Military Affairs December 2001

Fourth-generation Warfare

Pentagon mavericks have been trying for decades to reorient military strategy toward a new kind of threat—the kind we're suddenly facing in the war on terrorism. Now that we've got the war they predicted, will we get the reforms they've been pushing for?

For all the tactical twists and turns in U.S. military planning during and since the Cold War, the basic strategic template has remained more or less the same. To simplify mightily, the emphasis has been on a doctrine of attrition and theater warfare against large, identifiable foes with professional standing armies. This strategy has gone hand in hand with an emphasis on costly high-tech weapons systems designed to project force from a distance. Some of these weapons systems are dubious, and the procurement system as a whole is characterized by cronyism, turf battles, and waste. To be sure, not everything about the traditional outlook is bad, and the American military is in important respects without parallel. It is capable of a crushing global reach, which in certain circumstances can destroy opposing forces with limited risk. But the U.S. military also has trouble reacting quickly, and it has tended to think far more about the kinds of battles we won't be fighting than about the real-world conflicts we're about to be embroiled in.

The terrorist attacks on the United States last September, orchestrated by the Osama bin Laden organization, have now placed the issue of the military's orientation plainly in the public view. In one corner stand advocates for something along the lines of the status quo (whatever they may now say about the need for "flexibility"). In the opposing corner are champions of the late John Boyd, a colonel in the Air Force and an innovative theorist who considered that large, expensive weapons systems that took forever to produce were as much of an enemy as hostile foreign powers. A student of Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz, Boyd advocated reforms—many of which have been successfully adopted by the Marine Corps but have met with resistance elsewhere, particularly in the Army—that stressed a number of interrelated elements. Chief among them: adaptability and agility as the driving forces of combat; weapons that are dependable, simple, and cheap; and decentralization of command and communications, so that fighting units aren't at the mercy of layers of decision-makers.

The inheritor of Boyd's mantle is a Pentagon weapons analyst named Franklin C. "Chuck" Spinney, who has spent the past two decades arguing that static thinking, poor financial oversight, weapons-procurement bloat, and a personnel system that accentuates careerism over training have undermined America's war-fighting readiness. (For anyone interested in these topics, Spinney's Web site, Defense and the National Interest——is indispensable.) As Spinney sees it, the September 11 attacks call attention to something that a number of military reformers have been warning about for years: the advent of "fourth-generation warfare," and the fact that the U.S. military isn't ready for it. As Spinney observed on his Web site recently, the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center have "dispelled forever the notion that 4GW is just 'terrorism' or something that happens only in poverty-stricken Third World countries."

In the Boydian view, first-generation warfare was defined by close-order formations armed with guns to repel sword-and-bayonet cavalry and infantry, something the young Napoleon perfected. Second-generation warfare's winners were those who had the most, or the best-managed, firepower, enabling their forces to win through attrition—an approach mastered by the Prussian army. Third-generation warfare saw second-generation armies being agitated by decentralized attacks that, though brilliant, ultimately failed by virtue of an opponent's ability to wear the attacker down. An example would be the Ludendorff offensives of 1918, when an initially successful German drive against the Allies ultimately stalled.

In their essay "Why It Is Time to Adapt to Changing Conditions," which is included in the recent anthology Spirit, Blood and Treasure: The American Cost of Battle in the 21st Century, Spinney, Army Major Donald Vandergriff, and Marine Lieutenant Colonel John Sayen observe that even though the Cold War is over, American military doctrine is still firmly rooted in second-generation thinking, which better serves a largely politicized high command, Congress, and defense contractors than it does national security. In their view, the Clinton and Bush Administrations and the military establishment have been keeping alive defense projects that might have had some utility in a bygone era, while paying only lip service to doctrine and weapons for fourth-generation warfare.

Viewed in the context of military history, fourth-generation warfare is highly irregular. "Asymmetric" operations—in which a vast mismatch exists between the resources and philosophies of the combatants, and in which the emphasis is on bypassing an opposing military force and striking directly at cultural, political, or population targets—are a defining characteristic of fourth-generation warfare. The United States will face decentralized, non-state actors (perhaps supported by a rogue nation or two) who understand just how big an impact attacks on markets, communications, and cultural icons can have on the American psyche.

Spinney and his co-authors write, of the sorts of enemies that confront us in fourth-generation warfare,

They usually present few, if any, important targets vulnerable to conventional attack, and their followers are usually much more willing to fight and die for their causes. They seldom wear uniforms and may be difficult to distinguish from the general population. They are also far less hampered by convention and more likely to seek new and innovative means to achieve their objectives.

An enemy who employs 4GW tactics views whatever action he takes as one prong of a sustained campaign in the ser-vice of a political objective (and a political objective, despite all the focus on the bin Laden organization's religious zeal, is something bin Laden has). Contrary to advocates of standard U.S. military thinking, American proponents of 4GW see the role of the armed forces when confronted with this kind of situation as crucial but also of limited prominence—the military mission is tied closely to diplomatic, political, and economic initiatives that focus on eroding the enemy's popular support. "Perhaps most odd of all," Spinney has written on his Web site, "being seen as 'too successful' militarily may create a backlash, making the opponent's other elements of 4GW more effective."

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