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Geopolitical Weekly: The U.S. Air Force and the Next War
June 11, 2008

By George Friedman

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has fired the secretary of the Air
Force and the Air Force chief of staff. The official reason given for the
firings was the mishandling of nuclear weapons and equipment related to
nuclear weapons, which included allowing an aircraft to fly within the
United States with six armed nuclear weapons on board and accidentally
shipping nuclear triggers to Taiwan. An investigation conducted by a Navy
admiral concluded that Air Force expertise in handling nuclear weapons had

Focusing on Present Conflicts

While Gates insisted that this was the immediate reason for the firings, he
has sharply criticized the Air Force for failing to reorient itself to the
types of conflict in which the United States is currently engaged. Where
the Air Force leadership wanted to focus on deploying a new generation of
fighter aircraft, Gates wanted them deploying additional unmanned aircraft
able to provide reconnaissance and carry out airstrikes in Iraq and

These are not trivial issues, but they are the tip of the iceberg in a much
more fundamental strategic debate going on in the U.S. defense community.
Gates put the issue succinctly when he recently said that “I have noticed
too much of a tendency toward what might be called ‘next-war-itis’ — the
propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what
might be needed in a future conflict.” This is what the firings were about.

Naturally, as soon as the firings were announced, there were people who
assumed they occurred because these two were unwilling to go along with
plans to bomb Iran. At this point, the urban legend of an imminent war with
Iran has permeated the culture. But the Air Force is the one place where
calls for an air attack would find little resistance, particularly at the
top, because it would give the Air Force the kind of mission it really
knows how to do and is good at. The whole issue in these firings is whether
what the Air Force is good at is what the United States needs.

There is a neat alignment of the issues involved in the firings. Nuclear
arms were the quintessential weapons of the Cold War, the last generation.
Predators and similar unmanned aircraft are part of this generation’s
warfare. The Air Force sees F-22s and other conventional technology as the
key weapons of the next generation. The Air Force leadership, facing
decades-long timelines in fielding new weapons systems, feels it must focus
on the next war now. Gates, responsible for fighting this generation’s war,
sees the Air Force as neglecting current requirements. He also views it as
essentially having lost interest and expertise in the last generation’s
weapons, which are still important — not to mention extremely dangerous.

Fighting the Last War

The classic charge against generals is that they always want to fight the
last war again. In charging the Air Force with wanting to fight the next
war now, Gates is saying the Air Force has replaced the old problem with a
new one. The Air Force’s view of the situation is that if all resources are
poured into fighting this war, the United States will emerge from it
unprepared to fight the next war. Underneath this discussion of past and
future wars is a more important and defining set of questions. First, can
the United States afford to fight this war while simultaneously preparing
for the next one? Second, what will the next war look like; will it be
different from this one?

There is a school of thought in the military that argues that we have now
entered the fourth generation of warfare. The first generation of war,
according to this theory, involved columns and lines of troops firing
muzzle-loaded weapons in volleys. The second generation consisted of
warfare involving indirect fire (artillery) and massed movement, as seen in
World War I. Third-generation warfare comprised mobile warfare, focused on
outmaneuvering the enemy, penetrating enemy lines and encircling them, as
was done with armor during World War II. The first three generations of
warfare involved large numbers of troops, equipment and logistics. Large
territorial organizations — namely, nation-states — were required to carry
them out.

Fourth-generation warfare is warfare carried out by nonstate actors using
small, decentralized units and individuals to strike at enemy forces and,
more important, create political support among the population. The classic
example of fourth-generation warfare would be the intifadas carried out by
Palestinians against Israel. They involved everything from rioters throwing
rocks to kidnappings to suicide bombings. The Palestinians could not defeat
the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), a classic third-generation force, in any
conventional sense — but neither could the IDF vanquish the intifadas,
since the battlefield was the Palestinians themselves. So long as the
Palestinians were prepared to support their fourth-generation warriors,
they could extract an ongoing price against Israeli civilians and soldiers.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict thus became one of morale rather than
materiel. This was the model, of course, the United States encountered in

Fourth-generation warfare has always existed. Imperial Britain faced it in
Afghanistan. The United States faced it at the turn of the last century in
the Philippines. King David waged fourth-generation warfare in Galilee. It
has been a constant mode of warfare. The theorists of fourth-generational
warfare are not arguing that the United States will face this type of war
along with others, but that going forward, this type of warfare will
dominate — that the wars of the future will be fourth-generation wars.

Nation-States and Fourth-Generation Warfare

Implicit in this argument is the view that the nation-state, which has
dominated warfare since the invention of firearms, is no longer the primary
agent of wars. Each of the previous three generations of warfare required
manpower and resources on a very large scale that only a nation-state could
provide. Fidel Castro in the Cuban mountains, for example, could not field
an armored division, an infantry brigade or a rifle regiment; it took a
nation to fight the first three generations of warfare.

The argument now is that nations are not the agents of wars but its
victims. Wars will not be fought between nations, but between nations and
subnational groups that are decentralized, sparse, dispersed and primarily
conducting war to attack their target’s morale. The very size of the forces
dispersed by a nation-state makes them vulnerable to subnational groups by
providing a target-rich environment. Being sparse and politically capable,
the insurgent groups blend into the population and are difficult to ferret
out and defeat.

In such a war, the nation-state’s primary mission is to identify the enemy,
separate him from the population and destroy him. It is critical to be
surgical in attacking the enemy, since the enemy wins whenever an attack by
the nation-state hits the noncombatant population, even if its own forces
are destroyed — this is political warfare. Therefore, the key to success —
if success is possible — is intelligence. It is necessary to know the
enemy’s whereabouts, and strike him when he is not near the noncombatant

The Air Force and UAVs

In fourth-generation warfare, therefore, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)
are one of the keys to defeating the substate actor. They gather
intelligence, wait until the target is not surrounded by noncombatants and
strike suddenly and without warning. It is the quintessential warfare for a
technologically advanced nation fighting a subnational insurgent group
embedded in the population. It is not surprising that Gates, charged with
prosecuting a fourth-generation war, is furious at the Air Force for
focusing on fighter planes when what it needs are more and better UAVs.

The Air Force, which was built around the concept of air superiority and
strategic bombing, has a visceral objection to unmanned aircraft. From its
inception, the Air Force (and the Army Air Corps before it) argued that
modern warfare would be fought between nation-states, and that the defining
weapon in this kind of war would be the manned bomber attacking targets
with precision. When it became apparent that the manned bomber was highly
vulnerable to enemy fighters and anti-aircraft systems, the doctrine was
modified with the argument that the Air Force’s task was to establish air
superiority using fighter aircraft to sweep the skies of the enemy and
strike aircraft to take out anti-aircraft systems — clearing the way for
bombers or, later, the attack aircraft.

The response to the Air Force position is that the United States is no
longer fighting the first three types of war, and that the only wars the
United States will fight now will be fourth-generation wars where command
of the air is both a given and irrelevant. The Air Force’s mission would
thus be obsolete. Only nation-states have the resources to resist U.S.
airpower, and the United States isn’t going to be fighting one of them

This should be the key point of contention for the Air Force, which should
argue that there is no such thing as fourth-generation warfare. There have
always been guerrillas, assassins and other forms of politico-military
operatives. With the invention of explosives, they have been able to kill
more people than before, but there is nothing new in this. What is called
fourth-generation warfare is simply a type of war faced by everyone from
Alexander to Hitler. It is just resistance. This has not superseded
third-generation warfare; it merely happens to be the type of warfare the
United States has faced recently.

Wars between nation-states, such as World War I and World War II, are rare
in the sense that the United States fought many more wars like the Huk
rising in the Philippines or the Vietnam War in its guerrilla phase than it
did world wars. Nevertheless, it was the two world wars that determined the
future of the world and threatened fundamental U.S. interests. The United
States can lose a dozen Vietnams or Iraqs and not have its interests
harmed. But losing a war with a nation-state could be catastrophic.

The Next War vs. the War That Matters

The response to Gates, therefore, is that the Air Force is not preparing
for the next war. It is preparing for the war that really matters rather
than focusing on an insurgency that ultimately cannot threaten fundamental
U.S. interests. Gates, of course, would answer that the Air Force is
cavalier with the lives of troops who are fighting the current war as it
prepares to fight some notional war. The Air Force would counter that the
notional war it is preparing to fight could decide the survival of the
United States, while the war being fought by Gates won’t. At this point,
the argument would deadlock, and the president and Congress would decide
where to place their bets.

But the argument is not quite over at this point. The Air Force’s point
about preparing for the decisive wars is, in our mind, well-taken. It is
hard for us to accept the idea that the nation-state is helpless in front
of determined subnational groups. More important, it is hard for us to
accept the idea that international warfare is at an end. There have been
long periods in the past of relative tranquility between nation-states —
such as, for example, the period between the fall of Napoleon and World War
I. Wars between nations were sparse, and the European powers focused on
fourth-generational resistance in their colonies. But when war came in
1914, it came with a vengeance.

Our question regards the weapons the Air Force wants to procure. It wants
to build the F-22 fighter at enormous cost, which is designed to penetrate
enemy airspace, defeat enemy fighter aircraft and deliver ordnance with
precision to a particular point on the map. Why would one use a manned
aircraft for that mission? The evolution of cruise missiles with greater
range and speed permits the delivery of the same ordnance to the same
target without having a pilot in the cockpit. Indeed, cruise missiles can
engage in evasive maneuvers at g-forces that would kill a pilot. And cruise
missiles exist that could serve as unmanned aircraft, flying to the target,
releasing submunitions and returning home. The combination of space-based
reconnaissance and the unmanned cruise missile — in particular,
next-generation systems able to move at hypersonic speeds (in excess of
five times the speed of sound) — would appear a much more efficient and
effective solution to the problem of the next generation of warfare.

We could argue that both Gates and the Air Force are missing the point.
Gates is right that the Air Force should focus on unmanned aircraft;
technology has simply moved beyond the piloted aircraft as a model. But
this does not mean the Air Force should not be preparing for the next war.
Just as the military should have been preparing for the U.S.-jihadist war
while also waging the Cold War, so too, the military should be preparing
for the next conflict while fighting this war. For a country that spends as
much time in wars as the United States (about 17 percent of the 20th
century in major wars, almost all of the 21st century), Gates’ wish to
focus so narrowly on this war seems reckless.

At the same time, building a new and fiendishly expensive version of the
last generation’s weapons does not necessarily constitute preparing for the
next war. The Air Force was built around the piloted combat aircraft. The
Navy was built around sailing ships. Those who flew and those who sailed
were necessary and courageous. But sailing ships don’t fit into the modern
fleet, and it is not clear to us that manned aircraft will fit into
high-intensity peer conflict in the future.

We do not agree that preparing for the next war is pathological. We should
always be fighting this war and preparing for the next. But we don’t
believe the Air Force is preparing for the next war. There will be wars
between nations, fought with all the chips on the table. Gates is right
that the Air Force should focus on unmanned aircraft. But not because of
this war alone

277 Posts
Good read, except that I believe that warfare with non-state entities is just another term for guerrilla warfare. It is essentially a type of warfare favored by the losing side (with some notable exceptions such as China and North Vietnam), had been around for generations and is just an extension of the third generation warfare.

The fourth generation war will be fought by the Nintendo generation using remote controlled fighting vehicles and aircrafts. Quite a few models are being rigorously tested right now in various fronts. You can just imagine a swarm of UCAV's (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles) descending on hapless human troops, then finished up by several battalions of small tracked weapon platforms capable of semi-independent tactical movements.

Behold the future of modern war:


277 Posts
We used to piss off the infantry types by reminding them them that while they were baking in the summer heat covered with fine sand with the next shower weeks away, sailors like us were playing "pusoy" onboard our ships with comforts like hot meals, hot showers and cold air conditioning.

Maybe in the next generation war, the sailors and the soldiers both could be playing card games offshore while the robots are doing the wet work ashore.

The homeboys "at war" in the Persian Gulf.


277 Posts
Adobo? But of course. In fact you if you can go and visit the USS Midway (converted into a museum) in San Diego, the galley menu is now the immortal adobo for dinner.

BTW, West Coast ships are so "Filipinized" that rice is served four times a day, seven days a week. On top of that, the Pinoys have the gili-gili, a gathering of Filipinos in some out of the way office or storage room to cook more Filipino food and play pusoy all night. These games are fun, but not for the faint hearted. Bets can be outrageously high, as in hundreds of dollars in a hand of cards. These gili-gili are not exclusively Pinoy gathering. A lot of "other" guys who happen to be married to Pinays make it a point to be there too. Other than having fun, it pays to be hooked up to the "Filipino Mafia" if you want anything to get done, especially when dealing with supplies.

191 Posts
I could somehow attest to that, when I was still living in Yokohama, I used to frequent various bases during weekends and or special ocassion or holidays, like Christmas or 4th of July or Open base at Negishi Base , Atsugi Base and Yokosuka Base. Most of our Pinoy Navy,and other military personnel in various ships , especially the Pacific fleet would say that pinoys on mess duty or in kitchen duty always has adobo or other pinoy gourmet already prepared for them at the back e.g pakbet,kare-kare or adobo. So when their pinoy mates comes to eat they know to go directly to that special room at the back(w/c I obviously don't know where that is, or if that really exist)that has pinoy native, home cooked delicacies for them to enjoy.......And regarding pusoy... beliveve me I even know someone that swears that the monthly pay he got from serving the military is merely a tip compare to his frequent (winnings)"haul" he had--from the "pusoy" games or other betting games they have at that special room........:supergrin:

277 Posts
LOL! To find the "special room", either look for the Filipino Master Chief who happens to be in charge of the Supply Department, the Filipino First Class Mess Specialist who is in charge of the galley, or the ever smiling Filipino Third Class who looks just like the guy smiling way at the back in the picture above. Sometimes I think he's the one who is actually running the whole show!
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