View Full Version : Asymmetrical combat (followup on "Part 3")
August 11, 2000, 03:28 AM
As a tangent on the neato commentary by Skorzeny, Dragontooth et al, I've been pondering the whole chicken-and-egg problem of having weapons decide tactics versus tactics deciding weapons. A current buzzword in the US military is "asymmetrical combat" where a supposedly weaker opponent can have success by finding an asymmetry and exploiting it (i.e. numerical superiority against technological superiority).
Over the course of recorded history, it seems like a lot of the supposed paradigm shifts are really just the consequence of one participant choosing to ignore the "rules" and fighting in circumstances to his benefit. For example, the development of the "sleeved" bayonet in the 18th century. The assumed "rules" in Europe were that you used a plug bayonet, thus you knew when your opponent was going to stop firing and charge when they jammed their bayonets in their musket muzzles. The first time the sleeved bayonet was used, paradigm shift; the guys could still fire one more volley!
Thus, I think the spotty performance of European armies against Arab, Turk, and Mongol opponents back in medieval times was partly due to the inability of the Europeans to adjust to "rules changes." They were still in the grips of "battle as the sport of kings" instead of "battle as a life-or-death struggle for dominance."
Likewise, the Germans failed to adjust to the Allies heavy use of concentrated, accurate artillery in the ETO during WWII. They believed in an infantry-oriented battle, whereas the American approach was artillery-oriented.
There seems to be an opposite principle that the other guy's strengths may be enough to overcome your strengths. The classic example is that of Napolean's European conquests. At the time, warfare was becoming the purview of the civil engineer because of all the fortifications, yet Napoleon developed an army that was better at traveling and applying the siege (Napolean was "Mr. Artillery" after all) than the defenders were at defending against the siege. Napoleon kept turning the crank on that formula, and ended up ruling most of western Europe.
I think some of this speaks to Dragontooth's question about mobility versus armor in pre-gunpowder warfare. It seems to me that a static defender can make better use of armor, because he doesn't get tired. The battle comes to him. Likewise, heavy cavalry have the advantage if they can engage the enemy on a plain on which their opponents haven't prepared a static defense (a la Agincourt). Light infantry has the advantage in mountainous terrain, because cavalry is slowed and channeled into trails that become "kill zones." So the wise tactician knows his capabilities and his opponents, and strives to arrange the battle to occur where and when his force has either a symmetrical advantage or an asymmetrical advantage. The unwise tactician puts strength against strength or allows himself to be maneuvered into a position of disadvantage when the bugles blow.
A third principle seems to be that combat style and weaponry develops in a context of technological, cultural, and economic environments. As an example, the weapons of medieval Europe and Japan aligned with their cultural situation; the upper class had rare, costly weapons requiring continual training, the rank-and-file soldiers had simpler, cheaper weapons, and the irregulars had basically whatever farm implements they could bring. Whereas in other places like Africa, less technology and a less convoluted social structure led to a more homogeneous weapon set (spear, sword or long knife, and shield for almost every man), and the nomadic nature of many of the tribes required simplicity of manufacture and portability.
So, do these principles make sense? Along with Murphy's Laws of Combat, what other principles should be chiseled in stone?
August 11, 2000, 03:59 AM
LawDog's Rule #126: "If you're fighting fair, you planned wrong."
#127: "Unarmed combat is very pretty, but when it comes time to root hog or die, any weapon is better than empty hands."
#127(a) "If you have a problem with Rule #127, see Rule #126."
:D :D :D
[This message has been edited by LawDog (edited August 11, 2000).]
August 11, 2000, 06:50 AM
Lawdog, you forgot Rule #1...
"Forget the rules - they don't exist. Good luck!"
Assymetrical Combat - so that's the buzzword for it! This idea is as old as fighting, they just came up with a name for it.
The way I look at it, fighting is all about advantages and making the best use of them. Being bigger, stronger, faster, tougher, meaner, punching harder, kicking harder, grappling better, more experienced, more confident, in better condition, etc., etc. are all advantages. Whoever can force their advantage(s) on their opponent (or force their opponent into a situation where they have to use one their disadvantages) usually wins. Hence, the value of being both highly skilled and well rounded.
August 11, 2000, 12:07 PM
i think i screwed up when i mentioned what i was thinking of as "linearity" ... the japanese term i was thinking of, "choksen" means "straight line" but it comes out more as "progression".
i'll take an example ... the yellow turban rebellion at the end of the han dynasty. previously untrained peasants, become zealots. their problem: how to deal with imperial cavalry. their solution: teams of three. one with a polearm stopped both horse and rider at a distance. second moves in with sword and brings down horse. third moves in and slays dismounted rider using long dagger.
there's a "layering" here of various weapons in use ... and truth to tell, it's never been about having the "perfect" weapon, it's always been about having the best one at hand ... wushu has eighteen arms in recognizance of this.
i don't think the basic paradigm of fire/manuever, space/time is being called into question here ... there's a distinct "rhythm" to warfare just as in anything else. rules in warfare(?) notwithstanding, it's been very much about adjusting to tempos and forcing one's own.
northeast asian warfare has always been about speed: light armor, fast horses, quick deployment, rapid assualt. the chinese spent centuries fighting nomad tribes learning this. the japanese learned from the mainland, and from their own intercine wars. no matter what the stakes are, it's always been more important to be able to pick and choose when and how to fight, than anything else.
the us military's always amused me in the concepts they "suddenly" develop :) i'm sure those people at the army war college et al have just started cracking the pages on sun tzu (wonder if they know sun bin or tai kung yet) and finally started reading. warfare in northeast asia has always been about discrepancy: in force composition, in terrain, in resources. having equal forces on some level field is a very, very weird proposition.
i think Ivanhoe is starting to define the principles here :) ... hooray. i still think "layering" or "depth of options" is something to be mulled over; obvious advantages occur when you can fight on a superior distance equation (muskets vs cavalry at nagashino, gladius vs long spear at phynocephalae).
my big question is to identify the distances and to define the most versatile weapon refinements developed for each. i didn't say weapon! no katana vs rapier argument for me ...
DangerDave i like how you point out "advantages" ... LawDog would probably concur on "fighting spirit" as being on top of them all ... i think the wombat factor (mean little vicious creature creating hell) supersedes all that quite nicely :D
but hey i like this tangent :) thank you Ivanhoe.
August 11, 2000, 05:35 PM
The cool thing about trying to establish universal principles is that one can look at ancient history or modern and find both supportive examples and contradictory examples. Lots of fun looking at parallels between the Crusades and the various American "police actions" over the last 120 years. Also, there is the "granularity" issue, that is, do the same principles apply to the individual and to the army as a whole?
Well, I guess I'll state Rule #0, paraphrased from our demigod of mechanized/motorized warfare, Gen. George Patton; "The goal is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his."
Dragontooth, what you are describing is what the Army guys call "combined arms." In other words, dissimilar units or weapons types working in unison on the same problem. Perfect example is the use of infantry-forward attacks by the Israelis to clear out anti-tank rocket troops before running the tanks through the region. The flip side of that concept is what I would call "dimensionality." In other words, an army that is only foot infantry is one-dimensional; probably at a great advantage in the mountains or dense forest, but at a disadvantage out on the plains. Likewise with weapons; having a distribution of pikemen, swordsmen, and archers means you have less of a particular category than you could, but more flexibility.
A game which I think would be a lot more meaningful than the usual "North vs. South at Gettysburg" would be a game in which you have a fixed annual budget and you have to allocate your resources into some mix of infantry, artillery, armor, etc. You would have to consider a variety of tradeoffs, as well as run scenarios to see how your force mix does against likely opponents. At the individual level, one might consider the effects of having combined archer/pikemen; additional weapon and training costs, reduced speed of foot travel due to increased weight, increased survivability due to reduction of risk from enemy cavalry, etc.
The military in the US and Europe read Sun Tzu as a standard textbook now, but I suspect the problem is that there are standard quasi-doctrinal interpretations that change the thing from a thinking exercise to a memorization exercise.
The funny thing about the asymmetrical combat dialogue is that, if I understand the US Army's viewpoint correctly, they are more concerned with responding to the enemy's use of asymmetry than in leveraging their own. Its as if they accept their own inability to have a flexible doctrine.
August 11, 2000, 09:46 PM
Hey if you guys like games, you should check out Shogun. It's a very strategic game based on 16th century Japanese battles from what I've heard.
[This message has been edited by Incursion (edited August 11, 2000).]
August 12, 2000, 01:05 AM
Ivanhoe, i was trying to NOT bring it to the 20th century. i felt if i mentioned "combined arms" more than once (recall the legion-samurai parallel i made before?) i'd drag it out of swordplay. now that the cat is very much out of the bag, combined arms is what it is.
that having been said, i say ... there are certain principles (ease of use, compactness of motion, ergonomics) that if followed, prove themselves in the hands of the determined. no real superweapon, superstrategy, "ultimate" martial art. there are, however, "super" soldiers ... usaf study i recall made the point that 5% of all pilots make 50% of all the kills, irrespective of training, equipment, doctrine ... the most dangerous weapon known to this world is a human being. asymetry not withstanding.
August 13, 2000, 10:34 PM
Nothing wrong with using 20th century terminology in discussing historical stuff. In fact, I think it helps draw parallels, which lead to distilling universal principles.
Pareto said it best a long time ago; it is the 20% that causes 80% of the problems. S.L.A. Marshall's studies indicate that there are a handful of men in each infantry company that do most of the killing. In software development studies have found that about 10% of the programmers produce 10 times more software than the rest.
As has been said many times before, myself included; "If the generals are saying that we won't need our winter uniforms, go ahead and start issuing the gloves, felt liners, quilted undies, etc." This principle has no counterpoint that I can think of. ;)
While there are no superweapons, there are occasions when everything comes together and results are exceptionally good. Looking at the early successes of the Romans; they had training, good equipment, logistics (including roads), communication, tactics, etc. However, they suffered their share of losses and setbacks when their opponents learned how to deal with them.
August 19, 2000, 12:45 PM
One thought I want to throw out, is the difference between tactical utility and strategic [or perhaps Logistic] utility.
Us armored forces have a large tatical utility but major problem on the logisitic side. They require enormous amounts of fuel, parts, and other supplies to keep running.
I am waiting for some upgrade to infantry to improve there speed and/or mobility to allow for more strikes at fuel trucks and other supply lines.
Is anyone aware of any studies done on infantry using bicyclces or motorbikes vs just feet? I know in the american military infantry is really all mechanized or mech supported and not designed to operate outside of roads or vehical friendly terrain for any period of time. Without massive air support anyway.
August 19, 2000, 11:24 PM
"I am waiting for some upgrade to infantry to improve there speed and/or mobility to allow for more strikes at fuel trucks and other supply lines."
forget about it. grunts pack 60lbs+ and i think we've reached the limit of carrying capacity for an infantryman ... unless you've got something like an exoskeletal powered assist suit, you're not going to get the heavier weaponry, greater supplies, and ensuing operational mobility that would let infantry outstrip armor and helo support.
"Is anyone aware of any studies done on infantry using bicyclces or motorbikes vs just feet? I know in the american military infantry is really all mechanized or mech supported and not designed to operate outside of roads or vehical friendly terrain for any period of time. Without massive air support anyway."
as i recall the belgians had bicycle regiments in 1941 ... german armor rolled over them in days. the vietminh used bicycles to resupply their troops at dien bien phu. confederate cavalry often fought dismounted in the civil war (if i remember right, mosby's rangers made a habit of it). if facts (read: brain cells) serve me right, the us army had something called the "7th high-tech division" which was basically a light infantry division with dune buggies, motorcross bikes etc. problem was with all the added equipment their foxhole strength was anemic, they had no staying power against conventional units with armor, they sucked up just as much fuel/parts/etc as any other unit of comparable size. they turned that into a mechanized division. i wish i could give you a better synopsis, Glamdring, but my books are in mothballs as i speak ... sigh.
anyways nothing much else i have to add except that i'm in the process of having a warring states period (chinese) blade forged, and i'm looking for a P7M10 (like i'm going to find that ... surrrrreeee ... but doesn't hurt to try) ... anyways i think LawDog, Skorzeny, or somebody can clear up that muddle i left behind up in the first couple of paragraphs. everyone take care ... aloha'z
August 19, 2000, 11:51 PM
Glamdring, the US Army has been goofing around with soldier mobility research for about 50 years now. They usually go for very high tech approaches, like backpack helicopters and that sort of thing. Here is a link discussing the use of mountain bikes by the 82nd Airborne Division;
Warning; the other web pages written by the author of the above page contain some offensive and unnecessary rhetoric against the Marine Corps. If you can ignore the anti-USMC and pro-airborne bias, there are some interesting ideas presented. At the Normandy invasion of WWII, there were some units who were supposed to bring bicycles, but most of them were lost in the surf.
The Army has also played around with using dirt bikes, ATVs, and dune buggies for light/fast maneuvers. Never seems to make it past the R&D stage, however. I'd love to see the Army use dirt bikes for desert and plains operations; its a natural fit, and they'd get plenty of volunteers.
On the issue of targeting the opponent's logistics chain, I believe the unwritten rule in the Army is to leave POL and supply depots to the Air Force, since those are the kinds of interdiction targets the USAF loves to visit. If you look back at Allied operations in northern Europe during WWII, the German war machine was hamstrung by the swarms of Allied fighters and medium bombers shooting at anything with wheels. Unfortunately, the lesson the USAF took away from WWII was that air superiority is necessary *and* sufficient for victory. Necessary, yes, but not sufficient. We also need those swarms of treetop-level strafing planes.
But the AirLand Battle concept, if I understand it correctly, is aimed at attacking the opponent in depth. I believe the Army's vision includes the use of helicopters such as the new Comanche to disrupt the opponent's logistics train. I would assume that one of the primary tasks for our two airborne divisions is to disrupt enemy mobility behind the battle line, though they're frequently used as shock troops instead.
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