Fourth-generation warfare

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"The premise of fourth-generation warfare, (otherwise known by the acronym 4GW) is that the world itself has changed, so that terrorism and guerilla warfare - and other elusive techniques that are still being invented - are now ready to move to center stage. It would be a mistake, however, and perhaps a goal of our opponents might be to encourage this mistake, if we were to focus on the techniques and not the nature of 4GW itself."[1]


  • "Roughly speaking, fourth generation warfare includes all forms of conflict where the other side refuses to stand up and fight fair. What distinguishes 4GW from earlier generations is that typically at least one side is something other than a military force organized and operating under the control of a national government, and one that often transcends national boundaries."[2]
The distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between 'civilian' and 'military' may disappear.
President George W. Bush speaks to troops during his visit to Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, Friday, Jan. 3, 2003. "Our country is in a great contest of will and purpose. We're being tested. In times of crisis, we will act decisively," said the President in his remarks. "And in times of calm, we'll be focused and patient and relentless in our pursuit of the enemy. That's what we owe the American people."

The principles of fourth-generation warfare, when practically used against other states, can probably be expected to yield similar statements from those states' leaders. While the strategy of warfare seems to be developing, the responses to war itself seem to have undergone no particular shift. Animosity, fear, and collective resolve are likely to be the standard.

In a very real sense, all war is driven by politics. The first two generations of war were waged between armies: men and materiel introduced to a battlefield, or onto a front, with the intent to destroy each other, while civilian targets were left alone, for the most part. Third-generation warfare was waged against the industrial structures that made warfare possible: factories, supply lines, and railroad systems, with the opposing military acting as a shield to defend those resources. Fourth-generation warfare is a direct assault on the political structures that guide warfare.

The only logical development of this idea is a direct attack on the essential elements of another culture itself: the destruction of religious and cultural centers, attacks on the population en masse, and so forth. Such warfare might also be known by the moniker of terrorism.

"If these or similar factors are indeed driving the evolution of conflict, then solutions must lie primarily in this arena, that is, within the realms of economics, diplomacy, and law-enforcement. Military force will play a smaller role, performing specific tasks to solve problems that are intractable through other means. A coherent "grand strategy" is needed to ensure that military (destructive) actions harmonize with our overall objectives and do not undermine the public support needed to prosecute a fourth generation war to its successful conclusion." [3]

According to, "fourth-generation warfare n. Warfare in which at least one side uses non-traditional tactics and is composed of a non-governmental military force."

Example Citation:

  • The U.S. defense and intelligence community may or may not be in denial over what is happening, but there is no doubt that al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups have embraced the tenets of fourth-generation warfare and see it as their way to victory against the vast military machine of the West in general and the United States in particular. In February, the Middle East Media Research Institute published excerpts from an article it found on a now-defunct al-Qaeda Website, Al-Ansar: For the Struggle Against the Crusader War. The article, "Fourth-Generation Wars" by Abu 'Ubeid al-Qurashi, was pseudonymous, but intelligence sources tell Insight that the writer is a figure of significant stature within al-Qaeda and should be taken seriously. He openly acknowledges the 1989 Marine Corps Gazette article, embraces the principles advanced therein and says, "This new type of war presents significant difficulties for the Western war machine." —Scott L. Wheeler, "Terrorist Tactics for War With the West," Insight on the News, January 6, 2003.

Earliest Citation:

  • Like the rest of the U.S. military, he said, the Special Operations Command is trying to adapt its troops to the new, so-called fourth generation warfare where combat is focused on regions or niches and where multinational operations are becoming the norm. —Edit M. Lederer, "U.S. Special Forces In Increasing Demand All Over The World," Associated Press Worldstream, November 1, 1994.

First Use:

  • First generation warfare reflects tactics of the era of the smoothbore musket, the tactics of line and column. These tactics were developed partially in response to technological factors — the line maximized firepower, rigid drill was necessary to generate a high rate of fire, etc.— and partially in response to social conditions and ideas, e.g., the columns of the French revolutionary armies reflected both the élan of the revolution and the low training levels of conscripted troops. Although rendered obsolete with the replacement of the smoothbore by the rifled musket, vestiges of first generation tactics survive today, especially in a frequently encountered desire for linearity on the battlefield. Operational art in the first generation did not exist as a concept although it was practiced by individual commanders, most prominently Napoleon.
  • Second generation warfare was a response to the rifled musket, breechloaders, barbed wire, the machinegun, and indirect fire. Tactics were based on fire and movement, and they remained essentially linear. The defense still attempted to prevent all penetrations, and in the attack a laterally dispersed line advanced by rushes in small groups. Perhaps the principal change from first generation tactics was heavy reliance on indirect fire; second generation tactics were summed up in the French maxim, "the artillery conquers, the infantry occupies." Massed firepower replaced massed manpower. Second generation tactics remained the basis of U.S. doctrine until the 1980s, and they are still practiced by most American units in the field.
While ideas played a role in the development of second generation tactics (particularly the idea of lateral dispersion), technology was the principal driver of change. Technology manifested itself both qualitatively, in such things as heavier artillery and bombing aircraft, and quantitatively, in the ability of an industrialized economy to fight a battle of materiel (Materialschlacht).
The second generation saw the formal recognition and adoption of the operational art, initially by the Prussian army. Again, both ideas and technology drove the change. The ideas sprang largely from Prussian studies of Napoleon's campaigns. Technological factors included von Moltke's realization that modern tactical firepower mandated battles of encirclement and the desire to exploit the capabilities of the railway and the telegraph.
  • Third generation warfare was also a response to the increase in battlefield firepower. However, the driving force was primarily ideas. Aware they could not prevail in a contest of materiel because of their weaker industrial base in World War I, the Germans developed radically new tactics. Based on maneuver rather than attrition, third generation tactics were the first truly nonlinear tactics. The attack relied on infiltration to bypass and collapse the enemy's combat forces rather than seeking to close with and destroy them. The defense was in depth and often invited penetration, which set the enemy up for a counterattack.
While the basic concepts of third generation tactics were in place by the end of 1918, the addition of a new technological element-tanks-brought about a major shift at the operational level in World War II. That shift was blitzkrieg. In the blitzkrieg, the basis of the operational art shifted from place (as in Liddell-Hart's indirect approach) to time...
  • In broad terms, fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between "civilian" and "military" may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants' depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity. Major military facilities, such as airfields, fixed communications sites, and large headquarters will become rarities because of their vulnerability; the same may be true of civilian equivalents, such as seats of government, power plants, and industrial sites (including knowledge as well as manufacturing industries). Success will depend heavily on effectiveness in joint operations as lines between responsibility and mission become very blurred. Again, all these elements are present in third generation warfare; fourth generation will merely accentuate them. —William S. Lind et al., "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation," Military Gazette, October 1989.

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