Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part III.) – UPDATED

Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW)

Of the military theories developed in the last quarter century, none have stirred the heated feelings in the defense community quite like Fourth Generation Warfare has done. In part, this is due to the unsparingly harsh criticism that leading 4GW advocates have directed at both the mainstream Pentagon establishment and the rival school of Network-centric Warfare; mostly though, it is because 4GW questions the validity of the current defense establishment itself. If 4GW theory is correct, then much of the American defense budget amounts to so much waste. As 4GW theorists would have it, money ill-spent for exquisitely high tech weaponry that will not work as promised, purchased for the kinds of wars that are never again going to be fought. The 4GW school is riding high right now; not simply because the GWOT lends fertile field for study and examples but because the outcome of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War was far more accurately predicted by 4GW theorists than by the conventional military experts. This was despite the fact that Hezbollah is not quite a “true” 4GW military force, but a state sponsored hybrid whose vulnerabilities the IDF failed to exploit.

William Lind, a paleoconservative, Washington think tanker, is generally credited with being the “Father of Fourth Generation Warfare” and is the school’s most authoritative voice, having been one of the primary authors of the seminal article “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation“, published in 1989. Lind was an associate and disciple of Colonel John Boyd and Boyd’s strategic theory is one of the major inspirations for 4GW theory. The second major influence are the ideas of the eminent Dutch-Israeli military historian, Martin van Creveld. A third influence, and here I am being entirely speculative, may be the intellectual studies on tactics and strategy of the German Reichswehr, under the leadership of General Hans von Seeckt, during the 1920’s.

The Rise and Decline of the State

Core Assumptions of 4GW:

4GW theory makes certain assertions about the nature of warfare and of history itself. Sweeping assertions of a universalistic character that have to a certain extent, evolved. Unlike the strategic theory of John Boyd which was developed by one mind, 4GW has had a number of other contributors aside from Lind who have characterized some elements differently or emphasized some aspects relative to others. My expectation is that given the scrutiny on current military conflicts, the theory may continue to evolve within certain parameters. That being said, the core assumptions of 4GW includes:

War has evolved in a linear historical taxonomy of generations

Each successive generation is the inevitable superior adaptive response to the success of the previous generation of warfare. All things being equal (or even when not) a later generation force will defeat an opponent of an earlier generation

The moral and mental levels of warfare are more decisive than the physical level (what the U.S. military calls “kinetic”)

Everywhere today is the decline of the state – and its loss of a monopoly on the legal use of force.

There are centers of order and disorder in the world. Disorder is contagious and can be avoided by isolation and punitive response to incursion or attack.

When the strong fight the weak, they become weaker.

Defense is generally a preferable position to offense.

De-Escalation of conflict is a preferred strategy.

If one’s hand is absolutely forced, then an overwhelming, democidally brutal blow should be given swiftly during the emotional shock of the initial attack (the “Hama Solution”). This is morally difficult for liberal democracies so they should avoid centers of disorder

The 4GW Taxonomy Explained:

1GW begins roughly with what historian Geoffrey Parker called “the military revolution” and the emergence of the Westphalian nation-state system where the state claims (later exercises) a monopoly on the legal use of force. Approximately with the advent of disciplined use of firearms as a decisive infantry weapon.

2GW represents the era of massed firepower without mobility. Roughly from the siege of Petersburg during the Civil War to the Western Front during WWI. It represents military thinking at its most hierarchical, rote, unimaginatively reflexive and mechanistic (Newtonian sense – everyone is simply unthinking cogs in a great machine). Entrenched defense has the strong advantage here. Sometimes used by 4GW theorists as a term of derision.

3GW – the era of maneuver warfare, was essentially the response of the German General staff to the conditions of the Western Front (though others like Charles DeGaulle, George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower also saw the potential for mobile forces). Most readers are familiar with “Blitzkrieg”; military buffs with “AirLand battle”. In the words of Lind, 3GW is “nonlinear” and it seeks to bypass and collapse enemy forces. Offense has the advantage.

4GW – the era of non-state warfare with strategic objectives at the moral and mental level being directed at de-legitimizing the state itself (“failed state”) giving “room” for the non-state actor to establish itself. These are not the hierarchical, rigidly disciplined,Communist insurgencies of Mao ZeDong and Ho Chi Minh who sought to take over the state; rather, decentralized 4GW forces seek to either collapse the state or force the state to reconcile itself to coexistence with the 4GW force. Mass perception of events is a critical variable.

On War in the 21st Century

ADDENDUM: “What About 5GW ?”

Joshua raised an excellent question in the comments section.

5GW is a subject of much dispute and earnest hypothesizing by theorists and bloggers of military affairs. 4GW theory holds that new generations of warfare arise out of the need for militaries to adapt to the success of the reigning model and defeat it. William Lind has dismissed 5GW theorizing as premature, given that the parameters of 4GW are not yet fully understood. Colonel Thomas X. Hammes has argued in his influential book, The Sling and The Stone, that with 4GW being approximately 80 years old and now becoming ascendent, then 5GW must already be here, at least in incipient form. What might it be ?

Two candidates for representing an evolutionary step forward from 4GW would be attempts to preemptively “shape the battlespace”, found in NCW and Thomas P.M. Barnett’s “System Administration” and ” System Perturbation” ideas and in the model for ” Open Source Warfare” postulated by John Robb as part of his “Global Guerrillas” theory. Other possibilities for 5GW would include “SecretWar”, proposed by the blogger tdaxp while I myself have suggested looking at the potential rise of ” Superempowered Individuals“. Currently, 5GW is a highly speculative field for investigation where no idea should be a priori foreclosed. The most comprehensive site devoted to 5GW in all its permutations is Curtis Gale Weeks’ excellent Dreaming 5GW.

Recommended Reading and Links 4GW:


Defense and the National Interest

Dreaming 5GW


The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation“,

Fourth Generation Warfare

The Fate of the State


The Transformation of War by Martin van Creveld

The Rise and Decline of the State by Martin van Creveld

The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century by Thomas X. Hammes

Related Posts:

Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part I.)
Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part II.)
O-5 and the Peter Principle
The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century

40 thoughts on “Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part III.) – UPDATED”

  1. [4GW is] not the hierarchical, rigidly disciplined, Communist insurgencies of Mao ZeDong and Ho Chi Minh who sought to take over the state; rather, decentralized 4GW forces seek to either collapse the state or force the state to reconcile itself to coexistence with the 4GW force.

    So what were Mao and Ho, then? 3.5GW?

    Actually I’ve already started to see the term “fifth-generation warfare” (5GW) bandied about, referring to network-centric warfare.

  2. Pingback: Anonymous
  3. Joshua,

    Good question. Mao’s ambition was to replace the state (the Kuomintang regime)and he tried to get his armies to transition up from guerilla warfare to standard conventional warfare when they were ready ( something that took a considerable period of time and was only fully accomplished with surplus Japanses material from the defeated Kwangtung Army and Soviet aid). Chinese conventional tactics would generally be considered 2GW.

    Insurgencies are not automatically 4GW, according to Lind.


    Most of the theories in this series are not official military doctrine, though NCW and EBO certainly have won wide aceptance in the Navy and USAF.

  4. 4gw is nothing more than the host of problems accupying armies always encounter. It is not new to the 20th or 21st century. Indeed, it was a common problem for the Roman Emperors starting with Tiberius in Judea.

    US military force is so overwhelming that our enemies skip to war fighting part and go directly to hiding in the general population and fighting as they do. The Roman solution was to gather EVERYONE up and either kill them or sell them somewhere else as slaves and resettle the area with Romans. However this solution did not work well for the Romans because the people they dispersed kept coming back.

    4gw is pacification after conquest.

  5. “War has evolved in a linear historical taxonomy of generations”

    I like the XGW concept in terms of theory as it effectively compacts thousands of years of conflict in a neat “here it is package” that can be utilized for discussion or theoretical study.

    My issue is in the above quoted assertion. As though 4GW principles were a graduation from 3GW when one can point to some very 4GW tactics utilized historically. The American revolution might be a good starting point in realizing the overlapping quality of the XGW framework (4GW.) Further the Mongol empire entertains the 3GW quite well in that the Mongol offensive relied very much on maneuver. While it lacked the 3rd dimension of aerial bombardment it did encompass the 3GW and 4GW (even 5GW) effect of propaganda, blowback and “terrorism,” and an expedient deployment, attack, retreat and reactive attack that was, obviously, unheard of in the 13th century.

    As far as 5GW is concerned, Gaius Marius might be a great example as he shifted primary loyalty from the republic to the general and, in effect, sparked the fuse (however unwittingly) that would collapse the republic and usher in the principate.

    I don’t buy the whole “linear” effect. I’m more inclined to believe that however many Generations of war have been in place since the day the prospect of war began the framework can be applied.

  6. Accepted military wisdom says that a commander should always endeavor to “shape the battlefield”. Generally, this means that the commander should avoid allowing the enemy to engage at a time and place of the enemy’s choosing: instead the commander should try to delay engagement until his forces are ready, and he shold also try to dictate the terrain over which the battle is to be fought.

    Theses two “shaping factors” have been sufficient for 3GW conflicts, but I suggest they are not sufficient to win 4GW conflicts. So, a third “shaping factor” that I would propose included is tactics.

    It is now becoming clear to even the most reluctant to admit it: that a conventional first world army using strong-arm policing tactics is unlikely to be able to defeat a determined terrorist/insurgency force which can hide in and has the support of its local population. The cost to us in money and lives is just too much for us to bear for any extended period. And why are we in this weak position?

    My view is simply that, not only does the enemy choose the location of the battlefield on his home territory, but we also let him get to choose tactics to suit his form of hit-and-run fighting. We may not be easily able to change the location of the battlefield, but we must surely decline to fight his kind of war.

    If this view is accepted (i.e. if we really want to win) we therefore have to decide upon a completely different way of conducting such urban warfare — or else decide it’s not for us. I may be wrong, but I suspect the subleties of Petraeus’ advanced urban warfare will be lost on the Iraqis. Unfortunately, it would seem that the only viable alternative we have for fighting 4GW to win is along the line of Sol Vason’s Roman Solution (above). If we don’t have the stomach for that type of brutal solution, we had best go home.

  7. Mark,

    Thanks for the kind words and the link!

    Lately, I find myself more and more paying attention to the differences between various theories of 5GW — and their similarities — while trying to find the consilience. Everyone now working on the theory of 5GW views the world we live in, but each may be viewing it from a slightly different perspective. For instance, although I’ve often criticized John Robb’s theory of Global Guerrillas, the further I advance in my own thinking about 5GW, the more I begin to realize that he’s most definitely on to something! (I have a post brewing reexamining the difference and, now, the overlap, in what I’ve been calling “static” and what Robb calls “open source warfare.”) Given some heated back-and-forth between us in the past, this may come as a surprise.

    Subadei and Sol Vason bring up some points I’d like to address here, keeping in mind that I may have a peculiar outlook. While I recognize the “nothing new under the sun” point of view on xGW and generally agree with Subadei that the framework is currently at its best when we use it as a guide for theory about conflict, I also believe that certain sociological and technological aspects of our modern world have never before existed. The speed at which information can travel, combined with the intensity of inter-cultural friction (not all of it bad, btw), and the type of destructive power now in existence, among other things, are features of our world that have never before occurred in the history of humanity. One might attempt a “nothing new” argument in terms of scalability, I suppose… but generally, I would make a distinction between tactics which have always been used and xGWar. Many tactics which have always existed may take on new prominence now, or become primary whereas in the past they were supplemental. The discussion concerning the Roman approach to insurgency stand as an example: “If only we could do as the Romans did; alas, we cannot!”

  8. This comment is not directed to anyone specifally.

    The big bummer about our lofty morals and Guerrilla warfare is the one day when the Guerrillass get nuclear weapons.. how will our lofty morals have done with protecting us then?

  9. Regarding guerillas with nuclear weapons the current thinking is massive networks of radioactivity sensors, aka Sensor Net. Barnett, et al. are working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop it.

  10. A cataclysmic attack on the United States carried out by irregulars ( be it nuclear or biological) will instantly re-set the moral-political calculus. The pressure from below, in a democratic society, to respond tenfold – and without being terribly picky as to targets – will be overwhelming.

    You would see a ” Hama response” perhaps not with nukes ( our elite class would balk at that for reasons good and bad – though I’m not sure Bush himself would) but with such massive conventional firepower delivered in an EBO fashion as to make it almost a distinction without a difference

  11. I get the impression that Zenpundit thinks that there is almost no distinction between massive conventional power and nuclear. Sorry, but this is plain incorrect: nuclear explosives provide about one million times the energy as the same weight of conventional high explosives. There’s just no comparison. Moreover, nuclear leaves radioactivity to mess up the environment, potentially for years, and so it must surely be our last resort.

    Note that military blogs are now claiming that “excess deaths” in Iraq since 2003 are running at around 600,000. If this is correct, the figure is in fact about twice as high as that caused by Saddam in suppressing the Shiite revolt following the 1st Gulf War. Surprisingly, this would tend to indicate that his brutal Roman method turned out more humane than our prolonged suppression of the current insurgency.

  12. In light of James last comment and further iteration on Zen’s regarding a Hama like response:

    Any regime willing to pass on a nuke to the likes of Al Qaeda or even the sectarian/nationalist likes of Hezbollah very likely recognizes the consequence of such an action. Effective obliteration. Given that the regimes most popularly associated with “lending terror a nuclear hand” (Iran, NK) are led by decidedly narcissistic oligarchs as opposed to nihilistic loons hellbent on realizing apocalypse (the popular definition of Iran by some American pundits) I think that avenue is unlikely.

    The amount of effort and the requisite expertise in assembling and delivering a nuke device here in the US when compared to the simple effort associated with a more conventional means (Oklahoma City for example) of inflicting mass casualty further mitigate the nuke terror attack scenario. More likely is a timed multiple conventional approach. But of course that’s my opinion.


    Perhaps I could redefine my initial post:

    While 4GW tactics have existed for millennia elements that embrace 4GW as a grand strategy have evolved to what we now realize as the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda. And yet the philosophical catalyst that drives each is unique: From former to latter: Ethnic resistance (Hamas,) Nationalist/Sectarian offensive/resistance (Hezbollah,) apocalyptic, global division (Al Qaeda.)

  13. “I get the impression that Zenpundit thinks that there is almost no distinction between massive conventional power and nuclear.”

    Untrue. I’m fairly well versed in nuclear deterrence theory and the history of arms control diplomacy. Not an expert but a fair working knowledge of the subject.

    My earlier comment though, should be clarified: the degree of systemic breakdown and physical destruction that can be dealt out by an EBO attack in relatively short time, if pressed to the limits of the possible by the Navy and USAF, will provoke a political reaction not unlike the use of a small nuclear weapon. Not quite the same but in the ballpark.

    Obviously, a major nuclear exchange is something altogether in a class of its own. As would be a first-use by the U.S. of even a very small nuke

  14. subadei:

    What potential is there that the powers that be would be able to function if washington and Dc were nuked?

    (I’m not an expert on this.. so i really dont know how devastating an attack would be.. I realize they’re probably not going to have 50 Megaton weapons , so I suppose the entire city wont be obliterated)

    I think/hope we send a message to every Muslim state that states should we ever have a situation where a nuke is used against us, that we will destroy every Muslim capital city.

  15. James A. Pacella: Yes, 600,000 was the Lancet number, as quoted by “walrus” on Col Lang’s blog. Is there a more accurate estimate?

  16. I’m sure you can find something, try to be a bit more skeptical the next time you pass on info you find on the internet.

    And stop hiding behind the military when you pass on fraudulant stats.

  17. 4GW is not warfare. it is pacification aimed, I hope, at producing long term contentment (lack of insurgency) for those people being pacified.
    To identify 4GW strategies and tactics which reach these goals it is worth studying successful cases where an invasion has taken place and pacification has successfully accomplished these goals; and those cases where invasion has failed to achieve this sort of pacification.


    1. British invasion of North America leading to the modern US and Canada
    2. British invasion of Australia leading to modern Commonwealth of Australia
    3. Saxon invasion of England
    4. Norman invasion of England
    5. Unification of China under the Qin
    6. Pacification of Germany after WW2
    7. Pacification of Japan after WW2
    8. Unification of Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine into France
    9. Unification of Germany
    10. Unification of Italy
    11. Reconquista in Spain
    12. Spread of Catholicism around the world
    13. Spread of Islam around the world


    1. USSR invasion of Eastern Europe after WW2
    2. 3rd Reich invasion of rest of Europe and Northern Africa
    3. Islamic conquest of Spain
    4. Judea
    5. Empire of Napoleon
    6. Castro in Cuba
    7. British in Africa
    8. British in the Middle East
    9. Inca Empire
    10. Aztec Empire
    11. Empire of Alexander of Macedonia
    12. Mongol Empire
    13. Spread of Communism around the world

    These lists are a tiny sample of a vast number of historical cases. They are drawn from over 2500 years of recorded history. The successes follow the David model; the failures follow the Goliath model. My example of Judea was a reminder that for 5000 years the Roman or Goliath solution has been tried in Judea and Judea is still a problem for its conquerors.

  18. I’d nitpick on this choice, but that’s a minor comment when I’d agree with all the rest. Thanks for the post.

    13. Spread of Islam around the world

  19. “Fourth Generation Warfare is not warfare?” eh?


    I think your lists are worth studying, but I do not understand why they must be called “4GW.” What would be 1GW, 3GW, or even 0GW be in such a formulation?

  20. James A. Pacella:
    Thanks for your advice.
    You claim that the Johns Hopkins study, as reported in the Lancet, is “fraudulent”. That’s a strong charge to make against a prestigious organisation that is partly funded by the US government. I accept that the exact numbers are extremely hard to define (the study quotes ~300k to ~900k at 95% confidence) but the methodology has been accepted by the US government for similar studies in Kosovo and Darfur.

    However, the real issue I raised was about minimising casualties when we are in conflict with an enemy who uses 4GW tactics. My conjecture is that a short, brutal suppression may result in fewer losses all round than a policing form of insurgency control extending over many years.

  21. Ian,

    I think you’d find a Roman or Hama like approach would ignite the entire region. We are not an Arab nationalist tyrant (al Assad, Hussein) but a “western invader.” I think the reaction would make our problems worse than they are now.

  22. Subadei:
    Thanks for your considered reply. You may well be correct, but I don’t have the impression that the entire region is exactly with us at the moment.
    To me, the implication of your view is that we should therefore walk away from the current conflict, as this 4GW kind of warfare is one that we have virtually no hope of winning. Or do you believe that we should just continue to persevere as we are now? And for how long?
    I really don’t know what is for the best, but what we are doing does not seem to be producing a good outcome for anyone.

  23. > I don’t have the impression that the entire region is exactly with us at the moment

    You just realizing this? :)

  24. Initially (and this is my opinion) I think we allow the “surge” to continue. While I’m not holding my breath until it succeeds it’s at least a shift from the hit, hold, move strategy US forces had been using. If the surge proves a failure I think we redeploy a portion of our forces north to what will likely be an independent Kurdistan. I think our COIN initiative should continue specifically against al Qaeda in Iraq and, this sounds pretty rough but, we allow Shia dominance over southern Iraq.

  25. Heh.

    Having survived the tyranny of the Baathist Sunni minority for decades and yet again outlasted (assuming it comes to that) the most powerful military on the planet I have my doubts that the Arab Iraqi Shiites are just going to lay down for Persian domination. Any overlording on behalf of the Iranian regime might well result in the same situation they face in the Khuzistan province. Ethnic resistance. I don’t believe it’s so cut and dry.

  26. So all these groups training in Iran are somehow not up for Iran involvement in thier land? SUre.

  27. 1GW, 2GW, 3GW are terms invented to describe changes in recent centuries for conquering turf. 1GW is war fought with poorly trained and poorly equiped men. For example in 1917 the Russians fought the Germans with an army of serfs who marched against the enemy in columns ten deep. Only the front rank had weapons. When the first rank died the next rank picked up the weapons and continued the battle until the enemy was beaten. One can hold down costs by paying troops after the battle. It is alleged that Iran used this warfighting style against Sadam.

    2GW is 1GW with forts. The losers to the Qin used 1GW and 2GW. The Qin used 3GW, so did the Parthians 300bc-300ad; so did Caesar in the Gallic wars and the Civil war; so did the Crusaders (see the first battle of Ramleh where Baldwin and 261 Knights destroyed an Arab army of 10,000). The Vikings conquered by lightning swift attacks. Except for Sicily and perhaps the Danelaw, they were not much good at holding territory already conquered. Holding territory after a 3GW conquest is what 4GW is all about. 4GW wars start when 3GWs end and usually last at least a century and some, like the British invasion of Ireland in the 900s, have lasted over a thousand years.

    One doesn’t ever know if a 4GW war has been won. But you know you have lost if you are forced to leave. 4GW is a PR war; hearts and minds stuff; it is old hatreds, fanatics, and mysticism – any excuse for killing.

  28. It appears all the players today put great reliance on communications. Has anyone made any substantial progress in taking over the enemy’s communications network? Given the reliance on high tech communications, this would necessitate an extremely high tech capabilty. I’m not talking about destroying the enemy’s communications, but taking control of their networks and sowing total confusion. Ideally, the enemy wouldn’t even know. Is this 5GW?

  29. @Ian
    Machiavelli, while an exceedingly poor theorist of technology’s effect on warfare, (see his sections on gunpowder warfare in the Discourses on Livy) had some excellent observations on “Cruelty well-used and cruelty poorly-used,” basically in the sense that, when a prince occupies a new territory, harsh justice and various cruelties should be at their highest at the beginning and gradually recede, rather than the other way around.

  30. @Elliot
    “I’m not talking about destroying the enemy’s communications, but taking control of their networks and sowing total confusion. Ideally, the enemy wouldn’t even know. Is this 5GW?”

    It’s still a very overt action and sounds more like systems disruption (global guerrilla/4GW.)

    If one could gradually infiltrate a nations media and “infect” it with very subtle elements or “packages” of misinformation (or even slanted information) I think you’d be looking at 5GW.

  31. This is a great introduction to 4GW, but unfortunately Zenpundit leaves out the bad news. 4GW theory, in its present form, is a diagnostic — not a cure. That’s nice, since correct diagnosis must precede a cure.

    4GW theory tells us what the US Army is slowly, very slowly, learning in Iraq and Afghanistan about the nature and methods of those we fight. Of course, this is nothing that could not have been learned in 1991 by spending a few bucks and buying Martin van Creveld’s book Transformation of War.

    Perhaps the blood of the 4,000+ dead Coalition and NATO troops will accelerate the leaning process at our Dept of Defense.

    Now we need someone to take it to the next step and tell us how to win against a 4GW opponent. Hopefully before we’re fighting them in Mexico. Or LA.

    Fame and glory awaits that smart guy or gal.

  32. A couple of comments on XGW and 5GW

    A) Technology is a tool and has nothing to do with the generational level of an organization. That is determined by the doctrine applied to the technology.

    B) Fabius Maximus, to defeat a 4GW opponent, ideally would require a 5GW organization. Each generation of warfare is by definition designed to defeat the generation before.

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