Fourth Generation Warfare

How State Militaries Ought to Prepare for 4GW

By Davin Ng

New Asia Republic

What is the single most devastating threat to the existence of the modern nation-state? It is globalization and the new form of warfare that was spawned with it. Coined by the some as Fourth Generation Warfare or 4GW, it seeks to hamper globalization even if globalization enabled in the first place. In peacetime, the soldier’s task is to prepare for a future conflict. This task entails the anticipation of how the next war may be like, and this gets incrementally difficult over time.

As German General Franz Uhle-Wettler wrote in his book “Battlefield Central Europe: Danger of Overreliance on Technology by the Armed Forces”:

At an earlier time, a commander could be certain that a future war would resemble past and present ones. This enabled him to analyze appropriate tactics from past and present. The troop commander of today no longer has this possibility. He knows only that whoever fails to adapt the experiences of the last war will surely lose the next one.

Yet, despite these wise words from General Uhle-Wettler, the coming times are so unpredictable that no amount of study of warfare prior to the dawn of the 21st century could prepare any military thinker for the post-9/11 world. Upon studying the development of modern warfare, the trends point to three startlingly different generations.

Napoleon was the first great general who dragged the world into the era of modern warfare, thus beginning with the First Generation. Today, modern state militaries in the world such as the United States’ and NATO’s exhibit mastery over Third Generation Warfare (or 3GW) as was evidenced by their repeated decisive victories over Iraq in 1992 and 2003. However, as the world entered the new millennium these state militaries hit a significant snag. Ten years after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States finds itself retreating from the wars it had begun, not by losing on the field of battle but by techniques waged using Fourth Generation Warfare on the part of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network.

The concept of the modern nation-state finds its existence at risk when faced with the growing number of non-state actors that seek to undermine it. State militaries have been caught off-guard since the dawn of the new millennium and they have only just begun to recognize the threat. The threats are many, and viable solutions do exist.

Since the peace of Westphalia in 1648, the business of violence was transferred from the hands of regional feudal lords to that of the nation-state. The state came to hold a monopoly over violence where only the state has the privilege of using force for its own ends, and this has been unquestioned reality since living memory. All modern wars, up till 3GW were considered to be conventional wars. In 3GW, the line between combatant and civilian is firmly drawn with the donning of uniforms. There were rules to adhere to, such as the mutually agreed terms of the state of peace and war. Similarly, bringing the greatest amount of firepower to bear with the swift utilization and maneuver of forces guaranteed victory over the enemy.

4GW is an unconventional war, which can also be called an “evolved form of insurgency”. 4GW is the complete opposite of the traditionally-accepted notion of war. In 4GW, lines that were formerly drawn in the sand in modern warfare are increasingly blurred or sometimes blurred to a vanishing point. There is no distinction between formal states of war and peace, no distinction between civilian and combatant, no definable battlefields or fronts.

4GW draws from all aspects of human society: political, social, military and economic means to defeat the enemy’s will to carry on fighting. This form of warfare can be carried out by states and also transnational or non-state organizations. It is reminiscent of the pre-modern era where the state held total sway over war, with various groups that were capable of using force so long as they had sufficient resources and motivation to do so.

This makes 4GW terribly different from 3GW, and frustratingly difficult for state militaries to fight against. As the battlefield includes the enemy’s whole society, to simply identify the enemy is already the most basic yet difficult task. On the other hand, it makes uniformed troops incredibly easy targets as they mark themselves clearly in large encampments and camouflaged fatigues that do not help them with hiding in plain sight. 4GW also deviously turns a nation-state’s greatest strengths against itself, rendering them into weaknesses.

Lind et al. (25-26) provide an excellent example in which terrorists are the ideal 4GW weapons against a powerful state with a liberal democratic political system. They can move freely within its society while actively working to subvert it. They use their human rights not only to penetrate but also to defend themselves. If the state treats them within their laws, they gain many legal protections. If the state simply shoots them on the spot, the free press can portray the slain terrorists as the victims. Terrorists can wage their war on their own terms while being protected by the very society they attack. If the society forces itself to set aside its own system of legal protections to deal with terrorists, the terrorists then score a victory of their own even if they were apprehended before given the opportunity to attack.

Read more

Leave a Reply