Week 7: Information Technology and Modern Warfare

Information technology is now permeating thinking about modern warfare in the context of the changing nature of modern conflicts. Since America’s defeat in the Vietnam War there has been discussion on what approach countries should take to, what are often perceived as, new forms of warfare.

More recently, the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan have further fuelled a re-examination of military practice. There are questions here about the extent to which information technology will play a part in the future and these have resulted in a vigorous debate. Some argue that the role of information technology has been overstated in this discussion. The main protagonists in the debate are those who support the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare and those who support the concept of Net Centric Warfare. In addition to considering this debate we will look at the growth in the use of military drones and the threat of cyber terrorism.

What is Fourth Generation Warfare?

Fourth Generation Warfare is argued to be a new form of warfare that has emerged as a result of “changes in ideas and technology”. Its proponents argue that there have been three previous generations. The first generation is argued to have been the conscription era. defined by tactics of line and column or great battles when huge armies would meet and confront each other. The second generation featured mass firepower and was enabled by the industrial revolution – the first world war is often cited as an example of this. The third generation is described as the “war of manuever where armies would focus on out manuevering their opponents. The German’s use of radical tactics in how they combined their use of different arms and their downward delegation of decision making is the common example here.

Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) is argued to be what we have today. It is characterised by states fighting non-state opponents, insurgency and a return to the form of war that existed before the rise of the nation state. The examples that are cited for this are Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah. This approach argues that states do not typically do well in wars of this nature today. They are clashes between cultures rather than countries and reflect a growing crisis of the legitimacy of state governments.

Proponents of 4GW argue that it is likely to be the dominant conditions that war will be fought in, in the future and that in these conditions superior political will can defeat superior economic and military power. Guerilla tactics are used, as is civil disobedience. Soft networks of social, cultural and economic ties are manipulated and emphasis is put on disinformation campaigns. The focus of this activity is to undermine their opponents’ political will:

Advocates of a 4GW approach argue that the current military establishment is wrong in prioritising information technology in their approach and that all wars since Vietnam have been 4GW wars.

4GW theory has been criticised on a number of grounds, particularly by those favouring a Net Centric Warfare approach. It is argued that 4GW doesn’t fit the historical and social perspectives that is claims to be part of the theory. Many “generations” have existed together in the past and yet the theory says that each paradigm was a result of underyling social and economic change in society. If different paradigms have existed together this theory is challenged. For example 3rd and 4th generations have existed together in Germany and China in the past. It also ignores the nuclear era which doesn’t fit in any generation.

4 GW’s opponents also argue that weapons of mass destruction (chemical, nuclear, biological) remain a serious threat and that focusing simply on 4GW may leave weakness in dealing with that.  They also argue that NCW is more suited to dealing with IT social change and that it can address the issues of 4GW scenarios. They express concern that 4GW may result in a reduction in conventional military spending which may give confidence to insurgencies.

Opponents of 4GW argue that they place too much emphasis on insurgency. Instead, the opponents assert that insurgency will be mainly within individual countries and relatively short term, capability to deal with state on state conflicts should be retained.

4GW advocates argue that information technology should not be the focus on modern military development. However, it has been countered that information technology is meaning that there are receding barriers to entry in space based military applications, significant advancements in biotechnology and advancements in existing technologies (for example power supplies) that will impact modern warfare. They argue that IT could alter military doctrine, culture and organisation and that it would be wrong to ignore the impact of IT on society and the potential impact of this in war.

NCW has also developed due to the increasing aversion to casualties in war, as a way of minimising these. We are already seeing the impact of NCW in many countries’ military investment. NCW advocates point to positive aspects of the role played by technology in the modern military today. It has allowed lawyers to become involved in tactical decisions at a distance and may allow for more decentralised decision making. They argue that technology will support all types of military operations, including those of a 4GW nature.

Net Centric Warfare

Net Centric Warfare (NCW) is described as the introduction of networking techniques in warfighting.  While organisations in the wider world have become more integrated in the application of information technology this is thought to be of benefit to the military.

It is also argued that doing this in a military environment is more challenging because of the increased reliance on wireless technology, the need for high levels of security and the need for resistance to hostile jamming of signals. There have been difficulties with implementation and these have resulted in criticism of efforts thus far. Defence contractors appear keen to promote this approach:

Theoretically, NCW is intended to “accelerate engagement cycles”, making it possible to react on the battlefield in a more coordinated fashion. Also known as Future Combat Systems (FCS), its key is the integration of battlefield activity:

The principle being applied here is known as Boyd’s loop which is focused on the speed of the cycle: Observation – Orientation – Decision – Action. The objective here is  to process this loop more quickly and stay ahead of your opponent and to dictate the tempo of the warfare activity. The following video illustrates this in a sporting context:

These systems are also argued to enable warfighters to have more autonomy in their activity, being able to react to the situations they face with better knowledge of their environment and access to support resources:

As part of the NCW approach, remotely controlled unmanned devices are used, known as drones.


Advances in information technology have accelerated the development of drone type devices. and they are playing a larger role in military operations today. Recent figures show that the US now has 5300 unmanned aerial vehicles and over 12,000 ground robots. These devices reduce the risk to human soldiers, gather intelligence and can strike at targets stealthily. Concerns have been expressed that the growth in the use of these technologies may make policymakers view war as a more attractive option as the risk of casualties to their own forces is reduced. Questions are also posed as to the impact that this will have on the role of the soldier and whether adaptation of enemies to robots will reduce flexibility? There is also the possibility that terrorists will build their own robots.

Opponents of the move toward the use of drones argue that they are replacing “boots on the ground” that they believe are necessary to defeat insurgency type warfare. Israel and Korea use drones to patrol their borders. Drones are used to find and defuse bombs and now carry weapon systems.

Some are also concerned about the remote control of drones – operators in the US and Pakistan apparently control drones in Afghanistan today, making them remote from the battlefield and raising ethical questions. Videos have appeared on the internet that raise questions about whether war is becoming entertainment – described as warporn:

The use of drones in a military context has led to interest in them in spheres beyond the battlefield, in civilian law enforcement, by vigilante groups etc., raising concerns about their legal and ethical application:

Fears that drones may kill more civilians and that they would therefore be counterproductive have been expressed and these concerns have been accentuated by the increased visibility of casualties that the internet provides. Drone pilots have now been shown to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, even though they may be thousands of miles from the battlefield. It is now thought that this may be due to it being harder for the soldier to justify killing if they are not under threat themselves. Others argue that greater control and precision in operations using drones may reduce civilian casualties and improve targetting.  Finally, drone technology is now reasonably easily available to both sides in the battlefield – what if the other side works out better ways of using them and gains superiority:

Cyber Terrorism

Cyber terrorism uses the internet to create terror. Typically, cyber attacks are aimed at disruption rather than destruction. They do this in two ways, data  attacks and attacks on control systems:

Data attacks aim to steal or corrupt data, cause denials of access to service and perpetuate credit card fraud and website vandalism. Attacks on control systems aim to disable or seize control of systems, for example: water supply, electrical transmission, railroads and airports.

Few utilities have control systems that have been designed to mitigate cyber attacks and, being privately owned, are less likely to spend on protection unless they can see a clear need. However, although these systems are vulnerable, attacks are difficult to do for terrorists and the damage done is reasonably easy to repair – often just a software reinstall will be needed.

Data is argued to be more vulnerable and recruitment of defenders of the data is becoming more unconventional. Denial of service attacks are becoming more possible as society becomes more networked and people become more dependent on their online connectivity. There have been many examples of the impact of worms and viruses and also examples of the use of cyber attacks by nation states, such as on Estonia and Iran.

These attacks and the vulnerability that they represent raises the question of what would happen if the whole internet went down?

As the video argues, it is highly unlikely that the whole internet would go down because it has been designed to resist that possibility.

This Week…

This week we have looked at the impact of information technology on modern warfare. We first considered the context of the application of information technology to war and then considered the main two approaches to warfare today, 4GW and NCW, analysing the arguments for and against each approach. We then looked at the increasing use of information technology enabled drones and considered the implications of their use by the military. Finally we looked at cyber terrorism and its potential impact.

Information technology has  thus far had a profound impact on warfare in the modern world and there remain many fundamental questions about appropriate strategy from military, social and ethical points of view.

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One Response to Week 7: Information Technology and Modern Warfare

  1. Very interesting and clearly presented post – will come back to watch the vids.

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