Military Embedded Systems

Evolution of 4th generation warfare


January 12, 2015

Ray Alderman

VITA Standards Organization

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG: Our first, second, and third entries in this series covered the early evolution of warfare up through the Vietnam War, where fourth generation warfare (4GW) took hold. In this installment we discuss 4GW and how its foundational ideas of 4GW were originally written by Mao Tse Tung and his co-commander, Zhu De, in 1928.

The full text was sixteen Chinese characters that said:

When the enemy advances, we withdraw
When the enemy rests, we harass
When the enemy tires, we attack
When the enemy withdraws, we pursue

This became the mantra of the Chinese Communist Party after the abdication of imperial rule by the Qing Dynasty and the take-over by the Nationalist Party. The crux of Mao's 4GW strategy was for rural peasants to conduct a protracted war until the existing government collapsed. It took him from 1928 to 1949 to drive Chiang Kai Shek and his National Party into Taiwan. You might think that Mao was a student of Sun Tzu's book “The Art of War,” but observations disprove that idea. Sun Tzu states "there is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare." Mao fought the Nationalists for 19 years. Yet, the authors of China's latest military strategy, Col. Qiao Liang and Col. Wang Xiangsui "Unrestricted Warfare" in 1999 do take the lessons of Sun Tzu to heart.

To read Warfare Evolution Blog Part 1 click here, for Part 2 here and here for Part 3.

Qiao and Wang were keen observers of the two Iraq wars, and they came to the conclusion that 3GW China cannot win a war against America's 5GW weapons. They also understood that China could not execute a 4GW war of insurgency and terrorism to defeat the U.S. Discounting nuclear warfare, they suggest moving to new 5GW techniques (non-contact warfare) against the U.S., involving economic and cyber warfare.

Vietnam was the first significant 4GW war -- a low-intensity protracted war of insurgency and terrorism. North Vietnam's leaders, Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, took Mao's basic concept and added their own twists. While the rural peasants (Viet Cong or VC) were recruited to fight against Ngo Dinh Diem's Republic of the South Vietnam government, the communists also brought in the North Vietnam Army (NVA) as well as Laotian and Cambodian fighters. Insurgency became a major element of 4GW.

Colonel Thomas X. Hammes (U.S. Marine Corps), in his book "The Sling and the Stone,” goes through the evolution of 4GW in Vietnam in some detail. Col Harry Summers wrote the primary reference for this war “On Strategy: Analysis of the Vietnam War” in 1982. Reading these histories and analyses, you can easily come to the conclusion that the U.S. fought the 4GW Viet Nam war with 3GW World War II maneuver warfare tactics. The Bell UH-1 Iroquois (Huey) helicopter was the fundamental maneuvering mechanism, dropping soldiers in position for battle. The B-52 bombing campaign against North Vietnam (Operation Rolling Thunder) was straight out of WWII.

However, the U.S. started to understand 4GW and developed primitive counterinsurgency techniques. The Ho Chi Minh Trail (from North Vietnam, inside the borders of Laos and Cambodia) was the main source of supplies and fighters coming into the south. U.S. aircraft bombed this trail on numerous occasions to cut this supply line, but that led to political problems (expansion of the war into two other countries). The trail was particularly active after the monsoons, during the dry season. So Department of Defense (DoD) chemists came up with a mixture of powdered chemicals, that when dropped on the communist-built road would combine with the organic material in the soil and create a deep sticky goo when mixed with water. The U.S. Air Force pilots would then fly over the powdered area and seed the clouds with iodide crystals, creating rain and activating the chemicals, miring the roads. This is yet another example of Russian General Vladimir Slipshenko’s 7GW class of environmental warfare weapons, but used in a 4GW war. Also, add the defoliation of the jungles with "Agent Orange" to our growing list of environmental warfare weapons and techniques.

Additionally, the Studies and Operations Group (SOG) and the Special Forces Groups (SFG) would find caches of weapons and ammunition on the NVA side of the trail. At first they would destroy them, but the communists would just replenish the supply. So they began to salt the ammunition caches with identical-looking ammunition, mortar, and cannon rounds loaded with high explosives. When the VC and NVA fired those rounds, their weapons would blow up and kill those around them. This caused the VC and NVA to distrust their ammunition supplies and sources, an effective psychological warfare technique against 4GW. Also, many of the supply routes into Vietnam were mined with anti-personnel explosives to disrupt the flow of supplies and troops into the south.

In 1965 the CIA, along with special operations forces (SPECOPS) and the SFG started "Operation Phoenix". For the first time, intelligence activities became a major anti-insurgency tactic. The objective of Operation Phoenix was to identify and neutralize Viet Cong (National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam) operatives in provincial government positions or subversives who supported North Vietnam. Many were captured – in snatch-and-grab operations – and taken to interrogation centers. By 1972, more than 81,000 NLF operatives were neutralized. Between 20,000 and 41,000 were assassinated. Stuart A. Harrington outlines this program in detail in 1987 his book "Stalking the Viet Cong.” At this stage of 4GW, the CIA has become an operational military unit, with military objectives. No longer is the CIA just an intelligence agency. We will see this occur again in the Middle Eastern wars.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, 4GW evolved into a heavily modified version. First, the basis of the war turns from political differences to theological differences – religion becomes the foundation of the conflict. Second, insurgents become the primary fighters in the war. The goal is still the same – a prolonged war that eventually collapses the governmental, economic, and religious system in a country. However, some new twists are added to Mao Tse Tung's original version, and Ho Chi Min's modified version: today's 4GW insurgents kill large numbers of the indigenous civilian nation-state population. The U.S.-Vietnam war, and the Russia-Afghanistan war, were both 4GW wars between nation-states. Today's 4GW war is between non-nation-state insurgents and an opposing nation-state. Religious ideology has replaced nationalism in today's version of 4GW. The insurgents in the Middle East have taken a page from the Vietnam playbook. They use IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) along the supply routes and roads as the U.S. did on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in VN. Nearly 3/4's of the civilian casualties in the Middle East wars were caused by IEDs. Between 1/2 and 2/3's of all U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan came from IEDs.

Somewhere between Vietnam and the first Gulf War in Iraq (between 1975 and 1990), the DoD got smart: it instituted 5GW (precision weapons and non-contact warfare). History has shown that fighting a 4GW war with 3GW tactics is a losing proposition. The U.S. (in Vietnam) and the Russians (in Afghanistan) both got beat by 4GW protracted war, insurgency, and terrorism while using 3GW techniques. In our next episode, we will go through how 5GW tactics and weapons have moved warfare up the scale again.

Until our next installment where we will cover 5GW, think about this quote from Colman McCarthy: "Everyone is a pacifist between wars. It's like being a vegetarian between meals.


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