the generations of warfare


Lieut. Col. George S. Patton, Jr., 1st Tank Ba...
Lieut. Col. George S. Patton, Jr., 1st Tank Battalion, and a French Renault tank, summer 1918. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Military art, over the course of history, has fluctuated between Attrition Warfare and Maneuver Warfare. In a nutshell, Attrition Warfare involves massing men and material and moving them against enemy strong-points. Victory is measured by enemy killed, infrastructure destroyed and territory taken. Throughout most of human history this is how war has been fought.

Maneuver Warfare advocates that through strategic movement, one can more easily defeat an opposing force than he can by contacting the enemy and fighting him until he runs out of forces or the will to fight. In Maneuver Warfare, you look to bypass enemy strong-points, break into his rear areas and cut off communication and supply, leaving the enemy confused and the strong-points left on the vine to wither and die.

There has been “maneuver” in warfare for a long time. Napoleon was noted for his rapid maneuvers, cavalry employment and deployment of cannon. Napoleon was able to maneuver and strike at will, defeating larger opponents. But at its root, just like in our US Civil War (with Gen. Jackson and his Valley campaign of march and counter-march as an example), the end objective was still to mass fire on the enemy and kill as many of them as you could. Maneuver in attrition warfare is not “Maneuver Warfare”. I believe that WWI was the starting line. It was where the necessity of new tactics began to meet communications technology and the mechanized ability to employ true maneuver warfare. The pause between wars let the Germans put all the pieces together.

One can see the beginnings of Maneuver Warfare in the “Stormtrooper” tactics of the Germans in the trenches of WWI. Instead of massing human wave attacks in suicide runs on fixed enemy positions, the Germans sent highly trained, maneuverable elements against enemy weak-points with the mission to avoid enemy strong-points and to attack enemy headquarters and artillery emplacements. Simultaneously, the Allies were developing the Tank to find a way out of trench warfare. WWI ended before any of these tactics could reach full maturity. The combination of these elements finally came to fruition during WWII in the, then revolutionary, military tactic of the Blitzkrieg. Blitzkrieg was a concept involving a highly mobile “combined arms” approach to battle which the Germans “stole” from a British generals theory paper that was ignored by the British military during the inter-war period.

Maneuver in Attrition Warfare, was being able to get your troops into advantageous position for battle. To a troop up against MW, the entire attacking force has bypassed you and they are pushing deep into your rear areas. In effect you are surrounded. After pasting you with some air, arty etc to keep you pinned while they bypass you, your position looks like the moon. Perhaps a few mortar rounds are still landing around you to let you know they are still thinking about you as their armored vehicles stream by outside the range of your weapons. Many regular troops will think about surrendering. As the Iraqis did in Gulf War I.

Since speed of operations and initiative is critical to the success of maneuver warfare, command structures need to be decentralised, with freedom to make tactical decisions given to lower-level unit leaders. This decentralised command structure allows ‘on the ground’ unit leaders, while still working within the guidelines of commander’s overall vision, to exploit enemy weaknesses as they become evident. This is also called the ‘recon-pull’ tactic. As point units recon the enemy positions and find weaknesses, they “pull” the follow on forces through these gaps after them. General Patton was an innovator in this practice. Instead of ordering units to act in accordance to his “plan”. Patton told his subordinates what he wanted accomplished and left it up to them to decide the best way to make it happen. Due to the speed, flexibility, communication and technological demands of Maneuver Warfare, it requires that ones military be more highly trained and technologically capable than its attrition oriented opponent.

Of course maneuver warfare is what you use against another Army. Insurgency, low intensity conflict…that’s a whole different animal.

Some military strategists are saying that we are starting a “4th generation” of warfare. The 1st was massed manpower like 16th-19th century Warfare (Revolution, Napoleon, Civil War). The basic idea was that you lined up masses of men and weapons and fired at each other. The 2nd was massed firepower, like the machine gun swept, artillery pounded no-mans lands of WWI. The weapons and vehicles that were employed made standing in the open and facing each other impractical if not outright impossible. The 3rd generation was/is maneuverwarfare, starting with the Blitzkrieg right up to Gulf War 1. Now military theorists are saying we are entering into a 4th generation of warfare, where the huge disparity in military forces and technologies between nations are forcing opponents to adopt new means. Most are saying that the insurgency and terrorist tactics are a manifestation of this change.

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3 thoughts on “the generations of warfare”

  1. There’s a very good paper out about this topic called “Fourth Generation Warfare and under Myths” by Antulio J. Echevarria produced by the Strategic Studies Institute. You can probably just Google it or find a copy of it at the Small Wars Journal. Dr. Echevarria makes many points about the whole “generations of war” concept and 4th GW in particular. I won’t rehash his ideas myself other than to follow up on his 4GW thoughts.

    When originally posited, 4GW was viewed as the “super empowered individuals” that used high tech weapons to cause massive destruction with little mobilization. As insurgencies became more prevalent in the last decade or so, 4GW proponents have now shifted their thoughts to insurgents using low-tech weapons being the form of 4GW. There is nothing wrong with updating a theory as you get new information, but there appears to be some “slight of hand” at work as the 4GW proponents fail to acknowledge their change in believes.

    More importantly, however, is the fact that 4GW (as “insurgency”) is hardly anything new. Insurgencies have existed since the establishment of the State and have always run in parallel with every other “generation” of war. So to claim that this is a “new generation” of warfare is foolish.

    Personally, I like the generations of warfare concept (regardless of the historical inaccuracies and inprecision of the terms as Dr. Echevarria points out), because I think it does help to clarify how an opposing force is likely to fight, what their centers of gravity will be, and how to predict their courses of action. But I do not like lumping insurgencies in with conventional warfare.

    I prefer a two track approach in which conventional warfare progresses through the three generations you mentioned in your post and insurgencies proceed through their own generations. I subscribe to the generations as espoused by Thomas X. Hammes in his book “The Sling and the Stone” (although he also supports the 4GW theory of warfare.) Specifically, I think you can track generations of insurgency based on 1) Pre-Mao, 2) Mao, 3) Ho Chi Mihn, 4) Nicaragua, and 5) the Intifada. But just as we Dr. Echevarria points out with the conventioinal generations of warfare, they are not strict “generations” so much as “evolutions in progress.” So even with the insurgency in Iraq, you will see a blend of all 5 generations as different groups attempt different strategies.

    I liken the difference to football and baseball. The military has long referred to insurgencies as “low intensity combat” which is alot like calling baseball, “low intensity football.” Yes, both are team sports played with a ball but after that, the difference is significant. Not only does it require completely different players to perform each (would you want to use your pitcher as a QB? A lineman on firstbase?) it requires completely unrelated strategies (football is a game of offense–the offesnive team has the ball and scores the points, baseball is a game of defense–only the defensive team can touch the ball). Similiarly conventional warfare and counter-insurgency require different forces and strategies to execute effectively. So lumping them all together as the same “generation of warfare” is not only misleading, it is a recipe for disaster (as we saw in Vietnam, up to 1969, and the start of the Iraqi insurgency).

    My last point on this topic would be that one should always be careful about praising the tactical genuis of a country that lost. Twice. It wasn’t maneuver warfare that defeated the Nazi’s in World War II. (And for all their tactical success in World War I, the Storm troopers never contributed to strategic victory because if you don’t destroy the guys you’re by-passing, eventually they cut off your lines.)

    Just my thoughts.

  2. All good points. I look at these theories as more of a “rule of thumb” or handrail approach to understanding the development of military tactics and strategy as it relates to avdances in weapons and technology. Those who try to set these theories as “hard and fast” rules are limiting themselves and limiting tactical creativity.

    I dont know how others look at things, but its not as if we will NEVER go back to the “last generation”. If things get really hot with another country that has a military that can match ours, we will be seeing a lot more of “3rd Generation” warfare than any of the others.

    However I doubt we will ever go back to the days of the “British Square”.

    In regards to the Germans and tactical art. Dont confuse winning a War with possessing “better ideas”, superior tactics and equipment. There is little doubt that WWII Germany possessed what was arguably the best Army on the globe in the 30’3-40’s on a “one to one” basis (or one vs. multiple European Armies as the case was). Fortunately thats not all it takes to win a war (with nations like the US, Britain and Russia lined up against you). If Germany could have maintained a higher manufacturing rate and kept up their manpower levels (and done away with Hitler) they may very well have won. Their tactical developments were always on the cutting edge and we took them and made them our own (the traces of which can still be seen in US gear, equipment and tactics). One of our strong points.

    Of course that doesnt mean that I admired any of the ideals or actions of WWII Germany, but I have no problems “praising” what works and neither did guys like Patton.

    Ive met foriegn soldiers that on a “one to one” basis were better trained and better equiped than our soldiers. Better weapopns, better vehicles, etc. What makes us come out on top is that we have a LOT more of everything and our overall volume of training and equipment is of a high quality, so quantity of quality has that quality all its own.

    For example, when I was on deployment, my National Guard MP Company had enough night vision for every single man. The NOD’s the Norweigan’s had were better “one to one” but only leaders had them. “Company to Company” a US National Guard unit had them “outgunned” with quality weapons and gear…thats one of the secrets to our success. Theres no doubt that WWII German tanks were “superior” to the Russian T-34’s or US Shermans, and their tactics were “battle proven”..but there was still no stopping us.

    While Blitzkrieg played a key role in Germany’s rapid conquest of Europe (and almost Russia). It was probably artillery and airpower that was equally responsible for either sides success at various stages of the war. Today things like UAV’s, intelligence and tech will all play a role…war is too complex to lay all the credit for success on a single branch, weapon system or tactic.

  3. The Nazi German influence (WWII) on modern maneuver warfare can’t be ignored, nor can it be overstated. Gen. Schwartzkopf himself admitted to studying Rommel (who studied the Classic Battles w/chariots and horses…ala Roman/Greek).

    The German loss had less to do with the troop/tactic issue than it did with the ‘everything else’ factors such as over taxing their industrial machine/logistic support, ‘Court’ politics that come w/working for a Whack Job like Hitler who was his own worst enemy at the end (because he started dictating his Strategic specialists instead of listening to them… remember Valkyrie was because his Officers realized he was nuts).

    The modern land/air/sea warfare tactics harken back to the ancients, but are clearly linked via the German war machine circa WWII.

    As to the current trend/generation of warfare, regardless of what you call it, I think the increased importance of technology/intelligence to control the tempo of the conflict has become very obvious given the relatively smaller maneuver units that are employed tactically. Well placed troops, equipped with force multiplying assets (radio, remote vehicles/UAV, laser burst coordinated communication…) are turning out to be more important than the size of the force.

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