On Fourth Generation Warfare

By January 8, 2009 No Comments

The author is indebted to Don Radlauer, at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, for his succinct description of Fourth Generation Warfare as it related to Israel and Hizbollah at a conference there in September 2008.

A Description of Sorts

Buzz phrases and jargon abound in the military world, and the habit is even worse than it is among businessmen – where one can still hear consultants using such passé terms as gestalt and paradigm. Never mind that both are useful words and entered the lexicon for good reason.

Buzz phrases arise when somebody produces an idea, and everyone hears that the new idea is sound but few bother to read the originating article. ‘Fourth Generation Warfare’ is a case in point: The original article was written by William Lind, Col. Keith Nightengale, Capt. John Schmitt, Col. Joseph Sutton & LCol. Gary Wilson for a 1989 Marine Corps Gazette article “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation.” It was a thought provoking and widely read article (copies in Arabic were even said to be found in an al Qaeda training camp); but a lot of people embraced the buzz-phrase rather than reading it to better understand the proposed new paradigm. [See? Still useful! –ed.]

One major problem with the article was that it tried to do too much by assuming that tactics, strategy, and concepts of warfare could be tied together into a single synergistic whole. It is no great surprise that the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare (or 4GW in ‘Pentagonese’) has many detractors. However, the gist of the idea is this:

First generation warfare concerns the classic notion of war as an attempt to control territory, and the battlefield reflected this. Typically, lines and columns of men sought – with pike and musket – to decide the ownership of a battlefield, and this ownership conveyed victory. This was also an era of highly formulaic and ritualized siege-craft.

In Second Generation Warfare, while terrain remained important for its intrinsic features (as it still does), the real object of warfare generally and in a battle specifically was to inflict undue losses on the enemy. In 1864, Grant wasn’t as interested in capturing the Confederate Capital of Richmond as he was in destroying Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The machineguns and artillery of the First World War were weapons of attrition as million-man armies sought to induce each other’s collapse.

The carnage of Second Generation Warfare led to the reliance on maneuver and its effect on morale which characterizes Third Generation Warfare. The blitzkrieg of the Stukas and panzers, the Soviet operational maneuver group, and US air assault troops reflect an idea that precise firepower, operational art, and disruption can yield victory by imposing paralysis and bewilderment on an enemy rather than seeking his absolute physical destruction.

Many critics of the theory of Fourth Generation Warfare allege that it is nothing more than repackaging of the traditional clash between the non-state insurgent and the soldiers of a nation-state. The core idea of 4GW is that politics and warfare become blurred, and what is really being fought for is a grip on the mental state of the consciousness of entire peoples. The North Vietnamese, for example, count the 1968 Tet offensive as a victory — not for any direct battlefield successes (they didn’t have any and the US thrashed their forces) — but because it convinced enough of the domestic US population that the war was unwinnable.

Let’s apply the theories of Generational Warfare to a wrestling match: In 1st Generational wrestling, victory only comes if one pushes their opponent out of the ring. In 2nd Generation wrestling, the first man to collapse from exhaustion and injuries loses. In the 3rd Generation, one uses superior skill and agility to pin their opponent.

In 4th Generation wrestling, the real prize is the sympathy of the audience – much like it is in what passes for so-called professional wrestling today. In such a conflict, much depends on what segments of the audience one is trying to impress, how you hope to get their attention; and what you hope to achieve with it. The human taste for narrative being what it is, a variation of “small but plucky fighter takes on big brute” can often do quite well.

Classic 4GW in 2006

In the 2006 fighting between Hizbollah and Israel, it soon became very clear that the two were fighting very different wars and that the Israelis were out of their element. The Israeli Defence Forces are superb at 3rd Generation Warfare and have an impressive record of success at it. Hizbollah wanted to shake that record of success, make Israel look either weak or like a bully (preferably both), and chose its approach very carefully.

In the July/August fighting of 2006; Hizbollah had four principal assets.

First, Hizbollah needed to continue to threaten Israel after their provocation of July 12th 2006, in which it killed eight Israeli soldiers; kidnapped two others, and destroyed a tank. These in themselves, by Hizbollah/Hamas standards were considerable successes; but they really needed a more substantial threat. So Hizbollah fired over 4,000 rockets from Lebanon into Northern Israel; mostly 122mm Grad rockets (of the sort developed from the classic Soviet Katyusha), but also set off some longer range rockets provided by its Iranian masters to let a third of Israel know they were within Hizbollah’s reach.

The Israeli response to the incident was almost predictable. Precision firepower to shut down much of Lebanon’s transportation infrastructure (deliberately doing very little permanent damage) and shells and bombs rained down on Hizbollah related targets. However, Hizbollah wasn’t there. Long aware of Israel’s advantages in modern firepower, Hizbollah neutralized this advantage by spending 20 years digging tunnels, bunkers and deep shelters. The group might have a stylized AK-47 on its flag, but a pick-axe could be appropriate too. In the close confines of South Lebanon, the Israelis were trying to rush into one of the most heavily and unobtrusively fortified zones in the world.

The other thing that Hizbollah wanted to neutralize was Israel’s advantage in armor. The tank is practically an icon of Israel’s ability to protect itself and shove threatening neighbours back; but Hizbollah’s warrens of bunkers and tunnels were also filled with cheap anti-tank weapons. Old Soviet-era anti-tank rocket launchers like the RPG-7 had been joined by anti-tank guided missiles such as the AT-4 Spigot and AT-6 Spandrel, and newer Russian versions of these. Dozens of Israeli tanks were hit (five were permanently destroyed), and whenever Israeli infantrymen took cover in buildings, these would be repeatedly struck too.

However, the main war-winning asset of Hizbollah wasn’t its artillery rockets, concealed bunkers, or their stash of anti-tank weapons. In 4GW, reporters and photographers are as important as gunners and grenadiers; and Hizbollah went to work immediately. Hizbollah, like Hamas recently in the Gaza Strip, has stringers and cameramen working for it – filing wire service stories and distributing footage and photographs to the news services of the world. Naturally, the affiliations of these ‘journalists’ go unidentified.

The World’s media coverage from Lebanon in 2006 was shamefully pathetic. News producers and editors – often displaying a woeful ignorance of the realities of warfare – bought the flood of Hizbollah produced material without question. Eventually, it was a combination of internet bloggers and cynical experts who had to tell the press they had been duped.

[insert photo 1]
Moon-bat in trendy Hizbollah T-shirt with accessorized Socialist Worker; très chic, no?

Reuters had to purge hundreds of photographs it bought from a Lebanese photographer after some newspapers which published them discovered that his photos had been digitally altered to make damage to Beirut look worse. Other photographs of burned out rubble from Lebanon frequently had intact Qurans, new toys, or pristine photo albums, neatly placed for that extra pathos amid the ashes and debris. Sorry chaps, high explosive shreds everything… didn’t you know? There were also photographs of the same elderly woman bewailing her shattered home – different buildings and offered weeks apart — suggesting ‘Granny’ was from Hizbollah Central Casting and posing for ‘Israel-bomb-my-home’ shots.

Extra corpses were salted in the ruins of a house hit by an Israeli bomb in Cana, some of which had clearly died at least a day before the bomb hit. A number of other highly dubious photos from this event suggested very careful stage management of the media coverage. There was also outrage as the media carried photographs of two ancient ambulances, much dented; with the allegation they had been shot up by an Israeli helicopter gun ship. Typically, vehicles shot up by Apache gunships catch fire; which the ambulances in question hadn’t. Moreover, gunfire normally comes from a single direction and 30mm HEDP shells leave identifiable characteristics when they hit sheet metal. The multiple dents and square-looking holes ripped in the ambulances looked consistent with repeated blows from vigorously wielded hand tools.

[insert photo 2]
Helicopter gun-ships did this? Uh huh… Sure they did.

Photographs from the rescue of a construction worker at the scene of an ordinary workplace accident in Beirut were ‘mislabeled’ as the rescue of a bombing victim. Individuals posing in front of a large pile of burning tires in a garbage dump were portrayed as more of the war’s victims.

By contrast, Israel’s media policies were a failure. The world’s news cameras got to film exciting footage of Israeli artillery thumping targets 20km away … which is boring television after the first day. Israeli military media controllers seldom let their charges stray any further forward than this. The international press, often neutral to Israeli concerns at the best of times, got frustrated and annoyed. As a result, little play was given to hundreds of thousands of Israelis who were moved out of range of Hizbollah’s rocket fire, and grainy black and white footage taken by smart bombs was exciting stuff in 1991, but not in 2006.

Israel’s government came under strong internal and international pressure to curtail its activities in Southern Lebanon. While its military had scored some successes, they had not come as easily or as inexpensively as Israelis were used to, and the sudden cessation of hostilities strongly resembled a defeat as far as many Arabs were concerned.

While Hizbollah would come under some sharp criticism in the Arab World, the group’s claims of victory were not too far-fetched. They goaded the Israelis into a fight, smeared their reputation, and survived to grow once more. Never mind the greater fatalities the Israelis inflicted on Hizbollah (and its members’ families); in 4th Generation Warfare casualties can be irrelevant to an insurgent, save for their media value.

To this Present Pass

Between its growing rocket inventory, its warren of burrows under Gaza’s towns and cities, and its general concept of operations; Hamas recently hoped to replicate Hizbollah’s successes of 2006. They used their rockets to goad Israel beyond endurance, and then settled down in the crowded towns of Gaza to inflict casualties on the Israeli Defence Forces, while sheltering their own key assets.

Again, at the start of the Israeli incursion in December 2008, Hamas had control over which cameramen could safely operate in the Gaza Strip, and submitted many wire service stories and photographs during the recent operation. Once more, some faces kept popping up time and time again in photographs (particularly ‘Frightened Arab Boy’ – often snapped cowering in fear from purported Israeli fire, while normal street traffic went on behind him). The photographs of a Gaza schoolroom under candlelight because of Israeli-induced black-outs might have been more convincing if bright daylight wasn’t leaking around the curtains… and so on.

[insert photo 3]
Would you want a sound-bite with this, mister? A cut-away shot, perhaps?

Another critical difference between the recent Gaza fighting and the Hizbollah-Israeli war of 2006 was Israeli media handling. For a start, there was a separate Palestinian voice outside of the control of Hamas – and real opposition to Hamas ‘Human Shield’ tactics came from Gazans themselves on both Israeli and Palestinian Authority television. Secondly, the Israelis made sure there was a plentiful supply of still photos, footage, and reports of their own; and used websites rather than military briefings to release much of it.

Finally, to truly influence media coverage, one needs the story, then the reaction to the story, and then the continuing reaction to the story. In the Gaza Strip fighting, the usual tide of denunciations and imprecations from the Arab World just wasn’t there. Some observers had started to notice the same trend in 2006, but this time it more obvious. As Iranian influence grows among Shiites and the extremism of Sunni Jihadists generates Arab enemies; it would seem that a realignment is underway in the Middle East.

Israel still is hated, but it is an old enemy and a known quantity. Hamas and Hizbollah are a part of the new enemy, and most Arab governments would prefer to see them eliminated; especially as they can’t be controlled and would exterminate existing Arab elites if they could. Whenever Israel is fighting Hamas and Hizbollah, the calculation in Cairo, Amman, Baghdad and Riyadh is to let Israel do the destructive work that needs to be done. Criticism of Israel has been pro forma, and without real passion, which is a very telling message in the Middle East.

Critics of the theory of Fourth Generation Warfare have implied that it is just a new jargon for warfare by non-state actors against nation states… However, the classic examples provided by Hizbollah and recently attempted by Hamas seem to be perfect illustrations of the theory; while some other long-running insurgent wars don’t even come close.

The LTTE only really plays to a Tamil audience (both in Sri Lanka and abroad), and has never learned how to properly exploit the news media. The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda wouldn’t know what to do with a Western reporter except hold him for ransom or cut him to bits, probably both. Only the uncritical ‘media’ of the World’s sundry Trotskyites, Marxists and such-like, would take material provided by FARC or ETA uncritically.

Fourth Generation Warfare is a theory that is not universal, and would – it seems – only describe some very specific conflicts. Even so, there are some lessons to be drawn for Western governments and militaries.

In fighting against insurgents, such as the Canadian Army is doing in Afghanistan, make sure you have a plentiful supply of news clips, photos and wire service stories of your own. Public Affairs Officers are now important specialists and should be allowed to become like reporters themselves. Additionally, specialist reporters from the news media should be given every encouragement – a free hand if at all possible. There are not many reporters who know how the Army really works, or where the fast pointy bit comes out of a gun; the ones that do are valuable assets.

Likewise, time spent educating news producers and editors on the fundamentals wouldn’t be wasted. Remind them to really look closely at photographs and film clips – and to understand that when saplings are growing out of rubble it means that the building wasn’t bombed yesterday; that when shells are really shrieking in, everybody is ducking, including the photographers; or to understand what the difference is between the explosion of a 15 kg mortar bomb and a 500lb JDAM.

Freedom of the press was meant to liberate us from exploitation and ignorance. When the credulity of our news media has become a critical asset for terrorists and guerrillas around the world, it means that their ignorance is being exploited. An educated media is now essential for collective security.