A Palestinian mob hurls rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops equipped with the latest high-tech weaponry. The Israelis respond with tear gas, then rubber-jacketed bullets, then missiles. Palestinian casualties mount as TV cameras roll. The Israelis win the skirmish but lose another public-opinion battle. Welcome to what defense experts call the "fourth generation" of warfare.
A decade ago, some farsighted analysts saw this coming. In an article in the October, 1989, Marine Corps Gazette, civilian military theorist William S. Lind and four military officers analyzed the evolution of modern warfare. The first phase, they wrote, was based on massed manpower, arranged in lines and columns and armed with smoothbore muskets. The second relied on massed firepower and exploited new rifle technology as small groups of troops advanced in rushes. The third was exemplified by the German blitzkrieg: The idea was to bypass the enemy's forces quickly, rather than attack them frontally.
MEDIA FIGHT. In the fourth generation, the writers predicted, combat would be even more dispersed. The battlefield would once again envelop entire societies, as in more primitive and ancient cultures. Military objectives would no longer focus on annihilating tidy enemy lines, but rather on eroding popular support for the war within the enemy's society. "Television news may become a more powerful operational weapon than armored divisions," the authors wrote.
The combatants are changing, too. In latter-day David-vs.-Goliath showdowns, nation-states are fighting nonnation-states--clans or religious or ethnic groups--in places like the Mideast, Africa, and Europe. And the Goliaths often lose. A Somali clan drove the U.S. out of Mogadishu. Hezbollah ousted the Israeli army from southern Lebanon. The Chechnyans have humbled Russia's army. All learned the lesson taught by the Vietnam War: Major powers have little appetite for televised loss of life.
What is being waged now is low-tech war in populated areas where combatants are hidden among civilians--and are often the civilians themselves. It's a strategy that undermines advanced weaponry designed for open spaces and large targets. "A lot of capabilities we have just simply aren't relevant," says Michael G. Vickers, director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.
The U.S. military is slowly grappling with the disconnect between weaponry and current conflicts. In field training, the Marines have reduced average casualties in urban war games from 38% to 12%, according to Gary Anderson, a former chief of staff of the Marines Corps Warfighting Lab. Instead of spraying crowds with pellets, the Marines will use countersnipers to neutralize the handful of enemies with guns. Another option: nonlethal weapons. Among those under development: antipersonnel microwaves that raise the body temperature of a target to as high as 107F, chemical slicks that make demonstrators fall down, and sticky foam that hardens--immobilizing protesters.
NEW GROUND. But war has three dimensions: physical, mental, and moral. And it is the battle for the moral high ground that may pose the biggest problem for nation-states. "There is no solution at the technical level," says Lind. "The problem is at a much higher level of war." He argues that for Israel to win, for example, it must adopt the tribal behavior of the Palestinians, who hail fallen warriors as heroes and exult when an enemy is killed. But that could cause a backlash against Israel and lead to international intervention, says Michael Eisenstadt, a senior research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Davids, of course, can blunder by, say, blowing up a school bus. But the fact is that it's hard for a Goliath to win sympathy. Pentagon analyst Chuck Spinney believes the Kosovo Liberation Army got thousands of Kosovars to leave their homes to magnify the extent of ethnic cleansing and demonize Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. That's the type of tactic multibillion-dollar weapons systems will never counteract.