The Generations of War Model and Domestic Policing

Dr Simon Newman
Senior Lecturer in Law
University of Westminster, UK

[Note: Dr. Newman has been kind enough to share some working notes he made for the London’s Metropolitan Police Department. It’s an excellent example of how that framework can help stimulate insights and creativity, which to me is the real purpose of models — Chet]

1st Generation – a culture of Order, “Line of Battle” and the parade ground, e.g., Napoleonic war. 1st generation entities emphasise order at any cost. WW1 tactics ‘walking into machine guns’ was probably the last gasp of 1st gen culture on the battleground.

2nd Generation – a culture of Process, characterised by 20th century industrial mass production techniques. Inward focused, measuring success by process metrics such as bodycounts (Vietnam War) or for policing number of arrests & convictions is characteristic of a 2nd-gen culture. Most modern militaries and other government entities are basically 2nd generation.

1st & 2nd generation entities tend to be strongly hierarchical, with limited discretion by subordinates.

3rd Generation – a culture of Maneuver War/Blitzkrieg, outward focused on the changing environment and on the desired end state / goal / commander’s intent / “Schwerpunkt” (e.g., attack through the Ardennes in the 1940 German conquest of France). For policing, a suitable Schwerpunkt might be the absence of crime. Maneuver warfare inculcates a high degree of initiative in junior elements in deciding how best to achieve these goals, as opposed to enforcing detailed instructions from the top. The theorist John Boyd’s Orientate-Observe-Decide-Act system – the “OODA Loop” – is a classic statement of 3rd generation principles.

The essence of 3rd gen theory is to collapse the enemies’ will to fight by outthinking and outmaneuvering them by, for example, attacking with multiple thrusts in order to create or uncover gaps in the their positions. The high degree of initiative mentioned previously then “pulls” (as 3rd gen theorists like to say) increasingly large formations into the gaps so created and exploits the penetrations before the other side can react or even understand what is going on. This can be easy facing a cumbersome bureaucrat 2nd generation entity, but highly decentralised networked entities like criminal gangs and loose terrorist groups may not have physical gaps that can be exploited or even any observable decision-making process.

It is worth pointing out that ‘Broken Windows theory’ policing with its emphasis on rapid flexible reaction to new minor threats shows characteristics of 3rd gen culture, and there are others that may prove operationally useful, but 3rd generation concepts by themselves cannot decisively defeat such dispersed, networked, non-state organizations.

4th Generation – The basic argument of 4th gen theory is that the Westphalian State system that has dominated at least the Western world since 1648 is weakening and may be breaking down under the influence of globalisation, the ceding of State and authority power to transnational bodies (UN, EU etc) and unprecedented population movements. In this environment non-state actors such as terrorist and criminal organisations and others, often very loosely organised, can now use Mao-style insurgency techniques (isolate-infiltrate-destroy) to potentially tear States apart at the moral level, destroying their cohesion and creating Stateless zones within and across States.

At a lower level they can influence State governments, such as the Al Qaeda attack on Spain’s train network which probably changed the result of an election and resulted in Spanish withdrawal from Iraq. Importantly, these 4th generation threats usually combine violent and non-violent elements (eg the IRA’s “Armalite & Ballot Box” strategy), and Al Qaeda style mass casualty terrorism may be only a minor strategic element for 4th gen entities, possibly even a counter-productive one. The activities of some eg Revolutionary Marxist, Islamist and other groups may be entirely non-violent while fitting within the 4th generation paradigm, for instance gaining control of an education system and using it to create more adherents of that organisation’s goals.

This then raises the question to what extent, if any, Liberal Democratic States can act against such non-violent organisations to prevent their destruction of the Liberal State. Lind also characterises major criminal networks such as Mara Salvatrucha 13 as 4th gen entities, and these may be just as dangerous to State survival as religious and politically motivated entities.

It is argued that policing and enhanced community cohesion via local organisations (such as Neighbourhood Watch) are potentially much more effective actors against many “4th generation” forces than are traditional armies and weapons systems: the battlefield of the future is the city street, and words are potentially more powerful weapons than guns and missiles.

There is no existing document on “This is how you win 4th generation war” from the point of view of the State (Mao’s Little Red Book explains how to win from the POV of the stateless actor!) but I will concluded with a couple of points I’ve taken from my reading re: techniques that work in a 4th gen environment.

  1. De-escalation is very important. This applies to police officers calming potentially violent individuals on the streets, to calming of angry groups within a community, and to calming of entire communities. US writers aware of British policing and military techniques are usually very admiring of British proficiency at de-escalation. Malaya and Northern Ireland are often cited as successes where de-escalation was a vital part of successful counter-insurgency, although in both it’s notable that support for the insurgency was always confined to a minority ethnic group (ethnic Chinese in Malaya, Catholics in Northern Ireland).
  2. Networking – creating and expanding links to community networks that strengthen and legitimise the State, in contrast to 4th gen networks that seek to weaken and de-legitimise the State. Networks can be vulnerable to entry by 4th generation actors, but decentralised networks that contact State representatives at many different points – e.g., local police in frequent contact with local community members – seem much less vulnerable than cases where a high level government official deals only with a single individual or group claiming to represent a larger community. In the latter situation the official and the individual/group are both potential gaps, as it were, for 4th generation actors. In that sense, exploiting them can form Schwerpunkts for such actors: If they can influence or control either they can do a lot of damage to the State, most notably they can use control of the Schwerpunkt to feed the State false information, shaping the State’s perception of reality in accordance with the goals of the 4G

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