Asymmetric warfare – What is it, definition and concept

An asymmetric war is a conflict, usually armed, in which one of the forces is vastly superior to the other. With which, the balance is greatly in favor of the victory of the most powerful.

We speak of asymmetric warfare when one of the contenders has a clear quantitative and qualitative superiority over his opponent in terms of the resources he controls.

In the past, practically the only parameter that was measured in the analysis of any military confrontation was the number of soldiers and the weapons they possessed. But, during the 20th century, with the technological development that the arms sector has undergone, the tactic has taken on an almost greater weight.

Characteristics of asymmetric warfare

Let’s mention the most important characteristics of asymmetric warfare:

  • One of the contenders is clearly superior to the rest in terms of resources, including non-tangible ones.
  • In some cases, the inferior rival develops a so-called guerrilla war.
  • The contender in superiority is usually a state that either has imperialist aims or its military spending is very high.
  • It was very common in past centuries, when empires devastated the conquered territories.
  • We also have examples in the Contemporary Age, as is the case of Nazi Germany when it began to annex nearby countries. So have the North American incursions in the East.
  • The element of surprise can be decisive.
  • The inferior rival has to be as efficient as possible in the management of its resources in order to be successful.
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examples of asymmetric warfare

History has left us numerous examples of asymmetric wars throughout it:

  • Conquest of America: The American conquest by the Spanish Empire was a clear example of asymmetric warfare. The Spanish, like other Europeans, had very advanced war material compared to that of the American aborigines. The latter had rudimentary weapons, the Spanish had gunpowder, combat animals and military tactics. The only factor in favor of the Indians, besides the territory, was the number of inhabitants. This factor was offset by alliances with some native peoples, some were even named as part of the Spanish nobility.
  • Nazi Germany: When the Third Reich started World War II, with the attack on Poland, it began a rapid invasion and annexation of the countries closest to it. And in just two years, in 1941, he had managed to bring most of the European territory under his rule. The resources allocated for warfare were vastly superior to those of their neighbors. Until, with the union of the allies, the great war became equal.
  • Vietnam: Following the start of the Cold War, as many countries started communist revolts with the support of the USSR, the United States did the same and invaded or supported the resistance in order to quell these revolts. It was expected, by some commanders, that the conflict in Vietnam, which began in 1955, would conclude with a quick American victory. But it was not like that. To counter the strength of the American army, North Vietnam, with great support from the communist powers, proposed a guerrilla war that lasted for twenty years. The contest ended with the most humiliating and most expensive defeat of the American giant.
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asymmetric economic warfare

In the economic field, there are also deeply unequal conflicts. They occur when a country or group of them take advantage of their economic strength against third parties for their benefit.

An example of this can be found in the Holodomor, the genocide that Ukrainians suffered at the hands of Soviet Russia in the 1930s. The USSR, as a consequence of its collectivization plans, condemned the entire population to death by famine, thus eliminating any semblance of an independence movement.

We have another more well-known example in the sanctions and economic blockades carried out by the United States against socialist and communist countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea. These limited international trade and the subsistence of the affected nations.

On a smaller scale, we see this type of war when large companies carry out techniques such as dumping, eliminating competition and ensuring a monopoly or oligopoly of the market.

nuclear asymmetric warfare

Nuclear confrontations are also of special mention in the case at hand. Nuclear weapons and bombs have a devastating power totally beyond what is known by any other weapon. For this reason, those countries that possess them exercise a great intimidation to the rest.

This asymmetry, that some have them and others do not, is given by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in 1970. The treaty specified that, for one reason or another, only a few countries were authorized to possess them. This generates a great asymmetry between the countries of the world.

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Some authors, paradoxically, claim that these weapons have been the guarantors of world peace experienced in the West since the end of World War II. This, since the threat of its destruction has limited its use.

asymmetric cyber warfare

This is another type of asymmetric warfare, much more modern than the previous ones. Although a cyber war does not have to be asymmetric, there have been some cases in which it has been. It is also known as technological warfare or cyber warfare.

This conflict has another battlefield: the network. That is why the different countries with cybernetic capacity develop defenses in order to protect their information from being stolen or used by their enemies.

Some of the most well-known attacks that are usually carried out are: boycotts, espionage and revelation of secrets. Thus, if the person carrying out the attack is more prepared and his technological strength is greater, we will speak of asymmetry in the conflict.

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