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Asymmetrical warfare: new strategies on the battlefield

Guerrilla 2.0: Asymmetric warfare in the tech era

Richard Robert, Journalist and Author
On October 27th, 2021 |
4 min reading time
Key takeaways
  • Asymmetric warfare pits states against non-state entities.
  • These entities have long been defined as being at a technical disadvantage when faced with conventional forces.
  • But today asymmetric warfare relies on technology and its strategic models are not dissimilar to those of start-ups.

Asym­met­ri­cal war­fare pits a state and its con­ven­tion­al forces against non-state enti­ties: guer­ril­la fight­ers, ter­ror­ists, crim­i­nals and drug traf­fick­ers. Some of these enti­ties act on their own behalf, while oth­ers act on behalf of oth­er states in what is known as sur­ro­gate warfare.

Is asymmetrical warfare replacing war?

Mil­i­tary strat­e­gy has long been inter­est­ed in divid­ed groups; the Span­ish against Napoleon’s armies, resis­tance fight­ers dur­ing World War II, or Chi­nese com­mu­nists in the late 1940s, who were able to defeat forces which were, on paper, much more pow­er­ful than they.

This ‘asym­met­ri­cal’ war­fare, which for a long time was the excep­tion, is now becom­ing the norm. In a speech at the French Insti­tute of Inter­na­tion­al Rela­tions in 2007, Gen­er­al Bernard Thorette, for­mer Chief of Staff of the French Army, explained: « Large, con­ven­tion­al, head-on bat­tles have giv­en way to mul­ti­ple, repeat­ed engage­ments on a low­er scale… this does not mean how­ev­er mean low inten­si­ty. Our armed forces are now faced with frag­ment­ed, even atom­ised, states and soci­eties, and with a com­plex ram­i­fi­ca­tion, that encour­age the emer­gence of small, deter­mined groups. The result is an almost sys­tem­at­ic asym­me­try of threats. These threats are not nec­es­sar­i­ly prim­i­tive, far from it, as shown by the wide­spread use of IEDs (Impro­vised Explo­sive Devices) in sta­bil­i­sa­tion operations.”

Our armed forces are now faced with frag­ment­ed, even atom­ised, states and societies.

Near­ly fif­teen years lat­er, this obser­va­tion takes on even greater sig­nif­i­cance, both for what it says about the asym­me­try of threats and tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment of forces involved.

From low-tech to high-tech

Actors in asym­met­ri­cal war­fare have been quick to under­stand the advan­tages of tech­nol­o­gy to renew their reper­toire of action. Lines of code and the art of trans­form­ing civil­ian tech­no­log­i­cal objects into weapons have now joined the Kalash­nikovs and plas­tic explo­sives. Impro­vised explo­sives using mobile phones have been replaced by real inno­va­tions, com­bin­ing high-tech civil­ian objects to make for­mi­da­ble weapons that are, for exam­ple, effec­tive on a far greater scale.

A smart­phone and a hun­dred small recre­ation­al drones can cre­ate a swarm of drones, whose coor­di­nat­ed attack is capa­ble of caus­ing pan­ic on a bat­tle­field and even more so amongst civil­ians. Hack­ers can, like the pirates of the past, put them­selves at the ser­vice of a state and con­sti­tute an aux­il­iary force capa­ble of car­ry­ing out offen­sives against phys­i­cal or soft­ware infra­struc­tures, caus­ing seri­ous damage.

Infor­ma­tion wars are desta­bil­i­sa­tion oper­a­tions car­ried out through high­ly decen­tralised net­works, con­duct­ing attacks that lever­age ten­sions with­in tar­get soci­eties. Here again, the results can be mas­sive: the part played by Russ­ian intel­li­gence in Trump’s elec­tion in 2016 is a reminder of the rel­e­vance of Clause­witz’s argu­ment that: “war is a con­tin­u­a­tion of pol­i­tics, by oth­er means”. Both on the bat­tle­field and far from oper­a­tions, tech­nol­o­gy gives uncon­ven­tion­al modes of action, and the actors that wield them, unprece­dent­ed power.

This tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion is not with­out con­se­quences in the art of war. It mod­i­fies the the­atre of oper­a­tions and fur­ther blurs the idea of the “front line” by allow­ing remote inter­ven­tions. It also changes the pro­file of the play­ers. Final­ly, it has led to an evo­lu­tion in con­ven­tion­al forces, which are tak­ing note of these new threats and learn­ing how to counter them. In March 2021, Israel used swarms of drones coor­di­nat­ed by an AI for the first time. The Unit­ed States has been talk­ing about this since 2015.

Guerrillas acting like start-ups

Mobile, agile, inven­tive, these enti­ties have points in com­mon with pirates, but also with dig­i­tal start-ups: their organ­i­sa­tion is flex­i­ble, often decen­tralised, and they can mobilise a ‘base’ of peo­ple who com­pen­sate for their low crit­i­cal mass.

Richard Taber, the main mod­ern the­o­rist of guer­ril­la war­fare, speaks of a “war of the flea” (The War of the Flea: Gueril­la War­fare, The­o­ry and Prac­tice, Lon­don, Pal­adin, 1977). In the tra­di­tion of Clause­witz, he insists on the polit­i­cal dimen­sion of this form of war­fare in the mod­ern age, con­duct­ed by sol­diers who are also mil­i­tants of a cause (nation­al sov­er­eign­ty in par­ti­san war­fare, com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion, etc.). He gives a now clas­sic def­i­n­i­tion: “guer­ril­la war­fare has the polit­i­cal objec­tive of over­throw­ing a con­test­ed author­i­ty, by means of small, high­ly mobile mil­i­tary means using the ele­ment of sur­prise and with a strong capac­i­ty for con­cen­tra­tion and dis­per­sion”. What strikes a read­er in 2021 is that in every detail this def­i­n­i­tion applies to the strate­gies fol­lowed by dig­i­tal entrepreneurs.

The dig­i­tal age is one of the dis­rup­tion of estab­lished pow­ers by small, agile players.

The dig­i­tal age is the age of the dis­rup­tion of estab­lished pow­ers by small, agile play­ers, such as Airbnb in the face of the hotel sec­tor or Uber in the face of the pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions that pro­tect the taxi indus­try. Appear­ing out of nowhere, they prac­tice uncon­ven­tion­al strate­gies and choose to move the the­atre of oper­a­tions to new spaces where they can con­cen­trate their forces. As for the “dis­per­sion” men­tioned by Richard Taber, the net­work struc­ture, the absence of a pro­pri­etary fleet or real estate, in short, the absence of a con­ven­tion­al “army”, is pre­cise­ly the key to their suc­cess. They rely on a mul­ti­tude of ama­teurs, not on an organ­ised and trained contingent.

A cause and capital

They even have caus­es (shar­ing, sus­tain­able devel­op­ment, social inclu­sion) to enlist these ama­teurs, which are admit­ted­ly less mobil­is­ing and less direct­ly con­nect­ed to their action than those of yesterday’s com­mu­nists or today’s jihadists. How­ev­er, the voca­tion to change the world, or at least to “dis­rupt” it, is an oblig­a­tory part of the pitch to investors.

Suc­cess­ful small dig­i­tal play­ers rely on the pow­er of cap­i­tal to con­cen­trate their forces and move for­ward quick­ly. The notion of pow­er is there­fore not alien to their strat­e­gy or their suc­cess. The same is true of today’s guer­ril­las, who rely on pri­vate funds or for­eign pow­ers to car­ry out their actions.

The world of hack­ers pro­vides a link between the two worlds, that of the guer­ril­las and of the start-ups. How­ev­er, it is above all through a form of rec­i­p­ro­cal inspi­ra­tion that these two worlds com­mu­ni­cate. The strate­gies of busi­ness and war have often crossed their mod­els. Once again, it seems that we are wit­ness­ing cross-fertilisation.

Private funds and state power

In the 2016 case of Russ­ian inter­fer­ence, 12 out of 13 peo­ple being pros­e­cut­ed by the US jus­tice sys­tem worked for the Russ­ian com­pa­ny Inter­net Research Agency, which is itself being pros­e­cut­ed. Spe­cialised in influ­ence oper­a­tions on social net­works, it has sev­er­al hun­dred employ­ees whose main task is to mas­sive­ly dis­sem­i­nate false infor­ma­tion or mes­sages in favour of the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment or in line with its domes­tic or for­eign pol­i­cy. How­ev­er, it is not offi­cial­ly depen­dent on the Russ­ian state. Accord­ing to the US indict­ment, the Inter­net Research Agency is financed by Evge­ny Pri­gogine, a busi­ness­man close to the Russ­ian president.

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