(Note: Now this article has been published at Indian Defence Review and can also be accessed HERE)
Winning the Asymmetric Wars – A need for Rapid Strategic Switching
Winning the Asymmetric Wars – A need for Rapid Strategic Switching
Of the 43 asymmetric wars in the period 1950-1999, 51.2% wars have been won by the weaker actor. That the powerful will lose sometimes is in the nature of warfare, in general. However, they will lose in more than 50% of the times is difficult to explain especially in the established way of creating powerful military forces by nations with large populations and high economic resources. Ivan Arreguin-Toft, in his 2005 book, “How the weak win wars – a theory of asymmetric conflict”, analyses the data of asymmetric conflicts in the 200 years’ period from 1800 to 2003 and comes up with this startling trend of David’s have started winning more often than the Goliaths. The overall win percentage, sure enough, is still in favour of stronger, more powerful actors – they winning 71.5% of times. However, when he presents the data in 50-year time slots – the trend becomes increasingly stark and surprising. Consider this, for example, for the 34 asymmetrical conflicts from the year 1800 to 1849, the winning % of strong actors was 88.2%. For the period from 1850 to 1899 it reduced to 79.5% for 78 such conflicts that occurred in that half-century. For the first 50 years of 20th century, the world witnesses 43 asymmetrical conflicts, in those, the winning percentage of strong actors reduced to 65.1%.
Explanation of continuing Victories of David’s
Relative combat power as a measure of win probability has been an established norm in the studies on military combat between state actors, in general. Also, use of innovative weapons as for example the use of a catapult by David against Goliath, in the biblical story, has been considered as one possible explanation of success of weaker actors in the asymmetrical conflicts. Besides these, nature of strong actor – whether a democracy or an authoritarian regime or dictator has also been considered to explain the relative success of dictators in such conflicts. Arms diffusion – when the weaker gets the modern arms specially after WWII – when many developing world countries received modern weapons and used them against stronger attackers, have also been offered as an explanation of some wins by the weaker actors.
Toft, however, presents a neat hypothesis of what he calls Strategic Interaction of opposing actors approaches in the asymmetric conflicts. He divides all war strategies into two main categories – Direct strategies and Indirect strategies. Direct strategies are those that are typically executed by military forces against the opponent military forces only with the aim to destroy opponents physical/infrastructural capability to fight wars. In fact, these are typically what one considers when looking at an actor’s combat potential. These pure military strategies do not, per se, target non-combatants on both sides. The Indirect strategies, however, target the enemy’s will to fight. Typically, focusing on destroying the support systems in the form of non-combatants or the population at large. Toft includes in indirect strategies Barbarism – systematic/deliberate attack/harm of non-combatants by the strong actor and Guerrilla Warfare Strategy (GWS) by the weak actor. The Strategic Interaction hypothesis for asymmetric wars is when the opponents opt for same-approach, i.e., direct-direct or indirect-indirect strategic interactions, the strong actor will win, if however, the approaches are different that is one actor opts for direct strategy and other an indirect strategy – the weaker actor will win.
The key point of Strategic Interaction hypothesis is that every strategy has an ideal counter-strategy. Predicting adversary’s strategy in advance can dramatically improve chances of victory. To test this strategic interaction hypothesis, Toft analyzed the asymmetric conflicts data of 173 wars between year 1800 and 2003. As per the results of this exercise, in 151 conflicts opponents used “same-approach” i.e., either direct-direct or indirect-indirect. Out of these 151 conflicts 76.8% of the conflicts – the stronger actor was the winner. In 22 remaining asymmetric conflicts when “different-approach” was used, i.e., one actor using direct and other using indirect strategies, 63.6% of the times the weaker actor won the conflict. Toft’s strategic interaction model as shown in 2x2 matrix in the figure, also shows that strong actors will more often lose asymmetric conflicts that are protracted.
Inability to switch strategy
Toft finds that in 78% of asymmetric conflicts the losing actors did not switch strategy. Actors with force structures, doctrines, and technologies, that have been created, developed, trained and honed, typically for “symmetric” conflicts and “same-approach” scenarios, find it difficult to change their strategies. This strategic inertia becomes the key culprit in the trends of strong powerful actors increasingly losing to weaker actors in the asymmetric wars. The impedance mismatch between the shift in nature of threats versus the speed at which an actor can shift strategy emerges in asymmetric conflicts is one of the factors that should be considered while planning for next conflicts. Designing malleable force structures with fungible components is the key need.
Lessons for India
India has been subjected to asymmetric warfare by Pakistan after 1971 creation of Bangladesh. Bhutto promised a 1000-year war and Zia-ul-Haq talked about bleeding by 1000 cuts. After the overt nuclear status in 1998, Pakistan’s Military again lost in 1999 Kargil war. As India celebrated the 17th anniversary of Vijay Diwas – to mark our victory in Kargil war of 1999, there are much larger questions on Indian security, defence preparedness and military readiness that need to be answered. K Subrahmanyam chaired Kargil review committee was constituted to review the events leading up to the Pakistani aggression in the Kargil and to recommend such measures as are considered necessary to safeguard national security against such armed intrusions. The most important finding of the review committee was “overwhelming evidence that the Pakistani armed intrusion in the Kargil sector came as a complete and total surprise to the Indian Government, Army and intelligence agencies as well as to the J&K State Government and its agencies.” As we battle the current reactions in Kashmir after the elimination of a terrorist leader, we need to answer the Kargil question of how to minimize the “complete and total surprise” and also create a capability or set of capabilities to make “strategy shifts” not only do-able but to be done in a seamless manner.
“Modern war has too wide an effect for its practice to be treated as a “mystery." Statesmen may direct it; generals, admirals and air marshals may manage its operations but every citizen, man or woman, is perforce a shareholder.” Captain Liddell Hart wrote in 1930s. He further stated, on the way peace time exercises are carried out that, “The unreality is often increased because the situations on which exercises are based have themselves an air of improbability. This is due largely to a tendency, natural in those who are practicing any particular technique, to, think of war in bits instead of as a whole. They find it difficult to visualize the effect on their bit that others may produce, with the result that the picture is distorted.” He asserts, “The best corrective to the particularistic tendency is to view each aspect of war against a wider background.”
Liddell Hart’s articulation of “indirect approach” of mechanized/armored warfare was utilized, not by British, but the Germans in the form of combining Panzer divisions with the aircraft, in Second World War. The above statements were published during the period between World War I and World War II.
If in 1930’s, the “best corrective” of thinking of war “in bits” instead of as a “whole”, was to view each aspect of war against a wider background, the question emerges what one should do in 2010’s to view “war as a whole”. The bits of war, for example, have expanded in 2010s in more dimensions than were fathomed in 1930s. The question assumes increasing importance for a country like India that has many parameters of a great nation. The problem is a woeful shortage of evidence of deeper understanding of changing nature of warfare and needed innovation in security/defence in India. Being on the receiving end of worst level of asymmetric warfare/terrorism at one level, and sandwiched between two cunning nuclear powers, i.e. Pakistan and China, India perhaps need a much deeper thinking and design of its force structures for strategic switching.
Rapid Strategic Switching – A recipe for winning Asymmetrical Conflict
What future reveals is such a varied tapestry of possibilities that there cannot be any expert and of course no opinion as well, beforehand, that can predict it, Nostradamus notwithstanding. Yet, many have tried, although with limited success to predict the future. In fact, all long term planning is based on a picture or a presumed collage of future. However, one trend is quite visible – that conflicts inflicted upon India will be more and more asymmetric – typically instigated by covert support by adversary states to achieve political, strategic, and economic objectives through the indirect or direct instigation of insurgency. The type of conflicts that India will continue to face and most likely with increasing frequency, distribution in space and time, and increasing intensity will be asymmetrical. The state adversaries of India – including China, Pakistan and others, will keep on finding surrogates/intermediaries who can be influenced, financed and supported to unleash asymmetrical conflicts as weaker actors. India of course need to go after their sponsors. However, we also need to face their intermediaries with agility and create winnable strategies in these asymmetrical conflicts
Overcoming strategic inertia in any conflict and using Toft’s strategic interaction hypothesis will require three key steps. First we need to predict, deduce, define, and delineate the adversary’s strategy in the asymmetric conflict. Second we need to create same strategic interaction, i.e., if the weaker adversary is following an indirect approach we need to follow an indirect strategy. If the adversary follows direct approach, we need to follow a direct approach. Third when the opponent switches it strategy – say from indirect to the direct, we should also switch from indirect approach to direct approach. I call this three-step process as Rapid Strategic Switching (RSS).
Robert Axelrod did extensive experiments on what is called iterated prisoners dilemma in game theory. His results show the best strategy that ultimately evolves cooperation is Tit for Tat. If the adversary cooperates you cooperate, if he defects you also defect. Combining the Rapid Strategic Switching with Tit for Tat, we should keep on switching strategies in tune with the deduced switches in his strategy, till the adversary’s resources and bandwidth are exhausted or his will to continue the conflict is demolished.
A graduated response evolution targeting the starting seeds of threats to nations interest should be our algorithm. Unfortunately, India does not articulate national interests clearly and hence we remain woefully reactive and world cast a continuous slur on India. We are being nibbled away by all. Rapid Strategic Switching is not about being violent. It is about disruption, degradation, destruction and most importantly demolition of all those actions or potential actions that threaten our justified national interests. When you demolish you systematically eliminate existing infrastructure with the intent of freeing the space to install something different and hopefully something better. Every action starts with a thought. Some of these thoughts become ideas that get manifested in multiple ways. Conducting Rapid Strategic Switching at the level of strategic interaction in asymmetrical conflicts require continuous evolution at the level of ideas and actions simultaneously.
An analysis of past 200 years reveals a counter-intuitive trend that the weaker actors in asymmetric conflicts have started winning more than the powerful actors. Statistical analysis reveals that strategic interaction hypothesis that dissimilarity of strategies adopted by adversaries lead to victory of weaker actors, holds good. Further, it has been pointed out that stronger actors as they have designed their forces and capabilities based on specific threats, are usually not free to choose the best counter-action strategy in these conflicts. A force structure, doctrine and technology that enables quickly shifting the approach in resonance with the weaker actor’s approach is the key requirement. We propose the rapid strategic switching with three steps of predicting or finding adversary’s strategy, responding by creating the same-type approach and rapidly switching to the type the adversary shifts should be a continuous tit-for-tat strategic approach to win the asymmetric wars.