Small Wars Journal

Book Review: The Complexity of Modern Asymmetric Warfare

Sun, 01/08/2023 - 5:40pm

Book Review: The Complexity of Modern Asymmetric Warfare

By William Tynan

In early October of 2022, the U.S. Army published its newest doctrine on multidomain operations. This timing, while likely unintentional, coincided with the release of the National Defense Strategy and leaders across the U.S. government will need to align their efforts based on new requirements. As shown in Ukraine, leadership must continue to address asymmetric warfare to enact policy and protect our interests.

Max Manwaring’s The Complexity of Modern Asymmetric Warfare uses case studies to define the context for asymmetric warfare and provide recommendations for leaders. A U.S. Army veteran and retired professor of military strategy, Manwaring has published extensively on security issues and low intensity conflict. In the Complexity of Modern Asymmetric Warfare, he argues that military and civilian leaders must understand the nature of asymmetric conflicts because of their global, prolific, and persistent nature. Further, he shows that modern asymmetric warfare is multidimensional and requires close coordination of all elements of power, military and civilian.

The book’s strength lies in its assessment of case studies and the ample consideration given to modern asymmetry. Manwaring uses multiple historical and contemporary examples to describe modern asymmetrical warfare. Centrally, he argues “war is changing. The aim is, increasingly, not to kill people or capture territory but to sap the ability and will of an adversary to use conventional military power, no matter how superior.”[1] Manwaring covers a spectrum of irregular warfare cases from Che Guevara inspired Salvadorian rebels, to Al Qaeda in Spain, to modern Russian cyber-attacks. His book can serve as a reference for leadership, an introduction for those unfamiliar, or to provide analysis for the experienced counterinsurgency practitioner. While the case studies are largely from Latin America (likely due to Manwaring’s familiarity working in Southern Command), there is enough variety to explore varying expressions of conflict. The organization of the case studies and following analysis provide practical tools for military and civilian leaders seeking to understand asymmetric warfare.

Manwaring’s most pertinent research examines how state and nonstate actors can use asymmetry in cyber, information, and biological warfare to achieve their objectives. With the inclusion of technologically modern and novel means to conduct asymmetric warfare, Manwaring’s book aligns well with the U.S. Army’s newly published multidomain operations doctrine. His recommendations can also help link the application of irregular warfare to Army and Joint multidomain operations. Achieving unity of effort to counter, or even conduct irregular warfare, well beyond the elements of DIME will be challenging and Manwaring’s analysis of cyber, information, and biological asymmetry benefits the broader U.S. strategy.

While great attention to detail is given to understanding the different elements of asymmetry in conflict, Manwaring emphasizes the same level of comprehension in his recommendations. The book’s title promises complexity and Manwaring delivers. But the recommendations are so exceptionally complete to address this complexity that they risk losing meaning. While an exaggeration, many key takeaways resemble the following: Leaders must perfectly coordinate all forms of power, with complete knowledge of everything, in cooperation with everyone. With America’s history of fighting insurgencies and contemporary asymmetric fights across the globe, it is clear our government should restructure for unity of effort across our own elements of power and with international contributions. But how?

Additionally, the book is largely written from the perspective of the counterinsurgent and from the lens of counterterrorism. Unconventional warfare practitioners are simply not considered in this book’s recommendations. While the case studies and analysis are still relevant, would-be insurgents will have to develop their own takeaways. The U.S. Government and other Western nations are beginning to see the value in employing irregular warfare as a part of strategic competition and integrated deterrence. Additional guidance for legitimate, credible, and internationally accepted irregular warfare practices would be exceptionally helpful.

Despite these shortcomings, The Complexity of Modern Asymmetric Warfare is an excellent analysis using multiple case studies to develop asymmetric warfare strategies. This book is a valuable addition to the library of civilian policy leaders, military leaders, and diplomats seeking to understand asymmetric warfare. Even if some of the recommendations are difficult to implement, Manwaring’s perspective on cooperation is essential; he argues that “the complex realities of contemporary wars” require the participation of civilian and military leadership across the spectrum of state influence.[2] These leaders must understand and develop an appreciation for the elements of asymmetric warfare to effectively fight in the broad arena of modern conflict.

Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own, and do not represent the official or unofficial position or opinion of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or any branch of the U.S. Government


Works Cited




[2] MANWARING, 151.

About the Author(s)

William Tynan is a U.S. Army Officer currently attending the Naval Postgraduate School.