The Evolution of Warfare

It is a ubiquitous fact that the nature of warfare is continuously evolving. While the four generations of the ‘art of warfare’ were barely recognized until recently, the experts have already started talking about fifth generation warfare or 5GW.

Whether it is the war of Mahabharata in ancient India or the Peloponnesian and Trojan wars in the Greek world; Wars are an inherent part of human history. Recently, the Russia-Ukraine conflict which was limited to small areas escalated to a full-fledged war notwithstanding Russia calling it a special military operation. With this, we are witnessing the emergence of, what analysts and experts call, information and psychological battles. Amid all the chaos, it is worth analyzing the evolution of warfare, and how its nature has changed up until now.

First-generation warfare

First-generation warfare refers to conflicts in the ancient and post-classical periods that were fought with a large number of men, utilizing line and column tactics, and under state control.

Cavalry forces were also part of the first generation warfare, where the results mostly depended on the number of soldiers a force possessed.

Second-generation warfare

In 1989, the American military coined the term, ‘Second generation warfare’ which refers to the Early Modern strategies adopted following the introduction of the rifled musket and breech-loading weapons. It also employed the use of machine gun and indirect fire.

The number game soon became a redundant point as the army with rifles and artillery could shoot from distance and inflict much more damage to the adversary.

Third-generation warfare

Third-generation warfare is centered on utilizing strategies from technology that rely on speed, stealth, and surprise to go beyond the enemy’s lines and devastate their forces from behind.

In essence, this marked the end of linear warfare from a tactical perspective where troops sought to outmaneuver one another rather than just engage in combat to obtain the upper hand. Aerial battles were extensively part of third-generation warfare.

Fourth-generation warfare

With the nation-states losing their monopoly on wars and battles fourth generation warfare came into being where non-state actors started playing roles in wars. The majority of people believe that non-state actors are terrorists. While their understanding is alright, they still can’t comprehend the complete interpretation of a non-state actor.

It is pertinent to note that civil society and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) are also considered non-state actors. In this generation of warfare, states are to collaborate to fight these non-state actors. Fourth-generation warfare is characterized by a ‘postmodern’ return to decentralized forms of warfare, blurring the borders between war and politics, soldiers, and civilians.

Fifth-Generation warfare

With the emergence of the Internet in the digital age, we have entered fifth Generation warfare. Fifth-generation warfare is mostly non-kinetic activity, such as social engineering, disinformation campaigns, usage of cutting-edge technologies like Information Technology and artificial intelligence to initiate cyber attacks.

Gray zone warfare, psychological warfare, information warfare, cyber warfare, and biological warfare are all part of fifth-generation warfare. Daniel Abbot described fifth-generation warfare as a struggle of ‘information and perception’.

Fifth-generation warfare is distinguished by its ‘omnipresent battlefield’ and the use of a combination of kinetic and non-kinetic force rather than exclusively military power. Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui of the People’s Liberation Army noted in their 1999 book ‘Unrestricted Warfare’ that the conventional military violence had decreased in the years following the Gulf War, which was correlated to an increase in ‘political, economic, and technological violence,’ which they argued could be more destructive than a conventional war.

If one has to summarize fifth-generation warfare it could be done best through Sun Tzu’s quote, ‘All warfare is based on deception’.
As we enter the era of fifth-generation warfare, it is imperative to develop a strategy to counter all of these challenges with a government approach.