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:
- Fighter pilots train extensively as if their primary mission is to fight other fighters;
- Tankers expect to fight tank-on-tank;
- Any sniper will tell you the best way to disrupt an enemy sniper is to countersnipe him;
- 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.
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.