Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths

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Antulio J. Echevarria II
November 2005
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This monograph is an expanded version of an article entitled "Deconstructing
the theory of Fourth-Generation War," published in the August 2005 symposium
of Contemporary Security Policy.

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ISBN 1-58487-225-X

In an era of broad and perhaps profound change, new theories and
concepts are to be welcomed rather than shunned. However, before
they are fully embraced, they need to be tested rigorously, for the
cost of implementing a false theory and developing operational and
strategic concepts around it can be greater than remaining wedded
to an older, but sounder one. The theory of Fourth Generation War
(4GW) is a perfect example. Were we to embrace this theory, a loose
collection of ideas that does not hold up to close scrutiny, the price
we might pay in a future conflict could be high indeed.
In this monograph, Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II provides a
critique of the theory of 4GW, examining its faulty assumptions and
the problems in its logic. He argues that the proponents of 4GW
undermine their own credibility by subscribing to this bankrupt
theory. If their aim is truly to create positive change, then they—
and we—would be better off jettisoning the theory and retaining the
traditional concept of insurgency, while modifying it to include the
greater mobility and access afforded by globalization.
Strategic Studies Institute

ANTULIO J. ECHEVARRIA II is the Director of Research, Director
of National Security Affairs, and Acting Chairman of the Regional
Strategy and Planning Department at the Strategic Studies Institute.
He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1981, was
commissioned as an armor officer, and has held a variety of command
and staff assignments in Germany and Continental United States.
Dr. Echevarria is the author of After Clausewitz: German Military
Thinkers before the Great War, published by the University Press of
Kansas (2001). He also has published articles in a number of scholarly
and professional journals to include the Journal of Military History, War
in History, War & Society, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Parameters,
Joint Force Quarterly, Military Review, and Airpower Journal. He is
currently working on two books: a study of Clausewitz’s ideas, and
a comparison of military and civilian visions of future war before
1914. Dr. Echevarria is a graduate of the U.S. Army’s Command and
General Staff College and the U.S. Army War College, and holds
M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in History from Princeton University.

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.

Although the theory of Fourth Generation War (4GW) emerged
in the late 1980s, it has gained considerable popularity of late,
particularly as a result of recent twists in the war in Iraq and the
terrorist attacks in London, Sharm al-Sheikh, and elsewhere. We
examine the theory here for two reasons. First, despite a number of
profound and incurable flaws, the theory’s proponents continue to
push it, an activity that only saps intellectual energy badly needed
elsewhere. Rather than advancing or reinventing a bankrupt
theory, the advocates of 4GW should redirect their efforts toward
finding ways to broaden the scope and increase the depth of
defense transformation. Second, some aspects of the theory have
much in common with other popular myths such as the notion of
nontrinitarian war, the impact of the Peace of Westphalia, and the
existence of blitzkrieg doctrine—myths that, in no small way, have
also influenced thinking about the future of war. Hence, a close
examination of 4GW provides us an opportunity to expose fallacies
common to a number of popular notions about war—past, present,
and future.
Over the decade-and-a-half or so of the theory’s existence, 4GW
has reinvented itself several times, taking advantage of the latest
developments in technology or tactics, and whatever ideas or theories
happened to be in vogue. Described in brief, the theory’s proponents
now claim that 4GW is an “evolved” form of insurgency, much like
the one that has emerged in Iraq:
The first generation of modern war was dominated by massed manpower
and culminated in the Napoleonic Wars. The second generation, which
was quickly adopted by the world’s major powers, was dominated by
firepower and ended in World War I. In relatively short order, during World
War II the Germans introduced third-generation warfare, characterized
by maneuver. That type of combat is still largely the focus of U.S. forces
. . . [4GW is an] evolved form of insurgency [that] uses all available
networks—political, economic, social, military—to convince the enemy’s
decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too
costly for the perceived benefit [emphasis added].1

This monograph argues that we need to drop the theory of 4GW
altogether; it is fundamentally and hopelessly flawed, and creates
more confusion than it eliminates. To be sure, the concept rightly
takes issue with the networkcentric vision of future warfare for being
too focused on technology and for overlooking the countermeasures
an intelligent, adaptive enemy might employ.2 However, the
model of 4GW has serious problems of its own: it is based on poor
history and only obscures what other historians, theorists, and
analysts already have worked long and hard to clarify. Some 4GW
proponents, such as Colonel Thomas Hammes, author of The Sling
and the Stone, see the theory as little more than a vehicle, a tool, to
generate a vital dialogue aimed at correcting deficiencies in U.S.
military doctrine, training, and organization.3 For his part, Hammes
is to be commended for his willingness to roll up his sleeves and do
the hard work necessary to promote positive change. However, the
tool that he employs undermines his credibility. In fact, the theory of
4GW only undermines the credibility of anyone who employs it in
the hope of inspiring positive change. Change is taking place despite,
not because of, this theory. Put differently, if the old adage is true
that correctly identifying the problem is half the solution, then the
theorists of 4GW have made the problem twice as hard as it should
The notion of 4GW first appeared in the late 1980s as a vague
sort of “out of the box” thinking. The idea was itself an open box of
sorts into which every conjecture about future warfare was thrown.
As its inaugural essay shows, it was nothing more than a series of
“what-ifs,” albeit severely limited by a ground-oriented bias. In its
earliest stages, 4GW amounted to an accumulation of speculative
rhapsodies that blended a maneuver-theorist’s misunderstanding
of the nature of terrorism with a futurist’s infatuation with “high
technology.”4 The kind of terrorists that 4GW theorists described,
for instance, behaved more like German storm troopers of 1918, or
Robert Heinlein’s starship troopers of the distant future. Highly
intelligent and capable of fighting individually or in small groups,

these future terrorists would first seek to infiltrate a society and then
attempt to collapse it from within by means of an ill-defined psycho-
cultural “judo throw” of sorts.5
Instead of this fanciful approach, what terrorist groups such as
Hamas, Hezbollah, and (to a lesser extent) Al Qaeda actually have
done is integrated themselves into the social and political fabric
of Muslim societies worldwide. Hamas and Hezbollah, especially,
have established themselves as organizations capable of addressing
the everyday problems of their constituencies: setting up day cares,
kindergartens, schools, medical clinics, youth and women’s centers,
sports clubs, social welfare, programs for free meals, and health
care.6 Each has also become a powerful political party within their
respective governments. In other words, rather than collapsing from
within the societies of which they are a part, Hamas and Hezbollah
have turned their constituencies into effective weapons by creating
strong social, political, and religious ties with them; in short, they
have become communal activists for their constituencies, which have,
in turn, facilitated the construction and maintenance of substantial
financial and logistical networks and safe houses.7 This support then
aids in the regeneration of the terrorist groups. Hence, attacks by
Hamas and Hezbollah are not designed to implode a society, but to
change the political will of their opponents through selective—even
precise—targeting of innocents. Al Qaeda is somewhat different in
that its goal is to spark a global uprising, or intifada, among Muslims,
and its attacks have been designed to weaken the United States, other
Western powers, and Muslim governments in order to prepare the
way for that uprising.8 Pursuant to that goal, it and groups sympathetic
to it have launched attacks that in 2004 alone killed about 1,500 and
wounded about 4,000 people, not including the many victims of
operations in Iraq; one-third of all attacks involved non-Western
targets, but the bulk of the victims overall were Muslims.9 Still, even
its tactics are not the psychological “judo throw” envisioned by 4GW
theorists, but an attempt to inflict as many casualties and as much
destruction as possible in the hope of provoking a response massive
enough to trigger a general uprising by the Islamic community.
Moreover, the types of high-technology that 4GW’s proponents
envisioned terrorists using includes such Wunderwaffe as directed
energy weapons and robotics, rather than the cell phones and

internet that terrorists actually use today. 4GW theorists also failed
to account for the fact that many 21st century wars, such as those
that unfolded in Rwanda and the Sudan, would be characterized by
wholesale butchery with “old-fashioned” weapons such as assault
rifles and machetes wreaking a terrible toll in lives. Even in the so-
called information age, the use of brute force remains an effective
tactic in many parts of the world.
The theory’s proponents also speculated that the super-terrorists
of the future might not have a “traditional” national base or identity,
but rather a “non-national or transnational one, such as an ideology
or a religion.”10 However, from an historical standpoint, this
condition has been the norm rather than the exception. Indeed, it
characterizes many, if not most, of the conventional conflicts of the
past, such as World War II, which was fought along ideological lines
and within a transnational framework of opposing global alliances,
rather than a simple nation-state structure as is commonly supposed.
While states were clearly advancing their own interests, they tended
to do so by forming alliances along ideological lines. Nazism was,
from its very outset, inimical to Western-style democracy and to
Soviet-style socialism. So, even though democracy and socialism are
ideologically incompatible, each saw Nazism as the greater threat,
and formed a tentative alliance of sorts. To be sure, conventional
forces and tactics predominated in this conflict, but unconventional
means were clearly important as well. The Cold War is another
example of a conflict fought along ideological lines; it followed in
the wake of the defeat of Nazism, as the alliance between Western
democracy and Soviet socialism ended and gave way to a subsequent
realignment along ideological lines; this war was also fought within
a transnational more than a national framework, though most of the
violence occurred in peripheral wars or in covert operations. The
Arab-Israeli wars and the Vietnam conflict, all of which took place
within the larger context of the ideological struggle of the Cold War,
offer still further examples: they were national struggles on one level,
but on another level they served as the means in a larger ideological
It is more than a little puzzling, therefore, that the architects
of 4GW should have asserted that U.S. military capabilities are
“designed to operate within a nation-state framework and have

Document Outline

  • Foreword
  • About the Author
  • Summary
  • Introduction
  • First Incarnation
  • Second Incarnation
    • Fallacy of Nontrinitarian War.
    • Myth of Westphalia.
  • Third Incarnation
    • Blitzkrieg Myth.
  • Conclusion
  • Endnotes