Asymmetric Warfare: A Primer

The armed forces of United States are the most capable military ever assembled. Are they designed, however, to handle a determined insurgency?

12 min read

Englishman Frederick W. Lanchester (1868-1946) was a major contributor to the foundation of automotive and aeronautical engineering. He also published works on radio, acoustics, warfare, and even relativity. His equations of combat form the basis of the science of operations research. (These equations have been used to formulate business strategy in recent times.) He was the first to describe the aeronautics of lift and drag. His automobile inventions include the gas engine starter, rack-and-pinion steering, disk brakes, four-wheel drive, and fuel injection.

In his historic 1916 paper "Mathematics in Warfare," Lanchester presents two simple differential equations relating force attrition to the number of forces or weapons in opposition and to their effectiveness (see sidebar "Lanchester's Equations"). The equations' solutions show that the effectiveness of a force is directly proportional to the effectiveness of its weapons and to the square of its numbers. The following table illustrates how Lanchester's equations would apply in a classic artillery duel:

Keep Reading ↓Show less

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions
Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

Keep Reading ↓Show less