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Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths

Authored by Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II. | November 2005

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Fourth Generation War (4GW) emerged in the late 1980s, but has become popular due to recent twists in the war in Iraq and terrorist attacks worldwide. Despite reinventing itself several times, the theory has several fundamental flaws that need to be exposed before they can cause harm to U.S. operational and strategic thinking. A critique of 4GW is both fortuitous and important because it also provides us an opportunity to attack other unfounded assumptions that could influence U.S. strategy and military doctrine.

In brief, the theory holds that warfare has evolved through four generations: 1) the use of massed manpower, 2) firepower, 3) maneuver, and now 4) an evolved form of insurgency that employs all available networks?political, economic, social, military?to convince an opponent?s decisionmakers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly.

The notion of 4GW first appeared in the late 1980s as a vague sort of ?out of the box? thinking, and it entertained every popular conjecture about future warfare. However, instead of examining the way terrorists belonging to Hamas or Hezbollah (or now Al Qaeda) actually behave, it misleadingly pushed the storm-trooper ideal as the terrorist of tomorrow. Instead of looking at the probability that such terrorists would improvise with respect to the weapons they used?box cutters, aircraft, and improvised explosive devices?it posited high-tech ?wonder? weapons.

The theory went through a second incarnation when the notion of nontrinitarian war came into vogue; but it failed to examine that notion critically. The theory also is founded on myths about the so-called Westphalian system and the theory of blitzkrieg. The theory of 4GW reinvented itself once again after September 11, 2001 (9/11), when its proponents claimed that Al Qaeda was waging a 4GW against the United States. Rather than thinking critically about future warfare, the theory?s proponents became more concerned with demonstrating that they had predicted the future. While their recommendations are often rooted in common sense, they are undermined by being tethered to an empty theory.

What we are really seeing in the war on terror, and the campaign in Iraq and elsewhere, is that the increased ?dispersion and democratization of technology, information, and finance? brought about by globalization has given terrorist groups greater mobility and access worldwide. At this point, globalization seems to aid the nonstate actor more than the state, but states still play a central role in the support or defeat of terrorist groups or insurgencies.

We would do well to abandon the theory of 4GW altogether, since it sheds very little, if any, light on this phenomenon.


In sum, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel with regard to insurgencies?super or otherwise?and their various kin. A great deal of very good work has already been done, especially lately, on that topic, to include the effects that globalization and information technologies have had, are having, and are likely to have, on such movements. We do not need another label, as well as an incoherent supporting logic, to obscure what many have already made clear. The fact that 4GW theorists are not aware of this work, or at least do not acknowledge it, should give us pause indeed. They have not kept up with the scholarship on unconventional wars, nor with changes in the historical interpretations of conventional wars. Their logic is too narrowly focused and irredeemably flawed. In any case, the wheel they have been reinventing will never turn.