Definition and differences
The popularity of the term dates from
Andrew J. R. Mack's 1975 article "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars" in World Politics, in which "asymmetric" referred simply to a significant disparity in power between opposing actors in a conflict. "Power", in this sense, is broadly understood to mean material power, such as a large army, sophisticated weapons, an advanced economy, and so on. Mack's analysis was largely ignored in its day, but the end of the Cold War sparked renewed interest among academics. By the late 1990s, new research building on Mack's insights was beginning to mature, and, after 2004, the U.S. military began once again seriously to consider the problems associated with asymmetric warfare.
Discussion since 2004 has been complicated by the tendency of academic and military communities to use the term in different ways, and by its close association with guerrilla warfare, insurgency, terrorism, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism. Military authors tend to use the term "asymmetric" to refer to the indirect nature of the strategies many weak actors adopt, or even to the nature of the adversary itself (e.g., "asymmetric adversaries can be expected to ...") rather than to the correlation of forces.
Academic authors tend to focus on explaining two puzzles in asymmetric conflict. First, if "power" determines victory in conflict, then why would weaker actors decide to fight stronger actors? Key explanations include:
- Weaker actors may have secret weapons;
- Weaker actors may have powerful allies;
- Stronger actors are unable to make threats credible;
- The demands of a stronger actor are extreme;
- The weaker actor must consider its regional rivals when responding to threats from powerful actors.
Second, if "power", as conventionally understood, conduces to victory in war, then how is the victory of the "weak" over the "strong" explained? Key explanations include:
- Strategic interaction;
- Willingness of the weak to suffer more or bear higher costs;
- External support of weak actors;
- Reluctance to escalate violence on the part of strong actors;
- Internal group dynamics;
- Inflated strong actor war aims;
- Evolution of asymmetric rivals' attitudes towards time.
Asymmetric conflicts include both interstate and civil wars, and over the past two hundred years have generally been won by strong actors. Since 1950, however, weak actors have won a majority of all asymmetric conflicts.