When Sci-Fi Writers Quibble

A short while ago, John Scalzi had a post in his blog about the book Mirrored Heavens, in which there was much bantering by readers about regarding the ability of Russia to regain “superpower” status. While that was all entertaining, I felt it missed the point, and asked about whether it made sense to militarize space in a case where we’ve moved on to Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW). The author of the book, David Williams, responded to that question (poorly worded as it was) in his blog. And now I feel the need to respond here.

For those who don’t have any knowledge about 4GW, we can rewind a bit.

In the beginning there was first-generation war (obviously), and this involved the tactics of line and column, which came about after the Thirty Years’ War. During this time, the waging of war became the exclusive right of the nation-state, rather than powerful nobles, associations, or leagues. To summarize, it created a framework to keep war “orderly”…

Second generation warfare grew out of technology — specifically, the breech-loading weapons that allowed for faster rates of fire. Conducting warfare in line and column after the introduction of this technology would be the same as marching your troops into a meat grinder. This generation lasted up to, and into, World War II. While it does focus on battle lines, those lines are more defined by the overall placement of units on map, rather than moving individual troops in column and line formation. Many elements of second generation warfare, including indirect fire (artillery), recon, concealment/camouflage, and improved communications, survive into the later generations of warfare.

The third generation of war grew out of the German blitzkrieg tactics of World War II, and places an emphasis on speed and surprise, striking at an enemy not just along the battlefront, but in-depth throughout his formations. The purpose is to collapse the enemy’s ability to fight by creating chaos — where previous generations put more of an emphasis on centralization and attempting to bring order to the act of war, 3GW reverses that course: start hitting your opponent everwhere and you force yourself into his decision cycle deeply enough, and his actions are “obsolete” when compared to the actual situation. The ground war phase of the first Gulf War is a perfect example of this — after roughly 30 days of air bombardment, the Iraqi forces were already in disarray. Schwartzkopf’s “end around” maneuver by moving all his forces to the northwest while leaving the Marines to invade Kuwait was an act that allowed him to flank the whole of the Iraqi army and cut them to pieces without them having any knowledge as to what was happening to them. (Read the general’s account of the war and you’ll discover that the Iraqis were not only beat, but they had no idea just how bad the situation had become.)

So what, then is fourth-generation warfare (4GW)? Simply put, this is the action of small non-governmental groups against nation-states, in which the small organizations engage in 3GW tactics to engage in a psychological operation against the nation-state. Flying a couple of airliners into World Trade Centers, for example. The actions we’re seeing in post-invasion Iraq also amount to 4GW.

There are those who debate whether 4GW even really exists, preferring to refer to it as terrorism or merely insurgencies. I prefer to think of it as a new generation of warfare, and one that cannot be fought via 3GW methodologies, as we are currently trying to do in Iraq.

My political leanings and opinions aside, the real question is how do you predict what 5GW will look like? David seems to be under the opinion, and I could be totally misinterpreting him (this is the Internet, after all), that 5GW will be much like 3GW, only with more space-based platforms and very-prevalent UAVs (like the Predator drones). His line of thinking is that 5GW will force the non-governmental organizations (such as al-Qaeda) to remain small and that their abilities to operate will be heavily hindered by 5GW technologies.

This is where I am forced to disagree. In Iraq, we can see how 3GW is not up to the task of fighting a 4GW conflict. Merely expanding our capabilities does nothing to tip the balance of the equation, as no force-multiplier will be good enough to compensate for basic human ingenuity and determination, and any application of advanced technology that can eradicate enemy resistance is likely to be so horrific a weapon as to ensure that it’ll be used once, if ever.

So where does the future of war go from here? Well, in my mind, future wars will be a 1GW/3GW hybrid, in which military actions will be undertaken by not only nation-states, but non-governmental organizations (*cough*Blackwater*cough*), using 3GW tactics to strike in-depth throughout an opponent’s social and political (as well as military) structures. And while space-based platforms are likely to continue to exist in future conflicts, I cannot see a full militarization of circumlunar space as a method of obtaining military superiority when fighting small NGOs.

Of course, I’m still waiting on Amazon to deliver David’s book to me, so I suspect there’ll be more discussion to follow.

Where do you think the future of war is going?

Image Credits: Jonas de Ro/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.