Institute for the Study of Asymmetric Conflict

Is Fourth Generation Warfare really new?

Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) is often touted as the newest phase in the evolution of warfare, the shape of things to come in modern conflicts. After all, it's fairly clear that conflicts are increasingly fought by non-state actors rather than (or against) states.  Fourth-generation warfare is all about the battle for hearts and minds, rather than the conquest of territory, and would appear to be especially suited to resource-poor substate actors than to states, which still rely on hard power to project influence.

But is there there really anything new in all this? As with any worthwhile question, the answer is "yes and no".

The problem with the whole "generation" paradigm is that it assumes that one generation supplants another, in a single uniform chronology. This simply doesn't work, except perhaps for the limited case of "1GW" (line and column), which is pretty indubitably obsolete given modern weapons technologies. (Still, if one defines "1GW" in terms of military organization rather than in terms of field tactics, you could make the point that 1GW is inherent in 2GW and 3GW, so it's not fully obsolete.)

Within a particular subset of situations - 17th to 21st centuries, more-or-less Western countries - you could make a case for the generational paradigm made famous by William S. Lind; and to be fair to Lind, I don't think he was saying anything more than this in the first place. Within this limited universe, heavier weaponry certainly made line-and-column formations obsolete; improved mobility and maneuvre tactics generally proved superior to the massed formations of 2GW; and current conflicts tend to be asymmetric, destroying many of the advantages of "modern" forces trained and equipped for 2GW and 3GW.

At the same time, it's also important to note that all these factors - organization, firepower, maneuvre, and various forms of "asymmetry" - have been around in some form for thousands of years, and have often coexisted. In this sense, it's folly to think of them as "generations", and the most we can say is that various developments have brought particular factors to the fore. For example, the development of artillery and rapid-fire weapons gave massed-firepower approaches an advantage (e.g. over traditional cavalry); but later developments in trucks, tanks, and aircraft enabled savvy military commanders to overcome disadvantages in raw force and, when things worked properly, overcome large, powerful armies by taking advantage of superior mobility.

This, I think, is how we should understand 4GW as a "new" generation: it's not at all new, but there are reasons that it has become particularly important in recent decades. While there is a lot of potential detail here, I would identify a few factors that are particularly relevant:

  1. Weapons of huge destructive potential, including (but not necessarily limited to) nuclear weapons, have pretty much eliminated the concept of "victory" in direct great-power conflicts - that is, there is no point in worrying about whether mobility trumps firepower in a conflict that can't be allowed to happen in the first place because it will likely result in a doomsday scenario where nobody wins.
  2. International organizations, including (but not limited to) the U.N., NATO, and the E.U., may not have brought on world peace - but they have considerably reduced the scope for traditional state-to-state warfare, particularly in the developed world.
  3. At the same time as (1) and (2) have reduced the prevalence of traditional warfare, a number of interrelated factors have greatly increased the potential of "fourth generational" conflict. These factors include the spread of democracy (including "true" and "quasi" democracy); the rapid spread of news and other (mis-)information, including both text and images; the increased importance of international trade; large-scale immigration (including gastarbeiters); and, most recently, social media.

All these factors (and the list isn't exhaustive) lead to a decrease in the importance of traditional (2G and 3G) warfare, particularly among developed states, and an increase in the importance and impact of 4GW. So while 4GW isn't really a "new generation" of conflict, in its current form it does represent something new in effect. 4GW-type impacts have until recently always been local and limited, since information flow was essentially slow, local, and limited in bandwidth, and in most societies only a small subset of the population's thoughts and feelings mattered. In my opinion, the whole question of "generations" is, in this regard, a waste of time and energy: Yes, the generational model is "false", but at the same time insisting on this level of "accuracy" obscures the much more important fact that today's world really is different from any time that preceded it, and asymmetric conflicts have a scope and importance that they never had in the past. In my opinion, this is "new" enough to justify the study of asymmetric conflict as a "new-ish" phenomenon, even if we don't fully accept the "generational" model and terminology.