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Generations of warfare are not specific to any particular time or conflict. We can mark certain shifts in how war is fought based on strategy, tactics, techniques, and weapons used. Elements of newer generations of war-fighting are always present in the past generation as they establish the need to move forward in how we fight wars.
|Muslims sacking the Christian stronghold of Constantinople in 1453|
|The Battle of Waterloo was conducted in classic 1GW|
A new generation is upon us via the sub-national actor who uses unconventional (to us) tactics and techniques and who unabashedly targets civilians and other soft targets as a means to gain his political end state. This player is elusive and he is everywhere. The battlefield is everywhere and everyone is on it. As arch Communist Leon Trotsky stated, "you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you".
|In 4GW, there is no line between combatant and non-combatant|
I think we truly broke into the fourth generation of warfare (4GW) sometime after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There were certainly instances of it in Vietnam with the Viet Cong, as also seen earlier in the hit/run raids of the American Plains Indians and the Apaches, tactics and as far back as unconventional warfare and the use of terror traces its roots. But as an organized system of fighting against an industrialized, first world nation with a large, well trained, modern military, the Muslim jihadists have shaped the new battlefield with the application of asymmetric warfare that exploits terrorism as a true form of warfare and their use of “poor-man” weapons such as the IED (Improvised Explosive Device), VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device), and unguided rockets have forced total changes in the way industrialized nations fight today.
Col Hammes Bestseller Explanation of 4GW for Civilians - "Sling and Stone" - Buy Here
Nevertheless, American forces remain wedded to extremely high-cost, multi decade long weapons systems procurement cycles that have dubious impact. Consider the Marine's AAAV, the F-35, the Littoral Combat Ship and many other systems out there. They may have spectacular performance atop spectacular cost, but are often a serious mismatch for the foe at hand - the lightly equipped guerrilla/insurgent that is a staple of American combat operations today.
Special Forces Guerilla Warfare Manual, Wimberbly Version
A number of American battles in the last decade are a result of successfully getting the insurgent/ guerrilla to mass against his interests. Think Fallujah. Think Ramadi. Tal Afar. Najaf. To this, add Raqqa, where the Russian forces are pummeling the seat of ISIS. Only when you can herd the mass into a fire sack/kill box can you effectively leverage the full power of modern weaponry. Be it "Bog Voiny", the Russian God of War (Massed artillery and rocket fire) or American air-delivered precision guided munitions, the result is the same.
It can be argued that we have stepped into the fifth generation of warfare (5GW) where political leaders are specifically targeted to affect regime changes and where economic, social, and other types of pressure and targeting place those tactics into the newest generation. President Bill Clinton did this when he directed the campaign be directed at elements of the Serbian State and its power base. TV stations, politicians and the like were all hit, so the precedent is there.
But the focus of this analysis is the fourth generation of war-fighting no matter to what extent fifth generation fighting has already entered the picture.
|Desert Storm was the last conventional battle using 3GW tactics|
Large standing armies and conventional forces will have to remain to seize and hold territory, but forever more there will no longer be a battlefield with a true front line and a rear area that is generally safe for non-combatant/support type units. This is evidenced by the recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Guerrilla-type warfare forces the decentralization of combat power to fight on a 360 degree battlefield today and in the future. In that regard, it could be said that the US Army has already configured itself to fight against the fourth generation enemy. Smaller brigade combat teams with sufficient combat multipliers make them a formidable force. However, unless the structure or a portion of the forces as a whole (Army, Marine Corps, et al) devolves into a more fluid structure for dealing with this contemporary threat manifestation, they will remain a reactive force with the occasional surgical strike or operation taking out some node or other.
The Vietnam War provided a perfect preview of fourth generation warfare (4GW). The TET offensive was in and of itself a dismal failure in the end, but while it was being fought, the US and ARVN forces were at a loss to deal with it initially. It failed because the Viet Cong could not mass forces for a sustainable period of time and US/ARVN forces attritted them quickly and neutralized their impact. However, the tactics used had a deliberate and well-calculated impact on the people of the United States and the offensive is singularly highlighted as the cause (or the Walter Cronkite effect ) for the US to withdraw from Vietnam. Later, organized North Vietnamese forces defeated a demoralized, ineffective ARVN military, but the guerrilla army, the Viet Cong, was not a key player. The Viet Cong, in fact, were mercilessly purged by the NVA after fulfilling their purpose. This is a theme that rides through time- Communists liquidate those who have exhausted their usefulness to the cause.
Unconventional forces’ (special operations forces) tactics have been highly successful when used properly. They are not used for fighting set piece battles against large forces because that is not their nature. The worst waste imaginable is when unimaginative types employ SOF as a form of "super infantry". Their impact can be enormous based on their mission and the morale impact they can and have had. True unconventional warfare has to be brutal, but it has almost exclusively been used to target military locations, the capture or killing of enemy leaders, and enemy infrastructure. The morphing of this type of warfare to target non-military/civilian targets and non-combatant civilians has significantly changed the battlefield. (As I’ve stated about going out to hunt deer, everybody is down-range and susceptible to being shot at anytime.) In modern day, fourth generational warfare (4GW) everyone - soldier, civilian, man, woman, and child, are targets on the battlefield. There is no distinction to the truly dedicated guerrilla/terrorist/jihadist.
|The San Bernardino office space targeted by the Jihadists provided services to the most vulnerable and defenseless citizens|
Modern fourth generation warfare (4GW) is being waged somewhat successfully against military forces and non-combatants in second and especially third world countries. While these tactics may not have been successful throughout recent history (Northern Ireland for instance), the recent use against civilians aboard ships, airplanes, soft targets in England, France, Spain, and the United States is having a positive effect in the eyes of those using the tactics.
|The Madrid Bombings were an example that everyone is vulnerable in 4GW|
The conventional force is usually able to bring other support type forces or fires to complete the defeat of the fourth generational fighter when a direct confrontation is initiated. This is a situation that the 4GW fighter strenuously avoids. It avoids this through being agile, while its pursers are ponderous.
A further point to make here is the consideration of the next generation fighter committing suicide or to die fighting rather than quitting. Unless there is accurate intelligence or timely warning of an attack of this nature, the terrorist considers this a win and a coinciding defeat for the enemy who was powerless to stop the attack. The mere threat of some terrorist action can inflict such pain as to make it a "win" of a limited sort even if nothing happens.
The element of political influence and how it enters into fourth generational warfare is problematic and it must be considered a significant aspect of this new generation of warfare. Clausewitz said war is a "continuation of politics by other means". Politics has historically been an element of power used before and after the actual warfare is conducted. Politicians generally stayed out of the way of their generals in the past. Although Lincoln, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, and now Obama have had varying degrees of political influence on their war fighters, political micro-management of wars and war-fighters has always been present. Lyndon Johnson is famously known for inserting himself into a Viet Nam firefight via radio and satellite links direct from the Oval Office, as an example. As our ability to communicate quickly over long distances has increased, the politicians have increasingly stepped into the operational war fighting realm because the people who elected them are easily impacted not only by results on the battlefield but by the way that the press influences public opinion - for and against a particular strategy or style of war fighting. What America accepted at Tarawa and Cologne in WWII are not what an emasculated America accepts in contemporary conflict. This is due to the insidious impact of instantaneous media.
The establishment of rules of engagement (ROE) is another by product of the political influence on war fighting now. ROE have had positive and negative effects on modern war fighting. The ‘road of death’ from Kuwait City had a tremendous impact on the political aspects of the first Gulf War. Retreating Iraqi forces were legitimate targets, but the way in which the pictures were shown on television caused President Bush to end the war and not allow the allied forces to wage the style of war they wanted. It is a factor in the follow on wars in Iraq that Saddam's core Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard units escaped from Kuwait unscathed. America went on to fight them later.
ROE are somewhat related to the Geneva Conventions dating back to 1864 and most notably updated following the end of WWII. But we envision these codes of warfare and limitations on how war is to be waged with the modern nation-state’s morality in mind. However, the true fourth generational war fighter (4GW) has no use for these humane and limiting factors.
The insurgent/guerrilla/jihadist will kill anyone, anywhere, anytime, and with any means to further his aims. Indeed, it appears that violence IS the message. He is an indiscriminate killing machine, but Americans need to understand that there is a case the opposition makes that American forces do the same via drone strikes in Pakistan and the Arab world. Drones and cruise missiles are not completely clean means of dealing with an enemy, but fall into the "good enough" category for a very difficult fight.
We see President Obama’s strategic impact to date against ISIS when he established ROE that denied targets where a non-combatant could be killed or injured. This severely limited our ability to take limited air actions to the enemy. We were handcuffed and unable to take out whole sections of towns and cities where we knew the enemy to be hiding in or operating from. Assad’s forces have not been so hampered as they have destroyed large sections of their own towns and cities to kill those rebelling against the regime. Saddam Hussein did not consider it against his way of fighting to use chemical agents against whole populations in order to influence his battlefield. Restrictive ROE are actually an invitation to insurgents/guerrillas/jihadists to actually do dastardly deeds, such as use human shields or use protected category buildings for nefarious purposes (arms and ammo dumps in hospitals, unit headquarters in schools).
These moralistic/political limitations are misplaced against the fourth generational fighter (4GW) who will use them to his advantage to protect his forces and infrastructure by placing them in close proximity to civilians and population centers. Hamas and other terror organizations use these tactics to protect their forces and stores from Israeli attack while sending their own rockets freely into civilian areas or against schools and hospitals.
Smart weaponry is a part of the answer to fighting against fourth generational forces, but the war fighters can never guarantee there won’t be collateral damage when they are used. Technologic advances used by modern, first world militaries against fourth generational war-fighters may be mostly an advantage, but if technology were the panchreston that its supporters make it out to be, we would be dancing a victory dance at this point. Technology counts, but it is not decisive. The fourth generational fighter will usually not have modern technological capabilities, unless they are assisted by nations who side with them (e.g., Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea in conflicts with the West). But they do have something of cherished nature, and that is the political will to endure, outlast and overcome.
The aforementioned capability to conduct intelligence operations is and always has been a key to winning the fight. In this fourth generation, the advantage will probably always remain with first world militaries, even though human intelligence will be decidedly difficult. Intelligence and technology seem to be a mutually supporting pair, and this is often the case. However, keep in mind that more information does not necessarily mean better intelligence. There are a variety of reasons for this, from policy decisions to heavily embedded cultural issues that run afoul of modern liberal thought.
Fourth generation warfare (4GW) is not usually waged by nation-states who can be beaten on the battlefield, have their territory seized, and have consequences applied to the political and civilian based of power. There are no Nuremberg Trials for Al Qaeda, no Hague tribunal for the Taliban and their odius, pre historic practices. Modern nation states must understand and be flexible enough to react to, interdict, or pre-empt the fight that is being taken to them in this fourth generation of warfare, however. The use of other elements of power available to the nation-state will become more important as we move forward.
The question being begged at this point is whether modern, industrialized nation-states should adopt the concepts, strategies, and practices of fourth generational warfare. To a point, we have with our non-conventional/special operations forces. But we do not target noncombatants directly nor do we use terror tactics against civilians. I firmly believe that America does its best to minimize collateral damage, and this is a moral value that may or may not have the desired effects on a battlefield. However, "War is hell".
Fighting forces that do use these strategies will never achieve total victory over them as it has been achieved in the past. Fourth generation warfare is not usually waged by nation-states who can be beaten on the battlefield, have their territory seized, and have consequences applied to the political and civilian bases of power. Modern nation-states must understand and be flexible enough to react to, interdict, or preempt the fight that is being taken to them in this fourth generation of warfare (4GW) however. The use of other elements of power available to the nation-state will become more important as we move forward.
The moral, ethical, religious, and historical manner in which modern nation-states have waged war will not allow us, at this post-enlightenment juncture in the history of man, to come down to the level of the terrorist fanatics who are the critical element of the fourth generation of warfare. Modern legitimate nation-state warfare is based on the principles of Jus ad Bellum and Jus in bello. These are generally known as having a right reason to wage war, as well as the right conduct in the war itself. We may have moved into a new generation of fighting, but most of the tactics that mark this generation will not be adopted by modern, industrialized countries for a variety of social and legal barriers. The major players in this new generation who have adopted the tactics and techniques of terror, asymmetrical warfare, and the direct targeting of civilians will always be with us. They have generally always been with us throughout the history of warfare. They will never be totally defeated and their threat to destabilize modern civilizations will never go away. But this does not mean that the guardians of Western Civilization should not try. That would be a far worse crime.
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