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4GW: What is 4th Generation Warfare?


As you may have noticed, I'm spending more time on this blog covering what I call "4th Generation Warfare" (4GW), a term that includes cyberwarfare, terrorism, "netwars", et. al.

Still, you ask, what exactly is 4GW? What makes it different? What are the key principles? Glad you asked.

Four Generations of War

First Generation Warfare involved massed manpower, and lasted until the machine gun and indirect fire made such tactics suicidal.

Second Generation Warfare was based on massed firepower. Tactics relied on fire and movement, with heavy reliance on indirect fire from artillery. It was different, but still essentially linear.

Third Generation Warfare was based on maneuver and real time communications. It was best exemplified by World War II's "Blitzkrieg". The attack relied on infiltration to bypass, cut off and collapse the enemy's main combat forces rather than seeking to close with and destroy them.

Fourth Generation Warfare is based on dispersion and communications that remove the battle front entirely. Attackers rely on cultural/media attack and coordinated violent actions to and paralyze or collapse the enemy's political will, rather than seeking decisive combat.

A 1989 Marine Corps Gazette article describes each generation and the shifts involved in more detail. For the best overall collection I've yet seen on the subject, D-N-I.NET has an excellent definition, introduction and archive.

A Strange Kind of War

The authors of one of the first papers on this subject captured some of 4GW's strangeness when they predicted:

"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."

Al-Qaeda is an obvious example.

FARC in Colombia is another: a social infrastructure, an economic network based on drugs, and a terrorist organization all in one. FARC and its ilk have effectively carved out an unrecognized "Narcoland" quasi-state crossing several borders, with revenues and armed forces larger than many of the surrounding governments. The challenge of their activities reaches directly into societies like the USA and UK (via FARC's close IRA connections as well as its drugs) as well as Colombia and Venezuela.

Dealing with them is not a military problem of the same type as, say, disposing of Iraq's Saddam Hussein - and future 4GW scenarios could be stranger still.

Getting Our Attention

Nasty problems, granted, but hardly life-threatening. So why are we paying so much attention?

The obvious answer is 9/11. Those events also woke people up to an uncomfortable realization: if there are truly no limits to the scale of 4GW actions, and nuclear, biological, or (most likely) chemical weapons are getting easier to build or obtain... then the future's logic is very clear. This totally changes the stakes. As George W. Bush noted the other day in his West Point speech:

"Deterrence -- the promise of massive retaliation against nations -- means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies."

That certainly ups the stakes.

Principles and Components of 4GW

The core feature of 4th Generation Warfare is that it's really about people, more a battle of minds than of steel. The USA has become a technology power, and its ability to use new technologies as part of the 4GW modernization process will be fascinating. Still, don't be fooled into thinking that it's all about technology.

Indeed, the fundamental principle and touchstone of 4GW conflict is Colonel John Boyd's very human Observe-Orient-Act-Decide loop, or OODA loop. Getting inside your enemy's loop is pivotal in any contest of war or even business, but the nature of 4th Generation Warfare raises the improtance on the enemy's decision loop even as it multiplies both the number of related targets and the possible strategies for attacking them.

These concepts are present in 3rd Generation Warfare as well, just as some elements of maeuver were present in 2nd Generation Warfare. Future generations of warfare simply find that one can achieve similar ends by using new capabilities to create a substitute for the old standard (firepower for manpower, maneuver for massed firepower, dispersed but precise and coordinated attacks with no battlefront as unlimited maneuver, etc.), which shifts the central principles for success and therefore the tactics, strategies, and resources required.

For those new to 4GW, I concur with D-N-I and recommend "The Evolution of War: The Fourth Generation," by LtCol Thomas X. Hammes, USMC. LtCol Hammes observes that "generations" of warfare are not defined primarily by the technology employed since, each "generation" can use any available technology. Rather, generations of warfare are better categorized by political, social, and economic factors. Case studies provide further illustration.

Tomorrow, Winds of Change will discuss one more unsettling thing about 4GW: it can be used deliberately with the aim of triggering more conventinal wars between nation states. Indeed, the situation in Kashmir combines stateless, transnational actors, weapons of mass destruction, and "war trigger judo" all in one nasty witch's brew. Understanding 4GW will help you understand Al-Qaeda's strategy, and therefore the potential future of the Indian subcontinent.

UPDATE: Welcome, Tech Central Station readers!

(last modifications made Aug 21, 2004)


america is doomed... it is nowhere near ready to handle encounters of this nature...and, i think never will be

There are many pitfalls... but I have learned never to say never with Americans. Whatever else they may be, they are adaptable. This is precisely, in fact, what makes them so very dangerous when provoked.

In the case of Muslim terrorism, the response is easy, assuming the political will exists: Destroy what they most value in reponse to terrorist attacks. Mecca, Medina, and a hundred other "holy cities" and mosques would top the list. That's what I call asymmetric warfare. (Just have to be careful that so-called allies don't take advantage of the system, so that we do their dirty laundry.) Think of it as a class with a few hooligans. Punish the class as a whole and they will stop the miscreants.

PacRim Jim:

That won't work. There are examples (alas, none come to mind) of Muslims destroying their own mosques. The setbacks the Prophet faced while trying to convert the heathens in the Hejaz would also be called upon by imams trying to continue the struggle. Last, Islam is as much a culture as a religion - perhaps more.

America Doomed:

How So? They can set off as many dirty bombs
as they want, kill as many people as they did
on 9/11 50x over. The next day, America will
only gain in resolve. The more they attack,
the more often they attack, the greater resolve
grows. Americans just aren't good at being afraid
the way most of the world is; fear tends to turn
to anger.

4th Gen Warfare:

I'm wondering what is so new about this? Sounds
very much like the kind of analysis that
would have been made after the assasination that
kicked off WW I. Terrorism isn't new, terrorists
attacking a power like the US isn't new. This
wave of terrorism started in the 70s and it too
shall pass.


It's important not to over react to a few
miscreants and do something that will lead to more
hatred for millinea to come. How many Anarchist
terrorists do we see assasinating world leaders
these days?

When the US ceases to exist it will have nothing
to do with these guys. That's not to say that
they can't kill lots of Americans and shouldn't be
dealt with. But, to suggest they will destroy
the US is a bit ludicrous.

"At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. At what point, then, is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume I, "Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum,of Springfield, Illinois (January 27, 1838), p. 109.

Interesting as it was the first time.

The issue which America confronts in Iraq and in the War on Terror generally, is how to change the behavior of a small, badly identified minority within the Islamic world.

Using 3rd generation tactics - vastly refined and improved with the digital battlefield suite of technologies - the American forces are capable of beating any formal army in the world.

Now the question is whether the principles of net battlefield can be translated into the more difficult fields of intelligence and policing. I suspect they can but it will require a re-orientation of how intelligence services understand their mission.

On the other side, the hearts and minds, America can be remarkably hamfisted. In a sense Americans live in an entirely different world and century than the jihadis. It is not just a cultural difference; it is a difference in the temporal postion of much of the Islamic world as compared to the West and America in particular.

Most Americans, regardless of political position, embrace the future. Many Muslims cling to a long distant past.


While at some point any war may spin out of control, I don't want our side playing "Taliban with the Buddhas" unless we're absolutely out of other options. That isn't who we are, and I hope it isn't who we become.

Besides, we have more threatening tools at our disposal that will work for us rather than against us. Our culture, for one, if we can hold their attempts at military/4GW response down and keep the Islamists off balance with our own responses and use of force.

Which is the big question. Actually, the dark scenario in all of this is not Mecca & Medina, but Belmont Club's famous 3 Conjectures

I was recently talking to a friend who sees that horizon as 10-20 years out, and I tend to agree... but if we haven't solved or vastly reduced the problem by then, the whole world could be in for huge, huge trouble. And Al-Qaeda won't be the last enemy of this kind that we fight.

As much as the current Muslim victim/abuser mindset appals, I'm more convinced than ever that the real problem remains Socialism. So called 4G warfare only succeeds because the 'leadership' classes of societies (I mean this broadly and I write from Australia) have been infiltrated and/or brainwashed into acting as advocates and agents for the terrorists.

If the media, academia, education, legal system and bureaucracy weren't thick with left-wingers trying to undermine our resolve, justify the unjustifiable, misdirect the blame, muddy the waters and play all the other socialist games, then 4G would never work.

The states that support terrorism still need armed forces to defend themselves. If Syria, Iran, Saudi etc found that terrorist activity that could in some way be linked to one or all of them (in other words, all of it), was followed by the destruction of their infrastructure and conventional forces - in other words if we acted as if we were really in the war we are in - terrorism would be stopped. And it's the leftists within our own societies that make such extreme efforts to stop that happening.

In a sense they are correct when they say we need to look to our own society for the root causes of terrorism, but not in the way they mean. Basically the terrorists are the proxy forces of the allies of one side of a civil war within the West itself.

yeah, well we best be learning how to farm. because that is all we will be: a 'nation' of poor, third-world farmers. shunned by the civilized world, we will no longer be alowed access to technology or anything but the most basic of tools. dark ages agaen, while stability and peace return to those on the other side of the fence.

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