Truly formless 5GW

Dan of “tdaxp”: did some amazing work illustrating the “soundlessness and formlessness of 5th generation warfare”: after extrapolating a possible definition of 5GW by “going deeper into the OODA loop”: He does this by placing the generations of warfare on the OODA loop in a number of illustrations that I will reproduce here. First the OODA loop:

The OODA Loop

Then we will overlay the different generations of war:

Generations of warfare overlay

To use Dan’s words (“read here to see how he comes to these conclusions”:

* 1GW was defined by conflict centered around an enemy’s ability to decide and act
* 2GW was defined by conflict centered around an enemy’s ability to orient and decide
* 3GW is defined by conflict centered around an enemy’s ability to orient
* 4GW is defined by conflict centered around Observe and Orient.

Dan concluded that 5GW will center around an opponent’s ability to OBSERVE:

bq. In 5GW, secrecy is vital for success. While this has always been true on some levels, secrecy has never been vital on the grand-strategic level before 5GW. _In 5GW the enemy’s knowledge of your existence all but ends your plans._

Dan illustrated his point with a 5GW scenario where NATIVISTS play the US GOVERNMENT off of AL QAEDA to get tighter border control with Mexico. In fighting false-flag organizations who they think is Al Qaeda, the US GOVERNMENT cracks down on immigration and the NATIVISTS get what they want. The US GOVERNMENT doesn’t even realize what the true war was.

Dan’s concept of 5GW is centered on one opponent’s misperception of the enemy. The sides in conflict are focussed on each other to the exclusion of key players in the conflict.

Now, I think I might have come up with an alternative vision of 5GW, but one that remains within the OODA loop rubric Dan has previously outlined. I look forward to hearing Dan and “Mark’s”: input on this (and anyone else who cares to slog through this stuff).

h2. Emergent Networks and 5GW

First of all, much of this came from reading John Robb’s excellent “Global Guerillas”:

Distributed networks are how we normally think of the latest phase of terrorist organizations. Networked cells of agents come together _ad hoc_ to pull off an attack and then disperse into the population. This a major breakaway from the hierarchical organization of revolutionary guerillas of Mao’s era. But what happens in the case of a different kind of network? Follow me through this narrative:

Al Qaeda started off as a dense network of highly connected individuals that conducted training etc in the hills of Afghanistan. Once they were smashed by the US and ran to the hills the amount of direct control held by bin Laden diminished greatly. Direct interaction was replaced by globally distributed passive communication that outlined the group’s objectives, and an even more distributed network was left on their own to do what they can for “the cause”: we had the disappearance of Al Qaeda the “terrorist organization”, and the appearance of Al Qaeda the “movement.” There were all sorts of groups that stood up to claim membership to the greater network of AQ after committing some act. Look at “Al Qaeda in Iraq” and other regional franchises of the organization. Copycat groups like the London bombers also appeared.

Now, maybe a core organization of Al Qaeda still exists, but there seems to be a much more loose global community surrounding the AQ idea. This begs the question: could AQ 2.0, or even some future “terrorist organization”, be the result of an “emergent community”: “Emergence”: is a bottom-up organization of complex systems, where a “number of agents operate in an environment, forming more complex behaviours as a collective.” See “this interview with Steven Johnson”: for more examples of emergence.

What if the next “war on a noun” we face, isn’t even a true organization, but whose activities look like the results of an organized adversary? What if we end up fighting something that doesn’t actually exist? Thus the terrorist “organization” has struck deep into our OODA loop, rendering us unable to even OBSERVE our enemy correctly. That would be a truly formless adversary. As the “Hagakure”: says:

bq. Existing where there is nothing is the meaning of the phrase “Form is emptiness”

It reminds me of “The Usual Suspects”:;fc=1;ft=20;fm=1 and the legendary crimelord Keyser Sozé. Was he an actual person or simply a myth resulting from a series of loosely related crimes? “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Could the opposite be true? Could the greatest trick a terrorist movement ever pull is convincing the world that it _did_ exist? I could see how warring on this myth (effectively a figment of the paranoid imagination) to the ends of the earth could definitely bankrupt a state.

So, to recap, Dan’s version of 5GW has a key player acting behind the scenes that cannot be OBSERVEd. Younghusband’s version has a non-existent actor that is being perceived as OBSERVEable. Thoughts?

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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22 Responses to Truly formless 5GW

  1. YH,

    Well done ! I think that you are definitely correct that the wider Jihadi-Salafi community is at the stage of emergent behavior whch makes the counterintelligence and counterterrorism task eceptionally difficult.

    There are also *modular networks* in operation in the scenario you describe. To quote my friend Dr. Von:

    *”How can a network make use of fundamental principles from a variety of fields to enhance the performance of the entire network? In everyday terms, to me this almost sounds like multitasking. One needs to have members of the network who have studied and are trained in multiple fields, or small numbers of individuals who know something about a lot of different fields…research shows this multitasking tends to *reduce* productivity if you take the individual route. I may be a bit off on this, but in network theory, there is a hierarchical structure to some real networks that was discovered in ~2002. There are naturally forming, self-emergent networks within networks. There is still a scale-free mathematical structure to the more complex networks, and they are now called modular networks. A large company does this by having different departments, which by themselves are networks of workers. But the hubs, department managers, perhaps, are the links between the departments (modules) to form an ever more complex structure. The Internet and biological cell are naturally occurring modular networks, and the more people look, the more this structure is found in real networks.

    Modularity makes use of a variety of local information for the global success of the overall network. The fact that this occurs naturally through the evolution of many types of networks is intriguing. Perhaps this is what Wilson’s intuition was telling him. If I were a manager, I suppose I would encourage interaction between my department and others, to cross-feed each other with our knowledge and find out how to push the boundaries of our business.”*

    So the loose decentralization of post 9/11 Al qaida 2.0 may be compensated somewhat by intranetworking behavior, increasing the parameters of influence even as the ability to deliver a concentrated intensity diminishes.

  2. Chirol says:

    First of all watch out Dan. YH is in the house and clearly the new master of blog graphics. Points for using one of Chirol’s favorite movies, Usual Suspects in your post and the Hagakure, which I must admit, I first became aquainted with through Ghost Dog. Gotta get lunch and run to work but more later!

  3. Dan says:


    Chirol’s right. Beautiful graphics. Mad beautiful!

    And indeed, props for the Usual Suspects reference. :-)

    First, a mistake in your OODA loop that I make a lot. Orientation feeds backward into Observation. (See detailed view). For some reason this is terrible for me to remember — check out my post on the social cognition loop to see how I got it wrong and right in the same post. :-)

    Second, I wouldn’t say that a 5GW can be against nobody, because war requires a thinking opponent. Every generation of war is a qualitative shift. One way of thinking that is that it allows an opponent to win at a something like 20x disadvantage against an earlier generation of war. So 20 5GWers could defeat 400 4GWers, who could defeat 8000 3GWers, who could defeat 160000 2GWers, etc.

    In other words, a small 5GW cadre could defeat their criminal enemies the FBI, and the LAPD… . which is similar to what happens in Usual Suspects, even with my view of 5GW…

    Again, great post.

  4. Dan tdaxp says:


    On further thought, let me retune my comment, and add another.

    Deception has always been part of warfare, and you are correct we will see this in 5GW too. From non-existent horsemen over the next hill to fake tanks meant to scare the Germans,

    That said, you are correct that Observation plays a particularly large part in 5GW. Indeed, so large a part that the question of the identity of what is being observed comes up. If nativists really would use al Qaeda as a patsy, then not only are the nativists soundless and formless to the Government — even the “real” al Qaeda has a form and sound quite different from what the government thinks it does!

    To use your example, in The Usual Suspects everyone is observing the actions of the Kayser Soze Organizatoin. The main 5GWarrior in the movie clearly misdirected his enemies, just as the nativists misdirect the fed in my example. Yet, if one says the “real Kayser Soze Organization” is what is fighting, regardless of the perceived identity, then couldn’t one say in my example that the “real al Qaeda” is still the one fighting, even if it’s quite different than the mind’s picture of al Qaeda?

    So in conclusion

    a) I think our views are much closer than I originally thought,
    b) I need to apply identity more meaningfully to 5GW than I have,
    c) this was an excellent post, and
    d) All this work, and you never link to Dreaming 5GW? Egads! :-)

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  6. arherring says:

    Forgive me for being new to the 5GW discussion but I am a bit confused. Everything said about 5GW here seems to me to be more of a highly evolved 4GW than a new form of warfare that I thought defined a new generation.

    If 3GW was created to defeat 2GW and 4GW created to defeat 3GW, then by definition wouldn’t 5GW be the next logical step for a National / State actor to move toward in order to funtion against transnational 4GW players?

    I agree that 5GW will be a networked organization, but I think the main weapon it will wield will be the idea of connectivity. I imagine it to be sort of viral, with each person in the organization being a vector to spread the idea be they a soldier, a diplomat, an engineer, or a relief worker.

  7. John Robb says:

    I’d like to offer an alternative to the above. What if GG’s ignore the decision making of the government entirely (their entire OODA loop) and focus directly on the population/economy. This is the equivalent of turning the government’s decision making loop into a tire in mud. You can work perfectly, but it can’t get any traction.

  8. Younghusband says:

    Sorry about missing your other link Dan, but “Mark makes up for it!”: On the ORIENT feeding back into OBSERVE, this presents a problem. I really like your simplification of the “complex OODA loop”: and wish to maintain its simplicity. Gotta think about it some more.

    John, so the GG’s are not trying to effect any sort of political change? They just keep attacking _systempunkts_ simply for the purpose of disruption? Maybe sabotage those that are in front of you, so that you may get ahead?

  9. Joe Katzman says:

    Odd thing about humans. They’re going to observe and conclude anyway. If al-Qaeda is now a “movement,” still dedicated to violence and terror, the thing you’re forgetting is that this movement still has a locus and a home: the global ummah of Muslims.

    An al-Qaeda that was a pure movement and continued to perpetrate violence without command and control would simply cause observers to conclude that al-Qaeda = Islam… AND VICE-VERSA.

    This would indeed spawn a reaction, and very possibly a war or three along the way. The wars would likely be of the Total variety, however, and that’s lethal to an organization which depends for its existence on preserving asymetry. Though al-Qaeda itself would doubtless be delighted at this result.

    For a little while.

  10. Dan tdaxp says:

    YH, the correct OODA loop can still be beautiful.

    Congrats on getting John Robb to comment here, but his shows why I am correctly of GGish. I’ve said before that GG seems like just a new form of 3GW — but his description here sounds like 1GW. GGs would try to stop a state by simple attrition — attacking the state where the state is strongest (wealth) and the guerrillas are necessarily weaker.

    Aherring, if 5GW is “true” then it will be the next tool of war that states adopt. But viral, networked ideas are the hallmark of 4GW. So I’d return your criticism to you, while thanking you for it. :-)

  11. arherring says:

    Dan tdaxp,

    What I was mainly getting at was that 5GW will be what States will use to combat 4GW. I think that 4GW is evolving toward the ‘true formlessness’ described here and may use those same techniques but I still think it is 4GW.

    So then, if a 5GW organization / movement is to exist and be used by a State to counter 4GW, then what sort of structure will offer it the ability to effectively combat a 4GW network if not a network of its own?

    I really liked ‘Dreaming 5GW’ and the other posts like it, but what we need is a forum entitled ‘Building 5GW’ to bring all the major players together and start from the ground up.

  12. A few off-the-cuff observations:

    *arherring* is asking some good questions. *Dan’s* broad characterization of the effectiveness of 5GW forces who are fighting prior-generation forces is a little too abstract or even inconsequential, since it does not describe exactly how a 5GW force may fight a 4GW force. I’m talking, nuts and bolts. Consider the effective 4GW forces that have emerged in modern times; then ponder how a shadowy — indeed, a formless — 5GW force will fight a 4GW force in order to achieve the 20x advantage.

    I.e., I know that previously I’ve been considering how a 5GW force might defeat a society or NGO or coalition of states — without giving much thought to how the force would combat other actual military forces. It’s much easier to see how a 5GW might destroy a state than it is to see how a hidden organization might defeat a fuzzy 4GW force. The question is interesting, because a 4GW force attempts to destroy the will to fight while a 5GW force, in theory, would sap the very effectivenes of the “sapping the will to fight” utilized by a 4GW force.

    Somehow, the 5GW force would need to inspire a 4GW force to continue doing what it does — in fact, would surreptitiously egg that force on — but in order for the 5GW force to win, the very maneuvers of a 4GW force would need to lead to that force’s downfall. How do you get a 4GW force to continue to “sap the enemy’s will” when that sapping is not really occurring; how do you fool the 4GW force into not seeing the lack of sapping?

    If the 4GW force cannot be so fooled, the 5GW force risks the possibility that the 4GW force, seeing its failures, might transform into a 5GW force as well — not something an efficient 5GW force will allow to happen.

    Another thing that strikes me as possibly quite relevant for 5GW: I think that, quite unlike all previous forms of warfare, a 5GW force will utilize all the previous forms of warfare, in whatever combinations are appropriate to given situations. This does not mean that the 5GW force will necessarily bomb the hell out of people or engage in guerrilla warfare; instead, it means that the 5GW force will be manipulating 4GW, 3GW, 2GW, 1GW forces against each other. The 5GW force might even slip into direct 4GW activity in order to frame other parties, but very carefully, so as not to be discovered itself. This utilization of all other forms of warfare is qualitatively different than how the other types of warfare operate. (And, I suppose to draw the circle full, I should add that Dan’s concepts of 4GW politics, diplomacy, etc., and all the other generations of these, would also be utilized by the 5GWarriors.)

  13. I.e., as an afterthought: _formlessness_ might be achieved by _assuming a plethora of forms_ . (So that no single form emerges against which the target can defend.)

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  20. purpleslog says:

    “What I was mainly getting at was that 5GW will be what States will use to combat 4GW”

    States may also use 5GW in lieu of initiiating 2GW or 3GW. Well executed 5GW should be less costly to the state then intiating 2GW or 3GW. Also, successfull SecretWar should have less blowback potential.

    Non-state actors will use 5GW to fight against 4GW movements and against states because of a positive economic/risk/success calculation: well executed 5GW by a small non-state actor increases the odds that they can fight a state or 4GW movement and live to reap the rewards.

    I also thinking while the 5GW planning phases mignt be long (time-wise) and complex, the 5GW operational phase will be fairly short. The greater the time required by the operation, the more likely it is to be discovered and the more likely the operation is so complex is not going to be completed.

    Offensive 5GW will be characterized by long-term planning and preperation coupled with quick short-term operations.

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