From The Military: Applying 4GW Theory to The Intelligence Community

Myke Cole


Just a few months ago, a team of retired military officers representing three branches of the armed services gave an important presentation at the 16th Annual Army War College Strategy Conference at the Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania.1

This presentation provided a number of forward thinking suggestions on how to reverse the setbacks the US is currently suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan, including real departures from present Department of Defense (DOD) official lines, such as the over reliance on technology outlined in DOD’s Joint Vision 20202, and the centralized, compartmented and hierarchical means of dissemination of intelligence and orders.

Wilson, Wilcox and Richards state in their presentation that in order to defeat insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and worldwide in the post 9/11 era, we have to “become cellular like them”, “leverage unconventional capabilities”, and “rely on the skill, cunning, experience and intelligence of our front line forces to convert information into intel ... while it still means something!”3 These recommendations represent a debate among military thinkers as our armed services attempt to transform themselves into a force capable of defeating the networked, decentralized and transnational enemies we face today. It is part of a revolution in military thought known as The Military Reform Movement. This movement, spearheaded largely by retired and active officers across the services, is challenging the established norms of the military bureaucracy, and is based around two critical pillars: The teachings of legendary strategist John Boyd, and the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW).4

This movement is changing the way we fight on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and its honest assessment of the enemy we face is invaluable to the Intelligence Community (IC). Unfortunately, while a lively discussion of 4GW and the need for a low-tech, networked, real-time approach to combating the enemy, heavily reliant on Human Intelligence (HUMINT), seems to be enjoying a great deal of attention in the military intelligence circles, it does not seem to have penetrated the intelligence community at large. A careful examination of these arguments and their possible application to the entire IC is both warranted and overdue.

What is Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) and why is it important to the IC?

While there is some debate as to how to exactly define 4GW, a widely accepted definition is an “evolved form of insurgency [that] uses all available networks—political, economic, social, military—to convince the enemy’s decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit.”5 This super insurgency “ ... seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined… It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ may disappear.”6

This description, while broad, suggests that the United States has already faced 4GW opponents in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia and is facing them again today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other hallmarks of 4GW opponents find resonance in the experiences of our troops and intelligence agents currently engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan:7

  1. 4GW opponents are united by a conforming ideology. Mao Tse-Tung, considered the father of 4GW from his development of “People’s War,” wrote “Political mobilization is the most fundamental condition for winning the war.”8 Where Mao projected political ideology to weld together disparate urban workers, rural peasants, and the Soviet and Chinese schools of Communism, Salafist extremism unites religiously disparate Sunni and Shi’a as well as ethno-culturally disparate Arabs, Turks and Persians in their efforts to combat the interests of the United States.

  2. 4GW actors are stateless, either transnational (international terrorist organizations, drug cartels, etc…) or subnational (Somali clans, ethnic separatist groups within established states). They do not wear uniforms or respect national borders and may not even share a common language. They are defined only by their stated objective.

  3. 4GW actors work patiently. Aware that they cannot defeat technologically, financially and numerically superior opponents in a conventional contest, they rely on propaganda, terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) to erode the enemy’s moral, mental and physical ability to wage war over many long years in the hopes we will lose patience or the heart to stay in the fight, or at long last be made weak enough for a conventional coup de grace.9

These additional factors leave little doubt that we are facing 4GW opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What can the IC take from the military community’s debate on 4GW?

4GW actors cannot be defeated by the IC’s old cold-war posture. Retired Naval officer Larry Seaquist puts it more urgently, “Our failure to understand these new forms of war and to recognize that they are popping up all over the globe traps us in habits of inaction that feed and accelerate these armed conflicts and steadily erode our own military advantages.”10

4GW theory argues that a decentralized, fast-moving, networked opponent must be defeated by a decentralized, fast-moving and networked response. There are two major challenges that the IC must overcome in addressing a 4GW enemy, and the lessons for the IC of the Wilson, Wilcox and Richards presentation are clear. They are rather heavy-handedly summed up by Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) expert Robert David Steele, “Since World War II, an otherwise clever nation has fallen prey to several erroneous premises, among them that intelligence demands secrecy; that technology is a fine substitute for thinking ..”11

  1. Dissemination of information in the IC is hierarchical and compartmented. Dissemination of information among 4GW actors is networked and unhindered by artificial policy constraints and information sharing barriers. This allows 4GW opponents to work inside the IC’s OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) decision loop12 and outpace the IC’s own collection, analysis, dissemination of and action on, intelligence.

  2. The IC, like the DOD in JV 2020, relies far too heavily on high technology solutions. New and more complex databases, analysis applications and an ever proliferating number and variety of computer networks serves only to hinder its efforts, either by overwhelming it with collected information that cannot be analyzed effectively or expending valuable resources that could be put towards low-tech solutions that 4GW theory suggests would be more effective (such as language skills, cultural awareness of the enemy and additional staff in the field). Steele again vehemently attacks the confluence of the IC’s two greatest weaknesses: obsession with hierarchy and information compartmentalization and overdependence on high technology; “We are wasting today at least $10 billion a year on secret technical intelligence collection systems whose fruits cannot be harvested, and we are about to waste $60 billion over ten years recapitalizing these same secret technical collection systems, so that we might collect 100 times more information, and process still less of it. Analysts, analytic tools, and access to open sources of information comprise the 'collateral damage' of the secret war and its obsession with compartmentation.”13

Our 4GW opponents are far less limited by hierarchical patterns of information dissemination, and not subject to a classification compartmentalization system or a large bureaucracy. They make use of technology in a fast and effective manner, while still managing to operate inside the IC’s OODA loop and advancing their aims with low-technology solutions, such as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that are often made out of parts a child could buy at Radio Shack. Wilson, Wilcox and Richards’ presentation shows us what troops on the ground in Iraq are learning in real-time: To defeat the enemy, we must think and operate like the enemy.

Using Networked Information Technology (IT) Systems as a model

Ironically, the best example of the IC’s failure to work in a low-tech, networked manner is evident in its implementation of its high technology solutions: the computer networks on which it relies every day. The low-tech 4GW actor simply relies on “the existing networks created by the information-based economy. These networks provide a cheap, robust, redundant system and allows the information to blend into the trillions of legitimate transaction that take place every day.”14 By using the existing technologies of email, the internet and instant-messaging, insurgents and terrorists can communicate seamlessly and in real-time, largely unhampered by a risk-adverse need for bureaucratic approval from a top-down hierarchical structure. There’s no limitation imposed by classification compartments or inter-agency miscommunications. Intelligence and better yet, actionable information that is not yet finished intelligence, travels in real-time, allowing the 4GW actor to operate inside the IC’s OODA loop.

In contrast, the IC, like the rest of the federal government follows the commercial model for designing and operating its networks,15 while it battles the largest reorganization in its history. The result is the IC’s operating on a variety of disparate computer networks that can barely communicate. Various versions of email applications, operating systems and analysis applications are approved for use at varying agencies with little to no coordination with one another. The result is that frequently information cannot flow between the CIA, the FBI, CIFA, NSA and various other agencies with the speed needed because of something as basic as sheer mass of technological incompatibility.

The solution the IC has attempted to implement has been more technology expenditure. "Success is dependent on networked information technology systems and the capacity to manage and share information effectively. . ”16 said FBI Director Robert Mueller, and yet the FBI’s highly publicized 170 million dollar investment in its Virtual Case File (VCF) system has resulted in little to no advantage for either the FBI or the IC at large.17

Meanwhile, the FBI’s Executive Assistant Director was quoted as arguing against the need for expertise in counterterrorism, geo-political skills, or Arabic language training. "You need leadership. You don't need subject matter expertise," Garry Bald testified in an ongoing FBI employment case. "It is certainly not what I look for in selecting an official for a position in a counterterrorism position.”18

4GW theory argues strenuously against such thinking, and holds up the failure of multi-million dollar investments such as VCF to produce real gains in the war on terror. As the insurgents make use of easily networked commercially available systems (we would do well to recall how Somali fighters outstripped communications of the legendary Delta Force with something as simple and commercially available as a public cellular phone network19) and otherwise rely on low-technology systems such as IEDs and suicide bombings, they continue to move one step ahead of us. We must always remain cognizant of the fact that 4GW is ultimately about message and political will. Sophisticated computers and complex databases cannot get our message out nor change the political will of the enemy or the population who supports him. Analysts and agents who speak Arabic, and are culturally and geo-politically literate in the Arab, Persian and Turkish worlds can. We must remember the critical points made in the Wilson, Wilcox and Richards presentation already quoted in the introduction as well as one more: Defeat a networked threat with a network, or as the presenters cite John Boyd, “We should be the ones in the village, not the people attacking the village.”20

Insurgents and terrorist 4GW actors are not hampered by the risk-adverse, hierarchical nature of the IC’s bureaucracy. This allows them to move intelligence and act on it more quickly. The classification system, and the compartmented nature of classification, is, to put it mildly, dauntingly complex. Worse, there is no coordination across agencies, resulting in situations such as ICE and FBI agents not getting critical information needed to act on domestic 4GW threats because they lack sufficient clearance, or an inability to make use of the information anyway because its classification level or compartment would make it unactionable at a law-enforcement level.

The constant need to wait for approval from the top down slows the process further. 4GW actors function in a decentralized manner, with each foot soldier having a clear understanding of a strategic goal, and being able to move towards it with little direction from above, quickly and efficiently. They don't have to worry about being unable to use certain critical pieces of information because they aren't cleared, nor do they have to wait for permission from a unit chief to take action. They can just put down their broom, pick up a gun, call themselves an Al-Qa’ida cell, and boom, they are.

The hierarchical nature of the IC bureaucracy creates a false distinction in division of labor that prevents the kind of mixing of skills that creates a fluid network necessary to combat a 4GW opponent. Here again, the standard IT infrastructure of federal government organizations provides a good example: Across the government, IT systems are designed, implemented and documented by engineers, who then hand completed systems over to administrators/operations staff who maintain and run them day to day. This is a false distinction created by the need to establish hierarchy. Engineering positions are believed to be a “rung up” from administration (although the skills required are near identical). This is silly on its face. Who better understands the day to day idiosyncrasies and bugs that will be encountered in a system than the person who designed it? Who better to run it day to day? And who better to design and implement new systems than the people who maintain them each day and have a boots on the ground understanding of the requirements of the customer? The division is both false and impractical.

Likewise, an analyst or desk officer sits in an air-conditioned office working on link analysis charts or poring over reams of data, while the agent/operator collects in the field. The analysts are stymied by their inability to do even rote investigation on location, and the operators are lacking critical information they may not be getting from analysts based on hierarchical interoffice/agency restrictions and classification compartmental restrictions. Even when the information does eventually flow, it may be too late by the time it gets to those who need it. The distinction is, as in the above example, false and unnecessary. Wilson, Wilcox and Richards sum it up best when they say “Put our intelligence analysts on patrol with the squads, platoons, and companies.”21 To the extent that it practically can, the line between analyst and agent/operator must be blurred to produce the kind of lateral network we need to move efficiently against a 4GW enemy.


The discussion of 4GW in the military has many lessons for the IC. By paying attention to how the military is thinking about and responding to 4GW opponents, the IC at large can honestly assess the enemy we are facing today and move to combat him most effectively. Among the chief lessons for the IC of 4GW theory are:

  1. The enemy operates in a loose network, sharing information across disparate cultural, linguistic and political groups to achieve his aim. The IC must respond in kind, operating in a loose network that shares information quickly across manifold agencies, departments and IT systems in real-time.

  2. 4GW actors operate in decentralized fashion, moving, planning and acting in small cells. To defeat him, so must we, letting go of our present obsession with centralized hierarchy and disseminating command and control functions more widely. Operators in the field must have the capacity to make decisions and move on them in real time, without having to worry about the consequences of stepping outside hierarchical, bureaucratic boundaries. The IC must disseminate action to small task-forces that operate in cellular fashion.

  3. The present classification system with its various compartments is an obstacle to the timely flow of information. It must be reexamined with an eye on making it simpler and quicker to navigate. Where information can be declassified, it should be. In many cases, unprocessed information may be more valuable than processed intelligence. Strict adherence to the intelligence cycle22 may not always be in the IC’s best interest and slows down our OODA loop relative to our 4GW opponents.

  4. The IC’s interest in high-technology information management solutions as the ultimate weapon in the war on terror is misplaced. 4GW is ultimately low-tech. We must invest in people, rather than technology. Language skills as well as geo-political and cultural skills are cheaper to procure and provide more lasting benefits than computer systems. The money saved can be invested in additional “boots on the ground” that are critical to winning a low-tech 4GW conflict.

  5. The IC must eliminate false distinctions in division of labor. It must give individual agents the ability to act at all levels of the intelligence cycle, merging the functions of analysts, desk officers and agents/operators in the field.

  6. Patience. 4GW conflicts take far longer than past modern wars. Mao Tse-Tung took over twenty years to complete his conquest of China. The Communist victory in Indochina took even longer. Many argue that we’ve been involved in a 4GW struggle against Salafist extremists since 1979.23 The IC should adjust its strategy to reflect long term strategic goals.

By incorporating these important lessons from 4GW theory, the IC can begin to close the gap the insurgents and terrorists presently have opened on us in Iraq and Afghanistan. It can see this conflict for what it is and focus on what is necessary for victory: not the capture and death of the enemy, but the subjugation of his will to carry on the contest.

Myke Cole is a consultant with the CACI Corporation. He is presently a student in the graduate program in International Security Policy at The George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. Please e-mail questions and comments to him at: .


  1. "4GW and OODA Loop Implications of the Iraqi Insurgency," presented at the Panel on Conceptual Frontiers by COL G.I. Wilson (USMC), LTC (ret.) Greg Wilcox, USA and COL (ret.) Chet Richards, USAF. Apr. 2004.

  2. JV2020 is published by the JCS and can be downloaded for free from

  3. Wilson, Wilcox and Richards, op. cit.

  4. For more on the life and work of John Boyd, see Franklin C. Spinney. "Genghis John." Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute. Jul. 1997. pp.42-47.

  5. Armed Forces Journal, Nov. 2004

  6. William S. Lind, COL Keith Nightengale, USA, CAPT John F. Schmitt, USMC and LTC Gary I. Wilson. "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation." Marine Corps Gazette. Oct. 1989. pp. 22-26.

  7. For a comprehensive look at the nature of 4GW actors, see COL(ret.) Thomas X. Hammes, USMC. The Sling and The Stone. On War in the 21st Century. Zenith Press, St. Paul. 2004.

  8. Mao Tse-Tung. On Protracted War. People’s Publishing House, Peking; 1954.

  9. For an in-depth discussion of “changing the correlation of forces” to favor a traditionally outclassed insurgent body, see Mao Tse-Tung. Yu Chi Chan (Guerrilla Warfare). US Naval War College. 1937.

  10. Larry Seaquist. "Community War." Proceedings of The U.S. Naval Institute. Aug. 2000.

  11. Robert David Steele. "The New Craft of Intelligence." OSS.Net. Jul. 2001.

  12. COL (ret.) John Boyd, USAF. Patterns of Conflict. Dec. 1986. This briefing was never formally published. A copy can be obtained from DNI.

  13. Steele. The New Craft of Intelligence.

  14. COL(ret.) Thomas X. Hammes, USMC. op. cit. p. 197.

  15. For more on commercial standards of best practice in network design by the industry’s leader, see Microsoft’s Patterns and Practices Center: Architecture and Design Guides at

  16. Sarah Lai Stirland. "Justice Budget Focused On Using Info To Combat Terrorism." National Journal’s Technology Daily – PM Edition. May 2005.

  17. Terry Frieden. "FBI wasted millions on 'Virtual Case File'." CNN. Feb. 2005.

  18. John Solomon. "BI Failed to Hire Mideast Terror Experts." Associated Press. Jun. 2005.

  19. Bowden, Mark. Black Hawk Down. Penguin Books, New York. Mar. 2000.

  20. Wilson, Wilcox and Richards. op. cit.

  21. Ibid.

  22. For more on the Intelligence Cycle and how it works, please see The CIA FactBook On Intelligence, available at

  23. 1979 marks many significant events, among them the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Soviet entry into Afghanistan and the Salafist seizure of the Grand Mosque in Makkah.