Op-Ed: The Roots, Tactics and Consequences of New Generation Warfare

The Department of Homeland Security logo is reflected in the glasses of a cyber security analyst at the department's cyber defense facility in Idaho Falls. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
The Department of Homeland Security logo is reflected in the glasses of a cyber security analyst at the department's cyber defense facility in Idaho Falls. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

The term New Generation Warfare (NGW) first began to appear in Russian military literature in 2013. It was a response to the call to "rethink the forms and methods of warfare" by the chief of the General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov.

According to Gerasimov, the conduct of military operations in the 21st century has changed because there is now a "blurring of the lines between war and peace," while at the same time "non-military means of achieving military and strategic goals have grown."

At the core of the Gerasimov Doctrine is the belief that nonmilitary means "in many cases exceeded the power of weapons in their effectiveness."

The Gerasimov Doctrine does away with the distinction between war and peace. There is only continuous war, primarily through nonmilitary means, as each side attempts to shape the operational battlefield to its tactical advantage.

Ultimate success is achieved not by triumphing militarily on the battlefield, although sometimes that may be the only alternative, but by using nonmilitary means to tilt the battlefield so advantageously to one side that the opponent has no recourse but to withdraw or surrender.

Stated in such broad, general strokes, the Gerasimov Doctrine hardly seems like a radical innovation in military strategy. Napoleon famously quipped that he fought battles only where he was certain of victory -- a thought echoed by numerous successful generals throughout human history. Likewise, the battlefield impact of nonmilitary factors has been recognized from Sun Tzu to Mao.

Every combatant tries to choose a battlefield that will most favor them and to shape it to their advantage. In many cases, both sides engage in battle believing they have achieved that objective only to discover at the end that one side had miscalculated.

The German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously declared, "War is the continuation of politics by other means."

In the Gerasimov Doctrine, politics is the continuation of war by other means.

The Roots of New Generation Warfare

The roots of NGW as an operational doctrine are threefold. First, it is based in the Kremlin's view that Russian security is contingent on Moscow's control of its periphery. The greater the reach of that control, the greater the degree of security.

At the very least, it required "client regimes" in the "Near Abroad," the periphery of former Soviet republics that surround Russia. Ideally, it entailed the restoration of pro-Russian governments in the former states of the Soviet bloc.

In 1999, Vladimir Putin came to power with the objective of re-establishing Russian hegemony over the Near Abroad and Eastern Europe. For Putin, "the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

Russian foreign policy in the Putin era has focused unwaveringly on re-establishing Moscow's power and influence, i.e. "coercive leverage," over the region.

The Kremlin realized, however, that Russia's population, economic and natural resources would not allow it to compete as a peer rival of the United States. The re-establishment of Moscow's sway would require both a modernization of the Russian military and new tactics. NGW is, in part, a response to this new Russian reality.

The second source of NGW was the military lessons gleaned from the U.S. experience in Afghanistan and Iraq and in the Gulf War, as well as Russia's own experience in the Chechen wars and Georgia.

The indisputable lesson of the First Gulf War was that American air dominance coupled with superior mobility, real-time intelligence and precision-guided weapons simply overwhelmed Soviet-era battle tactics. While it is likely that Russian troops would have fared better than their Iraqi counterparts, the outcome would have been less lopsided, but still the same.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in the more general struggle against jihadism, on the other hand, overwhelming American military power was sufficient to rapidly win the war but failed to win the peace. In an asymmetric conflict, being a superpower was not a guarantee of victory against a weaker power whose flexibility and agility allowed it to strike repeatedly at American weaknesses in unconventional ways.

Moreover, even the successful implementation of a counterinsurgency doctrine could go only so far. Open societies, like those of the U.S. and its allies, are singularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Modern weaponry, the relative ease with which it can be acquired, and its destructive capabilities, meant that asymmetry was now a permanent feature of military conflict.

While we think of asymmetrical conflict as a struggle between a strong power and a weak actor, it need not be limited to just the weak. A more expansive view of asymmetrical conflict is that it involves attacking an enemy in ways where they cannot attack back in the same manner.

Attacks that take the form of misinformation or manipulation of social unrest, for example, can be viewed as a form of asymmetrical conflict because while American and European societies are vulnerable to such attacks, less open societies, like Russia, are far less susceptible.

The third root of NGW was the revolution in communications and internet-based connectivity. The First Gulf War has been described as the first network-centric war. Instantaneous communications, real-time intelligence and the ability to access such information concurrently proved to be a hugely effective force multiplier, vastly increasing the operational effectiveness and lethality of military forces.

In a way, the network-centric capabilities showcased in the Gulf War were a preview of the broader social communications revolution that was in the offing, although at the time it wasn't anticipated. Our reliance on complex, instantaneous and all-encompassing communications systems creates a significant vulnerability in the command-and-control functions of modern warfare, as well as offers a potent new weapon to manipulate societies in order to shape the broader operational battlefield in the future.

NGW incorporates both functions. It targets the suppression of battlefield communications, robbing commanders of real-time information, while reducing the capability of units in the field to coordinate their actions and more importantly request assistance.

American infantry units, for example, have come to expect almost instantaneous close ground support from aerial units overhead when engaged with an enemy. Such support, however, presupposes unrestricted communications.

Moreover, the instantaneous, real time, all pervasive communications net that we have embraced as an integral part of everyday life has also allowed foreign intelligence services to create misinformation, what today we euphemistically call fake news, foment social unrest, and fan ethnic and political antagonisms in ways and to a degree that is unprecedented.

Social media networks like Facebook and Instagram, not to mention global 24-hour cable news networks, have become vastly efficient distributors of content, regardless of its veracity or reliability. A single tweet can be amplified millions of times in the space of a few hours, reverberating around the world. Moreover, such misinformation, once created, remains part of the cyber-sphere indefinitely, always ready to reappear.

While an environment with instantaneous communications and unlimited platforms in which to disseminate content would be expected to augur a golden age of journalism, the opposite has been true. The current financial models for monetizing content put a tremendous amount of reliance on first to market. Being fast and being in-depth are two concepts that historically journalism has usually found incompatible.

Being repeatedly on the cutting edge of trending news is the key to financial success in the current media marketplace. Such emphasis, however, means that "breaking news" is often incomplete, prone to errors and vulnerable to being spun, based on the political orientation of its broadcaster.

A breaking news story might generate thousands of articles; often though, most of them are simply rewrites of a press release or what other writers have already said. All clamor for attention, typically with ever more provocative titles that are little more than clickbait to snare ill-informed readers.

Moreover, most of the time there simply isn't enough news to feed the insatiable demands of a 24/7 cable news industry. That means most important news stories are subject to a never-ending cycle of commentary and debate. Such commentary, invariably, is pre-selected to reflect a broadcaster's own agenda.

Like clickbait, the more outrageous and heated the commentary and exchange, the more entertainment value it is deemed to have. Many times, the commentary itself becomes the next breaking news -- feeding the next news cycle and shaping the dialogue around the story.

Take, for example, the recent debate over whether President Donald Trump could issue a pardon to himself. The story dominated cable news networks for several days and still resurfaces from time to time. In fairness, Trump never made such a claim nor did anyone else in his administration.

The story was created when a commentator on one of the cable news networks suggested that it was something the president could do. Whether the president would or could pardon himself became a news story in its own right and dominated questions at the White House press briefing for the next several days.

In such an environment, the ability to plant misinformation to shape public opinion becomes more than an issue of press accuracy or the quality of public debate. In NGW, it becomes a weapon for shaping the operational battlefield to Moscow's advantage.

The Elements of New Generation Warfare

As currently conceived by Moscow, on a tactical level, NGW has five critical elements:

1. Political Subversion and Manipulation. In many ways, this is no different than the old Soviet practice of "agitprop." As conceived by its creator, Georgi Plekhanov, agitprop was both the practice of spreading propaganda via the mass media, especially through literature, art and popular culture, as well as more aggressive actions such as blackmail, intimidation, bribery and, if necessary, assassination.

American society is far more accessible today to the Russian government than in the past. In the heyday of the Cold War, the ideological dimension of the conflict with Moscow meant that links to the Soviet Union were seen as un-American, even potentially traitorous. That gradually eased with the onset of détente and with the growth of Soviet-American trade, especially after the USSR began purchasing vast quantities of American wheat from 1972 on.

Most interactions with the Soviet Union were government to government. In addition, there were cultural and sport exchanges and some tourism, but these too were limited. Today, however, Russian citizens, provided they get a visa and are not singled out for sanctions, can visit the U.S. and travel throughout the country or meet with American citizens, including U.S. government officials, with few restrictions.

Russians are free to invest in the U.S., albeit with controls on industries deemed to be sensitive for national security. Russian venture capital firms have set up shop in Silicon Valley to make investments in cutting-edge American technology companies. Russia Today operates its own cable news network in the U.S. These are all activities that at the height of the Cold War would have been inconceivable.

Prominent Russian businessmen or private citizens are, often, singled out as having Kremlin connections. Many do. In a society where power is highly centralized, it is both prudent and advantageous to cultivate such links with the powers that be. Much the same could be said for prominent American companies and businessmen. What Fortune 500 company doesn't cultivate links to the U.S. government or to their local congressman or senator?

In Russia's case, however, the dependence of Russia's giant companies, and the oligarchs who control them, on the Kremlin's good will, blurs the line between the Russian government and those individuals. Not every speaking engagement, board honorarium or consulting contract is part of a Kremlin-directed subversion, but some probably are.

Couple that with the ease with which social media networks can be manipulated, as they clearly were during the 2016 presidential election, and the ability of Russia to manipulate American society, create social tensions and antagonisms and sow distrust between different social groups and between American society and its government, and the Kremlin has a powerful new weapon in its arsenal of NGW.

2. Proxy Agents. An integral part of NGW is the use of proxies in carrying out subversive activities and military operations. This was underscored in Russia's seizure of the Crimea and portions of eastern Ukraine.

The Russian seizure of Crimea was nothing less than a military invasion. Unlike Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968, this did not come with video of Soviet tanks rolling down the streets of ancient capitals or Warsaw Pact forces manning checkpoints. Instead local, pro-Russian groups appeared to spontaneously seize control of police stations, airports and government offices.

The resulting chaos was further aggravated by cyberattacks from undetermined parties, which disrupted communications, media outlets and government functions. This spontaneous uprising quickly declared itself a people's republic and immediately appealed for Russian help to restore order and protect its civilian inhabitants from military reprisals.

In this instance, the Kremlin could reasonably claim that, far from invading Crimea, it was simply acting to prevent civilian bloodshed and restore order, as well as protect the legitimate political aspirations of a persecuted group striving for self-determination -- all reasons that have been used in the past to justify military interventions by the U.S. and its NATO allies.

The use of proxies is not a new feature of Russian foreign policy. At the height of the Cold War, Soviet and American proxies battled in myriad conflicts across Asia, Africa and South America. KGB funding and support of European subversive groups, like the Brigate Rosse or Baader Meinhof, were well known to Western intelligence agencies, even if the groups themselves were sometimes unaware of their dependence on KGB support.

Likewise, the Soviets organized myriad European false-front organizations that lobbied against deployment of nuclear weapons by NATO in Europe or called for unilateral disarmament by the U.S. and its allies. While such groups created social tensions and divisions, and lobbied hard against their government's decisions, they did not have an overt military role, even though their actions had military repercussions.

What is different in NGW, is that such groups become both the spearpoint of a Russian military intervention and provide cover for its justification. The use of such groups allows the Kremlin to argue that it has not intervened militarily.

What happens, for example, if Moscow engages the Baltic republics with the same playbook that it used in Ukraine? Would that be enough for the Baltic republics to invoke the Article 5 provisions of the NATO treaty or would there be enough ambivalence to allow members reluctant to confront Russia to argue that no invasion had taken place?

3. Intervention through Proxies and Contract Mercenaries. NGW organizes military intervention as a layered force structure consisting of up to six different groups of forces. These layers are:

  • Militarized Local Population. These are the proxy agitators and local militias that are the spearpoint of a Russian intervention. They are armed by third parties with weapons that cannot be directly traced to Russia.
  • Private Military Contractors. These are typically former Russian military personnel, many highly trained, who are operating as mercenaries. Typically, they are funded indirectly by Russia, although officially they are in theater at the behest and at the expense of the local proxy forces. Such soldiers get paid roughly 10 times what regular recruits in the Russian military are paid.
  • Contracted Forces from Outside the Theater. These forces are like private military contractors, except they are not Russian in origin. It's not clear whether such forces were used in Ukraine. Hezbollah's role in the Syrian civil war is an example of such contracted forces, although in that case they are involved at the behest of Iran, not Russia.
  • Advise, Assist and Accompany Teams. These teams play the same role that U.S. forces embedded with Iraqi and Afghan military forces play. In Ukraine's case, this is more akin to the role of U.S. advisers with the Syrian Democratic Forces. These teams typically embed Russian officers in local militias and may exercise command-and-control roles within those groups. They also coordinate those militias with contracted forces and eventually with Russian Spetsnaz (special forces) and conventional Russian military forces.
  • Russian Spetsnaz/Special Forces. These forces function similarly to U.S. special operation forces in a theater. They may execute their own missions independently of local militias and other contracted forces and collaborate with them in support roles.
  • Conventional Russian Military Forces. These are regular army units. They will generally not appear until the initial military objectives are secured, thus preserving the narrative that this is not a Russian military intervention. They may be deployed in theater or assist from outside the theater. In Ukraine, for example, Russian artillery units from inside Russia were sometimes used against Ukrainian military forces engaged with local militias in Donbass and Luhansk.

In the takeover of Crimea, what appeared to be Russian military personnel wearing uniforms that did not have any Russian military insignia, the so-called "little green men," were actively involved in the Russian takeover. Once Crimea had officially voted for union with Russia, Russian military forces in Crimea were officially expanded and they became more visible.

In addition, the modernization of the Russian military has made it more compatible with the force requirements of NGW. Russian units are now designed to permit their projection regionally with high speed and intensity in an expeditionary role. This makes the military a more agile and modular force, as has been demonstrated in both the Russian intervention in Ukraine as well as Syria.

4. Aggressive Military Posture. A fourth aspect of NGW is what is described as "coercive deterrence," a more forward and aggressive military posture. This is characterized by aggressive air and sea patrols, such as Russian bomber patrols in Alaskan airspace or Russian ship and submarine deployments along the coasts of NATO members.

It's also evidenced by overflights of the airspace of the Baltic republics and other NATO members by Russian military planes operating with their transponders shut off. This would be standard operating procedure in the event of an air attack.

In these cases, and they have been numerous, the overflights are by single planes or pairs of planes, making it unlikely that it is a precursor to an actual attack and more an exercise in intimidation. This behavior is also consistent, for example, with the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in the enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.

5. Manipulation of Negotiations. This has been a tried-and-true technique of Russian foreign policy. It involves using the prospect of a negotiated settlement to forestall more aggressive Western responses for fear of escalating a conflict while using temporary cease-fires to rearm its proxies. At the same time, the Kremlin attempts to create divisions within NATO to further forestall a response.

This has been characteristic, for example, in the Kremlin's actions to forestall and discourage NATO membership for Georgia and in how Moscow has attempted to discourage a more resolute Western response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria.

In addition to these five elements, NGW is also supplemented by cyber warfare and intelligence operations that are carried out anonymously, thus preserving Moscow's deniability.

Coping with New Generation Warfare

In a nutshell, NGW is about winning the battle of the mind so that an actual military battle becomes unnecessary. NGW is about shaping the operational battlefield by using a range of nonmilitary and military strategies to continually try to tilt that battlefield to Moscow's advantage.

It is a strategy for continuous conflict that stops short of actual military engagement. Indeed, if the strategy is executed successfully, a military engagement becomes unnecessary.

NGW uses the open nature of Western societies, and the communications revolution created by network-centric communications, to create dissension and confusion within the West. In this effort, they are aided by and they are exploiting the divisions that exist, both within these societies and between many governments and their constituents.

Ironically, social media, which was originally seen as a socially unifying force, has instead become a powerful weapon for creating polarizing social unrest.

The communications revolution has paradoxically led to a tsunami of information that is overwhelming to most individuals and that operates with few filters. Invariably, the emphasis on speed to market has come at the expense of accuracy and depth. In this environment, it has become quite easy to create and disseminate false narratives designed to create social unrest and to advance the Kremlin's policy objectives.

Combined with the use of proxy agents, often deployed in asymmetrical fashion, the result is a state of a continuous near-war environment. This is neither a hot war nor a cold war. It is more a sort of shadow war, where anonymity and deniability are paramount and where Russia is constantly trying to improve its battlefield odds and tactical advantage.

Moscow is developing a doctrine that is using the very nature of open Western societies, and the technological innovation that they have spawned, to undermine social cohesion and public trust. In doing so, the Kremlin believes it can expand its coercive influence along its periphery and shape the region politically and economically to suit its interests.

NGW is a challenge to the U.S. and its NATO allies because a buildup of conventional military forces is not a sufficient response. While such a buildup can address new Russian tactics and weapons, they leave unaddressed ongoing Russian efforts to subvert and undermine Western societies. Nor is a tit-for-tat response a workable solution. An army of Kremlin-directed bots is not necessarily going to be defeated by a larger army of NATO-directed bots.

Responding to Moscow-directed efforts at regime change along its periphery by advocating regime change in Russia is a dangerous escalation. Doing nothing in response, however, is equally dangerous. Raising the cost to Moscow for engaging in such behavior via even more onerous sanctions is unlikely to change Kremlin policy.

What is needed is for the Kremlin to adopt an entirely different paradigm of its security, one that does not tie Russian security to its ability to coerce its neighbors. Under the current Kremlin leadership, however, such a paradigm shift is unlikely. Until then, Moscow's shadow war against the West will continue unabated.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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