Fourth-generation warfare (4GW) is conflict characterized by a blurring
of the lines between war and politics, combatants and civilians. The term was
first used in 1980 by a team of United States analysts, including
paleoconservative William S. Lind, 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 of this type of
conflict, such as the slave uprising under Spartacus, predate the modern
concept of warfare.
Fourth-generation warfare is defined as conflicts which involve the following
Complex and long term Terrorism (tactic)
A non-national or transnational base highly decentralized
A direct attack on the enemy's culture, including genocidal acts against
All available pressures are used political, economic, social and
Occurs in low-intensity conflict, involving actors from all networks
Non-combatants are tactical dilemmas
Lack of hierarchy
Small in size, spread out network of communication and financial support
Use of insurgency tactics as subversion, terrorism and guerrilla tactics
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 titled "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth
Generation" In 2006, the concept was expanded upon by USMC Colonel Thomas
X. Hammes (Ret.) in his book, The Sling and The Stone.
The generations of warfare described by these authors are:
First generation: tactics of line and column; which developed in the age of the
smoothbore musket. Lind describes First Generation of warfare as beginning
after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ending the Thirty Years' War and
establishing the state's need to organize and conduct war. 1GW consisted of
tightly ordered soldiers with top-down discipline. These troops would fight in
close order and advance slowly. This began to change as the battlefield
changed. Old line and column tactics are now considered suicidal as the bow and
arrow/sword morphed into the rifle and machine gun.
Second generation: tactics of linear fire and movement, with reliance on
indirect fire. This type of warfare can be seen in the early stages of World
War I where there was still strict adherence to drill and discipline of
formation and uniform. However, there remained a dependence on artillery and
firepower to break the stalemate and move towards a pitched battle.
Third 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 3GW military seeks to bypass the enemy, and attack his rear
forward, such as the tactics used by German Stormtroopers in World War I
against the British and French in order to break the trench warfare stalemate
(Lind 2004). These aspects of 3GW bleed into 4GW as it is also warfare of speed
and initiative. However, it targets both military forces and home populations.
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 education/propaganda,
movement-building, secrecy, terror, and/or confusion to overcome the
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 non-state entity
tends to be more successful when it 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 P.M. Barnett as the Non-Integrating Gap, fought by countries from
the globalized Functioning Core.
Fourth-generation warfare has much in common with traditional low-intensity
conflict in its classical forms of insurgency and guerrilla war. As in those
small wars, the conflict is initiated by the "weaker" party through
actions which can be termed "offensive". The difference lies in the
manner in which 4GW opponents adapt those traditional concepts to present day
conditions. These conditions are shaped by technology, globalization, religious
fundamentalism, and a shift in moral and ethical norms which brings legitimacy
to certain issues previously considered restrictions on the conduct of war.
This amalgamation and metamorphosis produces novel ways of war for both the
entity on the offensive and that on the defensive.
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.
A 4GW enemy has the following characteristics: lack of hierarchical authority,
lack of formal structure, patience and flexibility, ability to keep a low
profile when needed, and small size. A 4GW adversary might use the tactics of
an insurgent, terrorist, or guerrilla in order to wage war against a nation's
Fourth generation warfare takes place on all fronts: economical, political, the
media, military, and civilian. Conventional military forces often have to adapt
tactics to fight a 4GW enemy.
Resistance can also be below the physical level of violence. This is via
non-violent means, such as Mahatma Gandhi's opposition to the British Empire or
the marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. Both desired their factions to
de-escalate 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 oppressive and loses support.
Another characteristic of fourth-generation warfare is that unlike in third
generation warfare, the VNSA's forces are decentralized. With fourth generation
warfare, there may even be no single organization 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:
To convince the enemy's political decision makers that their goals are either
unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit.
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 guerrillas, terrorists, and rioters, which
lack a center of gravity, deny to their enemies a focal point at which to
deliver a conflict ending blow. 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
Three principal attributes of the new-age terrorism were held to be their
hybrid structure (as opposed to the traditional microscopic command and control
pattern, importance given to systemic disruption vis-a-vis target destruction,
and sophisticated use of technological advancements (including social media and
mobile communications technology). A terrorist network could be designed to be
either acephalous (headless like Al-Qaeda after Bin Laden) or polycephalous
(hydra-headed like Kashmiri separatists). Social media networks supporting the
terrorists are characterized by positive feedback loops, tight coupling and
non-linear response propagation (viz. a small perturbation causing a large
Fourth-generation warfare theory has been criticized on the grounds that it is
"nothing more than repackaging of the traditional clash between the
non-state insurgent and the soldiers of a nation-state."
Strategic Studies Institute writer and United States Army War College professor
Antulio J. Echevarria II, in his article Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths,
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." The critique was rebutted by John Sayen, a military historian
and retired Lt. Col. in the Marine Corps Reserve.
Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., USMC, characterizes
fourth-generation warfare theory as "elegant irrelevance" and states
that "its methods are unclear, its facts contentious and open to widely
varying interpretations, and its relevance questionable."
Rod Thornton argues that Thomas Hammes and William S. Lind are "providing
an analytical lens through which to view the type of opposition that exists now
'out there' and to highlight the shortcomings of the current US military in
dealing with that opposition." Instead of fourth generation warfare being
an explanation for a new way of warfare, it allows the blending of different
generations of warfare with the exception that fourth generation also
encompasses new technology. Fourth generation warfare theorists such as Lind
and Hammes wish to make the point that it "is not just that the military's
structure and equipment are ill-suited to the 4GW problem, but so is its
Peninsular War, particularly the use of autonomous guerrilla groups.
Note: first use of the word 'guerrilla', meaning 'Little War'.
Libyan Civil War
Syrian civil war, namely used by non-state actors against government forces.
Rwandan war, used by Rwandan forces and community based Mai-Mai militia groups.
Egyptian Crisis (2011- 14)
Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation
Russian military intervention in Ukraine (2014present)
Russian military intervention in the Syria (2015present)
Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections
Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum
Foreign interference in the 2020 United States elections