Weapons Usage: The False Lure of Symmetry

Like the proud hammer owner who saw each problem as a nail, we tend to project our own tactical equipment, skills and training on to potential adversaries. Symmetry. But tactically, symmetry is a false pursuit.

Some examples of symmetry as practiced in training and planning:

  1. Fighter pilots train extensively as if their primary mission is to fight other fighters;
  2. Tankers expect to fight tank-on-tank;
  3. Any sniper will tell you the best way to disrupt an enemy sniper is to countersnipe him;
  4. Most armed self-defenders train for the one v one encounter.

But these things “everybody knows” are not necessarily true. For example, fighter-on-fighter combat started because the fighters of each side in WWI wanted to scratch their enemy’s eyes out — in the form of his reconnaissance planes. The canny fighter pilot declines combat with enemy fighters to go after those aircraft that are actually enabling the enemy’s overall war aims. Or as the leaders of The Few insisted, “Go after the bombers!” While tank-v-tank makes a great sporting event, tanks win battles and wars when they blast through the enemy’s armored carapace and run rampant in his innards, or rear area: Patton, Guderian, and Zhukov all instinctively grasped this, as did many others.

Take countersniping. As the Australian Army battled the Japs for the archipelagos north of Australia, their arsenal at Lithgow struggled to make the sniper rifles they needed to countersnipe the Japanese soldiers — who were, the Aussies grimly admitted, pretty good at sniping. Lacking the patience to await Lithgow filling their open orders, the Australians improvised countersniper teams with what they had. One man would use a helmet or other item as a decoy, to induce the sons of Nippon to fire. Rather than plunk a .303 slug into the Japanese sniper’s braincase through his lens set, as Hollywood would have it, they’d simply fill his leafy perch with lead from a BREN Gun. The lack of precise address for their poison-pen letter would be overcome by junk-mailing the entire block, in other words.

If it’s crude and it works, is it really crude? The BREN magdump approach usually resulted in a surprised oriental gentleman tumbling dead from his tree.

Sure, setting a sniper against a sniper can work, but the BREN Gun works even if you only get an approximate idea of where the enemy sniper is hiding.

But people still want symmetry — to match like to like. In the real world, you want to exploit asymmetry, not try to merely match what the enemy is doing. You want to overmatch him. You want to tumble him, deader’n disco, from his tree.

This works at strategic as well as tactical level. Little Japan wasn’t permitted (by interwar arms-reduction treaties) to build as many battleships as England or the USA. So the Japanese went all-in for naval aviation, and surprised not only slumbering America but also the world.

So why do we still match like to like? A lot of this flows from Hollywood single-combat mythos. You know, the way every action movie from before the talkies to the ones in the cinema now, ends just the same way — with the hero squaring off in mortal single combat with the villain. Sometimes, the hero theatrically discards a weapon to put himself on the same level as his opponent — to fight fair.

In the real world, nobody with half a lick of sense fights fair. Or, as the instructors at SF school were inclined to say, “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” This pithy folk wisdom has an important corollary: “If you get caught, you’re tryin’ too hard.”

If you’re ever brainstorming out a combat or self-defense approach, it’s a useful brain housing group exercise to work it out both symmetrically and asymmetrically, and see which one more nearly meets your objectives.

Most of the time, it will be the asymmetric approach — if you dare to use it.

43 thoughts on “Weapons Usage: The False Lure of Symmetry

  1. RostislavDDD

    As a person who has been engaged in military history for many years at the level before the battalion, I can say the following.
    The death of a qualified sniper from the hands of an enemy sniper is rare. In real duels, most of the “killed” simply hid. The most terrible enemy of a sniper is mortars and artillery.
    Hundreds of dead people are mostly fake. The list of real “ambassadors of death” practically does not coincide with the data of Wikipedia.

    Reply
    1. Hognose Post author

      Artillery! Spoken like the Russian you are, Rostislav. But you (and Russia) are right: and, of course, artillery and mortars are great ways of dealing with snipers and other nests of resistance. An example of the asymmetry I mention.

      In more recent years, AT weapons have also been applied to that task. The British used Milan ATGMs at least once on Argentine snipers who declined to surrender. It was “not cricket,” perhaps, but war is not cricket.

      I also meant to include an example that might interest you. In the early phases of the Korean war, the NKPA was supplied with obsolete and obsolescent Soviet arms, including lots of outdated Su-76 guns. This had a 76mm AT gun (same gun, I think, as the early T-34 but with a longer barrel and muzzle brake) in a flimsy light tank chassis, maybe from the T-26.

      The Su-76 couldn’t tackle UN tanks face to face, so they camouflaged perfectly, hid and waited, and attacked from ambush. US and UK forces got wise to this and, on cresting a hill, would ID all the potential Su-76 hiding places and shell them until they got secondary explosions. Or were sure there was no Su-76 in there.

      The Soviet Union wasted a lot of training on those North Korean armor crewmen, only to have all but the first one or two die under a barrage of artillery. The Koreans’ exploitation of their asymmetries: courage, skill at camouflage, willingness to die for Kim Il-Sung, vast quantities of Su-76s and decently trained crews — was beaten by the Allied exploitation of THEIR asymmetries: firepower and logistics.

      Reply
      1. RostislavDDD

        A sniper is a soldier with a rifle, he is strong only by imperceptibility. The forgotten lessons of an experienced WWII sniper. Sniping with a stable front line:
         From one position, no more than two shots. Each shot unmask, (probability about 20%), three shots and the position will be localized. Further mortars and artillery. :)
        The experience of Chechnya:
        “The best sniper rifle is a tank.”
        To defeat the sniper in the open area, AGS-17 is very good.
        In the city, RPO-A flamethrowers were used.
        ATGM is strong at long distances, we also used them.
        >>>In the early phases of the Korean war, the NKPA was supplied with obsolete and obsolescent Soviet arms, including lots of outdated Su-76 guns.
        Suchka” (Bitch), “Ferdinand with naked ass”
        A good self-propelled gun, built on the chassis of the T-70. The ZIS-3 gun. Unfortunately with a rather average armor penetration. However, the main problem of the Red Army was not guns, but shells.
        In December 1943 Marshal Vasilevsky installed the supply of artillery anti-tank battalions (division) of armed ZIS-3, in the amount of 8 armor-piercing shells per gun. Out of 140.
        I boast. :)
        Impressed with the film “Rage” I wrote the script – the answer David Ayer. Given his mistakes. A few days of the crew’s life SU-76. The basis of the scenario is the report of the SU-76 regiment. Everything “is based on real events”
        Now in work the novel (MSF), the place of events is Korea, Pusan ​​perimeter, August 1950. There are three Su-76s :), unfortunately, with the infantry in cover. The hero of the book thinks how to destroy them having 15 M72A7 :)
        The level of training of the Communists in 1950 genuinely astounding. A real blitzkrieg in the mountains. Having excellent soldiers, including those trained by the Japanese army and Mao and the Soviet experience of the WWII, they were one step away from winning. Even after the Incheon disaster, the remnants of the Reds managed to escape and live until the appearance of the Chinese “volunteers.”

        Reply
          1. RostislavDDD

            Thanks. Read the Russian translation, “Emma Gees” unfortunately is not translated.
            One of the best books on the Great War.
            If interested, the biography of lieutenant McBride in 21 inf.btl: 21stbattalion.ca/tributemn/mcbride_hw.html

        1. archy

          ***A sniper is a soldier with a rifle, he is strong only by imperceptibility.,/i>***

          **While invisible, I observe and destroy.**

          ***The experience of Chechnya:
          “The best sniper rifle is a tank.”***

          With gun with four or five-inch bore [10cm-13cm] with 15-pound/7kg explosive projectile, 1100 10mm ball bearings or white phosphorous, and 2-3 km range; a 10x telescopic sight by day and night vision devices otherwise, and a nice, steady 50-ton-plus bipod, what;s not to like!

          Also the experience of Second War in Chechnya, heard by some guy with an oar not too far from Khankala Airport at Grozny

          * Hey, Ivan! The dogs are eating your dead….***

          ** Hey, Magomed! The pigs are eating yours….**

          -Никто, кроме нас!

          Reply
  2. John Distai

    When the phrase “asymmetric warfare” is used in a military context, is your article describing the context they are referring to, or is that phrase used to describe something else?

    Reply
  3. KenWats

    “The lack of precise address for their poison-pen letter would be overcome by junk-mailing the entire block, in other words.” – phrases like this may not be why I come here, but they certainly make it a hoot to stop by. Nicely put.

    Reply
    1. James F.

      From the movie GUADALCANAL DIARY:

      Cpl. Aloysius T. ‘Taxi’ Potts: [In dugout waiting out a heavy artillery barrage]

      “I don’t mind the one with my name on it. It’s the one that says, ‘To whom it may concern’ that I don’t like.”

      Reply
  4. medic09

    Any Israeli can tell you that the UN and other international bodies do not like your perspective. Their corollary to your symmetry is that everything must be proportionate.

    Which is probably why so many bloody conflicts just drag on and on, causing more and more suffering. Had that approach been used in the 1940s, I dare say the world war would still be raging.

    Reply
  5. robroysimmons

    You mean after I go buy my “Modern Sporting Rifle” and then pay top dollar to attend a 5 meter shooting school that aspiring to be a Hickock or an Earp might be a poor tactical choice?

    WTF

    Reply
  6. Kirk

    I still think we ought to be developing airburst munitions for the Carl Gustav, as counter-sniper and counter-everything-else Infantry…

    Either that, or disposable drone-mounted Claymores.

    Reply
    1. JohnMc

      Done already. Dallas PD used a drone and frag gernade to off a perp about 8 mos ago in a stand off situation. Will see a lot more of that in the future me thinks.

      Reply
  7. Bob

    “…Fighter pilots train extensively as if their primary mission is to fight other fighters…”

    This. Want to piss off the USAF fighter mafia? Say the magic words “A-10 Thunderbolt II.”

    There is so much good here (both the posts and comments) that I realize I’m going to have to stop by way more often.

    Reply
    1. bloke_from_ohio

      I work with the USAF fighter mafia. I have never met anyone who actually hates the A-10. The services brass says stupid stuff about using the F-35 as a replacement because they have too. We need a stealthy bomb truck to get into places with decent IADs. Plus, we did not buy enough F-22s. Therefore, the F-35, as the only stealthy bomb truck in town, must be portrayed as the best at everything. Otherwise it will be canceled and we will be stuck with our old stuff and not be allowed to build anything else as penance. Meanwhile our legacy birds are falling apart on the ramp. It is a classic case of the sunk cost tautology (its not a fallacy if it is true).

      As for the beloved hog, we can’t keep relying on the A-10s we have to do what the A-10 does. We need something else. The wisdom of trying to use the F-35 as that replacement is flawed at best. But since when are such expensive purchases subject to anything resembling wisdom? We politic’d ourselves into this problem as I laid out above.

      I love the A-10. If I could I would personally bankroll pulling the tooling out of the boneyard to make new ones. I can’t on my paycheck and neither can you. The ones we have are falling apart. They are well past twice their anticipated service lives and new parts have not been made since the manufacturer went out of business. We will hit a point where we just can’t keep them in the air no matter how many boneyard birds we cannibalize.

      What we need is some armed T-6s or some Super Tucanos to do the same mission at a lower cost (compared to now). We might lose the almighty “brrrrrt!” but we would at least get to keep a mud fighter. But, that is a hard sell to congress since we are already asking for the F-35, a plane we claim can do everything (because otherwise it is not a justifiable expense).

      -bloke_from_ohio
      Token Zoomie Acquisition Professional and Over Educated Operations Analyst

      Reply
      1. Gray

        bloke,

        Imagine what could be accomplished with using the Hog as the template and ONLY allowing: the guys needing the CAS, the Hog drivers, and the maintenance and armament grunts to pull the tooling and design a NexGen Hog.

        Reply
      2. Hognose Post author

        The other problem with the A-10 is the improvement in MANPADS. The Ukrainians have learned the hard way that their idea of low flying in Su-25s and Mi-24s was not low enough for the current generation of Russian AA rocketry.

        Reply
  8. LFMayor

    These tiny drones make me think of seeding an area with autonomous critters that seek small, dark holes in the 99 Fahrenheit range. They could carry a small charge or simply tunnel into nostrils or ears. Bad for morale.

    Reply
    1. Kirk

      Jonathan Swift had a few lines in a poem he called “On Poetry: A Rhapsody” that one might find appropriate, here:

      The vermin only teaze and pinch
      Their foes superior by an inch.
      So, naturalists observe, a flea
      Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
      And these have smaller still to bite ’em,
      And so proceed ad infinitum.

      Asymmetry begets asymmetry, which is how we get the ever-recurrent see-saw effect in so many military fields–Superior armor leads to superior guns, which lead to better armor, and that, in turn, leads to better guns. Likewise with the battle between RPV and drones; effective RPV use will lead to effective countermeasures, which will lead to better RPVs, which… Well, you get the idea. Ratchet effect, in other words. Where it ends? Probably in tailored virus agents that go after specific people, who will in turn deploy tailored artificial immune systems to cope with things.

      As an insight, these situations are only really major problems when there is too much difference in capability and employment, as in the early days of WWI–Had the war taken place a bit earlier, not so much of a charnel house. Had it taken place a bit later, when the countermeasures to massed artillery fire, machineguns, and wire were worked out and in place? Not so damaging, then, either…

      Reply
  9. Glacier

    A very good martial artist I used to train with had a habit of saying ‘If it’s a fair fight, you’re doing it wrong”

    Reply
  10. honeycomb

    We won the Revolution (Independence from England) using these strat’uh’gees.

    Why pur leaders in the Mil Comples are so hell bent on fighting a G2 or G3 war in a G4 environment is beyond my understanding.

    Reply
    1. Kirk

      Mmmm… No.

      We used asymmetrical strategies, but that’s not what won the war: What won the war was that we finally fielded effective conventional infantry formations under von Steuben’s tutelage, and the French provided us with a bunch of ground and naval forces to make things stick. If it had just been the Revolutionaries, on their own, using “asymmetrical techniques”? Then, the Crown would have won sometime around 1790, when they wore everyone on the Rebel side down.

      The classic image of guerrillas armed with Kentucky long rifles winning the Revolution for the forces of good…? So much specious bullshit, to be honest. Those things had effect, but the fact is, without the three things we had going for us at the end of it all, namely British incompetence in leadership, von Steuben’s professionalization of the Continentals, and the French, we’d have eventually lost the war. Quite frankly, all that won it for us was that the British lacked the will to win.

      Reply
      1. bloke_from_ohio

        They had a lot of other stuff going on at the time to be honest. Keeping us in the fold was not at the top of their stack of things to do.

        Reply
      2. honeycomb

        More arrogance of British Leadership lost them the war.

        But .. WE didn’t fight most of the conflicts standing face to face .. and that change .. along with targeting Orficers made us the savages of their nightmares.

        WE didn’t fight fair .. or conventional in most of the battles .. from my rec’oh’lection.

        We did benefit from ALL the support .. no doubt. But, to say it was a side show is silly.

        Reply
      3. John M.

        “Quite frankly, all that won it for us was that the British lacked the will to win.”

        The British had generals who sympathized politically with the colonial rebels. I’m not sure if that’s exactly “lacking the will to win,” but it’s pretty close.

        -John M.

        Reply
        1. RSR

          He’s likely speaking to the greater British-French and British-Spanish wars occurring at the same time, as well as extensive conflict in the British colonies in India as well…
          All combined, spanned the globe. The 13 colonies were far less lucrative or strategically important than others, so effectively the conclusion of the Revolutionary War was merely a strategic withdrawal by the British…

          Reply
  11. W. Fleetwood

    Personally, I’ve always felt that the way to deal with snipers is to sink the transports they are riding in, preferably beyond sight of land. And then, just to stay on the safe side, machinegun the lifeboats. (cf, The battle of the Bismark Sea.)

    Failing the above, the M79 grenade launcher works real good!

    Wafa Wafa, Wasara Wasara.

    Reply
  12. Pingback: WeaponsMan: The False Lure Of Symmetry | Western Rifle Shooters Association

  13. HORSE GUNNER

    THREE COMMENTS ON “ASYMETRIC” WARFARE:
    1. Attack Enemy Weakness, NOT Enemy Strength. As a Baseball Player said: “Hit ’em where they aint’t.”
    Maximum Combat Power against the weakest, most-vulnerable Enemy position/unit.
    2. Reinforce Success, NOT Failure. Example: If attacking “Two-up and One-Back” (e.g., Rifle Company in the Attack in “V” Formation with 2 Platoons forward and 1 Platoon back), and one of the forward Platoons is bogged-down but the other forward Platoon is making good headway and on the verge of decisive victory against the Enemy, the Platoon in Reserve is used in conjunction with the successful, farthest-forward Platoon, while the lagging, dragging Platoon Commander is left to his own fate. The Reserve is used to exploit success, NOT rescue failure.
    Similarly, with regard to Fire Support (e.g., Company Mortars, Battalion Mortars, Artillery, Naval Gunfire, Attack Helicopters, Close Air Support), “Priority of Fires” is to the most-successful Maneuver Unit and NEVER to the least-successful Maneuver Unit.
    3. Achieve Surprise. The Enemy EXPECTS us to counter his “X” with our “X”, his “Y” with our “Y”, but does not expect us to counter his “X” (say, X = Sniper) with our “Z” (say Z = Naval Gunfire).

    Reply
  14. ensitue

    And just to throw in a monkey wrench, Audie Murphy harvested a large number of trained NAZI snipers, using an M-1 Carbine selected for it’s better than average trigger pull.

    Reply
  15. Steve M.

    Hognose’s thoughtful post goes well beyond military applications. Whether its self defense or trying to deal with some of the mundane situations in life, you have to do some thinking. Ahead of time and often.

    Most folks aren’t thinking.

    Reply
  16. Claypigeonshooter

    Rene Fonck never engaged in a fair fight and he is most likely the ace of aces of ww1 and lived to tell of it. He is said to have always flown flat preferring to ambush his opponents unseen. There was a mock combat between the Storks and a RFC unit and Guynemer would out maneuver his opponent, but Fonck said send up your 3 best pilots and he swooped in on them unseen. His final score was 75 official victories but due to the French scoring system which was more strict than the German and British system he likely scored even more. Adding in his probables his score goes over 100. It seems as though the RFC gets a lot more attention than the French Aviation Militaire. The SPAD 7 was in service from late 1916 all the way up to the end of the war and was even then still an effective fighter.

    Reply
  17. archy

    ***Some examples of symmetry as practiced in training and planning:***

    ** Fighter pilots train extensively as if their primary mission is to fight other fighters;**

    In 1993, I met a WWII B-26 pilot at a reunion and learned that in addition to a few other good tricks that he pulled off including surviving the war, he had been credited with downing a German ME-262 jet fighter. His two observations were that if he’d gotten 4 more, he’d have been an ace…. He also told that me that he was not the only B-26 driver to have done so.

    **Tankers expect to fight tank-on-tank;**

    Tank crews TRAIN to fight tank-on-tank; fail at that common task, and you’re out of the treadhead business. But enemy fuel or ammo resupply truck convoys are the preferred target, and a parked enemy tank or SP artillery unit refueling and loading up ammo is the dream situation. Dismounted enemy in the open are similarly popular and so is wheeled light armor. Artillery used to be the worst way for a tanker to have a bad day at the office, but attack helicopters are getting to be about as bad.

    Reply

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