the young David with his sling-shot, hostile nations armed
with cheap but effective weapons pose an increasing threat to
the Goliath of U.S. military might.
JONATHAN B. TUCKER
Summer 1999; pgs. 32-38)
the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has
been the world’s sole superpower. It is the only country to
maintain a global naval presence, a panoply of overseas bases, and
the ability to deploy military forces to distant regions. The U.S.
defense budget, at over $280 billion for fiscal year 2000, is
several times larger than the combined spending of the countries
generally perceived as the most likely future U.S. opponents:
China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and
Yugoslavia.1 No potential
adversary comes close in advanced conventional weaponry—such as
cruise missiles, stealth fighter-bombers, laser-guided bombs—and
supporting navigation, surveillance, target-acquisition, and
communications systems. Even the Pentagon predicts that a peer
competitor will not emerge until around 2010, and most analysts
consider that possibility unlikely.
U.S. supremacy in conventional forces, few rational opponents
would deliberately seek a direct military confrontation with the
United States—although Iraq blundered into war by miscalculating
Washington’s response to the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and was
soundly defeated. Instead, future adversaries who resort to
military force against the United States will probably employ
asymmetric, or David-and-Goliath, strategies involving innovative
yet affordable weapons and tactics designed to weaken U.S. resolve
and its ability to use its superior conventional military
future opponent, for example, might employ nonconventional
weapons—nuclear, chemical, biological, or radiological—or
conduct terrorist attacks against military or civilian targets on
American territory in a bid to deter or impede U.S. intervention
in a regional conflict in the Persian Gulf, the Korean Peninsula,
or the Balkans. Such an adversary could be selective in its
objectives, timing the moment of an attack to maximize its
strengths. Although the United States could ultimately prevail,
the increased financial and human costs might undermine the
political will of U.S. leaders to sustain the conflict or deter
allies from providing assistance.2
Secretary of Defense William Cohen has warned that "a paradox
of the new strategic environment is that American military
superiority actually increases the threat of nuclear, biological,
and chemical attack against us by creating incentives for
adversaries to challenge us asymmetrically."3
what extent is asymmetric warfare a new threat that poses a
significant danger to the security of the United States?
Three strategic assessments published by the U.S. Department
of Defense have called attention to the issue.
May 1997 Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review stated that a
future adversary could "employ asymmetric methods to delay or
deny U.S. access to critical facilities; disrupt our command,
control, communications, and intelligence networks; or inflict
higher than expected casualties in an attempt to weaken our
National Defense Panel, a group of nongovernmental analysts
commenting on the Quadrennial Defense Review, agreed that future
seek to disable the underlying structures that enable our
military operations. Forward bases and forward-deployed forces
will likely be challenged and coalition partners coerced.
Critical nodes that enable communications, transportation,
deployment, and other means of power projection will be
Joint Vision 2010, a study of warfare in the next century
by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asserted that "our most vexing
future adversary may be one who can use technology to make rapid
improvements in its military capabilities that provide
asymmetrical counters to U.S. military strengths, including
response to these alarming declarations, skeptics have argued that
military scenarios focusing on asymmetric threats tend to
overstate the vulnerabilities of the United States, and that
merely identifying theoretical windows of vulnerability does not
necessarily mean that real-world adversaries could climb through
them. These analysts allege that the Department of Defense has
exaggerated the asymmetric threat in order to justify its inflated
budget in the post-Cold War era.7
following analysis concludes that while the threat of asymmetric
warfare on U.S. territory is of real concern, a more likely
scenario is that such tactics will be used to constrain the
ability of U.S. forces to intervene in regional conflicts rapidly
and at relatively low cost.
asymmetric strategies could be used to disrupt U.S. military
capabilities and bring the conflict to the U.S. homeland.
For example, high-tech and low-tech countermeasures could
exploit the vulnerabilities of advanced U.S. weapons and
their supporting systems. Information warfare could be used
to disable computer networks, paralyzing communications,
transportation, power systems, and industrial enterprises.
Public-relations warfare might allow opponents to exploit
the international news media to weaken the resolve of U.S.
decision makers. Nonconventional attacks by special forces
armed with chemical and biological agents could disrupt U.S.
military operations. And foreign states could sponsor
terrorist attacks against civilian targets to
undermine public support for foreign intervention or to
deter states from joining a U.S.-led coalition.
the Pentagon’s heavy reliance on high technology, future
adversaries might develop relatively simple countermeasures
designed to turn sophisticated U.S. military assets into
wartime liabilities. Low-tech countermeasures, such as
aluminum reflectors that confuse targeting radars and heat
generators that deceive infrared sensors, are cheap and easy
to use. During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq employed several
deliberate countermeasures and a few inadvertent ones.
Although these tactics did not have a significant impact on
the outcome of the war, they did reduce the effectiveness of
some high-tech weapons in the U.S. arsenal.
example, Iraq foiled intensive Coalition efforts to find and
destroy its Scud missile launchers by deploying decoy missiles
together with barrels of diesel fuel to simulate secondary
explosions when hit.8 A crude
Iraqi mine put out of action the Aegis missile cruiser U.S.S.
Princeton, one of the U.S. Navy’s most advanced ships.9
Baghdad hampered sophisticated efforts to eavesdrop on its
military communications by relying on buried coaxial and
fiber-optic landlines that were hard to cut or tap, rather than
using radio or satellite communications.10
And Iraq’s extended-range Scud ballistic missiles were so poorly
constructed that they broke up under the stress of reentry,
effectively creating a swarm of "decoys" around the
warhead that confused the guidance system of the Patriot
antimissile defense system. As a result, few if any Patriot
interceptions were successful.11
more sophisticated adversary might attempt to jam transmissions
from the U.S. Global Positioning Satellite system, which aids many
precision-guided weapons, or to sabotage critical command,
control, and communications nodes such as satellite terminals and
switching stations. Knocking out a few key nodes might disable a
larger network of facilities supporting U.S. military operations.
Nevertheless, such tactics are essentially defensive. While
effective countermeasures might delay a U.S. victory and make it
more costly, they would probably not change the outcome of a
conflict, given the overwhelming superiority of U.S. military
Pentagon is concerned that adversaries or terrorists might
employ software commands or malicious programs to shut down
or disable key military computer systems. The fact that
young hackers have been able to break into U.S. Navy and
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
computers suggests that determined cyber-warriors from a
hostile nation or a well-financed terrorist group might
inflict considerably more damage. Programmable weapon
systems may also be vulnerable to attacks by
self-replicating computer viruses that erase stored data.
According to Defense Secretary Cohen, "We have to spend
a good deal more attention to looking at ways in which our
reliance upon technology can be undone by a simple
cyber-terrorist threat also extends into the civilian sector. As
the most computerized country in the world, the United States
relies on a vast number of networked processors and databanks for
the operation of its critical infrastructure—the system of
interdependent industries and institutions that provide a
continual flow of goods and services essential to the nation’s
security and welfare.13 Such
systems include energy distribution, transportation, banking
and finance, water supply systems, emergency services,
telecommunications, and continuity of government. This dependence
makes the United States potentially vulnerable to deliberate
cyber-terrorist attacks against critical government or corporate
computer networks, with the intent to create massive disruption
and chaos. According to the President’s Commission on Critical
Infrastructure Protection, "We must learn to negotiate a new
geography, where borders are irrelevant and distances meaningless,
where an enemy may be able to harm the vital systems we depend on
without confronting our military power."14
analysts have argued that cyber-attacks targeted at computerized
systems for air-traffic control, the switching of commuter trains,
or the control systems of a nuclear power plant or a chemical
factory could kill large numbers of people. This threat appears to
have been exaggerated because air-traffic, train, and power-plant
and industrial control systems are not accessible through the
Internet but have their own internal networks. For those networked
computers that are potentially vulnerable to information attacks,
defenses can be enhanced by investing in greater redundancy,
encryption, electronic firewalls that insulate classified
computers from the outside world, tagging of data to detect
outside manipulation, and compartmentalization of computer systems
so that they fail gracefully rather than catastrophically.15
The challenge is not the lack of available defenses but rather the
will of government and industry to invest in them.
potentially more effective form of information warfare in
the military context is an enemy’s manipulation of the
mass media to influence American public opinion, thereby
restricting the U.S. government’s ability to employ its
overwhelming military superiority. During the Vietnam War,
the enemy’s use of asymmetric guerilla tactics and its
ability to endure massive firepower while continuing to
inflict American casualties gradually turned public opinion
against the war and undermined the political will of
policy-makers to sustain the conflict.
Vietnam, the U.S. public has become highly sensitive to
casualties, particularly in military operations perceived as
peripheral to the nation’s core security interests. During the
U.S. intervention in Somalia in October 1993, irregulars
associated with Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed killed 18
American soldiers in the streets of Mogadishu, stripped a dead
soldier’s body, and dragged it behind a truck in view of press
cameras. These horrifying images aroused U.S. public opinion
against the intervention and precipitated a rapid pullout. Given
these precedents, a cunning adversary might take advantage of the
"CNN factor" to weaken the resolve of U.S. policy-makers
undertaking or merely contemplating a military intervention.
President Saddam Hussein, for his part, has been able to exert
substantial leverage against a vastly superior foe by exploiting
the reluctance of the U.S. government to inflict civilian
casualties, because of moral constraints and concerns about the
negative political fallout in the Arab world. Fully aware of the
American ability to strike at any target in Iraq, Saddam has
situated key strategic assets such as biological-weapons plants in
densely populated areas. Prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he
also arranged for the transportation of Iraqi citizens to
potential bombing targets to serve as human shields. In this way,
Saddam has repeatedly used his own civilian population as pawns in
an asymmetric strategy designed to undermine the willingness of
the United States to employ its overwhelming offensive
to one analysis, "Iraq…[has] taught the world how to put
the most powerful military in history on a leash...by convincing
America’s leadership that political defeat will be the price of
military victory.... The lessons of America’s recent failure of
nerve will not be lost on future opponents who lack its wealth,
but possess the strength of will to fight with unconventional
the spread of chemical and biological weapons to states that
sponsor terrorism — such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and
North Korea—the Pentagon is increasingly concerned about
the potential for nonconventional attacks against U.S.
forces.17 To be
effective, such agents would not have to be delivered by
missile or tactical fighter. Instead, they could be spread
by low-tech delivery systems such as a modified agricultural
sprayer mounted on a moving truck, boat, or aircraft.
the Gulf War, U.S. military planners feared Iraq might employ its
chemical and biological weapons against coalition forces deployed
in Saudi Arabia, but fortunately these attacks did not
the massive battlefield use of chemical or biological agents is no
longer considered the most likely threat, because it could provoke
a massive retaliatory strike. A more plausible scenario would
involve a series of coordinated, low-level attacks by
special-operations forces or terrorists, delivered by covert means
against multiple targets at home and abroad. Some chemical agents
such as mustard gas and VX nerve gas, and biological agents such
as anthrax spores, are highly persistent and could be used to
contaminate airstrips and ports in order to disrupt military
the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon has closed several bases
overseas and at home and now relies far more heavily on a small
number of facilities within the continental United States that
might be vulnerable to sabotage.
fictional scenario included in a 1997 Pentagon-sponsored study
envisions an asymmetric attack by a future enemy with small
amounts of chemical and biological agents to impede the U.S.
ability to project power to a regional theater in a timely manner.19
In this scenario, Iraq again invades Kuwait, this time with the
assistance of its erstwhile enemy Iran. Both countries recognize
that if the invasion is to be successful, U.S. military
intervention must be delayed, and covert chemical and biological
attacks are seen as potentially effective for this purpose.
Baghdad and Tehran decide to disrupt U.S. airlift and sealift
operations by using a persistent chemical-warfare agent to
contaminate key troop-deployment ports and airfields in the
continental United States. They also release an incapacitating
biological agent upwind of U.S. naval ships and other facilities
on the island of Diego Garcia, the Indian Ocean base that was used
in the 1991 Gulf War and in Operation Desert Fox. The attack is
timed to trigger a major outbreak of incapacitating illness among
American troops on the day of deployment.
scenario is plausible in that airlift and sealift operations from
U.S. bases at home and abroad are a potential Achilles’ heel.
Particularly vulnerable are civilian support personnel such as
stevedores and data-processing specialists working at ports and
control centers, since few of them have been trained or equipped
with protective gear against chemical or biological attacks. At
the same time, some of the assumptions underlying the scenario
appear unrealistic. How likely is it that Iraq would form a
military alliance with Iran—its archrival for hegemony in the
Persian Gulf and former adversary in a bloody, eight-year war—or
that both countries would be capable of coordinating a complex
series of political, military, and terrorist attacks?
United States, the sole remaining superpower, has become a
prominent terrorist target because of its global military
presence, repeated interventions in distant conflicts, and
prominent role in security alliances and peacekeeping
operations. These activities have incurred the wrath of
countries and groups that resent America’s power and
perceived arrogance, its tendency toward unilateral action,
its loyal support of Israel, and the corrosive effect of
American popular culture on social and religious values.
Thus, terrorist outrages against U.S. targets often
represent a lashing-out against America’s predominant
military, economic, political, and cultural influence.
the emergence of international terrorist operations on U.S. soil,
such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York
City, the Pentagon worries that state-sponsored terrorists might
bring a future conflict to Main Street America by deliberately
attacking civilian targets by asymmetric means. Rather than
employing long-range ballistic missiles for strategic attacks on
U.S. cities, hostile nations or state-sponsored terrorist
organizations could smuggle nonconventional weapons into the
United States in crates or suitcases. Multiple simultaneous
attacks against domestic targets could constrain U.S. military
operations abroad by creating a major political crisis at home.
Alternatively, terrorist threats might be used for political
blackmail, such as compelling the United States to withdraw its
forces from Saudi Arabia.
or radiological attacks on U.S. citizens could have delayed
effects that might not be detected for days, giving the
perpetrators time to escape and the state sponsor a chance of
avoiding identification. Some have argued that if terrorists were
to conduct an attack in a nonattributable manner, it would be
politically costly for the United States to retaliate without
compelling evidence of complicity.20
the ability of U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to
track down the perpetrators of unclaimed terrorist incidents
should not be underestimated. Washington was able to link the 1986
bombing of a Berlin discotheque frequented by U.S. soldiers and
the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 to Libyan agents, suggesting that
it is not easy for a state sponsor to evade responsibility.
so, some terrorists may not be deterrable. A few terrorist groups
may believe they can carry off a biological attack without
attribution; others are transnational in nature and cannot be
linked to one country, such as the Islamic fundamentalists
involved in the World Trade Center bombing. Such groups are only
loosely associated with a state sponsor or may carry out terrorist
attacks on their own initiative. Moreover, some religious fanatics
may be prepared to die for their cause.
short, the primary aim of asymmetric warfare is to constrain
the ability of the United States to intervene rapidly and at
relatively low cost. It is important, however, to
distinguish among the various asymmetric strategies, which
range from low-tech to high-tech. Only relatively developed
countries with extensive technical and financial resources
have the potential to mount sophisticated attacks on U.S.
weapon systems and computer networks. Yet few such countries
currently have hostile or aggressive intentions toward the
United States that would lead them down this path. Other
adversaries, such as Iraq or Yugoslavia, may desire to
bloody the United States’ nose, but they do not have the
capability to carry out sophisticated attacks. By conflating
these various actors and scenarios, the Department of
Defense has tended to exaggerate the strategic significance
of asymmetric warfare. It is therefore necessary to
disaggregate these various threats if we are to assess them
the Pentagon has so far made few real changes in force structure,
weapon procurement, or military doctrine to address the purported
vulnerabilities it has identified. To minimize the threat of
asymmetric warfare to U.S. forces and weapons, the Department of
Defense should consider some new policy options.
instead of devoting scarce resources to procuring Cold War-legacy
weapon systems, the Pentagon should place greater reliance on
long-range guided weapons that can hit targets from a safe
distance, without the need for manned ships or aircraft to
penetrate enemy defenses. The United States should also cut
expenditures on a costly yet ineffective national antiballistic
missile system and place greater emphasis on other types of
homeland defense, such as enhanced protection of U.S. cities
against terrorism with nonconventional weapons. "Star
Wars" systems are impotent against the terrorist threat,
which is far more likely to arrive by suitcase than by ballistic
if nuclear, chemical and biological weapons continue to
proliferate, U.S. willingness to confront future aggressors may be
sharply reduced. The Pentagon should retool its military strategy
for a major ground war to minimize the number of lucrative targets
vulnerable to nonconventional attack, such as dense concentrations
of forces and centralized staging areas for logistics and
reinforcements. U.S. troop units and weapon platforms should be
reduced in size and increased in number to permit greater mobility
and dispersal across the battle zone, thereby avoiding the
creation of valuable targets. U.S. armed forces should also
improve their capabilities to rapidly decontaminate large aircraft
and ships, and—assuming that foreign nations will allow the
establishment of new bases abroad—create multiple transshipment
points to limit the vulnerability of airlift and sealift
the United States should enhance its ability to prevent and
mitigate the consequences of chemical and biological attacks. On
the prevention side, the intelligence community should upgrade its
technical and human resources for monitoring enemy and terrorist
acquisition of relatively small quantities of chemical or
biological warfare agents. To mitigate the consequences of a
possible attack, the armed services should develop and deploy
improved sensors to detect and identify battlefield contamination,
including low-level exposures to chemical nerve agents, which have
cumulative toxic effects.21
The armed forces also need to provide protective training and
equipment to key civilian defense workers. If the United States
enhances and publicizes its ability to cope with the medical
consequences of chemical or biological warfare, this capability
would help deter such attacks.
it is not clear that in the post-Cold War era, military
intervention is always desirable or in the national interest. In
the past, unilateral U.S. involvement in a regional
conflict—particularly on behalf of one side in a civil war as in
Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Somalia—has often proved
counterproductive, eliciting widespread hostility on the part of
those who resent perceived U.S. arrogance. Thus, one way to
minimize the future threat of asymmetric warfare would be for the
United States to employ greater restraint towards intervention in
regional conflicts. Some analysts contend that by disengaging from
secondary military commitments around the globe, the United States
could reduce the incentive for terrorist attacks against Americans
at home and abroad without adversely affecting its core security
interests.22 Obviously, an
activist U.S. foreign policy requires overseas bases and
operations. As the world’s sole remaining superpower, the United
States should be prepared to intervene when necessary to prevent
genocide, to halt massive violations of human rights, or to
contain regional aggression. Wherever possible, however,
Washington should act as a member of a multinational coalition.
not all security threats are best addressed through military
means. By strengthening nonproliferation treaties and
export-control regimes designed to halt the spread of nuclear,
chemical, and biological weapons, and by promoting diplomatic
settlements of the festering conflicts in Yugoslavia, the Middle
East, Southern Africa, and the Korean Peninsula, the United States
can minimize the need for military intervention in the future.
This diplomacy-centered strategy would require a much greater
investment in nonmilitary instruments such as negotiation, foreign
assistance, the promotion of democracy, and the effective use of
the United Nations—including the full payment of back
dues—backed up existentially with the big stick of U.S. military
B. Tucker is director of the CBW Nonproliferation Project at the
Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, CA.
for Defense Information, "The Fiscal Year 1999 Military
Budget," Defense Monitor 27 (4) (1998), p. 2.
Gunther, "You Call This a Revolution?" Foreign
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for Defense Information, "Military Domination or
Constructive Leadership?" Defense Monitor 27 (3)
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Defense Panel, "Transforming Defense: National
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Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Vision
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Conetta and Charles Knight, "Inventing Threats," Bulletin
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(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), p. 175.
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in the United States 1996 <http://www.fbi.gov/publish/terror/terroris.pdf>,
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Danzig, "The Next Superweapon: Panic," New York
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warfare agents are supertoxic human-made chemicals such as
mustard gas and sarin, while biological warfare agents include
disease-causing germs, such as anthrax, and poisonous
chemicals, such as botulinum toxin and ricin, made by living
Biological Warfare Attack with Anthrax," in Albert J.
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Praeger, 1998), pp. 216-217.
& Hamilton, Assessment of the Impact of Chemical and
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VA, October 1997); see also "Germ War Games," Salon
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"The Next Superweapon: Panic."
General Accounting Office, Chemical Weapons: DOD Does not
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GAO/NSIAD-98-228 (Washington, DC: GAO, September 1998).
Christopher Layne, "The Unipolar Illusion: Why New Great
Powers Will Rise," International Security 17 (4)
(Spring 1993), pp. 5-51; and Eugene Gholz, Daryl G. Press, and
Harvey M. Sapolsky, "Come Home, America: The Strategy of
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in Summer 1999; pgs. 32-38