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November 20th, 2005  

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This was submitted to Soldier of Fortune magazine about 6 weeks ago. Lacking a response, I'm trying to get it published elsewhere. suggestions? Ignore the fact that my source list is missing, it's in a separate document.

Fourth Generation Warfare And What It Could Mean for Iraq and Abroad

The New Ol’ Dirty Little War

It is the most lamentable fact in the matter of higher-echelon thinking that adaptation is viewed as a largely treasonous and unnecessary thing. The premise of this writing is to illustrate the divisions in doctrine in the last 300 years of conflict and to provide possible answers as to where the future of modern conflict of lower intensities may be headed.
Right from the start of this article the reader is probably wondering, “What is this new warfare premise?” Fourth Generation Warfare, or simply 4GW, is a revolutionary new warfare concept (hardly new in practice) which was developed in the late 1980s by a group of US Marine officers. 4GW states, in the words of these officers, that “the lines between peace and war will become so blurred that the distinction between a noncombatant and an active soldier will become impossible to discern.”
Simply put, the above quote states that in our current state of military affairs, it is impossible to tell whether or not we are in a state of conflict. In keeping with the maneuver conflict premise of maneuver and counter-maneuver, how do we cope with the military and political menace of not knowing when or if we have an enemy to deal with? The answer is quite elementary- assume for all intents and purposes that our nation is at war, regardless of what treaties we happen to be signing or what diplomatic advances we are making with any country, developing or otherwise. The price of vigilance can be high- the experience of several thousand years of conflict has taught us that. However, the price of unwariness is often much higher. More recent developments in the o forms of foreign extremist aggression, personified and inflamed in the public eye by Middle Eastern Islamic groups, has delivered that lesson to us with great and lasting effect.
4GW is best defined as “a form of conflict in which one participant uses unconventional tactics to usurp a greater force.” The concept is hardly new. Napoleon’s early campaigns, the teachings of Sun Tzu, and the indigenous guerilla fighters of South America illustrate perfectly the trumping of greater forces by the use of coercion, greater will to fight, and better and more appropriate use of tactics over a larger government-run force.
William S. Lind explains that 4GW is such a radical new development that we cannot pin a name on its unconventional participants. While this seems a trivial piece of information, it serves to illustrate the fact that our government cannot properly assess and respond to this growing threat. The author expounds on this with the belief that because we are not set in a Third World mind set, we tend to lack the insight necessary to correctly review and react to old and new extremist threats. We as a country are simply too far removed as a country to understand the workings of the “terrorist” mind.

Setting the Stage For Fourth-Generation Conflict

It is no small secret that the previous events of history play a role in shaping the future. This style of warfare is hardly a new development- in fact, such tactics as described above have been in use for centuries, though for the contemporary mind to grasp the current concepts it is probably best to use the examples of various guerilla actions or low intensity conflict (L.I.C.) occurrences throughout recent history. But all that is to come later. First, it is imperative that we take a look at the last 300 years of conflict and review the more definable previous generations. (Note- as Wilson and his collaborators state, it is possible for more than one generation to be in place at any one time.)

First-Generation Conflict- This operating method ascribes to the doctrine of massed troops in ranks. Such warfare predates written history, and maneuver within a single column or unit is very slight. For example, 17th century British infantry generally marched in a straight line, while the most maneuvering came from other units converging on the line of battle. It adheres to the Clausewitzian idea of engaging in a major battle to determine the victor in a strategic confrontation. Strategy, therefore, is emphasized in the size of a battle and the body counts proceeding the conclusion. The general result of such a conflict is usually marked by heavy bloodshed and losses to all parties. Guerilla-like tactics are beginning to be prevalent in smaller, more cohesive, “outside-the-box units”, as has been observed in ragtag militia outfits or the tribal wars of the African continent. A bloodbath, however, goes against today’s ethical and practical “standards of warfare”, which can be summed up as “Achieve maximum results with minimum losses. Large-scale conflicts aren’t prevalent, but we’re still stuck in the attrition warfare headset. Organized, synchronized warfare is the Gospel, with the ordinances of Geneva as the New Testament.”

Second Generation Warfare- With the advent of more effective artillery and weapons with higher rates of fire, the battlefield following the Revolution became centered upon massed firepower. It centered on the ability to win by having a bigger gun than your opponent. Though it still adhered to the large-scale culminating battle advocated by Clausewitz, it was a step closer to Boyd’s maneuver theory. The American Civil War offers an excellent example, as does the 1963 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, where artillery acted as both a shelter and “walking stick” for holding and advancing American forces. Attrition conflict is still the norm.

Third Generation Warfare- This is the big one, the turning point of the previous generations. It is based upon a new factor which previously played a rather insignificant role in conflict- time. Think of the third generation as a computer- its goal is to accomplish a task most effectively in the least amount of time. The Blitzkrieg is often cited as a case study in 3GW, though the author adds to that the various operations in Somalia in 1993 and the capture of Baghdad (though that was more of a political victory, as the “battle” for the city is still ongoing).
During the Second World War, 3rd and 2nd generation conflict techniques generally intertwined as one. Speaking in generalities, oftentimes a defending force spots advancing infantry and responds with artillery. The advancing force retaliates with a naval, air, or land-based barrage, and will press the attack until one of two things occurs: the objective is captured or rendered useless, or the attacking force has been hammered to the point of being combat-ineffective. In short, it is both an event- and time-driven system. 3rd generation warfare is in effect the concept which combines the aspects of the previous generation and helps, through those two ideas, time and events, to set the stage for 4GW.

The Birth of Fourth Generation Warfare

In the 1970s, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, John. R. Boyd, began to develop his own unique ideas as to the nature and practice of warfare. These ideas culminated his theory of “maneuver conflict”. Boyd, as a junior officer, had revolutionized the air-to-air training and practice methods of the Air Force with his “Aerial Attack Study”, a document which, after its declassification, set the standard for dogfighting units the world over. The study relied heavily on a maneuver-countermaneuver system, and the colonel carried this manner of thinking into his ideas on maneuver conflict.
Boyd criticizes Clausewitz heavily in his various briefings and the few written works he penned on his brainchild. While Clausewitz’s ideas form the basis of modern U.S. military thinking, the colonel ascribes to the lessons of Sun Tzu advocating the need to maximize pressure and “internal friction” of the enemy’s men, resources, and planning.
Boyd’s work at the time was largely ignored. At that time the Pentagon had no other military theorists working within its walls, and it seemed absurd that a lieutenant colonel, an Air Force officer at that, could be considered as a sage in the ways of ground warfare. However, it should not be overlooked that at that time, all branches of the service were in effect reeling after Vietnam, unable to cope with a subversive guerilla force. While Boyd’s work in higher echelons of the Pentagon was ignored, it was met with more than a few cocked eyebrows in the junior ranks where the need for change was evident.
In 1989, Lieutenant Colonel Gary Wilson, Colonels Keith Nightengale, and two other officers, along with William Lind, eyed Boyd’s work and set forth to produce the military idea that is the basis of this paper. The majority of these men, after writing the aforementioned “Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”, continue to meet for dinner and chats on the subject they put into writing. As with Boyd’s work, it was largely ignored, though it raised questions in the unconventional warfare/special operations community. Having already defined the general basis and principles of 4GW, we will expound on those ideas and take a stab at where this slippery beast of warfare may be headed.

Expanding 4GW Through The Eyes of Wilson and Others

Demographics and Their Part in the Conflict

4GW doesn’t just transcend the conventional values of both society and the Standard Operating Procedures of modern militaries. It is a form of conflict which is not only nonlinear in the physical and conventional sense of warfare, but also in the cultural and demographic sense. Talking with a soldier whom the author escorted to his demobilization, he remarked to me: “We checked the paperwork on some of the dead we recovered. Syrian, Iranian documents, you name it. These people will go through a long hard slog to kill Americans.”
Not the first time we’ve noted something of this nature, either. As Wilson writes, America and its military often seem to occupy the moral low ground. Two prime examples stand out in the writer’s mind- the Jim Crow laws of the early part of the century, and our current situation.
“Moral low ground? America?” the reader asks. No doubt Wilson’s observation sounds confusing to a patriotic audience. Examine the demographics of the United States (or the Western world, for that matter). It is made up generally of a Christian religious base. The Middle East is primarily Moslem, as are many of the extremist organizations which the U.S. constantly warns against. This simple division causes huge problems for the US-Middle Eastern relations, which in turn goes straight back to 4GW. Our leadership does not take pains to understand the demographics, and our actions only fuel the fire between jihadists, extremists, and the like. Insensitivity to the ethnicity of a region will only result in more (and much more deadly) terrorist attacks on the West.
So, how do we solve this problem? Though simple and straightforward on the surface, the psychological factor will cause this situation to be the most difficult thing to change about the war. Eric Haney, in his autobiography Inside Delta Force, speaks of the necessity to change the views of the Moslem world. He writes that the ideas and conceptions of the West needs to be altered in the Moslem mind set. Haney is correct in this. Whether by expanding goodwill, acceptance, or understanding by the Middle-Eastern countries (or more likely by the force of arms), the shift of the American image will lend a great deal to resolving the majority of the conflict.
And that’s just the easy part of the problem. The larger concern should be the views of the American people. Between the ill will generated by the USS Cole bombing and 9/11, the U.S. fairly seethes with anti-Middle-Eastern sentiments. It is time for us to step back, watch the events concerning the war with a modest and decent eye, and reconsider the stances we take. The one positive man will not be heard above the thousands of other “silent extremists”, those who are adamantly opposed to the Middle Eastern people. We can make huge gains in such an action, and it starts with the top of the political ladder. Awareness of the people and the situation are key to a victory over 4GW combatants.

Transcendentalism Beyond Mental Boundaries and Where We May Be Headed

By reconsidering our views in this country, we hope to have a positive effect on our opponent. But let us return to the Middle East again. As stated earlier, this new form of conflict does not recognize lines or national boundaries. If we were to agree not to conduct military peacekeeping operations within neighboring countries that harbor a fresh supply of combatants, we will find ourselves in a Vietnam-esque quagmire which will only strain our national resources and weaken us internally.
Syria and Iran become prime hotspots for military extension, not because of political actions, but because they are a source of reinforcement for extremist groups. This is where 4GW will transcend politics- by extending our area of operations into other countries (once securing a firm foothold and establishing stable governments in place of those institutions which we rooted out) we are not waging war against a country. The primary name for our military situation is a “war on terror”. As such, political matters should not be left to cloud the view of the battlefield.
National boundaries could vanish just as easily for us as it does for our enemy. The occupants of the country, not the infrastructure of the region itself, are responsible for their actions.
Speaking purely hypothetically, this means that we are theoretically able to engage forces beyond existing borders with impunity. However due to moral, political, and monetary factors, this is not to become a future unless a drastic change happens within our own national social or political arena. At the moment, such an expansion is not advisable simply because our armed forces has grown into an organization which has grown into an organism which has difficulty replicating itself, and therefore requires more funding, more assistance, and more political “guidance” to keep it running at a manageable level.

Psychology and the Enemy’s Advantage

“We can’t expect to get anywhere unless we resort to terrorism.” Vladimir Illyich Lenin.

It is the belief of the author that Lenin has a valid point. Terrorism fueled the Russian 1917 Revolution, and history has proved it to be an effective instrument of change. However, we are prevented from doing so by the aforementioned moral and political repercussions inevitable in a developed country. This weakness is exploited at every opportunity by terrorists and the popular media has taken to gold-plating photographs of abuse, enemy and friendly body counts, and other such occurrences. Their actions, unfortunately, fuel the fire for terrorists, and our media is in effect indirectly manipulated by our enemy. The emphasis on body counts, which has spiked recently since the Cindy Sheehan incident, brings us right back to the previous generations of warfare. The result is that we’re waging a maneuver conflict in a primitive warfare paradigm, and our military suffers as a result. Misunderstanding is exploited at every opportunity.
More costly than the monetary amounts we spend on warfare is the psychological effect of it on both soldiers and civilians. The current quagmire which we find ourselves in is becoming a confounding situation in which we are constantly digging ourselves into larger and larger pits. This stems largely from the fact that we are a sheltered nation, which has not been forced to resort to any pronounced and indisputable sort of “terrorism” since 1776. Having only been the recipient, and not the user, of terrorist force, we do not grasp the foothold it is quickly taking on the global stage.
Wilson writes in his 1989 The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation that “The U.S. spends $500 million per copy for stealth bombers. For a terrorist, a stealth bomber is a car with a bomb in the trunk.” The use of low-tech, highly effective weapons is trumping the largest, most powerful military in the world. With frighteningly expensive (and in this current conflict, largely useless) bombers and multi-role aircraft (the F-16's performance envelope has shrunk considerably since its conceptual days)being used in a war against indigenous combatants who can hide among civilians quite easily, the budget isn’t being spent correctly, and here is another confusing fact for the taxpayer.
Hence, our own inefficiency is exploited as psychological warfare. To use an analogy which is understandable to civilian readers, rumor has it that before Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast, a FEMA official was told to stockpile tents for evacuees. She reportedly responded, “Americans don’t live in tents.” This is an excellent though slightly unrelated case in point- we don’t understand our enemy, and the psychological effect his conditions and habits cause us is debilitating. Again, we are removed from the situation of our opponent. The only cure for this is to broaden our insight and understanding of the demographic in question, as stated earlier.


The previous three generations of warfare have resulted in the spawning of a new type of warfare which is hardly newfangled but ultimately misunderstood. 4GW enables great power to be given to a militarily weaker opponent due to variables which our current military is ill-equipped to define and deal with. It is a form of conflict which is today exemplified by terrorism and radicalism, but has been around for centuries. Totally nonlinear and unconventional, it is the epitome of maneuver conflict and uses maneuver theory to defeat a larger, stronger opponent.
4GW’s lack of a set system of rules invariably will cause problems with a bureaucratic, self-governing organization. This can be alleviated by using practical political processes, but is not something which can be totally eliminated. The fact stands that we are too far removed from the situation of our opponent to effectively deal with his subversive actions. Having been brought up in a military world governed by Geneva and other such accords, we cannot understand the actions of our enemy, putting us at a serious disadvantage.
The world view towards both aggressor and defender need to coincide on some level to provide an effective end to conflict. Politics play a much more important role in successful 4GW countermeasures than in previous forms of conflict. Without a society which is, if not tolerant, at least understanding on a major level of the opponent, we will only further aggression and influence the occurrence of terrorist acts.
In closing, the necessity to invest in a new system of thinking on both the military and political level can help to open a door towards a definite solution.

Seven pages of "screw bureaucracy, get sensible"