Monday, July 31, 2006

3rd generation thinking in a 4th generation world

Unbeknownst to most of the world's politicians and large numbers of the world's military leaders, a revolution in military affairs has taken place over the past forty years. As the world's leading militaries have vastly improved their ability to fight 3rd-generation armored maneuver warfare -- the brand of warfare introduced by Hitler's armies in 1939 -- a new brand of warfare has quietly rendered those heavy armored columns obsolete. This new brand of warfare is a variant of an old idea -- asymmetrical guerilla warfare pitting guerrillas against a conventional military -- but takes advantages of the revolution in global communications and trade that has happened over the past forty years to operate completely independently of any state in which they happen to be hosted. This 4th generation of warfare pits non-state actors against the militaries of invading states, and thus far has proven immune to anything that a 3rd-generation military can dish out short of genocide.

Some politicians, such as U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, and some military leaders, such as the IDF's Lt. General Dan Halutz, have belatedly recognized that their nation's beloved 3rd generation military is no longer effective against the new 4th generation threats. However, their response to this fact has been typical of 3rd generation thinking. Rather than come up with a new way of fighting non-state actors, instead they focus upon revamping their third-generation military to fight a fourth-generation war by doing two things: 1. making the ground forces "lighter weight" to replicate the lighter weight of the non-state actors' forces, and 2. massive application of air power in order to "destroy the ability of the non-state actor to fight."

Needless to say, both of these are outdated responses to the problem, and accomplish nothing other than an increase in the body count and an increase in the support base of the non-state actor. For example, in Iraq, the United States has razed several cities and towns using air power to basically make the rubble bounce. The result? err, completely counterproductive. For each civilian killed in the rubble, the insurgency gained two new recruits, to the point where Baghdad itself is now threatened by the insurgency, requiring U.S. troops to be withdrawn from the countryside in order to re-take Baghdad. Similarly, all that "going light" -- going to lightly armored HMMWV's rather than more heavily armored Bradleys, for example -- has accomplished is to increase the body count on the part of U.S. forces.

Similarly, in Lebanon, Israel has been using 3rd generation thinking to fight a 4th generation enemy. Hizballah's armed wing was a few thousand criminals in the south of Lebanon that had the support of less than 20% of Lebanon's people. Lebanon's government had condemned attacks by Hizballah against Israel, but lacked the military power to itself disarm Hizballah -- let's fact it, if Hizballah can fight the 2nd-most-powerful military in the world (Israel's) to a standstill, the chances of Lebanon's much smaller and weaker military being able to disarm Hizballah are nil. But when Israel attacked Hizballah, they used the same tactics as they would have used against a 3rd generation enemy. 3rd generation enemies were armed states such as Germany in WWII, and the use of air power in such a conflict was to destroy their transportation infrastructure, food storage infrastructure, housing infrastructure, and otherwise reduce them to squalid refugees living in the rubble of their former cities incapable of supporting a 3rd generation military. The problem is that Hizballah does not have a 3rd generation military. They do not rely on a modern infrastructure for their combat capability. Like the NVA and VC in South Vietnam, they carry their ammunition on their back from their base of supply (Damascus, in the case of Hizballah). Thus attacking Lebanon's cities (outside of the southern zone where Hizballah's military is active) does not accomplish any useful military goal.

That, in the end, is why actions such as razing Fallujah and destroying Beirut's port are war crimes: those actions achieved no military objectives. All they accomplished was the killing of civilians (unless you wish to say that the blue-jean-clad dead men wearing work boots were Hizballah guerrillas -- but somehow, I doubt that Hizballah guerrillas go around dressed like longshoremen!). Since the non-state actor does not require a 3rd generation infrastructure in order to operate, such destruction affects him not at all. He simply fades into the background and bides his time until the enemy is forced to reduce force levels in some area due to the exorbitant expense of maintaining a 3rd generation military in the field, and then comes back out from hiding and resumes bleeding the 3rd generation military. Short of genocide, there is literally nothing that a 3rd generation military can do to defeat him, because he is capable of blending into the sea of civilians and the only way to militarily extricate him from the sea of civilians is to kill all the civilians. Which, I suppose, is one way of handling the situation, but it would be suitably ironic if a state (Israel) founded upon the saying "Never again" about one state's race-based genocide, would itself engage in race-based genocide...

These ideas about the limitations of 3rd generation warfare are not new. For example, General MacArthur during the Korean War applied traditional notions of destroying the enemy's infrastructure in order to eliminate the enemy's ability to fight, and U.S. B-29 bombers destroyed every bridge, railroad, roadway, and grain depot in North Korea. Mao's Chinese army, which had won against the Nationalists by pitting a 4th generation force against a 3rd generation enemy, used more conventional tactics in Korea but used what might be seen as a predecessor to 4th generation supply mechanisms to avoid being defeated by the 3rd generation American forces in Korea. Chinese soldiers, armed with single-shot rifles, were resupplied by coolies on foot, hauling ammunition and food in baskets. The eventual result was a cease fire and drawing of a treaty line -- the 4th generation military had fought the 3rd generation military to a standstill. Similarly, in Vietnam, the NVA fought a protracted guerilla war in the south. Again, the U.S. attempted to bomb the enemy into submission, using their massive B-52 bombers to drop more bombs upon Indochina than had been dropped by all the combatants in WWII combined. All it did was increase support for the Pathet Lao in Laos, Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the NVA in Vietnam.

The nascent 4th generation military again had defeated the 3rd generation military. Yet nobody seemed to notice. Then came Afghanistan, where the non-state militias fought the Soviet war machine to a standstill, then bled it to death until it was forced to retreat in ignomious defeat. Around the same time, Israel sent their troops into Lebanon, and similarly experienced the same thing -- they were literally being bled to death by the new non-state actors that arose to oppose them. And then George H.W. Bush sent his troops into Somalia on a humanitarian mission. Within six months, the Somalian militias had inflicted humiliating defeats upon the U.S. military, and the U.S. was forced to withdraw.

Yet still nobody seemed to notice that traditional notions of warfare had been rendered obsolete by the huge number of guerilla-ready weapons on the world market, the increasing affluence of the world at large which made those weapons affordable by even the poorest guerrillas, and the improving communications infrastructure of the world, especially satellite communications which allowed someone in Afghanistan to order an attack upon New York City despite the fact that Afghanistan's communications infrastructure had been bombed to rubble repeatedly over the prior 20 year period. And so now we end up with the current situation in Iraq and Lebanon, which pit 4th generation non-state actors against 3rd generation militaries, with predictable results -- the 3rd generation militaries and the nations supporting them are being bled dry by the enormous expenses of maintaining a large 3rd generation army in the field, said 3rd generation military is killing lots of civilians unnecessarily because they do not recognize that what would be a valid military target if fighting another 3rd generation military is militarily useless when fighting a 4th generation non-state actor, and said 3rd generation military is getting their butt handed to them strategically despite any tactical victories that they achieve, managing to do nothing other than destroy their country's economy while increasing support for the insurgents that they hoped to fight.

Yet still... yet still I hear 3rd generation warfare arguments from the supporters of Israel and the United States to justify the thousands of civilians they have slaughtered in their pursuit of non-state 4th generation adversaries. They fail to understand that what would be valid military targets if pursuing a 3rd generation state actor are militarily insignificant if persuing a 4th generation non-state actor, and thus are war crimes. The notion that the world has changed, that it is no longer 1941 and the enemies we face today in Iraq are not conventional 3rd generation militaries and thus cannot be defeated by the same methods we used to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan, literally blows their mind, in much the same way that, in early 1941, the notion that aircraft carriers would be more important than battleships in the upcoming war would have blown most fleet admirals' minds on both sides of the Pacific. Yet the world has changed, whether these heads-stuck-in-mud types want to admit it or not. And unfortunately, their stupidity results in disaster for all involved -- the states that end up being bled silly to fight an unwinnable war, and the civilian population of the states where the non-state actors have set up shop, who find themselves dodging bombs despite themselves having absolutely nothing to do with supporting or provisioning said non-state actors.

What will it take, I wonder, for the 3rd generation thinkers to admit that the world has changed? I'm not sure. All I know is that people are needlessly dying because the 3rd generation thinkers of the world refuse to see that their 3rd generation tactics are counterproductive against non-state actors. Stupidity kills. Literally, in this case. Unfortunately, if stupidity were gasoline, we'd be paying 2 cents per gallon at the pumps. Stupidity is something that there's a surplus of, in this world that we live in.

-- Badtux the Military Penguin


  1. Brilliantly written! I have always wondered how long it was going to take before someone realized that the wrong people were suffering?

  2. what will it take, I wonder, for the 3rd generation thinkers to admit that the world has changed?

    two more generations.

  3. Even worse the Israeli army has been a garrison/occupation force since the mid-1980s so they aren't even a competent 3rd generation force anymore.

    You can't occupy ground with an air force, and if you don't occupy the ground, you don't win anything. [BTW, I was US Air Force, like my Dad, and my Dad was part of most of the initial R&D on "smart" bombs.]

  4. What's especially interesting is how the American revolutionaries defeated the British in the 1770s. One of the most important aspects of that is that the Americans didn't fight "fair" according to British standards. They didn't line up in opposing lines and mow each other down with musket fire. Those dastardly Americans would camoflage themselves and hide behind trees, rock walls, and hills, and snipe away at the British. Hmm, sounds sort of like the insurgents, doesn't it?


  5. what i fail to understand is how this type of fight became "4th generation." it's far, far older than that. look at the campaigns of gaius marius and pompei magnus in spain a generation before Caesar. they were fighting, in the case of marius, a tribal and hostile local poplulation which was bleeding the "conventional" roman army. pompei had an even tougher task against sertorius a renegade from roman service. born in spain, raised in the legions of Rome, sertorius combined the aspects of guerrilla warfare with the roman concepts of structure and chain of command. this style of warfare has been around since the first armies defeated the first villages. it's really nothing new. sun tsu (5 bce) even devotes a chapter to this style of warfare. things will change, as ever, and yet like that talking heads song we will, at the end of the day sing the refrain "same as it ever was same as it ever was same as it ever was"

  6. The difference is that, in the era of modern military arms, it became difficult to maintain any sort of struggle against an occupying force. A 3rd generation army had tanks and armored cars, and their soldiers wear body armor. Civilian shotguns and rifles just bounce off of those.

    In the 1950's and 1960's, the Soviet Union decided to spread AK-47's and RPG's worldwide. Pretty much every former Soviet client state was gifted with facilities for stamping out AK-47's, RPG launchers, and their ammunition like cookies. They also spread the equipment for making various artillery shells all over the world. Furthermore, the Soviet weapons were not as effective as U.S. weapons (the AK-47 is a piece of crap compared to the M-16 -- the AK-47 is an inaccurate and low-muzzle-velocity piece of stamped junk, the M-16 is a superbly machined and deadly accurate high-tech weapon) but technologically simple -- many could be manufactured by a guy with some sheet metal and a big ass hammer if it all boiled down to that, under Stalin's dictum that "quantity has its own quality".

    The end result is that now the world is flooded with so many weapons that non-state actors are capable of waging effective guerilla wars all by their lonesomes, without the support of a host state. That, not the concept of guerilla war, is the difference.

  7. The BBC website used to have country profiles that were user friendly, and more informative than the CIA website, with more detailed economic information on each country. It stated very clearly that the US and Israel made a large percentage of their money on arms sales. I'm not sure that a whole lot has changed in the last 4 years.
    Tomgram: Frida Berrigan on the Weapons Trade as Entertainment

  8. i thank you for your clarification and understand your point. your facts are correct. there was a brief moment in hungary and later during the "prague spring" where tanks in the cities had weaknesses that were exploited, but even these exploitations came at extreme risk to the partisans. also, these insurgencies were never something that could be sustained. all of which supports and defends your premise.


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