Winning an Asymmetrical War

The Second World War is thought of as a conventional conflict in which the world’s great powers threw like against like—tanks against tanks, planes against planes. However, not every theater of the war can be so easily classified. In particular, the Battle of the Atlantic, waged between the Allies and Germany, was an asymmetrical conflict. The German U-boat force, the centerpiece of that country’s naval power, could not come close to matching the size and stature of the Allied navies. Germany had never been a great maritime power, and so its naval focus in the war was on the surreptitious power of the submarine rather than on the sheer firepower of capital ships. Britain and the US, meanwhile, were the world’s foremost sea powers. They had strong naval traditions and substantial fleets, but even so they were on the defensive. The merchant vessels crossing the Atlantic were theirs to protect, and the relatively small U-boat complement of the German Navy was determined to show that Allied naval prowess, which had been nurtured from Trafalgar to Jutland, was just a paper tiger.

There is a certain similarity between the Battle of the Atlantic, then, and America’s current predicament in Iraq. In both cases, a superior military force finds itself confronted by an adversary that is small and outclassed pound-for-pound, yet still deadly and aggressive. Additionally, the established force is playing defense in both cases. The Allies would win if transatlantic convoys consistently survived, while the Kriegsmarine would win if they did not. Similarly, in today’s Iraq, our criterion for success is the survival of the Iraqi government and political order – such as it is – while the insurgents seek to undermine this edifice.

At a bookstore this summer, I had the good fortune of picking out Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days, the autobiography of Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz. Originally published in 1958, it follows the latter parts of Doenitz’s career and discusses at length the Battle of the Atlantic from the perspective of the mastermind of the U-boat campaign. (Interestingly, the book also discusses Doenitz’s tenure as President of Germany between Hitler’s suicide and the formal surrender.) The admiral’s memoirs are instructive in how a smaller party can wage and win an asymmetrical campaign. More importantly, they provide some illumination as to how such a campaign can be defeated.

The enemy in the Atlantic was smart, just as our adversaries in Iraq today are. For example, one of Doenitz’s greatest inventions was the “wolfpack” tactic. In such an operation, a U-boat would spot an Allied convoy. Other boats in the area would then silently gather until a large scale attack could be mounted by the surfaced U-boats under the cover of darkness. The use of such units made it easier to locate convoys and then to strike them quickly and decisively. Doenitz eagerly tracked metrics such as tonnage sunk per U-boat per day-at-sea in order to ensure that these operations bore fruit. And, for a very long time, they did.

As for Al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents, though they lack the polish of Doenitz, they possess a high amount of savvy. Knowing the extent to which the battle for Iraq takes place on CNN and Capitol Hill, the insurgency plays the media like a fiddle. They also expertly play on Iraq’s sectarian divides, committing acts such as the bombings of Samarra’s Golden Mosque in order to foment the anarchic environment in which they thrive.

The German U-boats also share with the insurgency in Iraq a track record of initial successes against America. The U-boats’ Operation Drumbeat, launched against American shipping on the east coast following the formal commencement of hostilities between the US and Germany, caught the former woefully unprepared. Doenitz described initial operations: “The attack was a complete success. The U-boats found that conditions there were almost exactly those of normal peace-time. The coast was not blacked-out, and the towns were a blaze of bright lights…Shipping followed the normal peace-time routes and carried the normal lights…Very few anti-submarine measures appeared to have been introduced.” The Allied efforts at the beginning of the Battle of the Atlantic had some ways to go before bringing the fight to the U-boats.

Moving to Iraq, the successes of the insurgency against the Coalition and the Iraqi government’s efforts to establish an orderly, democratic Iraq have been well-documented. Though the situation in the field appears to have changed a bit during the present surge (and will hopefully, though not necessarily, continue to do so), few would deny that conditions were stagnant for several years. Just a year ago, for example, it was as if the Coalition had never set foot in Al Anbar, which at the time was a hotbed of terrorism.

So what brought the U-boat campaign to a halt? In a word, presence—the physical domination of space. By 1943, the Allies were able to extend genuine protection to the convoys of merchant ships that carried the lifeblood of transatlantic relations. Where a gap in Allied air reconnaissance had previously existed in the North Atlantic, small aircraft carriers filled in. As Doenitz put it, “From then onwards convoys enjoyed the protection of continuous air cover throughout their voyage.” An increase in the number of very-long-range Allied aircraft went hand-in-hand with this development. On the surface, convoys were being given a new kind of protection as well. In addition to the close-in escorts, so-called Support Groups were formed. These were task forces of Allied warships that came to the assistance of convoys under attack but had the freedom to chase U-boats as far as necessary. Technology, such as very-short-wavelength radar, augmented the sheer muscle that the Allies brought to bear. In the end, the U-boats could no longer pick low-hanging fruit among transatlantic shipping. The Allied navies made the cost of attacking merchant shipping prohibitive; by the end of the war, losses in the U-boat service were appalling.

This turn of events reveals a sort of paradox. Asymmetrical warfare, at least when it goes well for the “guerilla,” is a tale of a nimble and elusive David defeating a lumbering Goliath. In an asymmetrical war, the larger party is necessarily at a disadvantage.

Or is it? The tide of the Battle of the Atlantic was turned as the Allies played to their strength—a massive accumulation of assets and firepower. Rather than continue to play whack-a-mole with the Kriegsmarine, the Allies eventually procured a whole bunch of mallets and started whacking all the mole-holes, all the time. The large size that means awkwardness and vulnerability in some asymmetrical scenarios may be the key to victory in others.

In this regard, the Iraq counterinsurgency may well resemble the Battle of the Atlantic. Though important accomplishments were achieved in the “Rumsfeld” phase of the Iraq war, it is no secret that “standing up” the Iraqis while trying to maintain a low profile was not particularly successful. Now we are playing to our strength—quantity and quality of offensive power. We are seeking to authoritatively control the battlefield in Iraq in the same way that the US and Royal Navies controlled the seas around the transatlantic convoys. As a recent Weekly Standard piece by Mario Loyola explains, US forces have established “area security” via “clear, control, and retain” operations that depend on the active participation of Iraqi Security Forces.

We have, as it turns out, seen some real results from the surge of troops into Iraq and the accompanying assertive footing adopted by General Petraeus. These results, as Loyola relates, are attributable to the establishment and maintenance of control over the battlefield: “The success enjoyed in places like Anbar province has come because security forces convinced people that they were there to stay. Those populations have shown their appreciation by joining the fight against al Qaeda in their neighborhoods, joining the police, and establishing neighborhood watch systems.”

The order of the day in Iraq, then, is the use of the power of the Coalition and the Iraqi government in order to establish an incontrovertible presence in contested areas. Much as the Allied navies won the Battle of the Atlantic by widening the asymmetry and being everywhere at once, the Coalition and the Iraqi government are exploiting their superior quantity and quality in order to regain and keep Iraq, for good.

The surge may or may not pan out in the long run, but we can say for now that it has worked better than the previous strategy. And the stakes of this conflict are high. In their relative positioning, their tactical sharpness, and their early successes, Al Qaeda and its friends in Iraq may resemble Doenitz. But in their brutality and aims, they more closely resemble the Grand Admiral’s boss.

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