The Asymmetric Threat

by Cadet First Class Michael L. Kolodzie, USMA

    Throughout the past quarter century, the asymmetric threat has become a common form of warfare throughout the world. However, current Army doctrine fails to address the asymmetric threat adequately—and specifically, the threat to at-risk, high-value logistics assets.

    The newest doctrine still in draft addresses the conduct of "full-spectrum operations" in both war and operations other than war. This doctrine incorporates the global trends that Army leaders have seen in the 1990s. However, current doctrine does not address the asymmetric threat to the Army's substantial logistics tail, and there are no indications that future doctrine will do so.


    Using key elements from the Department of Defense definition of unconventional warfare and drawing from my own understanding of asymmetric warfare, the asymmetric threat can be defined as "a broad and unpredictable spectrum of military, paramilitary, and information operations, conducted by nations, organizations, or individuals or by indigenous or surrogate forces under their control, specifically targeting weaknesses and vulnerabilities within an enemy government or armed force."

    For many nations, organizations, and individuals, asymmetric warfare is preferable to conventional warfare. The U.S. Army is arguably the most powerful and effective conventional fighting force in the world, as was demonstrated in Operation Desert Storm. Few nations and organizations have the manpower, weapons, and technological capabilities to wage a direct conventional confrontation against U.S. Armed Forces. Considering the power and effectiveness of current U.S. forces in conventional operations, it is unlikely that the Army will become involved in a sustained conventional war in the near future. However, this does not mean that the threat to the United States is any less.

    Asymmetric warfare is best used against targets that traditionally have little or no protection. Logistics units and maintenance and supply assets have a high payoff in sustained operations, but they usually are poorly defended. They are desirable targets in both conventional and asymmetric warfare, but their vulnerability makes them especially attractive to nations and organizations that do not have the power to wage conventional warfare. Examples of possible asymmetric threats to logistics assets include enemy special operations infiltrations and attacks and the use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against deep logistics assets.

    Because of current global trends towards urbanization and digitization, the Army will see more ambushes, snipers, and boobytraps that will make logistics movement difficult and dangerous; more sabotage of poorly guarded logistics assets by hostile populations; and more electronic warfare specifically targeting logistics command, control, and communication resources. Military analyst Robert Hahn II states that "the current consensus is that urban areas tend to negate the technological advantages of U.S. forces, thereby forcing them to adopt unfamiliar or low-tech methods of waging war." Throughout the last decade, the Army has experienced the range of unpredictability and difficulty that comes with urban-oriented guerrilla warfare environments such as Somalia, Kosovo, and Bosnia.

    Even in operations other than war, the asymmetric threat can be present and often is intensified if there are rivalries among the people within a nation receiving support from the United States. The Army has seen this happen in Bosnia and Kosovo, where angry citizens and guerrillas demolished vehicles and planted explosive devices (often simple homemade bombs) on equipment, vehicles, defensive structures, and storage facilities. These are prime examples of the unpredictable and frustrating nature of asymmetric warfare and the problems that can occur if logistics units do not enforce proper security measures.

Avoiding Asymmetric Attacks

    In future Army operations, the asymmetric threat is going to be difficult to avoid in any environment. Unlike the apparent danger of conventional warfare, the danger of asymmetric attack does not decrease significantly during operations other than war. Asymmetry is by nature unpredictable, and it could be more prevalent in Army operations other than war because the absence of heavy combat units could suggest weakness and vulnerability to adversaries eager to use asymmetric attacks.

    To guard effectively against asymmetric threats, logistics security must be included in both doctrine and training. In theory, these changes should be carried out immediately in anticipation of future asymmetric warfare. In practice, making changes would be a massive undertaking, and the changes likely would require significant asymmetric attacks to have occurred in order to provide an experience base. This is an unfortunate truth about instituting, even minor changes in the Army.

    Logistics is a vital part of any army, and it has been a limiting factor of operations since the beginning of warfare. The Army understands the importance of having efficient, fast support assets capable of sustaining operations in any environment, with any units, conducting any kind of operation. Accordingly, there are dozens of field manuals (FMs) and regulations that are intended to give force-wide guidance to commanders on logistics support. However, current doctrine does little to address logistics security. The logistics chapter of FM 100-5, Operations, goes into detail about logistics considerations and planning. None of those considerations includes security and force protection.

    FM 100-5 is the doctrinal basis for Army operations, and the argument can be made that logistics security should not be addressed in a document of such broad scope. However, other doctrinal publications that cover logistics planning factors and considerations, such as Army Regulation 700-8, Logistics Planning Factors and Data Management, do not address the security of logistics units and assets. If security for logistics assets is not included in doctrine, then safety measures are an implied task for the logistics commander and for the combat units he supports. Current and future Army doctrine assumes that logistics units will maintain their security, augmented by combat units that grudgingly offer troops to provide rear area security.

    This is a dangerous approach to security in a world where asymmetric threats to the Army are becoming more prevalent. Security should not be an implied task for logistics commanders. Assuming the security of rear area units in an environment with a high probability of asymmetric threats is suicidal. The safety of logistics units should be addressed directly in doctrine. Doctrine should make it clear to leaders that the enemy is less likely to engage in front-line conventional warfare against the United States and more likely to attack weak rear targets unconventionally.

    Training also must address the asymmetric threat to rear units. Both doctrine and training are necessary to ensure the safety of Army logistics trains, maintenance and resupply areas, and other logistics assets on the future battlefield. To be properly prepared for the future, all leaders and soldiers, regardless of service, should be trained to think about, expect, and prepare for both asymmetric and conventional threats. Realistic training to detect, deter, and react to asymmetric threats would allow logistics leaders to have safer, more effective units in future field operations. Logistics units training with combat units should focus on security when immersed in an unconventional, asymmetric threat environment.

    This training is being conducted to some extent at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, where skilled opposition forces (OPFORs) challenge logistics leaders to protect their own forces while continuing to provide maximum support to conventional front-line units. However, if doctrine continues to leave security decisions solely to the commander, logistics leaders who do not have the training or the experience to understand the importance of security will fail to prepare their units properly for asymmetric threats. Training the logistics commander to meet the asymmetric threat is of vital importance, but this training will not be effective unless it is based on sound force-wide doctrine.

    Training on how to guard against asymmetric threats such as nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare; counterinfiltration; and sabotage must be realistic. OPFORs must learn how to prevent or adapt to creative, unpredictable asymmetric threats. Training must challenge our leaders to think and to take appropriate measures to provide security and force protection. Emphasis must be placed on area security, troop alertness, and routine physical inspection of equipment, vehicles, personnel, facilities, and other assets to prevent and deter asymmetric threats. The cost of preventing the loss of logistics assets and units is insignificant compared to the cost of replacing them.

    The Army must strive to understand, defend itself against, and operate in a new, unconventional warfare environment. Addressing the asymmetric threat adequately and making even small changes to Army doctrine and training will require a great deal of work by Army officials. Ensuring the security of supported units must be included in logistics doctrine for both combat operations and operations other than war.

    Undeniably, the face of warfare is changing. By including deterrence of asymmetric threats to rear units in doctrine and training according to the new doctrine, the Army can be a more effective force. Reducing vulnerability to asymmetric threats is vital for the Army's survival and continued dominance in future operations.

    Cadet First Class Michael L. Kolodzie is a student of military science and environmental engineering at the U.S. Military Academy. He will be commissioned as an Infantry officer upon graduation in May.