Printer Friendly

Deconstructing the theory of 4th generation warfare.

The promulgators of the theory of fourth generation warfare, Greg Wilcox and Gary I. Wilson, state the following:

"First generation warfare was reflective of tactics and technology in the time of the smoothbore musket and Napoleon. The tactics were of line, column, and mass armies. According to the authors, vestiges of the first generation of warfare exist today in the desire for linearity and rigid adherence to drill and ceremonies. The battle lines at Gettysburg are reminiscent of first generation warfare with straight lines and mass charges into the mouths of cannons.

"It is significant that those civilizations that did not adhere to this generational change in warfare were quickly subdued, and in many cases colonized. European states took advantage of this newer form of warfare to subdue much larger countries, such as India.

"Second generation warfare ... was in response to the technological improvements in firepower and communications, particularly the railroad. It was based on fire and movement, but the essence was still attrition warfare, i.e., heavy applications firepower ...Tactically, World War I, as practiced by the French and British, and Vietnam, as practiced by the Americans, were second generation warfare.

"Third generation warfare was also seen as a response to the increasing firepower on the battlefield. The difference, however, was the emphasis on maneuver and non-linear warfare. In other words, in addition to the improved technology, the third generation of warfare was based more on ideas rather than the technology. The German Blitzkrieg and later Russian operations in World War II were seen as breakthrough strategies to defeat the more heavily armed industrialized armies of the world.

"From these characterizations, the authors posed the hypothesis of fourth generation warfare. This style of warfare was based on the trends identified in the earlier generational shifts. They believe that future war would be characterized by: very small independent action forces (SIAF) or cells acting on mission-type orders; a decreased dependence on logistics support; more emphasis on maneuver, and psychological goals rather than physical ones. This latter objective of psychological warfare meant that the enemy's will to fight had to collapse from within." (1)

Also, fourth generation warfare (4GW) includes three basic constructs:

[] The loss of the nation-states' monopoly on war.

[] A return to a world of cultures and states in conflict.

[] Internal segmentation or division along ethnic, religious, and special interest lines within our own society. (2)


We have defined what 4GW is according to its proponents. This article will now critically examine these claims.

First, to start the generational construct of warfare in the Napoleonic era implies that all that preceded Napoleon Bonaparte is so irrelevant as to not even merit discussion. No true student of history, let alone military history, would advocate ignoring the advances in the conduct of war and theory of war established by Sun Tzu, Joshua of Israel, Alexander the Great, Gaius Julius Caesar, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, George Washington, etc. As a minimum, one should, at least, reconsider the start-point.

Second, proponents of 4GW admit two key issues. First, although generational advances may occur, they are not uniformly dispersed nor adopted. Second, ideas can be sufficient, of themselves, to warrant a generational paradigm shift. This article discusses more on that later; let us first examine the three basic constructs of 4GW.

The loss of the nation-states' monopoly on war. Of itself, this is a misleading construct. Tribes, peoples, clans, and nations (without states) have never relinquished their ability to wage war. The mere advent of the nation-state did not uniformly negate the existence of other conflict and forms. The fact that this nation fought the French and Indian wars, allying with some tribes while engaging others in battle, while simultaneously allying with our mother state (England) while fighting the French, is of itself proof that nations, tribes, clans, and peoples have never relinquished their willingness, nor their ability, to wage non-state war. The existence of mercenaries is another point--these are non-state actors. The existence of pirates, such as the Islamic Barbary Coast pirates fought during the era of Jefferson, is yet another instance of non-state actors engaging organized states. (3) Nation-states never held such a monopoly on war, and therefore could never lose the alleged monopoly.

A return to a world of cultures and states in conflict. This statement implies that there once was a world without cultures and states in conflict. Even using the argument promulgated by the 4GW theorists and starting only with the Napoleonic era, there is no time for a supposed "golden era" where cultures and states were not in conflict. Since the proponents of 4GW are American, yet use European examples, we will consider the relatively recent history of Europe and the United States from the time of Napoleon Bonaparte to the present (see Figure 1). So there was never a time when cultures and states were not in conflict.

Internal segmentation or division along ethnic, religious, and special interest lines within our own society. There was never a time when these schisms did not exist. Native Americans were subjugated, placed on reservations, and abide there to this day. Similarly, no student of history seriously holds that the mere freeing of slaves at the end of the U.S. Civil War automatically led to full and equal treatment; a lack of fair treatment persisted. There were additional major political schisms when the Vietnamese refugees first came here at the end of the war in Vietnam. There was no mythic "golden era" when ethnicity did not matter in the United States. Religion has likewise been a factor--when John F. Kennedy was running for office and then elected, his religion (Roman Catholic) was a serious political issue. Now, however, instead of Christians quarreling among themselves, there is again concern regarding Islam and its practitioners--especially within our borders, not only after the events of 11 September 2001 but also failure of mainstream (vice fanatic) spokespeople for the self-proclaimed "religion of peace" to decry these and other atrocities. Simply because the focus has shifted does not mean there was no previous conflict.


As Robert M. Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, there are several ways to consider a thing, even something as basic as motorcycle maintenance. (4) One can reasonably view history as a cycle, instead of a linear progression; or a spiral; and dispense with the notion of generational warfare altogether. Refraining from those possibilities, however, let us retain the 4GW model, and consider instead the following alternate historical definitions and interpretations.

First generation warfare. Intellectual honesty demands that we view the first generation of warfare as comprised of individuals conducting individual actions, more or less organized into groups or armed mobs, with a more or less understood common goal of the forcible implementation of one's political and military will. Ironically, at this "primitive" stage, warfare was often not merely along ideological or religious lines, but also along the lines of race, ethnicity, etc. In addition, the concept of utter destruction and annihilation of the foe was well understood--total war was the objective; there was no other form of war. (The idea of total war was rediscovered when Germany declared Britain's population and will to fight as a strategic objective, and began the Battle of Britain.) Also from the beginning, the idea of a defense was understood, and the use of walls to defend towns was an intuitive counter to the threat of marauders. Along with this defense of places came the idea of defense of the person, and the introduction of defensive armor. The Egyptians, and others, used heavy metal armor at least 1,500 years B.C.

The next phase of the first generation war was the organization of armed mobs into an "army" to function as a team, the introduction of a battle hierarchy for purposes of command, and related matters. It is at this time that the idea of conquering a people and subjugating them became a viable model, rather than total extermination. This also marks the introduction of siege warfare and the deliberate efforts to counter static defenses. It is also immediately followed by the introduction of maneuvers other than frontal assault. The square was then modified so that an element could be detached, marched to be adjacent to the enemy, and the enemy flanked. This is, arguably, the very beginning of "maneuver" warfare. (5)

The third phase of first generation war is the introduction of auxiliary elements, such as formations of archers, cavalry, etc., and the deliberate and synchronized use of assets in a combined manner for increased effects. Joshua of Israel (circa 1250 B.C.), Sun Tzu (5th century B.C.), Alexander the Great (4th century B.C.), and many other famous leaders mastered this use of combined arms. It is noteworthy that the same great leaders, who understood combined arms, also recognized the need for intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance of the enemy. For example, Joshua's requirements of the scouts he sent to spy out the land of Canaan and to prepare for the attack on Jericho reads like a modern scout report as far as the topics of concern and focus. The ideas of the tactical ruse, deception, feint, display, etc., were already understood and practiced well over 3,500 years ago, as was the use of human intelligence (HUMINT) as demonstrated by the recruitment of Rahab the harlot.

Second generation warfare as a seismic paradigm shift can be seen as the successful use of gunpowder in war; this technological shift begins during the Hundred Years War at Crecy, France, in 1346. (6) The introduction of artillery was the beginning of the end of the utility of fortresses, though other technological improvements and refinements had to occur before that statement was fulfilled.

The mere introduction of gunpowder, however, did not immediately mean that all armies dispensed with their pikes and crossbows. Command and control (C2) through the use of fires, flags, trumpets, carrier pigeons, etc., continued to be a part of warfare for centuries. HUMINT, counterintelligence (CI), reconnaissance, surveillance, improvements to transportation and logistics, and other related combat multipliers were refined and enhanced. The gains achieved in all the phases of first generation warfare remained, and warriors applied them with varying degrees of success.

Third generation warfare is arguably the introduction of air power as a combat multiplier, rather than a mere observational platform (as used during the U.S. Civil War, etc.); so this set point should be World War I. The goal of out-maneuvering the adversary was already well established and well understood, but not well executed. This failure to perform does not equate to a lack of understanding the requirements, as implied. Nearly simultaneous to the introduction of air power were the introduction of chemical warfare, toxins, and a refinement of biological warfare capabilities.

World War I as a set point is also useful for seismic paradigm shifts, as this marks the introduction of armor at the 1916 battle of the Somme in France. New technologies--including the telegraph, telephone, etc.--enhanced C2. The railroad as a force multiplier was already a proven factor as early as the U.S. Civil War; and General Alfred von Schlieffen had already written the German contingency plan for a two-front war literally decades before WWI began. Although all of the above-cited technologies came together at this time, the true seismic paradigm shift was the use of air power in an effective combat role.

A more proper set point for fourth generation warfare is 1945, and the advent of nuclear weapons on the battlefield. This is a technological capability that absolutely must be part of any serious discussion of war and the capabilities to wage war. [It is interesting that while some nations for some time adopted a belief that only armies should fight one another, thus sparing the civilian populace, by World War II there was a certain "rediscovery" of the concept of total war--a principle that was already well understood and practiced as a first generation principle.]

Final Thoughts

From 1945 to the present, no seismic paradigm shifts regarding war occurred that warriors had not already discovered or practiced at some previous time in human history. As regards the current Global War on Terrorism, this is not the first--

[] Campaign ever fought in a desert.

[] Insurrection or counterinsurrection ever fought.

[] Occupation ever conducted.

[] Guerrilla or counterguerrilla campaign.

[] Attempt at reconstruction and nation building (as though the Marshall Plan never existed).

We cannot logically justify what we are seeing today as a seismic paradigm shift concerning how war is fought in theory or practice, nor for how we as a nation conduct war, in either theory or practice. Indeed, we find ourselves at the beginning, facing an armed mob, who have a political will that they wish to impose upon us, despite the advances in technology, political thought, intellectual development, philosophical developments, and even spiritual enlightenment over the millennia.

"... there is no new thing under the sun."

--Ecclesiastes 1:9, King James Version,

The Bible
Figure 1. Examples of Conflicts In and Between Cultures and States

United States of America

* American Indian War * World War II
* Mexican-American War * Korea
* Philippine expeditions * Vietnam
* China expedition * Panama
* Nicaraguan expeditions * Grenada
* Haiti expeditions * Lebanon
* Spanish-American War * Iraq
* World War I
* Global War on Terrorism
* Countless other interventions,
 noncombatant evacuation
 operations, etc.


* Napoleonic campaign * Russian-Japanese War
* First Balkan War * World War I
* Crimean campaign * Russian civil war
* Wars for German * Spanish civil war
 unification * World War II
* Franco-Prussian War * Globally, numerous wars of
* Italian unification independence from
* Bosnian civil war colonial powers


(1.) Wilcox, Greg, and Wilson, Gary I, Military Response to Fourth Generation Warfare in Afghanistan, Emergency Response & Research Institute, EmergencyNet[TM] News at 4gw5may02.htm.

(2.) Staten, C. L., Urban Warfare Considerations; Understanding and Combating Irregular and Guerrilla Forces During A 'Conventional War' In Iraq, Emergency Response & Research Institute, 29 March 2003 at http:// www-emergency com/2003/urban_warfare_considerations.htm

(3.) Gawalt, Gerard W., America and the Barbary Pirates. An International Battle Against an Unconventional Foe, U.S Library of Congress Manuscript Division, American Memory--Historical Collections for the National Digital Library, undated, at mtjhtml/mtjprece.html.

(4.) Pirsig, Robert M., Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, Virtual School, Distributed Learning Community, undated, at (5.) Jones, Archer, The Art of War in the Western World (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001).

(6.) History of Armour and Weapons Relevant To Jamestown, Jamestown Historical Briefs, Colonial Historical Park Service, undated, at http://www.

Del Stewart (Chief Warrant Officer Three, U.S. Army, Retired)

Del Stewart (Chief Warrant Officer Three, U.S. Army, Retired) is a contractor and a retired CI Technician. Readers may contact him via E-mail at del.stewart@us.armymil.
COPYRIGHT 2004 U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Stewart, Del
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Previous Article:North Korean Special Operations Forces: 1996 Kangnung submarine infiltration.
Next Article:Proponent notes: update for military MI professionals.

Related Articles
Ndia event.
Work and learn with a career in the Royal Navy.
U.S. unprepared for 4th gen warfare.
Racial profiling in Canada; challenging the myth of a 'few bad apples'.
The new threat of unconventional warfare.
Foundations of communications electronic warfare.
Complexity Theory and Network Centric Warfare.
Lieber, Keir. War and the Engineers: The Primacy of Politics over Technology.
Teaching by numbers; deconstructing the discourse of standards and accountability in education.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |