Fifth Generation Warfare: An Evolving Technical Dimension of War

By Peter Layton

For the Australian Defence Force’s Army, Navy and Air Force Chiefs, the future is ‘fifth generation.’ That being so, I recently wrote a paper on fifth generation air warfare which, while using air force issues to explain some aspects, has relevance more broadly particularly to the concepts being explored on the Over-The-Horizon blog.

There will probably be some – like me – who are inherently wary of those who fragment the history of warfare into various periods, eras, or epochs. The ‘fifth generation’ expression, though, is not some part of a considered historical analysis. Instead, originating as a company marketing slogan, the expression has evolved into a useful, catchall term – a simple buzzword – encompassing several concepts important for how future wars might be waged.

Fifth generation war fighting ideas go back more than two decades. In the 1990s, military thinkers seized upon developments in commercial information technology, applied them to military operational concepts and then popularized the term ‘Network-Centric Warfare.’ By 1999, Joint Staff J-6 information briefings were asserting that: “the primary mechanism for generating increased combat power in 2010 will be networks of sensors, command and control, and shooters.” Today’s fifth generation air warfare concepts incorporate four generic elements:

  1. Networks. Network-centric thinking envisions four interconnected and interdependent virtual grids—information, sensing, effects and command—overlaying the operational theatre. The various force elements, from individuals and single platforms to battle groups, are then interacting nodes on the grids. Each node can receive, act on, or pass forward data provided from the various grids as appropriate.
  2. Combat Cloud. In working together, the grids can form a combat cloud that the various nodes can pull data from and add data to as necessary. This brings several tactical benefits including considerably improving situational awareness, making long-range engagements more practical, ensuring no single node is critical to mission success, allowing each node to designate targets to other nodes and ensuring the best use is made of the different diverse capabilities offered by each node.
  3. Multi-Domain Battle. The five operational domains are considered land, sea, air, space and cyber. The key idea animating multi-domain battle is cross-domain synergy, the use of armed force across two or more domains to achieve an operational advantage. Acting in a complementary manner – rather than an additive one – each capability enhances the effectiveness of the whole while lessening the individual vulnerabilities of each platform. Moreover, linking across domains means that the integrated force overall can be self-healing in that destruction of any single node may be able to be compensated for by another node in a different domain.
  4. Fusion warfare. The fusion warfare concept seeks to address command and control concerns arising from the increasing volume and speed of information flows, software incompatibilities and intrinsic vulnerabilities to attack and deception.

Fifth generation air warfare offers much, but its practical implementation is not easy. Considerable effort is required to create decision-quality data and then establish the robust connectivity needed to support combat cloud, multi-domain battle, and fusion warfare concepts. Fifth generation air warfare is a very complicated way of war that requires substantial focused preparation being undertaken before a conflict and significant dedicated support during it. Success in fifth generation air warfare is hard won.

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There seem to be two in-built vulnerabilities in fifth generation air warfare given its information technology foundation. Digital systems are inherently susceptible to cyber intrusions that may steal data, delete data, change data, or insert false data that can then quickly spread across the network. While cyber security techniques are steadily improving, so are cyber intrusion methods; this interplay between offence and defence continues over time with neither being dominant long-term. Moreover, fifth generation air warfare relies on datalinks to send information and sometimes to receive it. Emitters are inherently vulnerable to detection, meaning that network participants can be located and tracked—and thereby targeted—by precision-guided weapons. Some datalinks are harder to detect than others. However, just as in cyber, technology continually improves with neither the offence nor the defence in front for long. Cyber security and datalink emission tracking will remain concerning issues for the operational life of fifth generation air warfare. They are potentially its Achilles heel.

Fifth generation air warfare capabilities principally exist for the purpose of fighting wars. In this, such capabilities are generally seen as most appropriate to high technology wars, which in the modern era means wars involving advanced information technology. Such a conflict would probably be a symmetrical one where a friendly battle network grappled with an adversary battle network with both sides searching to determine which nodes on which grids were best to attack to defeat the other battle network. Battle network wars would be fast paced, but given the complicated nature of fifth generation air warfare capabilities, keeping up would be problematic. A battle network war, though, as it speeds up might turn into a war of rapid attrition with the losing side the one that runs out of equipment and skilled people first. Battle network wars might be attrition slugfests.

In contrast, the slower-pace of symmetrical hybrid/ proxy wars might allow friendly fifth generation air warfare systems to progressively evolve to better meet emerging operational circumstances. There may be time to arrange set piece battles that realise cross-domain synergies and make best use of multi-domain manoeuvre. The slower pace of hybrid war may assist in making carefully sequenced multi-domain parallel attacks. This cuts both ways, of course. The adversary hybrid/ proxy forces also then have more time to adapt and introduce effective countermeasures.

Chinese and Russian thinking both take a more expansive view of many of the underlying ideas behind fifth generation air warfare. The fifth generation idea implicitly suggests conflict being constrained to a well-defined battlespace, but Chinese and Russian thinkers demur. No part of an adversary’s territory or any of the various national ‘systems’ of politics, economics, law, and public opinion are considered off limits. Both hold that informationized warfare can achieve success at low cost in blood or treasure.

Chinese and Russian fifth generation warfare thinking is also alike in that neither focus on the effects grid’s nodes. They both seek to avoid force-on-force wars. Chinese thinkers suggest focusing their efforts on attacking key sensing and information grid nodes with Russian thinkers stressing assaulting the command grid – for them people’s minds are the real battlefield. In this, Chinese conceptions favour using mainly military means to inflict multi-domain kinetic and non-kinetic damage. In contrast, Russian conceptions stress the cross-domain use of non-military means in preference to military means, with a 4:1 ratio suggested. Chinese battle network ideas accordingly imply fighting symmetrical wars whereas Russian ideas are very heavily oriented towards asymmetrical approaches.

My paper goes into many of these ideas and explains why certain judgements were made. However, there are several caveats to all this that should be remembered.

Firstly, the fifth generation warfare idea relates to what Edward Luttwak called ‘the technical dimension of strategy.’ Technology influences how we fight wars, but there is more to being successful then solely technology. Leading edge technology was insufficient in itself to prevail in the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars – and fifth generation warfare so far does not appear any different.

Secondly, there is a deliberate omission in my paper in [mostly] neglecting software – in terms of the code that makes digital technology function. The place of software in warfare is both a big area and a difficult issue to write about. There is some speculative fiction available though, with August Cole’s Ghost Fleet particularly favoured. A talk by the author (pp 75-85) at a recent multi-domain battle conference in Australia is also worth reading. Suffice to say, software matters make fifth generation warfare even more complicated, possibly by an order of magnitude.

Thirdly, in being inherently complicated some may wonder if the fifth generation concept is incompatible with the nature of war, a social activity dominated by chaos, uncertainty, friction and chance. At least in hybrid/ proxy wars, it seems these worries are unjustified; multi-domain battle and other fifth generation warfare aspects are being combat proven in Iraq against ISIS –if my earlier comments about advanced technology being necessary but not in itself sufficient are accepted. Judgement concerning fifth generation warfare’s appropriateness to near-peer warfare though still needs confirmation. A very complicated approach to making war may prove too complicated if opposed by technology optimised to defeat it. For example, if an adversary can cut most of our datalinks for an extended period, would this invalidate the overall fifth generation warfare concept?

Lastly, the whole fifth generation idea rests on trust between all network participants. Within national armed forces, there may be some elements who would rather not share information. Submariners at times are an example of this attitude; they prefer to operate alone and not tell anyone anything. Trust also becomes a further issue when conducting coalition operations where concerns range from releasing sensitive tactical information to matters related to defence industrial base issues. In reality, in most conflicts the most common situation might be balkanised networks where some nodes are disregarded, leaving others to potentially fight their own separate wars. Such an approach, however, significantly undercuts the logic of fifth generation warfare.

The fifth generation warfare notion wraps up network-centric warfare, combat cloud, multi-domain battle, and fusion warfare concepts. These are all important ideas that do not exist individually but rather function together as an integrated interdependent system of systems where the whole is greater than the parts. Intrinsically, how the fifth generation idea will apply tactically, operationally, and strategically will vary with the context. Moreover, the idea remains evolving and there may be new elements yet to be incorporated. This is an area were much thinking remains to be done.

Dr. Peter Layton, PhD is a RAAF Reserve Group Captain and a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. He has extensive aviation and defence experience, and for his work at the Pentagon on force structure matters was awarded the US Secretary of Defense’s Exceptional Public Service Medal. He has a doctorate from the University of New South Wales on grand strategy and has taught on the topic at the Eisenhower College, US National Defence University. For his academic work he was awarded a Fellowship to the European University Institute, Fiesole, Italy.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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