I’m sorry, Mrs. Lind, there’s nothing more we can do.
Has the concept of fourth generation warfare outlived its usefulness? The term was coined by Bill Lind and his colleagues in a paper they published in the Marine Corps Gazette in October 1989, “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation.” If you haven’t read this paper, you might want to take the time now.
Here is their primary prediction:
Fourth is a goal of collapsing the enemy internally rather than physically destroying him. Targets will include such things as the population’s support for the war and the enemy’s culture. Correct identification of enemy strategic centers of gravity will be highly important.
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.
The first thing to note is that 4GW is an evolution from 3GW, which they equate to maneuver warfare and the blitzkrieg as defined in MCDP 1 and Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict. These are styles of warfare conducted by state armies against other state armies, although the paper does invoke the notion of transnational terrorists near the end.
At some point in the late 1990s, the theory bifurcated. Bill Lind and Martin van Creveld began to emphasize the decline of the state and focus on transnational guerrilla organizations like al-Qa’ida. Tom Barnett called this the “road warrior” model. T. X. Hammes, on the other hand, characterized 4GW as “evolved insurgency” and envisioned the techniques described in the paragraphs above as also useful for state-vs-state conflicts.
Lind and Hammes immediately got into a spat. This, from Lind’s critique of Hammes’ book:
However, there are also some key points where The Sling and the Stone misunderstands Fourth Generation war. One is found in the book’s assertion that 4GW is just insurgency. This is much too narrow a definition, and it risks misleading us if we take it to mean that we need only re-discover old counter-insurgency techniques in order to prevail against Fourth Generation opponents. At the core of 4GW is a crisis of legitimacy of the state, and counter-insurgency cannot address that crisis; indeed, when the counter-insurgency is led by foreign troops, it only makes the local state’s crisis of legitimacy worse.
Although they sometimes disagreed, the people who originated and developed the concept of 4GW understood the history of warfare. Bill Lind, for example, was a major player in the developer of 3GW/maneuver warfare and is recognized as such by the Marine Corps. T. X. Hammes laid out his arguments in his book, The Sling and the Stone, which lists some 14 pages of sources and references. Shortly after the book was published, he was awarded a Ph.D. by Oxford University, and he’s now at the Institute for International Strategic Studies of National Defense University. Van Creveld recently retired from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and has published more than 20 books, including his take on 4GW, The Transformation of War, also with 14 pages of sources. I’m highlighting credentials and sourcing to illustrate that these are serious works of scholarship, not thrown-together puff pieces. The theory of fourth generation warfare also spawned a cottage industry by lesser known writers, and I’ve archived numerous articles on the subject at http://dnipogo.org, (scroll down the right menu bar).
The 9/11 attacks, by a transnational guerrilla movement, seemed to confirm 4GW in both of its forms. In the last few years, however, everything has gone quiet. Transnational insurgencies, “global guerrillas” as John Robb terms them, have not become a significant factor in geopolitics. “Continuing irritation” might best describe them, whose primary function seems to be upholding national security budgets in frightened western democracies. The state system has not noticeably weakened. So it might be fair at this point to conclude that although 4GW was a legitimate theory, well supported by logic and data, the world simply didn’t develop along the lines it proposed.
A prominent critic of 4GW, Antulio J. Echevarria, may have been correct:
What we are really seeing in the war on terror, and the campaign in Iraq and elsewhere, is that the increased “dispersion and democratization of technology, information, and finance” brought about by globalization has given terrorist groups greater mobility and access worldwide. At this point, globalization seems to aid the nonstate actor more than the state, but states still play a central role in the support or defeat of terrorist groups or insurgencies.
Why? I’ll offer this hypothesis, that the primary reason warfare did not evolve a fourth generation is that it didn’t live long enough. The opening of Sir Rupert Smith’s 2005 treatise, The Utility of Force, states the case:
War no longer exists. Confrontation, combat, and conflict undoubtedly exist all round the world—most notably, but not only in Iraq, Afghanistan, the democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Palestinian Territories—and states still have armed forces that they use as a symbol of power. None the less, war as cognitively know to most non-combatants, war as a battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs: such war no longer exists.
The primary reason for this is that the trend which began with the introduction of firearms to the West in the 16th century, intensified with industrial revolution in the 19th, and culminated at Hiroshima in the 20th eliminated war as an option among advanced nations. The fall of the Soviet Union removed the rationale for large-scale proxy wars, and history came to an end (to coin a phrase).
What’s going to happen next? If I could make accurate predictions, I’d be tending to my castle in the south of France, but I’ll throw this out for discussion: Insurgency will return to the developed world. Thus, in the end, I’m siding with Hammes.
The conditions for insurgency, as described by Boyd in Patterns of Conflict, had been defused by reforms in the early 20th century. Within the last 25 years or so, these conditions have returned. The austerity measures in southern Europe, the decline in living standards and economic polarization in the United States, and the enormous increase in firepower available to the general citizenry (at least in the US) will combine to produce abrupt changes in political organization. So long as the democratic process remains uncorrupted, these changes will be largely peaceful. In non-democratic states, and in those democracies where the beneficiaries of highly-skewed income and wealth distributions attempt to hang on to their gains by whatever means they deem necessary, we should expect higher levels of violence.
What do you think?