Who was it who said “how can I know what I think until I say it?” Substitute “say” with “blog”.
I had a comment on my own post about Iran recently. I said something off the seat of my pants, which I have been mulling since then:
The United States has suffered at the hands of what are called Fourth Generation Warfare opponents for some time now. Iran presents us with the opportunity to wage 4GW ourselves. John Boyd said that war is fought on the moral, mental and physical planes, and that the physical is the least important and least decisive. The Mullah regime is morally and intellectually bankrupt. It needs to be attacked on that level. The end game is something like 1989, where there are no NATO troops on the street, but the Warsaw Pact evaporates. A strong background military threat is imperative.
Now, what I mostly see about 4GW is stuff from William Lind or his spiritual father Martin van Creveld, in which the nation state is basically doomed to lose to 4GW opponents, assisted by knowingly or foolishly complicit people in civil society who are duped and coopted by the 4GWarriors. John Robb seems to think the global guerrillas will get more and more powerful until our current political organization crumbles and is replaced by something networked and post-Westphalian. Thomas X. Hammes at the end of his book suggests at least the possibility of a 4GW type of military which could be networked and agile, but it is more of a sketch than a full-blown set of proposed reforms. Other writers suggest various sensible reforms the military might adopt — e.g. Donald Vandergriff, and sometimes Ralph Peters.
But what I want to know is this: Can the US military, with or without the engagement of other parts of the government, with our without the assistance of other countries, initiate, wage and win a 4GW campaign? More narrowly, what would a U.S.-led 4GW campaign against the Iranian mullah regime look like? or, rephrased, can the “soft kill” or the “non-kinetic kill” be a set of actual policies with a viable chance of success, rather than (potentially) a mere cover for inaction? And finally, whatever set of policies, strategies, tactics and tools are employed to do the non-kinetic kill against the Mullah regime, does the 4GW or 5GW terminology add anything of value? Does it lend clarity, cause confusion, or do nothing at all?
31 thoughts on “Can the USA successfully engage in 4GW? (Or even 5GW whatever that may be?)”
Excellent questions but why restrict the scope of action to the US military? Warfare only happens in a political context in which nonmilitary and even informal institutions play important roles.
4GWs tend to be generational, while most state operations concern goals that are a few years away. Thus, launching a 4GW is dangerous, as the 4GW force survives long after it becomes useful or helpful.
Jonathan: “…why restrict the scope of action to the US military?”
I expressly did NOT so limit it: “…the US military with or without the engagement of the rest of the government..”
I want to know if this 4GW concept has any utility, and I am suggesting that we do an “open source analysis” of the question: How to use 4GW — or whatever else you want to call it — to kill the Mullah regime.
Dan: The Cold War was long. The conflict with the Mullah regime has been going on since 1979. So, if you have an opponent it is going to take a long time to beat, you are not “launching” anything, but rather responding to a long term threat with a long term strategy and policy. To make that point clear, I have taken out the word “initiate” from the title of the post. I do not suggest for now that we start a “4GW” against anyone, but that we counter-attack the Iranians by this means. Some questions arise, though. Can a state even do it? Or is 4GW something that only non-states can use offensively? Or does a state have to create non-state proxies to wage it?
But to illuminate the general question of the meaning and utility of the 4GW concept, I am proposing a case study. Ask ourselves the concrete question: How do we defeat the Mullah regime by attacking on the moral and intellectual plane, mainly, rather than bombing or invading? Can this be done?
I have some ideas, of course.
IMHO, states can launch 4GW like operations, even significant military operations, though the physical center of gravity will probably come from special forces, intelligence paramilitaries and PMC hired help. That is the least important part though.
The part that would be of greatest importance would be getting the moral objective of the 4GW operation exactly right at the strategic level before we set any tactical actions in motion. This is hard. It requires an unusually gifted level of statesmanship to be able to discern how another side, much less multiple sides of differing cultural backgrounds, would have common perceptions on a moral calculus; and then ascertain which national interests are achievable within those parameters and which should be put off for another day.
After WWII we had an unusually large and bipartisan ” bench” of talent to enact a grand strategy of Containment. I see very few ppl of that caliber today in the national security, foreign policy and defense communities who have the requisite vision to see the next three steps down the road, which is what we will need to enact a 4GW grand strategy.
I think American can easily wage 4G warfare. 4G warfare occurs largely covertly and is managed quietly by professionals and a handful of senior politicians. Most importantly, it occurs almost entirely out of the media spotlight.
Personally, I do not think that the nightmare scenario of a multitude of small self appointed groups using 4G tactics to successfully undermine states is really realistic. To date, all supposed 4G conflicts have occurred in the context of State-to-State conflicts and the groups involved have all had significant official (if covert) support from one or more nation states. I think the real story is that in an age in which direct state-to-state conflicts are dangerous to both parties, states use supposedly stateless groups as proxies to wage war on one another. The idea that group A acts entirely on its own is a polite fiction that participants to the conflict maintain in order to keep the conflict from spiraling out of control.
4G warfare is a lot like airpower. It can do a lot of damage but it can’t put boots on the ground. In that sense, 4G warfare by itself can never win wars.
I’d assumed since Bush’s early speech that the purpose of our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was warfare of the kind Lex suggests – that two viable democracies with freedoms of press, speech, etc. on either side of Iran would lead to either the Mullah’s overthrow or liberalization. From the beginning the invasion of Iran was not likely to be successful – nor popular. But if the “opening” of Afghanistan and Iraq to the west had worked, it would be far more difficult to keep out radio and television, cell phones and internet than it has been for our guys to keep out ieds and rocket launchers and suicide bombers coming the other way. (And I might add that – allowing I’m optimistic, less informed and less strategic than most on our blog – signs like this are heartening).
“…all supposed 4G conflicts have occurred in the context of State-to-State conflicts…”
Shannon, no. The paradigmatic case is Mao’s takeover of China. Another case is the Vietmihn takeover of Vietnam; yet another is the takeover of Nicaragua by the Sandinistas. The First Intifada, where the kids were throwing rocks, is another case.
Mark, why does a state need geniuses to wage 4GW but an insurgency merely needs people who are competent, like Daniel Orgega? Mao and Ho Chi Minh were smart guys, but were they they so much smarter than their opponents?
Ginny, I agree that if Afghanistan and Iraq had gone very well, then that would have presented the mullahs with a problem — an existence proof on their own borders of a successful democratizing country. Alas, it has not gone that way.
So, the question is: What steps do we / can we take to kill the mullah regime without open warfare?
If by “engage in 4GW” you mean can a Western government successfully use a generational ideological mobilization to defeat an enemy, the answer is a clear “no.” The consensus for the Cold War held up a generation, and then important parts of the system (especially the Congress and Academia) were taken by the opposition. A 4GW may be useful in the context of a broader 5GW, but it cannot be the main method of victory.
If by “engage in 4GW” you mean sponsor 4GW clients, then of course. Afghanistan is the best example of that. Your clients may outlive our nemesis, but that’s part of the cost of being a great power.
I would argue that all the cases you list are in fact proxy State-to-State conflicts.
Mao conquered China with Soviet hardware and advisors. The entire Communist movement in China was orchestrated from the Soviet Union. Arguably, The turning point of the entire conflict occurred in 1948 when the US basically ordered the nationalist not to strike the knockout blow against the Communist and to instead seek a negotiated solution. Mao used the breather to train and rearm with a massive influx of soviet weapons.
Mao created the myth of the successful guerilla war in order to create the illusion of a popular mandate. Had he honestly portrayed himself as the puppet of a foreign power he certainly could not have governed the proud and rather xenophobic Chinese people.
Again, we have a proxy State-to-State conflict. Stalin ordered Ho Chi Min and his Soviet trained cadre to Vietnam in 1944 with the express purpose of creating a communist state in the post-war chaos. At no time did they operate without the support and direction of the Soviets.
Ditto for Nicaragua.
Again, we are looking at a State-to-State proxy war. The various Palestinian factions are all supported by States to a significant degree. The PLO was created by the Soviets in the early 60’s. Iran created Hamas. Without State backing the Palestinian wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Indeed, the conflict probably would have been resolved decades ago. The conflict continues because all the Arab leaders desperately need it to.
My argument is that true 4G warfare, i.e. very small (compared to States) self-appointed groups using relatively small scale violence and memetic warfare to over throw otherwise stable States simply has never occurred. About the closest that we have ever seen are the hijacking of popular uprisings by tightly coordinated small groups during the revolutionary chaos. Even then, most successful hijackings were carried out by State supported actors.
I think we have seen the illusion of 4G warfare created because States in covert conflict do not want to admit that they are killing each other citizens. Without myth, the actions of the supposed 4G groups would be grounds for overt warfare.
The solution for defeating a 4G group lays in covertly or overtly attacking their State sponsors. Once the State sponsor has been neutralized, the “non-state” actors will be rendered largely harmless.
Who was it that said: “When all you’ve got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail?”
Mao’s Red Army was not created and led from Moscow. Much of the orthodox pro-Soviet faction of the CCP were killed off by Chiang’s secret police, Kuomintang military and Green Gang allies in 1927. The long Chinese Civil War was filled with far more factional infighting and complexity on both sides than it is usually credited.
While the Chinese Communists did benefit from the Soviets turning over extensive amounts of Japanese equipment captured from the defeated Kwangtung Army, folowed by Soviet surplus material, Stalin seriously hedged his bets in China until the impending defeat of the Nationalists was obvious. Aside from a longstanding dislike of independent foreign Communist movements, Stalin distrusted Mao and had designs on Manchuria as a sphere of influence which required a divided China.
To answer Lex’s inquiry, I’d rate Mao’s political-military abilities and that of his leading associates higher than that of Chiang, who often was fearful of promoting talented subordinates or of ” wasting” his best divisions in battle. Chiang, incidentally, had previously had warm relationships with Soviet advisers ( Borodin and “Galen”) and had his son educated in Moscow even as he fought Mao’s armies. Chiang was an ideological chameleon who found it useful to align himself at different times with Japanese ultranationalists, the USSR, Nazi Germany, Chinese Communists, Chinese organized crime and the United States, depending on his needs at the moment.
In terms of 4GW, I’m not certain we need geniuses per se but a higher degree of competence than we have shown since 1991. Running or building or defending a state is much harder than de-legitimizing an existing one through unrelenting ideological propaganda ( especially if it goes unanswered) and terror campaigns. A jackass can kick down a barn even if it lacks carpentry skills to build one
Mao’s Red Army was not created and led from Moscow.
I didn’t mean to imply that it was, however, evidence uncovered since the fall of the Soviet Union shows that Soviet involvement was much more significant than Cold War era historians had suspected. Soviet technical advisors, especially in communications, allowed the Red Army to function as a modern military force. Soviet intelligence worked world wide to create a positive image of the Red Army and to destroy the reputation of the Nationalist (which wasn’t hard). They also might have influence the internal decisions of liberal-democracies who supported the Nationalist. Mao definitely had a State sponsor and likely would not have succeeded without them. That was my central point.
In any case, I don’t think that Mao’s efforts really fall into successful 4G warfare category. I do not think that China in the era from 1918-1949 could be considered a integral functioning state. Instead, it suffered from perpetual civil war and warlords even during the Japanese invasion. The Red Army was really only one of many competing factions. I think they won largely because they had (1) religious fervor with all the organizational advantages it brings and (2) steadfast external support.
My reading suggests that Mark is right on this one, that Mao’s effort was mainly a homegrown phenomenon. But I am intrigued by Shannon’s comment, “…evidence uncovered since the fall of the Soviet Union shows that Soviet involvement was much more significant than Cold War era historians had suspected.” Shannon: What books are you referring to?Similarly, the resistance in Iraq appears to be primarily homegrown, unfortunately. However, if Shannon is right, and state sponsorship is necessary, this strengthens the possibility that the USA could create or promote a 4GW threat / insurgency / political resistance movement in Iran. The problem is that a link to the USA would tend to deligitimize it. We would need to work carefully. Whatever it takes to kill the mullah regime.
I can’t remember exactly which book contains that information because I read it over a decade ago in the mid-90’s. However, this book seems to cover much of the same territory.
I think its important to remember that we have virtually no objective sources about the inner working of Chinese Communist during their accent to power. The common perception about their role in WWII and how they won the subsequent civil war comes almost entirely from the communist themselves.
Yeah, but by 1989 the Communists themselves knew they were morally bankrupt and that communism just didn’t work. That does not appear to be the case with the Mullahs in Iran. The populace may know it, but there is a core of very dedicated people that are still willing to use force to subdue the population.
I believe the USA has the possibility and means for creating a 4GW insurgency in Iran, and it could be a very successful one if only congress stops meddling with the war and let the army fight their war and do what they were trained to do.
Although the religious leaders look strong on TV, and look like they are very popular amongst their countrymen, reality might be very different. Many of these regimens are masters at playing with people’s perceptions, because it is the only way they can look powerful, pretty much the same way the USSR used to do.
But I am not impressed by the rallies they organize with thousands of people from time to time, populists do it all the time in many third world countries where the very unstable political balance requires politicians to show their strength in the streets. So there are entire clandestine organizations dedicated to bring the people to the plaza to show they rally in support of their leaders, these organizations are lead by local leaders looking for more power or money. It happens in Venezuela with Hugo, in Ecuador Correa is beginning to build such networks, in Mexico the left has a lot of them.
But my point is that one must not be deceived by what we see in those CNN images coming from Iran showing the leaders talking to thousands of iranians, the CNN images going around the world and being seen by millions of people in the west is precisely the reason why they hold these rallies. It is nothing but a big show.
When Saddam invaded Kuwait and the United States was preparing to fight the Irak army, the great majority of analysts in the United States and Europe predicted another big military failure, they said the USA was going to another vietnam, the mother of all wars, Saddam had a million soldiers.
As it turned out, it was one of easiest US operations ever, and the world saw that Saddam had no soldiers, because they had stopped being soldiers the moment they killed the kurd, shiites and their own people. They were cowards, taught and trained to fight against unarmed and weak civilians, including women and children, but when confronted against a real soldier their reaction is to back off instinctively.
How many of those Iranians are real soldiers willing to fight for their country? That’s a good question. I have no doubt the great majority of American soldiers are willing to fight wars and die for their country, even if it means far away from home.
I think that the U. S. is uniquely well-suited to prosecute 4GW against Iran. After all it’s something we’ve been doing with some success all over the world for the last 60 years or so. Thinking of the effort as something that’s directed by the government is unnecessarily hobbling, probably counter-productive. McDonald’s, Coca Cola, and hip hop can probably do the trick.
My contribution to Lex’s call for case studies
In response to the question “Can the US military, with or without the engagement of other parts of the government, with our without the assistance of other countries, initiate, wage and win a 4GW campaign?”, the answer is it may already have in the past, in the moral and intellectual levels Lex mentions. It was the end of WWII, the place was South America, the main bastion was Disney’s Jose Carioca (everyone ever heard of Jose Carioca in the US?), the enemy was the Soviet Union, and the US was for a time rather successful. As a result of the interaction between Brazilian and US military in the Italian campaign, Brazilian officers were quite convinced that the North American economic model was much more efficient and hence capable of providing for better security. Post-war US’ “good neighborhood policy” was the platform for further strengthening of relations. It was probably the period where institutionally, exchanges of goods, services and people between both countries was freer, if not greater or more intensive.
Unfortunately, said policy lacked the consistency, continuity and wit of its Soviet reaction. Disinformation campaigns initiated at the Bulgarian Division of the KGB were able to convince the immense majority of Brazilians (and even some Americans!) that the US was actually responsible for the 64 coup, among other myths in North-South international relations. To the point where the Brazilian military, US’ greatest ally in the South, is today much more willing to give in to Chavez’ rhetoric than to the idea of a Pan-American defense arrangement.
Furthermore, the mentioned disinformation campaigns’ greatest success was establishing the belief (not only in SA, but in many other countries, developed or not) that the US is ready to support financially or otherwise any group or movement which places itself AGAINST national interest and pro-US, which is enough to discredit any group or movement which may or not be supported by the US military or the like. Meaning, even a hint of such support, no matter how untruthful, is enough to place opposition groups in hot waters, particularly in countries with a tradition of anti-American populism (which is definitely Iran’s case).
Also, I wonder if the background of the question itself recognizes how outnumbered pro-Americanism (understanding it as agreement with US policies) is in terms of cultural war resources. By the end of the 60’s, the KGB had quadres (meaning people who were paid by and would publish anything received from) in EVERY newsroom in Brazil. The extent of its influence in Europe’s newspapers is widely documented, and probably one of the causes of US’ lack of popularity in the region. The extent of this same influence in the US media itself is now beginning to be recognized.
Which leads to my next argument: even if the US military or the like were to finance a “counter-reform” in media, what are the ideas it would want supported? Free markets? It is definitely the more peace-conducive strategy, but far from being consensus, and a policy the US has only concretely and consistently backed-up with China so far. Democracy? Can a cultural approach solely lead to democracy in dictatorial regimes? All evidence, from China to Cuba, says it can’t. Gender equality? Minority rights? The UN is doing it already.
State-intervention and fundamentalism are much simpler, easier to assimilate, and widespread as valid notions. ANY reaction from the US at this level would be too late, too little.
Nevertheless, the right question would be whether the US can afford not to join the war in those levels. By the way, where should you begin fighting it: Iran, or Washington?
“In any case, I don’t think that Mao’s efforts really fall into successful 4G warfare category”
You are correct. Bill Lind said as much just a few days ago to an audience that was heavy with COIN specialists. Maoist model insurgencies are hierarchical -in some instances, rigidly so – and 4GW ones are not ( or if they are, like Hezbollah, it is a very modular variant of a hierarchy). What Mao did, however, which makes his example worth looking at was propagate a theory and practice of guerilla warfare that remains a formidible, if not invincible, model for those groups that aspire to replace the state and not merely tear it down. For example, see Nepal.
Regarding your other point, I am open to correction and seeing the scholarship on this score as it has been some years since I’ve paid much attention to what has been unearthed in the Soviet archives. I will wager though, that the bulk of Soviet help to Mao comes late in the game, post-Marshall negotiations.
I strongly believe there is a great divide between the latin american press and the latin american peoples. Otherwise, being as how the leftist dominate 90% of the press, all countries would vote for leftist candidates, but it is not the case in Colombia, Peru, Mexico and in other countries.
Most Latin-American is controlled by intellectual elites, many of them educated in France, and most of the times their views do not generally express what the local people feel about many issues. They try to and sometimes achieved to guide the public opinion on certain issues. But many times they also failed. During the 2000 presidential elections, the Mexican left, thousands of intellectuals, artists, writers and musicians attacked Vicente Fox, the candidate of right wing party PAN, on a daily basis in most newspapers, magazines, tv and radio shows, saying repeatedly that he was going to give the country away to the americans, that he was going to create a Catholic state and other stupid things. Yet Vicente Fox won with a landslide, with more than 6 % points ahead of his nearest competitor from the PRI. Had the majority of Mexicans listened to the overwhelming number of “intellectuals”, Vicente Fox would have never become president of Mexico. He never did any of the stupid things they said he will, yet they never stop talking non sense about him.
Brazil and Argentina are also a good example of how irrational anti-americanism can influence policies and how these have failed again and again.
Both countries, in an effort to “diversify” their economies so as to depend less from the US economy, opened their markets to many European companies while making it hard for american companies to enter their markets, and brazilians and Argentineans ended up driving european cars mostly and purchasing most of their goods from that continent, needless to say the Europeans praised these countries’ courageous efforts to gain economic independence from the US evil empire, and danced and partied while the times were good. The south american nations walked proud and independent and sniffed at Mexico other latin american countries who did most of their business with the US.
But When recurrent economic crisis occurred in both Brazil and Argentine, their great “diverse” and rich European partners, like Germany, France, Italy and Spain did not bail them out and did not help them in any way to get out of their financial crisis and simply turned the other way or offered miserable symbolic financial help, and both Brazil and Argentine ended up humbly begging for financial help to the White House, who of course, gave them a hand in the end.
Now the Brazilians and Argentineans are making the same mistake and letting their irrational anti-americanism get on their quest for economic prosperity, and are growing increasingly and worryingly dependent on Chinese economic growth, who are buying many of their natural resources but not manufactured goods, and again they are short sighted and balk and turn aggressive to their northern American neighbor, their back to their poor demagoguery, anti-american populism.
Dave — I don’t want to wait that long. I want a pro-active, non-kinetic soft kill program for the mullahs.
Tokyo Tower and Jose Angel — Thank you for these informative comments. The long-term sticking with it is the issue. Dan from TDAXP has identified the need to create a “military-industrial-sysadmin complex” to bring about Barnett’s vision of a SysAdmin force for post-war operations, including nation-building tasks. Whether you like Barnett’s vision or not, Dan is onto something. The only way any effort in the politico-military realm will endure over the long-haul is if it has (1) an institutional home (Barnett’s Department of Everything Else) and a cash-driven iron-triangle to ensure it gets its budget, year in and year out (Abbott’s “MISC”). Waging a 4GW via proxy against Iran would need some long-term commitment, but I am not sure how it would be structured.
By the way, is this whole discussion because we have entered a new world of warfare or because the CIA/NSA, etc. define their roles in narrower terms than are really helpful to fulfilling their mission or because they have too little faith in the ideas that surely need to be believed in fervently if we intend to change hearts & minds?
i agree with Shannon: the reason the US cannot wage or win a “4GW” is because no such thing exists.
the relevant question is: can the US wage and win a “1GW?” unfortunately, the evidence of the last 60 years suggests the answer is an overwhelming “no.” Our house is divided; their house isn’t.
Certainly true, but that doesn’t mean that Chaing wasn’t an interesting jumble of elitism and incompetence in his own right.
That rather goes to support my point. China was no really an integral state and had not been since 1911. Mao really just became the most effective warlord out of many, thanks in large part to his state sponsor.
There was also the issue of a foreign traditional military force on Chinese soil in the presence of the Kwantung Army. Warlord-era China’s not a great allegory for 4GW.
Zenpundit – “I will wager though, that the bulk of Soviet help to Mao comes late in the game, post-Marshall negotiations.”
Soviet help to China is an interesting topic. When the CCP and the GMD were one party, Soviet help was pretty substantial, then tapered and increased as Russia’s fortunes rose and fell in WWII. As Japan increased its threat in 1937, Russian advisors and pilots aided both of China’s armies, but the Nomonhan battle with Japan tied up a lot of Soviet resources until the end of 1939, and Soviet help fell off abruptly in 1941 when they signed the pact with Tokyo. But there was also considerable help in the 20s, and Chiang himself studied in Moscow. I’m not sure that there was much help given specifically to the CCP in that 1937 -1939 timeframe, the Soviets just sent material aid to whatever warlord or army was resisting the Japanese. In that respect, there was really no material aid to Mao at the expense of Chiang until August 1945. I’m not as sure about the period from 1927 – 1937, but Stalin was not above giving aid to both the GMD and the CCP.
“Warlord-era China’s not a great allegory for 4GW.” Not an allegory. Hammes has the most coherent description of 4GW, and he says Mao’s effort was the founder and forerunner of 4GW. Here is a review of Hammes’ book The Sling and the Stone.
I’m not one to get hung up on semantics or literalism; there are many professional soldiers who have a problem with 4GW theory if it is interpreted in a sequential/universalist way. I’m not a partisan of that point of view so if it makes you feel better we can can say a complex, multisided conflict with decentralized military forces. That certainly describes the long (1911-1949) Chinese Civil War.
Well, Lex, after having gone through the tdaxp, D5GW and Barret materials, my initial questions on the subject (from a non-US, rest-of-the-Core perspective) still remain the same:
1. Can you keep the SysAdmin structure working long-term? (as you noted);
2. Will it be able to support proxies without endangering the proxies’ position within their constituencies?
3. How does the DOEE pick its proxies (what values does it support)?
Keep in mind that it IS an information (or perception) war, and the enemy is not Al-Qaeda (alone). If the currently existing Iron Triangles inside the US established by US citizens and using US money to finance anti-US entities worldwide suddenly turned patriotic, still we would have an uphill battle to fight.
“1. Can you keep the SysAdmin structure working long-term? (as you noted);”
Yes. The same way we keep the Leviathan structure working long-term: an Iron Triangle, a Military-Industrial Complex.
“2. Will it be able to support proxies without endangering the proxies’ position within their constituencies?”
No. Risk is part of human action.
“3. How does the DOEE pick its proxies (what values does it support)?”
It seems the same way that we are doing so now without a DOEE: some combination of short-term interests and long-term interests.
Your three questions are very good. They range from the high-level grand-strategic to the low-level technical. You see clearly.
“the relevant question is: can the US wage and win a “1GW?” ”
I suggest you go back and read the source material. Your question is irrelevant.
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