Small Wars Journal

“New” Realities of Twenty-First Century Asymmetric Conflict

Wed, 03/18/2020 - 3:36pm

“New” Realities of Twenty-First Century Asymmetric Conflict

Max G. Manwaring

A multi-polar world in which one or a hundred non-state and state actors are exerting differing types and levels of power, within a set of cross-cutting types and levels of power, is extremely volatile and dangerous. The security and stability of the global community is threatened, and the benefits of globalism could be denied to all.  Thus, it is incumbent on the United States and the rest of the global community to understand and cope with the unconventional threats imposed by the diverse actors engaged in the destabilizing conflicts that are called asymmetric or hybrid conflict, or Grey Area Phenomena (GAP)—or what John Sullivan has called  a ‘bazaar of violence’ that fuels the convergence of crime and war.

These conflicts range from acts of terrorism and illegal drug trafficking to warlordism, militant fundamentalism, ethnic cleansing, intra-national conflict, major refugee flows, and other transnational threats and consequences of global instability. Within this so-called GAP, one or another belligerent entity is not simply attempting to destroy an “enemy” military or security force in the classical sense.  In addition to the conventional “shooting war,” there may be combinations of as many as five, six, or more unconventional wars (dimensions) being conducted at the same time.  These wars may include, for example: 1) guerrilla war/drug war/media war; 2) conventional war/economic war/diplomatic war; 3) drug war/financial war/information war; 4) cyber war/biological war/terrorist war; 5) etc.

Each dimension or is sub-parts of contemporary asymmetric conflict can be combined with as many others that a protagonist’s organization and resources can deal with. This combining of dimensions provides considerably greater strength (power) than one or two operating by themselves.  This is the gist of contemporary unconventional conflict, and cannot be considered too ambiguous, too complex, too expensive, or too hard to deal with.  All that may or may not be true, but to subscribe to that and do nothing, or try to “muddle through,” is very likely to submit one’s posterity to unconscionable consequences. As a consequence, GAP is not only a singular military, social, or law enforcement problem. It is a multidimensional political-centric national and international security problem.

The historical record and strong empirical evidence demonstrate that the better a hegemonic state or non-state actor is at conducting the kinetic aspects of conflict, the more a potential internal or external enemy is inclined to move asymmetrically toward predominantly non-kinetic conflict.  As a result, “war” is changing, There, however, is nothing really new. As an example, during the Pontiac Conspiracy of 1763, the British infected their Indian adversaries by distributing blankets that had been used by men and women ill with smallpox.

In any event, the geo-political strategic objective of contemporary asymmetric warfare is total and unrestricted, outside all traditional rules and conventional methods, and uses all conceivable ways and means to achieve one’s ends.  More specifically, the geo-political objective—more and more—is not to kill people or capture territory.  Rather, as in 1763, the intent is to sap the ability and will of an adversary to use its superior conventional kinetic instruments of power to control a given situation.  The perpetrators of these efforts do not pretend to reform an unjust order or redress perceived grievances.  The end-state is simply to destroy perceived enemies and replace them with their own people and values—good, bad, or non-existent.

Again, the historic record and empirical data demonstrates that this geo-political end-state can be achieved by means of those non-kinetic efforts that cause mass disruption and panic. Large numbers of people in panic, flight, and illness can quickly overwhelm regular systems of care, transportation, communication, the economy, and personal and collective security.  With that, the society and political system unravels. Financial data will be scrambled, the electrical grid will go down in the eastern United States, orbiting satellites will spin out of control, food will run out, and money will become useless.  The effects of all this would be much like the results of a major nuclear attack—except that people will not be dead.  They will be alive and demanding security and services.  If adequate security and services are not forthcoming, those people will provide it for themselves in their own anarchistic ways.

The consequences of failing to take these basic realities of contemporary asymmetric warfare seriously are clear.  Unless thinking, actions, and organization are reoriented to deal with these basic issues, the problems of global, regional, and sub-regional stability and security will resolve themselves.   There won’t be any.  All this is not to suggest that the current coronavirus problem is a part of someone’s War Plan. All this is to remind readers that the classical concept of “war” and the conventional military-law enforcement center of gravity are drastically changed.  At the same time, the ways and means of attacking an adversary are infinitely broadened.


Categories: asymmetric warfare

About the Author(s)

Dr. Max G. Manwaring is a retired Professor of Military Strategy at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, and is a retired US Army colonel. He has has held the General Douglas MacArthur Chair of Research at the USAWC, and over the past 40+ years, hehas served in various military and civilian positions. They include the US Southern Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Dickinson College, and Memphis University. Manwaring is the author and co-author of several articles, chapters, and books dealing with international security affairs, political-military affairs, insurgency, counter-insurgency, and gangs. His most recent book, Confronting the Evolving Global Security Landscape, Lessons from the Past and Present, was published by Praeger Security International, 2019. His most recent chapter is entitled “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC): A Transnational Criminal-Insurgent-Terror Phenomenon.” It may be found in Kimberly L. Thachuk and Rollie Lal, Eds., Terrorist Criminal Enterprises: Financing Terrorism through Organized Crime, Praeger, 2018.  Dr. Manwaring is a graduate of the US Army War College and holds an M.A. and PhD in Political Science from the University of Illinois. He is also a Small Wars Journal-El Centro Fellow. He remains semi-active in the national security community, and may be contacted at



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 6:19am

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