The Generations of War without the Jargon

Since the emergence of the modern warfare, four “generations of warfare” have been identified. The first generation, or 1GW, emphasizes concentration-of-soldiers. The most famous 1GW was the Napoleonic Wars, where the commander who could throw the most soldiers at the decisive point would in the war. The second generation, or 2GW, emphasizes concentration-of-force. The most famous 2GW was the western front of World War I, where the force that could concentrate the most artillery and explosive power at one point could win the day. Both 1GW and 2GW are made possible by reducing your fog of war, so that you know where your soldiers (1GW) or artillery (2GW) should go.

The third generation, or 3GW, emphasizes maneuver. The most famous 3GW was the German Blitz against France in 1940, where the force that could break through and carry the commander’s intent would win the day. The fourth generation, or 4GW, emphasis networks. The most famous 4GW were the Communist insurgencies in Asia, where the force that could alienate the population from the other side through unconventional means would prevail in the end. Both 3GW and 4GW are made possible by maximizing your enemy’s fog of war, so he is unable to properly command his troops (3GW) or rely on his population (4GW).

The fifth generation of modern warfare, or 5GW, is more speculative. It is assumed that as each generation of modern warfare “goes deeper” into the enemy’s social thinking (from where he concentrates soldiers, to where he prepares for an artillery barrage, to how he springs back from a blitz that seems to come from everywhere, to what he does when faced with insurgents who kill the tax collector), 5GW will go deeper yet. As each higher generation of war looks less like “traditional” war than the generation before it, it has been argued that 5GW will not even appear to be a “war” at all…

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12 thoughts on “The Generations of War without the Jargon
  1. I think Boyd was a bit harsh in his critique of Napoleon, particularly with respect to “later tactics”. Napoleon's genius was the integration of massive forces, under an effective general staff, with shared understanding of his intent.

    After the disastrous Russian campaign, Napoleon lacked the trained forces to preserve the fluidity of his earlier campaigns. Waterloo was fought with a ragtag army assembled after escaping his exile to Elba, and was nowhere near as capable as his earlier armies.

    In that sense, I would agree that his final army in Belgium was a “1GW force”.

  2. “5GW walks as surely through biological weapons as it does between stone axes. “

    So 5GW transcends the chronological restrictions of Linds xGW?

    So long as history is being discussed and we're ignoring the constricting ideology of “traditional” xGW:

    Allow me to wander a bit here, not quite off topic but down a side path (with a nice array of tiger lily's and ending in a fountain perhaps.) Two figures of Roman history:

    Fabius Maximus: Utilized Washingtonian (actually the other way 'round but for the sake of discussion) tactics against Hannibal. 4GW?

    Gaius Marius: Wittingly or unwittingly devised the fall of the Republic through a shift in allegiance from the Republic to the general. 5GW?

  3. I agree that Chronological restrictions of Lind's xGW just confused the mater and didn't add anything debate.

    I would added “control” to “concentration” for 1GW though, to distinguish 1GW from unorganized 0GW barbarians doing there own things.

  4. At Gettysburg, during Pickett's charge, according to my professor Union soldiers aimed to wound rather than to kill. One dead soldier didn't require tending to, but a wounded soldier required two more healthy soldiers to carry him back to camp.

    Your post (just read it due to vacation) made me think of xGW in a new way:
    1GW – concentrate MASS
    2GW – concentrate FORCE
    3GW – concentrate EFFECT (tactical effects, ala Effects-Based Operations)
    4GW – concentrate ATTENTION (the cliche of “terrorists want people watching, not dead”)
    5GW – concentrate ???

    Essentially as you go deeper into the enemy's cognition, you discard that which you don't need. 1GW concentrated attention, but in order to do that you had to concentrate effects, which required concentrating force, which required concentrating mass. Through technological and doctrinal innovation you can gradually pare away that which you don't need. Maybe 99GW will be the right person in the right place yelling “boo!”

    By the way this comment in no way signifies my acceptance of the xGW paradigm! It is merely a thought exercise….

  5. My idea was that concentration is a necessary component for victory generally – it's one of Sun Tzu's maxims, that you can't be strong everywhere and win. As you progress deeper into the enemy's cognition (from 1GW to 2GW) you focus your effort on concentrating that which matters – thus I would say that broadly it's a deconcentration as your focus becomes more narrow.

  6. Adrian, Interesting correlation between xGW and “progress[ion] deeper into the enemy's cognition”. I am preparing a D5GW post that examines the evolution from xGW to (x+1)GW, and if it is purely a defensive response.

  7. “Adrian, Interesting correlation between xGW and “progress[ion] deeper into the enemy's cognition””

    Not an original thought of mine – I think that was Dan's point in making his OODA loop chart with the arrows of xGW.

  8. Adrian,
    I really like the idea of thinking of it in terms of concentration especially the 4GW concetrating attention. That's brilliant.

    For 5GW how about concentration of memes? 5GW could easily be described as a process for concentration of memes to achieve a specific result.


    “I am preparing a D5GW post that examines the evolution from xGW to (x+1)GW, and if it is purely a defensive response.”

    Probably going back to my manueverist background, I've often seen the xGW as a progression of more sophisticated methods for the dislocation of an opponent. Therefore, to my mind, it more offensive than defensive and an attempt to do more with less.

    1GW dislocates 0GW by concentrating mass at decisive points on the battlefield.

    2GW dislocates 1GW by concentrating firepower and destroying the mass of the opponent.

    3GW dislocates 2GW by using manuever to dislocate the ability of the 2GW force to target mass.

    4GW dislocates 3GW by moving the battlefield out of the realm of the physical (to the will of the opponent) giving the 3GW force nothing to manuever against.

    5GW dislocates 4GW by invalidating or redirecting the attack on the will of the (4GW) targeted entity.

  9. My thinking comes from this premise:

    4GW is an attack on the will of the opponent.

    The role of 5GW, as counter to 4GW, dislocates that attack by changing the 4GW targeter and/or the 4GW targeted. It redirects the attack by redirecting the will of one or both sides of the conflict.

    The 4GW targeter then attacks an aspect of will that is ineffective or irrelevant.

    The targeted by 4GW no longer has a vulnerability to an attack on that particular aspect of will.

  10. Nice primer. I agree with most of your post: the creation of professional, regimented militaries (1GW, prompted by the development of firearms) and the evolution of those militaries with respect to greater firepower (2GW, enabled by artillery) and mobility (3GW, via the internal combustion engine) elicited similar evolution in the employment of those forces. Similarly, the increase in communications capabilities allowed dispersed elements to maintain cohesion in subverting a much larger force (4GW, where the mass of the force disperses into the population).

    Where I disagree is in your assertion regarding the “fog of war”. 1GW and 2GW were not enabled by reducing the fog — in fact, Napoleon at Jena/Austerlitz (considered to be one of his greatest victories) was nowhere near the main effort. And what Napoleon thought was the Prussian center of gravity was only a flanking guard; it was Napoleon's corps commanders, empowered with the Emperor's edict for independent action consistent with his mission-type orders (“auftragstaktik”), who carried the day. Since information could reasonably propagate at 70-90 miles per day, and Napoleon's forces faced a front nearly 150 miles wide, his method of command in war had to adapt.

    Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson had similar examples in the same era: the Battle of the Nile was executed largely in darkness (fog) with little to no tactical command by Nelson. Were they actually conducting 3GW methods in these battles?

    As for 3GW and 4GW, I do like your notion of “maximizing the enemy's fog of war” — but that too is a bulwark of all warfare. Washington's deception near New York in the latter days of the Revolutionary War (or, as the Loyalists would say, the “First American Civil War”) as he surreptitiously moved toward Yorktown pinned Clinton's forces and cornered Cornwallis.

    Like any good primer, this raises several questions worthy of dialog. For instance, is “cohesion” a necessity in all generations? Is technology a catalyst in the leap from one generation to the next (e.g., firearms to artillery to the internal combustion engine)? Is there a consistent role for the nation-state in the generations, or is the model simply a ruse for the nation-state to preserve its monopoly on the application of military force? And just how deep is the notion of “friktion” and “fog” tied to any of the generations?

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