Arrows in the Eagle’s claw – solutions to 4GW

This series describes the various types of solutions to modern warfare, herein called fourth generation warfare (4GW).  It will attempt to show their relationship to one another and their relative potential.  4GW appears to be the dominant form of warfare in the 21st century, so mastery of it might prove necessary for America’s prosperity or even survival.  This is a topology, a wide perspective view of writings about 4GW.  Future chapters will examine these divisions in more detail.

The layers of 4GW theory

  1. Analysts — foundation of the pyramid
  2. Visionaries — building on the analysts work
  3. Hardware — solutions of the first kind
  4. Ideas — solutions of the second kind, new ways of thinking to defeat new modes of war
  5. People — solutions of the thrid kind, moving from ideas into practice

(1)  Analysts — foundation of the pyramid

This first class of work provides analysis, drawing on a diverse range of resources including history, military theory, and the social sciences.  This is foundational to the development of solutions, for nothing can be done except by luck without a deep understanding of…

  • our situation (strengths, weaknesses, goals, etc),
  • the other players on the world stage (both state and non-state actors),
  • and the almost infinite range of scenarios possible in the near and far future. 

Since everyone working with 4GW does some combination of analysis and recommendations, I include in this group those whose work focuses on more on description than prescription.  Applied to individuals, any simple categorization is somewhat arbitrary.

Readers of journals in this field — such as  DNI, Parameters, or the Marine Corps Gazette — will see that this category of work is by far the largest both in volume and number of writers.  It includes, just to name a few,  Martin van Creveld, David Kilcullen, Chet Richards, and John Robb.

(2)  Visionaries — building on the analysts work

A second foundational group are those proposing radical ideas for the conduct of warfare (beyond anything we can do today) or even visions of new geopolitical regimes.  This group plays several essential roles.  Their creativity provides new directions to more conventional experts.  Their imaginations provide vigor and energy to stimulate others to write about 4GW or even take action.  Their writings appeal to both the public and decision-makers in a way that few analysts can equal, communicating the nature of modern war to a large audience.

Thomas Barnett dominates the visionary niche in the 4gW universe.  His books illustrate the power of a visionary to shape the discussion of geopolitics.  The Iraq War shows the danger of putting visions to the test prematurely — before the necessary institutional apparatus has been created, and sufficient analytic work been done to bridge the gap between innovation and execution.

Moving on to solutions, we need an simple and powerful classification scheme.

People, Ideas, and Hardware. “In that order!” the late Col John R. Boyd, USAF, would thunder at his audiences.

(3)  Hardware — solutions of the first kind

Technology was our edge, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) our dream team.  Or so it seemed until the middle of the Iraq War.  High-tech precision bombing.  A host of devices to defeat IED’s.  Even instant knowledge in the form of a “ruggedized” laptop computer, loaded with data from social-science research conducted in Iraq.

Somewhere along the way this faith faded, remaining strong only among a few true believers — such as at the Pentagon and Popular Mechanics (note recent articles on the Boeing Laser Avenger and Armed Robots).  The hot dot moved to…

(4)  Ideas — solutions of the second kind, new ways of thinking to defeat new modes of war

This phase began with the rise of figures, such as David Kilcullen and General Petraeus.  Another indication:  the sale in large numbers of books describing new ways to fight wars, like those by Col Thomas X. Hammes (USMC, retired) and Col Douglas MacGregor (USA, retired), and Lt Col John A. Nagl (USA).  Many other innovators have produced work of interest, including William Lind and LTC Greg Wilcox (USA, retired).  The public interest in these ideas is so great that the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) was published as a mass-market book.

How many of these new ideas have been put into practice?  The history of FM 3-24 illustrates the difficulty of changing well-established practices.  Despite its powerful backers, with General Petraeus as our commander in Iraq, the impact of FM 3-24 remains unclear.  The new COIN doctrine emphasizes efforts to increase the legitimacy of the government we support and precise applications of force.  Our Iraq operations during 2007 have diminished the national government (building bases without their approval, conducting operations they oppose, and arming their opponents) — plus a 4x increase in bombing.  Not exactly following the book.

The sad reality:  most of the work described above is of theoretical interest only, as it lacks a realistic pathway for implementation.  Our difficulty lies not in imagining new ideas, but in implementing them.  How do we evolve our massive and famously impervious to reform military apparatus to become a Department of Defense suited for a new century?

(5)  People — solutions of the third kind, moving from ideas into practice

The key is organizational change.  A focus on technology and ideas ignores the structural basis of present institutional behavior, giving too little attention to the methods which drive reform — and the countervailing forces which must be overcome.  Military organizations are conservative, for good reason. Change is difficult to do and its results uncertain. The cost of failure is high.

One of the few works to grapple with these issues is Challenging Transformation’s Clichés by Autulio J. Echevarria II, Strategic Studies Institute, December 2006 — Excerpt:

The first cliché is that military transformation is about changing to be better prepared for the future, as if we could somehow separate the future from our current agendas, and as if we had only one future for which to prepare. In fact, transformation is more about the present than the future.

More importantly, grasping new ideas is hardly the most difficult part of any transformation. The ideas behind Gustavus Adolphus’ reform of the Swedish military during the 17th century — which included mobile artillery and greater use of musketry — were not hard to grasp. Likewise, Napoleon’s tactical and operational innovations — which involved combining mass and firepower with self-sufficient army organizations called corps — were not difficult to understand. Nor were the concepts implemented by the German military — which stressed speed of movement and decentralized decision-making — difficult to comprehend.

In fact, the truly hard part about change is managing the change. That requires backing up vague visions and lofty goals with concrete programs that can provide meaningful resources for new roles and functions, and offering incentives or compensation packages capable of appeasing institutional interests, especially the specific interests of those groups or communities most threatened by change.

Heading the list of “people” solutions we have Donald Vandergriff.  He identified a powerful point of leverage to change the Army:  its personnel system.  For example, the Army’s individual replacement system affects not just soldiers, down to the newest recruit, but the quality of units — especially cohesion .   Even more critical is the process by which a service recruits, trains, and promotes its officers.  Change this and the effects ripple outward through the entire organization over time, as the nature and behavior of its leaders evolve.  The Army is making changes in both these areas, responding to the ideas of Vandergriff and others.  This success means that Vandergriff is on the cutting edge of America’s 4GW sword.

There must be others in this category!  Please tell us about them in the comments.


  1. Beyond the scope of this post are the hundreds of professionals who have proposed incremental improvements in our capabilities, often valuable and inovative.<
  2. We can see the big picture only through a loss of detail, as an exercise in abstraction.  To characterize protean writers with one work — van Creveld as a historian, or John Robb as an analyst — tells us little about their work.  The map is not the territory, the name is not the actual object.


If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Post in the series “Solutions to 4GW”:

  1. A solution to 4GW — the introduction
  2. How to get the study of 4GW in gear
  3. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW
  4. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts
  5. Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW
  6. 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!
  7. 4GW: A solution of the second kind
  8. 4GW: A solution of the third kind

10 thoughts on “Arrows in the Eagle’s claw – solutions to 4GW”

  1. There also needs to be a bit (actually a lot) more attention paid to prevention. The old saying “an ounce ….”. This is by far the safest, cheapest and smartest way of operating.

    Much more attention needs to be paid on assisting, maintaining and rebuilding States. Any reasonably functional, legitimate State is far, far better than the alternative.

    I’ve been struck in recent years at the how much effort has gone into smashing States, and how little in maintaining them. Own goals in recent years:

    Iraq – obvious one this, take a (just) second world nation, smash it pieces, kill a million people, turn 4 million into refugees, spend a trillion dollars, fire a couple of billion bulets, fire tons (hundreds?) of DU all over the place. And the Iraqi’s are now calling in the Chinese to get their electricity back up again.

    The only winners out of all this debacle in the end are going to be the Russians and Chinese. If they have half a brain (and they seem to do) they are going to win big there in the next 10 years. Iraq in the SCO by (say) 2020 anyone?

    Afghanistan – Loath them as you may, but for all the blood, money and effort spent, the average Afghani was better off under the Taliban than now. Amazing. Especially since the Taliban will be back in power again in what, 5 years? The only winner out of this has been the heroin industry, who won big time.

    Somalia – just, after decades of turmoil, just starting to form (probably from sheer exhaustion) some sort of national State structure. Wham, our agents smash it pieces again. Brilliant, especially given the fact that the Ethopians are starting run into the quagmire seen in Afghanisatan and Iraq.

    Lebanon – what I have always called Israel’s greatest stratgic mistake. Israel was on the point of getting exactly what (says) it wanted. A peaceful, prosperous neighbour to the north. Syrian influence was falling away (though it could never totally disappear as the countries are too close), Hezbollah was steadily morphing into the equivalent of a US State regional government, more interested in business, charity, construction, etc, with a strong vestied interest in a properous and stable national Lebanon (and worked, and is working hard to achieve this). Active fighters (nearly all National Guardsman equivalents, ie part timers) down to 1,000-3,000 (by the best estimates I can find).

    A few deft diplomatic moves by the Israelis, some money and investment, even security help and ….. Apart from the obvious advantages (including great economic gains) of having a, at least neutral, northern neighbour, they could have leveraged this .. “look we can work with Arab Govt’s, we want peace and can prove it”. Either they are stupid, self destrctive or greedy, or all 3. When I hear reports of Israel planning to attack again, then I add masochistic to the list. What getting thumped twice is not enough?

    Future Targets for State destruction:

    Pakistan – very, very wobbly. Classic mistake, work with a favoured ‘strong man’ and push him into actions beyond what the culture and society will support. How many times has that happened and failed? Mushariff, if he had half a brain, should have told the US to go and jump and called their bluff to attack Pakistan. When he didn’t everything else was predictable. Best hope for there is, perversely, the US actually trying to carry out their threat to ‘attack’ Pakistan. It will unite the country again.

    Iran – current target for ‘regime change’, translated ‘smash into bits’. Have they any idea what could replace the current, conservative, semi-democracy? Will it really be a ‘lay down, do everything the US wants (oil, here take all ours)’ regime? Sure and tooth fairies exist as well. I am so looking forward to $300 (more likely now the Euro equivalent) a barrel of oil .. where’s my bicycle again?

    Syria – not content with smashing up Lebanon and turning it into far more a threat that it has been, the idea of another ‘regime change’ in Syria must have any regional expert curling their toes. Just as an aside, the Syrian regime must be wondering what they have to do to get on the side of the US. Help against AQ, done. Doing the CIA’s dirty work, done. Offering to diplomatically sort out the Golan’s, done, etc.


    Turkey – just waiting for the calls inm the US for ‘regime change’ in Turkey. They simply will not allow an independent Kurdistan, anyone who thinks otherwise (ie US and Israel)is deluding themselves. So they are on a crash course with the US now. If the EU doesn’t pull its finger out Turkey will (I repeat will) be in the SCO within 10 years.

    Saudia Arabia – Still not sure why this one wasn’t first on the list.

    The obvious conclusion in all this is that the US (and Israel and, amazingly, supported by the British who should know better) are currently the greatest creators of 4GW conflicts in the world, at massive expense in blood and treasure. Yet they are totally incapable of fighting and winning these conflicts, and trying to do so is destroying their militaries and ruining their economies.

    Is it just me or does this just seem self-destructive? I mean no one can be that daft?

  2. fabiusmaximus2000

    Also consider Martin van Creveld’s theory that we in the era in which the “Decline of the State” is a dominant trend. States fail or fracture more easily than they are built. Propping up states might cause more trouble than benefit, attempting to stop inevitable evolution.

  3. I’m sceptical. Creveld is both right and wrong. Where he gets it wrong is for modern advanced countries.

    Humans are ‘hyper co-operators’ capable of living within massive groupings. Part of this is sheer common sense and the other greed. Large groups offer more opportunities and greater wealth.

    Both greedy and visionary people work to create larger groupings, The greedy because the more people the greater chances for wealth, the visionaries because there are huge economies of scale and less conflict.

    For every force splitting a State apart there are counter forces pulling it together. Plus there is history and collective experience. Small groups (unless they are as smart and tough as the Finns) get swallowed up or exploited by larger groups. Only under a Hyper State (such as the EU) can small States exist and prosper.

    Example: All developed countries (excluding the US) have advanced and universal health systems. Governments rise and fall over how well these work. Imagine a sub-group trying to break away. Unless they can deliver an equivalent health system the majority of people (especially the middle classes) will not support them. In reality the existing State, with full support, will buy off, deal with or eliminate the secessionists.

    Only if the middle classes are lost is there a chance for a State break up, but what is more often likely is that someone else will come along and appeal to them and rebuild a new State on the bones of the old one.

    Going back to the original point, you want to hold States together … build a decent health system and a strong legal system and market. When people have something to lose their capacity to fight for break up will reduce. When you have a potential 70+ years of healthy life suddenly the prospect of dying young in a fight loses its appeal (plus the women vote with their fertility, only in fiction do they choose warriors over rich people).

    This really is a no-brainer in many ways, why do advanced countries have so much trouble recruiting soldiers? Because the alternatives are so much better.

  4. Major Scarlet

    i’m skeptical too. so called “non-state actors” have only been around for thousands of years. none of this is new. what is also not new is the cowardice of not being able to name your true enemy. do you think we don’t know who is funding the non-state actors? that’s rubbish. instead of proclaiming a “war on terror” which is an open ended call to extend exceptional presidential authority, why don’t we just name the people that are funding these non-state actors and crush them. how hard is that?

    Machiavelli said “friends and enemies should either be caressed or eliminated”. He should be required reading for our Statesmen.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Few things are new in history, but the emphasis changes from age to age — giving each its distinctive character. Magnitudes matter, so saying something has “been around for thousands of years” means nothing.

    Also, the binary simplicity of “friends and enemies” has little utility in geopolitics, and decreasing domestic utility in the era of State decline. For example, domestic organized criminals have international connects of potential use to the US government, as in the stories of “Lucky” Luciano’s assistance with Allied operations in Italy (see Wikipedia). Such things might become commonplace in the 21st century. As the power of States decline, including the US, we may return to something like the pre-Westphalian era where many powerful groups joust on the domestic and global chessboards — allying and fighting according to needs of the moment.

    We saw this in an embryonic form in the Cold War, as NAZI and Imperial Japanese leaders were criminals — until the US allied with them to fight Communism. We saw this Iraq, as we fought the Sunni Arab tribes — until we paid them to fight al Qaeda. What are friends and enemies, but alliances of the moment?

  5. Major Scarlet

    FM… simple is good.

    let me give you a hypothetical situation:
    i’m president of the united states and i have information that a group that i’ll call the “legion of doom” (for this situation they are nations that are funding and supporting non-state actors) was involved in a nuclear attack on los angeles. for the first time since 1942, an american president decides to mobilize the US for an industrial war and i field a similar number of troops per capita that we fielded during WWII (rough numbers about 20 million personnel). i would then plop the whole lot of my military in syria, iran, yemen, afghanistan, saudi arabia, and pakistan. this situation is to demonstrate that non state actors are only as good as their resources. in reality and in this situation, there would be no supporters left to help the non state actors. which begs the question.. why do we call them non state actors when they are supported by states?

    that being said.. there is nothing new about war that hasn’t existed already. it doesn’t matter that technology has shrunk the globe and made it easier to communicate. there has always been communication, mass media has always been used as a means to an end, there have always been non state actors and other nefarious groups that have helped or hurt us.

    even the fact that someone has somehow reinvented what we call war is not new. if you read Clausewitz and Sun Tzu back to back, you will see similarities. the problem you get into is letting someone that wants to hurt you stay in a position where he can hurt you. and again, another quote by Machiavelli, “never hurt someone just a little”. if you want to continue to think that war has changed, so be it.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The problem with hypotheticals is that they tend to have the same relevance to reality as comic books. In fact your “legion of doom” does read like something from a comic book.

    If you say that “nothing new about war that hasn’t existed already” is true on a sufficiently high level of abstraction (like saying that Earth’s climate has not changed during human history), one so high as to have zero operational utility. Things change over time in terms of the relevant importance of the many different factors that comprise the art and practice of war, and understanding those changes is the key to winning — often even to survival.

    For example, there were deep structural reasons that William the C invaded England with his feudal-type forces, not with Roman-type legions. If William had attempted to build a legion he would be unknown today. So war does change in terms of the operational art that we work with — if not in terms of some God’s eye abstraction.

    As a test of your theory, I suggest you assemble a group trained and equiped as a Roman Legion and attempt to conquer Italy. You and your friends will wind up either dead, in an asylum, or a circus.

    “simple is good.”

    Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. — Clausewitz, On War, chapter VII, page 1

  6. Major Scarlet

    what does being equiped as a Roman Legion have to do with anything that I said? FM, you are using a muddled definition of war if you think 4GW is war. It’s like saying “war on drugs”. what you seem to exclude in your “change over time” formula is that the fundamentals of war haven’t changed. Massing your forces is important and immutable. period. properly applied force wins wars. what doesn’t win wars is calling something a war that is nothing more than an excuse for not doing the right thing. 4GW addresses how to fight without war which is to say that cowardice is injected in to the system. “war” has come to mean giving powerful people even more power to deal with a problem as they define it, with means convenient to them, to satify the contradictory urge to do something without doing anything (or at least not the proper thing). war is about naming and taking it to the enemy. pursuing them with all your force and not half measures that take away the rights of the many to punish the few.

    i expected you to find some way to ignore the relevant context of what i said. you didn’t disappoint. you have such an emotional and intellectual investment in 4GW it is pointless to debate anything with you.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Your description of 4GW does not resemble anything I have seen about 4GW in the military literature. It is certainly nothing like that in the seminal October 1989 Wilson et al article in Military Corps Gazette that first introduced the term. Can you provide some citations supporting your view of 4GW?

    You also touch upon a serious issue. IMO the label 4GW is applied too broadly (e.g., to organized crime), confusing 4GW with van Creveld’s larger concept of non-trinitiarian conflict (i.e., use of violence by a wide range of non-state actors). Confusion on these key definitions IMO has sent discussion about 4GW into a hole. I make an attempt to dig out in these two articles.
    * A solution to 4GW — the introduction
    * How to get the study of 4GW in gear

  7. Major Scarlet

    FM, Re: the Oct 89 article. Rubbish. Anyone can throw a bunch of hypothesis in a paper and later claim to have foreseen the future.

    I just finished Creveld’s The Changing Face of War. I’d never heard of him until you mentioned him and now I know why. Creveld came across as a sneering, pompous, jerk. I find it hard to believe he has a history background considering the glaring historical mistakes he made. Regardless of the historical mistakes, he also got warfare wrong. As I’ve been saying here, we got ourselves in a mess in Iraq because our strategy was naive and ill conceived. The latter parts of the book show Creveld’s weaknesses. On page 252, he sneeringly makes fun of America and our ineffectiveness in dealing with the insurgency. However, what he fails to understand, as do yourself and most liberals, that there are bigger reasons why we have failed in the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you want to see how to win against an insurgency, take the recent victory in Sri Lanka for example. (Times)

    This link provides a quick analysis of why Sri Lanka effectively killed the insurgency. I’ll sum it up for you.. using all their national elements of power (diplomacy, information, military, and economics) they set the conditions by isolating the Tamils from their bases of support (Tamil fund raiser, anti-war outfits, the media, the UN etc) and then crushed them with military might and oil spotted the island. It was amazing to see how well they did and it should be the model for defeating an insurgency. As Sri Lanka demonstrated, engaging the media is not always the best option, especially when they have proven to be against you. What would happen if Colombia did the same thing to the FARC? If Ecuador and Venezuela decided to remove FARC from their countries and the Colombian Army massed on FARC, the “war” would be over. Period. To win against an insurgent that has a willing international media, “unassailable bases of support”, and a willing or captive sea to swim in, you must attack all three at the same time, not separately. Leaving a base of operations will guarantee a long bitter struggle, as we are seeing around the globe.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Van Crevald is a world-famous expert, author of 2 dozen books (most still in print, several of which have been at various times on one or another of the USMC recommended reading lists), guest lecturer or consultant at a host of military and intelligence institutions (including Quantico), whose ideas have been the foundation for the whole “generations of war” theory (starting with the 1989 MCG article) — which in turn have spawned hundreds of articles in the military literature (including quite a few in Parameters and the MC Gazette). To disagree with him is of course your right, but casually dismissing someone so eminent is nuts.

    Re: Sri Lanak: Governments defeating domestic insurgencies is commonplace. Foreign militaries defeating insurgencies is rare. This is one of the basic distinctions to COIN.

  8. Major S said: “If Ecuador and Venezuela decided to remove FARC from their countries and the Colombian Army massed on FARC, the “war” would be over. Period.” “If you want to see how to win against an insurgency, take the recent victory in Sri Lanka for example.” “Leaving a base of operations will guarantee a long bitter struggle, as we are seeing around the globe.”

    The idea asserted in MS’s comments fails because of 1 thing: the inability to understand the geopolitical context of the conflict. The 3 quotes above illustrate this.

    Sri Lanka is an island nation. Review the history of COIN and one will find a much higher success rate in island nation situations than in situations involving cross border opportuities for the insurgents. Sure Sri Lanka did as you said but they had a geographically limited area in which the Gov’t had to apply its effort. They would have faired much worse if they had to apply that effort both internally and externally.

    “If” Ecuador and Venezuela…” is a big if to ignore. Since they are an essential component of the base of operations and have their own reasons to make sure it stays so. Is Columbia to solve this by invading them?

    The problem with COIN and irregular warfare in general is that the theory and practice do not consist of grand strategic visions broadly applicable to any conflict at any time. It consists of a long list of concepts which must be reordered to fit each case.

    The danger of 4GW theory is that it may evolve into an institutionalized fixed outline of “how to win” based on the experiences of the most recent past wars, and thereby preclude the reordering of the outline for the next.

  9. Major Scarlet

    AL L.. — Whether island nations have a better success rate is immaterial. It is the process that Sri Lanka used and that we refuse to use that is the issue. see below..

    Re: Colombia.. they should use all their national powers, diplomacy, information, military, and economics. invasion is just a subset of the plan they should us.. as demonstraed by Sri Lanka. currently, most nations ignore the diplomacy portion or do it badly. words without a stick are just words.

    Re COIN.. it has become a religion in the military. once again we are over correcting just like we did with RMA. god help us.

  10. Being world famous doesn’t make you right. Rush Limbaugh, Bill Clinton, Hugo Chavez are all world famous. Whether you agree with them depends on your politics which is at the heart of most peoples emotions. Creveld wrote an anti-American polimec. He became famous. Feh.

    I just finished the US Army CGSC, Red Team school (UFMCS), and Strategy school and no one mentioned him. After reading his book, I see why.

    “COIN” is a sub-set of “war”. They are fought simultaneously across all elements of national power. COIN does not happen in a vacuum. If the elements supporting the insurgencies (Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia etc) aren’t effectively dealt with, you are most likely going to fail. you might fail even if you do everything right but your chances of failure by allowing “unassailable bases of operation” for the insurgents are exponentially higher. We have many wonderful historical examples of how to sway enemies but one of the worst tactics is to reward bad behavior, which is what Bush and Jim Baker did when they tried to get Iran and Syria involved in the “peace making process”. That is a perfect example of the failure of Diplomacy.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Major S gives us today’s statement of the mind-bendingly obvious:

    “Being world famous doesn’t make you right.”

    Yep. Of course, I never said it did.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: