Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Changing Face of Warfare?

On Tuesday the 30th April, 1991, the House Armed Services Committee in the United States sat for a hearing about the possibilities of reform in the wake of Operation Desert Storm, the US name for operations against Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the liberation of Kuwait earlier that year.

The panel of experts brought in front of them was wide ranging in its expertise. The first to speak was Colonel John Boyd, he of the "Energy Maneuverability Theory" and the OODA Loop (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action) fame. Boyd spoke of the need to have good people, followed by good strategy, followed by good equipment. He mentioned two officers in particular, who he called "key officers who have had a major impact on the respective services in the conception and practice of maneuver warfare".

One of these officers was Huba Wass de Czege, who would retire as a Brigadier General and is regarded as one of the founders of the AirLand battle concept, having had a major hand in writing the US Army's field manual 100-5 in 1981. Wass de Czege also set up the Army’s School for Advanced Military Studies. The other was Michael Wyly, who ended his career in the US Marine Corps as a Colonel, having been passed up for further promotion several times.

Throughout his opening speech Boyd referred to both men as innovators and notice that he described both of them as having been involved in the "conception... of maneuver warfare". The conception, of maneuver warfare. This might come as a surprise to some. It certainly did to the final member of the panel to speak, former Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Donald A. Hicks;
"I would say that General MacArthur would be quite startled to hear that maneuver warfare was invented in 1980, since I was in World War II and remembered doing -- having those same kinds of discussions and, in fact, being involved in some of them."
And that's really the nub of this post; the persistent claims that seem to crop up every few years about how warfare is changing in some revolutionary manner. Hicks himself went on to note the advantages of stealth aircraft, precision guided munitions and night vision equipment, but only in the sense of the advantages it gave the US forces over the enemy (the ability to fight at night for example) and how this made the standard tasks of war easier.

As operations in Afghanistan wind down we're already hearing talk of whether the military is prepared for the next war or whether it's stuck fighting the last war. Some people, indeed a lot of people, seem to be dismissing any talk of returning to conventional forces and pointing to Counter Insurgency (COIN) wars as the future. This is in line with the highly dubious notion of "Fourth Generation Warfare" (4GW), wherein all future battles will involve state vs non-state actors. That this idea was first expressed in 1989 and subsequently found wanting just two years later by the first Persian Gulf War seems to have missed a lot of people.

The theory of 4GW also seems to ignore the fact that state vs non-state conflict had been taking place for a very long time before this. The term most often associated with insurgencies, or at least the tactics of the insurgent, is Guerilla Warfare, a term that has its origins in the Spanish insurgents who fought against French occupation back in the early years of the 19th Century. Thus the concept behind 4GW would actually be over 200 years old and pre-date the period that would later be described as Second Generation Warfare.

From the purely British perspective it's interesting to look at the history of British warfare from the start of the 20th Century to its end. It began with the Boer War (a COIN war), moved to the First World War (a "conventional war", against other state actors), then saw a number of smaller actions spread around the world such as suppressing rebellions in Iraq (COIN war), involved two large dust ups in the middle of the century with the Second World War being followed quite closely by the Korean War (two conventional wars), the later of which was overlapped by an insurgency that became known as the Malayan Emergency (a COIN war), which also continued through the time of the Suez Crisis (a conventional war), and the Jebel Akhdar War (a COIN war), which was followed by the Dhofar Rebellion (COIN war) and the confrontation with Indonesia (effectively a COIN war), themselves followed by 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland (COIN war), which lasted all the way through the time of the Falklands War (Conventional), the 1991 Gulf War (Conventional) and operations against Serbia (Conventional), followed by the Kosovo War (Conventional). Since 2000 the UK has, predictably enough, been involved in a number of conventional campaigns and a number of COIN campaigns. 

It's for this reason that I'm always wary of talk about revolutions in warfare or rebuking senior military figures for being prepared to fight the last war. History would indicate that both conventional and COIN campaigns must be prepared for, something which the Army 2020 plans seem to get absolutely dead spot on with their balance between classic heavy forces and more COIN/peacekeeping orientated forces. Nor does technology really seem to change much at a fundamental level. It merely seems to push warfare in slightly different directions.

In the first world war the combination of the machine gun and artillery gradually pushed the participants towards tactics that favoured more dispersion in their forces and effectively turned the Western Front into a giant siege, until the introduction of the tank restored the element of movement. Even today though, with all the innovations available, ground commanders still think about the age old concerns of things like reconnaissance, firepower, logistics and envelopment. The introduction of airpower was really the last great leap in military technology, and even that has in a sense simply extended the range of reconnaissance and striking power.

So I'm really not convinced by the idea that anything has significantly changed over the last few years, or that the military should be preparing itself for the "next war". We have no idea what that war will be. We can really only generalise and do so to the extent of guessing that it will either be a COIN war or a conventional war. And given our history and the changing nature of the world, either option would seem just as likely as the other right now.


  1. " War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means" - Vom Kreige

    I'm intrigued by the nascent emergence of a form of 'asymmetric' which mixes together elements of proxy fighters equipped with special weaponry normally associated with state actors, together with state actor direction, as has emerged in the East Ukraine. Various political protocols would seem to hinder effective response by conventional forces of the assaulted side. Perhaps there is need for 'war thinkers' to invent/conceive of other, 'dissimilar' responses, such as the progressively-severe economic sanctions being applied to Russia and its elite.

    Of course, this is not new. Economic sanctions were applied to Napoleon's trading - notably by the Royal Navy's blockades. It is fitting to remember that, on this day.....

  2. You could argue that a lot of the border wars fought by Ancient Rome were insurgencies.

    On a related note, compare the collapse of the Iraqi army against ISIL with the European-trained Egyptian Army against the Mahdi (which led to Gordon of Khartoum and all that) - only sorted in the end by boots on the ground under Kitchener doing a proper job at Omdurman.

  3. "The theory of 4GW also seems to ignore the fact that state vs non-state conflict had been taking place for a very long time before this."

    The Maneuver Warfare gang later acknowledged that "generation" was not the best choice of a word because the forms of warfare co-exist in parallel. They didn't insist on any kind of chronology.
    "approach" would have been a better word.

    Their point was that the emphasis on fires and logistics superiority of the US Armed Services (especially army) was what they termed 2nd gen and they pushed for a more "3rd gen" approach, with more finesse and less brute force.
    "4 th" gen had a higher digit because in their assertion, it required even less brute force and even more finesse, so one should first master 3rd gen before one may excel at 4th, if ever.