Leadership: Fourth-Generation Buzzwords


April 1,2008: A major buzzword in American military circles these days is Fourth-Generation War. This is another effort to create a new threat that will scare more money out of Congress. The term itself is based on a peculiar view of history. In this view, the first generation of modern war was defined by the development mass armies in post-renaissance (16th century) Europe. All this culminated in the highly destructive (over a million dead) Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. The second generation was dominated by the growing amount of firepower (machine-guns and modern artillery) made possible by the Industrial Revolution, and culminated in World War I. This was followed by the third generation, dominated by maneuver (tanks, and lots of trucks) and culminated in World War II. Since World War II, the third generation has evolved into a fourth generation, which is dominated by rapidly developing technologies.

There's definitely been a change in warfare, largely as a result of technology. But the first generation is actually ancient, if you look outside of Europe. Mass armies are mainly a matter of money and organization. China was doing that thousands of years ago, as were empires in India and the Middle East around the same time. The Roman Empire managed to maintain several thousand hundred professional troops on duty for centuries.

The second generation was more about money than just more destructive weapons. The industrial revolution created sufficient cash for governments for form huge armies. This proved counterproductive as these forces simply dug trenches from the English Channel to neutral Switzerland and dare each other to attack. On the Russian front, there was more maneuver, since there were not enough troops to hold a line from the Baltic to the Black Seas. It wasn't firepower that decided World War I, but bankruptcy by the weaker nations.

Same thing in World War II. The tanks and trucks were just more new technology. But if you checked your history, you'd discover that the Mongols invented a mobile army 800 years earlier, that was faster, and more successful, than any mechanized blitzkrieg during World War II. Mongol accountants also swept up sufficient cash to keep the operation going for over a century.

The fourth generation is more about how does one incorporate new technology into military operations. This has always been a problem, because you need a real war to discover what works, and what just looked good on paper (or over cigars and brandy). This is being demonstrated right now, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The "war on terror" has also had its share of technological surprises. But many of those have remained secret, given the nature of terrorism and the techniques used to counter it. But a century ago, there was a similar war against International Anarchism. That movement was more successful in its violence, taking out many heads of state and senior government officials. The anarchists failed, as have Islamic radicals many times in the past. Technology is not as important in dealing with terrorists, as is outsmarting the murderous maniacs.

You see, this "fourth generation" thing is all about predicting the impact of new technologies. This has always been a problem, but has been particularly acute during the last century, as a growing number of new technologies have appeared. It's bad enough with the non-military ones, which can be put to work, with often disruptive (and unpredictable) effect. But the military technologies can be downright scary. But they're not fourth generation anything.


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