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Asymmetric Warfare: An Emerging Threat to U.S. Security

Jonathan B. Tucker, Ph.D.
Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Monterey Institute of International Studies

In submissions to the Joint Strategy Review, which provides the baseline for the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the armed services have emphasized emerging security threats such as terrorism, biological weapons, and information warfare. Even so, the modernizing priorities in the QDR continue to focus on costly Cold War weapon systems such as the B-2 bomber and ballistic-missile defense, which would be impotent against these new threats.

For the foreseable future, no potential adversary can match the U.S. military in advanced conventional technologies such as precision-guided munitions and ground and space-based navigation, surveillance, target-acquisition, and communications systems. Having learned the lessons of Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, future enemies are unlikely to confront U.S. military power head-on, since they would be almost certain to lose. Instead, they will seek to counter U.S. technological superiority by exploiting the limitations and vulnerabilities of high-tech weapons. They may also employ chemical, biological, or radiological (CBR) weapons to inflict mass casualties, spread terror, and undermine the morale of U.S. forces and the political support of the American public.

Such an "asymmetric" strategy might consist of three elements. First, future adversaries will seek to spoof U.S. surveillance and target-acquisition systems with low-tech countermeasures such as aluminum reflectors to confuse targeting radars or heat generators to baffle infrared sensors. During the Persian Gulf War, Iraq foiled intensive efforts to find and destroy its Scud missile launchers by deploying decoy missiles that were filled with fuel to create realistic explosions when destroyed. Other high-tech systems in the U.S. arsenal also proved vulnerable to Iraqi countermeasures. A crude Iraqi mine put out of action an Aegis missile cruiser, one of the Navy's most advanced ships. Baghdad hampered sophisticated efforts to eavesdrop on its military communications by relying on coaxial and fiber-optic landlines that were hard to cut or tap. Iraq's extended-range Scud ballistic missiles were so poorly constructed that they broke up under the stress of reentry, creating a swarm of decoys around the warhead that confused the guidance computer of the Patriot anti-missile system. Finally, Iraq's torching of the Kuwaiti oil wells generated a dense pall of smoke over the battlefield that reduced the effectiveness of U.S. laser-guided weapons.

Second, because of the American public's sensitivity to the human cost of military operations, future adversaries may use CBR weapons to threaten or inflict mass casualties, with the aim of deterring or limiting U.S. military intervention. Prior to the Persian Gulf War, Iraq had acquired a formidable chemical and biological arsenal that was potentially capable of inflicting massive casualties on Coalition forces and the civilian populations of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Chemical or biological agents need not be delivered with ballistic or cruise missiles but could be dispersed with low-tech systems such as a commercial agricultural sprayer mounted on a moving truck, boat, or crop-dusting aircraft.

Third, future adversaries may seek to bring the war to the U.S. homeland by clandestine means. Rather than employing long-range ballistic missiles for strategic attacks on American cities, hostile states may employ terrorist groups as proxies to deliver CBR weapons against civilian targets. As former Senator Sam Nunn observed at a conference on weapons of mass destruction terrorism held last May in Washington, D.C., "The threat over the next decade may come by missile, but it is more likely to arrive by suitcase." Biological and radiological attacks would have delayed effects that would not be detected for days, giving the perpetrators time to escape and the state-sponsor a chance to deny responsibility. Since it would be politically difficult for the United States to retaliate against the sponsor of a terrorist act without compelling evidence of complicity, proxy attacks by terrorists would be hard to deter. Moreover, seeking to deter CBR attacks by threatening nuclear retaliation would violate the negative security assurances that are a key pillar of U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy.

Instead of devoting scarce resources to obsolete Cold War weapon systems, the Pentagon should undertake an intensive effort to minimize the vulnerability of U.S. forces and civilian populations to asymmetric warfare. Such an effort might comprise the following elements:

  1. Reconceptualize U.S. military strategy to minimize high-value targets for CBR weapons, such as dense concentrations of ground forces, large naval vessels such as aircraft carriers, and centralized staging areas for logistics and reinforcements. Instead, U.S. units and weapons platforms should be reduced in size and increased in number to permit greater dispersal across the battle zone, along with increased reliance on inexpensive platforms armed with stand-off weapons.
  2. Reduce the total size of standing U.S. forces while relying on reserves and mobilization capabilities to respond to the possible future reemergence of a peer security threat comparable to the former Soviet Union. In the meantime, place greater emphasis on unconventional warfare capabilities, including special operations and counterterrorism.
  3. Develop improved battlefield detection and identification systems for CBR agents, including the ability to detect and protect against repeated low-level chemical exposures that may have cumulative toxic effects. Upgrade the personal chemical protection (MOPP) gear issued to U.S. troops.
  4. Enhance technical and human intelligence systems for monitoring enemy acquisition of CBR weapons for terrorist purposes, and strengthen U.S. capabilities to preempt such terror attacks and mitigate the consequences.
  5. Develop conventional warheads capable of penetrating chemical and biological weapon storage bunkers and destroying the agents completely, so as to avoid releasing plumes of toxic material that could contaminate friendly troops downwind. Indeed, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, the demolition of an Iraqi munitions dump at Khamisiyah released a toxic plume of chemical-warfare agents that may have exposed more than 20,000 troops.

In conclusion, the modernization priorities of the QDR essentially preserve the status quo and do not reflect the emerging threats of asymmetric warfare. By planning to refight the last war, the Pentagon risks being unprepared for the next one.

Jonathan B. Tucker, Ph.D., "Asymmetric Warfare: An Emerging Threat to U.S. Security" May 1997

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