Defense and the National Interest

Fourth Generation Warfare

May 5, 2007

It has been said that "fourth generation warfare" (4GW) includes all forms of conflict where the other side refuses to stand up and fight fair.   Smart commanders throughout history, however, have tried to deceive, trick, and confuse their opponents. Is anything really new?

The answer begins by examining how 4GW literature uses the term, "generation." Specifically, it refers to the world since the mid-17th Century, when firearms began to dominate the battlefield and when nation-states began to exercise a legal monopoly on the use of armed force. That world is breaking down.

4GW Case Studies:

[For a graphical depiction of how the "generations" evolve, please download The Evolution of Conflict (196KB PowerPoint - version 3, January 2007). Note that as with human generations, several may be alive and functioning simultaneously.  The word "generations," though, is an analogy to help gain new insights, and it is wise not to push it too far. "Species" might be more descriptive, but "generations" seems to have stuck.]

We appear to be returning to the situation that characterizes most of human experience, where both states and non-states wage war.  In 4GW, at least one side is something other than a military force organized and operating under the control of a national government.  To distinguish 4GW from insurgency, though, the nonstate actor must have a goal other than simply taking control of the state. 

One way to tell that 4GW is truly new is that we don't even have a name for its participants—typically dismissing them as "terrorists," "extremists," or "thugs."

Name calling, though, is not often an effective substitute for strategy.

If we look at the development of warfare in the modern era, we see three distinct generations … Third generation warfare was conceptually developed by the German offensive in the spring of 1918 … Is it not about time for the fourth generation to appear? Lind, Nightengale, Wilson, et. al., Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989

The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center dispelled the notion that 4GW is simple "terrorism."  But one can sympathize with our political and military leaders, because 4GW is a strange form of warfare, one where military force plays a smaller role than in earlier generations, supporting initiatives that are more political, diplomatic, and economic.

As important as finding and destroying the actual combatants, for example, is drying up the bases of popular support that allow them to recruit for, plan, and execute their attacks.  Perhaps most odd of all, being seen as too successful militarily may create a backlash, making the opponent's other elements of 4GW more effective.

The authors of the first paper on the subject captured some of this strangeness when they predicted:

The distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between 'civilian' and 'military' may disappear.

One of the most pressing questions about 4GW is whether it should be considered as "war."  This may seem an odd question because the aim of its participants, as in all generations, is to impose change on its opponents. From the viewpoint of outside powers, however, use of military force in these "transnational insurgencies" (as the new FM 3-24 calls them) has not proven successful.  Iraq, for example, has ground down the world's most powerful military - a defense establishment that spends more than the rest of the world, combined.  This makes no sense if the United States is at "war," but might if we regarded such conflicts differently.

Is 4GW Just Another Term for "Terrorism"?

For a variety of reasons, as sketched below and covered in detail in the papers on this site, most of the techniques that will be used in 4GW played peripheral roles in earlier generations of warfare and undoubtedly predate history itself.  Today, two of the most frequently mentioned of these techniques are terrorism, as we have seen, and guerrilla warfare / low intensity conflict (LIC.) 

The more the terror, the greater our victories. – White Russian General Kornilov, 1917

We can't expect to get anywhere unless we resort to terrorism. – Lenin, 1918

"Terrorism" (defined as seemingly gratuitous violence against civilians or non-combatants) has been a part of all generations of war. Until recently, in fact, most wars killed many more civilians than military and not all of this was accidental - recall the Rape of Nanking, the London Blitz, and the firebombing of Dresden.  As 4GW blurs any distinction between "military" and "civilian," we can expect more activities that the general population will regard as terrorism.  In other words, there may be more terrorism in 4GW, but it is not unique to nor defined by these attacks.

Is 4GW Just Another Term for "LIC"?

... members of native forces will suddenly become innocent peasant workers when it suits their fancy and convenience. - USMC Small Wars Manual, 1940

Similarly, because practitioners of 4GW will be transnational groups without territorially-based armies, much of their activity will probably resemble "guerilla warfare" or "low intensity conflict."  These highly irregular practices have enabled groups that are weak, militarily, to defeat larger, stronger forces, and they have deep roots in the history of war. The word "guerilla" itself, for example, dates back 200 years to Napoleon's occupation of Spain.

Until recently, however, such "special" operations more often harassed than decided—"sideshows" (as T. E. Lawrence once termed them) in wars fought mainly along 1st, 2nd, or 3rd generation lines. Examples could include operations by colonial militias and guerillas during the Revolutionary War, Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry raids, and the partisans during WWII.  In the 20th Century, this situation began to change as insurgents and revolutionaries practiced guerrilla warfare in the early stages of most "national liberation" wars, including China and Vietnam. In these, it was an essential prelude to the large scale attacks to follow.

Fourth Generation Warfare (continued)


539 What are the Roots of Terrorism??? March 10, 2005
538 Werther Report: What do Reinhard Gehlen and Ahmed Chalabi Have in Common??? February 23, 2005
537 Who Won the Election in Iraq??? February 17, 2005
535 Werther Report - 4GW & Riddles of Culture, December 30, 2004  
534 An OODA Loop Writ Large - 4GW and the Iraq War, December 23, 2004
529 Just War Theory & the Question of COMPETENT AUTHORITY in a Representative Democracy, November 10, 2004
528 4th Generation Warfare & the Changing Face of War, October 15, 2004
How Mole Hunting Has Changed in the Good Ole USA: The Vest-Rozen Report, September 12, 2004
520 How Bad Was U.S. Intelligence About Iraq???August 20, 2004
519 Are Rising Oil Prices a Case of the Jitters … or a Harbinger of Longer Term Problems??? August 20, 2004
518 Is Oil America's Achilles' Heel in Iraq??? August 17, 2004
513 Loopy OODA Loops: The Triumph of Faith & Interests Over Facts & Reason, May 30, 2004
511 How to Dumb Down Your OODA Loops May 17, 2004
510 Iraq Net Assessment Strategic Overview and Recommendations May 15, 2004
508 Conditioning the Masses in the Hall of Mirrors (II) April 10, 2004
506 Is President Musharraf Impaled on his own Petard??? January 26, 2004
505 Who is the Grand Ayatollah Sistani? January 18, 2004
503 One From a Psyops Unit and the Other From a Journalist Based in Lebanon, January 8, 2004
502 What Motivates Suicide Bombers? November 28, 2003


Iraq, Afghanistan, & the War on Terror ... & ... the Helen Gurley Brown Solution, November 4, 2003

500 Will Snowflakes from SECDEF Repair a Broken OODA Loop??? October 31, 2003
499 Is America Inside its Own OODA Loop in Afghanistan and Iraq???
496 4GW & Zinni's Question: What is Nature of Victory? September 20, 2003
495 Why Outsourcing Military Operations is Bunk, September 19, 2003
494 Why Declaring Victory in the Third Inning Can Set Us Up for Defeat in the Ninth Inning, September 16, 2003
492 The Werther Solution: A Modest Proposal September 11, 2003
490 Fourth Generation Warfare: How Tactics of the Weak Confound the Strong September 10, 2003
489 The Chickens of Free Lunch Politics are Coming Home to Roost, September 5, 2003
488 Get Real Before Domino Democracy Breaks the Bank, August 28, 2003
487 Is US Troop Morale in Iraq Deteriorating???  June 15, 2003
486 Lies, Damned Lies, & Military Intelligence, June 12, 2003
485 The Men Who Would Not Be King  June 3, 2003
484 Is America a Fly Occupying the Flypaper???? May 29, 2003
480 Will the Settlement Issue KO the Roadmap???  May 13, 2003
472 Al-Qa'ida & Iraq: Another Cartesian Misconception???  February 11, 2003
467 George Orwell on the Relation Between Freedom & the Rise of 4GW, January 1, 2003
456 Bury Cold War Mindset, August 14, 2002
454 Clash of Civilizations or the End of History?  July 27, 2002
453 Werther Report: Is Preemption a Nuclear Schlieffen Plan? July 20, 2002
452 Is America Becoming a Police State?
July 15, 2002
442 Captured by the One-Eyed Cyclops (I): Vest Report, March 22, 2002
438 Is 4GW al-Qa'ida's Official Combat Doctrine? February 11, 2002
436 How Pakistan's Triangular Tar Baby Lead to War Drums in South Asia, December 29, 2001
432 Another Guy Who Got it Right, November 21, 2001
431 4GW & the Question of Reform, November 16, 2001

Fourth Generation Warfare - Background Reading, October 4, 2001


Track Records Don't Count in a Town that Likes Pretty Faces, September 20, 2001


The Struggle for Israel's Soul, August 20, 2001

412 Iron Wall or Maginot Line?  June 7, 2001
402 The MacKenzie Proposal: Peacekeeping Reform & Grand Strategy, January 18, 2001
392 The Palestinian Question - Is it a Colonialist War?  October 21, 2000
278 The Real Revolution in Military Affairs … or … Can NATO Cope with 4th Generation War?   May 29, 1999


German Antiguerrilla Operations in the Balkans (1941-1944), April 6, 1999


Ready for What? … Loose Nucs, Scud Missiles, and the Changing Nature of Conflict, September 26, 1998


Ready for What?  September 16, 1998

174 Food for Thought: Fourth Generation Warfare & the Relation of Strategy to Grand Strategy (III)  August 31, 1998


Food for Thought: Fourth Generation Warfare & the Relation of Military Strategy to Grand Strategy (II)  August 28, 1998


Fourth Generation Warfare & the Relation of Military Strategy to Grand Strategy
August 26, 1998


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