Fourth-Generation War and Other Myths

  • November 01, 2005
  • Dr Antulio J Echevarria II

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. 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 decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly. Further, the theory contends that this last form characterizes the terrorists' way of fighting today. Despite reinventing itself several times, the theory has several fundamental flaws that need to be exposed before it influences U.S. operational and strategic thinking. A critique of 4GW is both timely and important because examining the theory's assumptions exposes significant faults in other popular notions, such as the idea of nontrinitarian war, that might exert damaging influence over U.S. strategy and military doctrine. 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.