Fifth-Generational Warfare – Beyond Armies and Men

Photo by Abdelrahman Ismail

Rupert August

The established wisdom, from both historical precedent and common logic; is that to wage a war, no matter how sophisticated the tools may be, a hardy man with an iron will is still required to wield it. We in the West seem to have abandoned that principle and chosen instead to recruit all manner of assorted misfits. Between these two suppositions, we can assume that the armies of the West are either presently or soon-to-be dysfunctional paper tigers. Our leaders are either blinkered by domestic politics or totally incapable of seeing the plain reality in front of them. What if we’re behind the times? And not, as is often retorted, because technology has outmoded human capabilities through force multiplication.

Firstly, an outline of the generations of warfare, from the perspective of how force is applied, and what tools are available:

  • First generational warfare consists of ordered formations of men applying direct kinetic force to an enemy who has to be confronted directly, and who is employed by the opposing ruler or state. Warfare is waged in a linear fashion.
  • Second-generational warfare introduces indirect firepower, to such an extent that most kinetic force is now applied without directly seeing the enemy (through howitzer artillery mostly). Warfare is still conducted in a linear fashion, but the firepower is such that attack becomes extraordinarily challenging, and much of a battle is spent avoiding death by indirect fire.
  • Third-generational warfare introduces non-linear fighting but starts in a linear fashion. It attempts to bypass normal linear formations, initially through infiltration tactics but eventually leveraging technology to achieve the same ends. In doing so, they are able to strike into the rear areas of a force, attacking more vulnerable targets, and attacking the frontline from any and all directions.
  • Fourth-generational warfare introduces even more irregularity into warfare, as most pretences of linear battlelines disappear, and the targets on both sides become more obfuscated. It is associated with simmering guerilla wars and terrorism, but fundamentally, although other tactics might be employed to achieve their end, fourth-generational warfare still relies significantly on the kinetic force, directed by one (albeit not always clear to pick out) side against another.
  • Fifth-generational warfare is still a space being charted by theorists, but one which we very definitely find ourselves experiencing. The war aims are as present as ever, and the battlelines shift, but kinetic force has seldom been more alien. This has allowed us to believe that war is a thing of the past, but in fact, this is a manifestation of the increased irregularity of the fighting, the almost complete abandonment of overt affiliating with a state actor, and indeed – the success of the attacker. Much as one might stroll onto the ‘frontline’ or into a ‘camp’ of a guerilla army without realising it, many are unable to see the frontlines as they are now, but it’s becoming more evident as time goes on.

The essence of fifth-generational warfare then, is a continuation of the obfuscation of battlelines and battlefields, along with a further disruption of how and where attacks occur. One thing that sets fifth-generational warfare apart from the previous forms, is that it is more possible than ever to take part in a de facto military operation without even being aware of it. The key is that through the process – the state of play conforms to the desires of planners. If the planners desire a change in government, it does not matter whether that comes through protests organised by an inserted activist, a cyber-attack which rigs the vote, a disinformation campaign, a sponsored insurgency, a special forces raid, or a full-scale invasion. All these options will achieve the task, it is simply a matter of overcoming the defences available and using the assets at hand.

In this context then, the US seems to have a better military record than it is often credited with in recent years. We might point out the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of achieving strategic (ie. political and geostrategic) rather than tactical and operational (ie. military), but if we ignore the legal fiction of a separation of powers and departments – we see that the US (or in many cases, the wider Western coalition) achieved tremendous success across Africa and the Middle East, Armenia, Ukraine, and who knows elsewhere over the same period. As such, this is reflected in their more recent US skills targeting. Liberal Arts and Media Studies graduates in NGOs and the state department have done more for US hegemony than the finest buzz-cut mountains of muscle in the army. We might very rightly say that this is unsustainable, and that not every threat can be combated in this way, but from a data-driven perspective (and we live in a data-driven world now), the results are clear.

The reason that we have trended in this direction is the historically novel availability of information and communication – which allows savvy operators both passively and actively to utilise some of the earlier mentioned methods to destabilise governments in ways that were replicable prior, but much more difficult. Russia or Iran, for example, have a slightly harder time blocking Western information flowing through now, compared to the 80s and prior – when books, and newspapers had to be transported physically. In addition, coordination is easier than ever, with messages and bulletins being made available to millions instantaneously, such that organisation for such things as protests can happen faster than ever before. As such, it is easier than ever for, as has been attested to in Egypt particularly, for a citizen to be enticed by the promises of the US, recruited and trained by them, then deployed to destabilise and ultimately bring down the government. In this way, the hegemony can be expanded or strengthened without a single American or Westerner having to step foot inside the country.

To bring about this outcome, a number of key requirements need to be in place;

  • Free and accessible information networks
  • Open and free flows of money (else, massive established Western money interests), and/or people
  • Reluctance or inability to use force in response to power challenges
  • Established mechanisms for power transfer
  • Permissiveness towards deviations from the norm (at least at the elite or media level)

With all of these in place, a government or even the population at large will find it difficult to identify and address malign influences. An extremely well-resourced group can come out of anywhere at any time – and direct attention however it desires. By the time the threat is elevated to kinetic when it feels like and if it ever has to, it will have access to a large pool of domestic resources to draw on. This is how the 2011 Egyptian Revolution played out.

As such, enshrining these principles into every government they can, is the single most vital part of American and Western power projection strategy. In other words, enshrining the inscrutability of Liberal Democracy is the single most vital part of American and Western power projection. Contributing 2% of GDP to defence as per NATO requirements is optional in practice. Liberal Democracy is not. Therefore, Hungary presents a more pressing challenge for its insulation against outside information, and NGO influence, compared to Germany’s famous freeloading on the rest of NATO. As such, Hungary is being set up alongside Russia, Iran, and other countries, which maintain this same kind of defensive capability. Meanwhile, Germany is being brought even closer. Germany can be ‘invaded’ (or rather, subdued) at any time, Hungary cannot, and thus has a more threatening level of independence. Turkey enjoys much the same position.

As such, regardless of any other considerations around the value of Liberal Democracy, it is akin to a highway from the capital of the enemy to one’s own. By extension, defending against this kind of attack largely only requires that one invert the previous list. While many of these actions can be carried out when an attack (usually an attempted revolution) is taking place, such as shutting down the free flow of information, can be useful tactically, in practice it’s the act of closing the gates after they’ve already been stormed. The most robust defence is to never have left them open.

The fact that there are plenty of mutual accusations of different domestic factions acting in this role is enough to establish that everyone is aware of the possibility of it taking place, the weaknesses of our current dominant systems in the West, and that such attacks are likely already underway at some level. Though these accusations are meant for domestic point-scoring, they also serve to illustrate how much of a blatant flaw this is in our national defence. It is not a question of whether there is a fifth columnist network threatening domestic interests and sovereignty, but how many there are, and who they are.

This may be framed as a new trend because it is more common than ever before. Still, it wasn’t unheard of in the past, and – contrary to emergent Western (and US in particular) strategy – will not fully supplant previous generations of warfare. Once force is used to eliminate a US asset in the form of NGO affiliates or a US-sponsored movement, kinetic force is often invoked; as in Libya and Syria.

While the US or USSR might be obvious examples to point to, Japan is a more interesting case. Through the exploits of the Japanese Secret Intelligence Service, and General Motojiro Akashi in particular, Japan was able to successfully weaponise Russian subjects into acts of sedition, terrorism, and outright revolution to open a second front in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. In the process, the war was brought to a successful conclusion by Japan and presaged the same strategy later used by Germany in 1917. They later continued many of the same strategies, albeit less successfully into the 30s and 40s through organisations such as the Black Dragon Society; weaponising racial tensions in the US, Asia, and Africa. Conversely, the Imperial Russian response to the revolution of 1905 is illustrative of a successful countering of such an attack. Martial law was imposed, revolutionaries were arrested under military legal standards and executed as deemed necessary, hostile presses were attacked, loyalists were empowered and sometimes given free rein to use violence against revolutionaries, and the continuity of the autocracy was retrenched at the nearest possible opportunity, and traditional values were re-emphasised. The only points short of a full Restoration were the existence of an Imperial Duma consultative body (which was half appointed by the Tsar himself), and of the 1906 Russian Constitution (though it was fundamentally defanged of most revolutionary principles).

Conscious of these trends, governments have afforded themselves plenty of rhetorical justification to crack down on anything they can tie to a hostile state. Some certainly are, in the case of state-funded media outlets which push a consistent line. Most recently at the time of writing, this has manifested as a banning of Russia Today (RT), but it has extended much further, with accusations aplenty of Russian influence extending much further than that – but always in places which are politically convenient. This process muddies the water somewhat when both major factions of a political divide accuse each other of being foreign-aligned agents. Perhaps that is what much of politics has become now; a vector for foreign influence, with only a veneer of organic legitimacy, but raising that possibility does not help to accurately identify and defend against actual attacks. Somewhere between those who take ownership of their allegiance – such as a state-funded media outlet, and on the higher end – around 50% of the electorate – is found the true scale of the attack. This is a question which we are institutionally unfamiliar with addressing, and there is reason to think that we will be incapable of doing so, due to the severity of the political factionalism, and the in-built qualities of the system.

Just as trenches were the technology which overcame the dominance of firepower in the first and second generations of warfare, illiberalism is the technology which will protect against fifth-generational warfare. One does not dig a trench only as one requires the use of it, and likewise one does not only utilise illiberal policies when already under attack; so, expect these to continue to be pre-emptively implemented. If they are not, it’s a good indicator that the state in question is not in control of its own defence.

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