Fourth Generation Warfare:
How Tactics of the Weak Confound the Strong

September 10, 2003

Comment: #490

Discussion Threads - Comments #s: 489, 476, 453, 427, 429, 431, 400 together with referenced comments.

Two years ago tomorrow, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon plunged America into a different kind of war. The President went before Congress in late September 2001 and declared war on Osama bin Ladin, al Qaeda and those who support him. He divided the world into two neat parts: you are either "with us" or "against us." By declaring war on a non-national network (or network of networks), Mr. Bush publicly stated, perhaps without being conscious of the fact, that America was in a Fourth Generation War [see Thread 1, and Comment #s 427, 429, 431]. Across the world, the attacks had triggered an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy and empathy for the cause of the United States.

Almost everyone was with us, so America's going in position was strong from a grand strategic perspective.

That outpouring of support is now a distant memory. In fact, the U.S. strategy for resolving the terrorist question is now rejected overwhelmingly by a huge majority of people around the world — by the citizens of allied nations and the citizens of uncommitted nations, as well as those of adversary nations. Today, only one country has a population and government that whole-heartedly support our strategy — Israel, a nation that is also pursuing a military strategy that is self-isolating at the moral level of conflict.

What has gone wrong? How could we squander such an outpouring of goodwill in such a short time?

As I have argued in earlier Comments (see #s 400, 453, 476), I believe the root cause of our growing grand strategic crisis is that, like Imperial Germany at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, the United States has insensibly allowed the destructive dimensions of military strategy to displace the constructive requirements of a sensible grand strategy. To make matters worse, unlike Germany at the beginning of the 20th Century, US military strategy at the beginning of the 21st Century is not matched to the threat it is fighting: Our strategy — i.e., the pre-emptive application of hi-tech "precision" firepower on a "central front" against an adversary who making a "last stand" — in fighting an amalgam of fourth generation threats sounds and acts as if it were engaging the more traditional military threats in a 2GW or 3GW nation-versus-nation conflict.

What we now call a central front is the boiling terrorist petri dish in Iraq we created, and we have overstretched of the U.S. Army to boot [see "An Analysis of the U.S.Military's Ability to Sustain an Occupation of Iraq, Congressional Budget Office, September 3, 2003].

Moreover, on the eve of the 2nd anniversary of 9-11, the threat of terror seems to be spreading; the United States seems to be mutating into a hated neocolonial occupier in Iraq, a nation which is beginning to look like a horrifying mix of Lebanon and West Bank. The American people feel no more secure from the terrorist threat, according to recent poll done by University of Maryland [Financial Times, September 10, 2003] ; and, as the figure below shows, the President wants to raise the defense budget to level that would be higher than the peak year in Vietnam (after the effects of inflation are removed), where, it should be remembered, we had deployed over 500,000 troops and managed to maintain sufficient forces elsewhere (Europe, Korea, Japan and nuclear forces on alert to deter the superpower Soviet Union).

Yet the constraints on the US are worse than those of the guns and butter days Vietnam War (which, it should be remembered, eventually broke the bank): While the President remains obsessed with tax cuts (butter for the rich), budget and trade deficits are plunging out of control [see Attachments #1, #2, & #3 to Comment 489] , the ratio of debt to GDP is exploding [see Attachment #4 to Comment 489], US currency is coming under increasing pressure around the world, and the looming financing requirements of the aging baby boomers hang over everything like a dark storm cloud [see Attachment #5 to Comment 489].

In short, whether we like it not, a correction is coming, the loud protestations of the neoconmen who got us into this mess notwithstanding. It is time for the American people to demand return to fundamentals: one place to start is intellectually — by studying the nature of Fourth Generation War we are confronting, which is something the current U.S. strategy ignores to our increasing peril.

Read the attached article carefully, it is an important contribution to the growing literature on the this important subject.

4GW: Tactics of the Weak Confound the Strong

By G.I. Wilson, John P. Sullivan, and Hal Kempfer
September 8, 2003

We live in a world of "Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW)" where the tactics of the weak confound the tactics of the strong. Today's global environment is defined by this 4GW reality. Nation-states confront criminal enterprises, fanatical opportunists, terrorists whose gang-like networks transcend national boundaries. This smorgasbord of bad actors often slips through the cracks of our own security, military, and legal bureaucracies.

We are seeing sub-national "bad actors" use guerrilla tactics, insurrection, sabotage and terrorism to subvert nation-states and challenge the established international system. Governments, politicians, and state military-security apparatus of the West; desperately want to engage our 4GW foes in the tried and true conventional ways of the past.

America, the world's strongest nation, prefers combat where only the strongest wins. Our fourth-generation foes prefer 4GW judo, avoiding a decisive fight, leveraging our addiction to technology and "throwing us" using our own bureaucratic weight to do so. We must recall that the enemy's "weapons technology advantage" in the 9-11 attacks consisted of box cutters and ceramic knives, combined with a steely determination to die for a cause. Also, we must remember that it worked, and our vast military-security-enforcement bureaucracy was virtually helpless to stop it.

We are witnessing the early stages of a major geo-political transition. This shift is characterized by a global landscape of conflict where the division between combatant, criminal opportunist and civilian is blurred. In this potential global insurgency, the urban guerilla (not to forget their rural counterparts) may be a religious zealot or a child for hire with an RPG.

As technophiles, Westerners are enraptured by our modern weapons of great precision, but have lost sight that people and ideas are the essence of why wars are fought and for how long. In the traditional view, the low-tech approaches of fourth generation warfare are the "tactics of the weak." However, they have repeatedly been successful in circumventing our military's far stronger conventional strategy, tactics, and thinking.

Well before the 9-11 attacks al-Qaeda recognized the power of asymmetric warfare and adaptive tactics for their jihad struggle. An article entitled "Fourth Generation Wars," in an al-Qaeda affiliated Internet magazine Al-Ansar: For the Struggle Against the Crusader War acknowledges that 4GW forms the foundation of al-Qaeda's combat doctrine. In doing so, the author, Abu 'Ubed Al-Qurashi, reputed to be closely linked with Osama bin Laden, cites the landmark 1989 Marine Corps Gazette article "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation" as key to understanding contemporary global conflict.

While only a few military analysts both in and out of uniform recognize the deadly nature of 4GW that recognition still eludes most political and military strategic discourse. Beyond any doubt, the supposedly isolated and shadowy strategists and tacticians of the al-Qaeda network understood the power of 4GW far more than our own military or even 4GW theorists realized.

The aforementioned al-Qaeda on-line magazine made a chilling declaration: "The time has come for the Islamic movements facing a general crusader offensive to internalize the rules of fourth-generation warfare." Rather than al-Qaeda simply being an indicator of the changes within 4GW, they have knowingly embraced its thesis to become change leaders.

Fourth-generation warfare is not entirely new, but rather a creative and adaptive application of the past where the "moral" dimension of war outweighs the technological. 4GW represents warfare in transition where traditional strengths are bypassed or redefined; the focus is shifted away from high technology to ideas. Conflict shifts from simply destroying military targets and regular conventional forces to social-economic or political-cultural "centers."

When nations try to apply 2GW or 3GW approaches in response, it typically results in considerable "back blast" as state forces misapply conventional military means. In essence, 4GW groups attack the entire social order, and use the target society's very organization, laws, technology and conventional forces or tactics against itself. 4GW theorists foresaw well before the 1990s that the United States conceptually was still held captive to World War I tactics coupled with high technology.

Meanwhile the world was progressing beyond the industrial age of highly autonomous nation-states. The future (now upon us) was one where the huge serried ranks of regular armies would be almost helpless against the scattered, fourth generation gangs, religions, tribes, ideologies and terrorists. In that analysis, we'd too often try to use precision munitions from attack aircraft against 4GW "phantoms" or "ghosts"-shadowy groups blended into existing society without respect to international borders. Our targeteers are often trying to hit an "enemy" center of gravity that is a shared religious/ideological goal and message, with our bombs falling short in the end.

War today is no longer a monopoly of the state. War is changing so that much of our Cold War national security apparatus is being rendered obsolete or irrelevant. We must adapt-and do so quickly. The problem we face in Iraq and Afghanistan is no longer executing a conventional high tech attack on our adversaries' military and government. The conventional phases went well. Rather, our conundrum is sustaining operations in the aftermath when the enemy "military" (along with enterprising criminals and trouble makers) transition into sub-national paramilitary gangs submerged within a society of politically wavering civilian groups.

In this ambiguous operational space, common purpose and zealotry replace military equipment and command structure. The old regime's 500-pound airdropped bomb is transformed into a suicide truck bomb or other improvised explosive devise. The new enemy "pilot" does not return to base and family but instead fully intends to die as a martyr for the mission. The target is no longer just our US conventional force, but symbolic icons tied to our presence.

The chaotic and violent aftermath of grossly inadequate infrastructure and antagonistic ethnic groups in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places is providing fertile ground for 4GW tactics. We have won the set piece "war" in Iraq only to find the original context of a conflict had been fundamentally ill-defined in very outdated but conventional, nation-state terms. For that "war," our forces on the ground may have seemed adequate with technology being the quantum force multiplier. However, we must now come to grips with the challenges of having limited number of conventional forces with constabulary capabilities in the post-conventional conflict period. In this irregular warfare environment, our too regular approach and explanation falls flat.

Today we are faced with interesting dichotomies. Washington Gadfly William S. Lind notes that we are trying to impose law and order in Afghanistan and Iraq from Washington, DC, where you can't safely walk 1,000 yards from the Capitol after dark. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we are seeing fourth-generation warfare in play. Images of urban warfare from World War II, Mogadishu, the Chechen capital of Grozny, and now in Baghdad itself give pause to those who contemplate US forces remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan for years to come.

As we write, fourth-generation conflict is rife worldwide. Iraq, Post-Iraqi Freedom, continues to fester, creating a vision of the gray-area between war and peace where looting, lawlessness and a policing vacuum challenge US forces and demonstrate an enormous gap in US preparations for peace. UN and US personnel and Iraqis are all equally at risk. For example, near-daily assaults on US, UK and coalition forces have resulted in more deaths post-conventional conflict than during the "actual" war.

Consider these recent highlights. A 19 August truck bomb targeted UN headquarters killing 23, including UN special representative Sergio Viera de Mello, and a 29 August car bombing in Najaf killed over 100 including a prominent Shi'a leader portending more violence to come. The President has asked Congress for $87 billion more, demonstrating that the cost of this new post-conflict "peace" has far outstripped the price of the "war."

Meanwhile, Afghanistan still simmers, and insurgents and terrorists worldwide threaten US national and global security alike. Africa is virtually imploding under the specter of continual conflict, an AIDS epidemic of colossal proportions, child soldiers and communal violence. According to the International Crisis Group deteriorating security situations exist not only in Iraq, but in Cτte d'Ivoire, India, Indonesia, Kosovo, and Nigeria to name a few, with current conflicts simmering in Afghanistan, Colombia, Kashmir, Sudan, Chechnya, and Uganda. A sampling of potential near-term conflicts that may erupt include Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jordan, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, as well as much of Africa and central Asia.

These conflicts cannot only stimulate or exacerbate the global terrorist situation, but can serve as catalysts for global criminal opportunities for networking and profiteering. Obviously, there is no shortage of threats here and abroad. Ironically, the whole issue of homeland security and defense is at times like an apple bobbing in water while heads are turned elsewhere.

The bottom line is that no matter how high-tech warfighting becomes, war is about people and the military and security forces are ultimately about controlling people. It is not enough to dominate the technological domain. Precision munitions, air, space, and cyber power are elements of, but not the entire solution. Having infantry on the ground is what it takes to control people. You can kill people with bombs, you can use fast moving mechanized maneuver to bypass population centers, but in the end, you can't influence or protect the people you want to control without troops-infantry, initially until supplemented and ultimately replaced by constabulary and civil police forces-on the ground.

There is currently a gap between active military operations, stability operations, and peacemaking. Recent experience has shown the power of special operations and air power. Yet sustaining the advantage requires rapid deployment of sufficient infantry forces in place long enough to ensure stability. Once the infantry is in place, constabulary forces are needed to fill the gap between heavily armed military forces and lightly armed civil police.

This requires rethinking our current force structure to potentially include "expeditionary police forces (EXPOL)," similar to French Gendarmerie or Italian Carabinieri, to fill the military-police gap (not only suppressing insurgency, but also combating organized crime and criminal profiteering that flourish in post-war conditions). These options could provide the type of flexible and tailored contingency structure needed to stabilize the post-conflict environment. Not only military and security organs are needed, however. Sufficient civil affairs or non-military structures are needed to manage the days, weeks, months, and perhaps years after the conventional war.

Gaining ground is not enough. It must be held. Developing such constabulary and civil organs was a lesson well learned by the US and Great Britain in the past. The USMC Small Wars Manual, and the British Colonial Service provide useful historical reference for post-modern conflict managers seeking to stabilize the conditions that breed 4GW.

Once military dominance is achieved and solidified by the infantry, it must be maintained through skillful integration of the military, civil, judicial, diplomatic, intelligence, and police services. Together, these services must work toward the objective of building a sustainable civil society from the ashes of politically unstable and chaotic 4GW gray areas. Skillful use of people and human skills are a more powerful multiplier than technology when seeking to nurture a civil society.

To be sure we need to exploit technology to make the job of the infantry easier and safer. Infantry forces are just as essential as intelligence and special operations forces in meeting the challenges of the future. In our quest to transform our military to meet the threats of the 21st century, we must not lose sight of the fundamental importance of having adequate infantry on the ground and the need to link them with appropriate partners.

Finally, we must implicitly recognize the value of placing people and ideas ahead of "technology" to truly win wars. Otherwise, fourth generation tactics of the weak will continue to confound the second-generation tactics of the strong.

© 2003 G.I. Wilson. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of

G.I. Wilson is a retired Marine Corps Reserve colonel with over 30 years of military service and 7 years combined civilian law enforcement and emergency services experience. He is widely published and has appeared on TV in documentaries and as a military analyst.

John P. Sullivan is a member of the board of directors for the Terrorism Research Center. He specializes in terrorism, urban operations and conflict studies. He is also a sergeant with a major Southern California law enforcement agency, where he coordinates counterterrorism efforts.

Hal Kempfer is a Marine Reserve Lieutenant Colonel, and a civilian consultant in strategic risk management and competitive intelligence. He has a long background in expeditionary military operations, civil-military programs and antiterrorism. See the KIPP Website.

Chuck Spinney

"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." - James Madison, from a letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822

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Fourth Generation Warfare