All is fair in love and war so you better be ready for anything. The nature and mindset of conflict is always changing so a wise man should be cognizant of possible future developments. One rubric that delineates the advances of modern war is the generational concept. According to most scholars fourth generation is here and fifth generation is currently in its developing stages. I believe that fifth generational warfare is where the principal actors (whether they have a state behind them or not) will target each other directly instead of going after their followers or support structures.
Allow me to give you a brief history and to give credit to where credit is due for this concept of generational warfare. The two main sources I’ve read about it to date are Marine Corps Gazette, and The Sling and The Stone by Colonel Thomas X. Hammes. While the various authors contributing on the generations of warfare have disagreements about fourth and fifth generation, most of their points are valid. I believe some of them might be limited by what they say by their present employers and sometimes might say things to go along with the party line. The biggest disagreement I have with that consensus on generational warfare is its start point being recent and not including the classical world and that developments are linear.
Here is a quick overview from Wikipedia on what generations one through four are:
First generation In its most common usage, “First generation warfare” refers to battles fought with massed manpower, using line and column tactics with uniformed soldiers governed by the state.
Second generation warfare is the tactics of warfare used after the invention of the rifled musket and breech-loading weapons and continuing through the development of the machine gun and indirect fire.
Third generation warfare focuses on using speed and surprise to bypass the enemy’s lines and collapse their forces from the rear. Essentially, this was the end of linear warfare on a tactical level, with units seeking not simply to meet each other face to face but to outmaneuver each other to gain the greatest advantage.
Fourth-generation warfare is conflict characterized by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, soldier and civilian. In terms of generational modern warfare, the fourth generation signifies the nation states’ loss of their near-monopoly on combat forces, returning to modes of conflict common in pre-modern times.
The lines between generations are always blurred and no one really knows a one begins and one ends. Therefore I believe methods and ideas of conflict are cyclical depending on the systems available and the politics behind them. The concept of rigid generations in war is a sandbox constructed by some scholars for various reasons. One reason is to discount the application of certain examples that have occurred in the classical world that do not support the generational concept. Another is it makes things trendy and trendy things get published. Third reason is that justifies certain military procurement and training budgets and allows for the payment of certain favored contractors.
There is actually some benefits to labeling wars by the generational rubric. As a sort of play on the rocks paper scissors game, industrialized nations tend to play first , second and third generation war better than the Third World. The later generations of warfare tend to be favorable to the side willing to bend or break the rules.
If a first world military is finding itself bogged down playing by the rules of the enemy, you could tell the nation behind it really isn’t too serious about winning. Hiding among the civilian population is not really too helpful to a combatant if his opponent is willing to level the city he is hiding in. But war is not always exclusively about the conflict between two parties. There are many second and third order effects the shot callers are always looking out for. These can include political talking points, economic policies, social policies, triangular diplomacy and market manipulation. The rise of the fifth generational warfare mindset is a fundamental change because traditionally the power players sending the troops to the field refrained directly attacked each other.
One of the earliest recent examples I believe of the fifth generation mindset would be the assassination of Pablo Escobar. He was reportedly shot by a Delta Force sniper according to Mark Bowden’s book Killing Pablo. While exactly who killed him is not definite, he was targeted because he was a shot caller in a very big organization that the “War on Drugs” worked against. While there are other examples that can be arguable be fifth generational warfare further in the past such as the assassination of Admiral Yamamoto I do not consider these fifth generational warfare because they were smaller engagements within a wider war that didn’t actually change the mindset of the leadership. They tended to be one off lucky hits instead of an adoption of a darker strategy.
While at this point people can argue things in Colombia are just counter drug police operations, the actions of certain non state actors has transformed from getting attention, to taking hostages, to killing as many people as possible, to killing higher status people and symbols. A good example of this would be Al Qaeda targeting of the Pentagon on September 11 . That 757 could kill far more people if it hit something else. Also the hit on Massoud in Afghanistan was the application of fifth generational warfare to remove him from the board before any hostilities kicked off in that country.
Fifth generational warfare is not a linear development. It tends to be what works at the time. Remember back in 1991, General Colin Powell explained to the world that removing Saddam Hussein from the board would be a bad move. Flash forward to 2003 and the opening shots of the Second Gulf War included an attempted strike at Saddam himself. Tthe United States attempt at the fifth generational idea of going after the leadership was not exclusively one-sided. The assassination of Sérgio Vieira de Mello, by the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by way of a truck bomb shows another side of that conflict also utilized the fifth generational mindset. It can be argued that that hit actually changed the future of leadership in the United Nations.
More recent examples of targeting the principal actors that make policies and decisions instead of their forces in the field pop up in Libya, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The killing of Osama Bin Laden is a very good example of fifth generational warfare being about targeting principals. While it is a tragedy that such a dedicated public servant such as Ambassador Stevens was killed, the application of fifth generational warfare in that case sent shock waves throughout Washington. A lot of denizens of that city seemed more affected by that death then they did for all the 18-year-old’s that signed up for college money. Ambassador Stevens was a major player in the whole overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and it appears he made the mistake of seeing that conflict as black and white between only two sides. A very recent example would be the Taliban attack on a restaurant frequented by the power players from the West. Just the fact I read about it when news on Afghanistan doesn’t tend to make the front page anymore indicates they most likely got some important people. UPDATE: one of the victims was the International Monetary Fund’s country director, Wabel Abdallah.
So what does this concept of fifth generational warfare mean for the future? It means many things. One is leadership on both sides of any conflict are going to take more measures to protect themselves from personal attack. These measures may or may not be politically and socially acceptable. It also mean the power players in the future would actually have to consider gambling with their own blood . This will cut down on war hawks, jingoism and recreational wars. There might also be a revival certain concepts that have not been used since World War II, mainly the threat of eradication. That is what finally broke the Japanese will. The sobering reality of nuclear fire convinced Emperor Hirohito it was time to throw in the towel. It should be interesting if the WWE’s Hardcore Championship concept of “any time, any place” is applied to world politics.