Fourth generation warfare: Wikis


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Fourth generation warfare (4GW) is conflict characterized by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, soldier and civilian.

The military doctrine was first defined in 1989 by a team of United States analysts, including William S. Lind, used to describe warfare's return to a decentralized form. In terms of generational modern warfare, the fourth generation signifies the nation states' loss of their near-monopoly on combat forces, returning to modes of conflict common in pre-modern times.

The simplest definition includes any war in which one of the major participants is not a state but rather a violent non-state actor. Classical examples, such as the slave uprising under Spartacus or the assassination of Julius Caesar by members of the Roman senate, predate the modern concept of warfare and are examples of this type of conflict.

As such, fourth generation warfare uses classical tactics—tactics deemed unacceptable by more traditional thinking—to weaken the advantaged opponent's will to win.



Fourth Generation Warfare is defined as conflicts which involve the following elements:

  • Are complex and long term.
  • Terrorism.
  • A non-national or transnational base, highly decentralized.
  • A direct attack on the enemy's culture.
  • Highly sophisticated psychological warfare, especially through media manipulation and lawfare.
  • All available pressures are used - political, economic, social and military.
  • Occurs in low intensity conflict, involving actors from all networks.
  • Non-combatants are tactical dilemmas.


The concept was first described by the authors William S. Lind, Colonel Keith Nightengale (US Army), Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (US Army), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR) in a 1989 Marine Corps Gazette article entitled “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”.

The generations of warfare described by these authors are:

  • 3rd Generation: tactics of infiltration to bypass and collapse the enemy's combat forces rather than seeking to close with and destroy them; and defence in depth.

The use of fourth generation warfare can be traced to the Cold War period, as superpowers and major powers attempted to retain their grip on colonies and captured territories. Unable to withstand direct combat against bombers, tanks, and machine guns, non-state entities used tactics of secrecy, terror, and confusion to overcome the technological gap.

Fourth generation warfare has often involved an insurgent group or other violent non-state actor trying to implement their own government or reestablish an old government over the current ruling power. However, a fourth generation war is most successful (from the underdog's viewpoint) when the non-state entity does not attempt, at least in the short term, to impose its own rule, but tries simply to disorganize and delegitimize the state in which the warfare takes place.

The aim is to force the state adversary to expend manpower and money in an attempt to establish order, ideally in such a highhanded way that it merely increases disorder, until the state surrenders or withdraws.

Fourth generation warfare is often seen in conflicts involving failed states and civil wars, particularly in conflicts involving non-state actors, intractable ethnic or religious issues, or gross conventional military disparities. Many of these conflicts occur in the geographic area described by author Thomas Barnett as the Non-Integrating Gap, fought by countries from the globalised Functioning Core.

Characteristics of fourth generation warfare

Fourth generation warfare is normally characterized by a violent non-state actor (VNSA) fighting a state. This fighting can be physically done, such as by modern examples Hezbollah or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In this realm the VNSA uses all three levels of fourth generation warfare. These are the physical (actual combat; it is considered the least important), mental (the will to fight, belief in victory, etc) and moral (the most important, this includes cultural norms, etc) levels.

Resistance can also be below the physical level of violence. This is via non-violent means, such as Gandhi’s opposition to the British Empire or Martin Luther King’s marches. Both desired their factions to deescalate the conflict while the state escalates against them, the objective being to target the opponent on the moral and mental levels rather than the physical level. The state is then seen as a bully and loses support.

Another characteristic of fourth generation warfare is that as with third generation warfare, the VNSA’s forces are decentralized. With fourth generation warfare there may even be no single organisation and that smaller groups organize into impromptu alliances to target a bigger threat (that being the state armed forces or another faction). As a result these alliances are weak and if the state’s military leadership is smart enough they can split their enemy and cause them to fight amongst themselves.

Fourth generation warfare goals:[1]

  • Survival
  • To convince the enemy’s political decision makers that their goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit[2]

Yet another factor is that political centers of gravity have changed. These centers of gravity may revolve around nationalism, religion, or family or clan honor.

Disaggregated forces, such as guerillas, terrorists and rioters, lacking a center of gravity, deny to their enemies a focal point at which to deliver a conflict ending blow.[3] As a result strategy becomes more problematic while combating a VNSA.

It has been theorized that a state vs. state conflict in fourth generation warfare would involve the use of computer hackers and international law to obtain the weaker side’s objectives, the logic being that the civilians of the stronger state would lose the will to fight as a result of seeing their state engage in alleged atrocities and having their own bank accounts harmed.

Criticism of the theory

Writer Antulio J. Echevarria II in an article Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths[4] argues what is being called fourth generation warfare are simply insurgencies. He also claims that 4GW was "reinvented" by Lind to create the appearance of having predicted the future. Echevarria writes: “the generational model is an ineffective way to depict changes in warfare. Simple displacement rarely takes place, significant developments typically occur in parallel."


See also


  1. ^ Beyond Fourth Generation Warfare, Dr. George Friedman, Stratfor Forecasting, p. 1, July 17, 2007
  2. ^ Colonel Thomas X Hammes, 'Four Generations of Warfare' in The Sling and the Stone, On War in the 21st Century, St. Paul, MN, 2006, p 293.
  3. ^ Beyond Fourth Generation Warfare, Dr. George Friedman, Stratfor Forecasting, p. 1, July 17, 2007
  4. ^ Echevarria JA. Fourth Generation War and Other Myths. November 2005, Strategis Studies Insititute.
  5. ^ [1]

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