The Real Revolution in Military Affairs or Can
NATO Cope with 4th Generation War?

May 29, 1999

Comment: #278

Discussion Thread:  #s 199, 244 (Atch 2), 252 274, & 275


John Kifner (Parts I-V), Michael Gordon, Thom Shanker (Part VI), "HORROR BY DESIGN: The Ravaging of Kosovo (A Special Report in 6 Parts), New York Times, May 29, 1999.

The reference to this comment is a special six part report in the New York Times that makes it clear the Serbo-NATO War is a 4th Generation War for which warriors in NATO, particularly the high priests of hi-tech second generation warfare in the American military, were woefully unprepared.

Referring back to Reference #2 of Comment # 244, we can see that some military officers have been concerned about the nature of 4th Generation Warfare for at least 10 years. This important albeit largely ignored essay appeared in the October 1989 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, one of our most thoughtful military journals. The authors argued that the character of warfare may be evolving into a so-called 4th Generation as our adversaries learn to avoid our strengths and attack our weaknesses. This is particularly so when small weak states fight powerful industrial states with a large conventional hi-tech military. 

While the tactics and operational art of 4th Generation Warfare are still evolving and are therefore ill defined, certain patterns can be discerned. Chief among them are tactics that rely on dispersion, decentralization of control (mission orders), agility of small units, and irregular close-quarters combat on indistinct battlefields where friend, foe, and neutral parties are intermingled. Forth generation warriors rely on unconventional tactical methods, like truck bombs, suicide bombers, 'random' terror, gangs, cyberwar, crime, etc as well as the more 'conventional' guerrilla tactics to achieve their operational aims. The chief characteristics of the fourth generation operational art seem to be a desire to bypass the enemy's military forces altogether (if possible) while directly aiming the attack on the enemy's culture and institutions to collapse or paralyze him rather than destroy him in a battle of attrition. Operational art in 4th Generation Warfare, therefore, takes on peculiar aspects that vary with the different local cultures and histories of the affected regions.

Comment #252, 'Balkan Sun Tzu vs. the NATO Clausewitz' (4 April) was a tentative impression of the Serb Strategy synthesized by combining the theoretical ideas of the late American strategist Col John Boyd (USAF Ret) [see Comment #199 and the <> web site], 4th Generation Warfare [Comment #244], and Sun Tzu with my impression of the rapidly unfolding kaleidoscope of events in Kosovo. At that time, I hypothesized that the Serbs had a well-thought Cheng & Ch'i, or dazzle and stroke, offensive strategy. The essence of this strategy was to exploit NATO's doctrinal fixation on a methodical air campaign to tie down and distract NATO in an extended and ineffectual air defense suppression operation (the Cheng) while it quickly depopulated Kosovo with selected atrocities in an ethnic cleansing blitzkrieg (the Ch'i). The hypothesized strategic aim of the blitz is to quickly depopulate all or part of Kosovo, disperse Serbian forces, hide and dig into strong defensive positions, and set up the conditions for an irreversible grand strategic status quo on the ground by destabilizing Macedonia, Albania, and perhaps Montenegro.

Comment #252 also hypothesized that the Serbian variant of the 4th generation "operational art" was to use terror and atrocities to (1) quickly trigger and hype the flow of as many Albanian Kosovars as possible into Albania and Macedonia (the flow into Montenegro may be intended or may an uncontrollable byproduct of these efforts), while (2) systematically "denationalizing" the refugees by destroying birth certificates, drivers licenses, passports, marriage licenses, deeds of ownership, and all other forms of identity and (3) brutally impoverishing the refugees, by taking or destroying everything they own but the clothes on their backs in order to make their survival entirely dependent on outside aid.

Finally, the hypothesized grand strategic aim of the Serbian Cheng & Ch'i strategy was to paralyze NATO's military options by enmeshing NATO and world opinion in a kaleidoscope of reactive efforts to cope with an expanding torrent of human misery OUTSIDE of Kosovo. Thus the strategic Ch'i mutated into a grand-strategic Cheng to distract NATO and weaken its political resolve to mount a bloody ground offensive, thereby buying the time Serbia needed to consolidate its control of Kosovo and prepare for its defense, and raise the price for NATO should it choose to attack (which became the Serbian grand-strategic Ch'i).

In short, the Serb strategy and grand strategy were aimed at penetrating and disrupting NATO's decision cycle [Comment #199 discusses why this is important]. The vulnerability of this decision cycle was magnified by the subsequent failure on the part of the NATO governments, particularly that of the United States, to properly prepare their populations and military mentally and morally for the physical sacrifices that might be needed to reverse the grand strategic changes put into place by the Serb offensive (an effect not foreseen in Comment #252 but subsequently discussed in Comments #274 & 275).

The referenced special report in the New York Times (NYT) enables us to further refine these hypotheses, particularly those relating to the Serb's strategic Ch'i in the opening phase of the war. It confirms that the ethnic cleansing blitz was carefully premeditated and that one of its aims was to permanently change the ethnic balance in Kosovo, but it also sheds light on how the Serb offensive was aimed at destroying the KLA by isolating from its support bases, an aim not identified in #252.

While not addressed in explicit terms, the use of the fourth generation operational art is also clear in the NYT report. Note, for example, that this report details how the various tactics of terror were systematically and brutally used to create massive refugee flows aimed at depopulating Kosovo. At the operational level, the NYT report enables us to distinguish these brutal tactics from a Nazi-like policy of racial genocide, which implies extermination. According to the NYT, the State Department currently estimates that the Serbs have murdered 4,600, or 3 tenths of 1 per cent, of the 900,000 expelled and the 500,000 internally displaced Kosovars. This is a far smaller number of murders than occurred in Bosnia, for example, where the Serbs slaughtered 7,000 Muslims in Srebrinica alone. While this number will increase as new information becomes available, an increase by a factor of nine would still be less than 3% of the refugee total.

Serb brutality may offend our 'civilized' sensibilities (although bombing civilian infrastructure in cities from a safe distance seems not to), and we may say they violate the norms of second and third generation war, but war evolves new forms as new ideas are shown to be effective. Misrepresenting the operational nature of fourth generation Serb tactics as genocide may be convenient in the short term for propaganda purposes, but it diverts attention away from their effectiveness, and if left unrecognized, will make it easier for future adversaries use them effectively again.

To their credit, the authors of the NYT report recognize that refugees have been used as an offensive weapon by the Serbs. It is important that military professionals recognize this development, as this kind of fourth generation operational art is more likely to occur in future wars than the high cost electronic second-generation battlefields of attrition so dear to the budget-maximizing planners in the military-industrial-congressional complex.

Chuck Spinney

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Boyd & Military Strategy

Fourth Generation Warfare