Generations of War in the New Century by Bill Buppert


“The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of duration. Thus, the enemy will be caught in a dilemma: He has to drag out the war in order to win it, and does not possess, on the other hand, the psychological and political means to fight a long, drawn-out war.”

– Robert Taber, The War of the Flea

The DoD and the Army have now inaugurated yet another iteration of the constant doctrinal battle to balance irregular warfare and conventional warfare. Since the beginning, the US armed forces have struggled to deliver on a force concept that could do either or both well. As William Lind has pointed out eloquently, the US and western powers have enunciated the generations of warfare, but failed to deliver on advancing through the sequence or even gleaning the wisdom they hold.

There are four generally accepted generations of warfare, and the succeeding generations that provide grist for the mill among the defense intellectuals and military-industrial illiterarti who constantly tilt at the next big thing. For the purposes of this introduction, we will stick to the four generations commonly accepted.

First Generation Warfare began at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 where a convention of European armies and heads of state decided a civilizing residual of warfare should formally prohibit the engagement of non-combatants in warfare throughout the continent. This, of course, did not obtain in the planetary battlefields these European powers would fight on in pursuit of broader imperial colonial portfolios for their respective empires. The implication was to conventionally engage armies force on force with limitations and prohibitions on the destruction of civilian persons and property where possible. The armies of Lincoln would abandon this concept wholesale in 1863, and the two hundred years preceding would be filled with identifiable ignorance or willful neglect of the concept.

Second Generation Warfare would see the paradigm of fixed attrition conflicts come to the fore, with the mightiest stalemates occurring on the European continent during WWI, but with hints of the mode of conflict evident during the American Civil War in the first three years of the conflict.

Third Generation Warfare would see the maneuver conflict in both the direct and indirect application start to appear with greater frequency, starting with the nineteenth century. The German combined arms blitzkrieg concept borrowed heavily from a variety of previous influences. The German General Staff even studied the cavalry maneuver practices of Jeb Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest in the American Civil War to operationalize speedy applications of the direct and indirect approach. The direct approach would usually entail the probing of weaknesses on a broad front and capitalizing on these for thrusts through the unitary body of an enemy. Liddell-Hart’s indirect approach would leverage flank and rear attacks in rapid exploitation. Erwin Rommel would go on to use both to devastating effect in the early African campaigns of the Wehrmacht in WWII or, more accurately, the War to Save Josef Stalin..

This is not to say that these Third Generation events did not take place in ancient times. One can suppose that all amphibious operations, whether successful or not, are by nature Third Generation.

The twentieth century saw force multipliers in two aspects for maneuver warfare that former commanders of the ages did not have to the degree the world beheld in this last century. Man portable communications, training and rehearsal for the combination of various military disciplines into a cohesive and adaptive whole, revolutionized the operational and strategic aspects of war in the second half of the twentieth century. The Germans showed hints of this in 1918 but operationalized maneuver doctrine at the theater level to an extent no Allied forces matched until 1944.

Fourth Generation Warfare, for the purposes of this discussion, has two primary elements that may or may not attend each other. This is the irregular fight on the other side of the conventional spectrum, and the role of the non-state actor in warfare.

This last is the fight that has occupied the Western military mind for the past quarter century and caused the extraordinary investment in experiments in unconventional conflict and counterinsurgency. All of which have failed as the US and the West expended trillions of dollars in the SW Asian theater in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya, without quite Grokking the importance of indigenous rebellion and how it becomes a perpetual motion machine for maintain seditious momentum, the critical importance of the mass base as a fulcrum, and the unsurprising lack of adaptation on the part of the West when faced with multiple fronts of threats and enemies who seem to subside and resist in a continual wave that confounds the best minds in the American military.

Robert Taber explains this brilliantly from the vantage point of 1965. Not much has changed:

“Whether the primary cause of revolution is nationalism, or social justice, or the anticipation of material progress, the decision to fight and to sacrifice is a social and a moral decision. Insurgency is thus a matter not of manipulation but of inspiration.
I am aware that such conclusions are not compatible with the pictures of guerrilla operations and guerrilla motivations drawn by the counterinsurgency theorists who are so much in vogue today. But the counterinsurgency experts have yet to win a war. At this writing, they are certainly losing one.
Their picture is distorted because their premises are false and their observation faulty. They assume–perhaps their commitments require them to assume–that politics is mainly a manipulative science and insurgency mainly a politico-military technique to be countered by some other technique; whereas both are forms of social behavior, the latter being the mode of popular resistance to unpopular governments.”

These are the generations in a nutshell, and library shelves of neglected and unread articles and weighty tomes on these subjects have (had) shelves groaning under the weight or in more modern times, tens of millions of digits in the blogosphere devoted to it.
Part of this miasma is the strategic deficit disorder that has stymied American and Western supremacy since the collapse of the bipolar world meme in 1991. This, of course, is shifting again as an eerily familiar bloc of antagonist nations is forming around a renewed Sino-Russian rapprochement and other countries uneasy with the military bullying and blustering of the American state. COL John Boyd, the discoverer of the OODA Loop and one of the most brilliant minds in Western strategic thought, distilled strategy down to two distinct arenas from whence everything else portends: alliance and isolation. The US, and to a lesser extent NATO nations, has used a keen technological edge as a substitute for martial mindfulness and elegance of craft in both conventional and irregular encounters.
Though most suffer from institutional amnesia and historical bureaucratic inertia, some defense observers are calling the ball and proclaiming that the resistance forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq have achieved a strategic stalemate if not victory over the latest Western military interloper. And the response from the more benighted intellectuals is a call for a return to American conventional savvy in the scheme of arms.

What has been called AirLand Battle and then Full Spectrum Operations has become Unified Land Operations (ULO) to better prepare the American forces that have allegedly been mired in unconventional operations for so long they have lost their conventional edge. From a Third Generation perspective, this is true. Both Bill Lind and I agree that excepting naval operations in WWII, especially in the Pacific Theater of Operations, no maneuver concept at the strategic level occurred despite protestation to the contrary. During the entirety of the conflict in WWII, four-fifths of all German Order of Battle was oriented against the main enemy in the East, the USSR.

The American armed forces have been a Second Generation conceptual war machine since the American Civil War, and not much has changed. I was raised on the FM 7-8 Infantry Squad and Platoon, which was replaced by an even bigger manual in the 21st century. A casual observer of the fight in the Middle East in this century by American arms would suggest that the printing presses should stop publishing such nonsense and simply issue a laminated 3×5 card to every infantryman that reads simply Call for Fire.

There is very little grasp or leveraging of light infantry maneuver and the application of the indirect approach except for the ubiquitous applications of thousands of rounds of munitions to eliminate one human threat. The Taliban and the Haqqani Network and hundreds of resistance organizations scattered throughout Afghanistan have thrived and multiplied under the debt carpet-bombing of trillions by the Western military industrial complex to crush a rebellion that is still alive and well. Exhibit A is the evaporation of the very expensive post Hussein Iraqi army at the hands of the road-borne light infantry threat of the IS or ISIL. In itself, an unexpected send order effect of arming and training guerrillas to harry the Syrian dictator. A dozen years and trillions of dollars in American mentorship, and the vaunted Iraqi army folds under the slightest pressure as it is hollowed out by irregular Fourth Generation forces.

As an aside, it would be wrong to assume that these generations of conflict have a sequence of evolution. Can different generations be contemporaneous or occur independent of one another? Of course they can. The historical examples abound. One can surmise that Napoleon was not defeated by Wellington at Waterloo in 1814 in a Second Generation fight without considering the importance of the French and Spanish harrying and raids on Napoleon’s lines of communication throughout the conflict, which significantly weakened what Napoleon could bring to bear in the end at Waterloo. This was most certainly the confluence of Second and Fourth Generation methods that led to wholly unexpected consequences. One can look at the littoral conflict at Bletchley Park trying to break the German Enigma code celebrated in the recent movie on Turing, The Imitation Game.

American arms and the military machine emanating out of DC have a curious reputation. Vaunted as the most powerful and technologically sophisticated military on Earth, yet consistently bested by irregular forces in all but the instance of the brief and strategically limited Gulf War in 1991. Yet even that war was simply a harbinger, like WWI of WWII, of worse things to come.

This provides a framework for the intellectual deep dive in future essays on the implications of Fourth Generation Warfare.

Think American arms are the historical equivalent of the Terminator? Think again.

“Yet the hokum of enlightened counterinsurgency generals who turn failed wars around by making their armies fight them better simply won’t go away.  The hokum helps to prolong the fantasy that American wars in foreign lands can always be made to work as long as the “professors of war” at the graduate level are put in charge.  Sadly this is a recipe for perpetual conflict.”

– COL Gian Gentile, author of Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency.


13 thoughts on “Generations of War in the New Century by Bill Buppert”

  1. I think successful 4GW is actually 1stGW, as it has been a regular form of war since time immoral, many centuries before Westphalia, and that says a lot about it as a form of war, as John Boydd basis of his OODA Loop is the essentials of combat, like Small Unit Infantry Tactics, required to fight effectively against any other generation of warfare, including 4GW, and especially against counterinsurgency warfare. (They say “out G the G, but the possibility remains, the G can out C the C also).

    I think too, the G’s that are successful generally have something else in common, they posses a kind of open source style of fighting, in concert with a streamlined structure of command and strategy not unlike the other generations of war. Which is interesting, as some proponents of insurgency war mention leaderless 4GW as a possibility in some near future conflict. There are many arguments along this line, which includes lone wolf insurgents. Many say it is not an effective method of 4GW against a leviathan with a reasonably well equipped and trained militaristic police force.

    I suspect both camps, pro and con have valid points, and neither know for sure, for no actual large scale events have taken place to base actual historical references to deduce the probability of its success, failure, or even within the holistic actions of an organized insurgency, on smaller scales like tribal or local for sure, but on a nation wide scale, not so much.

    It very well may be there is a high degree of leaderless, or very leader light resistance in Afghanistan. Or at least autonomous to some degree of insurgency. That may be possible given the mandate Islam provides on a personal level to muslims regarding invaders and infidels. It bears consideration, and is cautionary in nature. Is it leaderless?

    Is there such a thing even? I guess the question really should be, instead of leaderless, what are the reasons people risk limb and life, in the face of a conventional superior equipped army? Why do people fight wars to begin with? They are ugly nasty dirty brutal affairs. Nothing compares. Leaderless or not, nobody decides to enter violent armed combat for nothing better to do. There are motivating factors at work, strong ones.

    Suppose for a moment what it is that motivates somebody to take part in 4GW in the face of a totalitarian police state. Involves a lot of courage and resolve, not to mention
    indomitable will. But what motivates somebody to choose to fight to begin with?

    Where does such a person turn for mutual support? Where is the organization to begin with necessary to begin to fight?

    Maybe leaderless resistance in this scenario is not such a far fetched idea in the beginning. Leaderless resistance on a large scale is a kind of plurality too. On a large enough scale, it has many potentials. If it was to ever happen, it may be an inspiring thing to many people, preference cascade and all. It might even be the makings of an organized resistance. So maybe it should be termed an unorganized resistance. Great things fought for for noble reasons have to begin someplace.

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  5. Being bested by Irregulars, what impact does the infusion of politics into war or ROE play in the success/failure of our technologically sophisticated military in these far off lands?

    Somalia comes to mind when we were there for “humanitarian” reasons but ran with our tails between our legs when the media/populace couldn’t stomach the realities back home. Or it was going to impact the legacy of slick willie.

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  8. Truth be told, I had to think a bit about how to respond to this article.

    There are several things that pop into my head when I consider the subject and looking at it from the 30,000 foot level and, admittedly, with 20-20 hindsight. Never-the-less, here I go:

    1. We, the US of A, haven’t really been committed to winning a war since WWII. And then while we had president’s and prime minister’s involved because military’s do report to elected officials, the commanders were the one’s in charge of doing the fighting.

    Since then, with the help of technology and the likes of Robert McNamara, the “micro-managing” of wars has become utterly ridiculous. The politicians (and lawyers) are in charge of the planning of the fighting to such as degree that the military cannot do the necessary thing because political considerations back home simply get in the way … most of the time. This results in poor results on the front end, as well as on the back end.

    The scope of fighting in WWII was of such as scale that even if they had wanted to, politicians could not keep up with everything and military commanders were, to a greater degree, freed from having someone looking over their shoulder and constantly second guessing them.

    On the back end, the selection of weapons and materials for our troops, and sadly, the social engineering that is progressed, results in so much wasted time and money, that has nothing to do with defending our country.

    Conflicts that have arisen since WWII have been much more limited in scope and give the politician a chance to play “soldier/commander” when they are ill suited to such a task, especially when they lack any military service background whatsoever. If they are going to commit to a military action, then let the military commanders fight it. If the pols don’t like the results, then they can fire someone. But get out of the way!

    2. Rules of Engagement – Ridiculous. We send in our well trained, highly motivated troops, armed with the best equipment and then we tie one hand behind their back and give them a rule book that requires a lawyer by their side before they can even “lock & load.” We are committing lives to fight people who have no rule book and no qualms about killing. That is a crime to me. Simply to be saying to the world, we are American’s, we fight fair!” The attitude that should accompany our troops from our leaders is “The only fair fight is the one you win!”

    3. Fighting Stupidly – After the IED began doing it’s damage, there was a big move to “up armor” Humvee’s and other vehicles. And to this day, we still suffer loss of life and limb of our precious troops due to IED’s simply because they are patrolling the roads of Afghanistan/Iraq, or wherever. My father fought in Vietnam so I remember one of the rules of the grunt …”Never walk on the trail. It is booby trapped.” Well, what happened to our great military thinkers who spend all this money developing vehicles that can go anywhere, do anything, resist IED’s and yet they always stay on the fucking road?? Why do they do that when they can go off-road?? Maybe I am the dumb one but that is just a question I keep asking myself. Seems obvious to me that if the enemy doesn’t know your route, they won’t know where to plant the IED’s! Duh!

    4. Protection Over Kill – While I do not want our troops to be injured or killed, it seems to me that the military has invested way too much on all the crap our troops in the field have to hump around. Our enemy travels light. They dress for the environment. They blend. They have freedom of movement, speed, flexibility. Our troops carry so much stuff, sure they are safer from bullets, but that safety comes at a cost. Seems like our neuroses back home with removing every fricking last bit of “danger” from life has inculcated the military to where all this stuff must be bought, carried, managed, replaced, etc. To me it is nothing more than a “money pit” making someone a heck of a lot of money.

    I am not, nor have I been a soldier so I do not know the fear of being shot at, nor being wounded, but seems to me that spending more on air cover, e.g. Lone Survivor, better comms, etc., is worth more than not having the birds or artillery to cover an evac on a mission that goes south. How many lives are really saved by all that extra crap is questionable in my mind. Freedom to shoot and scoot seems more important. The enemy seems to be able to fight well and they don’t have half this stuff. And remember, most of it is to keep the politicians, including the top brass, in the loop on a real-time basis so they can continue to keep things FUBAR.

    Anyway, COIN,. or any other plan of attack is doomed to failure when the original mission to drain the swamp is replaced with let’s turn the alligators into good citizens. Let’s win their hearts and minds as if they give a rats ass. All they understand is a bullet between the eyes. Secure the prize and move on. No empire building in the American image. Unless the politicians have the stomach to stick it out for several generations like we did in post war Germany and Japan. There is no such thing as a five year democracy wonder.

    1. MisterRe, I believe it is the most important thing to grab the truth by the throat and ask ourselves would 1st or 2nd generation war be possible without states or those in positions of tyrannical influence?
      I think the answer says it all.

      1. MtTopPatriot: I think I understand your point however what underlies my views is the basic distrust of mankind and view that the kind of people who wind up being power brokers, the ego-maniacal sociopaths who only care about themselves, their fame and fortune and to hell with everyone else, will continue to exist and prosper in any organization of humanity. The same is true of all stripes liberal, conservative, socialist, etc. So whether you are defending yourself from the neighboring tribe or another “country” from over the horizon, there will be a need to fight. The issue is how to learn from history and fight smart. My comments above were more to illustrate the utter stupidity when the overriding concerns of political careers and money making take priority when compared to the welfare of the country or whatever you call what you are trying to protect.

        That is what I think the Founders spoke through the Bill of Rights and the Constitution which no one bothers to dust much less read these days. They understood and were concerned about human nature and the evil that the Pandora’s Box of concentrated power could and probably would represent. What is past due is the cleansing that Thomas Jefferson referred to and the refreshing of the land of liberty with the blood of tyrants and patriots. Hell, we have the Fourth of July, the World Series, the Super Bowl. I think it is time we had a Liberty House Cleaning and hanged everyone with more than twenty years in elected government. If they won’t put term limits on themselves, we should do it for them. sarc

        And as mentioned before, these types will always exist so a regular house cleaning will always be needed. We don’t want a Roach Motel to catch more roaches, we want something that will deter those kinds of people from seeking office, to somehow design the positions to minimize the “benefits” or at least to change them for a job well done. Yeah, like used in the private sector, a performance recognition and award program. I know that is what reelection is supposed to be about but that simply does not work with the PR money that is spent these days to pull the wool over the sheeps heads. And lets kill K street while we are at it.

        Well, that is a pipe dream I know because every thing is so broken it simply needs to be destroyed and rebuilt from scratch. Into what, I do not know. But I know I do not like what I see today and have not liked it for quite some time.

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