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.
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.
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.
Other posts in this series
- “How much longer for the long war? Who will win?” by Chet Richards.
- “Our future as two sides of the coin” by William Lind.
- We don’t need a New Army to in 4GWs. We need a smart Army” by Gary Anderson.
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”.
- Chuck Spinney asks why we choose to lose at 4GW, 23 September 2014
- William Lind: thoughts about 4GW, why we lose, and how we can win in the future.
- What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?
- Understanding 4GW, the first step to winning the Long War, by GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired).
- When will our military learn modern warfare, & overcome the attritionist tendency?