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Operational IEDs

One of the most difficult challenges in Fourth Generation military theory is the problem Fourth Generation war poses for operational art. Put simply, 4GW is hard to operationalize. Operational art is not a thing, but a linkage: the connection between the tactical and strategic levels of war. In Second Generation, firepower/attrition warfare, operational art is reduced merely to accumulating tactical victories. The presumption, often unwarranted, is that at some point you hit the magic number where the enemy surrenders. In Third Generation, maneuver warfare, operational art is the art of breaking the enemy’s strategic "hinges" with the fewest possible tactical engagements. It thus provides the basis for deciding where and when to fight, and equally important, where and when not to fight. The principal operational weapon is surprise combined with speed, i.e. unexpected maneuver, usually with mechanized forces, deep into the enemy’s rear.

The question of what operational art means in Fourth Generation war remains open. I don’t know of any general answer. The problem is that the enemy’s strategic hinges, or centers of gravity, tend to be intangible: how do you use tactical engagements or operational maneuver to strike targets such as family or clan honor, gang loyalties, ideological convictions or belief in a particular god? After World War II, the most operationally competent armies in the world were the Red Army and the IDF. Yet both lost Fourth Generation wars, the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Israelis in Lebanon, because they could not figure out how to act operationally against 4GW enemies. Reduced to fighting an endless series of strategically meaningless tactical engagements, both were forced to withdraw. The U.S. military now finds itself in the same situation in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Unfortunately, it appears our Fourth Generation opponents have figured out a way to act operationally against us. I touched on this in an earlier column, but as I thought more about it, I decided that what is happening deserves fuller consideration. What our opponents are doing is brilliantly simple. By relying mostly on IEDs to attack us, they have created a situation where our troops have no one to shoot back at. That, in turn, ramps up the troops’ frustration level to the point where two things happen: our morale collapses and our troops take their frustration out on the local population. Both results have strategic significance, and at least the potential of being strategically decisive, the first because it affects American home front morale and the second because it drives the local population to identify with the insurgents instead of the government we are trying to support.

An article in the November 23 Cleveland Plain Dealer, "Morale of GIs in the Iraq suffers as months drag on, casualties mount," well describes the first result of war by IED:

"Morale is a roller coaster," said Lt. Rusten Currie, who has spent 10 months in Iraq. "We were all idealistic to begin with, wanting to find Osama bin Laden and (Abu Musab al-) Zarqawi and bring them to justice — whatever that means. Now we just want to go home."

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a spokesman for Multinational Force Iraq, says tensions are understandable when troops are attacked with remotely detonated explosives and there’s no way to fight back.

"Soldiers can indeed get frustrated because they’re not looking at an enemy who’s looking back at them," Lynch said.

The second operational effect, getting U.S. troops to take out their frustration on the local population, was illustrated in what an officer whose unit recently came back from Iraq said to me. "We were hit 3000 times and in only fifteen of those attacks did we have anyone to shoot back at," he told me. He quoted another officer in the battalion who had gone out on patrol many times as saying, "We are worse than the SS in the way we are treating these people," meaning Iraqi civilians. This is a classic result of "the war of the flea": as morale collapses, so does discipline, and poorly disciplined troops often treat local civilians badly.

Like the tank in Third Generation war, the IED is proving to be not merely a tactical but an operational weapon in the Fourth Generation. In Iraq, British troops are reacting by employing IEDs of their own to try to push local factions into fighting each other. That too, if it works, might play at the operational level.

But the broader challenge Fourth Generation war poses to state militaries at the operational level will remain. As I said, I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know the importance of the question. Until we have an answer, state armed forces will face great difficulty turning their tactical advantages into strategic success against 4GW enemies.

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