Originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette, April 1997
Republished with permission of the author.

A number of books and periodical articles have appeared in the past few years which offer insight into a chilling vision of the future of conflict. It is a vision in which the past more than ever serves as prelude, but with ample amounts of modern technology folded into the mix. It conjures up nightmare scenarios of warlord armies, bands of tribal warriors and renegade banditti spreading death and disorder. At the same time tiny terrorist cells, renegade computer crackers, mafia- ridden governments, drug lord armies, and religious or political extremists of one stripe or another run amuck. It promises the continued decline in power and influence of the nation- state as an entity. It offers deliberate shutdowns, sabotage or destruction of entire critical networks such as utilities, communications or transportation. It promises unprecedented damage and casualties from weapons of mass destruction employed by subnational entities.

This grim view of the future bears several names. For a good while the U.S. Marine Corps has called it "fourth generation warfare." A recent occasional paper from the Association of the United States Army referred to it as "fourth epoch war." Current military jargon refers to some aspects of it as "gray area phenomena," "operations other than war," "other military operations," "peace operations," or "stateless warfare." The National Strategy Information Center calls it 'global ungovernability.' It hardly seems proper to call it warfare at all since so much of what goes on can be categorized more properly as crime, genocide, terrorism, insurgency, revolt, rebellion or resistance. Since the term "conflict" generally covers all of the above and more, several of the writers listed below have chosen to use it to describe this new order of threats.

This concept of future conflict leaves increasingly little room for most of the "conventional" military thought encompassed in much of the literature of the Revolution in Military Affairs, Force XXI or even the AANP (the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute's "Army After Next Project"). A lot of it goes back to the conflict continuum which was widely used a few years ago. According to this continuum, as the level of intensity of conflict increases, the likelihood of it happening decreases. The writers below believe to one degree or another that we now face a whole new universe of threats at the low intensity end of the continuum for a number of reasons.

The concepts listed below are drawn from the material mentioned in the attached bibliography, from hearing certain of the writers speak, and from conversations and correspondence carried on for about two years now with a variety of individuals with an interest in the subject. No really simple synthesis or outline of the concepts involved here exists that I have seen, thus this effort to create one. Briefly, the important factors defining future conflict are these:

1) Decline in power and prominence of the nation-state as an entity and the increasing number of substate entities (breakaway territories, tribes, warrior bands, terrorist organizations, criminal enterprise armies, etc.) involved in conflicts. The fragmentation, collapse or increased weakness of existing nation- states leads to more and more political, economic and social upheaval or outright violence. It often contributes to genocide, famine or pestilence, producing additional numbers of starving or diseased refugees- witness Angola, Lebanon, Biafra, Ethiopia, Liberia, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, the Philippines, Chechnya and the former Yugoslavia among others.

2) Decreasing likelihood of strategic (i.e., nuclear) warfare or conventional (non- nuclear) major regional conflicts (like Desert Storm) between nation- states. The probability of other MRC's cannot be totally ruled out due to certain continuing threats like Iraq or North Korea. Even so, the near future will likely see fewer "real wars" between or among nation- states but much more violent conflict on a smaller scale.

3) Seriously damaging attacks from substate entities are now much more likely to occur. Such attacks are increasingly possible due to several important factors, which encompass the classic trilogy of motive, means and opportunity:

  • "Trickle- down" of weapons of mass destruction- chemical, biological and nuclear. Note the Japanese subway attack, the Tamil chemical attack on the Sri Lankan army, the Moscow "park surprise" of ionizing material which the Chechens threatened to spread with conventional explosives, the recent threat to irradiate local U.S. government officials by someone who did have radium, the recent deliberate poisoning with nuclear material of a lab worker, etc. It is a real surprise that no identifiable non-state use of biological agents has taken place recently, though reports indicate that certain fringe groups are definitely giving thought to the possibility. Arrests have taken place fairly recently in the U.S. of people possessing or transporting biological materials.

  • Increasing availability of "talent" looking for any paying job or willing to serve because of personal ideology provides greater access to knowledge and skills for substate entities. This includes trained intelligence and security operatives as well as nuclear engineers, biologists, chemists, etc.

  • Increasing availability of tactical light and heavy weapons to anyone with the money to purchase them- note especially the recent offers from Chinese arms merchants to sell assault rifles, light machine guns, RPG's, shoulder- launched SAMs and even tanks in the U.S. Likewise note the continued willingness of certain "rogue states" to supply arms and high explosives to terrorist groups.

  • Increasing access to the amount of funds needed to mount significant attacks. Even though much state sponsorship has dried up, extortion, kidnapping, robberies or drug related activities can easily fund substate efforts. Also, ideologically motivated groups can and will do more on a shoestring- note the World Trade Center and OKC bombings as examples.

  • Increased difficulty by potential victims in targeting small substate entities either in time to prevent an attack or to retaliate after one has happened.

  • Increased willingness of substate groups to carry out significant attacks for ideological reasons or for profit in the absence of controls formerly exercised by the major Cold War participants or by strong central governments now weakened or collapsed. The fragmentation of nations and the political, ethnic or religious factionalization of groups of people make tensions more likely to result in violence.

4) Increasing urbanization of populations on a global scale concentrates greater numbers of people in smaller geographic areas, vastly increasing their vulnerability to attacks on infrastructure (power, water, transportation, communications). Crowded cities are also most vulnerable to attacks by weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, biological), even if these attacks are carried out in relatively unsophisticated fashion. Given the increasing weight of urban areas as centers of gravity, urban combat is increasingly likely.

5) Strategic and heavy conventional arsenals can provide little or no deterrent to prevent substate entities from mounting significant attacks since they cannot be brought to bear successfully on targets impossible to identify or separate from the surrounding population of innocents. A developing interest in nonlethal or less than lethal technologies is a direct result of this problem.

6) Infowar threats are increasingly visible, possible and some significant attacks are happening now. Since this is a relatively cheap and often nearly invisible method of attack, with good potential for success if mounted correctly, it is bound to continue and grow more popular. In addition, the Internet is increasingly being used as a vehicle for garnering political support and spreading propaganda as well.

7) Casualty avoidance has become a major though seldom addressed issue. Searing images of American casualties dragged through the streets have an impact on the American public that heretofore has not come into play to such a degree.

8) The "CNN effect" is now an issue. The public at home can see disturbing battlefield images with unprecedented rapidity, approaching real- time. Whether the casualties and damage displayed by the media are inflicted on allies or enemies, the effect of seeing them is unsettling to many and the political repercussions of this are well understood by many groups seeking media attention.

9) Resource scarcity, natural disasters, population pressures, endemic corruption, new plagues and economic problems place more strain on nation- states, making local or regional violence more likely and its spread to adjacent areas more of a threat. Up to a certain point political pressure will demand American intervention in certain of these areas, putting U.S. nationals at risk of attack from disgruntled groups or exposure to other hazards. This will lead either to wider involvement in difficult situations and subsequent additional casualties or embarrassing withdrawals, making policy decisions ever more critical and complicated. What is the upshot of all this? Assuming the writers below are correct, the future promises to hold a great many instances of natural disaster, epidemic, famine, political collapse, social disruption and violence. Many of these problems by definition fall squarely into the lap of U. S. Army Special Operations Forces. At a time when these new threats seem to be emerging over the distant horizon the forces most capable of dealing with them increasingly face budget constraints and personnel cutbacks. Political pressures will almost certainly result in a degree of American involvement in at least some of these situations for the foreseeable future.

Individually none of these threats are necessarily dangerous to U.S. national security, but taken together as indications of developing trends they threaten to be collectively overwhelming. The old assumption of "Fortress America" is no longer tenable either, as porous borders, relatively large ethnic populations and dissent and divisiveness make abundantly clear. There are some significant decisions to be made in the very near future, and some of them will no doubt be unpleasant. The worst thing we could do would be to allow ourselves to be taken unaware as a result of failing to make some hard choices while there's time.

New tanks, stealth planes, arsenal ships or missile defense systems won't mean much to a couple of extremists with a truck bomb, a computer virus or a container full of anthrax, either here or abroad. The RMA continues along the trajectory of preparing for the next MRC, and that is a good and necessary idea. Unfortunately it is not likely to be enough by itself. The writers below tell us that we must prepare for a new order of threats from unexpected quarters by unsuspected means on the lower end of the spectrum of conflict. As always, the odds are that's where the greatest number of potential problems lie, though they might not be as serious as a MRC.

New responses to new-order threats and new answers to old problems will be necessary if these threats are to be successfully met. Unbounded hysteria and irresponsible fearmongering are not productive approaches to a set of problems which call for calm , responsible reasoning, careful planning and thorough preparation. The writers below do a good job of defining these threats. It's now up to the political leadership and to law enforcement and military officials to determine how best to counter themówithout damaging or destroying the society they're trying to save in the process.

Books and Pamphlets (By Date)

Van Creveld, Martin L. The Transformation of War. New York: Free Press, 1991. This is one of the pivotal books on military strategy in the 1990's. Van Creveld clearly identifies the major trends likely to produce changes in the shape and level of conflict in the coming years. It should be considered a "must read" for anyone considering the changes likely to accompany the opening years of the next century.

Manwaring, Max G., Ed. Gray Area Phenomena: Confronting the New World Disorder. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993. Several contributors to this collection of esays identify and discuss important factors leading to a potential rise in political violence and lawlessness.

Toffler, Alvin and Heidi. War and Anti-war: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1993. This book seems better in the generalities than in the specifics but it (and its authors) have recieved a great deal of attention from some military and civilian officials (notably Mr. Gingrich).

Enzensberger, Hans M. Civil Wars: From LA to Bosnia. New York: New Press, 1994. German essayist Enzensberger's little book points out the evolving "molecular civil wars" in many countries.

Metz, Steven and Kievet, James. The Revolution in Military Affairs and Conflict Short of War. Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 25 July 1994. 37 pages.

Ohmae, Kenichi. The End of the Nation State: The Rise of Regional Economies. New York: Free Press, 1996 The economic outlook on the future of the nation state- the author predicts the rise of regional affluent zones with closer ties to each other than with their home countries.

Bunker, Robert J. and Moore, T. Lindsay. Nonlethal Technology and Fourth Epoch War: A New Paradigm of Politico- Military Force. Arlington, VA: Institute of Land Warfare, Association of the United States Army, February 1996. 17 pages. Land Warfare Papers, # 23. One of a series of occasional National Security Affairs Papers, this booklet explores the potential uses of nonlethal or less than lethal technologies in future conflicts. AUSA POC: 1-800-336-4570.

Kaplan, Robert D. The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century. New York: Random House, 1996. I haven't seen this one yet but I have read some of Kaplan's previous material. This seems to be an expansion of his essay published in Atlantic in 1994 (cited in the periodical articles below), and should be worth reading (reviewed in the April 1996 issue of Commentary).

Kaplan, David E. and Marshall, Andrew. The Cult at the End of the World. New York: Crown, 1996. An excerpt from this new title about the Aum cult in Japan (and elsewhere) appears in the July 1996 issue of WIRED magazine (V. 4 # 7, pp. 136+)

Periodical Articles

Homer- Dixon, Thomas F. "On the Threshold: Environmental Changes as Causes of Acute Conflict." International Security, V. 16 #2; Fall 1991, pp. 76- 116.

Huntington, Samuel. "The Clash of Civilizations." Foreign Affairs, V. 72 #3; Summer 1993, p. 22. This article has prompted a great deal of discussion in print, actually too many articles to attempt to list them all here.

McKenzie, Kenneth F. Jr. "Elegant Irrelevance: Fourth Generation Warfare." Parameters, V. 23 #3; Autumn 1993, pp. 51- 60. The author debunks the "qualitative dialectic" used by fourth generation theorists, charging that their theory is "more mantra than method."

Peters, Ralph. "Vanity and the Bonfire of the "isms." Parameters, V. 23 #3; Autumn 1993. Nationalism and fundamentalism replace communism as the West's galvanizing threats.

Kaplan, Robert D. "The Coming Anarchy." The Atlantic Monthly, V. 273 #2; February 1994, pp. 44- 76.

Bacevich, A. J. "Preserving the Well- Bred Horse." The National Interest, V. #37, Fall 1994, p. 45.

Connelly, Matthew and Kennedy, Paul. "Must It Be The Rest Against The West?" The Atlantic Monthly, V. 273 #12; December 1994, pp. 61- 91.

Lind, William S. and others. "Fourth Generation Warfare: Another Look." Marine Corps Gazette, V. 78 #12; December 1994, pp. 34- 37.

Metz, Steven. "A Wake for Clausewitz: Toward a Philosophy of 21st- Century Warfare." Parameters, V. 24 #4; Winter 1994- 95, pp. 126- 132. This article is a review essay of the Toffler's War and Anti-War, van Creveld's The Transformation of War, and John Keegan's A History of Warfare.

Kurth, James. "The Clash in Western Society." Current, #369; January 1995, p. 19. One of the numerous articles prompted by Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations."

Peters, Ralph. "After the Revolution." Parameters, V. 25 #2, Summer 1995, pp. 7- 14.

Kingwell, Mark. "Meet Tad the Doom- Meister." Saturday Night, V. 110 #7; Sept. 1995, p. 42. Article concerning Thomas Homer- Dixon, political science professor at the University of Toronto, whose theories have influenced Robert Kaplan and others.

Maynes, Charles William. "The New Pessimism." Foreign Policy, #100; Fall 1995, pp. 33- 49. A 'silver lining' approach to evaluating Kaplan et al.

Bacevich, A. J. "The Use of Force in Our Time." Wilson Quarterly, V. 19 # 1; Winter 1995, pp. 50- 63. The author offers a survey of the use of military force in our century and a plea for a radical revision of military thinking to confront new threats.

Peters, Ralph. "The Culture of Future Conflict." Parameters, V. 25 #4; Winter 1995-96, pp. 18- 27.

Peters, Ralph. "Our Soldiers, Their Cities." Parameters, V. 26 #1; Spring 1996, pp. 43- 50.

Van Creveld, Martin. "The Fate of the State." Parameters, V. 26 #1; Spring 1996, pp. 4- 18. More on the decline of the state as a soverign entity.

Dorff, Robert H. "Democratization and Failed States: the Challenge of Ungovernability." Parameters, V. 26 #2; Summer 1996, pp. 17- 31.

Peters, Ralph. "A Revolution in Military Ethics?" Parameters, V.26 #2; Summer 1996, pp. 102- 108.

Sapolsky, Harvey M. and Shapiro, Jeremy. "Casualties, Technology and America's Future Wars." Parameters, V. 26 #2; Summer 1996, pp. 119- 127.

Luttwak, Edward. "A Post- Heroic Military Policy." Foreign Affairs, V. 75 #4; July/ August 1996, pp. 33- 44.

Kaplan, Robert D. "Fort Leavenworth and the Eclipse of Nationhood." Atlantic Monthly. V. 278 #3, September 1996, pp. 74- 90.

Clarke, Walter and Gosende, Robert. "The Political Component: The Missing Vital Element in U.S. Intervention Planning." Parameters, V. 26 #3; Autumn 1996, pp. 35- 51.

Lorenz, F. M. "Non- Lethal Force: The Slippery Slope To War?" Parameters, V. 26 #3; Autumn 1996, pp. 52- 62.

Lasswell, COL James A. and Gangle, COL Randolph A. "New Threats Require New Orientations." Marine Corps Gazette, V. 80 #9; September 1996, pp. 59- 60. Proposes an increased potential for the use of the USMC in providing assistance to domestic law enforcement in extreme situations.


New Order Threat Analysis: A Literature Survey
November 2, 1996

Fred Fuller, Reference Librarian
Marquat Memorial Library,
USAJFKSWCS Ft. Bragg, NC 28307-5000