4GW Articles

Is 4GW Simply Using Military Force in New Ways?

A premise of 4GW is that the world itself has changed, so that terrorism and guerilla warfare-and other elusive techniques that are still being invented-are now ready to move to center stage. These techniques focus not so much on the enemy’s military capabilities (although these may be attacked) but directly against the will of the enemy to continue the war. All of the operations by a 4GW force must support this goal. In its most fully developed form, there may be no real “battles” at all, as was virtually the case in the Sandinista take-over of Nicaragua in 1979.

There was a 4GW component to the Vietnam War-the campaign by North Vietnam, of which the Viet Cong insurgency formed a key part, to turn US public opinion against the war. Once this was accomplished, and the US withdrew, the South could be finished off by conventional means, as is not unusual for the final phase of a traditional guerrilla war. Similarly, the goal of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan was not to defeat the Red Army in some decisive battle, but to persuade the Soviet leadership to withdraw it, and al-Qa’ida appears to have achieved similar results in Spain.

To summarize, fourth generation warfare appears to be evolving along two complementary lines:

  • One of the participants is a transnational organization (if it were dedicated to taking over the government of a particular state, we would be dealing with ordinary insurgency, which has always had transnational elements);
  • The focus (Schwerpunkt) of the non-state player’s operations is to collapse states morally, that is, to rob them of their will to continue the fight.

Unlike Clausewitzian warfare, which envisions war as an act of policy in a contest between states, 4GW more resembles a boxer versus a viral infection. Terrorism and LIC are two of the more common techniques, but there is no reason why conventional weapons and tactics could not also find a place-submarines, for example, have been discovered under construction by narco-trafficking groups in South America-and as been noted, fourth generation wars, like Phase III of a Maoist guerrilla campaign, might sometimes culminate in a final conventional push to subdue the remaining military forces of the state.

Fourth generation war will not replace second and third generation conflict but will co-exist alongside it. As the state system continues to weaken, however, it will be the warfare of choice for transnational organizations that wish to confront state militaries trained and equipped for the earlier generations.

It would be a mistake and, in fact, a goal of our opponents might be to encourage this mistake, if we were to focus on the techniques and not the nature of 4GW itself. As Col T. X. Hammes eloquently argues in “The Evolution of War: The Fourth Generation,” social and political changes are driving this evolution-a theme he develops in his survey and analysis of 4GW, The Sling and The Stone.

Why is 4GW emerging now? You can construct your own list of what is different about today’s world than that of, say, 1960, but here are some ideas to get you started:

  • explosion in drug trafficking, with associated money flows and corruption to the extent that trafficking organizations are the de facto governments in a growing number of areas
  • worsening income inequities combined with a general decline in standards of living in many Third World countries, particularly in Africa and Central/South America
  • continued exponential increase in the world population
  • a growing “demographic youth bulge” in Third World countries, where un- / underemployment is already severe [cited in recent CIA testimony]
  • escalating sectarian violence as evangelizing religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.) clash over influence in rapidly growing Third World countries
  • survival of non-representative governments in the Third World that use religious and ethnic animosities and anti-American sentiments to distract from their own corruption and economic mismanagement
  • insertion & maintenance of a largely Christian American Army into the heart of the Muslim Middle East
  • accelerating AIDS epidemic in parts of the Third World [~30% of adults in Botswana are HIV-positive]
  • rise of Third World mega cities with populations exceeding 20 million
  • growth of worldwide connectivity (CNN and the Internet, for example)
  • ease of global transportation (24 hours between any two points)
  • increasing scarcity of arable land and water
  • increasing world demand for petroleum as China and India increase their consumption
  • disintegration of the Soviet Union and continued instability in that region
  • end of the bipolar world order and of the interpretation of events through a Cold War filter
  • ready availability of small arms and other weapons from the end of the Cold War
  • growing use of pre-adolescent children as combatants
  • resurgence of violent ethnic and ideological groups (e.g., Rwandan Interahamwe, and of course al-Qa’ida), which are becoming increasingly transnational
  • safe havens for these groups in areas of Africa, Asia, and South America where any effective government (even if corrupt and incompetent) is lacking
  • beginning of cooperation between transnational ideological groups and traditional criminal organizations such as narcotrafficking cartels
  • continued growth in wealth and influence of multinational corporations that sometimes have incentives to perpetuate corrupt, non-democratic regimes
  • creation of large and effective private military companies that recruit from elite military units
  • emergence of the US as the only conventional / economic superpower and the inevitable resentment this causes

If these or similar factors are indeed driving the evolution of conflict, then solutions must lie primarily in their arenas, that is, within the realms of economics, diplomacy, and law-enforcement. Military force will play a smaller role, performing specific tasks to solve problems that are intractable through other means. A coherent “grand strategy” is needed to ensure that military (destructive) actions harmonize with our overall objectives and do not undermine the public support needed to prosecute a fourth generation war to its successful conclusion. In grand strategy, the carrot is as important as the stick, and alliances are critical-factors which should favor the United States and its allies in the 4GW against al-Qa’ida and those who support similar ideologies.

Technology is not unimportant, and may provide options, but the fact is that lack of suitable technology cannot explain our less-than-stellar track record in fourth generation warfare.

Editor’s Note: Any discussion of 4GW, since it involves conflicts of culture and religion, is likely to generate a high degree of emotion. In the articles that follow, some may find the authors’ views to be simplistic or even offensive. For the record: Defense and the National Interest does not endorse any political, cultural, or religious viewpoint. These papers, however, raise many important questions about the nature of future conflict, and we are publishing them to stimulate thought and debate.

10/30/07 The 4th draft of FMFM 1-A, Fourth Generation Warfare (237 KB PDF).

1/01/07 The evolution of conflict, Rev 3 (Jan 07). PowerPoint slideshow illustrating the four generations of war Everything you always wanted to know about 4GW in one easy slide. (196 KB PPT)

10/09/06 It’s the Tribes, Stupid, by Steven Pressfield. Back in 1991, in The Transformation of War, Martin van Creveld predicted that tribes would be major players in what we now call “fourth generation warfare.” So what is a “tribe”? How do tribes differ from other types of organizations, particularly those common in the West? What happens if you have to fight one?

9/10/06 Doing what our enemies want, by Victor O’Reilly. Osama has claimed to be in the vanguard of a long-term movement. So, how do our chances look, long-term?

8/20/06 The National Cake and Defense, by Victor O’Reilly. Economics, and life in general, is all about baking cakes and divvying them up. When it comes to defense, can we have our cake and eat it, too? What happens if we just pretend that we can?

8/12/06 Version 7.1 of Conflict in the Years Ahead. Minor update - new charts 18 and 43 on Genghis Khan and on choosing the “least expected option.”

7/15/06 Strategic Transformation: Aligning National Security Policy/Operations, by Greg Wilcox. TX Hammes makes a strong case in The Sling and the Stone that success in 4GW requires the coordinated employment of all instruments of national policy, not just or even primarily the military. In this short paper, Greg Wilcox describes an essential first step. (103 KB PDF)

6/11/06 Regarding “Leadership for the Fourth Generation: Preparing Leaders to Out-Think Our New Enemy”, by Capt Robert Kozloski, USMC, by A. Scott Crawford.

6/01/06 Neither Shall the Sword, by Chet Richards. Revised presentation. PowerPoint (1681KB - play as slide show) and PDF (571 KB)

7/15/06 Strategic Transformation: Aligning National Security Policy/Operations, by Greg Wilcox. TX Hammes makes a strong case in The Sling and the Stone that success in 4GW requires the coordinated employment of all instruments of national policy, not just or even primarily the military. In this short paper, Greg Wilcox describes an essential first step. (103 KB PDF)

10/17/05 The Open Source War, by John Robb. Perhaps open source counterinsurgency is the key to leaving Iraq, although it is probably not the definition of “winning” that the administration has in mind.

10/4/05 Militia: the dominant defensive force in 21st Century 4GW? By Fabius Maximus. Musings on ways to wage 4GW. 44 KB PDF.

10/3/05 Interview with Martin van Creveld, by Sonshi.com.

7/08/05 Fourth Generation Warfare and the Information Arrow, by Greg Wilcox (137KB DOC)

7/02/05 Iraq News Increases Calls For Troop Withdrawal, Pew Research Center, June 13, 2005. (42 KB PDF) [DNI Editor’s note: 4GW is a struggle for public support and the moral high ground. If a state withdraws its forces, it makes no difference how well they might have fought.]

7/23/05 Ten Best Books on Fourth Generation Warfare, by Anthony A. Lukin, Ph.D. An annotated list by a specialist in criminal justice.

Bill Lind’s Strategic Defense Initiative, Distance from disorder is the key to winning the terror war. A major article on the theme of transforming 4GW into something that we can win. Originally published in The American Conservative.

Archive of Bill Lind’s “On War” commentaries. Thoughts from one of the originators of the concept of 4GW and still one of its most prolific proponents.

The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation, by William S. Lind, Colonel Keith Nightengale (USA), Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR). The classic article on why there really is something that should be called “fourth generation warfare,” and why we should be paying very close attention to it, whatever it turns out to be. Originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989.

10/13/04 4GW, High Noon, And How Even I Get It Now, by Bryce Lane. A martial artist contemplates fourth generation warfare.

9/15/04 Bin Laden’s Vision Becoming Reality, Juan Cole. Assessment of al-Qa’ida’s progress since 9/11.

7/29/04 The Fate of the State by Martin van Creveld. 4GW is war by entities other than states. Van Creveld argues that the state system is breaking down, so 4GW (or as he refers to it, non-trinitarian warfare) will become the warfare of the future. Originally published in 1996.

7/27/04 Why Iraq Will End as Vietnam Did, Martin van Creveld. Moshe Dayan’s 1966 trip to Vietnam: “…he who fights against the weak and loses, loses. He who fights against the weak and wins also loses.” Van Creveld is the author of a recent biography of Moshe Dayan.

4/27/04 Fourth Generation Warfare, an Introduction, LTC Greg Wilcox, USA, Ret. Superb overview and introduction to the subject, originally done for the USMC’s Second Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF.) 2.1MB PowerPoint.

3/10/04 Iraq: Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) Swamp, Col G. I. Wilson, USMC. Perceptive article predicting the long, hot summer of 2004.

10/6/2003 4GW and the Moral Imperative, LTC Greg Wilcox, USA (Ret.) To a great degree, 4GW is moral warfare - understanding this is a key to success for both sides. (256 KB PDF)

10/6/03 Judo of Fourth Generation Warfare, Col GI Wilson USMCR (Ret.) Presented at INFOWARCON 2003. (1.8 MB PDF)

4th Generation Warfare and the Dangers of Being the Only Superpower A Warning from Clausewitz by William S. Lind, Counterpunch, March 8, 2003.

Introduction to Asymmetric Warfare, Fourth Generation Warfare, and Maneuver Warfare, GySgt Bob Howard, USMC. Teaching 4GW concepts to the folks who are actually going to have to do it. (43 chart, 547 KB MS PowerPoint briefing - would not convert to PDF, as sometimes happens with PPT files)

Fourth Generation Warfare, LTC Greg Wilcox, USA Ret., and Col. GI Wilson, USMCR, Ret. A concise introduction to the subject and brief assessment of our operations in Afghanistan. Presented at the 2002 Boyd Conference at Quantico. LTC Wilcox’s (USA, Ret.) 4GW experience includes three tours in Vietnam, and Marine Col. GI Wilson is co-author of the original paper on 4GW. 75KB PDF document.

Military Response to Fourth Generation Warfare in Afghanistan, LTC Greg Wilcox, USA, Ret., and Col. G. I. Wilson, USMCR, Ret. A companion to the above briefing offering more detail on our successes and failures in Afghanistan from a 4GW perspective.

Fourth Generation Warfare Today - Remarks by H. Thomas Hayden, USMC, Ret., July 18, 2003.

Joint Inquiry Staff Statement on September 11.

Asymmetries and Consequences, Col Richard Szafranski, USAF, Ret. National leaders have insisted, correctly in our view, that we must take the offensive against terrorism. With few terrorist havens remaining to bomb, however, and with the majority of active al-Qa’ida operatives likely already in the US, western Europe, or in countries we are not going to attack, what does this mean? In this paper presented at the Global Strategy Conference in Priverno, Italy, May 2002, Richard Szafranski offers some concrete answers. Ultimately we can prevail: “My belief,” he writes, ” is that the September 11, 2001, attacks were unwise. Monumentally unwise.” (55KB PDF file.)

e-Jihad Against Western Business. British consultant and war correspondent Giles Trendle warns that as participants in 4GW become more sophisticated, they will expand their battlefields to include western businesses, their Web sites, and their e-commerce infrastructure. Now available are some of his more recent articles, The Colonel’s Network Warfare, The ‘Swarm’ Factor in the Arab-Israeli Conflict and Omen In The Ghetto.

Fighting Stupid, Defending Smart, Col Richard Szafranski, USAF, Ret. If the attacks on September 11 were meant to cripple our economy, what role can aerospace power play in preventing or defending against such attacks in the future? In other words, is there a mission for the Air Force in 4GW? 103KB MS Word document; originally published in Aerospace Power Journal, Spring 2002.

When David Became Goliath, MAJ Christopher E. Whitting, RAAOC, Australia. Masters Thesis at the US Army Command and General Staff College, 2001. 393 KB PDF File. A thorough look at the problems that 2nd and 3rd generation armies (even very good ones) face in conducting 4GW.

Tactical Notes from Afghanistan,” anonymous note commenting on the quality of both sides and the way the fighting is evolving. Posted 4/02

The Next War? Four Generations of Future Warriors,” Eric Walters, Professor of Land Warfare, Military History, and Intelligence at the American Military University. Professor Walters has prepared this sweeping look at trends in modern warfare from materials used in his courses at AMU. Rather than extrapolating from trends in war itself, Prof. Walters approaches the question of future warfare by looking at what is happening with the people - the warriors - who will be fighting it. A spectacular PowerPoint briefing (2.5 MB) and great introduction to 4GW. For those with slower connections, we also have a .pdf version (714 KB) with the speaker notes. Bibliography in MS Word (26 KB).

Fourth Generation Warfare: What Does it Mean to Every Marine? Col Michael D. Wyly, USMC, Ret. The source of our advantage over fourth generation opponents lies not in the superiority of our technology or even of our ideology. In this prescient paper, Mike Wyly maintains that it lies in the very bedrock of our society - the Constitution. Those would would wage 4GW must read, ponder, and understand this remarkable document, to which all members of the military have sworn to protect from all enemies, foreign and domestic. [As a colleague of then-Commandant Al Gray, Col Wyly was one of the prime movers behind the Marines’ adoption of third generation - maneuver - warfare in the late 1980s.]

New Order Threat Analysis: A Literature Survey November 2, 1996. Fred Fuller, Reference Librarian at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School. Comprehensive survey of the basic concepts of 4GW as they appeared in the literature in 1996. Good introduction to the field.

The Introduction to Spirit, Blood and Treasure, Ed. MAJ Don Vandergriff. Why 4GW is the type of warfare we should be preparing for, and what this means for doctrine, personnel policies, training, and force structure. (Presidio Press, June 2001.)

The strange battle of Shah-i-Kot, by Brendan O’Neill. How a battle that should have been over in 24 hours lasted a week and hundreds of bodies turned up missing. Only the absence of CNN kept it from becoming a second Mogadishu. More troubling, did Shah-i-Kot demonstrate that our commanders still have a fascination with “destroying infrastructure,” and so fail to grasp the nature of fourth generation warfare? Link to the article at Spiked.com.

Fourth Generation Warfare is Here,” By Harold A. Gould and Franklin C. Spinney. Why the attacks of September 11 are not simply acts of “terrorism” but represent the opening shots in true 4GW.

For those new to 4GW, this is probably the best place to start: “The Evolution of War: The Fourth Generation,” by LtCol Thomas X. Hammes, USMC. LtCol Hammes observes that “generations” of warfare are not defined primarily by the technology employed since, to some degree, each generation can use any available technology. Rather, generations are better categorized by political, social, and economic factors. After buttressing his case with examinations of China, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and the West Bank (Intifada I), LtCol Hammes concludes this important paper with the prediction that, “By using fourth generation techniques, local antagonists can change the national policy of Western democracies. Then once the Western forces have gone, they can continue to pursue their local objectives using earlier generation techniques.” Originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette, September 1994.

“Is The U.S. Military Ready To Take On A Non-Conventional Terror Threat?” Elaine M. Grossman, Inside the Pentagon, October 18, 2001. Another in ITP’s comprehensive look at the changing nature of warfare and how the US military is - and is not - shaping the war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

The Transformation of War, Martin van Creveld (Free Press, 1991). An essential reference for fourth generation warfare. Required reading, at some point, for every serious student of the subject. Study it until you can say “non-trinitarian” with conviction.

A New Kind of War,” Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, September 27, 2001. Best evidence yet that when it comes to 4GW, our top leaders do get it.

Terrorism Battle Like Drug War All Over Again,” Hal Kempfer. Once money began flowing into the War on Drugs, it, and not narcotrafficantes, became the focus of attention.