Fourth Generation Warfare

By George Bryjak | 2006-04-01 12:00:00

The current military situation in Iraq cannot be fully understood without examining the evolution of armed conflict and the mindset of our adversaries. Military historian William Lind contends that modern warfare has developed in stages over the past 350 years.

From the mid 1600s to the mid 1800s, battles were fought by orderly formations of soldiers armed with muskets. The key to victory in these wars of attrition was superior manpower. Most of the things we associate with the military - uniforms, saluting, and gradations in rank are a product of first generation warfare (1GW).

By 1850 the "battlefield of order" was giving way to technological advances in weapons that would dramatically increase the number of wartime casualties. Machine guns, tanks, and heavy artillery were responsible for most of the 15 million deaths in World War I. The devastating firepower of second generation warfare (2GW) made the mass formation tactics of 1GW "first obsolete, then suicidal."

Third generation warfare (3GW) took hold in the waning days of World War I. Perfected by the German Army in World War II, its most salient characteristics are speed, surprise, and maneuverability -- a style of warfare known as Blitzkrieg .

The State has no Monopoly

For Lind and others, fourth generation warfare (4GW) is a radical change in armed conflict as the state relinquishes its monopoly on making war. Throughout the world, state militaries are fighting "non-state" terrorist groups (Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hizbollah), and "subnational groups" (Serbs and Taliban), as well as paramilitary drug cartels.

In his book The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, Marine Corps Colonel Thomas X. Hammes notes that 4GW is the only form of warfare this country has ever lost with defeats in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia. The US fought a second generation war (via a prolonged bombing campaign) against North Vietnam and a third generation war against the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.

The fundamental lesson of the Southeast Asia war was that superior firepower and sophisticated weapons are ineffective against a largely invisible enemy capable of melting into the local population. The same holds true in Iraq. Military sociologist Wilbur Scott and his colleagues at the Air Force Academy interviewed soldiers who served in that Middle East nation during 2003-2004.

Who's the Enemy?

When asked who the enemy was, about 4 in 10 respondents stated "it's hard to say." One soldier said "You can't put a face on this enemy ... put a uniform on this enemy. The enemy can be any one of them at any time ..." Another stated "you don't know until they attack ... you're always on the defensive ..."

Heavily outgunned, 4GW opponents have used the element of surprise and find ways to use the dominant state's own technology against it. In Vietnam it was the ambush; in Iraq, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) often constructed from unexploded Gulf War shells. From April through October of 2005, almost two of every three combat deaths in Iraq were IED-related. According to one estimate, the increasingly powerful homemade bombs have become a cottage industry in Iraq, generating over ten million dollars a year in revenues for local civilians and contractors.

The late Colonel John Boyd (US Air Force), who some believe was the United States' most brilliant Cold War military theorist, argued that war is waged at three levels (in ascending order of importance): the physical, the mental, and the moral. The latter two levels are especially relevant in the context of 4GW.

Thomas Hammes was impressed with the mental toughness of insurgents he trained in the late 1980s,"their utter determination to continue to struggle despite the odds. They were not deterred by the fear of death ... The second outstanding trait was the remarkable ingenuity they displayed for overcoming problems. I found insurgents are not impressed with conventional power. They respect it but seek ways around it - and have consistently succeeded in finding those ways."

While we have a "high-tech"military designed to overwhelm an enemy in months if not weeks, 4GW opponents conduct "low-tech" wars, and, according to Hammes, are prepared to fight indefinitely. The open-ended time frame of fourth generation insurgencies is a fundamental difference between 3GW and 4GW, and a salient component of the moral dimension in this latest evolution in warfare.

In God's Time

4GW fighters in the Middle East have an extraordinary degree of patience and place a confrontation with Western powers in a temporal-religious context that we have not fully grasped. Jim Pittaway, author of God's Time: The Afghan war is over when the Afghans say so, states that for the typical insurgent, "Adversity, discouragement, and setbacks are never defeat; defeat is an ... impossibility except in the event that one ceases to believe ... It is not his job to drive the "coalition" out; his job is to make them pay. Allah will see that they are driven out when it is his will to do so."

Pittaway argues that while we measure time in election cycles, insurgents and Islamic terrorists operate on "God's time," firmly convinced that "if they don't win today, or even fight today, there are many tomorrows ..." Thomas Hammes believes that fourth generation wars could last 30 to 35 years, an observation that raises an all important question. Are our governments willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars and suffer an endless stream of casualties in Middle-Eastern conflicts that could drag on for decades?

It will be exceedingly difficult to vanquish highly motivated Islamic insurgents as they are all too aware of their strengths and our weakness. William Lind reports that when US forces searched abandoned caves in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan (a onetime Al Qaeda hideout), they found copies of his groundbreaking article "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation."

George Bryjak is a professor of sociology, University of San Diego.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2006

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2006, page 23. Some rights reserved.

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