Hunting Goliath in the age of asymmetric warfare

Over the coming decade, it is unlikely any current or emergent aggressor(s) will challenge the US and its NATO allies on the high seas. Western naval forces will also continue to lead the technology revolution in pursuit of credible and decisive power projection. The ability of western navies to conduct incisive expeditionary operations will continue to evolve apace. Despite this apparent superiority, the West, including the US, considers itself at significant risk to a set of emergent threats from a wide range of non-traditional vectors.

Without the comfortable strategic framework provided by the Cold War, the identification of threats -- meaning intentions and capabilities -- is complicated by this imbalance. During the Cold War, states could largely be counted on to tow the ideological line of east or west -- smaller but strategically important states acted as pawns in a much larger game of power politics. Today, however, states dare to act unilaterally, and in places, are forming their own regional security organisations to fill post-Cold War power vacuums. As a result, there are more actors and hence more interests competing for shrinking resources.

Coupled with this phenomenon is the increasing ability of states to pursue those interests through so-called asymmetric means: exploiting the adversary's weaknesses while avoiding his strengths. The principle is not new. However, the concept of 'asymmetric threats' has emerged as one of the most powerful but least understood watchwords for 21st century military projections. In some cases, the term 'asymmetric warfare' alludes to change in the nature of modern war itself. The notional creation of this 'new' manifestation of warfare is the product of a fundamental shift in strategic mindset -- the battle is no longer between two largely well-matched contenders, but between David and Goliath, between small and big.

For western naval planners, the ability of 'David' to strike decisively using disproportionate means is central to the debate surrounding the shape and composition of future naval forces. The proliferation of advanced non-nuclear submarine (SSK) technologies, anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and sea mines, weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), information warfare (IW) and C[4]I systems exacerbates the problem. The potential lethality of a system can no longer be judged on its complexity or cost, but on its effect.

The West's own quest for viable, cost-effective commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions to complex military requirements has spawned a new generation of highly advanced, affordable and reliable systems available in an expanding global marketplace. In some cases, future aggressors may be today's customers. These forces combine to create what the West interprets as the modern asymmetric threat to naval (and military) operations in the 21st century.

Undersea asymmetry

In an age where littoral sea control/denial is paramount, the ability to dissuade expeditionary operations by holding high value assets hostage with relatively low-cost systems represents a significant advantage. Some of the most discussed threats in this regard are also the least visible: submarines and mines.

Advanced SSK technologies, such as air independent propulsion (endurance), improved signature reduction techniques (stealth), battlespace knowledge (sensors and C[4]I) and advanced weapons loadouts (lethality), represent the high-end, leading edge of the evolving asymmetric threat. Operating near vital sea lines of communication, advanced SSKs can covertly lay mines and disrupt commercial shipping. In this way, even a navy with a few, relatively unsophisticated submarines can conduct sea denial, covert mining and intelligence gathering operations with near impunity.

Additionally, the centrality of expeditionary warfare has placed an emphasis on both gaining control of and defending the littoral -- an area in which the modern SSK enjoys a high degree of anonymity and operational proficiency. Inadequate levels of anti-submarine warfare investment since the end of the Cold War (especially in the US) exacerbate the problem. At present, countering increasingly stealthy, mobile and lethal SSKs in a high-value, target-rich environment is a challenge that favours David rather than Goliath.

The SSK's ability to inflict damage is disproportionate to its value. This asymmetry appeals to many quantitatively and qualitatively outgunned forces that have neither the resources nor the ambition to operate nuclear submarines or weapons. Regional navies can both exert influence and threaten more advanced adversaries without risking a capital asset. Capabilities once reserved for the world's most advanced navies are now available as retrofits or options on newly built vessels for developing forces.

The Indian Navy, for example, will equip two of its Sindhughosh-class (Kilo) SSKs -- INS Sindhuvir and INS Sindhushastra -- with the latest submarine-launched version Russian (Novator) 3M-54E1 anti-ship missile (ASM). With a range up to 300km and a variable sub/supersonic capability, the missile skims the sea at a height of 5m and carries a 450kg HEP warhead. Likewise, Pakistan's three new French-built Agosta 90Bs will be equipped with the SM-39 Exocet ASM, which will progressively replace the Sub Harpoon capability of its ageing Agosta-class boats. Iran and North Korea are examples of states investing heavily in SSK technologies -- all hoping to 'level the playing field' by exploiting the asymmetric -- or disproportionate -- effect SSKs can have on the naval balance of power.

The use of naval mines is another way of making it too risky for 'Goliath' to risk high value assets. Mines range in sophistication from Second World War vintage to advanced propelled warhead models. Costs can range from US$20,000 for basic weapons to over US$200,000 for state-of-the-art types. Most range from medium to low technology types falling between US$40,000 and US$60,000. The US Navy (USN) learned a costly lesson in mine warfare during the 1990-91 Gulf War from an adversary committed to exploiting the sea mine's asymmetric properties.

Iraq's mine efforts against allied forces were robust. In the six months following the invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi vessels mined the northern reaches of the Gulf rigorously, creating a two-belt, 150mi arc stretching from Bubiyan Island to the Saudi/Kuwait border. The outer belt extended 30mi and comprised several mine types; the inner belt was composed of bottom-moored mines deployed in one long line. Iraq used 11 types of mines, including: moored contact mines: Myam and Soviet M-08; advanced bottom weapons: Manta acoustic/magnetic mine and the Soviet UDM acoustic influence mine; and the Iraqi-made Sigeel acoustic influence mine.

According to the USN, almost 75% of Iraqi mines were LUGM-145 types -- a moored, three horned chemical contact mine with a 660kg charge based on a pre-First World War design and "powerful enough to sink modern ships". More advanced influence mines were detonated using acoustic and/or magnetic signatures, and could be rigged to delay until several ships passed over them.

On 18 February 1991, after operating for 11 hours in an undetected minefield near Faylaka Island, the USS Tripoli (LPH 10) struck what was probably a LUGM-145 10ft below the waterline. Just under three hours later and only 10nm from the Tripoli, the USS Princeton (CG 59) was holed by a Manta mine, causing extensive damage to the rudder, propeller shaft and internal fuel tanks. While neither ship was sunk, the subsequent retreat from the minefield could have delayed countermeasure operations in the approaches by 43 days. Through the extensive use of basic sea mine technology, Iraq successfully delayed and could have prevented an amphibious assault on Kuwait's assailable flank. While vessels such as the Princeton and Tripoli were participating in mine countermeasure (MCM) operations to clear the way for allied fire support, Iraqi forces remained relatively immune to naval gunfire. Only on the eve of the coalition's ground offensive on 23 February had MCM operations successfully cleared the path for the USS Missouri to close on Faylaka to attack enemy positions on the island.

Sensing the strategic importance of Kuwait's coastal flank, Iraq used quantity rather than quality to create a very real threat to coalition navies operating in the northern Arabian Gulf with technologies and designs that largely predated the Iraqi state itself. That Iraq could impede the movements of the world's most technologically advanced navies revealed the game, not just the playing field, had changed.

Cost effective WMDs

The use of WMDs and their associated delivery systems against western forces and civilian populations is a central component of asymmetric warfare. Fuelled by the West's strong aversion to the human cost of military operations, future adversaries will, if possible, consider the use of NBC weapons with the aim of deterring and/or frustrating western forces. The asymmetry WMDs engender is not a consequence of their inherent destructive power, but the hands in which that destructive power resides. Without the mandate to respond in kind to a biological or chemical attack, available counterforce options range from bad to worse. The most effective counter to WMDs is a robust strategy of deterrence supported by an incisive intelligence infrastructure -- to prevent is to win.

WMDs are, and always will be, tools of the asymmetric trade. The heavy reliance on tactical nuclear weapons during the Cold War by NATO was due to western perceptions of numerical inferiority. For likeminded states in the post-Cold War era that are numerically outgunned, nuclear weapons represent a great equalizer. Biological and chemical weapons, unfairly characterised as the "poor man's atomic bomb", can have the same effect. It is unclear whether states will behave with the same restraint as they did during the Cold War.

The threat of NBC attack is most pronounced on land. However, due to the emphasis on the littoral, coupled with the commitment to full-spectrum force protection (including operational forces, systems and civil infrastructure), western navies will play a major role in deterring and responding to unconventional attack from the sea. However, as a result of the complexities involved in targeting, the threat naval forces themselves will be subject to is likely to be minimal. If the enemy could target a vessel, why not dispatch conventional weapon instead of a BC weapon, which is less reliable, more costly and difficult to deliver? At over-the-horizon distances, the case for BC weapons falls further by the wayside.

In spite of this, the threat from NBC weapons is real, especially as western forces "continue to operate in areas that place Navy-Marine Corps units at direct risk of attack - in a foreign port for example - and as naval forces are called upon to protect others from WMD and the ballistic missiles, and other platforms that have the potential to deliver them." For some states, threatening NBC attack on western naval forces is also part, if not the last resort, of the more conventional aspects of area denial.

Sea-based theatre ballistic missile defence will be the navy's most significant contribution to countering the use of WMDs on land. In the unlikely event that BC weapons are used against naval forces (probably using cruise missiles), ship self-defence systems will provide layered task group protection. Forward reconnaissance and NBC early warning duties will increasingly fall on the shoulders of unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with a combination of specialised sensors, such as the surface acoustic wave chemical agent detector, and advanced COTS components (see JNI, September 1999, p11).

In keeping with the nature of asymmetric strategies, WMDs need not be delivered using ballistic/cruise missiles: a commercial agricultural crop sprayer mounted on a small vessel, truck or civilian aircraft, while unsophisticated, could prove to be formidable. Ingenuity is one the most fearsome aspects of the WMD threat, regardless of the delivery method. As navies move closer to the shore in support of expeditionary operations, the WMD threat to maritime forces will, for reasons of proximity, increase.

Perhaps the greatest blow states developing WMD capabilities will ever inflict on the West will be economic. The cost of developing, maintaining and deploying advanced counter-systems and their associated infrastructure is immense. As so-called 'rougue' states chart a slow, relatively inexpensive path towards WMDs, western analysts and engineers are spending billions of dollars on ways to deter and, if necessary, manage and counter an attack. If a BC weapon is the "poor man's atomic bomb", the weapon used to defeat it is only a rich man's option.

IW attack

As the West hones its ability to project force rather than forces, the effective exploitation of information will become even more critical. Predictably, western forces, especially the US, are pursuing robust information technology programmes aimed at creating the so-called 'system of systems' for 21st century battle management. While the West's reliance on these systems grows around concepts such as network-centric warfare, so does its vulnerability to attack from the fourth dimension of the evolving battlefield: cyberspace.

IW attacks are designed to degrade or manipulate the information systems of an adversary, while taking measures to ensure the security of one's own assets. In the US, all four services maintain information operations cells tasked with examining the trade-offs between the benefits of acquiring advanced C[4]I systems from COTS sources, and the risks from their vulnerability to the various tools of IW -- ranging from computer viruses to electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons.

For operational units at sea, threats include the physical destruction of nodes and links, EMP, jamming and computer hacker attack. Stealth and hardening techniques can mitigate the risk of physical destruction and electric shock. Effective counterforce to jamming includes the use of beam focussing, steerable antennae, spread spectrum and redundant encoding. Malicious 'hackers' can be thwarted by advanced cryptographic techniques, semantic- and protocol-level firewalls, anomaly-monitoring software and the use of read-only media. Systems redundancy is another approach, and favours a flexible, distributed network over centralised complex 'nerve centres'.

The USN's concept of co-operative engagement capability (CEC) is an excellent example of this trend. Using a common data fusion algorithm, CEC allows semi-processed radar measurement data taken from a distributed sensor system to be consolidated in a single target track. This capability permits the remote engagement of targets from CEC-capable assets. Development of CEC beyond initial operational capability includes the integration of the Common Equipment Set for use with joint service sensor and weapon systems. The ability to cue land-based systems from sea-based platforms will be provided by the overarching objective of systems like CEC: dominant battlespace knowledge.

Knowledge based on distributed systems, especially in the difficult operational environs of the littoral, will be the new target of hostile IW. As the West champions the concepts and technologies behind such systems, adversaries can have little doubt where the centre of gravity for western forces lies.

Due to the centrality of IW in the West's 21st century vision of naval warfare, the loss, severe disruption or threat thereof would strike at the heart of US and allied capability. Any success in this area would prove to be asymmetric as David, unlike Goliath, has nothing comparable to lose.

Suicide jet skis

The propensity for asymmetric strategies is nothing new. Striking the enemy's weakness while avoiding his strength is as old as warfare itself. In this respect, disciples of the asymmetric school of thought are enjoying a much-unwanted showcase of the tools of their trade. The resurgence of asymmetric threats does not, however, represent a new manifestation of warfare. The guerrilla tactics of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War and Mao's thoughts on guerrilla warfare were surely asymmetric. What advanced ASCMs, SSKs, mines, WMDs and IW represent is a shift in mindset -- away from the ostensibly level playing field of the Cold War to the uneven, often unpredictable terrain of the 'new world order'. While the mindset of emergent powers was quick to realise this shift, western defence planners have been slower in catching up. This is the nature of strategic change: responses lag behind threats.

Asymmetric threats employed by lesser-developed navies such as Iran, North Korea, India and Pakistan are forcing the technologically superior navies of the US, NATO and allies to think defensively -- an irony considering the likely results of a head-to-head confrontation. The hybrid response to US domination of strategic maritime areas relies on quantity (Iraqi minefields) and quality (advanced ASCMs). The West, therefore, must now be capable of countering a spectrum of threats that defy the premise of technological superiority, and test the most rudimentary and advanced capabilities -- at the same time or asynchronously. In addition, the fourth dimension of IW defies traditional rules of time, distance, speed and tempo, and by its very nature negates conventional or traditional countermeasures.

The future maritime threat environment will stand in stark contrast to the predictability and relative 'symmetry' of the Cold War. Operational commanders, systems engineers, tacticians and strategists will be forced to plot solutions for how to handle threats ranging from bomb-laden suicide jet skis, to submarine-launched ASCMs and cybernetic warfare. The challenges ahead are certainly significant, but they will not include re-inventing the asymmetric threat -- only a rekindling of an appreciation for it