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Symmetry in War


Disciplines > Warfare > Articles > Symmetry in War

Symmetrical war | Balanced war | Asymmetrical war | See also


Symmetry in war is concerned with the equality or otherwise of the two sides. This question also applies to arguments and negotiations where an imbalance in power can lead to different strategies and tactics on either side.

Symmetrical war

Perfect symmetrical war occurs when both sides are equal in all respects. Of course this is never true, but it is at least a useful starting point for theoretical explorations.

If both sides are identical then, like a the level playing-field of chess, who wins is based solely on the skill of the players. Simpler still, in typical game theory activities, each player have extremely limited choice.

In practice, equality is almost impossible to achieve and even 'who goes first' makes a difference. What is more likely is some kind of balance.

Balanced war

Many wars have been fought with some kind of balance between the two sides. This usually takes the form where each has differing strengths and weaknesses and hence where the outcome of battles and other actions are difficult to predict.

A typical asymmetry which can still give a balance is where one side has superior weaponry whilst the other has a significantly greater number of troops. Other factors that can lead to balancing include familiarity with terrain, superior intelligence and greater mobility.

Asymmetrical war

In an asymmetrical war one side has significant advantage such that any normal head-to-head confrontation would be easily and predictably won by the superior force.

This asymmetry in power leads to forms of fighting where the inferior side avoids direct confrontation at all costs, using their limited forces instead in unpredictable and pinpoint action which does maximum damage at minimum cost.

Asymmetrical war thus can appear as a kind of cat-and-mouse game with the powerful side trying to flush out the weaker side, which itself plays an elusive, erosive strategy.

Strategies for the weaker side include guerilla war (as used by the Vietcong in the Vietnamese war), terrorism (as used by the insurgents in the Iraq War) and even pacifist demonstrations (as so effectively used by Mahatma Gandi in his liberation of India from British rule).

See also

Power, Confusion principle

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