How to Fight a 4th Generation War

For almost two years, a small seminar has been meeting at my house to work on the question of how to fight Fourth Generation war. It is made up mostly of Marines, lieutenant through lieutenant colonel, with one Army officer, one National Guard tanker captain and one foreign officer. We figured somebody ought to be working on the most difficult question facing the U.S. armed forces, and nobody else seems to be.

The seminar recently decided it was time to go public with a few of the ideas it has come up with, and use this column to that end. We have no magic solutions to offer, only some thoughts. We recognized from the outset that the whole task may be hopeless; state militaries may not be able to come to grips with Fourth Generation enemies no matter what they do.

But for what they are worth, here are our thoughts to date:

– If America had some Third Generation ground forces, capable of maneuver warfare, we might be able to fight battles of encirclement. The inability to fight battles of encirclement is what led to the failure of Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, where al Qaeda stood, fought us, and got away with few casualties. To fight such battles we need some true light infantry, infantry that can move farther and faster on its feet than the enemy, has a full tactical repertoire (not just bumping into the enemy and calling for fire) and can fight with its own weapons instead of depending on supporting arms. We estimate that U.S. Marine infantry today has a sustained march rate of only 10-15 kilometers per day; German World War II line, not light, infantry could sustain 40 kilometers.

– Fourth Generation opponents will not sign up to the Geneva Conventions, but might some be open to a chivalric code governing how our war with them would be fought? It’s worth exploring.

– How U.S. forces conduct themselves after the battle may be as important in 4GW as how they fight the battle.

– What the Marine Corps calls “cultural intelligence” is of vital importance in 4GW, and it must go down to the lowest rank. In Iraq, the Marines seemed to grasp this much better than the U.S. Army.

– What kind of people do we need in Special Operations Forces? The seminar thought minds were more important than muscles, but it is not clear all U.S. SOF understand this.

– One key to success is integrating our troops as much as possible with the local people.

– Unfortunately, the American doctrine of “force protection” works against integration and generally hurts us badly. Here’s a quote from the minutes of the seminar:

There are two ways to deal with the issue of force protection. One way is the way we are currently doing it, which is to separate ourselves from the population and to intimidate them with our firepower. A more viable alternative might be to take the opposite approach and integrate with the community. That way you find out more of what is going on and the population protects you. The British approach of getting the helmets off as soon as possible may actually be saving lives.

– What “wins” at the tactical and physical levels may lose at the operational, strategic, mental and moral levels, where 4GW is decided. Martin van Creveld argues that one reason the British have not lost in Northern Ireland is that the British Army has taken more casualties than it has inflicted. This is something the Second Generation American military has great trouble grasping, because it defines success in terms of comparative attrition rates.

– We must recognize that in 4GW situations, we are the weaker, not the stronger party, despite all our firepower and technology.

– What can the U.S. military learn from cops? Our reserve and National Guard units include lots of cops; are we taking advantage of what they know?

I will continue this report in my next column.

WILLIAM S. LIND’s On War column appears weekly in CounterPunch.


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WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

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