Cyberspace and 4th Generation Warfare – A Marriage of Convenience

In 1989 a group of US military analysts including William S. Lind, decided to conveniently ignore the rest of world history and look at evolution in armed conflict starting at a mere 100 years before the inception of the United States. Any biologist worth his salt will tell you that this is too small a sample to take an accurate measurement of such a lengthy ordeal as evolution, but for this article’s sake I will digress.

The resultant work of this team was published in the US Marine Corps Gazette and revolved around a ‘generational’ view to warfare, in which each evolution – dubbed a Generation – had distinct characteristics particular to that generation. In their article they describe four generations. The following definitions were gleaned from Wikipedia:

First Generation: tactics of line and column; which developed in the age of the smoothbore musket. William S. Lind (2004) explains the generations of war as the First Generation beginning after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ending the Thirty Years’ War and establishing the state’s need to organize and conduct war. 1GW consisted of tightly ordered soldiers with top-down discipline. These troops would fight in close order and advance slowly. This began to change as the battlefield changed. Old line and column tactics were now suicidal as the bow and arrow/sword morphed into the rifle and machine gun (Lind 2).

Second Generation: tactics of linear fire and movement, with reliance on indirect fire. This type of warfare can be seen the early stages of WWI, where there was still strict adherence to drill and discipline of formation and uniform, but the dependence on artillery and firepower to break the stalemate and move towards a pitched battle.

Third Generation: tactics of infiltration to bypass and collapse the enemy’s combat forces rather than seeking to close with and destroy them; and defence in depth. The 3GW military seeks to bypass the enemy, and attack his rear forward, such as the tactics used by German Storm Troopers in WWI against the British and French in order to break the trench warfare stalemate (Lind 2004). These aspects of 3GW bleed into 4GW as it is also warfare of speed and initiative. However, it targets both military forces and home populations.

Fourth Generation:  tactics generally revolve around unconventional warfare, often seen as terrorist activities or Insurgency. The conflict itself is characterized by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, soldier and civilian, often leading to long and drawn out conflicts. In terms of generational modern warfare, the fourth generation signifies the nation states’ loss of their near-monopoly on combat forces, returning to modes of conflict common in pre-modern times. The simplest definition includes any war in which one [or more, ed.] of the major participants is not a state but rather a violent non-state actor.

The article was heavily debated on its accuracy, especially when considering the rest of world history. Certain forms of warfare had always existed and seem more dependant on the intelligence of the Generals fighting the war than it does on technology or ‘modernity’. For instance it can be argued that Maneuver Warfare -or 3d generation- was used with great success by conquerors such as Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC) when he deployed his cavalry in a flanking maneuver.  Additionally we can see 4th generation warfare (4GW) in the rise of Spartacus in ancient Rome, where he (a non-state entity) made war with the Romans. Nevertheless the theory made one point that is of particular application to Cyber Warfare: A blurring of the lines between Soldier and Civilian. Everyone can start a war through cyberspace. War is no longer the sole province of Nation States.

In his eye-opening book “Brave New War”, author John Robb explains how the internet and other global communication systems have supercharged the individual’s capacity to wage war. For virtually every extremist view there is a place on the internet, so its quite easy to find other people who share your cause and build a small army. You can find manuals on how to craft bombs and other weapons from household products, so weapons to fight with are certainly not a problem. Furthermore: terrorists have begun to move away from targetting symbolic places and instead seem to be focussing on weak spots in critical infrastructure. These are far easier targets to hit and this drives down the requirements, making it that much easier for extremist groups or individuals to achieve their goals. These attacks on critical infrastructural weak points have proven to be cheap to execute, with a small chance of getting caught and have an extremely high ROI. Sometimes the cost of repairing the damage is several thousand times more costly than the attack itself. Furthermore it delegitimizes the hosting nation state every time they succeed, and they succeed often because it is nearly impossible to defend everything, all the time. Whats worse: the number of attacks is on the rise precisely because they are so successful.

The chance of another 9/11 happening are slim to none, while cheap and easy attacks on (for instance) oil lines in the middle of the desert are occuring daily. Information on where those weak spots are in our critical infrastructure is freely available on the internet as well, as long as you know what to look for. If you have a degree in Engineering you may not even need such internet access because you can find them on your own. And these are just the kinetic side-effects of global access to global knowledge. Remember: Much of Western critical infrastructure is connected to cyberspace too. As such it is both an excellent method to attack critical infrastructure as well as a target in and of itself.

With this in mind we should expect the same growth in cyber conflicts (cyber terrorism, cyber warfare etc). Cyberspace will become more hostile rather than less hostile, despite any efforts in securing the products and systems we work with, simply because through cyberspace they can hit us where it hurts. As our dependance on cyberspace grows, naturally so must phenomena such as cyber terrorism. It is perfectly in line with that supercharged unconventional warfare so suited for individuals and small groups as described in the article on 4GW, as well as Robb’s observed trend towards what he calls Global Guerilla tactics.

The lesson here is that we should prepare our online critical infrastructure for such attacks ahead of time. Assume that attacks will come and that attacks will be successful. This means that critical services should be redundant and capable of providing service even while under attack. Decentralization is your friend. Mr. Robb advocates turning services into independant Open Standard platforms that other companies, groups or even individuals can build onto with greater ease, and I believe he rightly points to the Open Source movement as a prime example. We can still learn much from Eric S. Raymond’s Bazaar model. We can, and if we wish to survive: we must.