Saturday, November 26, 2011

Reading :: The Sling and the Stone

The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century
By Col. Thomas X. Hammes

If you're looking for an overview of fourth-generation warfare - networked, dispersed, focused on persuading decision-makers, essentially politics (and rhetoric) through other means - this 2006 book is a very good start. It has flaws, which I'll discuss in a moment, but these are overshadowed by the insights Hammes brings to the table.

Those who have been reading my blog over the last few years may be familiar with the term "fourth-generation warfare" (4GW) primarily through the works of John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (although they tend not to use the term for reasons I'll discuss in a moment). Hammes describes 4GW in this way:
Fourth-generation warfare (4GW) uses all available networks - political, economic, social and military - to convince the enemy's political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. It is an evolved form of insurgency. Still rooted in the fundamental precept that superior political will, when properly employed, can defeat greater economic and military power, 4GW makes use of society's networks to carry on its fight. Unlike previous generations of warfare, it does not attempt to win by defeating the enemy's military forces. Instead, via the networks, it directly attacks the minds of enemy decision makers to destroy the enemy's political will. Fourth-generation wars are lengthy - measured in decades rather than months or years. (p.2)
And a page later:
There is nothing mysterious about 4GW. Like all wars, it seeks to change the enemy's political position. Like all wars, it uses available weapons systems to achieve that end. Like all wars, it reflects the society it is part of. Like all previous generations of war, it has evolved in consonance with society as a whole. It evolves because practical people solved specific problems related to their fights against much more powerful enemies. ... Mao started this form of war ... (p.3)
Fourth-generation warfare is grounded in Alvin and Heidi Toffler's book War and Anti-War, which applies their wave theory of history to war (see Hammes p.10).  In this theory, different innovations (agriculture, industry, information) led to fundamental changes in social organization, and each form corresponded to a form (or generation) of warfare. (For more fine-grained examinations of the relationship between societal organization and warfare, see Bobbitt's books The Shield of Achilles and Terror and Consent and Max Boot's War Made New.) In Hammes' reckoning, the generations of warfare looked like this:

  • 1GW: From the invention of gunpowder in the feudal era, through the transition to nation-states, peaking during the Napoleonic wars. (Ch.2)
  • 2GW: From Waterloo to World War I, enabled by more taxes, more wealth to tax, more industrialization, better transportation systems, and more patriotism. (Ch.2)
  • 3GW: From the end of World War I, when the social contract had been dramatically altered; maturing in 1940 with the Blitzkrieg, which became the prototype for later doctrines such as the US' AirLand Battle (Ch.3). 3G warfare continues to guide the strategy and doctrine of nation-state warfare, although it is giving way to other approaches.
But, Hammes argues in Chapter 4, society has changed considerably since World War II. Changes include:
  • International organizations that infringe on national sovereignty, e.g., the UN (p.33)
  • The rise of regional organizations that  infringe on national sovereignty, e.g., the WTO (p.34)
  • An increase in the number and diversity of nations (p.34)
  • The number of stateless actors, including transnational actors (Greenpeace, al Qaeda) and subnational actors (the Kurds, the IRA) (p.35)
  • International financial markets (p.35)
  • The sharp growth of the information sector, which produces "wealth-generating assets [that] are easily moved - and are often part of geographically distributed networks in their day-to-day operations" (p.38)
Hammes summarizes: "Warfare is coming to parallel this model" (p.38). And he notes that this warfare often involves unrest, leading to "the severe breakdown of order within many ... postcolonial 'nations'" - the scare quotes denote how artificial the nations' boundaries are - resulting in "much earlier social organizations - tribal, clan, or gang" (pp.41-42). (Note the parallel with Ronfeldt's TIMN concept, also based on the Tofflers' wave theory of history, in which different organizational forms are concatenated but can decompose over time.) In sum, Hammes says, the Industrial-Age hierarchy is giving way to the Information-Age network, not just in societal and economic organization, but also in warfare (p.42).

Over the next few chapters, Hammes identifies 4GW's birth in Mao's insurgency (Ch.5), then examines its  development in Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap's model in Vietnam (Ch.6), then via Nicuragua's Sandanistas (Ch.7) and the Palestinian Intifada (Ch.8). Hammes examines each of these in detail, making his admiration clear for how the leaders of each phase developed 4GW (strategically, tactically, and operationally - he doesn't evaluate their objectives themselves). A critical turning point is in Chapter 9, when hardline Palestinians led by Arafat "squandered" the gains of the Intifada and turned to clumsy conventional warfare. This clumsy move was exploited by hardline Israelis, who themselves began to expertly use 4GW tactics to provoke Palestinians to open defiance and violence (p.119). These tactics gave the Israeli hardliners the upper hand in the public relations battle - and as Hammes points out, 4GW is about messaging (p.128). Israel learned to excel at 4GW, using its insurgency-derived tactics in the service of the nation-state.

In Chapter 20, Hammes begins to discuss al Qaeda, particularly its focus on messaging. For instance, one "critical aspect of al-Qaeda's image among Muslims" is that "he [bin Laden] is careful to fulfill the requirement to declare his intent before attacking" (p.146), ensuring that AQ doesn't just appear to be appropriating others' attacks. From there, Hammes moves to Afghanistan in Ch.11, particularly examining the conglomeration of anti-governmental forces (AGFs), including AQ, the Taliban, smugglers, drug dealers, foreign powers, Pashtuns, and other tribal leaders. "The AGF is a true networked, 4GW enemy and will display all the resilience characteristics of such enemies" (p.166). He doesn't use the term interessement, but that's what came to mind for me. 

Chapter 12 brings us to Iraq's anti-coalition forces (ACFs), which represents a similarly interessed group of different associations. "Each [member of the ACF] fights for its own goals. The goals of each group may be at odds with others," he says (p.179), sounding much like Ronfeldt's description of the networked organizations that supported the Zapatistas.

These different cases bring us to Ch.13, where Hammes discusses the disadvantages that the US faces due to changes in technology. Although we are accustomed to thinking in terms of the advantages we gain in warfare, Hammes (sounding like Robb) argues that IT has actually eroded our lead because 4GW enemies can match and exceed our capabilities more easily, using continuous innovation with off-the-shelf tools and commercial networks. "New technology favors a new generation of war," he warns (p.192). Although the US' "systems are the most powerful, most capable, most technically advanced in the world," those systems don't give us an inherent advantage because of "our current organization and the changing threat we face" (p.192). The US military's organization is outdated and hierarchical, he says (p.192), while our assets are outclassed by the commercial assets available to enemies (p.194). Indeed, enemies "are free to exploit the full range of commercially available information technology" (p.195). More importantly, "today's terrorists are organized as networks rather than hierarchies" (p.196). 

In the next few chapters, Hammes attempts to answer the question: What do we do about it? "The future is flexibility," he argues in Ch.17, the final chapter. Among other things, he suggests using network theory to better examine 4GW networks and identify key leaders (who won't be major nodes, but will communicate with them). (Notice that network theory is different from networked organizations, although the two are often confused.)

Okay, that's the summary. Now a brief critique. Although Hammes does an excellent job describing 4GW, the wave theory of history - at least in this implementation - is a bit too deterministic and rigid. John Arquilla speaks out about this general tendency in his recent book Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits, in which he argues that "The generational concept is simply inaccurate": irregular, networked, decentralized warfare has been around a long time and has often been synthesized with dominant forms of warfare. Similarly, Arquilla's longtime writing partner David Ronfeldt - although he certainly subscribes to the Tofflers' wave theory of history - emphasizes that the organizational form of the network is the "first and forever form," perhaps newly emergent, but not representative of a historical stage. [correction 12.5.2011 - Ronfeldt writes to correct me: he called Tribes the "first and forever form." Mea culpa.] Ronfeldt similarly describes other organizational forms as being synthesized together (Tribes, Institutions, Markets, and Networks = TIMN) rather than each form giving way to the next. 

That criticism is more important in terms of theory than in practice, however, Although I disagree with Hammes about the notion of emergent historical stages leading to generations of warfare, I admire the depth and breadth of his examination of 4GW. It's an excellent book, informative, gripping, and well worth your time. Those of you who study rhetoric, as I do, may also find ways to apply it to other domains. Take a look.

No comments: