Skip to main content Skip to search input

Accelerating rate of change in warfare - Major Andrew Maher

The recent release of the Chief of Army’s Accelerated Warfare concept has prompted a contest of ideas as to how today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous operating environment influences Army. I aim with this article to demonstrate how the concept of Accelerated Warfare responds to an accelerating rate of change in warfare.

 In 1815, the Napoleonic wars concluded, ushering in what was arguably the dawn of Industrial Age warfare and the laying of our Clausewitizan doctrinal foundation. This foundation has been described as 1st Generation Warfare. Throughout the Peninsular War, a French Corps (Marshal) commanded between 8 and 20 thousand men and used muskets, cavalry, cannon and baggage trains to a direct fire range of up to 1.8 kilometres. Cavalry daily rate of movement enabled an influence over approximately 11,000 square kilometres. In this era, warfare saw the birth of operational art and cavalry was a decisive arm.

 A century later, in 1915, World War One armies fought to a standstill as Napoleonic General Staff used operational art to seek decisive battle through superior mobilisation, orchestrated by railroad and telegraph. At the height of what has been described as 2nd Generation Warfare, the combination of rifles, machine guns, obstacles and artillery thus rendered Cavalry obsolete. An Australian Infantry Corps (Lieutenant General) commanded between 50 and 100 thousand men and could fire massed artillery to a range of 7-10 kilometres. With the invention of aircraft, the Corps could organically affect approximately 321,000 square kilometres. In this era, habitual combined arms operations were born.

 Fifty years later, in 1965, the First Offset Strategy under Eisenhower’s “New Look”, had yielded an air force that had evolved to become the dominant arm of the U.S. military.  Industrial warfare had matured to the height of 3rd Generation Warfare. An emergent undercurrent in major power competition emerged, known as the  stability / instability paradox which both deterred total war, and encouraged the wars of colonial revolution. The well-oiled combined arms killing machine of the U.S. military was strategically outmanoeuvred by North Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp’s “Peoples War” which could weather tactical losses whilst still achieving political outcomes. An American Pentomic Division (Major General) commanded between 10 and 20 thousand men and could fire 155mm artillery to a range of 14 kilometres. Through nascent airmobile concepts, a Division could affect approximately 785,000 square kilometres within hours. In this era, French, American and Australian Armies fought to adapt their respective cultural and doctrinal concepts to the dual challenges of conventional and unconventional warfare to varying degrees.

 Twenty-five years later, in 1991, the U.S. Army rejection of counter-insurgency doctrine for the concept of Air-Land Battle coalesced into what was seen as the epitome of operational art, played out with the evisceration of the Iraqi Army. The spectre of mutually-assured destruction had seemingly been lifted. The nascent “jointness” resulting from the Second Offset Strategy and the Goldwater-Nichols Act, was translated into tactical magnificence. Emerging in this period, an American Brigade Combat Team (Brigadier General) commanded several thousand men and could directly engage to at least 24 kilometres. Within hours it could affect almost 2 million square kilometres using organic attack aviation.

 Fifteen years later, in 2012, Western adversaries had again disarmed Western tactical brilliance through dispersal and “Wars amongst the People”. The adversary’s democratisation of violence and employment of man-portable lethality in complex urban terrain codified what has been termed 4th Generation Warfare. This environment forced doctrinal adaptation to support the “Strategic Corporal” fighting the complex “Three Block War”. Massed, persistent, armed, unmanned aerial systems became normal for support to Joint Task Forces (JTFs – often commanded at a Colonel or Lieutenant Colonel level), enabled by the joint and inter-agency community. Thus, a JTF commander could directly engage to 30 kilometres or more and affect over 4 million square kilometres, in under an hour. 

 Ten years later, by 2022, one might expect Western militaries to begin realising the effects of the Third Offset Strategy. Ongoing empowerment and delegation of authorities is expected to leverage cyber, big data analytics and electronic warfare capabilities, manned-unmanned teaming and joint, inter-agency capabilities. The integration of long-range rocket, F-35A, EA-18G, P-8 and MQ-4 capabilities (amongst others) will transform this tactical environment. Tactical commanders should expect an ability to engage beyond 100 kilometres and affect millions of square kilometres, and the millions of people living in the crowded, connected, urban littoral therein. Indeed, we have already observed this norm of employing empowered battlegroups on both sides in the Donbass.

 With each decreasing epoch, a doctrinal revolution (or generational shift) is evident as the impact of technological change is felt in our tactical concepts. As we employ such tactics, our adversaries cycle through their OODA loop to adapt novel solutions that account for each doctrinal revolution. This OODA loop is, in each generation, being informed by improving information connectivity progressing from the age of sail to today’s globalised instantaneous communication. Each generational shift yields increased lethality, increased range and increased responsiveness, whilst devolving authority of respective levels of command from that of their forebears. Hence, each generational shift should also see a commensurate shift in the training, education and career management function for the latest generation.

 Despite this accelerating rate of change, continuities abound. The Napoleonic wars were no less “hybrid” than the Russian operations in Crimea and the Donbass, due to guerrilla warfare to counter Napoleon’s Grande Armée in Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Russia. Clausewitz’s trinity is likewise just as evident in this hybrid environment as the “passions of the people” that rose in Andalucia, Galicia and Catalonia in 1811, likewise made themselves felt two centuries later in rebellion against the Ben Ali, Assad and Ghaddafi regimes in 2011. Thus, we are reminded of war’s enduring nature, but changing character.

 The challenge of Accelerated Warfare for Army is thus to adapt, where appropriate, its command and control principles, equipment, tactics, doctrine and promotion systems. Concurrently, it must retain those facets enduring to warfare’s nature – a violent clash of wills to serve political ends. Accelerated Warfare is thus more than a title; it is a challenge to drive continual organisational change to warfare’s rapidly adapting character.

 About the author: Major Andrew Maher is an infantry officer with particular interest in operations conducted by, with and through foreign forces, as a result of operational experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a Masters in Defence Studies, has commanded at Platoon and Company levels, and is currently serving as a Military Fellow, Lecturer and Doctoral candidate with the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.

Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
Back to top