The Asymmetrical Ace

by Col J.J. Edson, USMC(Ret)

“Thinking About War” by LtGen Philip D. Shutler, USMC(Ret) (MCG, Nov87) is a difficult article, but it can provide those who stick with it new insight into maneuver warfare, operational art, and general military theory. I hope it gets wide attention.

The Guadalcanal Campaign illustrates many of the author’s basic ideas. In 1942, the United States moved to stop the Japanese advance by sending MajGen A.A. Vandegrift’s 1st Marine Division to the Guadalcanal-Tulagi area. On D-day some 11,000 Marines stormed ashore, more than enough to deal with the 2,000 or so Japanese-primarily construction troops-who were in the area building what the Marines would name Henderson Field.

This projection of U.S. power into the Solomons chain confronted the Japanese with a major problem. To be certain of overtaking U.S. forces and continuing their advance, the Japanese needed a troop strength advantage of perhaps three to one. For three and a half months they tried to achieve it, but they never reached that goal. In each of their major ground attacks on the Marine position-Tenaru River, 21 August; Bloody Ridge, 12-14 September; Henderson Field, 23-26 October-they moved too soon with insufficient strength and were turned back in vicious fighting. But the issue was really decided elsewhere by the “shields” that were extended around the Guadalcanal positions. Aircraft, surface ships, and submarines operated in the surrounding areas. They fought five major naval battles and almost continuous lesser actions to limit Japanese reinforcements and hold counterattacking air and surface bombardments to manageable levels.

Some of these engagements were “symmetrical,” i.e., they brought two similar forces, such as surface fleets, into action against each other. In these instances heavy losses were often suffered by both sides. Other engagements were “asymmetrical,” e.g., unprotected troop transports destroyed by aircraft or surface combatants. These often resulted in dramatic successes, such as on 14 November when the Japanese lost 7 transports and some 7,000 Guadalcanal-bound troops.

“Thinking About War” focuses our attention on the “modes” of warfare-on the kinds of forces involved in engagements. It reminds us how vulnerable a unit can be before it is fully deployed or when it comes under attack by a combat element it was never designed to engage. Thus an amphibious landing force is essentially helpless before it lands. En route to the objective area, it is totally dependent on the effectiveness of the shields provided by the Navy. (See Maj Milstead’s “Defending the ATF” MCG, Sep87.)

To keep the concept simple, Gen Shutler did not distinguish among the various types of land, sea, or air forces. Obviously, not all ground forces are the same. Artillery, light infantry, armored forces, surface-to-air missiles all come under the heading of ground forces, but they are vastly different in capabilities. Impressive victories have been won when artillery, for example, was able to standoff and engage light infantry and when light infantry has penetrated inadequate defenses and closed with missile units, command posts, or service support units. The importance of fielding a balanced combined arms team is immediately apparent from these considerations. If a force is lacking any major capability, it opens the door for asymmetrical attack and potentially severe losses. Providing sound air defenses, effective counterbattery capabilities, sufficient antiarmor weapons, etc., reduces the weaknesses that might be exploited by a competent, well-equipped enemy.

Once two reasonably balanced combined arms teams are locked in combat, the likelihood of one side or the other finding a decisive asymmetrical advantage diminishes greatly. Both sides are apt to suffer high losses with little to show for it Maneuver warfare seeks to break this symmetrical gridlock and open opportunities for more productive engagements. One of the major advantages of an amphibious capability is that it also opens such opportunities not only by projecting assault forces against vulnerable rear area units, but also by forcing the enemy to reposition/ redeploy forces, i.e, temporarily adopt formations that can be readily attacked asymmetrically by air, naval gunfire, or artillery.

It is interesting also to think about over-the-horizon assault in terms of Gen Shutler’s modes of warfare. If the assault force can land in lightly held areas, its presence may force the enemy to make major readjustments, moving armor units, troop units, support, and headquarters over long distances to react to the new threat Ideally, the assaulting force should be prepared to take advantage of this-and these preparations could easily drive major changes into the landing plan. Having deep and distant reconnaissance elements in place with an abundance of air, artillery, and combat engineer (mines) support available in the earliest stages might offer far greater advantages than would a more traditional landing plan with its infantry heavy assault waves.

Gen Shutler speaks a different language. I’ve not been faithful to his terminology, and I have touched only a few of the ideas implicit in his article. I believe he has made a true contribution to military theory. Now we must absorb, understand, and use it.