David Axe of War is Boring has a piece in World Politics Review on 5GW that summarizes the extended journal article “Fifth-Generation War: Warfare versus the nonstate” in the Marine Corps Gazette by LTC Stanton Coerr that I linked to previously:
War has evolved rapidly in the last 100 years, prompting historians and strategists to come up with new terms for new ways of fighting. They call mechanized warfare, which originated in the early 20th century, the third “generation” of war, and ideological warfare waged by guerilla groups the fourth.But what about guerilla-style warfare waged by non-ideological groups against traditional states — pirates, for instance, whose attacks can destabilize trade-dependent nations, but who don’t have strategic goals beyond just getting rich? Free-for-all violence, with indirect global effects, represents a fifth generation of war, according to some experts. And when it comes to defeating fifth-gen enemies, “the old rules of warfare do not apply,” declared Marine Lt. Col. Stanton Coerr, writing in Marine Corps Gazette, a professional journal.
So the U.S. military and its government partners are writing new rules, and putting them to the test on the first of the fifth-generation battlefields emerging in Africa.
Fifth-gen enemies do not have traditional “centers of gravity” — armies, governments, factories, charismatic leaders — that can be destroyed by military attacks. By their mere survival, these enemies undermine the notion that nation-states, their ideals and their economies are viable in the modern world.
To the extent that 5GW can be characterized at all, I think both Axe and Coerr are incorrect here because the term “Fifth-Generation War” makes little sense except in relation to “4GW” and the strategic school of thought associated with William Lind, Col. Thomas X. Hammes and others in the circle of DNI. As Axe and Coerr use “5GW” it is indistinguishable from how Lind has described “4GW” since 1989. To follow the logic of the 4GW theory, as Hammes did in The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century
, 5GW would be the strategy and tactics that developed in opposition to 4GW as 3GW “Blitzkrieg” emerged from the “Stormtroop tactics” used to counter static and linear 2GW of the Western Front in WWI. Without this context “5GW” is just a placeholder term.
That said, the articles by Coerr and Axe are otherwise praiseworthy for bringing the many nuances and potential dangers of rapidly evolving irregular warfare and associated concepts to describe it, to the attention of a wider audience. That’s useful for generating further debate and bringing more sharp minds to the table. Complex, “hybrid” wars of mixed regulars, insurgents, terrorists and criminals will be here for some time to come and the entire panopaly of the national security establishment needs to come to grips with that threat, regardless of what we ultimately choose to call it. Labels matter less than substance.
Dan of TDAXP, who has voiced his own skepticism about Coerr’s and Axe’s pieces, has issued a call for papers on behalf of Nimble Books to debate the scope and legitimacy of 5GW which will be assembled into an anthology on this subject. It would be nice to have those people who have writtten previously on fifth -generation war a list that includes Thomas P.M. Barnett, John Robb, Thomas X. Hammes, William Lind as well as myself, the cast of Dreaming5GW and others, contribute old or new pieces to that project. Let’s bring it all under one roof for interested readers instead of having posts and articles scattered all over the internet.
Bibliography – The Timeline of 5GW Theory