Pentagon strategic planners have been focused obsessively on the problem posed by so-called “asymmetric” threats and its semi-legitimate offspring, the “hybrid adversary.” This construct stems from the notion that no military in the world can stand up to ours with military forces symmetrical to our own. Therefore, prospective opponents will seek to fight in asymmetric ways. An asymmetric threat is anything that is not a mirror-image of the way the U.S. conventional forces are structured or operated. Asymmetric threats can include nations that deploy capabilities intended not to match our own but to counter them. The U.S. military has an advantage in conventional airpower so an asymmetric threat could be advanced air defenses. Such threats are often short on large, complex military units with lots of tanks, surface combatants, and aircraft and long on small, dispersed and possibly irregular formations with weapons such as missiles, improvised explosives, and computer viruses. The hybrid adversary is one that uses a mix of regular and irregular forces and both symmetrical and asymmetric platforms and weapons.
The problem with the asymmetric/hybrid construct is not the image it projects of the enemy but the incorrect assumptions it makes about the U.S. military. If they are asymmetric in their organization and behavior then we must be symmetric in ours. If they are hybrid then we must be homogenous. It creates a mindset in which U.S. strategy and forces are the object and the adversary is the subject. Most insidiously, this way of thinking implies that U.S. defense planning should be focused on efforts to return the balance to the status quo ante, to find ways to neutralize the asymmetric threat so as to return to the prior state, one of symmetry and homogeneity.
What is most disturbing about this strategic construct is that its characterization of the U.S. military is flat out wrong. For nearly seventy years, the U.S. military has been the one to employ asymmetric strategies and technologies and develop hybrid solutions to security problems. The Soviet Union was held at bay for some fifty years by a long-term competitive strategy that continuously did end-runs around areas of Soviet strength. Sometimes it was revolutionary technologies such as stealth, precision weapons or the Strategic Defense Initiative. Other times it was innovative operational concepts such as limited nuclear options, AirLand Battle or the Maritime Strategy. In the area of hybrid solutions, let me just point out the impact on the Soviet forces in Afghanistan of arming the Mujahideen with Stinger surface-to-air missiles.
It is important that defense officials and the U.S. military capitalize on this tradition of setting the terms of the strategic competition by deploying asymmetric capabilities and developing hybrid solutions to strategic problems. Rather than working to counter asymmetric threats posed by others, the primary focus of U.S. defense planning and force development should be on approaches and capabilities that impose an array of new asymmetric challenges to our adversaries.
In so doing, defense planners should recognize that the U.S. Navy is the service with the greatest history of creating asymmetric capabilities and employing hybrid solutions. With its unmatched breadth of systems and capabilities from massive nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships to stealth attack submarines, missile armed surface combatants and an array of manned and unmanned systems, the Navy can pose an ever changing constellation of asymmetric challenges to adversaries both at sea and on land. The Navy also has a unique approach to the emerging cyber domain of warfare, one that encompasses all elements of the electronic battlefield. Add to this asymmetric juggernaut, the enormous range of capabilities provided by the Marine Corps and it is difficult to define a limit to the ability of the Sea Services to craft unique, asymmetric solutions to current and future strategic and operational problems.
The Navy/Marine Corps team also is particularly well-suited to operating as a hybrid force. In cooperation with its Coast Guard brethren, the Navy can conduct a wide range of policing functions to include maritime drug interdiction and counter piracy. Amphibious Ready Groups have the inherent flexibility or hybrid nature to operate across much of the mission spectrum. Aircraft carriers and large deck amphibs have demonstrated unequalled operational flexibility to support combat and humanitarian operations. The U.S. Navy also works very closely with allied navies and with commercial concerns to address the changing security environment at sea and in the littorals.
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