Fourth generation warfare
Fourth generation warfare (4GW) is conflict
War is a state of organized, armed, and often prolonged conflict carried on between states, nations, or other parties typified by extreme aggression, social disruption, and usually high mortality. War should be understood as an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political...

 characterized by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, soldier and civilian.

The term was first used in 1989 by a team of United States analysts, including William S. Lind
William S. Lind
William S. Lind is an American expert on military affairs and a pundit on cultural conservatism.-Education:Lind graduated from Dartmouth College in 1969 and from Princeton University in 1971, where he received a Master's Degree in history.-Military expertise:Alongside several U.S. officers, Lind...

, to describe warfare's return to a decentralized form. In terms of generational modern warfare, the fourth generation signifies the nation states' loss of their near-monopoly on combat forces, returning to modes of conflict common in pre-modern times.

The simplest definition includes any war in which one of the major participants is not a state
Sovereign state
A sovereign state, or simply, state, is a state with a defined territory on which it exercises internal and external sovereignty, a permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood to be a state which is neither...

 but rather a violent non-state actor. Classical examples, such as the slave uprising under Spartacus
Third Servile War
The Third Servile War , also called the Gladiator War and the War of Spartacus by Plutarch, was the last of a series of unrelated and unsuccessful slave rebellions against the Roman Republic, known collectively as the Roman Servile Wars...

 or the assassination of Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

 by members of the Roman senate, predate the modern concept of warfare and are examples of this type of conflict.

As such, fourth generation warfare uses classical tactics—tactics deemed unacceptable by traditional modern thinking—to weaken the advantaged opponent's will to win.


Fourth generation warfare is defined as conflicts which involve the following elements:
  • Are complex and long term
  • Terrorism
    Terrorism is the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion. In the international community, however, terrorism has no universally agreed, legally binding, criminal law definition...

  • A non-national or transnational base—highly decentralized
  • A direct attack on the enemy's culture
  • Highly sophisticated psychological warfare
    Psychological warfare
    Psychological warfare , or the basic aspects of modern psychological operations , have been known by many other names or terms, including Psy Ops, Political Warfare, “Hearts and Minds,” and Propaganda...

    , especially through media manipulation
    Media manipulation
    Media manipulation is an aspect of public relations in which partisans create an image or argument that favours their particular interests. Such tactics may include the use of logical fallacies and propaganda techniques, and often involve the suppression of information or points of view by crowding...

     and lawfare
    Lawfare is a recently coined word not yet appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary, a portmanteau of the words 'law' and 'warfare', said to describe a form of asymmetric warfare...

  • All available pressures are used - political, economic, social and military
  • Occurs in low intensity conflict
    Low intensity conflict
    Low intensity conflict is the use of military forces applied selectively and with restraint to enforce compliance with the policies or objectives of the political body controlling the military force...

    , involving actors from all networks
  • Non-combatants are tactical dilemmas
  • Lack of hierarchy
  • Small in size, spread out network of communication and financial support
  • Use of Insurgency and guerrilla tactics
    Guerrilla warfare
    Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare and refers to conflicts in which a small group of combatants including, but not limited to, armed civilians use military tactics, such as ambushes, sabotage, raids, the element of surprise, and extraordinary mobility to harass a larger and...


The concept was first described by the authors William S. Lind
William S. Lind
William S. Lind is an American expert on military affairs and a pundit on cultural conservatism.-Education:Lind graduated from Dartmouth College in 1969 and from Princeton University in 1971, where he received a Master's Degree in history.-Military expertise:Alongside several U.S. officers, Lind...

, Colonel Keith Nightengale (US Army), Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (US Army), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR) in a 1989 Marine Corps Gazette
Marine Corps Gazette
Marine Corps Gazette is a professional journal for U.S. Marines founded in 1916 at Marine Corps Base Quantico for members of the United States Marine Corps. Begun by then Col John A. Lejeune as the vehicle to launch the Marine Corps Association , the journal is known as "The Professional Journal...

article entitled “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”. In 2006, the concept was expanded upon by USMC Colonel (Ret.) Thomas X. Hammes in his well-received book, The Sling and The Stone.

The generations of warfare described by these authors are:
  • 1st Generation
    First generation warfare
    First generation warfare is a term created by the U.S. military in 1989, referring to the earliest stages of organized, state-controlled armed forces waging war in the modern era....

    : tactics of line and column; which developed in the age of the smoothbore musket
    A musket is a muzzle-loaded, smooth bore long gun, fired from the shoulder. Muskets were designed for use by infantry. A soldier armed with a musket had the designation musketman or musketeer....

    . Lind describes First Generation of warfare as beginning after the Peace of Westphalia
    Peace of Westphalia
    The Peace of Westphalia was a series of peace treaties signed between May and October of 1648 in Osnabrück and Münster. These treaties ended the Thirty Years' War in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Dutch Republic, with Spain formally recognizing the...

     in 1648 ending the Thirty Years’ War and establishing the state’s need to organize and conduct war. 1GW consisted of tightly ordered soldiers with top-down discipline. These troops would fight in close order and advance slowly. This began to change as the battlefield changed. Old line and column tactics were now suicidal as the bow and arrow/sword morphed into the rifle and machine gun.
  • 2nd Generation
    Second generation warfare
    Second generation warfare is a term created by the U.S. military in 1989, referring to the tactics of warfare used after the invention of the rifled musket and breech-loading weapons and continuing through the development of the machine gun and indirect fire....

    : tactics of linear fire and movement, with reliance on indirect fire
    Indirect fire
    Indirect fire means aiming and firing a projectile in a high trajectory without relying on a direct line of sight between the gun and its target, as in the case of direct fire...

    . This type of warfare can be seen the early stages of WWI, where there was still strict adherence to drill and discipline of formation and uniform, but the dependence on artillery and firepower to break the stalemate and move towards a pitched battle
    Pitched battle
    A pitched battle is a battle where both sides choose to fight at a chosen location and time and where either side has the option to disengage either before the battle starts, or shortly after the first armed exchanges....

  • 3rd Generation
    Third generation warfare
    Third generation warfare is a term created by the U.S. military in 1989, referring to the tactics of warfare used after the Wehrmacht's development of the blitzkrieg....

    : tactics of infiltration to bypass and collapse the enemy's combat forces rather than seeking to close with and destroy them; and defence in depth
    Defence in depth
    Defence in depth is a military strategy; it seeks to delay rather than prevent the advance of an attacker, buying time and causing additional casualties by yielding space...

    . The 3GW military seeks to bypass the enemy, and attack his rear forward, such as the tactics used by German Storm Troopers in WWI against the British and French in order to break the trench warfare stalemate (Lind 2004). These aspects of 3GW bleed into 4GW as it is also warfare of speed and initiative. However, it targets both military forces and home populations.

The use of fourth generation warfare can be traced to the Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...

 period, as superpower
A superpower is a state with a dominant position in the international system which has the ability to influence events and its own interests and project power on a worldwide scale to protect those interests...

s and major powers attempted to retain their grip on colonies and captured territories. Unable to withstand direct combat against bomber
A bomber is a military aircraft designed to attack ground and sea targets, by dropping bombs on them, or – in recent years – by launching cruise missiles at them.-Classifications of bombers:...

s, tank
A tank is a tracked, armoured fighting vehicle designed for front-line combat which combines operational mobility, tactical offensive, and defensive capabilities...

s, and machine gun
Machine gun
A machine gun is a fully automatic mounted or portable firearm, usually designed to fire rounds in quick succession from an ammunition belt or large-capacity magazine, typically at a rate of several hundred rounds per minute....

s, non-state entities used tactics of education/propaganda, movement-building, secrecy, terror, and/or confusion to overcome the technological gap.

Fourth generation warfare has often involved an insurgent
Insurgent, insurgents or insurgency can refer to:* The act of insurgency-Specific insurgencies:* Iraqi insurgency, uprising in Iraq* Insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, uprising in India* Insurgency in North-East India...

 group or other violent non-state actor trying to implement their own government or reestablish an old government over the current ruling power. However, a fourth generation war is most successful (from the underdog's viewpoint) when the non-state entity does not attempt, at least in the short term, to impose its own rule, but tries simply to disorganize and delegitimize the state
Sovereign state
A sovereign state, or simply, state, is a state with a defined territory on which it exercises internal and external sovereignty, a permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood to be a state which is neither...

 in which the warfare takes place.

The aim is to force the state adversary to expend manpower and money in an attempt to establish order, ideally in such a highhanded way that it merely increases disorder, until the state surrenders or withdraws.

Fourth generation warfare is often seen in conflicts involving failed states and civil wars, particularly in conflicts involving non-state actors, intractable ethnic or religious issues, or gross conventional military disparities. Many of these conflicts occur in the geographic area described by author Thomas Barnett
Thomas Barnett
Thomas P.M. Barnett is an American military geostrategist and Chief Analyst at Wikistrat.-Education and career:Barnett was born in Chilton, Wisconsin, and grew up in Boscobel, Wisconsin. A distant cousin, Major General George Barnett , was Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps during World War I...

 as the Non-Integrating Gap, fought by countries from the globalised Functioning Core.

4GW has much in common with traditional low-intensity conflict in its classical forms of insurgency and guerrilla war. As in those small wars, the conflict is initiated by the weaker party through actions which can be termed “offensive.” The difference lies in the manner in which 4GW opponents adapt those traditional concepts to present day conditions. These conditions are shaped by technology, globalization, religious fundamentalism and a shift in moral and ethical norms which brings legitimacy to certain issues previously considered restrictions on the conduct of war. This amalgamation and metamorphosis produces novel ways of war for both the entity on the offensive and that on the defensive.

Characteristics of fourth generation warfare

Fourth generation warfare is normally characterized by a violent non-state actor (VNSA) fighting a state
Sovereign state
A sovereign state, or simply, state, is a state with a defined territory on which it exercises internal and external sovereignty, a permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood to be a state which is neither...

. This fighting can be physically done, such as by modern examples Hezbollah or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was a separatist militant organization formerly based in northern Sri Lanka. Founded in May 1976 by Vellupillai Prabhakaran, it waged a violent secessionist and nationalist campaign to create an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka for Tamil...

 (LTTE). In this realm the VNSA uses all three levels of fourth generation warfare. These are the physical (actual combat; it is considered the least important), mental (the will to fight, belief in victory, etc.) and moral (the most important, this includes cultural norms, etc.) levels.

A 4GW enemy has the following characteristics: lacks hierarchal authority, lack of formal structure, patience and flexibility, ability to keep a low profile when needed, and small size. A 4GW adversary might use the tactics of an insurgent, terrorist, or guerrilla in order to wage war against a nation's infastructure. Fourth generation warfare takes place on all fronts: economical, political, the media, military, and civilian.

Resistance can also be below the physical level of violence
Violence is the use of physical force to apply a state to others contrary to their wishes. violence, while often a stand-alone issue, is often the culmination of other kinds of conflict, e.g...

. This is via non-violent means, such as Gandhi’s opposition to the British Empire
British Empire
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At its height, it was the...

 or Martin Luther King’s marches. Both desired their factions to deescalate the conflict while the state escalates against them, the objective being to target the opponent on the moral and mental levels rather than the physical level. The state is then seen as a bully and loses support.

Another characteristic of fourth generation warfare is that as with third generation warfare
Third generation warfare
Third generation warfare is a term created by the U.S. military in 1989, referring to the tactics of warfare used after the Wehrmacht's development of the blitzkrieg....

, the VNSA’s forces are decentralized. With fourth generation warfare there may even be no single organisation and that smaller groups organize into impromptu alliances to target a bigger threat (that being the state armed forces or another faction). As a result these alliances are weak and if the state’s military leadership is smart enough they can split their enemy and cause them to fight amongst themselves.

Fourth generation warfare goals:
  • Survival
  • To convince the enemy’s political decision makers that their goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit

Yet another factor is that political centers of gravity have changed. These centers of gravity may revolve around nationalism
Nationalism is a political ideology that involves a strong identification of a group of individuals with a political entity defined in national terms, i.e. a nation. In the 'modernist' image of the nation, it is nationalism that creates national identity. There are various definitions for what...

, religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

, or family or clan honor.

Disaggregated forces, such as guerrillas, terrorists and riot
A riot is a form of civil disorder characterized often by what is thought of as disorganized groups lashing out in a sudden and intense rash of violence against authority, property or people. While individuals may attempt to lead or control a riot, riots are thought to be typically chaotic and...

ers, lacking a center of gravity, deny to their enemies a focal point at which to deliver a conflict ending blow. As a result strategy becomes more problematic while combating a VNSA.

It has been theorized that a state vs. state conflict in fourth generation warfare would involve the use of computer hackers
Hacker (computer security)
In computer security and everyday language, a hacker is someone who breaks into computers and computer networks. Hackers may be motivated by a multitude of reasons, including profit, protest, or because of the challenge...

 and international law
International law
Public international law concerns the structure and conduct of sovereign states; analogous entities, such as the Holy See; and intergovernmental organizations. To a lesser degree, international law also may affect multinational corporations and individuals, an impact increasingly evolving beyond...

 to obtain the weaker side’s objectives, the logic being that the civilians of the stronger state would lose the will to fight as a result of seeing their state engage in alleged atrocities and having their own bank accounts harmed.

Criticism of the theory

Strategic Studies Institute
Strategic Studies Institute
The Strategic Studies Institute is the U.S. Army's institute for strategic and national security research and analysis. It is part of the U.S. Army War College. SSI conducts strategic research and analysis to support the U.S. Army War College curricula, provides direct analysis for Army and...

 writer Antulio J. Echevarria II in an article Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths argues what is being called fourth generation warfare are simply insurgencies. He also claims that 4GW was "reinvented" by Lind to create the appearance of having predicted the future. Echevarria writes: “the generational model is an ineffective way to depict changes in warfare. Simple displacement rarely takes place, significant developments typically occur in parallel."

Thornton argues that Hammes and Lind are "providing an analytical lens through which to view the type of opposition that exists now 'out there' and to highlight the shortcomings of the current US military in dealing with that opposition." Instead of fourth generation warfare being an explanation for a new way of warfare it allows the blending of different generations of warfare with the exception that fourth generation also encompasses new technology. Fourth generation warfare theorists such as Lind and Hammes wish to make the point "is not just that the military's structure and equipment are ill-suited to the 4GW problem, but so is its psyche".


  • General Raul Baduel
    Raúl Baduel
    Raúl Isaías Baduel is a Venezuelan politician, retired general, and former Defense Minister under President Hugo Chávez. He was a member of Chavez' MBR-200, joining in December 1982.-Military:...

    , a graduate of the School of the Americas and ex-defense minister of Venezuela
    Venezuela , officially called the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela , is a tropical country on the northern coast of South America. It borders Colombia to the west, Guyana to the east, and Brazil to the south...

    , accused the United States of waging a fourth generation war against Hugo Chavez
    Hugo Chávez
    Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías is the 56th and current President of Venezuela, having held that position since 1999. He was formerly the leader of the Fifth Republic Movement political party from its foundation in 1997 until 2007, when he became the leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela...

    's Bolivarian Revolution
    Bolivarian Revolution
    The “Bolivarian Revolution” refers to a leftist social movement and political process in Venezuela led by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the founder of the Fifth Republic Movement...

     in 2005.

See also

  • Asymmetric warfare
    Asymmetric warfare
    Asymmetric warfare is war between belligerents whose relative military power differs significantly, or whose strategy or tactics differ significantly....

  • Counter-insurgency
    A counter-insurgency or counterinsurgency involves actions taken by the recognized government of a nation to contain or quell an insurgency taken up against it...

  • Divide and rule
    Divide and rule
    In politics and sociology, divide and rule is a combination of political, military and economic strategy of gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into chunks that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy...

  • H. John Poole
    H. John Poole
    H. John Poole is an American military author and Marine combat veteran of Vietnam, specializing in small unit and individual tactics. His books focus on the role, training, and skills of the individual infantry soldier and Marine, and on those of the combat NCOs...

     - writer on 4GW topics
  • Irregular warfare
    Irregular warfare
    Irregular warfare is warfare in which one or more combatants are irregular military rather than regular forces. Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare, and so is asymmetric warfare....

  • Michael G. Vickers
    Michael G. Vickers
    Michael G. Vickers was confirmed as the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16, 2011. Before becoming USD-I, Vickers served as United States Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict...

     - Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict
  • Military operations other than war
    Military operations other than war
    Military Operations Other Than War focus on deterring war, resolving conflict, promoting peace, and supporting civil authorities in response to domestic crises. The phrase and acronym was coined by the United States military during the 1990s, but it has since fallen out of use. The UK military...

     - concept that encompass the use of military capabilities across the range of military operations short of war
  • Military strategy
    Military strategy
    Military strategy is a set of ideas implemented by military organizations to pursue desired strategic goals. Derived from the Greek strategos, strategy when it appeared in use during the 18th century, was seen in its narrow sense as the "art of the general", 'the art of arrangement' of troops...

     - collective name for planning the conduct of warfare
  • War cycles
    War cycles
    The theory of war cycles holds that wars happen in cycles.-The cycles of war:The forerunner of the study of war cycles was Edward R Dewey, with Quincy Wright's monumental A Study of War adding impetus to the discipline...

     - the theory that wars happen in cycles
  • CIA's Special Activities Division
    Special Activities Division
    The Special Activities Division is a division in the United States Central Intelligence Agency's National Clandestine Service responsible for covert operations known as "special activities"...

  • Civilian casualty ratio
    Civilian casualty ratio
    In armed conflicts, the civilian casualty ratio is the ratio of civilian casualties to combatant casualties, or total casualties...

  • Unrestricted Warfare
    Unrestricted Warfare
    Unrestricted Warfare is a book on military strategy written in 1999 by two colonels in the People's Liberation Army, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui . Its primary concern is how a nation such as China can defeat a technologically superior opponent through a variety of means...

External links

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