Summary: Today GI Wilson writes about the great game of the 21st century — the US government vs. our 4GW foes. Once called “low intensity war”, our foes have taught us the ability of sustained 4GW produces only a series of expensive defeats for foreign armies (no matter how powerful). A slow bleeding, until we either adapt or give up.
The recent article, “7 Absurd Ways the Military Wastes Taxpayer Dollars” by Laura Gottesdiene at Salon shines a bright light on military waste and the smarmy behavior of general officers. This smarmy behavior is just the tip of a national security iceberg. The personal foibles of these general officers are symptoms of a much deeper problem. In the wake of 9-11 we are witnessing the costly ineffectiveness our Titanic government bureaucracies. Today, a report by the Independent Accountability Review Board on Benghazi slammed senior level leadership and management laying bare national security miscalculations and incompetence. (Chicago Tribune)
What our national security apparatchiks are missing is that we live in a world where we are seeing sub-national “bad actors” use 4th generation warfare (4GW), which embodies low-tech tactics, techniques procedures (TTPs) together with insurrection, sabotage, espionage, and terrorism, to subvert nation-states. In effect, 4GW has emerged to challenge the established international system. While 4GW is not new, as some critics would have you believe, 4GW has emerged over several decades as the dominant style of warfare in the first part of the 21st Century.
The United States Government (USG) has not adapted to this change. Driven by conventional mentality and bureaucratic inertia, the Military Industrial Congressional Complex (MICC) and the US military has responded to the 4th generation warfare (4GW) threats with a conventional techno strategy of fielding high cost acquisition programs that created the MICC in the first place during the Cold War. The acquisition-programmatic approach to strategy led to a welter of highly complex programs and associated complex organizational relationships that force-fits the fighting man into a technological strait-jacket.
Trying to win by substituting tech for tactics
A forced-fit strait-jacket where technology is king and very costly. The acquisition-programmatic approach feeds the MICC with more general officers, contractors, and high tech hardware needs. Hardware resigns supreme over people. Personnel cuts are made first to save acquisition programs. The insidious results can be seen in the fact the so-called war on terror is now the second most expensive war in US history, behind WWII, but exceeding the expenditures of the Civil War and WWI on an inflation adjusted basis — and a pervasive culture of waste and moral corruption underwriting careerism and psychopathy in U.S. military leadership. (see “How Tactics of the Weak Confound the Strong“)
This conventional-acquisition force is one where technology is costly. Defense technology has propensity to make everything military bigger, more complex, more complicated, more bureaucratic, more exorbitant reliant of huge sums of money, lots of generals, Congressional porking, all fueled by a legion of lobbyists and a friendly media. The culture of spending creates a mindset that there are only high tech high cost solutions for all DOD problems. The billions of dollars lavished yearly on the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) is a particularly well worth reviewing. In fact, JIEDDO is a case study of how to throw billions of dollars at a problem seeking technological solutions and getting so little in return.
Technological solutions contribute immensely to the money flow for hardware and contractors. Making Congress and DOD suits happy campers plus willing accomplishes in wasteful spending and slathering away of tax payers’ dollars. Odd as it may seem, the defense industry often sees those in military uniform as a kind of competition. The defense industry wants to increase the sale of high-cost-high-tech hardware coupled with lots of contractor support to DOD. In effect this increases the likelihood of fewer dollars going to directly to uniform personnel and more dollars going directly to industry where hardware has a higher priority than people.
America, which sees itself as the world’s strongest nation, has fallen into the trap of substituting technology for tactical ideas. DOD has a predilection for combat where only the most advanced and sophisticated force wins with the most expensive high tech hardware. This in fact makes DOD rigid, predictable, and non responsive to changing conditions. Our fourth-generation foes, on the other hand, perhaps because of their poverty, have concentrated on people and ideas. The prefer the a tactically sophisticated unconventional, low-no-tech, and off-the-shelf ‘tip and stroke’ approach to strike over the widest areas with the smallest possible forces while striving to avoid defense except by accident or error.
The key is to avoid a decisive fight where DOD can bring its firepower to bear. In effect, the 4GW insurgents are leveraging DOD’s addiction to technology and contractors while “throwing such high tech” forces off balance to leverage our own politically driven bureaucracy to exhaust itself spiritually and financially. A sterling example of this is DOD, State Department, and intelligence communities’ bureaucratic missteps surrounding the Benghazi event, which have now evolved into a finger pointing game among domestic constituencies in the Executive and Legislative branches of the US government. You can bet our adversaries are cheering this act on!
Recall too our enemy’s technological advantage in the 11 Sept 2001 attacks consisted of box cutters and ceramic knives, combined with a steely determination to die for a cause. And, it worked turning commercial jetliners into building-piercing missiles and coffins. Yet, our vast weighty and costly government bureaucracies (to include the military, law enforcement, and intelligence communities) were virtually helpless to stop the attacks.
Today, we are witnessing (perhaps more like we are asleep at the switch while a geo-political transition taking place, while the US is slipping into what is beginning to look like a economical-political death spiral. This shift is characterized by a global landscape of conflict where the distinction between combatant, criminal opportunist and civilian dissolving into a penumbra with no clear edges. In this emerging global conflict, the urban guerrilla/fighter and his/her rural counterpart may be a religious zealot, a child for hire with an RPG, a deranged lone shooter, or a grandmother with a suicide vest.
As technophiles, Westerners are capture by their addiction to our expensive modern weapons like drones that create a false aura of great precision. We have lost sight Napoleon’s dictum “the moral is the material as three to one” of the time proven truth that people and ideas are the essence of why wars are fought and for how long. In the traditional view, the low-tech approaches of fourth generation warfare are the “tactics of the weak.” However, they have repeatedly been successful in circumventing our military’s far stronger conventional strategy, general officer heavy force structure, acquisition-tactics, and hardware-only-thinking.
With our foes ….
Well before the 9-11 attacks al-Qaeda recognized the power of asymmetric warfare and adaptive tactics of fourth generation warfare (4GW) for their jihad struggle. Armchair strategists inside the beltway like to call this ‘asymmetric warfare,’ as if focusing local strengths against weaknesses was something new, but the technique is as old as Sun Tzu. An article entitled “Fourth-Generation Wars” by Abu ‘Ubeid Al-Qurashi, appeared in the now defunct al-Qaeda affiliated Internet magazine Al-Ansar acknowledged that 4GW forms the foundation of al-Qaeda’s combat doctrine. (see my essay on “Careerism”)
In doing so, the author, Abu ‘Ubed Al-Qurashi, reputed to be closely linked with Osama bin Laden, cites a 1989 Marine Corps Gazette article “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation” as key to understanding contemporary global conflict. But most in DOD and intelligence missed that or just yawned and returned to the high tech/high dollar approach to war that, among other things, offers generals and colonels such lucrative-after-market opportunities with defense contractors.
Only a few military analysts both in and out of uniform have recognized the deadly nature of 4GW, and it still eludes most political and military strategic discourse. Beyond any doubt, the supposedly isolated and shadowy strategists and tacticians of 4GW networks like al-Qaeda, the Mexican drug cartels, and Hezbollah understood the power of 4GW far more than our own military or intelligence wonks realized.
The aforementioned al-Qaeda on-line magazine made a chilling declaration: “The time has come for the Islamic movements facing a general crusader offensive to internalize the rules of fourth-generation warfare.” Rather than al-Qaeda simply being just merely an indicator of changes of thinking within the operational domain, radicalized affiliates are embracing the 4GW thesis to become change leaders. Yet no one here is paying attention, when the Benghazi meltdown occurs, because the soup of the day is the inwardly-focused “fiscal cliff chowder.”
Fourth-generation warfare is not new (though many try to claim it is as criticism), but rather a creative and adaptive application of the past where the “moral” dimension of war outweighs the technological. 4GW represents warfare in transition where traditional strengths are bypassed or redefined; the focus is shifted away from high technology to ideas. Conflict shifts from the mindless attrition strategy of destroying military targets by regular conventional firepower-centric forces to the disruption of social-economic and political-cultural “centers” by tip and stroke attacks, subversion, shadow organizations, etc.
Generations of War
When nations try to apply 2GW or 3GW approaches in response to this kind of threat, they typically produce considerable “back blast” as state forces misapply conventional military means. In essence, 4GW groups attack the entire social order, and use the target society’s very organization, laws, technology and conventional forces or tactics against itself. As Robert Chase in “Battling the Hydra: Changing Operational Factors in 4th Generation War” writes, “Determinants of an operational center of gravity, grounded in the current factors of time, space, and force, and focused upon tangible assessments of combat power, force ratios, and attritional capacities, are incidental in analyzing an adversary whose power lies not in these conventional quantitative ‘means,’ but rather in its qualitative roots.” (see “Bin Laden Lieutenant Admits to September 11 and Explains Al-Qa’ida’s Combat Doctrine“, The Middle East Media Research Institute)
4GW theorists in the United States foresaw well before the 1990s and recognized the US military was still held captive to World War I attrition tactics papered over with the high technology conception of precision warfare on the all-seeing, all-knowing electronic battlefield — a fantasy that has reached its apotheosis in using drones to attack and kill so-called high-value individuals.
Meanwhile the interconnected world was progressing beyond the industrial age of highly autonomous nation-states. That future, which is now upon us, is one where the huge serried ranks of regular armies are almost helpless against the scattered, fourth generation gangs, religions, tribes, ideologies and terrorists, wired together with cell phones, electronic banking, and the internet. In that analysis, we’d too often try to use precision munitions from attack aircraft against 4GW “phantoms” or “ghosts”-shadowy groups (e.g. gangs) blended into existing society without respect to, international borders. Our targeteers are often trying to hit an “enemy” center of gravity that is really a shared religious/ideological goal and message, with our bombs and drone missiles not only falling short in the end, but having the perverse effect of strengthening the resolve of the “bad guys”.
In this amorphous operational venue where bad guys love to use low tech to defeat high tech, common purpose and zealotry (or cohesion and moral strength) replace high-tech military equipment and command structure. The conventional 2000-pound airdropped bomb is transformed into a suicide truck bomb or other improvised explosive device that strikes unexpectedly over great distances. The new enemy “pilot” does not return to base and family but instead fully intends to die as a martyr for the mission. The target is no longer just our US conventional force, but the symbolic icons tied to our presence. And, not surprisingly, our drones are met with blue on green attacks from the guy standing next to our troops.
Today we are faced with interesting dichotomies where we are trying to impose law and order in Afghanistan and from Washington, DC, where you can’t safely walk 1,000 yards from the Capitol after dark. In Afghanistan (as in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, etc), we are seeing fourth-generation warfare in play. Twenty years of recurring images of urban warfare in Mogadishu, Fallujah, Ramadi, Benghazi, and the Chechen capital of Grozny, and now in Damascus are sending a loud message that should give us pause regarding our high tech high cost hardware war fighting addiction.
Afghanistan still simmers/boils, and terrorists worldwide threaten US national and global security alike. A swath across central Africa, from Ethiopia to Mauritania, now threatens to implode under the specter of continual conflict.
The bottom line is that all war is about people, ideas, and hardware/technology in that order, and the military and security forces are ultimately about controlling people. It is not enough to dominate the technological domain. To be sure technologies, like precision munitions, air, space, and cyber power are elements of any solution, but they are not the entire solution. This requires rethinking our leaders in and out of uniform.
We need to exploit technology to make the job of combat “easier” and “safer”, BUT, we must implicitly recognize the value of placing people and ideas ahead of “technology” to truly win wars. Otherwise, fourth generation tactics of the “weak” will continue to trump the second-generation tactics of the strong by using tactics and techniques such as mines and booby traps (revealing called IEDs by technocrats as if they are something new) and insider blue-on-green attacks (i.e. killing attacks by members of the Afghan police and army on our own troops serving with them).
For More Information
About Fourth Generation Warfare:
- A solution to 4GW — the introduction
- Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW
- Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts
- Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW
- 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!
- 4GW: A solution of the second kind
- 4GW: A solution of the third kind – Vandergriff is one of the few implementing real solutions.
- Important: Why We Lose at 4GW — About the two kinds of insurgencies
- Theories about 4GW are not yet like the Laws of Thermodynamics
- About Fourth Generation Infections – Chet Richards explains the nature of outlaw organizations in the 21st century
- The War Nerd shows how simple 4GW theory can be, 22 January 2009
- Is 4GW magnifique?, 22 June 2012 — By Chet Richards