The Fifth Generation of War

In 1989 William S. Lind, Col. Keith Nightengale, Capt. John F. Schmitt, Col. Joseph W. Sutton, and Lt. Col. Gary I. Wilson published a paper, “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”, that has received quite a bit of attention ever since. The paper outlined three generations of warfare, which might be summarized as line and column warfare, lateral dispersion warfare, and maneuver warfare, and asked a question: what would the fourth generation of warfare be?

Each of the generations was partially driven by technological advances; each partially by ideas. The authors of the paper went on to speculate on the nature of fourth generation warfare which, too, would be driven partially by technology and partially by ideas. Some of the characteristics they suggested included the use of robotics, directed energy weapons, targetting of the political and civilian infrastructure, psychological operations, harnessing of the media, and terrorism.

Despite the relative infancy of the notion of “fourth generation warfare” some have speculated on the possibility of fifth generation warfare on the near horizon. Lind is a skeptic. Those struggling for a definition of “fifth generation warfare” have suggested characteristics like the pervasiveness of information, scalability, the absence of borders, and the possibility that, within the paradigm of fifth generation warfare, the attacker might already have achieved his objective before the attacked was aware that he had been attacked.

Is it possible that the first state-on-state fifth generation warfare attack is being carried on by Russia against Estonia in the cyber attacks that have been going on for the last three weeks? More on the attacks here.

Note: I’m a generations-of-war skeptic. I’m not convinced that the idea of different generations of war, with the implication of some kind of evolution, is based on anything real or is useful in improving our understanding of anything. My suspicion is that war is war and that some of the ideas attributed to fourth generation warfare have been around for as long as warfare itself. But I did think it made a good lead-in for a post and link. 😉

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.