Although much of the jargon surrounding military transformation is being jettisoned in the current Gates counter-transformation, the concept of “asymmetric” threats continues to be widely used. In Bush-era usage, asymmetric threats were those aimed at areas where America was ill-prepared. The idea was that relatively weak adversaries were unlikely to attack America where it was strongest, by mounting conventional military attacks. Instead, they would attack us where we too were weak. That idea seemed pretty obvious after 9-11, when a handful of zealots did severe damage to America using unexpected tactics against unlikely targets.
In the current Quadrennial Defense Review, a key area of concern is high-end asymmetric threats (HEAT in the inevitable acronym). These are defined mainly as attacks against joint-force enablers like reconnaissance satellites and computer networks; they might also involve efforts to degrade vital civilian infrastructure. But like the guerrilla tactics once employed by Americans such as Francis (“Swamp Fox”) Marion and now favored by our adversaries in Southwest Asia, high-end asymmetric attacks are nothing new. In fact, the doctrinal origins of attacks on soft civilian infrastructure can be traced back to early proponents of air power such as Billy Mitchell, who advocated using bombers to bypass enemy forces in the field and attack the “vital centers” of enemy capability — meaning the adversary’s economy.
A case in point is Air War Plans Division (AWPD) 1, the strategic bombing campaign plan put together by the Army Air Forces on the eve of America’s entry into the Second World War. Rather than focusing on fascist armies in the field — the traditional target of war plans — AWPD-1 called for attacking electrical grids, oil refineries and transportation centers behind enemy lines. A decade of analysis had convinced air power advocates that these soft targets were essential to any war effort, and thus that their destruction would undermine the ability of adversaries keep fighting. Of course, nobody at the time called the plan an “asymmetric” strategy, but that’s what it was in today’s terms. Airmen weren’t given the opportunity to fully implement their ideas until late in the war, and even when they were the bombing technology of the day often wasn’t up to the task. With today’s technology, though, the consequences of such asymmetric attacks could be decisive — which is what worries some QDR participants.
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