Document created: 10 March 03
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2003
LT COL ANTHONY C. CAIN, EDITOR
THE TERM asymmetric attack has received much attention in the last decade, but those who use it usually refer to the exploitation of some undetected vulnerability by devious adversaries who seek to harm US forces, property, or interests. To be sure, the attacks against our homeland on 11 September 2001 exploited weaknesses in diabolically creative ways. We tend to forget, however, that our asymmetric air and space power advantages place virtually every country in an almost insoluble quandary with respect to US power and the exercise of national sovereignty. As we begin the year that marks the anniversary of the Wright brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, reflection on the extraordinary freedom provided by US air and space dominance seems in order.
Our manned-aircraft capabilities enable us to launch strikes from deep within the United States and recover those same aircraft at their home bases. To be sure, such missions place great strain on the airmen who execute them. Yet, even after 100 years of global air and space power development, the list of countries with similar abilities to penetrate sovereign airspace- without the normal preparations associated with deploying infrastructure and logistical networks- remains remarkably short. The global-strike potential that resides in the mix of US air and space capabilities represents a unique competence that appears set to keep adversaries permanently off balance. In asymmetric terms, countries that choose to threaten the United States, while trusting in the time-honored protections afforded by geography and distance, do so at their peril- and their remaining options for defense offer no better shield.
Even with the myriad combat-oriented operations that occurred over the past decade, US air and space power extends our nation’s reach in more subtle ways. From Mozambique to the Philippines to Europe to South America, air and space power supports diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to ease suffering and improve human dignity for thousands each year. This stance sends a dramatic, asymmetric double message to both people and governments: (1) “Air and space power can deliver justice to your borders as easily as it delivers food, medicine, and other supplies,” and (2) “America prefers to help rather than to destroy.” The campaign in Afghanistan offered a striking example of this asymmetric use of airpower as US forces delivered tons of food and relief supplies to villagers and refugees while simultaneously working to restore freedom and justice to that conflict-ridden society. As one journalist noted, the United States could have used all of its might to strike out blindly to avenge the terrorist attacks. Instead, air and space power allowed our leaders to focus and balance the constructive and destructive characteristics of our response with an unprecedented level of precision.
Our asymmetric advantage extends into space, where US satellites provide other countries free navigation, communication, and weather support- capabilities once consigned to the realm of the mystical and mysterious. Air and space power thus permeates the economies of even the most backward countries through such technologies and capabilities. Those nations experience the asymmetric effects that accompany technological revolutions. Rather than enduring firsthand each painful step of technological enlightenment, from agriculture to industry to space exploration, developing countries find themselves catapulted from the “dark ages” to the space age in a matter of only decades or even years. Therefore, air and space contributions provide an asymmetric catalyst for economic, thus human, advancement.
Ironically, the expanding asymmetry between us and our competitors may not necessarily enhance either our security or regional and global stability, because demagogues who endeavor to exploit their people and promulgate injustice will seek ways to neutralize our asymmetric advantage. We appear caught in a new type of security dilemma of our own making. For most countries, conventional military conflict with the United States is not an option because of our asymmetric air and space power advantage. Instead, our competitors pursue strategies designed to negate the overwhelming technological and organizational competency that US air and space power represents. As we transform our service from a threat-based force into a capability-based force, our technology, doctrine, and operating concepts will widen the gap between us and our potential adversaries. As we pursue transformation, US airmen should rightfully focus on the asymmetric threat; to do otherwise would be foolhardy and irresponsible. However, we should also understand the awesome capability we wield and its effect on friends and adversaries alike.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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