Special Operations Expertise

Combating Terrorism

For the Courage of the Founders

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For the Courage of the Founders

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We can lose

Al Qaeda, or any other conglomeration of impotent terrorists, cannot defeat the United States. This does not mean that we cannot lose. Like all of the super-powers who existed before us and are no longer, we certainly can. The loss will not be manifested by the triumphant marching of terrorists down Osama Lane, formerly known as Wall Street. In fact, it won’t be marked by any real victory, but rather a long, slow, degradation of our ability to be an active, viable and welcome participant in global affairs. If it occurs it will be marked by an inability to focus the nation on real, enduring challenges, lack of understanding asymmetry with associated inefficient application of resources, increased unilateral action/demands and a failure to accept risk as a critical component of future security.

National Focus: On 9/11 the entire country, in fact the entire world, was focused on terrorism. It was a horrific event. It was made worse, or rather, it was more effective because the United States lacked a strategic framework or parameters within which to handle the attack. That focus was natural and warranted but it was not beneficial. As we continue the focus it will become deleterious. The reason is simple. We are focusing on a problem that does not matter in any significant way and which was already well solved before the event. It would be nice if no one wished the United States ill, but at this time it is not reality. In the years since Vietnam the United States built a military, law enforcement and intelligence organization with incomparable power and reach. Such an organization had never been seen before. And it was good enough. That we were attacked does not mean that it was not. That people die in war does not mean that the military is not good enough. The enemy is thinking and adaptable; he will find places to attack and people to kill. That does not mean that we are unduly vulnerable, that the system we built does not work or that his attack matters. History has many examples of superpowers that continued to put resources into increasing their strengths, while their vulnerability due to their weaknesses grew. The United States is following a similar course. The greatest response to 9/11 was a huge increase in spending for military, law enforcement and intelligence; applying more resources to our greatest strength. Again, that this is understandable does not make it beneficial. The defeat of terrorism, not the protection from but the defeat of, is going to require assets to be applied to a multi-faceted approach over time that includes risk acceptance (courage). Continuing to focus on a terrorist attack that is not going to happen again, focusing on old solutions to this "new" problem, focusing on single points in time instead of a timeless strategy to maintain the country, will slowly drag the United States into a position of hazard. There are other more enduring challenges, like public education and civil rights, which are in great need of both the assets and the intellectual attention currently being lavished on terrorists. There are other means to deeply affect terrorists that are unconventional and require assets and attention. Protecting the United States from terror can be a priority. In fact it has always been a priority. It just can’t be the sole focus and number one goal; there are too many other truly important problems to solve.

Failing to understand Asymmetry: The term asymmetry is one of the most frequently used terms in discussions of terrorism. Unfortunately it is not well defined and is often poorly used. It has come to refer to any attack that is not a conventional attack. This is not true. In fact, military tactics are founded in the idea of asymmetry. Sun Tzu speaks of asymmetry—"Never attack the enemies strength". Simple maneuvers such as "Crossing the T" during war at sea in the age of sail and "flanking" movements in land combat are means of gaining an asymmetrical advantage by increasing the number of guns able to be brought to bear on the enemy while limiting his ability to do the same. The essence of warfare is establishing an asymmetric advantage and then exercising that advantage. The coalition force that defeated Iraq in the spring of 2003 held Iraq at an enormous asymmetric disadvantage.

Monetary investments provide a useful example on how to view asymmetry. In investing, most people seek symmetrical situations. If the risk to the investment is high, the expected/desired payout is high. If the anticipated yield is low then the risk is expected to be low. A prudent investor would not put money into a venture where the risk was high but the pay-off was low. Similarly, the prudent investor would love a situation where the risk was low and the expected pay off was high. This is precisely the asymmetric situation, low risk high pay-off, the conventional military seeks. A decreased risk through number and technological superiority results in asymmetry because, by definition, as risk in military operations decreases so the likelihood of a high pay off (fast, low casualty victory) increases. Clearly the asymmetry that is being referred to in discussion of terrorism is something different.

Flying a plane into a building and causing it to collapse is not asymmetrical—it is a straight line and it is physics. Kamikaze attacks in WW II were not asymmetrical. The asymmetrical nature of terrorism is concentrated in two areas, which have been touched on previously. The first is that the damage to the psychology of the target far exceeds the physical damage. A single bomb exploding next to a ship in Yemen caused the whole Navy to panic and the Federal government to launch investigations and shake Navy leadership to the core. The same is true to some extent of each terror attack. The second part of the asymmetry is that the cost to protect against the attack far exceeds the damage of potential of the attack. Looking again to the USS Cole, the plans, training, equipping and tactics required to protect the USS Cole were well known to the Navy prior to the bombing. Without having taken actual casualties, the Navy could not culturally accept the expense of training and equipping every sailor and every crew to carry out the force protection plan to stop the attack. After the attack no amount of expense seemed enough. The elimination of any vulnerability or any chance of taking casualties makes defense very expensive, in terms of both cash and lost opportunity.

Considering asymmetry for strategic planning, the United States must understand that asymmetric nature of terrorism is different than the asymmetry that the United States is used to. It is not that the attack is against an unprotected target or that it is an unconventional attack. The asymmetry comes from the overwhelming impact on the psyche of the psychologically unprepared target and the enormous cost required to protect/prepare all potential targets against any possible attack. The asymmetry is the willingness of a weak nation to spend billions of dollars and isolate itself from long time allies to protect itself against any attack, minor or great. The asymmetry is in the ability of an insignificant foe to steer the course of America's policy. Until that is understood, the United States will remain overly vulnerable to the terrorists' desire.

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