A unified generational warfare theorem: Introduction to basic argument and concepts

The idea of nation state conflict and conflict of ideology becomes a descriptive problem when looking at the scope of history. How best to describe the antecedent conflicts and the methods utilized? A focus of the military establishment has been to suggest four generations of warfare. These are not fully accepted and there is a substantive if less than enthusiastic counter to generations of warfare authors. Issues include that generations are inherently temporal and that tactics ascribed in one generation can be found as analogs hundreds of years previous to the “generations” birth.

There are other issues. Generational warfare takes war as a central position yet domestic insurgency as an example could be considered a fourth generation warfare tactic but solely dealt with by law enforcement.  Not that law enforcement has been excluded by the theories proponents, but the concept of war has a certain exclusionary aspect. Another element of the generational warfare construct as a theory that is problematical is the idea of asymmetry in the fourth generation.  Though not always perceived in the currency of events historically we find that some asymmetry usually exists between adversaries. Rather than raw power sometimes the asymmetry is in tactical, or technical sophistication.

The third generation of warfare is considered to be maneuver warfare and an example is the use of armor as cavalry. The high-speed fire on the move tactical advantage created a strategic break through as often discussed regarding the Maginot Line. Yet this same tactic was sprung on unsuspecting infantry by the use of archers on horseback hundreds of years earlier. Sometimes it appears that generational theorists link tactics to technologies without considering the deeper and more relevant advancement in cultural change of the conflict paradigm. Conflict between adversaries has a certain ritualistic element and breaking out of that self-imposed cognitive script has ramifications.

Other theories of conflict exist that describe conflict as systems of systems. That is a useful technological principle but can be dehumanizing and miss the fundamental aspect of conflict between humans. When humans are opposed and adversaries they can act quite irrationally and individuality and culture will determine more their behavior than technology or coordinating aspects of military discipline. That is one reason we end up with brilliant generals and horrible crimes of war. Perhaps the different theories are trying to align patterns of conflict into descriptive strategies. In aligning computer network operations (NCO), computer network attack (CNA), and various other elements of information operations it becomes quite obvious that the tools have changed but the strategy and tactics remain true to their historical roots.

Information operations (IO) regardless of the technologies are about using the adversaries own cognitive will against them. Guerilla thinking for a catchy phrase. The idea of interrupting command and control is very old. The concepts of information assurance and security of information between battlefield commanders and entities in the battle space begins with the history of conflict. The rise of the computer is only one more tool to be gathered into the world of information operations. Like the difference between the cavalry archer and the tank, the speed of the weapon, the size of the gun may get bigger, but the tactics do not really change. Well actually they do change. Horses can forage in the fields around an army and carry much of their own “fuel”.  Armor requires a long supply chain to soft susceptible to attack infrastructures. Perhaps the tactics remain the same but the strategies evolve.

The temporal aspect of generational theories may be over used to trump the specifics of third or fourth generation warfare but it likely is also misunderstood. A nation state that has entered into conflict can use tools up to any point of its own competency. Well that being said they may go beyond their competency too. If you consider the theory slightly differently it may be slightly less controversial. Though not a part of theory that I can find I would propose that the aligned tactics and strategies have existed since the beginning of conflict. Much like the particles of physics being discovered as knowledge of the previous discoveries strategies of conflicts are enumerated as they are “discovered”. As depicted in Figure 1, that means an adversary can be operating through different levels and using different tools. The rather stringent temporal and normal representation of transition from generation to generation is not required.

In a globalized heterogeneous political structure while homogenous information paradigm the idea that generation warfare entry points might be fixed in nature is rather intransigent. Consider the university trained, perhaps ROTC educated, soldier in a definitive third generation warfare military.  The same soldier may act in different roles and capacities from fixed positions to armored cavalry. That same soldier faced with a coup or disintegrating nation state then might transition to fourth generation warfare tactics and strategies of insurgencies. If the proposition is that temporal aspects are primary to generational warfare theorists then the theory is flawed. If the idea is that all of the previous generation is included in the next generation (see figure 1) then the theory remains sound.

It might be suggested that regardless of the primacy of previous generations that the generational structure is descriptive and not prescriptive. As such entry and exits to conflict occur in different directions while the tactics and strategies alone are described by the recent spate of conflict in all its forms. If that is the case it may be suggested that the generational warfare construct defines a scope of conflict within each succeeding generations without supplanting previous efforts of conflict.  It might be said that the generational warfare concept deals with threshold effects and once a specific associated tactic/strategy has been attempted then all further conflict is at that new/higher associated generational construct. Once again that does not answer the entry and exit parameters from associated conflicts (see figure 2).

Just to create ever more chum in the waters different forms of conflict can be occurring at the same time and require vastly different tactics. The Vietnam war fought by the military was matched by a political uprising in domestic politics where deadly force was used on multiple occasions by domestic law enforcement and military (national guard). These facets of changing conflict and increased differentiation between entities within the same political structure show a changing spectrum where the larger political entity may be engaged in one spectrum of conflict but internal entities may be involved in different spectrums of conflict wholly separate in scope but included within the larger party (Figure 3).

Other than drawing a pretty picture figure 3 depicts the idea of spectrums of conflict that are not necessarily part of the larger theory on generational conflict. In trying to tie the theory to a larger than warfare conflict spectrum it becomes necessary to include other forms of conflict. Insurgency is usually depicted as a non-state actor rising up against a nation state but that is not a requirement. Ideology can have the actors be religious entities, or even corporate entities. This is specifically the case as the rise of private military contractors (PMCs) working on behalf of individuals or corporations as send during the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, and now with assistance by PMCs in fighting the Somali pirates.

Whereas, the political structure of the world is heterogeneous the information structure is remarkably homogenous. The language of the world air traffic control system is English. The language of computers and engineering is English. The public telephone systems, and data systems are a world wide grid that is much more comprehensive than the ubiquitous world wide web. As such knowledge based tactics and strategies can be transmitted like a virus world wide based on their effectiveness nearly instantaneously. What might have originally been a haphazard dissemination methodology has become a sacrosanct tool of social effects.

In general if the temporal aspects of generational warfare are dropped (though not even proposed by some advocates) the taxonomy takes on new levels of understanding and applicability. Perhaps in more than a few cases proponents have suggested just such a thing, but it has not stuck. What they most assuredly have not done is deal with the multiple entry points to conflict and the relatively small change in tools while acknowledging the broader spectrum of said conflicts. The piece still missing is how to make the specific strategies useful to the implementers of strategy.

If the generational tools are used to derive tactics and strategies then they can also be used to associate capability and probability. I know that is a bit of a stretch. What can be done though is classify if something is solidly within a generation or if the implementation might span different generations (e.g. a machine gun). When considering this from the perspective of information operations command and control spans all of the specific generations but through them it becomes centralized until reaching fourth generation warfare then is expected to be diffuse again.  These kinds of contradictions and illuminations of them allow us to explore the inherent need for a unified warfare theorem. A unified generational warfare theorem that can be prescriptive and adaptive. My suggestion is to look at the spectrum from high intensity conflict (HIC) through low intensity conflict (LIC) and start identifying the patterns of conflict.  Through that lens of information operations, and counter insurgency you might find common ground in the consideration of generational conflict not muddied by episodic conflict theories and epochal temporal encroachment. As such perhaps it might rise to a new level of usefulness as a tool.

At this point the introduction ends, and depending on the feedback I might go into answering some of the questions. There really is nothing new under the sun when we start talking about conflict. What is needed is making the theories work for us rather than be squandered in terse academic language. With that the original purpose was to spur debate even if at my own ignorance of the literature.

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