Six strategic challenges – fourth generation warfare and fifth generation equipment

By Hayden Marshall.

In part one and two of ‘Six strategic challenges for Defence logistics’ Air Commodore Hayden Marshall describes how digital disruption and cyber threats are likely to change Defence logistics in the future. In part three, the challenges posed by ‘fourth generation warfare’ and the use of ‘fifth generation equipment’ are discussed.

As described in part one, this article is an edited component of a larger paper has been divided into three parts, each of which contains two key issues relevant to Defence (strategic) logistics. Each is followed by questions as prompts for future consideration. The topics have been written with Australian Defence (ADF and Department) in mind, but you will find the themes equally applicable to other militaries and Defence departments


Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) 

Modern military theorists, encouraged by the ideas of William Lind, are citing the emergence of a new generation of warfare whereby sovereign states are losing their monopoly on war and future conflict will be linked to cultural, not sovereignty issues. The legitimacy of states will be challenged, wars will be undeclared and the contest will be more about the supremacy of ideas as opposed to traditional territory battles.

Third generation warfare is based on “blitzkrieg” or manoeuvre warfare following World War I. The tactics of speed and surprise to “bypass and collapse” enemy forces represent a significant challenge for military logisticians with high reliance on decentralised logistics to support dispersed forces. Therefore, what are the challenges of 4GW that need to be addressed by today’s (and tomorrow’s) logisticians?

An interesting observation by Parag Khanna, an international relations commentator, in his recent book where he suggests that supply chains and connectivity, not sovereignty and borders, will be the organising principles of humanity in the 21st century.[1] For both military strategists and logisticians, the challenge to understand supply chains and their dependencies will be important however, further consideration will need to be given to understand interests of other parties in the same supply chains.

With this in mind, how well do we understand our own supply chains? Through the work of Parag Khanna, I was introduced to some very interesting research by DHL through their Global Connectedness Index. The annual report provides a series of graphical representations of global trade volumes, information exchanges and financial transactions. These views confirm Australia’s vulnerability due to distance and stark economic realities as to where priorities lie. For a fee, there are some software products (e.g. Sourcemap) that provide end-to-end mapping of your supply chain that could provide a new perspective to identify risks and opportunities.

Questions to consider:

  • What measures need to be considered to ensure that supply chains are appropriately protected, as distinct to traditional military approaches of considering SLOCs, GLOCs and ALOCs?
  • Do our preparedness assessments appropriately consider supply chain variables?
  • Should the ADF be investigating the applicability of supply chain mapping tools?

Fifth Generation Hardware 

The ADF is presently undergoing the most significant recapitalisation of defence capabilities since WWII, across all three Services. Legacy fleets of hardware are being replaced by newer and far more capable equipment that will be managed under very different maintenance/support regimes. The recent announcement of the Naval Shipbuilding Plan provides a very clear indication of the proposed scale of industrial development activity that will significantly reshape capabilities in the two key shipbuilding locations of Henderson (WA) and Osborne (SA). The “industrial ecosystems” that will emerge in these locations are likely to present new opportunities for logistics support options.

The new defence equipment has less failures (comparatively) and periodic maintenance (preventative) does not need to be undertaken with the same level of frequency. The logistics support requirements for the future force will be fundamentally different to the logistics support requirements of the current force. Increased use of technology for systems diagnostics will ensure that maintenance activities are given clear direction and priority. In turn, supply support will be better informed of required stockholding levels. New materials offer improved protection and resilience for defence equipment. For many components, there is no intent to repair any damages, as it is cheaper and quicker to replace with new items. Nanotechnology is offering further opportunities for improvements in electronics, medical therapies, energy utilisation and environmental remediation that will also reshape logistics support requirements. Increased use of artificial intelligence will progressively replace many areas currently prone to error and bias that currently lead to sub-optimal results. In short, the future looks to be very bright.

Questions to consider:

  • What does this mean for the disposition of logistics support activities in the National Support Base?
  • What logistics support activities will continue to be performed by military personnel?
  • How do we make the transition to 5th generation logistics support?
  • Do we really understand the extent of change on the horizon for logistics support that is associated with new technologies that are no longer in the world of science fiction, but are today’s reality?

The six strategic challenges for Defence logistics

The list of challenges/issues/opportunities is not exhaustive – the intent of this and preceding posts is to stimulate thought and discussion – with a view to identifying other internal or external influences. Many of these issues are bigger than Defence, but we will need to develop plans that clearly identify how we intend to respond, along with an assessment of resources required to respond to the challenge. As a community, we need to develop the necessary policies, processes and tools that will provide operational commanders with the confidence that the Defence logistics system will be sufficiently resilient and responsive to support mission requirements. Increased levels of confidence provide the ability to more fully explore new and emerging opportunities to optimise the supply chain in all circumstances, while clearly understanding risks and vulnerabilities.

Hayden Marshall is a Logistics Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, with considerable experience as a tactical, operational and strategic logistics commander and planner. He is currently posted to Joint Logistics Command.

[1] Khanna, P., Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution. 2016


In the interests of full disclosure, the paper was prepared to support the professional development of ADF logisticians at the rank of Wing Commander, Commander and Lieutenant Colonel and beyond, and was produced in the interests of stimulating discussion. It therefore does not reflect any official position.

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