Fifth Generation Warfare

Oct. 12, 2009

As a nation at war, taxpayer dollars spent on defense capabilities must be spent wisely. That spending, however, stands on potentially shaky ground. The concept which underpins the whole of Army Transformation is called 4th Generation Warfare (4WG). This concept, as we shall see, is flawed on several levels. Additionally, the concept is incomplete – we are actually witnessing the emergence of a 5th Generation of Warfare.


The promulgators of the theory of 4th Generation Warfare (4GW) state the following (Wilcox and Wilson):


“First generation warfare was reflective of tactics and technology in the time of the smoothbore musket and Napoleon. The tactics were of line, column, and mass armies. According to the authors, vestiges of the first generation of warfare exist today in the desire for linearity and rigid adherence to drill and ceremonies. The battle lines at Gettysburg are reminiscent of first generation warfare with straight lines and mass charges into the mouths of cannons.

"It is significant that those civilizations that did not adhere to this generational change in warfare were quickly subdued, and in many cases colonized. European states took advantage of this newer form of warfare to subdue much larger countries, such as India.

"Second generation warfare…was in response to the technological improvements in firepower and communications, particularly the railroad. It was based on fire and movement, but the essence was still attrition warfare, i.e., heavy applications of firepower. … Tactically, World War I, as practiced by the French and British, and Vietnam, as practiced by the Americans, were second generation warfare.

"Third generation warfare was also seen as a response to the increasing firepower on the battlefield. The difference…was the emphasis on maneuver and non-linear warfare. In other words, in addition to the improved technology, the third generation of warfare was based…on ideas rather than the technology. The German Blitzkrieg and later Russian operations in World War II were seen as breakthrough strategies to defeat the more heavily armed industrialized armies of the world.

"From these characterizations, the authors posed the hypothesis of Fourth Generation Warfare. This style of warfare was based on the trends identified in the earlier generational shifts. They believe that future war would be characterized by: very small independent action forces (SIAF) or cells acting on mission-type orders; a decreased dependence on logistics support; more emphasis on maneuver; and psychological goals rather than physical ones. This latter objective of psychological warfare meant that the enemy’s will to fight had to collapse from within.”

There were three basic constructs of 4GW (Staten):

1. The loss of the nation-states monopoly on war.

2. A return to a world of cultures and states in conflict.

3. Internal segmentation/division along ethnic, religious, and special interest lines within our own society.


Having defined what 4GW is, according to its proponents, we must now proceed to critically examine these claims.

First, to start the generational construct of warfare at the age of Napoleon implies that all which preceded Napoleon is so irrelevant as to not even merit discussion. No true student of history, let alone military history, would advocate ignoring the advances in the conduct of war and theory of war established by Joshua of Israel, Sun Tzu, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Scipio Africanus, George Washington, etc. As a minimum, one should reconsider the starting point of 1GW.

[SIDE COMMENT: There are those who will counter that this criticism is a misunderstanding of interpretive history. Bill Lind (et al) did not develop the concepts behind 1GW, 2GW, and 3GW; rather, these were already defined and the Napoleonic period was (however arbitrarily) established as the beginning of “warfare in the modern era” from the Military Academy at Sandhurst. The counter to the apologists is that they have apparently uncritically adopted this starting point.]

Second, proponents of 4GW admit two key issues: first that although generational advances may occur, they are not uniformly dispersed or adopted, and second, ideas can be sufficient, of themselves, to warrant a generational paradigm shift. But let us first examine the three basic constructs.

“The loss of the nation-states’ monopoly on war” – In and of itself, this is a misleading construct. Tribes, clans, and other people-groups have never relinquished their ability to wage war. The mere advent of the nation-state did not uniformly negate the existence of other conflict and forms. The fact that this nation fought the French and Indian wars, allying with some tribes while engaging others in battle, while simultaneously allying with our mother state (England) while fighting the French, is of itself proof that nations, tribes, clans, and peoples have relinquished neither their willingness, nor their ability, to wage non-state war. The existence and wide-spread use of mercenaries is another point – these are also non-state actors. The existence of pirates, such as the Islamic Barbary Coast pirates fought during the era of Jefferson, is yet another instance of non-state actors engaging organized states. (Gawalt)

Further, the concept as promulgated tends to ignore both the historical and current use of mercenaries; the concept also ignores the existence of city-states and other small localities of power. Put this in context with Bosnia, various African conflicts, Afghanistan, etc., and the point is painfully clear: Nation-states never held such a monopoly on waging war, and therefore could never lose the alleged monopoly.

“A return to a world of cultures and states in conflict.” – This statement implies that there once was a world without cultures and states in conflict. Even using the argument promulgated by the 4GW theorists and starting only with the Napoleonic era, there is no time for a supposed “golden era” where cultures and states were not in conflict. Since the proponents of 4GW are American, yet use European examples, we will limit consideration to the relatively recent history of Europe and America.

For America, from the time of Napoleon to the present, we find at least the following:

    • War of 1812
    • Indian campaigns
    • Mexican-American War
    • Philippine expeditions
    • China expedition
    • Nicaraguan Expeditions
    • Haiti Expeditions
    • Spanish-American War
    • World War I
    • World War II
    • Korea
    • Vietnam
    • Panama
    • Grenada
    • Lebanon
    • Iraq
    • Global War on Terror, AKA World War III

That list excludes countless other interventions, non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO), etc.

For Europe, we find at least the following:

    • Napoleonic campaigns
    • first Balkan war
    • Crimean campaign
    • wars of German unification
    • Franco-Prussian war
    • wars of Italian unification
    • Russian-Japanese war
    • World War I
    • Russian civil war
    • Spanish civil war
    • World War II
    • globally, numerous wars of independence from colonial powers
    • Bosnian civil war

So there was never a time when cultures and states were not in conflict. Logically, one cannot “return” to that from which one never departed.

“Internal segmentation/division along ethnic, religious, and special interest lines within our own society.” – There was never a time when these schisms did not exist. American Indians were subjugated, placed on reservations, and abide there still today. No student of history seriously holds that the mere freeing of slaves at the end of the War Between the States automatically led to full and equal treatment; a lack of fair treatment persisted throughout the country. There were additional major political schisms when the Vietnamese refugees first came here. There was no mythic “golden era” when ethnicity did not matter in America. Religion has likewise been a factor – even when John F. Kennedy was elected, his Roman Catholic faith was a serious political issue. Now, however, instead of internal Christian quarreling, there is concern regarding Islam and its practitioners within our borders; and this concern grew first from the events of September 11, 2001, but has been increased by the total failure of mainstream spokespeople for the self-proclaimed “religion of peace” to decry these, and other, atrocities. Simply because the focus of religious conflict shifted from Christian vs. Christian back to Christian vs. Muslim does not mean there was no previous conflict.


As Robert M. Pirsig explained in his seminal work, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, there are several ways to consider a thing, even something as basic as motorcycle maintenance. One can reasonably view history as a cycle, instead of a linear progression; or a spiral; and dispense with the notion of generational warfare altogether. But refraining from those possibilities, let us retain the 4GW model, and consider instead the following alternate historical definitions and interpretations:

1. First generation: Intellectual honesty demands that the first generation of warfare was/is best understood as individuals conducting individual actions, more or less organized into groups or armed mobs, with the more or less common goal of the forcible implementation of one’s political and military will. Ironically, at this “primitive” stage, warfare was often not merely along ideological or religious lines, but along the lines of race, ethnicity, etc., and the concept of utter destruction and annihilation of the foe was commonplace – total war was the objective; there was no other form of war. This idea has persisted as well, from Sherman against the Confederacy to the Germans against the British in World War II. Also from the beginning, the idea of a defense was understood, and the use of walls to defend towns was an intuitive counter to the threat of marauders. Along with this defense of places came the idea of defense to the person, and the introduction of defensive armor. The Egyptians, and others, used heavy metal armor at least 1500 years before Christ.

The second phase of the first generation was the organization of armed mobs into an army to function as a team, the introduction of a battle hierarchy for purposes of command, and related matters. It is at this time that the idea of conquering a people and subjugating them became a viable model, rather than total extermination. This also marks the introduction of siege warfare and the deliberate efforts to counter static defenses. It is also immediately followed by the introduction of maneuvers other than frontal assault. The square was then modified so that an element could be detached and marched adjacent to the enemy, thus flanking them. This is, arguably, the very beginning of “maneuver” warfare. (Jones)

The third phase of the first generation is the introduction of auxiliary elements, such as archers and cavalry, and the deliberate and synchronized use of assets in a combined manner for increased effects. This use of combined arms was mastered by Joshua of Israel (ca. 1250 BC), Sun Tzu (ca. 500 BC), Alexander the Great (ca. 340 BC), and many other famous leaders. It is noteworthy that the same great leaders who understood combined arms also recognized the need for intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance of the enemy. Joshua’s requirements of the scouts he sent to spy out the land of Canaan and to prepare for the attack on Jericho reads like a modern scout report as far as the topics of concern and focus. The tactical ruse, deception, feint, and display, was already understood and practiced well over 3500 years ago, as was the use of Human Intelligence (HUMINT), as demonstrated with the recruitment of Rahab the harlot as an internal spy.

2. Second generation warfare, as a seismic paradigm shift, begins with the successful use of gunpowder in war; this technologically driven shift (arguably) begins at Crecy, in 1346 (Colonial). The introduction of artillery was the beginning of the end of the utility of fortresses, though other technological improvements and refinements had to be made before that fully came to pass. The mere introduction of gunpowder did not immediately mean that all armies dispensed with their pikes and crossbows. Command and control through the use of fires, flags, trumpets, carrier pigeons, etc., continued to be a part of warfare for centuries. HUMINT, counterintelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, improvements to transportation and logistics, and other related combat multipliers were refined and enhanced. The gains achieved in all the phases of first generation warfare remained and were applied with varying degrees of success.

3. Third generation warfare began with the introduction of air power during World War I. The goal of out-maneuvering the adversary was already well-established, but not well executed. However, failure to perform does not necessarily imply a lack of understanding the requirements. Nearly simultaneous to the introduction of air power was the introduction of chemical warfare, toxins, and a refinement of biological warfare capabilities. World War I is a useful marker for several seismic paradigm shifts, including the introduction of tanks (i.e., modern armor). Command and control was enhanced by new technologies, including the telegraph, telephone, etc. The railroad as a force multiplier was already proven as early as the War Between the States. German Chief of the General Staff Alfred von Schlieffen had already written the Imperial contingency plan for a two-front war in 1905, nearly a decade before the Great War began, demonstrating the ability to formulate advanced war plans and contingency plans. All of these technologies came together at this time, but the true seismic paradigm shift was the use of air power in an effective combat role.

4. The proper beginning of fourth generation warfare was 1945 with the advent and use of nuclear weapons. This is a technological capability that absolutely must be incorporated into any serious discussion of war and the capabilities to wage war. It is interesting that, as mentioned earlier, many nations had adopted a belief that only armies should fight one another, thus sparing the civilian populace. In World War II, however, there was a certain “re-discovery” of the concept of total war.

“[T]here is nothing new under the sun.” –Ecclesiastes 1:9

From 1945 to the present, there were no major tactical shifts regarding war that had not already been discovered or practiced at some previous time in history. As for the Global War on Terror (GWOT) – a misnomer* – it is not:

    • The first campaign ever fought in a desert.
    • The first insurrection or counter-insurrection ever fought.
    • The first occupation.
    • The first guerilla or counter-guerilla campaign.
    • The first attempt at reconstruction and nation-building.

To call the GWOT “the beginning of 4GW” is flawed thinking. Instead, we find ourselves facing an armed mob with a political will they wish to impose upon us, despite the advances in technology, political thought, intellectual development, philosophical developments, and even spiritual enlightenment over the millennia.

[*Nota bene: The current conflict is a clash of civilizations and not a war on terror, for terror is merely a method; to call it such makes as much sense as if, after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt had declared a war against sneak attacks.]


What we are now seeing is the emergence of fifth generation warfare. Unlike the preceding generations, there is no single or simple demarcation point, no single invention. And though we may see “as though through a glass, darkly,” the following aspects can be discerned:


A. The technological advances represented by the Internet;
B. Scalability of impact;
C. Information as an empowering and leveling force;
D. The media as an independent organ that is stronger, more pervasive, and more independent than ever before;
E. Borders no longer impede data flow.

This convergence is neither neat nor simple, precisely because it is a multiplicity of converging factors. Calling 5GW “Information Operations” is an extreme oversimplification, because that is merely one aspect. With the exception of the Internet, these contributories are capable of historical reduction. The Internet of today can be likened to the Guttenberg printing press in the 15th Century in terms of its revolutionary aspect for dissemination, though it is exponentially more powerful. The aspects of scalability and the decreased effectiveness of borders are absorbed into the uniqueness of this technology.

Regarding scalability, this is a factor of immense importance. At no other time in human history has it been possible for one person to destroy the functional productivity of a world economy with the push of a button; however, the “love bug” virus did precisely that, for approximately a week, before being eradicated. One programmer unleashed literally billions of dollars of damage to business across the world; however, the damage was widespread and unfocused. A small team of cyber warriors could no-doubt create incredible damage, yet limit the scope and spread of the damage with proper tools.

World-wide, the media has expanded and become independent. The mere fact of publication in a particular country no longer means that that particular nation endorses the contents. This is especially true with television and the Internet. Censorship is increasingly difficult to effect. Indeed, when media personalities seek to destroy or create political realities through sheer fabrication (Dan Rather’s fraudulent documents come to mind), or the inappropriate release of national sensitive data (e.g., Geraldo Rivera), we enter a dangerous Brave New World.

In fact, the media has effectively become an altogether different sort of “non-state actor” on the world stage. The fact that the media can even entertain the notion of affecting political outcomes because it wields that much power, leads to the next concept: The weaponization of the media. This is a dangerous tool and one that our adversaries have mastered. Conceptually, this includes – but is different from – aspects of psychological operations; and includes – but is separate from – aspects of information warfare. There are times when it is difficult to distinguish between honest disagreement, and disloyalty; a different vision, and sedition. Indeed, our Founding Fathers well understood the value of the press, and used it to their purposes. Hitler’s propagandists were at least as skilled as our current adversaries. Yet government involvement with the media for the express purpose of controlling a known center of gravity – the hearts and minds of the people – is inherently and extremely dangerous, if one wishes to preserve free speech. Yet this is something with which we must soon contend, because our adversaries have no such constraints.

Beyond the debate over the intellectual underpinnings of transformation is the fact that the various branches of the Department of Defense must effectively serve to identify, close with, and neutralize the war-fighting capability of the adversary. That is the mission.

These thoughts are provided with the goal of proper dialogue regarding the intellectual foundations for spending taxpayer dollars while at war. We see that the 4GW model is inadequate on several levels, not only in logic, but scope as well. Since the model is flawed, and efforts at modernization are, thus far, inadequate due to the model’s failure, then we need a new model. We are crossing into the 5th Generation; we need to proactively anticipate these developments and plan accordingly.


Colonial National Historical Park. “History of Armour and Weapons Relevant to Jamestown.” Jamestown Historic Briefs. National Park Service. Accessed 20 May 2004.

Gawalt, Gerard W. America and the Barbary Pirates: An International Battle Against an Unconventional Foe. Accessed 20 May 2004.

Jones, Archer. The Art of War in the Western World. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1974.

Staten, C.L. Urban Warfare Considerations; Understanding and Combating Irregular and Guerilla Forces During A “Conventional War” In Iraq. 29 Mar 2003.

The Bible. New King James Version.

Wilcox, Greg and Gary I. Wilson. Military Response to Fourth Generation Warfare in Afghanistan. 5 May 2002.

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