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?

By Jason Vest

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—www.d-n-i.net—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."

As Spinney, Vandergriff, and Sayen observe, ever since the end of the Cold War the Pentagon has lagged in developing the correct military response to 4GW—a response that calls for reliance on smaller units versed in maneuver warfare. This kind of fighting eschews heavy firepower, attrition, and long-range, high-altitude bombardment. It favors joint-service operations and close-quarters combat involving small, fast-moving units with lighter equipment.

Under the leadership of Commandants Alfred Gray and Charles Krulak, the Marine Corps began implementing these ideas even before the Cold War ended. In 1999, when General Eric Shinseki became the Army's chief of staff, he made it clear that he, too, was a maneuver-warfare advocate, and stated that he wanted to be able to deploy a new, streamlined, medium-sized combat brigade anywhere in the world within ninety-six hours. Although many junior and mid-level officers were buoyed by Shinseki's ambitions, they have been disappointed by how little headway he has in fact made. One big obstacle: entrenched senior subordinates who are simply resistant to change. "Other chiefs of staff have tried to do this sort of thing," says one Army officer not enamored of his time at the Pentagon, "and like them, Shinseki has essentially been undermined by colonels who are more bureaucrats than warriors."

Who the soldier bureaucrats are—and how they got where they are and manage to stay there—is of particular interest to Donald Vandergriff, who has made an extensive study of the Army's personnel system and believes that now is the time to undertake a program of genuine reform. At the moment, he points out, the system isn't set up for optimal results against the kind of enemy the Boydians think is most likely to threaten America—the kind that attacked us on September 11. "This is not a war where you're going to fight a formation of opposing units," Vandergriff says. "And if you were really serious about acknowledging and addressing the reality of fourth-generation warfare, you would work hard to get and keep quality people in the military, and keep captains and NCOs and their units together longer so they have more cohesion and can train more effectively. We could also start by cutting the size of the officer corps—do we really need three hundred and eighty-six generals in the Army, each with a staff that generates its own paperwork? The current personnel system is in the industrial age and is at the heart of what's wrong with the system today."

And then there's the accounting system. Even though Defense Department auditors and congressional investigators have found that over the past five years the armed services couldn't account for tens of billions of dollars, no one has taken steps to change what amounts to standard operating procedure. If any other agency of the government failed, according to its own auditors, to account satisfactorily for such large amounts of money, an overhaul would be swift in coming.

In theory this is something that the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review—and its 2001 successor, which was delivered to Congress in September—should have addressed. Neither review did so. Spinney had proposed a one-year freeze on all budget programs, followed by a real effort to "get the Pentagon to think before it spends." This hasn't really happened. Although hastily rewritten to emphasize a commitment to "homeland defense" over missile defense, the most recent QDR is short on specifics and indefinitely postpones crucial decisions, notably on items such as personnel and procurement. It does keep three major fighter-aircraft projects alive—a victory for 2GW.

The possibility of a revolutionary overhaul of the military has grown remote. "The September 11 attacks," Spinney says, "which cost the perpetrators all of five-hundred thousand dollars, don't justify an increase in the defense budget—we're spending as much on defense already as the next fifteen countries do combined. Look at where the new money is going to go—it purports to help us deal with this problem, but it's going to fund all the other crap." Spinney says he won't be surprised if the money ends up getting used to buy more F-22s for the Air Force, more self-propelled Crusader howitzers for the Army, and more submarines for the Navy.

There is, however, an idea from World War II that is worth revisiting—one that both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the military leadership saw as eminently patriotic and also crucial to winning the war: Senator Harry S. Truman's Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. The committee's official mandate was to "investigate all activities" involving national defense; Truman himself described the job as being "to dig this stuff up now and correct it," and the Truman Committee ended up saving American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, with $40 billion earmarked for a major war against terrorism, many of those interviewed for this article argue that Congress must play a specific oversight role to ensure that the money is spent wisely and properly. This isn't something that should be left to any of the standing armed-services committees, which are compromised by longtime ties to defense contractors and the military bureaucracy. The job must fall to some new entity in Congress—something as new as the threats we now confront.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/12/fourth-generation-warfare/302368/