Small Wars Journal

asymmetric warfare

Small Businesses’ Role in Developing Superior Capabilities, Tactics, and Countermeasures for Asymmetric Warfare

Asymmetric warfare is defined by surprises. Our adversaries find unique ways to inflict damage. We develop countermeasures. They find a way around them. We become locked in an inconclusive cycle of action-reaction. Increasing the role of small business in the development of tactics, countermeasures and capabilities can help break this cycle and give us a decisive edge in asymmetric warfare. This can be implemented by expanding outreach to small business and actively including them early on in the process of capability gap analysis and requirements development.
As Colonel Clinton J. Ancker III and Lieutenant Colonel Michael D. Burke wrote[1], “...asymmetric warfare deals with unknowns, with surprise in terms of ends, ways, and means. The more dissimilar the opponent, the more difficult it is to anticipate his actions [my emphasis].” We can significantly improve our position by closing the dissimilarity gap. Small businesses have an important role to play in this by being used in activities such as war-gaming, red-teaming and being brought into the capability development cycle.
For purposes of this article, small business is defined as a small, hungry, business that does not have an established or entrenched market position or a proven route to gain that position. They are insurgent in the marketplace, continually fighting, developing and improving products and strategies to gain a foothold. They rely on self-financing, friends or bank loans (taking venture capital funded start-ups off the table).

Constraints define the similarity/dissimilarity gap. Actors reach for asymmetric capabilities and tactics when they are not playing on a level playing field. The conflict is asymmetric because there is a “disproportion of strength between the opponents at the outset, and from the difference in essence between their assets and liabilities [my emphasis][2].”The constraints define the range of potential capabilities they can utilize and tactics they can employ.

Adopting principals from the Theory of Constraints, Critical Path and Critical Chain Project Management: constraints define the boundary conditions of actions and therefore the critical path along which a network of actions will take place. That is, given a set of actions that can be part of the process of achieving a desired outcome, the critical path is the specific set of actions that must be done in order to achieve that outcome. The critical path directly impacts the budget, the time and the resources necessary to achieve that outcome. Taking the equation further, assuming we can define the desired outcome, e.g. inflicting damage in a particular battlespace, and defining the constraints on the actors and the network of tasks, we can create a vector of likely actions that would be on that network path. The more we can mirror these constraints, the less guesswork we have to make about what actions would be on the network path. The challenge then becomes creating or simulating a high fidelity environment which mirrors the constraints in which our adversaries are operating. The goal is to reduce dissimilarity.

Small businesses face the following constraints:

  • Resources –money and personnel;
  • The need to innovate and/or invent;
  • Deadlines defined by internal factors (like burn-rate, operating costs, business longevity considerations, personal savings and family members’ patience) rather than by the marketplace or competitor;
  • Lack of timely insider knowledge;
  • Minimal to zero institutional backlog of proprietary technology and knowledge.

Importantly, small businesses’ set of options contains the following elements:

  • Relentless drive and motivation (subject to the factors that define deadlines above);
  • Ready access to cutting edge COTS technology;
  • Access to knowledge and training freely available on the web;
  • Ability to experiment, invent and fail;
  • Ability to collaborate with partners of their choosing;
  • Independent decision making and purchasing power;
  • Ability to assess and bear risks at their discretion;
  • Ability to change goals and redefine end-states at their discretion.

The constraints match-up with many of the constraints facing adversaries that adopt asymmetric warfare. The set of options match-up with the options available to adversaries. Small business can bring this perspective to the process. These options help populate the vector of potential capabilities and tactics that can be utilized, the range of motion for a network of actions, as it were.
Clearly, small businesses are not fighting the same ‘war’ as our adversaries. But there are enough similarities in the vectors of constraints and options, that using small businesses can help reduce the dissimilarity gap and enhance the process of developing superior capabilities, tactics and countermeasures.  Over the longer term, greater integration of small businesses into the process of capability gap analysis and requirements definition, if structured correctly, can improve our reaction time and lower lifecycle costs. Small business leaders, with clarity on a future problem space, can structure their internal development and production capabilities to capitalize on potential opportunities.

One final thought.  Integration of small businesses would augment our ability to continue the action-reaction cycle and gain pace over time.  But the context in which small businesses operate in this country gives us a competitive advantage, one that allows us to radically alter the playing field and develop game changing, superior capabilities.  Individuals in our system of creative, free and aggressive capitalism can outperform people in a different environment.


[1]  Colonel (retired) Clinton J. Ancker III and Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Michael D. Burke, "Doctrine for Asymmetric Warfare," Military Review, July - August 2003, pp. 18-25 |

[2] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (New York: Praeger, 1964). p 6;  as quoted in Robert R. Tomes, "Relearning Counterinsurgency Warfare," Parameters, Spring 2004,  pp 16 – 28 |