4th Generation Warfare and the State

At a speech for the Institution for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, anarcho-transhumanist William Gillis concluded that the only way for society to manage an ever-increasing number of attack vectors would be to operate according to anarchist principles. The proliferation of cheap, powerful technology would empower individuals and groups to strike at targets much bigger than them.

This is not some theory of a far off future. Rather it describes a transformation that we are in the middle of and have been since the 1930s. For some context, a study published in the Journal of International Security[1] showed that since the 1800s, the percentage of weaker sides winning conflicts has only increased. In the period between 1800-1846, the weaker side won 11.8% of the time. Compare that to the period between 1950-1996, in which the weaker side won 55% of the time.

The weaker side has been able to accomplish more thanks to two major developments. An adoption of more effective organizational methods that can operate far more effectively than the large bureaucracies that they go up against, combined with cheap, flexible technology that opens up more options for superior communication, firepower and intelligence gathering. The combination of the two methods gives rise to a powerful form of waging war that was first outlined in full by Mao Zedong almost a century ago.

Part 1 – The birth of 4th generation warfare

Mao Zedong's masterpiece, On Guerrilla Warfare is considered the founding text of 4th generation warfare. This surprisingly libertarian work (Mao called for an entirely volunteer army made up of decentralized cells that work towards broadly defined goals as they see fit) describes the basics of 4th generation warfare – ignoring the traditional battle lines of symmetrical warfare, choosing when and where to fight (and also when to flee), the importance of local knowledge and the importance of keeping good relations with the local people. In another departure from convention, Mao stresses that guerrilla warfare is not meant to route the enemy force, rather it is designed to prolong the conflict and create tension between the occupying force and the homeland supporting it. As history shows, these tactics not only liberated China, but were the bedrock for many other rebellions and insurgencies across the world.

While Mao certainly used 4th generation tactics to liberate China, the technological differences were not as stark as the Vietnam war. This conflict demonstrated to the West the power of 4th generation warfare. The Viet Cong having already driven out the French by embracing asymmetric warfare had a solid theoretical basis that allowed them to defeat the United States by forcing it into a drawn out conflict. While the United States did manage to take territory and kill insurgents, they could never force the enemy out in to the open so as to make use of their overwhelming firepower. Eventually civil unrest at home, spurred by the mandatory draft, a growing counterculture and the dissonance between the official state statements and what the media showed made the war so unpopular that the government was forced in to retreating. Without the support of the United States the South could not contest with the North and were quickly defeated.

While Vietnam definitively proved the power the remaining decades of the 20th century, there were various conflicts that had one side take a 4th generation approach to the conflict. In Chechnya and Afghanastan we saw involved insurgent guerrilla fighters taking on powerful states (in relation to the insurgents) and winning. To use as a case study, before we get to Iraq and Al-Qaeda, I will look at the Zapatista uprising in Mexico as it prompted serious study by intellectuals from the United States, and foreshadowed how the coming communication revolution would bring 4th generation warfare into maturity.

The Zapatista struggle that began in 1994 was won through the Zapatistas reaching out to a number of NGOs around the world and bringing mass media attention to the struggle. While the Mexican government attempted to suppress information leakage, the Zapatistas outmanoeuvred them by sending messages through the internet. The mobilization of the NGOs swarm took the Mexican government by surprise and forced them into having to negotiate with the rebels. While this style of insurgency was similar to 4th generation warfare in that it prioritized unconventional tactics and out manoeuvring authority, just amplified by the connectivity of the internet. The Zapatista struggle was a foreshadowing of the power of the internet and how it can completely reshape the nature of conflict in the 21st century. However, as we will see in Iraq, being able to propagate your message is nothing compared to being able to communicate anonymously with others who share similar goals and motivations.

Part 2 – The Golden Age of 4th Generation Warfare (lessons from Iraq)

Before we look at the disaster that was the occupation of Iraq, we must first understand the preconditions that resulted in the nature of the conflict. To do this we must look back to the first Gulf War. The war was sparked when a global coalition of forces led by the United States were mobilized to retake Kuwait after it was annexed by the Iraq army. This was a fairly conventional war in which both sides employed conventional, non-guerrilla tactics for the most part. Due to the technological and strategical might of coalition forces, they destroyed the infrastructure of Iraq and crippled both the economy of Iraq as well as the communication network that underpinned the army.

However the dictatorship was not overthrown. After regrouping the command of the Iraqi military began to plan for an alternative to the conventional force they once had in expectation of another Western attack. According to John Robb:

“Saddam’s military understood that in any future engagement, its military would lose any conventional war with the United States both quickly and badly. Given what we can discern (as seen in the Duelfer Report) from the interwar period, Saddam’s planning team decided to leapfrog third-generation warfare (maneuver warfare) to build the infrastructure necessary for a defense based on 4GW: a guerrilla war.”[2]

This infrastructure revolved around an embedded guerrilla force throughout urban areas in Iraq. These forces were bolstered by stashes of weapons hidden around the Iraq country after 9/11 in preparation for a possible American invasion. However the real innovation in the conflict was development of a strategy that involved attacking the infrastructure of Iraq itself should the country fall to an invading force.

This seemingly contradictory approach to conflict might seem confusing, until you understand the logic of Saddam and his advisors. They knew that a conventional war against America was completely out of the question and were also aware of just how difficult it was to maintain control of the state after the damage done in the first gulf war. As Robb wrote:

“Saddam drew on the lessons of the U.S. air campaign to build a strategy of systems disruption to delegitimize the U.S. occupation. His apparent hope was that the denial of critical services and its resulting chaos would improve support for “the good old days” of his regime” [3]

To them it was all about beating America by any means necessary and if that meant throwing the country into ungovernable chaos, then so be it. This is why in the beginning of the conflict critical infrastructure that supported oil production was targeted by insurgents. Oil was after all the driving force behind the Iraq economy and the coalition forces believed that it could be used to finance the rebuilding of Iraq and the transformation of the country into a capitalist liberal democracy. The attacks on the pipelines were not just difficult to prevent due to the many hundreds of miles of pipeline that lay undefended, they were also incredibly economic, yielding returns in the thousands of the initial investment in terms of overall damage to the opposing side. For a concrete example of what this might look like, here is John Robb describing an economical attack on an Iraqi pipeline

“The location they chose was safe... their maps were highly accurate and showed exactly which pipeline, … was the critical one they wanted. They had only to dig a six-foot hole in the sandy soil, place the charges, and hit the ignition switch. ... Immediately, a flood of oil poured from the rupture, forming a small pool. Twenty-four hours later, with over 370,000 barrels of oil a day to draw from in the pipe, the pool had grown into a vast black lake overlaid with fetid fumes…. To the trained eye, it was a demonstration that a small team, at a cost of a couple thousand dollars, was able to safely accomplish an attack that generated a rate of return 250,000 times more than the initial investment” [4]

This damage to the infrastructure resulted in poor standards of living for most civilians – power outages were common, basic necessities were scarce, unemployment was high and the streets were dangerous. The failure of the (newly imposed) state to maintain these basic necessities meant that civilians considered it to be illegitimate. As Robb writes:

“The coalition lost its legitimacy, largely because of its inability to deliver the basic service of electricity. It is reasonable to assume that if Iraq’s global guerrillas continue to disrupt power services, future Iraqi governments will suffer the same collapse of legitimacy the coalition did. What good is a government that can’t keep your air conditioner on in triple-digit heat?” [5]

While guerrilla strategy has always promoted disrupting infrastructure and driving wedges between the occupiers and the natives, the internet age has given insurgents access to a vast field of information that makes them far more effective at both planning attacks, as well as understanding the impact of their actions. Insurgents can now use Google Earth to survey the terrain, watch cable news to see troop movements and look at stock reports to see the extent of the damage they inflicted. Not only did they have access to degree of information that only a few decades ago only a handful of organizations around the world could amass, but now they have a combination of relatively secure encryption, as well as various channels to communicate over (p2p messaging, forums, email, etc). While the Zapatistas benefited from using the internet to spread their message, Iraqi insurgents used it to communicate in a horizontal manner in which information is freely shared.

These advances in communication and encryption technology has led to what John Robb called open source warfare. Similar in approach to collaborative projects like Wikipedia or Linux, insurgents share information in a networked, open access manner, except the goal is not to create software or an encyclopaedia, but to solve the problem of American occupation. While the stakes may be higher, the process is still the same – actors coordinating with next-to-no central authority overseeing them, testing out possible solutions to problems through quick implementation, all while contributing to an open, shared source of knowledge available to all.

The efficacy of such a method can be seen in how both sides approached IEDs. At the time it took approximately 15 years for the United States to finalize a solution to a problem one of its potential foes would wield on the battlefield. Compare that to the insurgents who would make remote explosives on the cheap, and would make modifications on a whim – either to counteract coalition countermeasures or to increase their potency. In a summary of open source warfare, Robert N. Charette notes how the West is falling behind in terms of cycles of military hardware.

“This past spring and summer [2007] I interviewed dozens of current and former military officers, analysts, weapons developers, and others to try to understand why the coalition forces' technological might has proved so ineffectual. Nearly everyone I spoke with agreed there is a serious mismatch between the West's industrial-age approach to warfare and the insurgents' more fluid and adaptive style. All agreed, too, that the West will likely face more such confrontations in the years and decades ahead. The big concern, many people told me, is that once the war in Iraq has ended, the innovation that has occurred there and the lessons learned will be lost as the Pentagon returns to ”business as usual”--that is, building enormously complex and costly weapons systems and training troops to fight large-scale wars.” [6]

This open source approach to conflict also lent itself to propaganda. The coalition forces had many restrictions in place to prevent unwanted information from leaking out to the press. However the bureaucratic machine that controlled the flow of information also handicapped their ability to effectively issue messages after insurgent action. For example in the Afghan conflict, the United States was forced to delay statements on terrorist attacks while insurgents quickly spread propaganda in the streets. As one returned veteran put it:

“In my experience, decisions move through the process of risk mitigation like molasses. When the Taliban arrive in a village, I discovered, it takes 96 hours for an Army commander to obtain necessary approvals to act. In the first half of 2009, the Army Special Forces company I was with repeatedly tried to interdict Taliban. By our informal count, however, we (and the Afghan commandos we worked with) were stopped on 70 percent of our attempts because we could not achieve the requisite 11 approvals in time.“ [7]

The bureaucratic mass that is the United States isn’t just vulnerable to being outmanoeuvred with regards to messaging however. The size and expenditure required for it operate effectively allows insurgents to adopt an updated version of Mao’s tactic of creating a divide between the occupying forces and the homeland that supports it. While Mao emphasised creating a moral dissonance between the two, Osama Bin Laden clearly had an economic approach to the conflict. Since the very beginning he promoted an economic analysis to potential attacks. As he explained in an interview did in 2004:

“So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy ... the policy of the White House that demands the opening of war fronts to keep busy their various corporations - whether they be working in the field of arms or oil or reconstruction - has helped al-Qaida to achieve these enormous results.

And so it has appeared to some analysts and diplomats that the White House and us are playing as one team towards the economic goals of the United States, even if the intentions differ.

And it was to these sorts of notions and their like that the British diplomat and others were referring in their lectures at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. For example, al-Qaida spent $500,000 on the event, while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost - according to the lowest estimate - more than $500 billion.

Meaning that every dollar of al-Qaida defeated a million dollars by the permission of Allah, besides the loss of a huge number of jobs.”[8]

The massive return on investment should be obvious here. The sheer economics of 4th generation warfare make it unsustainable to be fought in a conventional manner. Just seven years later after Osama was finally killed, John Robb cynically pointed out that the Iraq occupation cost at least $3 trillion dollars. Not to mention all the damage done in various other ways such as the stripping of civil liberties and the delegitimization of the United States in the eyes in many across the world. Just from a vantage point of half a decade later the victory here still seems meaningless. The United States has not yet recovered from either the blow to its economy or the blow to its civil society. Furthermore the recent election of Trump shows that the U.S. establishment is becoming more and more hollow. Osama may have been finally been brought to justice, but it seems he’ll have the last laugh.

But the troubles aren't over for modern nation states. Innovation in regards to open source warfare continues as it adapts to the situation at hand in ways that states cannot keep up with.

Part 3 – The Future (is now!)

The coalition withdrawing from the United States has led to Iraq effectively becoming a non-state entity in which various groups have fought for control. In this power vacuum arose ISIS which took the lessons of Al Qaeda regarding media and was pushing it even further. Whereas Al Qaeda was limited to forums and sites only known to the Arab world, ISIS went directly for the mega social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. To give you an idea of how successful they were, one article in 2014 said that ISIS was running a marketing campaign that put American social media market gurus to shame – ISIS was able to inflate its social media presence by creating a free app that could be used to keep up with the movement’s activities. This app served the dual purpose of bolstering the presence of the group by automatically tweeting messages prepared by the ISIS social media team. One telling example of the power of this was the ability to terrify residents of a place by spamming ISIS propaganda about an incoming attack. For example:

“Its posting reached an all-time high of almost 40,000 tweets in one day as ISIS marched into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul last week. On Sunday, as the media reported on the group’s advance toward Baghdad, hundreds of Dawn app users began sending thousands of tweets featuring an image of an armed jihadist gazing at the ISIS flag flying over the city, with the text, ‘We are coming, Baghdad’.“[9]

This further utilization of social media goes beyond just being able to terrify civilians and foes on the ground – it allows ISIS to radicalize people without ever having to make physical contact. Recent attacks credited to ISIS all come from self-radicalized locals, alienated in their communities and angry at the West. ISIS deliberately flans these flames, explicitly calling for attacks on civilians in its statements. While terrifying, this is next logical step in open source warfare. By extending it beyond the sharing of information to the open participation for anyone to join, the movement has created something that will be extremely difficult to root out of society.

This difficulty is reflected in the proposed cybersecurity policies by politicians. For example Hillary Clinton calling for a ‘manhattan-like project’ to decrypt terrorist communications to the bilateral agreement in my country of Australia to force tech companies to include backdoors for decryption by the state shows that they are scared of communication between radicalized individuals.

But this approach to security is insufficient when dealing with an enemy that develops according to open source principles. While this development may be enough to catch unprepared individuals, the swarm like nature of the movement will be able to quickly adapt to the situation. For a good example of this in process we can look at how early drones used in the Middle East operated without encryption and had their viewing feeds intercepted by Al Qaeda using only cheap software. Furthermore this vulnerability was known to the Pentagon, they didn’t bother patching it.[10]

Finally Western states are not just facing the potential of homegrown radicalization, but also the fact that their once assumed military superiority is now being hampered. Consider Iran, which has adopted a defensive strategy that would make it a much harder target than Iraq was. Instead of relying on conventional tactics, Iran is adopting a deliberately asymmetric approach to possible conflict with the United States. Obama’s military strategy document released in 2012 noted that possible enemies like Iran and China could use area denial hardware that would make it difficult for the United States to deploy its forces like it did in Iraq. Instead of outright defeating the United States in conflict, Iran hopes to make any major assault by the United States as difficult as possible and as costly as possible. Just as cheap explosives managed to destroy costly armored vehicles in Iraq, relatively cheap anti-naval and anti-air defenses could destroy costly warships should America attack Iran. Even the feared drones are no longer the sole domain of the United States – drones made in China that while weaker than Western counterparts are 5 to 10 times cheaper than those made in America. Once again these weapons do not need to outright defeat the opposing force in combat, rather they only need to do make combat uneconomical. These new weapons also further support strategies similar to the one adopted by Iraqi insurgents. Attacks on distributed infrastructure are easy enough to pull off in person, imagine how much easier they'll become when you can fly a drone over a pipeline and detonate it. More and more it seems that the pure economics of conflict are becoming so distorted and so stacked against large nation states that they will either be destroyed economically or forced into militaristic isolationism.


With all this in mind, the obvious question is what should we do about insurgents in the 21st century? In this highly connected, high speed world, how do we keep ourselves and our country safe? While measures like border control and surveillance may seem like solutions, they are inadequate for the problem at hand. Going back to what William Gilis said, the number of attack vectors for the state will only increase, and its ability to defend will become more and more compromised as the system is forced to increase in complexity and authoritarian control until it becomes so rigid and self-defeating that it comes crashing down on our heads.

This is one possible outcome. However thinkers have suggested alternatives. John Robb, whose work I’ve drawn on extensively for this piece this calls for more localized production and defense, with tight knit communities capable of withstanding disruptions to infrastructure outside them. Peaceniks like Jeremy Corbyn want less foreign intervention in the hopes of preventing blowback. The writers of The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico call for a more decentralized military that is more fluid and networked. Advocates for peer to peer economies have called for the slow, intentional dissolution of the state into networked communities. And of course, anarchists and libertarians want communities made up of freely associating individuals who self-organize to defend themselves.

I of course don’t know the correct solution to the problem of 4th and 5th generation warfare. However I do know that if a state cannot properly enforce its monopoly on violence, then it stops being a state. With this in mind, we should look to the future and not to the past for our solutions of defense and governance in this modern word.

  1. How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict, Ivan Arreguín-Toft,International Security, Summer 2001 ↩︎

  2. Brave New War, John Robb Part 1, A New Strategic Weapon, Saddam’s Lesson ↩︎

  3. ibid Part 1, A New Strategic Weapon, Saddm’s Lesson ↩︎

  4. ibid, Part 1, Disorder on the Doorstep ↩︎

  5. ibid, Part 1, Turning Out The Lights ↩︎

  6. Open Source Warfare, Robert N. Charette, 1 November 2007 ↩︎

  7. Full Transcript of Bin Laden's Speech, Al Jazeera, Novemember 2004 ↩︎

  8. The Next Surge: Counterbureaucracy, RSIS Military Studies, Jonathan J. Vaccro ↩︎

  9. How ISIS Games Twitter, J. M Berger, The Atlantic ↩︎

  10. Insurgents Hack U.S. Drones, Wall Street Journal, Siobhan Gorman, Yochi J, Dreazen and August Cole ↩︎