The Changing Face Of War

A groundbreaking 1989 essay on "Fourth-Generation Warfare"

While the basic concepts of third-generation tactics were in place by the end of 1918, the addition of a new technological element--tanks--brought about a major shift at the operational level in World War II. That shift was the blitzkrieg. In the blitzkrieg, the basis of the operational art shifted from place (as in Liddell-Hart's indirect approach) to time. This shift was explicitly recognized only recently in the work of retired Air Force Col. John Boyd and his "OODA (observation-orientation-decision-action) theory."

Thus we see two major catalysts for change in previous generational shifts: technology and ideas. What perspective do we gain from these earlier shifts as we look toward a potential fourth generation of warfare?

 

Elements That Carry Over

Earlier generational shifts, especially the shift from the second to the third generation, were marked by growing emphasis on several central ideas. Four of these seem likely to carry over into the fourth generation, and indeed to expand their influence.

The first is mission orders. Each generational change has been marked by greater dispersion on the battlefield. The fourth-generation battlefield is likely to include the whole of the enemy's society. Such dispersion, coupled with what seems likely to be increased importance for actions by very small groups of combatants, will require even the lowest level to operate flexibly on the basis of the commander's intent.

Second is decreasing dependence on centralized logistics. Dispersion, coupled with increased value placed on tempo, will require a high degree of ability to live off the land and the enemy.

Third is more emphasis on maneuver. Mass, of men or fire power, will no longer be an overwhelming factor. In fact, mass may become a disadvantage as it will be easy to target. Small, highly maneuverable, agile forces will tend to dominate.

Fourth is a goal of collapsing the enemy internally rather than physically destroying him. Targets will include such things as the population's support for the war and the enemy's culture. Correct identification of enemy strategic centers of gravity will be highly important.

In broad terms, fourth-generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between "civilian" and "military" may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants' depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity. Major military facilities, such as airfields, fixed communications sites, and large headquarters will become rarities because of their vulnerability; the same may be true of civilian equivalents, such as seats of government, power plants, and industrial sites (including knowledge as well as manufacturing industries). Success will depend heavily on effectiveness in joint operations as lines between responsibility and mission become very blurred. Again, all these elements are present in third-generation warfare; fourth generation will merely accentuate them.

 

Potential Technology-Driven Fourth Generation

If we combine the above general characteristics of fourth-generation warfare with new technology, we see one possible outline of the new generation. For example, directed energy may permit small elements to destroy targets they could not attack with conventional energy weapons. Directed energy may permit the achievement of EMP (electromagnetic pulse) effects without a nuclear blast. Research in superconductivity suggests the possibility of storing and using large quantities of energy in very small packages. Technologically, it is possible that a very few soldiers could have the same battlefield effect as a current brigade.

The growth of robotics, remotely piloted vehicles, low probability of intercept communications, and artificial intelligence may offer a potential for radically altered tactics. In turn, growing dependence on such technology may open the door to new vulnerabilities, such as the vulnerability to computer viruses.

Small, highly mobile elements composed of very intelligent soldiers armed with high-technology weapons may range over wide areas seeking critical targets. Targets may be more in the civilian than the military sector. Front-rear terms will be replaced with targeted-untargeted. This may in turn radically alter the way in which military services are organized and structured.

Units will combine reconnaissance and strike functions. Remote, "smart" assets with preprogrammed artificial intelligence may play a key role. Concurrently, the greatest defensive strengths may be the ability to hide from and spoof these assets.

The tactical and strategic levels will blend as the opponent's political infrastructure and civilian society become battlefield targets. It will be critically important to isolate the enemy from one's own homeland because a small number of people will be able to render great damage in a very short time.

Leaders will have to be masters of both the art of war and technology, a difficult combination as two different mindsets are involved. Primary challenges facing commanders at all levels will include target selection (which will be a political and cultural, not just a military, decision), the ability to concentrate suddenly from very wide dispersion, and selection of subordinates who can manage the challenge of minimal or no supervision in a rapidly changing environment. A major challenge will be handling the tremendous potential information overload without losing sight of the operational and strategic objectives.

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