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'The Sling and the Stone': Next-Generation War

NPR's Alex Chadwick talks to Marine Corps Col. Thomas Xavier Hammes, a counter-insurgency specialist, about the current situation in Iraq. Hammes is the author of The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, and warns America must be prepared to stay in Iraq for decades, fighting a very different type of war.

Chapter 1 of The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century:

On May 1, 2003, President Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq. While most Americans rejoiced at this announcement, those who study history understood that it simply meant the easy part was over. In the months that followed, peace did not break out, and the troops did not come home. In fact, the Iraqis struck back hard. Instead of peace, each day Americans read about another soldier being killed, a car bomb killing dozens, civilians assassinated, and Iraqi unrest.

People were puzzled and angry. They felt that the war was over, so we should not be losing any more people. The Iraqis should embrace democracy, and the troops should come home. Some pundits described these attacks as unexpected and a new form of resistance. Conversely, others chastised the government for not being prepared for this level of disorder and resistance.

Then in late August, a series of bombs hit a police academy graduation, the Jordanian Embassy, and U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad. The Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim (leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) was killed by a bomb, and an attempt was made to kill the Baghdad chief of police. Some pointed out that this must be an orchestrated campaign to drive the United States and United Nations out of Iraq.

In rebuttal, pro-administration commentators maintained that the resistance was surprising and was a new type of problem but that we were adjusting. At the time of this writing (March 2004), coalition forces, rocked by large-scale resistance in several cities, struggle to provide security, while politicians struggle to set conditions for transferring authority from the Coalition Provisional Authority to some form of Iraqi government. The fact is that the war has entered a new phase. It has moved into the fourth generation.

Fourth-generation warfare (4GW) uses all available networks -- political, economic, social, and military -- to convince the enemy’s political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. It is an evolved form of insurgency. Still rooted in the fundamental precept that superior political will, when properly employed, can defeat greater economic and military power, 4GW makes use of society’s networks to carry on its fight. Unlike previous generations of warfare, it does not attempt to win by defeating the enemy’s military forces. Instead, via the networks, it directly attacks the minds of enemy decision makers to destroy the enemy’s political will. Fourth-generation wars are lengthy -- measured in decades rather than months or years.

Clearly, 4GW is a very different concept from the short, intense war the administration planned for and celebrated by declaring the end of major combat on May 1, 2003.

At the same time things were degenerating in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan was also moving into 4GW. Although the Afghans and the Taliban were not attacking U.S. troops directly, they were moving aggressively to defeat the Kharzai government that the United States had promised to support. The Taliban, al-Qaeda, and their supporters -- having been decisively defeated in their conventional campaign against U.S. firepower -- have gone back to the style of warfare that succeeded against the Soviets.

Over the same fall and winter of 2003–04, al-Qaeda and its affiliates managed a series of high-profile attacks in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Spain and were promising a major attack on the United States. Despite the Bush administration’s declaration of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, the overall campaign against terror did not seem to be going well.

As debilitating and regular as these attacks have been, this kind of warfare is not “new” or “surprising” but has been evolving around the world over the last seven decades. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have moved from comfortable third-generation warfare* (3GW), America’s forte, to fourth-generation warfare, the only type of war America has ever lost. It is much too early to predict the outcome of our occupation of Iraq, or even if anti-coalition forces there are capable of tying the 4GW tactics they are using to an integrated 4GW strategic campaign.

Not only is 4GW the only kind of war America has ever lost, we have done so three times: Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia. This form of warfare has also defeated the French in Vietnam and Algeria and the USSR in Afghanistan. It continues to bleed Russia in Chechnya and the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in other countries against the al-Qaeda network. The consistent defeat of major powers by much weaker fourth-generation opponents makes it essential to understand this new form of warfare and adapt accordingly.

There is nothing mysterious about 4GW. Like all wars, it seeks to change the enemy’s political position. Like all wars, it uses available weapons systems to achieve that end. Like all wars, it reflects the society it is part of. Like all previous generations of war, it has evolved in consonance with society as a whole. It evolves because practical people solved specific problems related to their fights against much more powerful enemies. Practitioners created it, nurtured it, and have continued its development and growth. Faced with enemies they could not possibly beat using conventional war, they sought a different path.

Mao started this form of war, and each practitioner since has learned from his predecessors or co-combatants in various places in the world. Then, usually through a painful process of trial and error, each has adjusted the lessons to his own fight. Each added his own refinement, and the cumulative result is a new form of war. The anti-coalition forces in Iraq, the Taliban, the Chechnyans, and the al-Qaeda network are simply the latest to use the tactics and techniques that have been developing for decades.

Since World War II, wars have been a mixed bag of conventional and unconventional. The Korean War, the Israeli-Arab Wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973, the Falklands (Maldives) War, the Iran-Iraq War, and the first Gulf War ended with a return to the strategic status quo. Although some territory changed hands and, in some cases, regimes changed, in essence each state came out of the war with largely the same political, economic, and social structure with which it entered. In short, the strategic situation of the participants had not changed significantly.

In sharp contrast, unconventional wars -- the Communist revolution in China, the first and second Indochinese Wars, the Algerian War of Independence, the Sandinista struggle in Nicaragua, the Iranian revolution, the Afghan-Soviet War of the 1980s, the first Intifada, and even Chechnya -- display a different pattern. Each ended with major changes in the political, economic, and social structure of the territories involved. Although the changes may not have been for the better, they were distinct changes. Even unconventional wars where the insurgents lost (Malaysia, Aden, El Salvador) led to significant changes.

Operation Iraqi Freedom is really two wars. The U.S. started out fighting a high-tech, conventional war. The anti-coalition forces have turned it into a low-tech, 4GW struggle -- and the outcome is still very much in doubt.

The message is clear for anyone wishing to shift the political balance of power: only unconventional war works against established powers. Not only does recent history show us that the trend is toward unconventional war, it even shows the strategic, operational, and tactical characteristics future war will take.

By studying these unconventional wars, we can see the evolution of this form of warfare. I use the term “evolution” deliberately. Despite all the talk about the revolution in military affairs, war changes over time. It evolves.

The fact that only unconventional or 4GW has succeeded against superpowers should be a key element in discussing the evolution of war.

Unfortunately, it has been largely absent from the debate within the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). As the only Goliath left in the world, we should be worried that the world’s Davids have found a sling and stone that work. Yet internal DOD debate has largely ignored this striking difference between the outcomes of conventional and unconventional conflicts. In fact, DOD has largely ignored unconventional warfare.

Fortunately, the academic community has engaged in a robust, opinionated debate concerning the future of war. Although most authors agree that warfare is clearly moving to the next era or generation, they strongly disagree about the reasons for the transition and the form it will take. They can agree that warfare is fundamentally changing but have not reached a consensus of what those changes are.

Instead, two principal schools of thought have emerged concerning the future of warfare, best described by J. Arquilla and D. Rondfeldt in their article “Cyberwar Is Coming.” They note that there are two primary views of future war. One, cyberwar, envisions a high-technology, short-duration war where technology is vital and essentially machines fight machines. This is the prevalent view in the Department of Defense. It justifies the expensive weapons systems in use today and planned for the future. Unfortunately, it has no basis in history or current events.

In contrast, netwar, also known as fourth-generation war, or 4GW, is the complex, long-term type of conflict that has grown out of Mao’s People’s War. Its evolution and rise to dominance on the battlefield are the primary subjects of this book.

Before we begin a discussion of how fourth-generation war evolved and why our enemies use it against us, it is important to understand what DOD sees as the future of war and how they plan to prepare for it. The difference between what they envision and the wars we are actually fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and worldwide against terror is stark.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Department of Defense struggled to redefine its mission and its force structure in the absence of the single, overwhelmingly dangerous threat the USSR presented. Instead of studying the human and organizational factors that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union, many analysts pointed to the USSR’s inability to develop, produce, and finance the high-tech weapons systems necessary to keep up with the United States in our bipolar competition.

The Department of Defense, reinforced by the stunning success of advanced weaponry in the Gulf War, quickly gravitated to a high-tech version of war. After all, it played to the strength the United States had used to defeat both the Soviet Union and Iraq. The result has been more than ten years of “visions” that have consistently guided the Department of Defense toward cyberwar.

The so-called “revolution in military affairs,” along with concepts articulated in Joint Vision 2010, Joint Vision 2020, DOD’s “Transformation Planning Guidance,” and “Network-Centric Warfare,” show the evolution of official policy within the department. In each of these concepts, technology is seen as the primary driver of change. In particular, these concepts see increased technical capabilities of command and control as the key factor shaping future war.

In its introduction, Joint Vision 2010 states, “This vision of future warfighting embodies the improved intelligence and command and control available in the Information Age and goes on to develop four operational concepts: dominant maneuver, precision engagement, full-dimension protection, and focused logistics.”

The focus of the entire document is on the application of command and control technology, to provide the commander with information dominance to enable the four operational concepts. Unfortunately, although JV 2010 talks extensively about the four concepts, it spends little time explaining how U.S. forces will achieve the information dominance that is the foundation of the vision.

A cynic might say that the failure to address the issue of information dominance is a bit like the failure to critique the emperor’s new clothes. Everyone knows there is not much there but is reluctant to address the issue. A genuine discussion of “information dominance” requires trying to understand and predict the complicated, increasingly fragmented, all-too-human real world.

Because JV 2010 clearly prefers technology to people, it is a bit awkward to address the fact that information collection against today’s threats requires investment in human skills rather than technology. In fact, a serious discussion of achieving information dominance might reveal its implausibility, as evidenced by our lack of understanding of the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan and our inability to come to grips with the worldwide al-Qaeda network. An honest evaluation of our demonstrated inability to achieve information dominance would invalidate the entire concept of full-spectrum dominance that lies at the heart of JV 2010.

The second concept that outlines cyberwar, the revolution in military affairs (RMA), is less clearly defined. Yet, regardless of how it is defined, RMA discussions focus on the technological aspects of warfare -- in particular, the military-technical revolution and how to quickly apply that “revolution” to our forces, to assure our continued superiority in combat. The pro-RMA position is simple: technology is the answer. Unfortunately, they never clarify exactly what the question is.

The DOD’S “network-centric warfare” was first articulated by Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski and John Garstka in a 1998 article of the same name. At that time, the focus of network-centric warfare was purely technology. Since then, the definition has evolved somewhat and is now expressed as follows:

"[A]n information superiority-enabled concept of operations that generates increased combat power by networking sensors, decision makers, and shooters to achieve shared awareness, increased speed of command, higher tempo of operations, greater lethality, increased survivability, and a degree of self-synchronization. In essence, NCW translates information superiority into combat power by effectively linking knowledgeable entities in the battlespace."

This description of network-centric warfare states that technology is more important than all other factors in driving changes. Technology will provide the information superiority that is at the heart of all DOD concepts. Again, it involves no discussion of our lack of understanding concerning the wars we are currently fighting.

With the publication of Joint Vision 2020 in 2000, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reiterated most of the material in JV 2010 but softened the emphasis on technology as the sole driver of future war. Unfortunately, the qualifiers are buried far back in the publication. The introduction to JV 2020 states unequivocally that technology drives warfare. It focuses on how technology will provide the capability for U.S. forces to execute the four operational concepts described in the earlier version.

In this model, doctrine, organization, training, and education serve only to teach people to take advantage of technology—not to think about, fight, and win wars. Further, it places a premium on DOD’s ability to foster innovation—not a characteristic for which DOD is noted.

The latest manifestation of DOD’s focus on technology is “Transformation Planning Guidance,” issued in April 2003. Evolving out of earlier DOD documents and drawing heavily on them, the DOD’s strategy, as outlined in the paper, has three parts:

• a transformed culture through innovative leadership

• transformed processes through risk adjudication, using future operating concepts

• transformed capabilities through force transformation

The document focuses on investment decisions for technology and experimentation. In short, it seeks to transform our military forces into:

"Information age military forces [that] will be less platform-centric and more network-centric. They will be able to distribute forces more widely by increasing information sharing via a secure network that provides actionable information at all levels of command. This, in turn, will create conditions for increased speed of command and opportunities for self-coordination across the battlespace."

The document goes on to discuss the types of forces we will field and the types of enemies we will fight. It is interesting that the threats DOD plans to be ready to defeat by the end of the decade have no resemblance to the actual enemies we are fighting today. Although DOD may argue that the types of forces we are fighting today will not exist by 2010, the long timelines of past 4GW wars indicate that not only will they still exist, we will still be fighting them.

Essentially, DOD transformation guidance for the future ignores the success of 4GW in the last five decades. Instead, supposed future enemies will ignore the past and willingly fight America in a high-technology, fast-moving campaign that reinforces all our strengths while avoiding our weaknesses.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspects of these official publications are that they are so inwardly focused and that that focus is not open for discussion. It has already been defined. It is technology. These publications simply disregard any action taken by an intelligent, creative opponent to negate our technology. In fact, they seem to reduce the enemy to a series of inanimate targets to be serviced. He who services the most targets the fastest must win. The wide ranges of other factors that directly affect warfare are not even considered.

Imagine if you made decisions in your personal life using the same model. Let’s say you moved to a new home and a new job. You need to get to work. So you ask yourself, “What kind of car should I buy?” You conduct a detailed technical, mechanical, and economic analysis of the various types of cars that could get you to and from work. You feel good about yourself. You are really thinking this one through. Unfortunately, you asked the wrong question. You prematurely limited the research to cars. Although a car may eventually be the right answer, it should not be the only option considered.

The question you should have asked is, “What is the best form of transportation for my new life?” That opens the possibility of mass transit, carpooling, van-pooling, bicycles, and even -- heaven forbid -- walking. Although this may seem a ridiculous example, it is in effect what these concepts, and by inference the Department of Defense, has done by focusing the discussion on technology. It has already limited the investigation to technology. These concepts all ask, “How do we apply technology to become dominant in future wars?”

These Department of Defense concepts never ask, “What will future war look like?” “How do we recognize it as it develops?” and “How do we respond to it?” These questions would lead to a much broader and more intellectually honest approach than limiting the discussion to the application of technology.

This approach has led us to Iraq and Afghanistan. Our supreme confidence in technology and our willful ignoring of the human aspects of war have led us into a 4GW fight equipped only with the high-technology tools suited for a 3GW battle.

Fortunately, in contrast to the Department of Defense, other authors have taken a much broader approach to the question of why warfare changes.

The Tofflers, in their book War and Anti-War, state that society has been driven by three great waves, each defined by the primary source of wealth generation during its era. The way wealth was created largely determines how it was distributed and how society was structured.

The Tofflers describe the first wave as agriculture, coming into existence about 10,000 years ago. The development of agriculture fundamentally changed human society. Freed from the tyranny of a daily struggle for food and with the luxury of remaining in one place, agricultural societies accumulated wealth. Such societies clearly required a different social organization from the nomadic hunter-gatherer societies that preceded them. As a result, specialization became necessary, and a ruling (often priestly) class evolved.

Along with a ruling class came specialization in other areas, not the least of which was warfare. Instead of a tribal system where every person fought, the rise of civilization gave rise to a professional class of warriors. They became experts at the application of violence to protect the wealth that agriculture allowed a society to produce. Often, another duty was to protect the ruling class from the rest of society.

The second wave, according to the Tofflers, was industrial. This represented a major shift in the balance of wealth from land holders to the captains of industry. Clearly, this shift had an impact across the society. Beginning about the middle of the 17th century, industrialization allowed a major increase in wealth while simultaneously providing the ability to mass produce the key weapons of war. Obviously, non-industrial nations could not stand against the wealth and weapons an industrialized nation state could bring to bear.

Now, we are at the beginning of the Information Age. When they wrote their book in 1993, the Tofflers could project only the dramatic changes in society driven by the information revolution. Remember, in 1993, email in a private home was unusual. But they predicted major changes would occur, because information technology is driving another huge shift in the balance of wealth.

The emerging information industries changed not only how wealth was created but even its nature. When an industrial product is sold, its value belongs to the new owner. When an information product such as software is sold, the sale does not decrease the resources available to the original owner. Make a copy of software to a disk and the original disk remains complete.

Similarly, to destroy the source of the wealth, an enemy does not need to seize the plant -- merely to pirate and duplicate the idea. In addition, the knowledge that is the key to wealth is not a physical entity that must be protected at a fixed location. Instead, it can be reduced to ones and zeroes and instantaneously sent anywhere in the world. The ownership of expensive, geographically fixed assets forces a corporation to have some loyalty, or at least maintain a good relationship, with the country in which the asset is located. Knowledge requires no fixed address but can easily be moved from location to location if the owner does not like his relationship with the “host” nation. Thus, the nature of wealth and how we protect it has changed.

The Tofflers’ model traced warfare to the different forms it took in the different eras. Although this is a useful model, it is too broad for the purpose of studying the evolution of modern warfare. It provides a wonderful theoretical background but does not provide a practical guide for either a military practitioner or a concerned civilian. Unfortunately, many styles and even generations of war can fit into each of these waves. For our purposes, the key point the Tofflers make is that the entire society had to change in order to change the form of warfare in each wave.

In The Transformation of War, Martin van Crevald deftly illustrates that the way a society conducts warfare is based in the type of social structure and beliefs it holds dear. He indicates the relative successes of unconventional wars against conventional opponents and highlights the failures of regular militaries to deal with this evolving threat. He points out that insurgents, revolutionaries, and terrorists have been more adept at learning this new style of war than militaries have. He presents a provocative view --

particularly his idea that conventional militaries and high-tech weapons are likely to become irrelevant. The diminishing power of the state and the divisions within many states means wealthy citizens will have to turn elsewhere to protect not only their wealth but also their persons.

In a later essay, “Through a Glass Darkly,” van Crevald expands on this idea to point out how the last fifty years have led to a fundamental erosion of the state’s monopoly on the use of force:

The roughly three-hundred-year period which was associated primarily with the type of political organization known as the state—first in Europe, and then, with its expansion, in other parts of the globe as well -- seems to be coming to an end. If the last fifty years or so provide any guide, future wars will be overwhelmingly of the type known, however inaccurately, as “low intensity.”

Van Crevald clearly sees warfare as evolving with the political, social, and economic structures of the time.

Bill Lind, Gary Wilson, and their co-authors, in The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation, agree with van Crevald but provide a somewhat more practical guide for those struggling to understand how war is changing today. They see three previous generations of modern war that have evolved over the last few hundred years. In their view, the first generation of warfare reflected the tactics of line and column. The essential requirement was to mass manpower at the point of main effort. It was based partly on technology and partly on the social changes taking place during the French Revolution.

They state that the second generation evolved due to quantitative and qualitative improvement in weapons and relied on massed firepower. In particular, they say that the rifled musket, breechloaders, barbed wire, the machine gun, and indirect fire forced change on the battlefield. This culminated in World War I tactics and the French maxim “artillery conquers, infantry occupies.”

Finally, they see the third generation as maneuver. In 1939, the Germans, applying new capabilities presented by reliable tanks, mobile artillery, motorized infantry, effective close air support, and radio communication, restored maneuver to the battlefield and reclaimed the ascendancy of the offense. To these authors, each generation of war grew principally out of the adoption of available technology to military forces. The 1989 article noted that it had been more than seventy years since third-generation warfare started and challenged readers to define what fourth-generation warfare would be.

Although this is not as broad a model as either Toffler’s or van Crevald’s, it is much more useful for the study of the evolution of modern war. It was one of the first, if not the first, attempt to understand how modern warfare was changing. It evaluated modern eras where the dominant military force was distinctly different from each previous era. In proposing the concept that these differences represent different generations of war, it outlined a useful model. That model will allow us to study why and how the generations evolved and see if we can detect similar evolutionary changes taking place in today’s warfare.

From this brief survey, it is clear that numerous authors have seen warfare changing. Those associated with DOD have concentrated on technological changes. Others, primarily historians, have a broader interpretation of the reasons for change. They contend that such change requires changes in all major aspects of society -- political, economic, social, and technical -- to bring about a generational change in warfare.

This brings us back to the key questions. “What will future war look like?” “How can we recognize it as it develops?” and “How do we respond to it?”

In this volume, I intend to show that a new form of war has, in fact, evolved. It is visible and distinctly different from the forms of war that preceded it. It evolved in conjunction with the political, economic, social, and technological changes that are modifying our world.

Further, I intend to show that, like its predecessors, this new form of war did not arrive on the scene as a fully developed instrument but has evolved over decades and continues to evolve at widely scattered locations. We are not in the midst of a revolution in military affairs but rather an evolution. We can trace that evolution by examining our recent past.

For clarity in terminology and to provide a framework for study, I will adopt the generations laid out by Lind, Wilson, and their compatriots and refer to the new form of warfare as fourth-generation warfare, or 4GW. Like all models, it is not a perfect representation of reality, but it provides a framework to examine how previous generations evolved.

First, we will examine the factors that drove the development of and transition to the first three generations of modern war. Then we will conduct a brief survey of the political, economic, social, and technological changes since third-generation warfare evolved. Next, we will trace the development and evolution of 4GW. In doing so, we can develop a clear view of how this form of warfare has consistently allowed initially weak political movements to defeat powerful Western nations.

Two points are of particular importance as we examine the evolution of 4GW. First is the timeline associated with this form of war. Fourth-generation-warfare struggles are measured in decades rather than months or years. The Communist Chinese fought for twenty-seven years. The Vietnamese fought for thirty years. The Sandinistas fought for eighteen years. The Palestinians have been fighting since 1967. The Afghans took ten years to defeat the Soviets -- and the subsequent struggle for power continues today, twenty-five years after the Russian invasion.

The second point is that only 4GW has defeated a superpower. Further, it has defeated both the United States and the USSR -- on multiple occasions. It is also the type of war we are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and worldwide against terror.

As we begin our historical examination of shifts in warfare, it is essential to keep in mind that major shifts have occurred across the spectrum of human activity as the world moved from an industrial society to an information one. Every aspect of human life -- from the number of political players in the international arena to how an individual communicates and identifies personal loyalties -- is completely different from what it was in the first half of the twentieth century. History shows that societal changes of this magnitude cannot occur without a fundamental change in the way we conduct war. It is understandable that we are facing a fourth generation of warfare.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.
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