Libya: A-symmetry becomes symmetrical

Gaddafi loyalist forces' tactics are indicative of how a-symmetry is becoming the new norm in modern warfare, writes former Army Captain Patrick Bury.

Amidst the changing political landscape and the to-and-fro of the coastal battles in Libya, Gaddafi loyalist forces are adapting with new tactics that complicate coalition operations and are indicative of how a-symmetry is becoming the new norm in modern warfare, writes former Army Captain Patrick Bury

A-symmetrical (“unbalanced” or “irregular”) tactics are those used by the weak against the strong, pitting the weaker forces’ strengths against their enemies’ weaknesses. They often ignore the international laws, formed by convention, that were designed to govern state-on state warfare. They therefore employ “non-conventional” tactics and weapons that are as wide and varied as man’s imagination and his innate ability to harm others.

Amongst many other methods, these include small arms ambushes, shoot-and-scoots, assassinations and the use of improvised explosive devices. Most forces employing these tactics also use the population as a shield when conducting their attacks; dressing as civilians to melt in with the local population and not carrying their arms openly. This, of course, makes them difficult to detect and destroy.

It is for precisely this reason that, in face of overwhelming coalition air strikes, it appears Gaddafi’s loyalists have ditched their conventional tactics centred on armour and artillery and taken up an a-symmetrical approach.

As a number of interesting articles over the last few days have highlighted, the loyalists have enjoyed another round of quick military successes by using highly-mobile armed groups in 4×4 vehicles to counter the rebels’ thrust. These vehicles, known as “technicals” in military parlance, have been a key factor in African warfare over the last 20 years.

Gaddafi’s loyalists are now using these vehicles decked out with Soviet-era Dushka heavy machine guns, ZPU anti-aircraft guns, 82mm mortars and Grad rocket systems to provide the majority of their firepower. They have fused the use of these weapons with their better understanding of military tactics, flanking the rebel forces on the coastal road and then ambushing them from the desert. Such tactics have induced the panic seen in the rebels’ retreat lately.

Moreover, by using the same technicals as widely employed by the rebels, it is far harder for coalition air forces to identify friend or foe. The best way to target these smaller and more mobile forces is to have ‘eyes on’ on the ground; usually special forces relaying targets to overhead air platforms.

Although intelligence and special forces assets are already operating in Libya their mission will be complicated by the fact that Gaddafi’s forces are now fighting (and may well be masquerading) as the rebels to gain tactical advantage.

It is hardly surprising that when faced with the total superiority of coalition air-power Gaddafi’s forces have changed their tactics. This has also been the case in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. What is surprising is the speed at which this has occurred.

Of course, measure and counter-measure has always been a decisive part of warfare, but the speed at which Gaddafi’s forces have abandoned the conventional fight and adopted a more a-symmetrical approach show just how mainstream a-symmetry has become as both a tactic and as a wider strategy. It also shows the limits of conventional military power. This has serious implications for the technologically superior West’s security.

Many heads of western militaries, including the UK’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, have been at pains to highlight the changing nature of warfare and the threat it poses to conventional military power, procurement and political decision making. When states’ militaries adopt a-symmetrical tactics this quickly, he has a point. A-symmetry, and the military tactics used to counter it, are now firmly in the mainstream.

At present it appears a-symmetry is the new symmetry.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.