The Changing Face of War:
Into the Fourth Generation
William S. Lind, Colonel
Keith Nightengale (USA),
Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA),
and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR)
October 1989, Pages 22-26
The peacetime soldier's principal task is to prepare effectively
for the next war. In order to do so, he must anticipate what the next war will be
like. This is a difficult task that gets continuously more difficult. German Gen
Franz Uhle-Wettler writes:
"At an earlier time, a commander could be certain that a future
war would resemble past and present ones. This enabled him to analyze appropriate
tactics from past and present. The troop commander of today no longer has this
possibility. He knows only that whoever fails to adapt the experiences of the
last war will surely lose the next one."
The Central Question
If we look at the development of warfare in the modern era,
we see three distinct generations. In the United States, the Army and the Marine
Corps are now coming to grips with the change to the third generation. This transition
is entirely for the good. However, third generation warfare was conceptually developed
by the German offensive in the spring of 1918. It is now more than 70 years old.
This suggests some interesting questions: Is it not about time for a fourth generation
to appear? If so, what might it look like? These questions are of central importance.
Whoever is first to recognize, understand, and implement a generational change can
gain a decisive advantage. Conversely, a nation that is slow to adapt to generational
change opens itself to catastrophic defeat.
Our purpose here is less to answer these questions than to pose them. Nonetheless, we will offer some tentative answers. To begin to see what these
might be, we need to put the questions into historical context.
Three Generations of Warfare
While military development is generally a continuous evolutionary
process, the modern era has witnessed three watersheds in which change has been
dialectically qualitative. Consequently, modern military development comprises three
First generation warfare reflects tactics of the era of the smoothbore musket, the tactics of line and column. These tactics were developed partially in response to technological factors — the line maximized firepower, rigid drill was necessary to generate a high rate of fire, etc.— and partially in response
to social conditions and ideas, e.g., the columns of the French revolutionary armies
reflected both the élan of the revolution and the low training levels of conscripted
troops. Although rendered obsolete with the replacement of the smoothbore by the
rifled musket, vestiges of first generation tactics survive today, especially in
a frequently encountered desire for linearity on the battlefield. Operational art
in the first generation did not exist as a concept although it was practiced by
individual commanders, most prominently Napoleon.
Second generation warfare was a response to the rifled musket, breechloaders, barbed wire, the machinegun, and indirect fire. Tactics were based on fire and movement, and they remained essentially linear. The defense still attempted
to prevent all penetrations, and in the attack a laterally dispersed line advanced
by rushes in small groups. Perhaps the principal change from first generation tactics
was heavy reliance on indirect fire; second generation tactics were summed
up in the French maxim, "the artillery conquers, the infantry occupies." Massed
firepower replaced massed manpower. Second generation tactics remained the
basis of U.S. doctrine until the 1980s, and they are still practiced by most
American units in the field.
While ideas played a role in the development of second generation tactics (particularly the idea of lateral dispersion), technology was the principal driver of change. Technology manifested itself both qualitatively, in such things
as heavier artillery and bombing aircraft, and quantitatively, in the ability of
an industrialized economy to fight a battle of materiel (Materialschlacht).
The second generation saw the formal recognition and
adoption of the operational art, initially by the Prussian army. Again, both ideas
and technology drove the change. The ideas sprang largely from Prussian studies
of Napoleon's campaigns. Technological factors included von Moltke's realization
that modern tactical firepower mandated battles of encirclement and the desire to
exploit the capabilities of the railway and the telegraph.
Third generation warfare was also a response to the increase in battlefield firepower. However, the driving force was primarily ideas. Aware
they could not prevail in a contest of materiel because of their weaker industrial
base in World War I, the Germans developed radically new tactics. Based on maneuver
rather than attrition, third generation tactics were the first truly nonlinear tactics.
The attack relied on infiltration to bypass and collapse the enemy's combat forces
rather than seeking to close with and destroy them. The defense was in depth and
often invited penetration, which set the enemy up for a counterattack.
While the basic concepts of third generation tactics were in
place by the end of 1918, the addition of a new technological element-tanks-brought
about a major shift at the operational level in World War II. That shift was blitzkrieg.
In the blitzkrieg, the basis of the operational art shifted from place (as in Liddell-Hart's indirect approach) to time. This shift was explicitly recognized only recently in the work of retired Air Force Col John
Boyd and his "OODA (observation- orientation-
decision- action) theory."
Thus we see two major catalysts for change in previous generational
shifts: technology and ideas. What perspective do we gain from these earlier shifts
as we look toward a potential fourth generation of warfare?
Elements That Carry Over
Earlier generational shifts, especially the shift from the second
to the third generation, were marked by growing emphasis on several central ideas.
Four of these seem likely to carry over into the fourth generation, and indeed to
expand their influence.
The first is mission orders. Each generational change has been
marked by greater dispersion on the battlefield. The fourth generation battlefield is likely to include the whole of the enemy's society. Such dispersion, coupled
with what seems likely to be increased importance for actions by very small
groups of combatants, will require even the lowest level to operate flexibly on
the basis of the commander's intent.
Second is decreasing dependence on centralized logistics. Dispersion,
coupled with increased value placed on tempo, will require a high degree of ability
to live off the land and the enemy.
Third is more emphasis on maneuver. Mass, of men or fire power,
will no longer be an overwhelming factor. In fact, mass may become a disadvantage as it will be easy to target. Small, highly maneuverable, agile forces will tend to dominate.
Fourth is a goal of collapsing the enemy internally rather than physically destroying him. Targets will include such things as the population's support for the war and the enemy's culture. Correct identification of enemy strategic centers of gravity will be highly important.
In broad terms, fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of
having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between "civilian" and
"military" may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants'
depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity. Major
military facilities, such as airfields, fixed communications sites, and large headquarters
will become rarities because of their vulnerability; the same may be true of civilian
equivalents, such as seats of government, power plants, and industrial sites (including
knowledge as well as manufacturing industries). Success will depend heavily on effectiveness
in joint operations as lines between responsibility and mission become very blurred.
Again, all these elements are present in third generation warfare; fourth generation
will merely accentuate them.
Potential Technology-Driven Fourth Generation
If we combine the above general characteristics of fourth generation
warfare with new technology, we see one possible outline of the new generation.
For example, directed energy may permit small elements to destroy targets they could
not attack with conventional energy weapons. Directed energy may permit the achievement of EMP (electromagnetic pulse) effects without a nuclear blast. Research in superconductivity suggests the possibility of storing and using large quantities of energy in very small packages. Technologically, it is possible that a very few soldiers could have
the same battlefield effect as a current brigade.
The growth of robotics, remotely piloted vehicles, low probability of intercept communications, and artificial intelligence may offer a potential for radically altered tactics. In turn, growing dependence on such technology may open
the door to new vulnerabilities, such as the vulnerability to computer viruses.
Small, highly mobile elements composed of very intelligent soldiers armed with high technology weapons may range over wide areas seeking critical targets.
Targets may be more in the civilian than the military sector. Front-rear terms will
be replaced with targeted-untargeted. This may in turn radically alter the way in
which military Services are organized and structured.
Units will combine reconnaissance and strike functions. Remote,
"smart" assets with preprogrammed artificial intelligence may play a key role. Concurrently,
the greatest defensive strengths may be the ability to hide from and spoof these
The tactical and strategic levels will blend as the opponent's political infrastructure and civilian society become battlefield targets. It will
be critically important to isolate the enemy from one's own homeland because a small
number of people will be able to render great damage in a very short time.
Leaders will have to be masters of both the art of war and technology, a difficult combination as two different mindsets are involved. Primary challenges
facing commanders at all levels will include target selection (which will be a political
and cultural, not just a military, decision), the ability to concentrate suddenly from very wide dispersion, and selection of subordinates who can manage the challenge of minimal or no supervision in a rapidly changing environment. A major challenge will be handling the tremendous potential information overload without losing sight of the operational and strategic objectives.
Psychological operations may become the dominant operational and strategic weapon in the form of media/information intervention. Logic bombs
and computer viruses, including latent viruses, may be used to disrupt civilian
as well as military operations. Fourth generation adversaries will be adept at manipulating
the media to alter domestic and world opinion to the point where skillful use of
psychological operations will sometimes preclude the commitment of combat forces.
A major target will be the enemy population's support of its government and the
war. Television news may become a more powerful operational weapon than armored divisions.
This kind of high-technology fourth generation warfare may carry
in it the seeds of nuclear destruction. Its effectiveness could rapidly eliminate
the ability of a nuclear-armed opponent to wage war conventionally. Destruction
or disruption of vital industrial capacities, political infrastructure, and social
fabric, coupled with sudden shifts in the balance of power and concomitant emotions,
could easily lead to escalation to nuclear weapons. This risk may deter fourth generation
warfare among nuclear armed powers just as it deters major conventional warfare
among them today.
A major caveat must be placed on the possibility of a technologically
driven fourth generation, at least in the American context Even if the technological
state of the art permits a high-technology fourth generation and this is not clearly
the case — the technology itself must be translated into weapons that are
effective in actual combat. At present, our research, development, and procurement
process has great difficulty making this transition. It often produces weapons that
incorporate high technology irrelevant in combat or too complex to work in the chaos
of combat. Too many so-called "smart" weapons provide examples; in combat they are
easy to counter, fail of their own complexity, or make impossible demands on their
operators. The current American research, development, and procurement process may
simply not be able to make the transition to a militarily effective fourth generation
A Potential Idea-Driven Fourth Generation
Technology was the primary driver of the second generation of warfare; ideas were the primary driver of the third. An idea-based fourth generation is also conceivable.
For about the last 500 years, the West has defined warfare.
For a military to be effective it generally had to follow Western models. Because
the West's strength is technology, it may tend to conceive of a fourth generation
in technological terms.
However, the West no longer dominates the world. A fourth generation may emerge from non-Western cultural traditions, such as Islamic or Asiatic traditions. The fact that some non-Western areas, such as the Islamic world, are not strong in technology may lead them to develop a fourth generation through ideas rather than technology.
The genesis of an idea-based fourth generation may be visible in terrorism. This is not to say that terrorism is fourth generation warfare, but
rather that elements of it may be signs pointing toward a fourth generation.
Some elements in terrorism appear to reflect the previously
noted "carryovers" from third generation warfare. The more successful terrorists appear to operate on broad mission orders that carry down to the level of the individual terrorist. The 'battlefield" is highly dispersed and includes the whole of the enemy's
society. The terrorist lives almost completely off the land and the enemy. Terrorism
is very much a matter of maneuver: the terrorist's firepower is small, and where
and when he applies it is critical.
Two additional carryovers must be noted as they may be useful
"signposts" pointing toward the fourth generation. The first is a component of collapsing
the enemy. It is a shift in focus from the enemy's front to his rear. Terrorism
must seek to collapse the enemy from within as it has little capability (at least
at present) to inflict widespread destruction. First generation warfare focused
tactically and operationally (when operational art was practiced) on the enemy's
front, his combat forces. Second generation warfare remained frontal tactically,
but at least in Prussian practice it focused operationally on the enemy's rear through
the emphasis on encirclement The third generation shifted the tactical as well as the operational focus to the enemy's rear. Terrorism takes this a major step further. It attempts to bypass the enemy's military entirely and strike directly at his homeland at civilian targets. Ideally, the enemy's military is simply irrelevant to the terrorist.
The second signpost is the way terrorism seeks to use the enemy's strength against him This "judo" concept of warfare begins to manifest itself in the second generation, in the campaign and battle of encirclement. The enemy's
fortresses, such as Metz and Sedan, became fatal traps. It was pushed further
in the third generation where, on the defensive, one side often tries to let the
other penetrate so his own momentum makes him less able to turn and deal with a
Terrorists use a free society's freedom and openness, its greatest strengths, against it. They can move freely within our society while actively working to subvert it. They use our democratic rights not only to penetrate but also to defend themselves. If we treat them within our laws, they gain many protections; if we simply shoot them down, the television news can easily make them appear to be the victims. Terrorists can effectively wage their form of warfare while being protected by the society they are attacking. If we are forced to set aside our own system of legal protections to deal with terrorists, the terrorists win another sort of victory.
Terrorism also appears to represent a solution to a problem
that has been generated by previous generational changes but not really addressed
by any of them. It is the contradiction between the nature of the modern battlefield
and the traditional military culture. That culture, embodied in ranks, saluting
uniforms, drill, etc., is largely a product of first generation warfare. It is a
culture of order. At the time it evolved it was consistent with the battlefield,
which was itself dominated by order. The ideal army was a perfectly oiled machine,
and that was what the military culture of order sought to produce.
However, each new generation has brought a major shift toward
a battlefield of disorder. The military culture, which has remained a culture of
order, has become contradictory to the battlefield. Even in the third generation
warfare, the contradiction has not been insoluble; the Wehrmacht bridged
it effectively, outwardly maintaining the traditional culture of order while in
combat demonstrating the adaptability and fluidity a disorderly battlefield demands.
But other militaries, such as the British, have been less successful at dealing
with the contradiction. They have often attempted to carry the culture of order
over onto the battlefield with disastrous results. At Biddulphsberg, in the Boer
War, for example, a handful of Boers defeated two British Guards battalions that
fought as if on parade.
The contradiction between the military culture and the nature of modern war confronts a traditional military Service with a dilemma. Terrorists resolve the dilemma by eliminating the culture of order. Terrorists do not have
uniforms, drill, saluting or, for the most part, ranks. Potentially, they have or
could develop a military culture that is consistent with the disorderly nature of
modern war. The fact that their broader culture may be non-Western may facilitate
Even in equipment, terrorism may point toward signs of a change
in generations. Typically, an older generation requires much greater resources to
achieve a given end than does its successor. Today, the United States is spending $500 million apiece for stealth bombers. A terrorist stealth bomber is a car with a bomb in the trunk—a car that looks like every other car.
Terrorism, Technology, and Beyond
Again, we are not suggesting terrorism is the fourth generation. It is not a new phenomenon, and so far it has proven largely ineffective. However, what do we see if we combine terrorism with some of the new technology we have discussed?
For example, that effectiveness might the terrorist have if his car bomb were a
product of genetic engineering rather than high explosives? To draw our potential
fourth generation out still further, what if we combined terrorism, high technology,
and the following additional elements?
A non-national or transnational base, such as an ideology or religion. Our national security capabilities are designed to operate within a nation-state framework. Outside that framework, they have great difficulties.
The drug war provides an example. Because the drug traffic has no nation-state
base, it is very difficult to attack. The nation-state shields the drug lords
but cannot control them. We cannot attack them without violating the sovereignty
of a friendly nation. A fourth-generation attacker could well operate in a similar
manner, as some Middle Eastern terrorists already do.
A direct attack on the enemy's culture. Such an attack works from within as well as from without. It can bypass not only the enemy's military but the state itself. The United States is already suffering heavily from such
a cultural attack in the form of the drug traffic. Drugs directly attack our culture.
They have the support of a powerful "fifth column," the drug buyers. They bypass
the entire state apparatus despite our best efforts. Some ideological elements
in South America see drugs as a weapon; they call them the "poor man's intercontinental
ballistic missile." They prize the drug traffic not only for the money it brings
in through which we finance the war against ourselves — but also for the damage
it does to the hated North Americans.
Highly sophisticated psychological warfare, especially through manipulation of the media, particularly television news. Some terrorists already know how to play this game. More broadly, hostile forces could easily
take advantage of a significant product of television reporting — the fact that
on television the enemy's casualties can be almost as devastating on the home
front as are friendly casualties. If we bomb an enemy city, the pictures of enemy
civilian dead brought into every living room in the country on the evening news
can easily turn what may have been a military success (assuming we also hit the
military target) into a serious defeat.
All of these elements already exist. They are not the product of "futurism," of gazing into a crystal ball. We are simply asking what would we face if they were all combined? Would such a combination constitute at least the
beginnings of a fourth generation of warfare? One thought that suggests they might
is that third (not to speak of second) generation militaries would seem to have
little capability against such a synthesis. This is typical of generational shifts.
The purpose of this paper is to pose a question, not to answer it. The partial answers suggested here may in fact prove to be false leads. But
in view of the fact that third generation warfare is now over 70 years old, we should
be asking ourselves the question, what will the fourth generation be?