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.

Call of duty: modern warfare
Why do foreign soldiers so often lose to insurgents?

By 2015, non-state actors were ruling large populations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Nigeria. And by 2015, non- state actors were actively beginning to challenge European nations with jihad on their home ground, and a 4GW actor in the form of the Islamic State is making a laughing stock of American military power in the Middle East. Lind and his marine co-authors had been vindicated although they probably wish they had been wrong.

The world had not seen armed non-state actors make a major strategic impact since the series of treaties collectively called the Peace of Westphalia that concluded the Thirty Years War. At that point non-state actors were eliminated as serious actors until the Cold War ended the nation-states’ monopoly on warfare.  By that time, the last great non-state Islamic jihad had evolved into the Ottoman Empire which was a nation-state by another name. The Mongol Empire had also evolved into a nation-state, and it was breaking up into a series of proto-nations.  Until the end of the Cold War, with a few notable exceptions, serious war was the province of nation-states; the exception that many ignored was the rise of Hezbollah in the 1980s.

The inability of world powers to deal effectively with 4GW was noted by many of America’s potential adversaries. Saddam Hussein belatedly attempted to use non-state actors to save his regime in 2003. He failed, but the exploits of the “Saddam Fedayeen” caught the attention of many of America’s potential adversaries. Some, reportedly including China and Iran, are seriously considering what military theorist Frank Hoffman coined as “Hybrid Warfare” in which nation-states would employ thinly disguised non-state warriors using unconventional tactics and methods not sanctioned by the Law of War to offset the American military-technological edge. {See his article in the Armed Forces Journal; see Wikipedia for other uses of term.}

Today, the Russians are actively employing hybrid warfare in the Ukraine to further their objectives in a situation where a naked conventional invasion might not be tolerated by the world community.

Special Forces
Insurgents can defeat foreign special forces too. Image by Eric A. Hendrix.

Hybrid Warfare is seductive to potential adversaries because it negates much of the technological and training advantages that make American forces near unstoppable in open combat. As Williamson Murray and Peter Mansoor pointed out in their excellent work, Hybrid Warfare, this approach is not new. They noted that the American Revolution was a mix of hybrid and conventional war.

Unconventional (Irregular) Warfare is not new; it has been used for millennia as an auxiliary to conventional warfare and has been waged largely by what we now call Special Forces. The primary difference between 4GW, Hybrid Warfare and unconventional warfare is that Special Forces are covered by the Law of War.

All three types of warfare use asymmetrical tactics some of which are listed below (the list is not all-inclusive:

  1. Use of civilians as human shields. *
  2. Use of snipers, IEDs, and suicide bombers against noncombatants as well as legitimate military targets. *
  3. A reversion to communications that do not depend on the electronic spectrum for communications.
  4. Fighting in civilian clothes when it suits their objectives.
  5. Assassination as a military tactic.
  6. Use of criminal enterprises and activities to raise funds.
  7. The use of internet technology and social media for information operations (propaganda) and recruiting.

Not authorized for legitimate state sponsored special unconventional operators.

American forces in the field have actually adapted fairly well to Hybrid Warfare and have adopted it in Iraq and Afghanistan when it suits their purposes. The Sons of Iraq movement in was a very successful tactical response to combating the Islamic State’s predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq. Sadly, the Iraqi government turned its back on the concept, and the present success of the Islamic State is largely attributable to that.  The Afghan National Police program has been less successful due to Afghan governmental shortsightedness.

BFT9020 Trainer
Insurgents can defeat foreign armies, defeating high tech foes.

A comparison of the three shows the differences:

(1)  4GW features an armed non-state actor attempting to fill a power vacuum in an area where governance has failed or a challenge to an existing system of governance that attempts to replace it with a totally different form of rule using largely asymmetrical techniques.

(2)  Hybrid Warfare is when a state-sponsored non state actor uses asymmetrical tactics to defend the existing regime or help that regime overcome another nation state or 4GW opponent using asymmetrical tactic and techniques.

(3)  Unconventional (Irregular) Warfare occurs when a branch of a nation-state’s armed forces uses asymmetrical means as an auxiliary of combat multiplier in support of conventional operations against a conventional, 4GW, or Hybrid opponent.

At the present time in Iraq and Syria, the conflict has become a somewhat ironic Devil’s brew. Hezbollah, which was really the prototype 4GW actor, has become a hybrid surrogate for the Assad regime’s conventional forces in Syria. Meanwhile, the Islamic State (ISIS if you will), is evolving from a 4GW entity into something more resembling a third generational nation-state with a conventional army. It may be a rogue state, but so was Nazi Germany.

In some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Machiavelli would be very comfortable in today’s world.


About the author

Colonel Gary W. Anderson retired from the Marine Corps in 2000 after 29 years of service. He served for a year as senior advisor for the State Department in Iraq, and then again in Afghanistan. He has a decade of experience in the defense industry with both profit and non-profit firms. He is a lecturer with the adjunct faculty at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Anderson graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and received his Masters Degree in Public Administration from Pepperdine University.

He serves on the executive committee of the National Institute for Urban Search and Rescue and sits on several DAPRA panels studying urban warfare technologies. He also contributes to the opinion and book review pages of The Washington Post and Washington Times and wrote two monographs in the Newport Paper series: “Beyond Mahan” and “Toward a Pax Universalis“.

See his articles at the Small Wars Council and the Washington Post. For more information see his work history here and his bio at GW U.

Posts in this series about 4GW, reflecting on 25 years of 4GW defeats

  1. Chuck Spinney asks why we choose to lose at 4GW.
  2. William Lind: thoughts about 4GW, why we lose, and how we can win in the future.
  3. “SAS kill up to 8 jihadis each day, as allies prepare to wipe IS off the map.” Bold words we’ve heard before.
  4. What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?
  5. The battle that mattered most to America: the Pentagon vs. Military Reformers. It’s over.
  6. What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?.
  7. Understanding 4GW, the first step to winning the Long War — #1 of GI’s series.
  8. DoD defends itself against dangerous new ideas about 4GW. — #2 of GI’s series.
  9. 4GW allows ISIS to fight and win against more powerful armies. Like ours. — #3 of GI’s series.
  10. Using 4GW might give the Islamic State a big future. — #4 of GI’s series.

For More Information

(a)  The “Anwar Awakening”, (of which the Sons of Iraq were a part), ran from roughly September 2006 to October 2008. By early 2009 it was falling apart. The Iraq insurgency had ended by late-2007 with the de facto division of Iraq in to 3 parts. By Summer 2008 the new 3-part Iraq had become visible to anyone who cared to see. Now its visible to all.

(b)  How DoD sees hybrid warfare:

  1. Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept“, DoD, 17 May 2010.
  2. Hybrid Warfare“, GAO, 10 September 2010

(c)  How often do insurgents win using 4GW against foreign armies? Almost always. Seeing this simple fact could change the course of American foreign policy.

  1. How often do insurgents win?  How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008.
  2. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
  3. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — The doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson (Political Science, Harvard) examines the past & present of counter-insurgency.
  4. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010.
  5. COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure., 7 August 2012.




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

  1. 4GW had arrived with a vengeance and achieved strategic significance as an existential threat to the American homeland.

    Utterly ridiculous. This is the wildest kind of irresponsible Republican panicmongering.

    For 40 years Americans faced 3,500 nuclear warheads that could have been launched at the touch of a button from Russia, and our population never became unhinged, never lost its common sense, never ran around shrieking “This is an existential threat!” and never turned our country into an Orwellian police state wild panicky overreaction.

    In 2001, a handful of kooks flew two jets into two skyscrapers, and suddenly 300 million otherwise sensible people lose their minds and run around shrieking hysterically that a couple of airliners knocking down two skyscrapers is an “existential threat to America.”

    There exist no words in the English language capable of adequately conveying the stupidity and feckless ignorance and sheer nitwitted woolly-headedness of this kind of assinine overreaction.

    Here, for those of you who have managed to keep your heads and maintain a grip on reality (unlike FM), is what you should REALLY be afraid of.

  2. Lisa (transgendered..so you can ignore my opinions easily)

    “Today, the Russians are actively employing hybrid warfare in the Ukraine to further their objectives in a situation where a naked conventional invasion might not be tolerated by the world community”


    Novarussians have used classic 3GW against (at least US strategic led, but more and more tactically led) 2GW Kiev mass forces. Result, depite, at the beginning 10:1 even 20:1 numerical infreriority (now about 4:1) … total loss, as you would expect.

    The NR are better at manoeuvre, tactics, moral, SAS type usage and all the rest. Run rings around around them. Air force, which the NR doesn’t have..who cares..good anti-air (as did the Wehrmatch in ’44 onwards) nullifies that. In fact unless Germany and Poland hadn’t given Kiev all their old Soviet aircraft (and I suppose pilots) they would have none left.

    4GW..nowhere to be seen, except Kiev neo-nazi forces trying terror tactics of course. This is real conventional warfare.

    Like 2006 in Lebanon or 2008 in Georgia, scary for the western militaries..who then immediately ignore the facts.

    Oh my the old 2GW guard will just say “more money and forces and we will win”. The new people say “oh my they are using 4GW and we need more money to win”. Excuses as usual.

    I cannot believe that the military ‘war nerds’ are not following this in detail. This is the big one. The biggest, most dangerous, most likely to kill us all conflict on the planet. And all the military ‘theories’ are right out on the ground. Can 3GW beat 2GW despite huge numerical inferiority? Yep in a big way.

    We will find out more soon when (official) US forces come into direct fighting with Russian ones later this year.

    The only 4GW warfare thing I can find is on the western side. Terror, propaganda, sabotage and financial attacks.

    I mean by western propaganda Putin is the child of Hitler and Vlad the Impaler. Obviously eats babies for breakfast and all that. Simultaneously an evil genius and an idiot, totally corrupt of course with (maybe drug fuelled) dreams of a ‘New Russian Empire’. A coward and a fool, who will back down when we replace him with ‘better Russians’. Obama boasts about the (non existent) collapse of the Russian economy (does he love the collapse of the US one?).

    If we ‘just face hIm down he will back off, or we will replace him”. Hubris..extreme. Neo-Con total win.

    The US will never de-escalate about this ..this is the big one..boys…not the kiddy on Iraq iSIS,Iran and all the rest..this is it, 2015, latest 2016 the nukes fly.

    1. Lisa,

      (1) I suggest you re-read the article. You don’t appear to have understood it.

      (2) These kind of conflicts, with the insurgents largely militia, are not well-described by 2GW or 3gw (although there are usually elements of them at work). Hence the description of them as “low intensity wars”. The term has fallen out of favor (for obvious reasons), but does capture the difference in magnitude and nature between them and the industrial warfare described by 1gw-2gw-3gw.

      (3) If there was such superiority on one side — as you describe — the conflict would not have lasted this long.

  3. This talk of hybrid warfare, with state-sponsored non-state proxies, reminds me of the US Contra Program in the 1980’s (and the subsequent scandal).
    Without making any judgments about whether such methods are proper or conscionable, I would imagine that arming and supporting sympathetic local paramilitaries is probably the most effective way for modern nations to combat nebulous international threats like foreign insurgents, guerilla fighters, and the various 4GW opponents, at least in terms of hard ROI, and at least in the short-term.

    1. Todd,

      That’s an important point! Proxy warfare is an ancient method. It allows conflict with large rivals with far less danger of escalation. It’s cheap (even in lives, since it is others who die). It avoids a major problem in 4GW: the large home court advantage (one reason why foreign armies almost always lose to foreign insurgents).

  4. For the past few decades the US military has been elaborating one new fashionable concept after another, each time touting that it formalizes the state of the art in strategic military thinking, and that by following its prescriptions victory will be (kind of) certain: air-land-battle, 4G, revolution in military affairs, COIN, and now hybrid warfare.

    Those fashions are always heavy on rhetoric and muddled on concepts, and in the end they always amount to figuring out how to go to some other country in order to bomb natives and their property to smithereens from a safe distance.

    I find this simultaneously puzzling, off-putting and pointless (how pointless was demonstrated in 2001 when even the Pentagon was not able to defend itself despite all that air-land-battle full spectrum dominance). But after all, these are features of imperialism.

    1. Guest,

      I agree? Still, that is not the point of this post. Hybrid warfare is a feature of our age, allowing great powers to do 4gw in an inexpensive and potentially effective way — especially without risking direct confrontations with other great powers.

      Like 4gw itself, it is a new mixture of ancient methods.

    2. Guest,

      In fact, the other developments you mention are similar. They are not developments of US military thinking, but used around the world in varying forms since WW2.

      Land-sea battle is a set of theory for conducting operations against other conventional armies. E.g., the gulf war.

      COIN is proven sort of methods for governments to fight insurgencies. It usually works when done by the home government; it usually fails when led by foreign armies.

      4gw is the dominant form of war in our time, brought to maturity by Mao. Proven effective in scores of conflicts, and still evolving.

  5. Oh my “..The inability of world powers to deal effectively with 4GW was noted by many of America’s potential adversaries. Saddam Hussein belatedly attempted to use non-state actors to save his regime in 2003. He failed,…”

    There is only one proven coutry that has used nuclear warfare..the US. There has only one proven country that has used ‘internet’ warfare against another country to damage it ..the US (with some, very limited, Israeli help).

    So each ‘escalation’ in warfare has been by the US, other people respond and then the US does it’s usual thing …”they are attacking us”….Cue more money from Congress….”keep the dollars rolling”….as they say.

    Instead of using its, rapidly dwindling, power in the World to ‘set rules’, ‘check and balances’, ‘independent organisations’ to limit all of this. To create a framework where all countries old and new, emerging or whatever can work together …US arrogance is supreme in DC.the neocons are totally in control now.

    So the US denies China’s idea of an ‘space war’ treaty, the US throws away the ABM treaty, China raises the idea of an anti-Internet warfare treaty..shot down of course by no less than the US. And so on, the US elites, sadly backed by too many stupid US citizens believe they
    can win’..whatever. At no point does the the, now totally neo-con dominated, US elites want to negotiate…’surrender or die’ is the US message on all fronts.

    In the ‘Beltway’ and their other halves ‘Wall Street” and LM and all the rest..they are winning totally.

    In all aspects they are losing..the disconnect from realty is now total: look at this the real.US reality:

    Postcard from the End of America: Bridesburg, Philadelphia By Linh Dinh

    No work, no hope, the end. Wall St and LM CEOs , US generals and admirals are fine of course:
    “All over Philadelphia, there are itinerant peddlers who enter bars to sell pirated movies. In Frankford, one neighborhood over, I’d seen a Chinese woman do this.”

    “With all of its factories gone, the people of Bridesburg now toss pizza dough, sling beer, become cops or join the military. Law and order is big here.
    At the Recreational Center, there’s a large mural of Gary Skerski, a 16-year police veteran who was shot and killed at age 46 by a robber. ”

    Read this as a manual for future US ‘COIN’ warriers,…their real place to fight is in the US How to ‘slice and dice’ the people so they won’t rise up…and they won’t. US society is so atomised..hence the ‘real’ defintion of the (endless) US ‘unique’ country myth…from Stalin no less. The most, in may ways disorganised country, which cannot even do the simpest health systems, can..amazingly do a united (with NYPD/Wall St control centres) wipe out of the 99% movement. Briliiant.

    The World will be a much happer place when all the US forces go back to do theitr real job..oppress Americans.

    1. Lisa,

      “There has only one proven country that has used ‘internet’ warfare against another country to damage it ..the US (with some, very limited, Israeli help).”

      What is your source for stating so confidently the relative role of the USA and Israel in creating Stuxnet? The most detailed analysis available to us, Kim Zetter’s Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon (2014) says — at length — that it was a joint program, and gives no details on the relative magnitude of their contributions. She shows the fragmentary evidence that Israel’s program probably started first.

      It’s statements like these that make me skeptical of your comments.

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  7. “Use of criminal enterprises and activities to raise funds”

    1)iran-contras scandal
    2) DEA and cocaine in colombia
    3)poppies in Afghanistan
    america is always ahead.

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