Understanding 4GW, The First Step To Winning The Long War

Understanding 4GW, the first step to winning the Long War

24 JANUARY 2015


by GI Wilson

Summary: in the 65 years after Mao bought 4th generation war to maturity, 25 years after the article coining the term, we continue to send our troops out to fight 4GW wars in foreign lands. We continue to lose, as almost all foreign armies do. At the FM website we mark these anniversaries by articles discussing 4GW, how it works, and why we refuse to learn how to win. Today we have the first chapter of a series by GI Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired). It’s important; America’s survival during the 21st century might require mastery of 4GW.

Source: Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid

Backward “and” Forward: 4GW Orientation On War


“The Changing Face of War” appeared 25 years ago in both U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army professional journals providing a prescient emerging look into the intersection of war, violence, conflict, terrorism, and crime. There were follow-up articles in the Marine Corps Gazette: “The Evolution of War: The Fourth Generation” in September 1994 by Thomas X. Hammes (Lt Colonel, USMC, retired), “Fourth Generation Warfare: Another Look” in December 1994 by the original authors. There were also online features such as “On Gangs, Crime, and Terrorism” and Fourth-Generation Warfare It’s Here, And We Need New Intelligence-Gathering Techniques For Dealing With It.

Regrettably military and law enforcement professionals ignored these articles as well as others. Yet, the fourth generation warfare (4GW) forecasts were and are very prescient. For more about this see “The Evolution of Warfare; Back to the Future” by Gary Anderson (Colonel, USMC, retired), Marine Corps Gazette, September 2013.

The 4GW Threat

Today the fourth generation warfare (4GW) orientation remains in the shadows summarily dismissed in many quarters to include DOD, DHS, and DOJ. The events of the last 25 years lend weight to the 4GW orientation. The 4GW orientation offers a different perspective on emerging war, violence, and conflict as an alternative to our conventional acquisition based nation-state thinking.

In short the idea of considering how one thinks about war and conflict impacts what one does in the present and future. An obligatory old dead general quote gives credence to having the right orientation and perspective on war. Carl von Clausewitz said in On War,

“The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking.”

Knowing the kind of war one finds on their door step is useful in determining how to fight that war. It was true in 1989 and it is still true today. Like today, in 1989 we saw a need to have a relevant orientation and perspective on current emerging threats where asymmetric/irregular warfare was becoming more dominant. We witnessed emerging tactics, techniques, procedures (TTPs) that combined the old with the new.

The Real Revolution In Military Affairs

The wisdom of the aphorism if you want a new idea, read an old book was not lost upon us back then or is it today. 4GW is only new to state armed forces that were designed to fight other state armed forces. The fact that no state military has recently succeeded in defeating a non-state enemy reminds us that Clio has a sense of humor: history also teaches us that not all problems have solutions (Lind, 2003). Col Robert Chase in his Naval War College treatise, “Battling the “Hydra”: Changing Operational Factors in 4th Generation War” succinctly describes 4GW:

Strategically, it exploits the media and the informational technologies to sell its message and perpetuate its cause. Unlike ‘freedom fighters’ of the past, it does not brag; rather, silence is used to paralyze its enemy’s retaliatory decisions.

It binds together the technologies of today with the tactics and theories of the past, moving freely among the new and the old – it is controlled chaos. It is amorphous; many headed, but coordinated. It is complex; intersecting the realms of crime, terrorism, and war. Worldwide and determined, its warriors are young and dedicated, bound together by a common thread of ideology, culture, religion, or quest for worldly or eternal riches. It is low-tech, seeking “cheap kills” that consider all aspects of national power – including its citizenry – as viable targets. It refuses to stand and fight, choosing the time, place, and means of attack, unshackled by conscience and principles that traditionally govern war – morally wrong, but brutally effective. It seeks decision but not decisive battle – it refuses to play by our ‘civilized’ rules.

I continue to esteem our 4GW orientation relevancy along with a hybrid warfare [see references below) perspective regarding emerging conflict. According to Frank Hoffman “hybrid wars blend the lethality of state conflict with the fanatical and protracted fervor of irregular warfare” (“Hybrid Warfare and Challenges”, Frank Hoffman, Joint Forces Quarterly, Q1 2009).

Both 4GW and hybrid warfare (HW) orientations in fact ported the worst is yet to come. Particularly in the wake of our incompetent-lumbering bureaucracy that struggles with non-state and failed-state actors. The emergence of the Islamic State, (also known as ISIS or ISIL) is merely an indicator and warning (IW) of the blended operational TTPs and lethality we face. ISIS/ISIL is a foreboding harbinger of “something wicked this way comes.” Despite the drive-by criticism, 4GW persists in its relevance and irreverence.

See the other chapters in GI Wilson’s article next week.

Using 4GW, little fish can defeat big fish

Posts in this series about 4GW, reflecting on 25 years of 4GW defeats
1.Chuck Spinney asks why we choose to lose at 4GW, 23 September 2014
2.William Lind: thoughts about 4GW, why we lose, and how we can win in the future, 21 November 2014.
3.”SAS kill up to 8 jihadis each day, as allies prepare to wipe IS off the map.” Bold words we’ve heard before., 24 November 2014.
4.What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?, 25 November 2014.
5.The battle that mattered most to America: the Pentagon vs. Military Reformers. It’s over., 8 December 2014.
6.What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?, 25 November 2014.

For More Information

(a) The opposite of a smart strategy, what we do: “If Only We’d Just Spent More Blood and Treasure in Yemen”, Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 23 January 2015 – “5 lessons from misadventures in the Middle East that Washington just can’t seem to learn.”

(b) Other readings:
1.”Future Warfare: The Rise of Hybrid Warfare”, James N. Mattis and Frank Hoffman, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, November 2005, 30-32 – Gated.
2.”How the Marines Are Preparing for Hybrid Wars”, F.G. Hoffman, Armed Forces Journal International, April 2006.
3.”Preparing for Hybrid Wars”, F.G. Hoffman, Marine Corps Gazette, March 2007
4.”Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Warfare”, Frank Hoffman, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, December 2007.

(c) 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.

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