“This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin — war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him. . . . It preys on economic unrest and ethnic conflicts. It requires in those situations where we must counter it, and these are the kinds of challenges that will be before us in the next decade if freedom is to be saved, a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of military training.”
- President John F. Kennedy addressing the West Point Class of 1962.
Modern warfare today has taken on a new form and grown to new levels. This type of warfare is not new, and few of the tactics are new. Classical examples, such as the slave uprising under Spartacus defeating the Roman army at every battle, predate the modern concept of asymmetric warfare and are examples of this type of conflict. What is new is that — for the very first time — this type of war has recently reached a global level — and the western armies and its allies have found themselves ill prepared. Many strategists and theorists have attempted to grasp the concept of the war we are facing today, yet none has adequately given it an accurate definition and understanding. Specially no one in Latin America.
This short article surveys some of the history and literature of asymmetric warfare and how it mutates into Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW), citing and critiquing some of the best attempts to define the term. Here we will try to discuss the term, its concepts and its implications, and will attempt to propose our own definition in an effort to resurrect the term before it becomes completely obsolete. History and common sense indicates that in the 21st century — and for a wide variety of reasons — most of the Latin American armed forces will continue to engage in asymmetric warfare regardless of the type of enemy they engage. Even while they plan and hope in the very near future to execute traditional wars, such conflicts will initially have many asymmetric elements and implications, especially after the traditional war has been won, but then will be a series of events that will quickly transform the battlefield into Fourth Generation brutal warfare.
War is Changing
War always changes. Our enemies learn and adapt, and they adapt very, very quickly. We must do the same or lose. But today, war is changing even faster and on a larger scale than at any time in the last 500 years. We are not only facing rapid change in how war is fought, but we are also facing radical changes in who fights and what they are fighting for. Asymmetric enemies are bound by neither the laws of land warfare nor the Geneva Conventions. They routinely direct violent action against civilians. Especially against women and children. They use tactics of terror and horrific images. Many terrorists and insurgents are also willing to sacrifice their own lives for their cause in a suicide strike. All of these must be weighed when planning to fight an asymmetric enemy. No atrocity is beyond this enemy’s capability.
Just take a look at Paris, London and Madrid. All over the world, governments and nation-state military forces, find themselves fighting non-state opponents. This kind of war, which we call Fourth Generation war, is a very difficult challenge. Almost always, state militaries have vast superiority over their non-state opponents in most of the areas we call "combat power" such as firepower, technology, weapons, techniques, training, etc. Despite these superiorities, more often than not, state militaries end up losing.
The Root of the Problem
Before you can fight Fourth Generation war successfully, you have to understand it. Because it is something new (at least in our time), no one understands it completely. It is still evolving, which means our understanding must continue to evolve as well. This article lays out our best current understanding of the Fourth Generation of Modern War.
At the heart of this phenomenon, Fourth Generation war is not a military but a political, social and moral revolution: a crisis of legitimacy of the state. All over the world, citizens of states are transferring their primary allegiance away from the state to other things like ethnic groups, religions, terrorist groups, cartel gangs, extreme ideologies and so on. Many people who will no longer fight for their state will fight for their new primary loyalty. In Iraq, the Iraqi state armed forces showed little fighting spirit, but the Iraqi insurgents whose loyalties are to non-state elements are now waging a hard-fought and effective guerrilla war.
The fact that the root of Fourth Generation war is a political, social and moral phenomenon, the decline of the state, means that there can be no purely military solution to Fourth Generation threats. Military force is incapable, by itself, of restoring legitimacy to a corrupt state lead by corrupt politicians. This is especially the case when the military force is foreign; usually, its mere presence will further undermine the legitimacy of the state it is attempting to support. This is not just a problem; it is a dilemma and one of the several challenges professional soldiers will face in the Fourth Generation battlefield.
The First Three Generations of Modern War.
The Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu said: "He who understands himself and understands his enemy will prevail in one hundred battles." In order to understand both ourselves and our enemies in Fourth Generation conflicts, it is helpful to use the full framework of the Four Generations of modern war.
What are the first three generations?
First Generation warfare
This type of war was fought with line and column tactics or, in other words, in a one-dimensional type of battlefield. It lasted from the Peace of Westphalia until around the time of the American Civil War. Its importance for us today is that the First Generation battlefield was usually a battlefield of order, and the battlefield of order created a culture of order in state militaries. Most of the things that define the difference between "military" and "civilian" such as saluting, uniforms, careful gradations of rank, etc., are products of the First Generation and exist to reinforce a military culture of order. Just as most state militaries are still designed to fight other state militaries, so they also continue to embody the First Generation culture of order.
The problem is that, starting around the middle of the 19th century, the order of the battlefield began to break down. In the face of mass armies, nationalism that made soldiers want to fight and technological developments such as the rifled musket, the breechloader, barbed wire and machine guns, the old line and column tactics became suicidal. But as the battlefield became more and more disorderly, state militaries remained locked into a culture of order. The military culture that in the First Generation had been consistent with the battlefield became increasingly contradictory to it. That contradiction is one of the reasons state militaries have so much difficulty in Fourth Generation war, where not only is the battlefield disordered, but so is the entire society and the region in which the conflict is taking place.
Second Generation warfare
Second Gen warfare was developed by the French Army during and after World War I. It dealt with the increasing disorder of the battlefield by attempting to impose order on it. Second Generation war, also sometimes called firepower and attrition warfare, relied on centrally controlled indirect artillery fire, carefully synchronized with infantry, cavalry and aviation, to destroy the enemy by killing his soldiers and blowing up his equipment. The French summarized Second Generation war with the phrase: "The artillery conquers, the infantry occupies."
Second Generation war also preserved the military culture of order. Second Generation militaries focused inward on orders, rules, processes and procedures. There is a "school solution" for every problem. Battles are fought methodically, so prescribed methods drive training and education, where the goal is perfection of detail in execution. The Second Generation military culture, like the First, values obedience over smart initiative (initiative is feared because it disrupts synchronization) and relies on imposed discipline.
Third Generation warfare
Third Gen warfare, also called maneuver warfare, was developed by the German Army during World War I. Third Generation war dealt with the disorderly battlefield not by trying to impose order on it but by adapting to disorder and taking advantage of it. Third Generation war relied less on firepower than on speed and tempo. It sought to present the enemy with unexpected and dangerous situations faster than he could cope with them, pulling him apart mentally as well as physically.
The German Army's new Third Generation infantry tactics were the first nonlinear tactics. Instead of trying to hold a line in the defense, the object was to draw the enemy in, then cut him off, putting whole enemy units "in the bag." On the offensive, the German "stormtroop tactics" of 1918 flowed like water around enemy strong points, reaching deep into the enemy's rear area and also rolling his forward units up from the flanks and rear. These World War I infantry tactics, when used by armored and mechanized formations in World War II, became known as Blitzkrieg.
Just as Third Generation war broke with linear tactics, it also broke with the First and Second Generation culture of order. Third Generation militaries focus outward on the situation, the enemy, and the result the situation requires. Leaders at every level are expected to get that result, regardless of orders. Military education is designed to develop military judgment, not teach processes or methods, and most training is force-on-force free play because only free play approximates the disorder of combat. Third Generation military culture also values initiative over obedience, tolerating mistakes so long as they do not result from timidity, and it relies on self-discipline rather than imposed discipline, because only self-discipline is compatible with initiative. When Second and Third Generation war met in combat in the German campaign against France in 1940, the Second Generation French Army was defeated completely and quickly; the campaign was over in six weeks. Both armies had similar technology, and the French actually had more (and better) tanks, weapons and aircraft. Ideas, tactics and superior intellect, not weapons, dictated the outcome.
Despite the fact that Third Generation war proved its decisive superiority more than 60 years ago, most of the world's state armed forces remain Second Generation. The reason is cultural; they cannot make the break with the culture of order that the Third Generation requires. This is another reason why, around the world, state armed forces are not doing well against non-state enemies. Second Generation militaries fight by putting firepower on targets, and Fourth Generation fighters are very good at making themselves "not available" for aerial bombing. Virtually all Fourth Generation forces are free of the First Generation culture of order; they focus outward, they prize initiative and, because they are highly decentralized, they rely on self-discipline. Second Generation state armed forces are largely helpless against them.
Fourth-generation warfare (4GW) is conflict characterized by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, combatants and civilians. The simplest definition includes any war in which one of the major participants is not a state but rather a violent non-state actor.
Fourth-generation warfare has often involved an insurgent group or other violent non-state actor trying to implement their own government or re-establish an old religious government over the current ruling power. However, a non-state entity tends to be more successful when it does not attempt, at least in the short term, to impose its own rule, but tries simply to disorganize and delegitimize the state 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 are heavily active right now in the Middle East and are now rapidly moving into Europe and in Latin America.
Fourth-generation warfare (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.
Make no mistake, Fourth-generation guerrilla fighters can be defeated by the State if the political decision is made — with a legally executed document — containing the purpose and determination to allow the military forces the freedom of action to act decisively against a doctrine of pure evil and darkness. But you can’t defeat them by following their rules.
Mr. Pizarro, 47, is a former U.S. Marine with an extensive operational background in both the Latin American region and with the U.S. armed forces. He also served in the Chilean Army as an artillery officer and later as a senior security advisor/contractor for four years in the Middle East. Mr. Pizarro also worked for CNN en Español as a military analyst. He lives in Washington, DC, with his family. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org