Asymmetric Warfare

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The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan are among the best-known recent examples of asymmetric warfare: conflicts between nations or groups that have disparate military capabilities and strategies. RAND investigates political and military responses to—and the impacts of—counterinsurgency, terrorism, and other forms of irregular warfare.

  • Essay

    Civilian Casualties: Lessons from the Battle for Raqqa

    The United States' emphasis on minimizing civilian harm in Raqqa, Syria, was quite clear and strong up and down the chain of command. But the way in which the U.S. military waged war in Raqqa too often undercut that commitment. The Pentagon asked RAND to find out what happened.

    Jul 1, 2022

  • Commentary

    Could Insurgency Offer Ukraine a Decisive Edge?

    While insurgency rarely offers a path to early victory, a campaign of popular resistance that supports the continuing conventional battle could give overmatched Ukraine an edge in its fight against Russian occupiers.

    Apr 6, 2022

Explore Asymmetric Warfare

  • Composite of flags, photo by khvost/Getty Images

    Report

    Proxy Warfare in Strategic Competition: State Motivations and Future Trends

    The authors used quantitative analysis and case studies of China, Iran, and Russia to examine the causes and likely future trends in proxy wars: civil wars in which at least one local warring party receives material support from an external state.

    Mar 9, 2023

  • Report

    Report

    Proxy Warfare in Strategic Competition: Overarching Findings and Recommendations

    This report synthesizes the findings and recommendations from two companion reports on intrastate proxy wars: civil wars in which at least one local warring party receives material support from an external state.

    Mar 9, 2023

  • Report

    Report

    Proxy Warfare in Strategic Competition: Military Implications

    The authors examine the military implications of intrastate proxy wars (civil wars in which at least one local warring party receives material support from an external state) via a literature review and four case studies.

    Mar 9, 2023

  • A Ukrainian service member prepares an anti-tank guided missile weapon system on a frontline near Soledar in Donetsk region, Ukraine, January 14, 2023, photo by Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters

    Commentary

    A Tale of Two Wars and the Pitfalls of Success

    Russia's war in Ukraine once again poses questions about how the United States prepares for conflict—not only which weapons it buys, but also how it envisions great-power wars in the 21st century. If the United States does learn the lessons of this war, then it may secure the U.S. military's edge for decades to come.

    Feb 2, 2023

  • Photo by Senior Airman Sam Goodman/U.S. Army

    Commentary

    The Need for Irregular Warfare Professional Military Education

    The Department of Defense does not provide the irregular warfare professional military education necessary for success in competition and conflict in the 21st century. This is not a new problem, but it is one that may deserve new attention from Congress and the Pentagon.

    Feb 1, 2023

  • Soldiers release gasoline canisters on the Tamsui river simulating countering a Chinese invasion during asymmetric warfare drills in Taipei, Taiwan, July 19, 2022, photo by Ann Wang/Reuters

    Commentary

    'Strategic Ambiguity' May Have U.S. and Taiwan Trapped in a Prisoner's Dilemma

    For its proponents, the idea of strategic ambiguity seems to have become an end in itself that has not adapted, and logically cannot adapt to the disruptive growth in Beijing's military power. The conditions under which the policy worked seem to have evaporated with China's rise. Strategic clarity may offer a way out of this dilemma.

    Jan 18, 2023

  • Soldiers from the Asymmetric Warfare Group move a 300-pound bag down a gravel road during a predeployment exercise at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, April 25, 2012, photo by Lt. Col. Sonise Lumbaca/U.S. Army

    Commentary

    Mastering Irregular Warfare

    The U.S. military has failed to master irregular warfare above the tactical level. This is not a new problem, and it is one that has been recognized by leaders at the most senior echelons of government. There are several steps that the DoD and U.S. Congress might consider to develop the mastery of irregular warfare that the United States needs.

    Dec 14, 2022

  • A Seahawk medium displacement unmanned surface vessel participates in U.S. Pacific Fleet's Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem in the Pacific Ocean, April 21, 2021, photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe/U.S. Navy

    Commentary

    The Age of Uncrewed Surface Vessels

    A new age of naval warfare has been inaugurated in the Black Sea, defined by an emerging weapon. Uncrewed surface vessels could become a centerpiece of naval warfare in the coming decades, one that navies may ignore at their peril.

    Nov 15, 2022

  • U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin gives a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., October 27, 2022, photo by Leah Millis/Reuters

    Commentary

    The Congressionally Authorized Irregular Warfare Functional Center Is a Historic Opportunity: Will DoD Capitalize on It?

    The U.S. Department of Defense may be facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix a critical gap in its national security arsenal. Congress has authorized the creation of an institution dedicated to the study and research of irregular warfare. Unfortunately, initial indications are that this opportunity might not be realized.

    Nov 7, 2022

  • A helicopter drops water to extinguish fuel tanks ablaze on the Kerch bridge in the Kerch Strait, Crimea, October 8, 2022, photo by Stringer/Reuters

    Commentary

    Beware the Explosive Vessels

    The initial explosion that damaged the Kerch Strait Bridge may have come from an uncrewed surface vehicle (USV). If it was indeed caused by a USV, it could be a portent of future warfare. Military and homeland security authorities may need to anticipate the potential use of USVs by adversaries or terrorists.

    Oct 20, 2022

  • News Release

    News Release

    Efforts to Avoid Civilian Casualties in Raqqa, Syria, in 2017 Were Considerable but Insufficient

    U.S. strategic choices in the battle to liberate Raqqa, Syria, from ISIS in 2017 likely increased civilian harm despite considerable efforts to avoid civilian casualties by both U.S. and coalition forces.

    Mar 31, 2022

  • The destruction on Al-Qouatli street in Raqqa, Syria, photo by Abood Hamam

    Report

    Efforts to Avoid Civilian Casualties in Raqqa Were Considerable but Insufficient

    The 2017 battle to liberate Raqqa, Syria, from ISIS is a cautionary tale in 21st-century conflicts. U.S. strategic choices likely increased civilian harm despite considerable efforts to avoid civilian casualties by both U.S. and coalition forces. What lessons can be applied to future operations?

    Mar 31, 2022

  • Ukrainian Marines take part in multinational Sea Breeze 2021 military exercises involving more than 30 countries near Kherson, Ukraine, July 2, 2021.

    Multimedia

    Armed Resistance in Ukraine

    RAND senior political scientist Stephen J. Flanagan discusses the concept of a state-organized national resistance movement in Ukraine.

    Mar 29, 2022

  • Taiwanese soldiers walk down a street in this undated photo posted to Twitter on March 11, 2022 by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, photo courtesy of the Office of the President of Taiwan

    Commentary

    What the Invasion of Ukraine Might Teach Us About a Potential Taiwan Crisis

    Chinese leaders are learning from the conflict in Ukraine, not just by observing Russia's actions, but also the West's response. By also learning from the conflict, the United States, Taiwan, and other like-minded partners can help ensure that Beijing comes away from the current crisis with a greater appreciation of the risks that attacking Taiwan would entail.

    Mar 17, 2022

  • Ukrainian service members at a check point after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, February 27, 2022, photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters

    Commentary

    What Kind of Resistance Can Ukraine Mount?

    Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has ordered general mobilization, and Ukrainians are already engaging in irregular warfare and preparing for a prolonged resistance. What might a comprehensive Ukrainian resistance entail? What is the potential effectiveness, and what are the risks? What support could the international community provide?

    Feb 28, 2022

  • Journal Article

    Journal Article

    The Atomization of Political Violence

    The conclusion that terrorism is likely to persist at low levels does not preclude large-scale attacks. The present tumultuous state of the world and growing domestic extremism could produce dramatic changes in the future trajectory of political violence.

    Feb 25, 2022

  • A U.S. Army reenlistment ceremony held at Baghdad's Cross Sabers

    Report

    Securing Gains in Fragile States: Using U.S. Leverage in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Beyond

    This report evaluates U.S. options for stabilizing conflict-affected states by incentivizing governance reforms through military and development assistance in the context of U.S. military interventions.

    Jun 15, 2021

  • The colors are retired during a ceremony marking the end of the U.S. mission in Iraq in Baghdad on December 15, 2011, photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/U.S. Department of Defense

    Report

    Using U.S. Leverage to Limit Instability in Fragile States

    The United States can effectively support governance reforms in postconflict states by seizing on opportunities when partner interests align with U.S. interests. And it can use its leverage, including conditions on military and economic assistance, when interests do not align.

    Jun 15, 2021

  • Journal Article

    Journal Article

    The Missing, Irregular Half of Great Power Competition

    The U.S. military must learn to embrace a new framework for understanding competition through the lens of its current approaches to traditional and irregular warfare.

    Apr 30, 2021