From the CIAO Atlas Map of Europe 

CIAO DATE: 07/04

International Affairs

International Affairs:
A Russian Journal

No. 2, 2004


Sixth–Generation Wars

A. Fenenko *

Ever since the time when, in 1915, the world first witnessed the battlefield use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the problem of WMD control has been a high priority line in great power diplomacy. In the second half of the 20th century, some fairly diversified WMD control regimes were put in place: prohibition of the use and destruction of their particular types, WMD reduction, limitation of weapon tests, and establishment of nonproliferation regimes, including “nuclear–free zones.”

In recent years, the world was confronted with new types of weapons that had earlier been seen primarily as “exotic” projects. Will it be possible, in these conditions, to preserve the existing control mechanisms or will the measure of stabilization that has been achieved be in danger of imminent and irreversible devaluation?

Some Russian and foreign experts predict that in the new century the world is going to see the advent of “sixth–generation wars.” (Hereinafter the term “sixth–generation wars” refers to the concept of so–called stand–off warfare, based on the use of precision guided weapons. Traditionally, fourth generation wars are other than stand–off wars based on the use of rocket and air weapons (the first half of the 20th century) while the terms “fifth–generation wars” refer to the diverse concepts of nuclear warfare (1950s–1980s) designed to destroy the economic capacity of any enemy state at any distance. The proposed approach helps distinguish, on the strategic level, the contemporary campaigns in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq from both previous contact wars with automatic and rocket weapons, on the one hand, and the concept of nuclear warfare with the use of standoff weapons, on the other. (They are classified as forth and fifth generation wars, respectively.)

Unlike the first half of the 20th century, the principal distinguishing feature of recent conflicts is the constant modernization of precision guided weapons and their growing role in the general structure of a military operation. The term “sixth–generation wars” is based on the assumption that up until now history has known five consecutive types of warfare. In 1991, cruise missiles and laser, IR and TV guided bombs constituted the bulk of offensive weapon systems used against Iraq with combat aviation performing up to 85 percent of all combat missions. 1 In the Bosnian campaign, the accuracy of cruise missiles enabled them to effectively engage targets in forested mountainous terrain. As for the operation in Yugoslavia, 22,000 strikes with precision guided weapons on 490 stationary and 520 mobile targets 2 forced Belgrade to accept the NATO terms even without the deployment of ground forces. These facts well fit into the theory of sixth generation wars.

It is far more difficult to draw a line between sixth generation wars and the concept of the standoff nuclear strike since the concept of precision strikes was born as part of the doctrine of a “limited nuclear war.” There is reason to believe that precision guided weapons evolved from the strategic projects of R. McNamara and J. Schlesinger who reoriented the U.S. nuclear strategy from the countervailing strike against population centers to the precision strike against Soviet launchers, communication systems, and military and political command centers. 3 The Kennedy administration begins to develop multiple independently targetable warheads, aimed at specific military or economic installations. In the mid–1970s, Washington places a bet on the counter–force strike against hardened targets: air launched cruise missiles and laser, IR and TV guided systems that are well known from Operation Desert Storm. Finally, a decade later, the R. Reagan administration implements such programs as the B–1 Stealth bomber with homing cruise missiles, development of MX MIRV intercontinental ballistic missiles and creation of their principal highly mobile carriers – Trident nuclear powered submarines. Therefore, on the conceptual level, the doctrine of a “limited nuclear war“ little differs from the key idea of “sixth–generation wars”: using a “disarming” strike with precision guided weapons to force an adversary into accepting a peace plan that is less than advantageous to it.

Neither do some “strategic” developments of the past two to three years always fit into the sixth generation war scenario – above all, a rapidly reviving interest in nuclear weapons. In January 2002, the United States reviewed its nuclear doctrine, expanding the traditional deterrence triad (ICBMs, nuclear powered submarines, and heavy bombers) with a prototype missile defense system and “offensive weapon systems” – a transitional type between nuclear and non–nuclear weapons. 4 The latter, Pentagon official Steven Younger explained, are mini–warheads with minimal radioactive fallout that penetrate a hardened bunker or cave, producing a “sealing” effect. 5 Commenting on these projects, the State Department said that these systems will be based on a new radioactive element – hafnium – that combines a powerful explosive impact, emission of a relatively small amount of radiation and, most important, action without the classical nuclear fission reaction. The same effect will possibly be produced by weapons impacting an adversary with a powerful flow of gamma rays. 6 At any rate, diplomacy is getting a chance to consistently deny that a nuclear strike has in fact been delivered, which in itself increases the probability of such an action taking place. Therefore, the main trend of contemporary strategy is associated not with increasing the accuracy of the strike (the maximum possible limits here were achieved back in the mid–1980s) but with increasing the destructive effect of precision guided weapons by arming cruise missiles and guided air bombs with “not quite nuclear” (or, rather, near nuclear) warheads.

The sheer idea of creating an alternative to nuclear weapons in the form of weapons based on new physical principles (geo–physical, infrasound, laser, electromagnetic, etc.) originated at the height of the Cold War. A possible breakthrough in nuclear technology was a source of major concern for politicians in the Carter and Brezhnev era, leading to, among other things, the 1977 Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques. It should be noted, however, that far from all projects and ideas from that period are equally popular today.

On the one hand, few are predicting the use of neutron warheads – low–yield warheads on Lance U.S. tactical missiles and 203 mm artillery shells, the bulk of whose explosive energy was to be released in the form of penetrating radiation. The “laser” projects as part of the Reagan doctrine, designed to deliver precision strikes on a specified target, were left equally untapped. Concerned over “anti–bunker” weapons, experts are making virtually no reference to their prototype – a projected weapon system using the energy of a nuclear explosion and combining a low yield nuclear charge with a transformer localizing the power and the negative effects of the resultant shock wave. 7 Clearly, the vector of that search was funneled into a basically different course – limitation and localization of the destructive effects of tactical nuclear weapons, which is out of line with the current strategic trends.

But on the other hand, there has been extensive follow–up work on the so–called low–enriched uranium bombs – warheads without radioactive isotopes of uranium 235, featuring a high penetration effect and generating a cloud of ceramic aerosol dozens of kilometers from the epicenter. The microwave–impulse warhead, 8 a project launched on the Clinton watch, was replaced, in particular, by the microwave electronic bomb, whose explosion paralyzed Iraqi TV broadcasting for several hours. (Similar projects are presumably being implemented also in Russia. In November 2003, an artificial lightning analogue – a 7 mW high voltage discharge flow of electric current – was created in Novosibirsk. The “guided lightning” had a trajectory of 249 meters, which, according to experts at the French Aerospace Agency, will enable it to be used in neutralizing ballistic missiles and putting whole power supply systems out of action.) Work is also in progress on special shells with methane rods that are designed to penetrate bunkers with biological weapons, and incendiary charges producing a high intensity fire that cannot be put out with water. Before, microwave energy generators were designed to accomplish police tasks in dealing with street riots and had an insignificant range, the Los Angeles Times wrote. But now, according to its reporters, the idea is to create powerful microwave weapons designed to disable military electronic equipment, power supply systems, and even reserve diesel power generators. 9 The power of “vacuum bombs,” which affect the environment and human respiratory organs, is also constantly growing. So there is good reason to say that a key trend in the past few years has been not so much further development of precision guided weapon systems as arming precision guided systems with high yield local–range warheads.

This “power revenge” trend also is typical of U.S. missile defense projects. In the 1960s, Moscow and Washington were planning to arm their interceptors with nuclear warheads, believing that the shock wave would reliably destroy ballistic missiles. 10 Yet with the fear of nuclear weapons, which was characteristics of the 1980s, the Reagan initiated SDI shifted the emphasis to the accuracy and precision of laser beams in engaging the target. 11 But then current SDI projects are based either on the powerful aerosol clouds or on the same hafnium warheads whose shock wave can destroy even MIRV warheads. 12 This perforce transforms our perception of future weapons, showing that we have to deal with a series of coincidences that are far from accidental.

Of course analysts could not but pay attention to this trend. They point out that today the barrier that has for a long time separated nuclear from conventional weapons, the traditional distinction between them is being effectively blurred. In the lead–up to the second war in Iraq, some authors reviewed their forecasts to the effect that precision guided air and sea launched cruise missiles and their delivery vehicles as well as navigation, command and control, and precision cruise missile defense systems will be in great demand in the future. Indeed, on March 30, 2003 the Pentagon increased the number of uranium shells for use in Iraq. 13 Priority is being given not only to countervailing strikes but also to high intensity strikes on force groupings. In this context, the weapons of choice in the future will be not simply precision guided weapons but PGW with very high–yield warheads producing special, including localized, effects.

So, the evolution of precision guided weapon systems is a natural result of the concept of warfare that emerged in the early 1960s. On Eisenhower’s watch, the American elite came to the conclusion that a full–blown nuclear war was unacceptable: Even in the best–case scenario, up to 65 percent of Americans would be affected as a result of a retaliatory Soviet strike. 14 Such calculations brought about new doctrines – of counter–force (1961) and so–called managed conflict, based on the gain in flight approach time (1974), which were supposed to make nuclear deterrence a more realistic option. Their effectiveness, however, hinged on such special weapon systems as precision guidance systems and low–yield nuclear warheads. 15 So there is reason to believe that in the past five to seven years, the old paradigm has been destroyed: The new century is beginning with an abrupt shift toward increasing the destructive effect of strikes.

The aforementioned considerations were mainly concerned with strategic processes, generally in isolation from the current trends of world politics. Meanwhile, a link between military and political aspects comes through in the concept of sixth generation war as such. The concept of stand–off engagement of an adversary was born at least half a century before the theory of sixth generation wars. Thus, Italian general Giulio Douhet advanced a theory positing that the air force is a combat asset of unlimited offensive power while a war can only be won by massive air strikes with minimum participation of other branches and arms of service. 16 His ideas became a kind of a Bible of Anglo–American military thought. During World War II, allied strategy was based on continuous air strikes against the Reich while after nuclear weapons were first used, U.S. strategy was, for all intents and purposes, centered around the idea of Washington’s air force projection. 17 All subsequent concepts – massive retaliation, flexible response, credible deterrence, etc. – were based on the premise that that stand–off weapon systems and combat assets (strategic bombers, medium and shorter range missiles, cruise missiles, and so on) would be able to neutralize (and, in a favorable situation, also paralyze) the Soviet superiority in conventional weapons.

The wars in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, and Yugoslavia finally formed a special discourse of U.S. force projection whose principal distinguishing features manifested themselves already in the earlier concepts of “limited nuclear war in Europe.” The objective of a military operation now was to impose certain political conditions on an adversary through a system of surgical strikes on its economic and, to a lesser degree, military infrastructure. (Thus, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, until late May 1999, the action by NATO aviation did not really affect the actual infrastructure of the Yugoslav forces in Kosovo. First serious losses did not start to occur until late May–early June, when the air strikes began to be coordinated with attacks by the so–called Kosovo Liberation Army while the North Atlantic alliance began to use cluster bombs.) Those campaigns were, essentially, but a more intensive round of negotiations, wherein, in the wake of a series of precision strikes, the losing side had to accept a less advantageous deal while the winner took it all. The technology of such a strike was as follows:

In the fall of 2001, at a time when the U.S. political leadership set the task of wiping out the Taliban movement as a policy player, U.S. strategists felt that such an impressive power resource would be insufficient for that. The discussion on how to destroy an adversary with a weak economic infrastructure was so significant that it even seeped through to the media, in particular scenarios for the use of tactical nuclear weapons, reorientation from cruise missiles to B–2 bombers, JDAM and GBU– 28 guided rockets, the conduct of a ground operation by the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), and the use of air strikes to support the internal opposition. It was far from a routine clash of "interest groups." This was when a qualitatively new vector of the strategic quest emerged, aiming not to enhance the accuracy of strikes but to increase the explosive effect produced by the warheads. 18

The operation in Afghanistan substantially adjusted the air strike technology. The main offensive assets were no longer cruise missiles but "dense" (concentrated) air groups of up to 50 to 100 aircraft (offensive carrier aviation effectively engaging fixed targets, B–2 and B–52 H strategic bombers “showering” bombs, and F–15E fighter bombers designed to deliver precision strikes on specified targets). For the first time Predator medium altitude, long endurance unmanned aerial vehicle systems with AT guided rockets began to be used on a wide scale, in combination with helicopter gunships, carrying out massive strikes on the Taliban front line. The Pentagon lost its former faith in the omnipotence of cruise missiles, putting a bet on B–2 bombers, guided air bombs, and guided AT rockets as well as the wide use of helicopters.

These trends developed further in the course of the operation in Iraq. Ten days after it began, the Pentagon was surprised to see that not even a massive strike with 675 cruise missiles and 6,000 precision guided bombs routed the Iraqi army. The world once again witnessed other than standoff engagements, such as e.g., the battle for the port of Umm Kasr or the tank battle at Al Nasiria. Already on March 25, 2003, the allied command said that it was necessary to change tactics, using an Afghan scenario. As of that day, B–52 bombers began carrying out air strikes not with rockets but with guided air bombs, Theodore Roosevelt carrier aviation was reoriented to support troops on the front line while Apache helicopters began attacking the Republican Guards barracks near Baghdad. Several days later, U.S. command for the first time started talking about the need for a large scale use of uranium tipped bombs and munitions generating a series of electronic impulses. Cemeteries of Iraqi armor near Baghdad show that the Americans achieved a certain measure of success there. Thus the second war in Iraq indicated the limitations of the use of precision guided weapons in attaining victory. Precision guided weapons proved to be a major ingredient of success, but ultimate success is impossible without smashing all armed formations and all resistance on an occupied territory.

It should be borne in mind that politics was a major factor in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The fall of Kabul was preceded by extensive negotiations between Washington, Moscow, Islamabad, Beijing, and Tehran, and it was not until after a month of intensive efforts at the Geneva Conference that Afghanistan finally got a new government. The quick fall of Baghdad provoked wide speculation about a purported deal with the Iraqi generals and some leaders of the Ba’as party. The principal factor however was the serious opposition that existed in both countries and that had for a long time conducted combat operations on the border with Central Asia and in Iraqi Kurdistan, which, with the support of U.S. aviation, broke through to Mazar–i–Sharif, Kabul, and Kirkuk, which prevented the organization of new defense lines in rear areas.

At the end of an active phase of the operation in Afghanistan, U.S. strategy made an unequivocal choice in favor of preemptive, crippling strike. The draft reform of the U.S. military, adopted in December 2001, sets such tasks, traditional for the era of precision guided weapons, as monitoring the activities of allies and adversaries alike, upgrading and modernizing navigation systems, rapid response to any changes in the situation, and operations at a considerable separation distance from own bases. It is however planned to accomplish them by sharply increasing the “knockout” firepower, namely, by:

The last mentioned is of interest in so far as it points to the priority that is being given to the heavy bomb payload and the use of varied air weapon systems – from cruise missiles to penetration bombs. Coupled with the plan to use hafnium warheads, this is indicative of the emphasis that is being placed on the knockout strike that is designed to incapacitate an adversary, rendering it unable to mount organized resistance. As for local armed groups in the rear area, they can be effectively wiped out with special task forces aboard light armored vehicles, parachuted to a target area. Thus, the shift from "impact" to "knockout" perforce transforms not only the scale of force projection but also the parameters of the world political system that as of now allows for high intensity regional conflicts with the use of a particular WMD battlefield equivalent.

True, the “knockout” concept per se is not so revolutionary after all. “Contact” fourth generation wars were designed to destroy an adversary’s military and economic capability and even to bring about regime change. What we have to deal with now is an attempt to accomplish the same tasks through a standoff strike and without the use of the classic types of nuclear weapons. At the dawn of the nuclear era, the Eisenhower administration mulled over regime change options in North Korea, Vietnam, and even China with limited tactical nuclear weapon strikes. All of them, however, were rejected since they required the crossing of the “nuclear threshold.” 20 But then these scenarios are being reanimated in the pages of the U.S. nuclear doctrine prioritizing “imminent” and “surprise” threats – the conflict on the Korean Peninsula, Israel’s defeat in a possible war with Syria, Iran and Lebanon, and the falling of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal into the hands of Islamic extremists. The only difference is now a knockout strike is to be carried out with a large number of precision guided weapon systems that, by delivering powerful and “not quite nuclear” warheads, will render further resistance impossible. Thus, the ongoing change of strategic discourse divides the sixth generation wars theory into two large strategic “styles”: impacting an adversary and knocking it out with a particular combination (proportion) of accuracy and firepower.

The underlying conceptual premise behind the term “sixth generation wars” is the doctrine of countervailing (counter–value) war that emerged within the bounds of mutual Soviet/U.S. nuclear deterrence, gradually breaking outside these bounds. 21 Ideally, the upshot of all of the aforementioned should have been a powerful disabling and blinding strike after which the adversary, even though it retained the bulk of its nuclear arsenal, would not be able to retaliate. In those years, however, it was principally associated with nuclear weapons, which as of the mid–1950s were regarded by the two superpowers as a deterrence, not a battlefield asset. So up until the time when non–nuclear precision guided weapons were tested in the course of Operation Desert Storm, the structure of Soviet and U.S. armaments still fit into the stabilization institutions of mutual control and limitation while the 1987 Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate–Range and Shorter–Range Missiles easily liquidated the “euro–missiles” as a potentially dangerous weapon combining containment and deterrence functions.

The situation changed gradually while the adoption of “impact” doctrines brought about a large number of new types of weapons. Already in 1997, Russian and U.S. politicians were hard put to come to terms over the criteria for distinguishing between strategic and non–strategic air defenses systems 22 while the question of a fundamental treaty on precision guided weapons systems was not discussed at all. Say, the low enriched uranium bombs that were used in Bosnia and Kosovo were never classified as either conventional or mass destruction weapons and therefore objectively did not come under the jurisdiction of the Vienna commission on finalization of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and did not become a subject of the Russian–U.S. dialogue on nuclear disarmament. With the advent of the “knockout strike” concept, however, the world is winding up with a large number of new, hitherto unknown systems whose specifications objectively do not fit either into the former or the latter category of armaments. So further evolution of the “countervailing” strategy perforce modifies the parameters of the world’s political order, confronting politicians with what could be described as a chessboard effect: In order to change the rules of the game, there is no need to change the rules of moving the pieces – it is enough to slightly enlarge the accustomed square of the playing field.

As is known, ever since the Caribbean crisis, problems of reducing the nuclear arsenals have been part and parcel of the diplomatic discourse between East and West on maintenance of world political stability. The disarmament initiatives that one of the sides put forward gave it certain advantages in the publicity sphere, regardless of whether these initiatives were translated into reality. (Say, ratification of the SALT–2 Treaty by the USSR Supreme Soviet objectively narrowed Washington’s room to maneuver in deciding on the deployment of the SDI in so far as it showed up the United States as an opponent of detente.) The new types of "knockout" weapons, however, are assigned not political/propaganda but purely political value. They are designed to change the status quo by taking out one of the great power’s regional opponents. Thus the issue of the limitation of emerging weapon systems is perforce being shifted outside the bounds of this dialogue: It is supposed to serve a different purpose.

So the task today is to elaborate a basically new treaty on the limitation (or control) of “knockout” weapons. Based on the CFE structure, it could cover six categories of weapons: cruise missiles, homing bombs, low enriched uranium bombs, directed energy weapons, microwave impulse charges, and hafnium warheads. This treaty would hardly stop the emerging new spiral of the arms race, but it could establish some kind of an institutional/safety–net framework.



Note *:   Aleksei Fenenko, faculty member, Voronezh State University. Back

Note 1:   Popov I.M. “Buria v pustyne.” Pod znakom Marsa, #4, 1992, pp. 23&-;24. Back

Note 2:   Solov’ ev V. “Pobeda s ogovorkami.” Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, Nov. 26, 1999. Back

Note 3:   Arbatov A.G. Voenno–strategicheskii paritet i politika SShA. M.: Politizdat, 1984; Halperin M. Nuclear Fallacy: Dispelling the Myth of Nuclear Strategy. Cambridge (Mass.): Ballinger, 1987. Back

Note 4:   See: Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 2002, #9, p. 2. Back

Note 5:   “Konets iadernogo sderzhivaniia.” RIA Novosti, Dec. 25, 2002. Back

Note 6:   “Novyi oblik budushchei voiny.” Vremia novostei, Aug. 19, 2003. Back

Note 7:   Voennyi entsiklopedichekii slovar, vol. 2. M., 2001, p. 241. Back

Note 8:   Nikolin B. “Vysokotochnoe. Osobo opasnoe.” Rossiskaia Federatsiia segodnia, 1998, # 7, p. 59. Back

Note 9:   Arkin W.M. The Los Angeles Times, December 9, 2002. Back

Note 10:   Starodubov V.P. Superderzhavy XX veka. Strategicheskoe protivoborstvo. M., 2001, pp. 171–179. See also: Itogi, 1999, # 6, pp. 18–22. Back

Note 11:   Maknamara R. Putem oshibok – k katastrofe. Opyt vyzhivaniia v pervuiu iadernuiu epokhu. M., 1988, pp. 136–149. Back

Note 12:   See: Lindsay J.M., O'Hanlon M.E. Defending America: The Case for Limited National Missile Defense. Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2001. Back

Note 13:   Izvestia, Feb. 22, 2003, p. 2. Back

Note 14:   Budbi Dzh. Nerazdelennaia Evropa. Novaia logika mira v amerikansko–rossiiskikh otnosheniiakh. M., 2000, pp. 64–67. Back

Note 15:   Sistemnaya istoriia mezhdunarodnykh otnoshenii v chetyrekh tomakh. 1918–2000, vol. 3. M., 2003, pp. 407–408. Back

Note 16:   Douhet D. Gospodstvo v vozdukhe. M., Voenizdat, 1935. Back

Note 17:   Beaufre A. Deterrence and Strategy. London: Faber, 1965. Back

Note 18:   For details see: Fenenko A.V. “Strategiia sokrusheniia v afganskoi operatsii Vashingtona.” Tsentral’naia Aziia i Kavkaz, 2002, # 5, pp. 7–21. Back

Note 19:   See: Profil, 2001, # 48, pp 44–45. Back

Note 20:   Shlezinger A. Tsikly amerikanskoi istorii. M., 1992, pp. 576–581. Back

Note 21:   Arbatov A.G. Op. cit. p. 219. Back

Note 22:   See: Kapralov Iu.S. “Problema PRO na sammite.” Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn, 2000, # 7, pp. 11–18. Back