to destroy property, or to otherwise render resources non-functional or unavailable.

In short, weapons may be used to attack and/or defend, and consequently also to threaten. Basically, therefore, anything used to cause damage (even psychological damage) can be referred to as a weapon, and its form and appearance might range from something as simple as a club to a much complex “system of systems” as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Political factors have further complicated the situation, particularly when U.S./coalition forces were unable to find any weapons of mass destruction stockpiled in Iraq either during or after the war and despite the fall of Baghdad and the capture of Saddam Hussein and many of his top lieutenants. This is when the less well-known terms WME and WMD/E started to be used more widely, but not always too precisely. For decision makers, contingency planners, exercise facilitators, and many others, the question now is whether to continue using the term WMD. It may be that all three terms have their place, as long as they are used clearly, properly, and precisely.

One way to start is to use WMD as specifically describing CBRNE types of weapons. WME would be reserved for discussions and/or descriptions of ICBMs, suitcase bombs, bunker busters, electromagnetic pulse weapons, and other nuclear weapons; and WMD/E could combine a twist of CBRNE with asymmetric warfare, plus information warfare and/or cyberterrorism. (Cyber weapons could create havoc by disrupting the computers that manage stock exchanges, power grids, and air traffic control and telecommunications systems; information warfare encompasses the dissemination of propaganda, or even disinformation, not only to the enemy but also to one’s own population, either to build support for the war effort or to counter enemy propaganda.)

Additional technological advances in war, and in weaponry, are inevitable, and probably will come at a more rapid pace. This means that changes in the vocabulary of war also are inevitable and, if not handled correctly, and quickly, will be the source of considerable confusion affecting not only the general public but also, perhaps, war planners and war fighters as well.

From the newest recruit to the battle-hardened noncoms to the most experienced flag and general officers, those who have been in combat understand the true meaning of the phrase “The Fog of War” – namely, the chaos and confusion that reign supreme over the battlefield after the first shot has been fired in anger. It would be a shame if the same words were used to describe, accurately, the public’s understanding of the conflict as well.

Ashley Moore

Ashley Moore



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