Friday, March 29, 2024

The Most Dangerous Form of Warfare


Both symmetric and asymmetric warfare are dangerous, but to answer the question “what is the most dangerous form of warfare?” it is necessary to examine asymmetric warfare and its tactics. Once this is complete, a comprehensive and valid comparison can be made between symmetric and asymmetric warfare.


Asymmetric warfare is one where the two opponents have incomparable military strengths. Freedman1 lists several qualities of the weaker party (guerrillas, insurgents, etc.): they are involved in a defensive war, fighting on home territory; they depend on popular support and use local knowledge of the terrain and other geographic factors; the insurgents employ a strategy of exhaustion, “gaining time on the hope that the enemy would tire or that something else would turn up.”

To all this it must be added that insurgents replace a traditional logistic system with popular support as well as “living off the enemy.”

Relation with Conventional Forces

None of the writers on asymmetric warfare – from theoreticians such as Clausewitz and Jomini, to practitioners such as von Lettow-Vorbeck, T.E. Lawrence, and Mao Tse-Tung – view an insurgency as effective by itself.

Tse-Tung saw6 guerrilla warfare as a “stop gap” until conventional forces could be stood-up: “during the progress of hostilities, guerrillas gradually develop into orthodox forces that operate in conjunction with other units of the regular army.”

T.E. Lawrence described3 guerrilla warfare as “…a war that might be won without fighting battles” and that the role of the Arab Revolt in WWI was a “side-show of a side-show”. He summarized the lack of conventional support by noting that “we had no base machinery, no formal staff, no clerks, no government, no telegraphs, no public opinion, no troops of British nationality, no honour, no conventions.”

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, in using guerrilla warfare in German East Africa during WWI, asked4 whether “it was possible for us in our subsidiary theatre of war to exercise any influence on the great decision at home.” His plan was to draw Allied forces away from Europe, and to do that “it was necessary, not to split up our small available forces in local defense, but, on the contrary, to keep them together, to grip the enemy by the throat and force him to employ his forces for self-defense.” He was able to do this for the duration of that war.

Asymmetrical Warfare Tactics

The tactics used by insurgents follow from their relative weakness: they do not have comparable weapon systems, nor do they have a stable base of operations. The general tactic used has been described5 by William S. Lind as the "DOCA loop” - disperse, orient, concentrate, act. Being dispersed except when executing an operation gives the guerrilla force survivability, whereas concentration gives the force the ability to focus its power on a target which a single insurgent cannot alone bring to bear.

What should these targets be? “The enemy’s rear, flanks, and other vulnerable spots are his vital points,” Tse-Tung writes6, “and there he must be harassed, attacked, dispersed, exhausted, and annihilated.” The insurgency must thus compensate for his lack of firepower with ingenuity in attacking the enemy’s communication and supply lines, as well as other weaknesses.

What is the Most Dangerous Form of Warfare?

Several metrics can be used to determine how dangerous a particular form warfare is:

  • Number of combatant casualties
  • Number of civilian casualties
  • Infrastructure damage
  • Economic cost
  • Loss of freedoms
  • Loss of political will or even destabilization of political system
  • Prolongation of the war
  • Reputation of the country doing the conventional fighting
  • Destructiveness of the weapons used

In conventional warfare, civilian and combatant casualties are always present. Indiscriminate civilian deaths have decreased considerably with the recent availability of precision-guided weapons. Still there are non-combatant casualties. With asymmetric warfare, the primary targets of the insurgents are enemy soldiers and collaborators. The number of deaths is far fewer, to the point where the taking of a life by an insurgent is closer to targeted assassination than to indiscriminate killing.

Infrastructure has been a target in both symmetric and asymmetric warfare. In asymmetric warfare, when an attack on infrastructure fails, the insurgents either try again or move to the next target. Compare this with how failed infrastructure attacks evolve in conventional war. The “Bomber Mafia”2 (a group of USAAF commanders who advocated using long-range heavy bombers to defeat Nazi Germany) wanted to use precision bombing against German industries and military targets; when this plan proved unworkable, they switched to using area incendiary weapons against cities in Japan.

The loss of freedom through conscription, taxation, inward-pointing intelligence services, propaganda, and media manipulation have always been higher in conventional warfare. This damages the reputation of the country doing conventional fighting, weakening its presence on the international stage as well as damaging the political will (the consent) of the populace. Propaganda is also part of asymmetrical warfare, but it is aimed only against the conventional opponent.

While the longest wars in American history were asymmetric wars - the War in Afghanistan and the Vietnam War (lasting just under 20 years each) - there have been conventional wars that lasted far longer, such as the Roman-Germanic Wars (708 years). The most prolonged conventional war was the Reconquista, which lasted for 781 years.

Finally, the destructive power of the weapons used must be compared. Nuclear weapons have been used in conventional wars, as has mustard gas and other chemical agents. There are no analogs in asymmetric warfare.

For these reasons, conventional wars are the most dangerous. They are the costliest in terms of life, treasury, and political freedoms.


1. Freedman, L. (2013). Strategy: A History. Oxford University Press.

2. Gladwell, M. (2021). The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War. Little, Brown, and Company.

3. Lawrence, T.E., (1920) The Evolution of a Revolt. Praetorian Press.

4. Lettow-Vorbeck, P. v. (2022). My Reminiscences of East Africa. Good Press.

5. Lind, W. S. & Thiele, G. A. (2015). 4th Generation Warfare Handbook. Castalia House. Retrieved 28 March 2024 from

6. Tse-Tung, M. (2015). Mao Tse-Tung on Guerrilla Warfare, Samuel B. Griffith, trans. Hauraki Publishing.

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