What are the Generations of Warfare?


The concept of four “generations” in the history of modern warfare was created by a team of United States analysts, including William S. Lind (1989), for the purpose of an argument for “the changing face of war” entering into a “fourth generation”.

The generations of warfare are sometimes dubbed as “4GW” (DTIC, 2007), although a fifth has been introduced so 5GW is used.

Outline of the Generations

First-Generation Warfare1. Refers to Ancient and Post-classical battles fought with massed manpower, using phalanx, line and column tactics with uniformed soldiers governed by the state.
Second-Generation Warfare1. This is the Early modern tactics used after the invention of the rifled musket and breech-loading weapons and continuing through the development of the machine gun and indirect fire.
2. The term second generation warfare was created by the US military in 1989.
Third-Generation Warfare1. This focuses on using Late modern technology-derived tactics of leveraging speed, stealth and surprise to bypass the enemy’s lines and collapse their forces from the rear.
2. Essentially, this was the end of linear warfare on a tactical level, with units seeking not simply to meet each other face to face but to outmanoeuvre each other to gain the greatest advantage.
Fourth-Generation Warfare1. As presented by Lind and colleagues, it is characterised by a “post-modern” return to decentralised forms of warfare, blurring of the lines between war and politics, combatants and civilians due to nation states’ loss of their near-monopoly on combat forces, returning to modes of conflict common in pre-modern times.
Fifth-Generation Warfare1. This is conducted primarily through non-kinetic military action, such as social engineering, misinformation, cyberattacks, along with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and fully autonomous systems.
2. Fifth generation warfare has been described by Daniel Abbot as a war of “information and perception”. (Abbot, 2010, p.20; Abbot & Abbot, 2021).

Refer to New Generation Warfare.

First-Generation Warfare

In 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the Treaty of Westphalia gave a practical sovereignty to the German states, which until then were semi-independent components of the Holy Roman Empire. This more firmly established the sovereignty of the nation-state, which meant, among other things, that governments would have exclusive rights to organise and maintain their own militaries. Before this time, many armies and nations were controlled by religious orders and many wars were fought in mêlée combat, or subversively through bribery and assassination. The first generation of modern warfare was intended to create a straightforward and orderly means of waging war.

Alternatively, it has been argued that the Peace of Westphalia did not solidify the power of the nation-state, but that the Thirty Years’ War itself ushered in an era of large-scale combat that was simply too costly for smaller mercenary groups to carry out on their own. According to this theory, smaller groups chose to leave mass combat – and the expenses associated with it – in the domain of the nation-state.

The increased accuracy and speed of the rifled musket and the breech-loader marks the end of first generation warfare; the concept of vast lines of soldiers meeting face to face became impractical due to the heavy casualties that could be sustained. Because these technologies were adopted gradually throughout the Americas and Europe, the exact end of the first generation of modern warfare depends on the region, but all world powers had moved on by the latter half of the 19th century.

In order to create a more controlled environment for warfare a military culture was developed that, in many ways, is still visible in the armed forces of today. Specially crafted uniforms set soldiers apart from the general populace.

An elaborate structure of rank was developed to better organise men into units. Rules for military drill were perfected, allowing line and column manoeuvres to be executed with more precision, and to increase the rate of fire in battle.

Control of media information release during the war and production of counterfeit money in order to devaluate enemy’s economy were used for the first time during Napoleonic wars.


Second-Generation Warfare

In the 19th century, the invention of the breech-loading rifled musket meant longer range, greater accuracy, and faster rate of fire. Marching ranks of men straight into a barrage of fire from such weapons would cause tremendous rates of casualties, so a new strategy was developed.

Second generation warfare still maintained lines of battle but focused more on the use of technology to allow smaller units of men to manoeuvre separately. These smaller units allowed for faster advances, less concentrated casualties, and the ability to use cover and concealment to advantage. To some degree, these concepts have remained in use even as the next generations have arisen, so the end of the second generation is not as clearly defined as that of the first. The development of the blitzkrieg highlighted some of the flaws of static firing positions and slow-moving infantry, so this can be considered the beginning of the end for the second generation, at least as the dominant force in military strategy.

The contributions of the second generation were responses to technological development. The second generation saw the rise of trench warfare, artillery support, more advanced reconnaissance techniques, extensive use of camouflage uniforms, radio communications, and fireteam manoeuvres.


Third-Generation Warfare

The use of blitzkrieg during the German invasion of France first demonstrated the power of speed and manoeuvrability over static artillery positions and trench defences. Through the use of tanks, mechanised infantry, and close air support, the Germans were able to quickly break through linear defences and capture the rear.

The emphasis on manoeuvring and speed to bypass enemy engagement remains a common strategy throughout the world, and collapsing an enemy’s defences by striking at deeper targets is – in a somewhat different way – a major strategy in fourth generation warfare.

The contributions of the third generation were based on the concept of overcoming technological disadvantage through the use of clever strategy. As linear fighting came to an end, new ways of moving faster began to appear.

The emphasis on mobility moved from heavy armour to greater speed, the development of the helicopter allowed insertions in hostile territory, and advanced missile technology allowed forces to bypass enemy defences and strike at targets from great distances. The speed inherent in these methods necessitated a greater degree of independence allowed to the units on the front lines.

Greater trust needed to be placed in junior officers commanding sub-units by higher-ranking officers – a belief that they could adequately achieve their objectives without micromanagement from higher ranking commanders in command headquarters.

Smaller units were allowed greater decision flexibility to deal with changing situations on the ground, rather than have decisions made for them by commanders who were distant from the front. This began to break down the regimented culture of order that was so important in previous theoretical eras of military command and control.


Fourth-Generation Warfare

Refer to Fourth-Generation Warfare for further detail.

Fourth-generation warfare is characterised by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, combatants and civilians (aka non-combatants). The term was first used in 1989 by a team of United States analysts, including William S. Lind, to describe warfare’s return to a decentralised form. In terms of generational modern warfare, the fourth generation signifies the nation states’ loss of their near-monopoly on combat forces, returning to modes of conflict common in pre-modern times.

The simplest definition includes any war in which one of the major participants is not a state but rather a violent non-state actor. Classical examples, such as the slave uprising under Spartacus or the mercenary uprising that occurred in Carthage after the First Punic War, predate the modern concept of warfare and are examples of this type of conflict.

Fourth generation warfare is defined as conflicts which involve the following elements:

  • Are complex and long term.
  • Terrorism (tactic).
  • A non-national or transnational base – highly decentralised.
  • A direct attack on the enemy’s core ideals.
  • Highly sophisticated psychological warfare, especially through media manipulation and lawfare
  • All available pressures are used – political, economic, social and military.
  • Occurs in low intensity conflict, involving actors from all networks.
  • Non-combatants are tactical dilemmas.
  • Lack of hierarchy.
  • Small in size, spread out network of communication and financial support.
  • Use of insurgency and guerrilla tactics.

Fourth-generation warfare theory has been criticised on the grounds that it is “nothing more than repackaging of the traditional clash between the non-state insurgent and the soldiers of a nation-state.”

Fifth-Generation Warfare

Refer to Fifth-Generation Warfare for further detail.

Fifth-generation warfare (5GW) is warfare that is conducted primarily through non-kinetic military action, such as social engineering, misinformation, cyberattacks, along with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and fully autonomous systems. Fifth generation warfare has been described by Daniel Abbot as a war of “information and perception”.


There is no widely agreed upon definition of fifth-generation warfare, and it has been rejected by some scholars, including William S. Lind, who was one of the original theorists of fourth-generation warfare.

The term ‘fifth-generation warfare’ was first used in 2003 by Robert Steele. The following year, Lind criticised the concept, arguing that the fourth generation had yet to fully materialise.

In 2008, the term was used by Terry Terriff, who presented the 2003 ricin letters as a potential example, but stated that he was not entirely sure if it was a fifth-generation attack, claiming “we may not recognize it as it resolves around us. Or we might look at several alternative futures and see each as fifth generation.” Terriff argued that while fifth-generation warfare allows “super-empowered individuals” to make political statements through terrorism, they lack the political power to actually have their demands met.

L.C. Rees described the nature of fifth generation warfare as difficult to define in itself, alluding to the third law of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke – “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


Alex P. Schmid said that fifth-generation warfare is typified by its “omnipresent battlefield”, and the fact that people engaged in it do not necessarily use military force, instead employing a mixture of kinetic and non-kinetic force.

In the 1999 book Unrestricted Warfare by colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui of the People’s Liberation Army, they noted that in the years since the 1991 Gulf War, conventional military violence had decreased, which correlated to an increase in ““political, economic, and technological violence”, which they argued could be more devastating than a conventional war.

On the contrary, Thomas P.M. Barnett, believes that the effectiveness of fifth-generational warfare is exaggerated, as terrorism conducted by individuals, such as Timothy McVeigh or Ted Kaczynski, lacks the support of more organised movements. This was seconded by George Michael, who noted that in the United States, gang violence was responsible for far more deaths than lone wolf terrorist attacks.


Abbott, D. (2010). The Handbook of Fifth-Generation Warfare. Nimble Books.

Abbot, D. (Author) & Abbot, D.H. (Editor) (2021) The Handbook of 5GW: A Fifth Generation of War? Nimble Books LLC.

DTIC (Defence Technical Information Centre). DTIC ADA521639. Military Review. 87(3), May-June 2007.

Lind, W.S., Nightengale, K., Schmitt, J.F., Sutton, J.W. & Wilson, G.I. (1989), “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”Marine Corps Gazette. October 1989, pp.22-26.

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