We don’t need a new army to fight modern wars, we need a smart one

Summary;  Our long war goes badly, as the flames of Islamic revolution spread following our failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. Some ask if the US military can cope with the challenges of fourth generation war. Here Gary Anderson (Colonel, USMC, retired) gives an answer.

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We Don’t Need a New Army to Deal with Fourth Generation Foes;
we need a Smart One

By Gary Anderson (Colonel, USMC, retired)

One of the primary fallacies regarding Fourth Generational Warfare (4GW) is that the United States must totally retool its force structure to deal with this emerging evolution in warfare; this is not the case. 4GW means that foreign and domestic non-state actors are challenging the monopoly that nation-states have enjoyed on the application of force since the end of the Thirty Years War. That does not mean that war between nation-states has become obsolete.

The fact that the United States enjoys a temporary overmatch against most plausible conventional foes has not made traditional warfighting a thing of the past. Some potential American foes intend to combine a combination of conventional and unconventional warfare in any conflict with the United States in a concept known as hybrid warfare. However, any hybrid war will probably begin with a conventional stage, and only go hybrid if America’s enemy perceives that it is losing.

The United States would be ill-advised to sacrifice its technological edge to prepare to fight low-end 4GW opponents for two reasons. First, success in 4GW is primarily a matter of operational art, particularly in the application of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism principles. There is no special technological or force structure formula for 4GW warfare. Each situation will be unique and the studied application of task organization to meet the terrain and situation will be a key to success.

The primary difference between 4GW and traditional insurgencies is that insurgencies generally have the objective of replacing one form of government with another in a specific country. Many 4GW actors are transnational and look to control a region regardless of existing borders. In that; ISIL, Boko Harem, and to a lesser extent Islamic Courts (al Shabab) do not recognize traditional largely colonial drawn international borders. However, the tactics that they initially use more resemble the classic first two stages of insurgencies with terrorism being used as an early tool.

Not how they see the Islamic State

The second argument against replacing the current conventional force structure with one geared toward 4GW is that most armed non-stat actors want to become state actors. ISIL is probably the poster child for this aspiration. By establishing the Islamic state in parts of Syria and Iraq, the self- proclaimed Islamic State or Caliphate has taken on the trappings of nation-state status. It governs, provides, public services, and maintains an army that will have to be rooted out of conquered territory in stand-up conventional battles rather than counterinsurgency operations.

If the United States ever gets serious about eliminating the Islamic State, it will need a full conventional combined arms force to do it. For ISIL, 4GW was a means to an end, not an end in itself. This contrasts with al Qaeda which seems lost in the netherworld between 4GW and pure terrorism.

Unlike the Marxist insurgents of the middle of the last century who sought to replace regimes in established nation-states, 4GW actors thrive best in spaces that are ungoverned or where governance is on the verge of collapse. The United States fought the first 4GW in Somalia and failed. Rather than war we called it “nation building”, but unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, there was no government to shore up. We were not willing to go to the expense in lives and treasure to build a government from scratch, and we left.

The Islamist 4GW actors of al Shabab have not enjoyed the success of the Islamic State and Boko Harem in the Horn of Africa because the African Union neighbors have made a conscious decision to contain them by military action. With exceptions, such as recent attacks in Kenya, that particular virus has been quarantined. The French have also had some success with quarantine against Islamists in Mali.

Ironically, military theorist William Lind may have hit upon the solution to 4GW over two decades ago when speaking of conventional insurgents, he suggested that we let them win. He argued that, at least we’ll know where they are. They have to govern, maintain, police, and infrastructure. Suddenly, the conflict is no longer hit and run. Ironically, he was describing the Islamic State today. The only problem with that solution is that somebody has to go in and bell the cat. So far, there are no takers.

In his classic novel on counterinsurgency, The Centurions (1961), one of Jean Lartéguy’s characters suggests that France needs two armies. One for parade ground use (read conventional warfare) and one for fighting in the real world of counterinsurgency. I’d suggest that we don’t need two armies to deal with conventional warfare and 4GW; what we need is a mindset agile enough to realize what kind of war we are in and task organize to fight it.

4GW will have a very sizable interagency component; civilians will need an agile mindset as well. In nearly 3000 years of recorded human conflict, the basic nature of war has not changed even though technology has. The Byzantines who were dealing with 8th Century Jihad, faced many of the same issues we wrestle with today.

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Other posts in this series

  1. How much longer for the long war? Who will win?” by Chet Richards.
  2. Our future as two sides of the coin” by William Lind.
  3. We don’t need a New Army to in 4GWs. We need a smart Army” by Gary Anderson.

Gary W. Anderson (Colonel,USMC, retired)

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. Especially see his other articles at the FM website: “A Recipe for Change – a review of Warfighting and Disruptive Technologies: Disguising Innovation” and “War mutates again to create a new strain: ‘hybrid warfare’”.

For More Information

Recommended:  for more about the problems of the US military see “Seventy Years of Military Mediocrity” by William J. Astore (Lt. Colonel, US Army, retired) — “The Shared Failings of America’s Military Academies and Senior Officers”.

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9 thoughts on “We don’t need a new army to fight modern wars, we need a smart one

  1. Gary,

    The first step of the “Agile Mindset” in both Boyd’s OODA and software development is to answer the why. Otherwise, you end up incrementally and iteratively making the wrong product at the wrong time for the wrong market. In this article, you’re providing a what (smarter army) without any reason why.

    The larger question is why do we need an Army to fight 4GW? If we believe that our culture and way of life will outlast this generational struggle (I do), then why should we even engage in this fight? Why should I invest another dollar in this market? The last fifteen years has provided a sunk costs with no return.

    There is not a “smarter” solution to killing, and there is no empirical evidence to suggest that any change in military tactics will be less deadly or produce a better outcome.

    In other words, why don’t we focus on being the best we can be as a society and let the rest play itself out? If we look internally for improvement, then we have a lot to work on rather than dropping smarter bombs on third world citizens.

    Otherwise, we can turn back to Lind and have the insane conversation about dropping nuclear bombs everywhere. If we go that route, look into that darkness, what have we become?

    Mike
    .
    .
    Editor’s note: Mike Few (Major, US Army, Retired) served multiple tours in various command and staff positions in Iraq, and was a former Editor of the Small Wars Journal. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and studied small wars at the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.

  2. “success in 4GW is primarily a matter of operational art, particularly in the application of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism principles. There is no special technological or force structure formula for 4GW warfare. Each situation will be unique and the studied application of task organization to meet the terrain and situation will be a key to success.”

    This is vital to why the military is a poor choice for 4GW success. Our counter-insurgency manual reads essentially as “do what works,” and that’s not how our Army operates.
    We haven’t built an Army that can handle “each situation will be unique.” We built an Army that can apply a doctrinaire answer to a problem because it’s pretty effective most of the time. An Army that treats personnel as though they are interchangeable will inherently treat everything else as though its interchangeable which clashes with “each situation will be unique.”

    “4GW will have a very sizable interagency component; civilians will need an agile mindset as well. ”
    This is another essential problem that is glossed over here. 4GW thrives with weak institutions and I’ve seen no evidence that either a) you build robust institutions at the point of a gun or b) the people who want to build them in a war zone are actually any good at building them.

    There really is a problem here that cannot be resolved by trying harder and being smarter. There are legitimate reasons the US doesn’t win 4GW and part of it is structure and institutions as they exist.

    PF Khans

  3. The link to Centurions was worth the price of admission. I read long long ago then lost it somewhere. Looking a couple of years ago, the cheapest was couple a hundred. Glad they now have it available. Thanks and interesting read including comments

  4. This article seems wrong in every possible way.
    First, the Colonel’s logic appears faulty:

    One of the primary fallacies regarding Fourth Generational Warfare (4GW) is that the United States must totally retool its force structure to deal with this emerging evolution in warfare; this is not the case. 4GW means that foreign and domestic non-state actors are challenging the monopoly that nation-states have enjoyed on the application of force since the end of the Thirty Years War. That does not mean that war between nation-states has become obsolete.

    The conclusion of this syllogism does not follow from the premise. It is true that 4GW is now challenging the monopoly of nation-states on the application of force since the Treaty of Westphalia: but the fact that this premise is true does not mean that large-scale land wars between nation-states has become obsolete.
    In fact, the combination of the growth of democracy worldwide and the ever-increasing economic integration of the planet, together with the stupendous and ever-rising cost of conventional weaponry (*cough* F35 raptor, anyone? *cough*) means that large-scale land wars are now a thing of the past. Even if current nations wanted to fight them, they couldn’t for economic and sociopolitical reasons. Nations are too dependent on one another today to fight WW I or WW II -style “total wars,” and no nation today has enough money to mount a total war with today’s weapons — not even America.
    We saw this with the Falklands War, which produced little gain for either party for all the squandering of weaponry and dollars. Nowadays, major conflicts are restricted to trade disputes like the TPP, which can be viewed as the 21st century American version of a first-strike capability in economics.
    So history for the last 75 years tells us that large-scale land wars are simply over and done with. There will never be another Battle of Midway. Why? Because today we have satellites and cruise missiles. There will never be another D-Day. Why? Because today we have precision-guided missiles, A-10 warthogs with depleted uranium shells, and JDAM bunker busters. (and most of these, by the way, are not brand new hi-tech weapons: the A-10 warthog dates from 1982!) One medium cruiser in the U.S. Navy today could wipe out all the Nazi fortifications at Gold Beach, and one aircraft carrier loaded with cruise missiles and A10 warthogs could wipe out all the Nazi tanks and artillery and troops for 10 miles inland. Old tech (dating from the 1960s and 1970s) like fuel-air munitions and cluster bombs and napalm work very very well on enemy troops foolish enough to try to fight a conventional war.
    Second, and more importantly, the Colonel falls into the usual Pentagon-groupthink trap of rationalizing America’s absurd hypertechnological approach to warfare with a set of very flimsy sophistries.

    The United States would be ill-advised to sacrifice its technological edge to prepare to fight low-end 4GW opponents for two reasons. First, success in 4GW is primarily a matter of operational art, particularly in the application of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism principles. There is no special technological or force structure formula for 4GW warfare.

    No, success in 4GW is primarily a matter of choosing not to get into the quagmire. Gulf War I and the abortive Reagan intervention in Lebanon, as well as Clinton’s decision to pull out of Somalia, showed this clearly. Walk away from the tarpit, and you win. Get dragged into the tarpit, and your noncombatant state enemies win — as Iran has won big in Iraq because they simply refused to do anything but send some covert aid. No troops, no losses. Clinton’s Kosovo bombing proved this as well. No troops, no tanks, no quagmire. Bomb and get out — but better not to bomb at all, just stay out of the quagmire entirely.
    History shows that foreign states which get involved in 4GW in foreign countries almost always lose. Force doesn’t matter. Levels of force up to genocide still don’t work — as the savage French war against Algerian independence, or the ferocious Nazi response to partisan resistance in Yugoslavia, shows.
    But by far the most important point with America’s “technological edge” is that it has now wound up degrading America’s military capabilities. On every front, the more tech we lard onto our Buck Roger superweapons, the less effective they get. Consider the F35 Raptor, a fighter badly outmatched by the ancient F16 in recent dogfight tests! Trillions of dollars, fantastically high tech, and yet the ancient Boyd-designed F16 whips its ass ten ways to Sunday.
    Or the recent 13-billion-dollar brand-new navy aircraft carrier that is actually less capable than the older lower-tech aircraft carriers. See “Navy Jets With Extra Fuel Can’t Be Launched Off New U.S. Carrier,” Bloomberg News, 26 March 2015.
    America really seriously needs to abandon its counterproductive emphasis of ever more absurdly expensive ever more ridiculously high-tech whizbang weapons. As John Boyd was wont to point out, “Weapons don’t win wars, people do.” America’s mania with high tech weaponry is a symptom of a much deeper pathology, the U.S. fetish for 2GW, “putting fire on target.” Ever piece of new super-hi-tech whizbang Buck Rogers weaponry, from particle beams to lasers to railguns to 13-billion-dollar aircraft carriers, all boil to more and better ways of putting fire on target. But putiting fire on target is useless when “The guerrilla must swim in the people as the fish swims in the sea” [Mao Tse-Tung].
    Clearly, sociological savvy of the local culture and on-the-ground local humint are the crucial
    requirements for 4GW warfighting, if you must get into the quagmire — not laser beam deathrays or “rods from god” orbital weapons or whizbang hyperhelmets that give the pilot a 360-degree view (a la the F35).
    It’s understandable that Colonel Anderson continues to try to defend America’s indefensible waste of trillions of dollars of counterproductive ineffective Buck Roger superweapons, since these represent the feeding trough of today’s American officer corps… But out there in the real world, these Buck Rogers superweapons drag the U.S. military into a death spiral: they’re so expensive we can’t afford many of ’em, so complex they don’t work, and then when the weapons age out of service we can’t afford replacements — so the U.S. military paradoxically grows less and less capable of fighting as its weaponry gets more and more hi-tech. Eventually, America attains the treasured goal of full-spectrum impotence: the ability to simultaneously fight and lose four wars at once against teenaged barefoot kids armed with bolt-action rifles.
    The British empire used a vast array of local civil administrators to maintain its empire: these people knew foreign countries like India, loved them, and often retired there. As a result, the British empire was very effective, because its local administrators knew the culture and the people — lots of sociological knowledge and detailed on-the-ground humint. By contrast, American troops move into a giant walled-in Green Zone and only sally out for LURPS (long range patrols) in which they never interact with the local population. The Brits ruled 3/4 of the world…America can’t even rule a third world hellhole like Somalia.
    Since 4GW is not conventional warfare, if America wants to succeed at building an empire in the 21st century, we need something other than a conventional army. We should dump our useless aircraft carriers, our worthless nuclear subs, our ridiculous antiquated Navy surface ships, our absurdly overcomplex super-helicopters and F35 whizbang utlrafighters, and instead keep a Coast Guard (for defending our shores), some aircraft to fly combat air patrol over U.S. air space as needed, and a large array of littoral ships and barges to deal with the vast waves of refugees soon to erupt as a result of global warming.
    Instead of an Army, America needs something more like a super-Peace-Corps: people expert at fighting river blindness and negotiating between local warlords in third world countries, rather than futuristic drone-armed HUD-visored Robocop wannabes.

    1. Thomas,

      Your comment is 1300 words. I doubt anyone will read a comment that’s longer than the post. Comments should be a 200-300 words if you want them to be read. If this was an active comment thread I’d have to delete or truncate it, since something this long kills the thread.

      If you want to write essays, start a blog.

  5. If you don’t want substantive comments, stop writing a blog and start spray-painting grafitti on a wall.
    Until then, grow up.

    1. Thomas,

      Long comments don’t bother me. It’s just a waste of your time. Few people read comments. Almost nobody reads such long comments.

      “until then, grow up”

      The comment policy says “keep them brief” (a few hundred words). That’s was quite standard 5 – 10 years ago. Now it’s more comment to either just moderate comments or shut them down (see this collection from major websites).

      Also — I, like everyone else running websites, sets their own rules. If you think them immature, go away. You’re not God, and your view of such thing is immaterial to me.

  6. Thomas More: You already made most of the points I was going to….. beat me to it.

    I have long made the prediction that the US, under immense Isareli and Saudi Arabian pressure (and corruption) , would go ‘all in’ in supprting (with PR fig leafs) IS and AN instead of just doing ‘half way bets’ as they have done to date…and now they have.
    They are ‘our boys’…..well ‘your boys’….. Now it is all the way. I am waiting with baited breath for the NYT articles saying how ‘good’ IS really is…… This is already being done for AN, even the Guardian got into the act recently trying to politically rehabilitate those monsters….

    Heck they hate and kill LGBTI people so they must be ‘good’ eh?

    Typical non learning thing (seems to a genetic US military thing), the Kurds hammered IS. The myth of the ‘great’ IS has been shattered and with zero western publicity.

    Typical US response, sign up with Turkey to wipe out the Kurds…. Look the US ALWAYS picks the wrong side, it nearly always has and seems set to always do it from now on. The most horrible, cruel, corrupt, criminal, etc, etc side is always the US side…..

    The days of the US asserting its authority and stopping the minnows being stupid (as per the Suez Canal) are long gone. Everyone has learned the ‘Israeli lesson’ …buy the US politicians and the ‘Christian’ churches.

    But so much money to be made by some US insiders…..

    Now we are shaping up, since Russia’s long predicted response seems to be coming, into a Russa.Syria/Iran/Kurd/Hezbollah side aginst an US/Isareli/S.A/Turkish/and the minnows like Qatar and the UK, side.

    Going to be interesting. Putin, being Putin will be working lots of side deals to break up what I call ‘the Coaliion of the Terminally Insane’ (TM) So I would not place any money on the CotTI surviving for very long… I would also not place any bets on the Saudi regime surviving much longer either or the current Turkish Govt surviving..

    Major strategic mistakes are almost impossible to reverse no matter how good tactically you are or what resources you expend And what the US has done over Syria is a Strategc Mistake of the First Order….To add to all those other ones made…..

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