Throughout history, warfare has been shaped by the period, weapons, strategies, and tactics of commanders on the battlefield. Military analysts have defined these different periods of conflict into “generations.” There are currently four accepted generations of warfare, with some military analysts proposing a future “fifth” generation that will encompass 21st century war. The generation of warfare is not necessarily defined by period, as wars and campaigns can be waged in different manners. Understanding the different generations of warfare is imperative to the growth and evolution of the battlefield.
First generation warfare largely came into being in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War and the establishment of the nation-state. It was defined by the use of mass manpower, using line and column tactics. Examples of this generation of war can be found in the English Civil War, American Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, War of 1812, and elements of the American Civil War. Second generation warfare was an extension of First generation with the addition of rapid-fire weapons (the Gatling gun for example) and indirect artillery fire. Examples of the Second generation: American Civil War, World War I, elements of World War II, and the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
Third generation warfare saw the use of increased speed through industrial advances. With the introduction of tanks and airplanes, linear warfare was largely abandoned on the tactical level (although still very much used on the strategic level), with units attempting to outmaneuver one another to gain a superior advantage. Examples of Third generation warfare can be seen in World War II, the Korean War (although by 1951 the war had reverted back to Second generation warfare), the conventional battles of the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm, and the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. Fourth generation warfare blurs the line between war, politics, and combatants/civilians. Despite being the latest defined generation of warfare, it may be the oldest form. Fourth generation warfare can be seen in the modern conflicts against terrorism around the globe, the slave uprising of Spartacus against the Romans as well as the Jewish revolts of the 1st and 2nd century A.D., and the asymmetrical conflicts of the Seven Years War, Napoleonic Wars, American Civil War, and the Indian Wars in the American west.
As warfare moves into the 21st century, it is expected a new generation of warfare will emerge, the so-called Fifth generation or Hyperwar. This war will remain conventional (as opposed to unconventional in which nation-states fight 3rd party groups), and will be fought by superpowers against one another, utilizing 21st century technology. While no such conflict has yet arisen, it would be expected to be fought by China against the United States, or Russia versus the European Union. The war can be fought through cyberspace, or drones against drones, or with an introduction of space-based warfare.
Look for more information regarding Fifth generation warfare in the future Modern War issue #22 with the article “New World Order Battles: Hyperwar in the 21st Century” and join the conversation on Facebook!