Category Archives: 4GW

Theory and practice of 4th generation warfare.

What’s in a terrorist’s name? A step to understanding the Islamic State.

Summary: The fires expand over the Middle East, driven by centuries of relative decline and corrupt rule, stoked by our interventions. We struggle to understand this phenomenon, cutting through the lies and misinformation fed us. Today guest author Hal Kempfer takes us to the logical starting point: what to call this movement.

“Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever has not kindness has not faith.”
— Attributed to Mohammad.

Islamic sky

What’s in a terrorist name? Perhaps some meaning.

By Hal Kempfer (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired)

There is an active debate on terminology regarding the type of terrorists we see involving or inspired by groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. (aka the Islamic State of Iraq & Greater Syria, or ISIL, where they refer to the “Levant” vice “Greater Syria”). ISIS is a former Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliate that has almost eclipsed AQ.

The White House does not like the term “Radical Islam” in describing this threat. However, it is descriptive since it implies from whence their beliefs came. However, it also misses what makes them significantly different from mainstream believers of the Islamic faith.

When Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, most of them school kids, we didn’t call that “Radical Christianity,” nor did we do so in describing the events near Waco, Texas in 1993 or when Larry McQuilliams attacked the Mexican Consulate, Police Headquarters and federal courthouse in Austin, Texas, around Thanksgiving of last year. Further, when Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. attacked the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Assisted Living Facility in Overland Park, Kansas, in April of 2014, we didn’t call it “Radical Paganism,” even though his motivational beliefs were the same as the Nazi pagan cult of WWII.

So there does seem to be a semantic inconsistency.

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Our escalation shows the key US military strategy: FAILure to learn.

Summary:  The year is only 7 weeks old and we’ve already taken several steps accelerating phase two of our mad Post-9/11 Wars. Our primary method is FAILure to Learn, repeating the tactics that didn’t work during the past 14 years. This will not end well for us. (2nd of 2 posts today}

US foreign policy

A bad idea. Please hit the PAUSE button on our wars.

US forces have begun fighting along side the Iraq army (Apache attack helicopters supporting the Iraq army). Special Operations forces have increased their tempo of operations in Afghanistan. We’ve dispatched a brigade of 4,000 to Iraq, with a vague explanation of its mission (more are warming up in the US to go). Obama’s submitted to Congress a vague Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (AUMF, to fight the wars already under way).

This makes no sense. We conducted our first wave of wars — Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen — in direct violation of the two lessons of post-WWII history. Both are quite obvious.

  1. Foreigners (especially foreign infidels) almost never defeat local insurgents. Their presence undermines the legitimacy of the host government and arouses opposition in proportional to their activity (i.e., the more we do, the more they hate us).
  2. Large numbers of troops are needed to have even a small chance of winning (large numbers as a ratio to the local population opposing us). Details here.

Having proven our incompetence at 4GW, now we escalate to outright madness by repeating the same failed methods but on a smaller (and hence less likely to work) scale. It’s a FAILure to learn, a weakness no amount of power can counterbalance. Not at WWI levels (doubling down with failed tactics), but still inexcusable.

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War mutates again to create a new strain: “hybrid warfare”.

Summary:  For the next chapter in our series about the 4th generation of war we have an essay by Gary Anderson (Colonel, USMC, retired), who draws on his long experience to explain the important role of hybrid warfare in our world, a new mutation of the ancient arts of war.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

GAO on Hybrid Warfare

GAO 2010 analysis of DoD military concept & briefing documents & academic writings.

4th Generation Warfare, Hybrid Warfare & Unconventional Warfare:
Similar but not Interchangeable

By Gary Anderson

The terms Fourth Generation Warfare, Hybrid Warfare, and Unconventional (Irregular) Warfare have been used interchangeably lately; they are different things. They employ some of the same tactics, but they are distinct concepts.

It has been a quarter of a century since a group of Marine Corps officers and civilian theorist William Lind coined the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) — “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”. This refers to warfare being conducted by armed non-state actors capable of challenging the mighty war machines of first world nations.

Martin Van Crevald, an Israeli historian and military theorist, reached similar conclusions in his book The Transformation of War (1991), at about the same time.

The Cold War was ending and many optimists such as Francis Fukiyama in his book The End Of History (1992) expected a new era of peace and democratic growth. Conservative military observers were pointing to the results of Operation Desert Storm as proof that conventional warfare was not yet dead. It turned out that the 4GW visionaries were correct, but it would take nearly two decades to prove them right.

By 1993, a US-led UN Coalition force had been bested by a non-state grouping of Somali tribesmen using asymmetric tactics that conventional forces were not prepared to deal with. A year later, the Russians were dealing with similar problems in the breakaway region of Chechnya. Meanwhile, the Israelis were trying to cope with similar asymmetric problems in the Palestinian Intifada.

The final signal that something had changed came on September 11th 2001 when a non- state group destroyed the World Trade Center and badly damaged the pentagon by making asymmetric weapons out of commercial airliners. 4GW had arrived with a vengeance and achieved strategic significance as an existential threat to the American homeland.

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Using 4GW might give the Islamic State a big future.

Summary:  In this last chapter of his series GI Wilson summarizes how 4GW works for the Islamic State, and forecasts their future.  As he explained in earlier chapters, we have to see the world differently to defeat foes who use 4th generation methods. This is the 4th and final chapter of his 4 part series. {2nd of 2 posts today.}

See The World Differently

To win at 4GW we must learn to see the world differently.

Backward “and” Forward: 4GW Orientation On War – part 4

Our 4GW foes organize in innovative ways

The success of ISIS and allied extremists is more than just uncovering creative tactics, techniques, procedures (TTPs). ISIS in many ways reflects the metamorphosis we witness with the appearance of third generation street gangs. Third generation street gangs with global networks, reach, and sustaining revenue streams to support gang operations (see “Third Generation Street Gangs: Turf, Cartels, and Net Warriors“, J. P. Sullivan, Transnational Organized Crime, Autumn 1997. Gangs are often the “yellow canary” in the mine shaft offering indicators, warnings, and profile features of emerging 4GW TTPs.

Mitchell Prothero writes a chilling synopsis of the ISIS profile in “How 2 shadowy ISIS commanders designed their Iraq campaign“, McClatchy, 30 June 2014:

Assembling a coherent picture of how ISIS executed its transformation is something U.S. intelligence officials will be striving to do in coming weeks as they examine what happened to the U.S.-trained Iraqi army. But interviews with a wide range of people — including a former British military officer with ties to Saddam-era Iraqi officers, activists with ties to ISIS, and an intelligence officer for the Kurdish peshmerga militia — provide an imperfect but consistent picture of how ISIS became the most powerful and effective non-state military organization on the planet, with access to billions of dollars in military hardware, territory that includes millions of residents, and something few jihadist groups have ever had: a coherent strategy for establishing an Islamic state.

Our current adversaries are ideologically driven, capitalizing on fanaticism, and frequently linked by clan-tribal networks. The linkage also includes loose coalitions of criminal actors, non-state, and failed-state actors. All of whom can make for strange bed fellows operating outside the nation state context. These 4GW bad actors challenge our national security capabilities that are designed to operate within a nation-state framework. Beyond that framework, our traditional structures and conventional military have great difficulties engaging such threats.

Our adversaries’ operational theme emphasizes people and ideas not just high tech hardware. ISIS is successfully operationalizing beheadings and the psychology of fear — much like Al Qaeda did with improvised explosive devices in Iraq. With ISIS we again will re-learn it is far more difficult to kill an idea and ideology than the enemy itself.

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4GW allows ISIS to fight and win against more powerful armies. Like ours.

Summary:  Today GI Wilson explains how one of our foes, calling itself the Islamic State, uses 4GW to match their strengths against the weaknesses of our far more powerful military. Earlier generations of jihadists using 4GW methods changed the course of America (9/11 was one of the most effective military operations ever). ISIS is better. There are interesting times ahead for us all.  This is the 3rd chapter of his 4 part series. {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Islamic Jihad Movement fighter

Islamic Jihad Movement fighter.

Backward “and” Forward: 4GW Orientation On War – part 3

The strengths of our 4GW foes; above all they learn faster.

Our adversaries recognize that America’s predilection for high-tech conventional warfare where the assumption is that the technologically strongest wins. Our foes nevertheless prefer low-cost-low-tech (i.e. Improvised explosive devices) 4GW tactics, techniques, procedures (TTPs) — leveraging our addiction to high-tech hardware against ourselves.

Similarly, our adversaries leverage our own bureaucratic weight against ourselves (e.g. Congressional grid lock). The United States government (USG) is a burgeoning bureaucracy on steroids that thrives on political correctness, politically sanctioned incompetence, and high-technological-high-cost solutions for everything. For a horrifying description see “America’s Defense Meltdown“ (Center for Defense Information, 2008). All of which contribute to the money slathering in Washington, DC in the name of technological advantage.

Our enemy’s “technological advantage” as exemplified in the 9/11 attacks consisted of box cutters, ceramic knives, a steely determination to die for a cause, while creatively turning commercial airlines into field expedient cruise missiles to attack the U.S.. It worked, and our vast military-security-law enforcement bureaucracy was virtually helpless to stop it. Today little has changed as ISIS trees the USG where again incompetence is enshrined. The USG’s universal solution to everything remains one of money slathering inextricably linked to the politically correct notion that no one in power is ever to be held accounted or responsible.

We are literally underwriting our radicalized foes’ success by not recognizing that our own lumbering, incompetent and money slathering bureaucracies keep us from operationally and strategically adapting in order to defeat our foes. In fact our adversaries count on our fetish for obese wasteful bureaucracies, excessive regulations, high-tech-high-cost hardware, political correctness, and ballooning debt thus pave the way for our enemies’ operational successes. Clayton L. Niles (USMC) writes in his 2008 thesis “Al Qaeda and Fourth Generation Warfare as its Strategy“:

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DoD defends itself against dangerous new ideas about 4GW.

Summary:  Modern wars are fought on paper as competing military theories before people put them to use. Some do this faster than others. Mao wrote the core texts bringing 4GW to maturity in 1937-38; since then others have greatly advanced the art — while western militaries fiddle with the failed methods of COIN. In the late 1980s military reformers made intellectual breakthroughs to catch-up with our foes. DoD’s leaders understood that these threaten their way of life, and have successful fought them. The price has been defeat in our wars since 9/11.

This is the 2nd chapter of a series by GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired). This is the 2nd of 2 posts today.

For fighting wars of the past

For fighting wars of the past

Backward “and” Forward: 4GW Orientation On War – part 2

Critics of 4GW theory

Much of the criticism of 4GW is laced with things that the original 4GW authors did not say or hold out as incontrovertible. Army War College professor, Dr Antulio Echevarria wrote a scathing critique regarding what he termed 4GW “mythology: “Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths” (Strategic Studies Institute, 2005). This critique in a large measure focused on Col T.X Hammes’ book, The Sling and the Stone (2004).

Hammes’ book is a seminal work but does not singularly represent the original 4GW authors’ thoughts. Echevarria in his dogmatic critique fails to point out that T.X. Hammes is not one of the original 4GW authors. Nor does Hammes constitutes the whole cloth of 4GW.  Echevarria takes great umbrage with Hammes’ notion of 4GW (i.e. “evolved insurgency”) while carelessly lumping the primary 4GW authors into his derailed criticism.

“4GW – Myth, or the Future of Warfare? A Reply to Antulio Echevarria” is an excellent bruising rebuttal to Eschevarria’s critique published by John Sayen (it’s here on page 5). Sayen notes that Professor Echevarria’s reaction to the 4GW thesis is to deny all of it. Sayen underscores how Echevarria avoids talking about the essentials of 4GW by insisting on using Hammes’ definition of 4GW as his target of criticism.

In contrast to Echevarria, Franz Osinga provides a more balanced thoughtful analysis of 4GW applications in “On Boyd, Bin Laden, and Fourth Generation Warfare as String Theory” by Col. Dr. Frans Osinga, from On New Wars edited by John Olson (2007):

4GW is inspiring discussion, debate, frustration, refinement of insights, assertions, conjectures and refutations, in short, like many other works that try to make sense of our uncertain and ever-changing environment, it helps us refine and adjust our orientation pattern and learn. Whatever one may think of 4GW, considering the wide audience, one cannot ignore the importance of it as an idea in strategic theory, and as an appealing, – resonating – description of problems confronting western military and political elites today.

4GW does not cover all aspects of the evolving strategic landscape, and perhaps 4GW is not the entirely academically correct analysis, but as an exercise in strategic thinking, creating a coherent synthesis out of a myriad of disparate trends and developments, it certainly has merits by making people aware of potential contours and dynamics of the future strategic landscape. Boyd would agree with the effort indeed.

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Understanding 4GW, the first step to winning the Long War.

Summary: in the 65 years after Mao brought 4th generation war to maturity, 25 years after the article coining the term, we continue to send our troops out to fight 4GW wars in foreign lands. We continue to lose, as almost all foreign armies do. At the FM website we mark these anniversaries by articles discussing 4GW, how it works, and why we refuse to learn how to win. Today we have the first chapter of a series by GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired). It’s important; America’s survival during the 21st century might require mastery of 4GW.


Source: Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid.

Backward “and” Forward: 4GW Orientation On War – part 1


The Changing Face of War” appeared 25 years ago in both U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army professional journals providing a prescient emerging look into the intersection of war, violence, conflict, terrorism, and crime. There were follow-up articles in the Marine Corps Gazette: “The Evolution of War: The Fourth Generation” in September 1994 by Thomas X. Hammes (Lt Colonel, USMC, retired), “Fourth Generation Warfare: Another Look” in December 1994 by the original authors. There were also online features such as “On Gangs, Crime, and Terrorism” and Fourth-Generation Warfare It’s Here, And We Need New Intelligence-Gathering Techniques For Dealing With It.

Regrettably military and law enforcement professionals ignored these articles as well as others. Yet, the fourth generation warfare (4GW) forecasts were and are very prescient. For more about this see “The Evolution of Warfare; Back to the Future” by Gary Anderson (Colonel, USMC, retired), Marine Corps Gazette, September 2013.

The 4GW threat

Today the fourth generation warfare (4GW) orientation remains in the shadows summarily dismissed in many quarters to include DOD, DHS, and DOJ. The events of the last 25 years lend weight to the 4GW orientation. The 4GW orientation offers a different perspective on emerging war, violence, and conflict as an alternative to our conventional acquisition based nation-state thinking.

In short the idea of considering how one thinks about war and conflict impacts what one does in the present and future. An obligatory old dead general quote gives credence to having the right orientation and perspective on war. Carl von Clausewitz said in On War,

“The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking.”

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