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.
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.
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:
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