4th Generation Warfare & the Changing Face of War

October 15, 2004

Comment #528

Attached References:

[Ref 1] Mohamad Bazzi, "U.S. may be too quick to blame al-Zarqawi: Arab intelligence reports say U.S. too quick to solely blame militant for carrying out violence in Iraq." Newsday, October 4, 2004

[Ref 2] Jim Krane, "U.S. Faces Complex Insurgency in Iraq," Associated Press, October 4, 2004

The President and his advisors have repeatedly referred to the Iraq War as the "Central Front of the War on Terrorism." This pregnant phrase is misleading, to put it charitably: For one thing, it alludes subliminally to distant memories of the bloody Central Front between Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II.

More generally, the image of a central front is a quintessentially Clausewitzian concept. It implies a head on bash between two huge standing armies, representing entire nations, concentrated at the decisive point, facing each other, in a decisive battle. These armies are commanded by generals and staffs from big headquarters behind the lines, and their strategy is usually one of attrition killing enough of the enemy soldiers to force his submission. This kind of scenario more related to what we call 2nd Generation War or 2GW (although it is conceivable a 3rd Generation War could have a Central Front).

Calling the fighting in Iraq a Central Front is a snappy metaphor, but it is meaningless. The conflict in Iraq is a 4th Generation War, and in 4GW, the closest thing to a central front is the battle for the population and public opinion, something Clausewitz acknowledged but did not examine. [New readers can learn more about the generations of war by referring to Thread 1.]

To be sure, American generals are hunkered down like 2GW battle captains behind the green line in their Baghdad headquarters trying to direct their forces against the enemy. But there is no comparable enemy headquarters. Nor is there a conventionally organized enemy army, and our enemy, whoever he or she is, certainly does not represent the unified political will of a nation in the sense that the Soviet and German armies represented the Soviet Union and Germany in World War II.

In fact, we do not even know who the enemy is: Is he made up of Sunni/Ba'athist deadenders, as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld used to say?, or Shiite rejectionists?, or foreign jihadists? or Iraqi nationalists opposed to occupation? or all of the above? or some of the a above? [References 1 and 2 attached below are two recent reports describing the uncertainties surrounding the nature of our adversaries.]

We do not know how our enemy is organized or how he reconstitutes his forces after our attacks disperse them. Perhaps our enemy forms a self organizing network or, as some believe, a network of networks? No one really knows for sure. About the only thing we do know is that the enemy can not beat our forces if they stand and fight in a fixed battle.  But does that even matter?

Do fixed battles have anything to do with the guerrilla strategy, beyond validating our enemy's hope that our heavy firepower will accidentally kill more innocent Iraqis, and thereby drive away more hearts and minds, thus generating more support and recruits for the guerrillas?

In short, the conditions envisioned by Clausewitz and by extension, the proponents of the misleading idea of a Central Front do not apply to Iraq.

Applying terms like "Central Front" to the conflict in Iraq is typical of the useless rhetoric that passes for strategic discourse in this war. The use of this metaphor is more geared toward creating domestic impressions than dealing with strategic and operational realities of the situation we face. It is time for some serious thinking about the nature of the threats facing us in the Iraq War and that involves examining forthrightly the central question of 4GW namely, how the weak confront the military power of the strong.

One my greatest pleasures in thirty-three years of work in the Defense Department was the opportunity to work with dedicated officers who took their profession seriously. These individuals are all too rare, but they are worth their weight in gold. One such officer is Colonel T. X. Hammes of the U.S. Marine Corps. For years Hammes has been writing (and warning, like a voice in the wilderness) about the changing nature of war and the rise of what we call Fourth Generation War. Many of his writings can be found in Thread 1.

Colonel Hammes has just written a book expanding on his ideas about 4th Generation Warfare. Chet Richards, the Webmaster of Defense and the National Interest, has written the attached insightful review of Hammes' latest effort, which is herewith submitted for your consideration. Readers who want to obtain this important book can buy it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Book Review:

4th Generation Warfare - The Changing Face of War in the 21st Century

by Chet Richards
October 15, 2004

Chet Richards is author of Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd Applied to Business, and is Editor of Defense and the National Interest, which holds several papers by Colonel Hammes.

The Sling and The Stone, On War in the 21st Century
Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC
Published by Zenith Press, St. Paul MN 2004

In 1991, Israeli historian and military analyst Martin van Creveld shocked the defense community with The Transformation of War. At least, he shocked that part more worried about post-Soviet threats than about buying weapons.

Van Creveld preached that future danger to the West would come from groups other than state armies, and that they would employ means that we would find repulsively violent and indiscriminate. In the intervening 13 years, all this has come to pass, but, as Marine Colonel T. X. Hammes eloquently argues in this important new book, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

What we are in fact seeing is "fourth generation warfare," (4GW) a term coined in a seminal 1989 paper in the Marine Corps Gazette and now easily available on the Internet[1]. Hammes argues that 4GW, far from being something academic or esoteric, represents the cumulative efforts of "practical people" trying to solve the problem of confronting superior military power. Their efforts are bearing fruit:

At the strategic level, the combination of our perceived technological superiority and our bureaucratic organization sets us up for a major failure against a more agile, intellectually prepared enemy.

The failure, in Hammes' view, will not be defeat in some Clausewitzian "decisive battle," but failure nonetheless as American politicians, tiring of the costs and despairing of victory, withdraw our forces short of achieving our objectives. Since it involves war of the (militarily) weak against the strong, any combat associated with 4GW will likely be "an evolved form of insurgency."

A twist is that 4GW also involves transnational elements, that is, tribes, criminal organizations (e.g., narcotrafficking cartels), nations that don't have states, and of course, ideological groups like al-Qa'ida. The most effective of these entities form social networks that blend into the fabric of the societies in which they operate.

Hammes dates the origins of 4GW to the 1930s, when Mao Tse-Tung broke with Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy in order to solve the problem of employing peasantry instead of proletariat to defeat the Nationalists. He traces the evolution of 4GW through its successesthe Vietnamese, Sandinistas, Somalis, and Palestinians (in the first Intifada)and its failuresthe Al-Aqsa Intifada and perhaps al-Qa'ida. So in Hammes' view, 4GW is no classroom theory but a field-tested method of warfare, and only nave adversaries will choose anything else.

This is inevitable, Hammes concludes, because when 4GW organizations remain true to their networked roots, and keep their focus on influencing their state opponent's desire to continue, they win. Such organizations only lose when they drop out of the 4GW paradigmas when the Palestinians of the Al Aqsa Intifida shifted their focus away from influencing Israeli and Western opinion and towards the destruction of Israel.

The chapters that describe and document these conclusions are vividly written and make a compelling case that in general, 4GW practitioners are succeeding in evolving ways of finding/creating and exploiting weaknesses in American concepts of war. You can see this in action in Iraq, where despite a $500 billion defense budget (including the cost of continuing in Iraq for another year), both our alliance and US domestic support are crumbling, and, as an aside, we are reverting to 2GW measures like body count and territory occupied.

In the last third of the book, Hammes raises issues that should trouble every US political and military leader. Perhaps most penetrating, given DoD's current focus, is the observation is that if information technology is the key to success in future combat, then we're probably going to lose. The reason is that dispersed, rapidly evolving networks can more quickly figure out how to exploit new information technologies than can large, bureaucratic, hierarchical structures such as the Pentagon. The escalating parade of viruses, Trojans, and other worms that assault our (non-Mac) computers daily attest to the truth of this argument.

The solution, in Hammes' view, is to become more of a network ourselves. He is brutally realistic about the problems this entails.  For starters we would need to eliminate about 50% of the field grade and general officers on active duty (which agrees with most studies of implementations of lean manufacturing, for example, which suggest reducing management ranks by 25-40%.) Such thinking is a refreshing change from the gradualist school of transformation prevalent in DoD these days.

Many of his other recommendations will be familiar to those who have read Army Major Don Vandergriff's The Path to Victory, which Hammes credits as the basis for his own personnel proposals. Solve the people problems and our troops will figure out ways to employ suitable technologies.

By the way, watch for Hammes' sly perversion of the phrase "coalition of the willing," which reveals a biting wit generally thought rare in Marine colonels.

One might quibble with some of Hammes' assessments. He asserts, for example, that al-Qa'ida made a huge strategic error in the September 11 attacks. This may be true, but considering Hammes' concern with the protracted nature of 4GW, it is far too early to tell. And the book could have used more detail on how Hammes would improve our HUMINTspyingcapabilities. He rightly points out that HUMINT is key for a state power confronted by a 4GW opponent. On the other hand, HUMINT operators live in places where, as one put it, "bouts of diarrhea are measured in years," one slip up can permanently solve bowel problems, and headquarters, where promotions are handed out, is thousands of miles away.[2]

Finally, I was disappointed that Hammes failed to acknowledge his debt to John Boyd, one of the godfathers of 4GW. Boyd's ideas permeate the book: The OODA "loop," the idea of rapid re-orientation as key, reliance on implicit and intuitive decisions/actions, and most fundamental, recognition that grand strategy is decisive in 4GW and forms the Schwerpunkt.[3] The entire book is an affirmation of Boyd's injunction that success in war depends on "people, ideas, and hardware, in that order!"

Please do not interpret my criticisms as detracting from the message of this book. If you are remotely curious about where armed conflict is heading over the next 20-30 years, you must read The Sling and The Stone. You may not agree with all of Colonel Hammes' recommendations, but you'll find it hard to argue that he hasn't made a correct diagnosis of the problem. And just in time.


[1] Lind, William S., et. al., "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation," Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989, 22-26.

[2] I had made a few tentative suggestions in this direction in A Swift, Elusive Sword. Recruiting and retaining people who will put up with these conditions is extraordinarily difficult, but not terribly expensive. If we had a thousand consummately skilled operatives scattered around the world, and if the annual cost for finding, training, paying for, and eventually retiring them averaged a million dollars each, the system would only cost a billion dollars per year, roughly one fourth of what the USAF proposed to spend in FY 2005 to buy 24 F/A-22 aircraft.

[3] All of Boyd's briefings are available at Boyd & Military Strategy.

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

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference 1

U.S. may be too quick to blame al-Zarqawi
Arab intelligence reports say U.S. too quick to solely blame militant for carrying out violence in Iraq

By Mohamad Bazzi

Middle East Correspondent
October 4, 2004


Al-Zarqawi's own militant group has fewer than 100 members inside Iraq, although al-Zarqawi has close ties to a Kurdish Islamist group with at least several hundred members, according to two reports produced by an Arab intelligence service.

The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, 37, has used the media effectively to inflate his role in the Iraqi insurgency. In recent months, he and his supporters have claimed credit for scores of suicide bombings, attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces, kidnappings and beheadings of foreigners, and coordinated uprisings in several Iraqi cities.

The assessment contradicts many of the Bush administration's statements about al-Zarqawi and his terrorist network. Before invading Iraq in March 2003, the administration argued that al-Zarqawi was a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden. U.S. officials said al-Zarqawi had taken refuge in Baghdad and was a major link between Hussein's regime and bin Laden's al-Qaida network. But that assertion has never been proven, and there are doubts about al-Zarqawi's relationships with both bin Laden and Hussein's government, as some Bush administration officials have acknowledged in recent months.

"The Americans are inclined to focus on one individual as the mastermind of all the troubles," says one of the reports. "In reality, the situation in Iraq is more complex. There are many small groups that sometimes work together, but at other times they have different agendas There are former Saddam loyalists, home-grown Islamic extremists, foreign extremists and Kurdish elements."

By mid-June of this year, the administration also shifted its view of al-Zarqawi's relationship to al-Qaida. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld conceded that al-Zarqawi might be more of a rival than an associate of bin Laden's. Al-Zarqawi "may very well not have sworn allegiance to [bin Laden]," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing. "Maybe he disagrees with him on something, maybe because he wants to be 'The Man' himself and maybe for a reason that's not known to me."

Rumsfeld added, "someone could legitimately say he's not al-Qaida."

"People who gravitate toward militant movements are attracted to the ideology, and al-Zarqawi has very little to offer," Rashwan said. "He does not have a jihadist manifesto."

Reference 2

U.S. Faces Complex Insurgency in Iraq

Associated Press
Oct. 04, 2004


BAGHDAD, Iraq - The U.S. military is fighting the most complex guerrilla war in its history, with 140,000 American soldiers trained for conventional warfare flailing against a thicket of insurgent groups with competing aims and no supreme leader.

In other U.S. wars, the enemy was clear. In Vietnam, a visible leader - Ho Chi Minh - led a single army fighting to unify the country under socialism. But in Iraq, the disorganized insurgency has no single commander, no political wing and no dominant group.

the estimated 20,000 insurgents have little in common, although groups have occasionally worked together in temporary alliances of convenience. U.S. commanders describe the war as a "compound insurgency" sorted into four groups with different tactics and goals.

Three are made up of Sunni Muslims, almost all of whom are Iraqis. A fourth group is radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, formed of Shiite Muslims, Iraq's largest social grouping.

Ordinary criminals also pitch in on attacks when they are paid. And gangsters who abduct people regularly sell their hostages to terror groups, which have beheaded some.

"History is replete with insurgencies that failed," one general said privately during a discussion of Iraq.

History is also replete with insurgencies that triumphed. Vietnamese guerrillas ousted the United States in 1973. Afghan militias similarly embarrassed the Soviet Union in 1989.

If the insurgents are unorganized and unfocused, their tactics are classic. Guerrilla wars often feature car bombings, assassinations and abductions in the early stages, said Richard K. Betts, director of the Institute for War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

As the militants gain strength, they progress to fielding combat troops, Betts said. In Iraq, large formations of Iraqi insurgents have met with mixed success. U.S. commanders claim their troops killed more than 4,000 al-Sadr fighters in April and August. But Sunni fighters in Fallujah and other cities have mounted daring attacks and melted away with few killed.