The evolution of conflict: Fourth-generation warfare

Maria do Céu Pinto Arena, Director of the Department of International Relations and Public Administration

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War is no longer a phenomenon which can be described, according to classical definitions, as “open hostility between state armies”. In 1999, two Chinese coronels wrote a book named Unrestricted Warfare, where they defined a new phenomenon of war which “transcends all borders and limits…using all means, both armed and unarmed, military and non-military, lethal and non-lethal to force the enemy to accept our interests.”1 Famous war historian John Keegan suggests that “the great objective of disarming tribes, sects, warlords and criminals – the main accomplishment of XVII century monarchs and XIX century empires – threatens to once again become a necessity. Not all military establishments have the capacity, equipment and cultural implacability required for the task.”2 Effectively, the mutation of conflicts toward barbaric type phenomena will tend to lead military activity to the limits of the non-conventional – the Fourth-generation Warfare (FGW).

The concept of four generations of war was created in the 80s by authors such as the historian William S. Lind3 and LtCol Thomas X. Hammes4. According to these authors, the four generations of warfare began with the Westphalia Peace Treaties, with which the State established the monopoly of war.

FGW defines a phenomenon in which the enemy’s organization is a non-hierarchical structure

These authors claim that the qualitative evolution of war – described as “generations” – owes itself mostly to technological factors, though also to political, social and economic factors which condition society, both internally and in an international context. The first generation featured a predominance of massive armies, the second featured firepower and the third maneuvering. It is important that we focus mainly on the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare, which corresponds to the current period. Despite being polemic and contested5, this concept has attracted a growing amount of attention due to post-Cold War and post-9/11 events, due to al-Qaeda attacks on American soil and the complications of military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. FGW defines a phenomenon in which the enemy’s organization is a non-hierarchical structure; fighting is dispersed and the battle fronts disappear; operations have an asymmetrical nature; antagonists privilege media and cultural/psychological means; the target is the adversary’s political will, more than its military organization.

FGW marks the most radical shift in the style of war since the Peace of Westphalia. However, FGW is formed by a mix of former generations’ characteristics, such as the decentralization of operations and initiative, but in other aspects Fourth Generation Warfare is far removed from previous forms of belligerence. According to some authors, the most correct view is not that Fourth Generation Warfare is a replacement of preceding styles of war, but to understand that this form of war coexists with previous generations.

FGW lies at the intersection of essentially decentralized phenomena of belligerence, such as terrorism, the asymmetrical strategy, the low intensity war, insurrection and guerilla. According to Cor. Hammes, the revolutionary Mao Tse-tung was the great precursor of this form of war. Although Mao Tse-tung applied and developed many of the FGW principles, it was an ancestor of his who, 2500 years earlier, laid its foundations: Sun Tzu. Later, brilliant strategists such as Gengis Khan, the War of Secession’s southern gen. Sherman, T. E. Lawrence and the vietnamese gen.Vo Nguyen Giap, resorted to psychological warfare and subversion. Hammes claims that FGW has been applied for around seven decades and that, because of it, the USA have already lost three wars (Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia) and are heading for a fifth defeat (Afghanistan and Iraq). In the same way, the French have been defeated in Indochina and Argelia; the USRR lost in Afghanistan and seems to be headed the same way in Chechnya. Regarding Iraq, Hammes says “it is evident that FGW is a concept of war vastly different from the brief and intense war planned for by the administration and celebrated when they declared the end of the combat phase on the 1st May 2003”.6

In this war, at least one of the actors is a non-state or irregular entity.

In this war, at least one of the actors is a non-state or irregular entity. Therefore, the enemy is more elusive and harder to identify. These kind of actors’ presence is not new or even recent; what stands out is their mass return and the way they ignore, attack or overcome the State and its apparatus. By declaring war on al-Qaeda, the USA and the international community were admitting to entering into a new era.

In FGW, the line between war and politics, soldiers and civilians, peace and conflict, battlefield and safe place, is eroded. Other features of this kind of war are the dispersion of the area of operation, the diversity of belligerents and the extension of violence to civilians and general population. Gould and Spinney claim “FGW is the preferred weapon of the weak, disadvantaged, criminals and fanatics. Its roots may be in guerrilla, Leninist insurrection theory and traditional terrorism, but it has become more diffuse and effective due to technology, mobile means and computerized instruments fomented by computers and mass communication. It allows the politically weak to overcome the State’s capacity to protect itself through conventional military means.”7

Firstly this war is a consequence of economic, social and technological change driven by globalization. The explosion of non-state agents, the creation of networks in almost all areas, the emergence of relevant questions and the revolution in global communications are particularly influential phenomena in the shift in the war paradigm.

Secondly, FGW sees the State lose the monopoly of war and confronted by a variety of non-state agents or organized networks: ethnic groups, mafias, drug traffickers and religious extremists. FGW can be explained by the universal crisis of State legitimacy and the imposition of new loyalties, such as religion or ethnic group. The State’s collapse meant the emergence of FG actors in Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In many parts of the world, the military fight non-state adversaries and, in almost every case, military answers are not enough to defeat the enemy.

FG is therefore the form of war chosen by non-state organizations which aim to confront military apparatus trained and equipped for different kinds of war. FGW is matched by the decline of conventional war. Besides, al-Qaeda and similar organizations understand that they will only manage to change the balance of power by resorting to non-conventional means, replicating the biblical story of David who defeats Goliath. The great lesson to be learned by modern military potencies – USA first of all – is that the concentration of resources on cutting edge military technology is a gravely mistaken vision. Hammes strongly disagrees with “the idea that technology offers the United States an inherent advantage. We continue to focus on technological solutions at tactical and operational levels, without a serious discussion of the strategical imperatives or the nature of the war we are fighting. The information revolution will allow our FGW enemies not only to equal our capacities in many areas, but also to exceed us in some.”8

FGW is also marked by a return to a world of cultures, of ethnicities, not merely States in conflict. September 11th 2001 and the often talked about setting of a civilizational war reveals the mobilization of a great variety of Islamic non-state agents who directly attacked the USA and Washington’s allied governments in various parts of the world. Terrorist groups and other fearsome enemies learned with 9/11 how to attack a State’s structure and population at a low price. One of FGW’s features is that terrorists ignore armed forces, as if they were irrelevant, and focus on soft targets (population, civilian or political targets), in other words, the most fragile targets who are most susceptible to a reaction which could condition political power. Psychological effect is essential to FGW: the agent’s aim is to create fear, chaos and the collapse of the targeted society from the inside out. Propaganda and the media are a fundamental part of psychological operations. Modern information society’s instruments are expertly used by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (Daesh). The internet and television have simultaneously become actors and vectors, platforms and weapons, front-lines and theatres of operation.9 Terrorists have been perfecting the use of these tools and may evolve to the use of much more lethal means, such as chemical, biological or radiological weapons.

Terrorism’s tactics will be increasingly used and will involve the population, both as a target, and as the terrorist’s ally. Given the non-conventional nature of these conflicts where there isn’t a well-defined battlefield or front, fighting stretches to undefined areas affecting civilian populations who are targeted by attacks, explosions or, simply, terror operations.

FGW’s terrorism tactics focus not so much on the enemy’s military capacity, but on its will to keep fighting. The purpose is to undermine the enemy’s morale, drain its will to fight. The war is won not on the field of battle, but of morale and psychology. According to Hammes, the insurgent’s great advantage is that they don’t have to win: “the simply have to stay in the fight long enough for the coalition to give up and leave.” 10

FG adversaries are better suited to use the media to sway internal and world public opinion. Psychological operations, driven by means of information and communication instruments, may become the most important strategic and operational weapon. The use of psychological operations may prepare and precede the use of force (China’s case). One of the enemies’ favoured aims will be to subvert the support given by populations to their governments and the wars to which they commit (as with the USA and the Vietnam War). Military force will play a smaller role. In FGW, the “carrot” is as important as the “stick”. Therefore, traditional military must mobilize economic tools, diplomacy, public relations, propaganda and their relationship with the population.

Matters of peace and safety, in the current international order, are more complex and cannot be seen through the eyes of traditional national security. The priority currently given to the prevention of conflict by the international community demands policies directed toward the strengthening of social fabric and the improvement of society’s governance, but equally toward rethinking tactics of war.

1 Cit. in Parag Khanna, “Terrorism as War”, Policy Review (http://www.policyreview.org/oct03/khanna_print.html).

2 Ibid.

3 William S. Lind, Cor. Keith Nightengale, Cap. John P. Schmitt, Cor. Joseph W. Sutton e Ten.-Cor. Gary I. Wilson, “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”, Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989.

4 “The Evolution of War: The Fourth Generation”, Marine Corps Gazette, Setembro de 1994; The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, St. Paul: Minn., Zenith Press, 2004; v. também “Insurgency: Modern Warfare Evolves into a Fourth Generation”, Strategic Forum 214, INSS – NDU, January 2005.

5 Antulio J. Echeverria II, “Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths”, Strategic Studies Institute, U. S. Army War College, November 2005.

6 Richard Halloran, “The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century” (in http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0IBR/is_3_35/ai_n15397406).

7 Harold A. Gould e Franklin C. Spinney, “Fourth-Generation Warfare is Here”, 15th October 2001 (http://www.d-n-i.net/fcs/gould_spinney_4GW.htm), p. 1.

8 Halloran, op. cit., p. 1.

9 Tony Corn, “World War IV as Fourth-Generation Warfare”, Policy Review, January 2006 (in http://www.policyreview.org/000/corn.html), p. 2.

10 0 Halloran, op. cit., p. 2.