Military Embedded Systems

Warfare Evolution Blog: Next generation warfare part 2


August 13, 2014

Ray Alderman

VITA Standards Organization

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG: In our first blog we looked at the history of warfare and how it can help us determine what technological capabilities the U.S. will use to fight future wars. It is critical that we understand the previous generations of warfare before we speculate about the next generation. As Winston Churchill said "the further backward you look, the further forward you can see.”

Identifying different generations of warfare

Historians have identified 10 Revolutions in Military Affairs (RMAs) since 1300 AD, but they are much too broad for our purposes here. These revolutions include mixed technologies and trends such as the longbow, stirrups, railroads, gunpowder, etc.

The first coherent progressive list that will best fit our purposes was written by William S. Lind, Colonel Keith Nightengale (U.S. Army), Capt. John F. Schmitt (U.S. Marine Corps), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (U.S. Army), and Lt Colonel Gary I. Wilson (U.S. Marine Corps Reserve): "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation" (Marine Corps Gazette, pages 22-26, October 1989). In this article, the authors define the first three generations of warfare and speculate on the fourth (4GW). In 2006, Colonel Thomas X. Hammes (U.S. Marine Corps) took the definitions of previous generations from this article, and expanded on them in his book "The Sling and the Stone" (2006). He clarifies and updates 4GW, then suggests a few ideas about 5GW.

In 2004, General Vladimir Slipshenko and General Makhmut Gareev – both of the Russian military general staff – compiled a series of lectures and discussions between them into a book – "Future War" (translated and published by The Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2005). Gareev was the last Russian soldier to leave Afghanistan in 1989, so he knew a thing or two about war. Slipchenko was more of a thinker, and he defines six previous generations of warfare.

Slipchenko also speculates on the seventh – environmental warfare: one side changing the weather or creating earthquakes in the enemy's country. His classification method is based on the new weapons technologies used in each generation, while Hammes' list is organized around the primary effects of both new technology and new ideas in warfare. So, we will use Slipchenko's list and Hammes' list in this discussion. Both lists are similar, but we must harmonize them and establish an integrated list, to avoid confusion about the numbering scheme and the primary characteristics of each generation.

According to Slipchenko, we have experienced six generations of warfare: (1) edged weapons made of bronze, iron, and steel; (2) black powder unrifled weapons such as smooth-bore muskets and inaccurate cannons; (3) smokeless powder rifled weapons such as modern accurate military rifles and artillery; (4) automatic and mechanized weapons such as machine guns; (5) nuclear weapons; and (6) precision strike weapons such as laser/GPS guided bombs, missiles, and artillery. Slipchenko refers to 6GW as "non-contact warfare.” The first four generations required soldiers to fight face to face. Starting with nuclear weapons, and now in precision weapons, the need for soldiers to fight face to face is limited. His environmental warfare class (7) shares similar characteristics with nuclear warfare since both render an area uninhabitable. Slipchenko also says that environmental warfare is just another weapon that will be used in a war of a previous class.

According to Hammes, we have experienced four generations of warfare: (1) line and column also known as massed manpower; (2) massed firepower, which includes rifles of all kinds, artillery, and bombs; (3) maneuver warfare, better known as Blitzkrieg; and (4) insurgency which includes low-intensity protracted warfare, terrorism. He also speculates about a fifth generation – cyberwar, which destroys a country's economy thereby removing their motivation and industrial capability to wage war.

Harmonizing Hammes and Slipchenko

Now, let's harmonize the two lists. Slipchenko's first two generations seem to clearly overlap Hammes' 1GW definition. The "line and column" formation, first used by the Sumerians in 2500 BC, was perfected by the Greeks who named it "phalanx.” The pinnacle of 1GW occurred when the Romans mastered the phalanx formation and conquered the known world with edged weapons. It remained as a basic infantry formation when smooth-bore black powder muskets were used in the European wars and the American Revolution. This consolidation of Slipchenko's first two generations, into Hammes' 1GW definition, would cover the wars up to WW I, all strategically based on massed manpower. His third and fourth generations seem to fit Hammes' "massed firepower" 2GW definition, techniques first used in WW I and later in WW II. Slipchenko's technology methodology is too narrow compared to Hammes' perspective. So, we now have 1GW and 2GW properly harmonized.

Slipchenko doesn't have a category based on maneuver warfare techniques (Hammes' 3GW), and it's a very important class as you will see later. Maneuver warfare, or Blitzkrieg, was developed by General Heinz Guderian of the Germany Army and used in 1940. These new techniques changed the equation by replacing fixed fortifications – space – with rapid troop movement – time. The significance of maneuver warfare was shown in WW II, when the French built the Maginot line of fixed concrete bunkers on their German border and the Alpine Line on the border with Italy. The thinking behind these structures dated back to WW I, a 2GW war, where trenches and fortifications had the advantage over massed manpower and massed firepower attacks. It proved totally ineffectual against 3GW as the Germans just ran around the Maginot Line, through Belgium, and captured France in 40 days. New 3GW techniques – maneuver warfare – beat the pants off the older 2GW techniques – massed manpower and massed firepower in fixed fortifications. So, let's keep "maneuver warfare" as 3GW in our harmonized list. Previous U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said, "Speed and agility and precision can take the place of mass." This is where the description "shock and awe" came from during the Iraq wars.

Slipchenko says nuclear warfare is his candidate for 5GW. With all due respect, we must disqualify his definition on a technicality, since no war as yet has involved an exchange of nuclear weapons, by both sides. But the point must be recognized that the U.S. ended a 3GW war (island-hopping by the Japanese) by using Slipchenko's 5GW weapons, just as Germany's 3GW Blitzkrieg defeated France's 2GW Maginot Line.

That brings us to Hammes' 4GW class – protracted war, insurgency, terrorism – and Slipchenko's 6GW precision weapons class. These two also seem to fit together well, since precision weapons have been used effectively against terrorism, protracted war, and insurgencies over the past 14 years. So, we'll combine these two classes into our 4GW class.

Finally, Slipchenko only has (7) environmental warfare left, which he says may actually just be a weapon used in other generations of war. The Scythians, Armenians, Russians (against Napoleon), Sherman (against the Confederacy), British (against the Boers), and the Russians again (against Germany) used a primitive version of environmental warfare in history: the "scorched earth" policy. So, by Slipchenko's own admission, we will eliminate this category.

Hammes' states that cyberwar is his 5GW candidate. With all due respect again, we must integrate Hammes' 5GW definition into Slipchenko's 6GW comments, what he calls "non-contact warfare.” Cyberwar is just one example of non-contact warfare, and Slipchenko's thinking is more appropriate than Hammes' this time. So, that gives us our new harmonized list

1GW: massed manpower – a battle of attrition, face to face
2GW: massed firepower – where fixed fortifications have the advantage over 1GW techniques
3GW: maneuver warfare – where space is replaced by time, neutralizing 2GW techniques
4GW: insurgency and terrorism – low-intensity protracted warfare that neutralizes 3GW techniques
5GW: non-contact warfare – precision guided weapons used to overcome 4GW techniques

Suggested reading

There are tons of history books that discuss the first two generations of warfare, starting with the Bible. If you’re interested you can also read Sun Tzu’s "The Art of War", Samuel B Griffith, 1963: (original text written around 500 BC) and Carl Von Clausewitz’s "On War", 1832. These books still have relevance today in spite of their age and focus on 2GW. North Korea is still a 2GW enemy with massed manpower and massed firepower even though they have nuclear weapons. We still have 3GW enemies, like China, Russia, and Iran, and two of them are nuclear-armed as of this writing. Frederick W. Lanchester wrote the first book on the elements of 3GW warfare called "Aircraft in War: the Dawn of the Fourth Arm,” 1916. He was the first one to talk about "Power Laws" in warfare, and he came-up with differential equations to prove their effects. We call his concepts "force multipliers" today. We'll see in future posts how they apply in the Iraq wars.

Next installment

We have been through our first two generations of warfare here in detail. In our next installment we will explore 3GW and how 4GW developed. We will then look at 5GW techniques, which will take us to 6GW.

What is 6GW, our future generation of warfare? The answer is in the transition from 2GW to 3GW: manipulation of space and time. Napoleon once said, "There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the mind." Napoleon had no idea that we would have intelligence in silicon and software today, but his statement still rings true.

For reference:

Marine Corps Gazzette article <>


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