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A Fourth Service for the Fourth Generation of Warfare

For at least three decades, academics and military minds have heralded the arrival of the ‘Fourth Generation’ of warfare. Even before the advent of the modern internet and the rapid expansion of mobile technology, Lind et al (1989) were predicting the nature of this future, asymmetric, generation of warfare:

“In broad terms, fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between “civilian” and “military” may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants’ depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity.”1

This seems prophetic now, post-9/11, post-Ukraine, and mid-War on Terror. Many characteristics of future war propounded above have come to pass. Fourth generation warfare is a complex mix of retro Cold War statecraft, proxy war, espionage, propaganda, and terrorism, delivered by both state and sub-state actors; all of which might be prosecuted in the physical, emotional, and digital battlespace.

Fourth generation conflict is diverse. Information and disinformation, designed to influence the will of entire societies, can be as powerful a tool as an armoured division. Writing of 9/11, Thornton (2007) highlights how a handful of terrorists killed 3,000 people and caused $18 Billion in losses, for an outlay of about $500,000; “These few men with their box cutters had an effect out of all proportion to their profile and status”.

Asymmetric warfare, by its very nature, is uncomfortably similar to terrorism, thus it is often viewed with distaste by both politicians and traditional military thinkers. Nevertheless, Britain’s enemies and potential competitors on the world stage now use asymmetric warfare routinely to wield a level of influence that they could not hope to achieve through traditional military intervention. Asymmetric warfare has always been the preferred tool of terrorists or irregular groups but, increasingly, it has also become a tool of cohesive states.

Against this reality, this essay will consider the argument for the development of a fourth ‘defence service’ for the United Kingdom; one which is designed specifically to fight in the fourth generation of warfare, and to operate in the fourth dimension of the battlefield; cyberspace.

Britain possesses many specialised organisations and military units designed to address specific threats to national security, or deliver specific, politically-directed interventions. Nevertheless, compared to other state actors such as Russia and North Korea, the United Kingdom seems less able to deliver concentrated, coordinated, and sustained, asymmetric action against rivals and enemies.

Asymmetric warfare blurs the lines between traditional concepts of war and peace, something acknowledged by Britain’s Chief of the General Staff (CGS) at his Royal United Services Institute address in January 2018 (RUSI, 2018). This begs the fundamental question of ‘what is war?’ If one assumes that the literal translation of Clauswitz’s theory is correct, that war is“a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.’’ (Clauswitz, 1832, p87), then it could be suggested that the United Kingdom is permanently at war. The nation may not be involved in overt armed hostilities, but there are sufficient global threats to warrant proactive initiatives, designed to maximise British influence on the international stage and disrupt any overt or covert aggression aimed at the United Kingdom.

Exerting national will over another nation, or attempting to defeat a persistent internal or external enemy who has no physical territory to defend, is becoming less achievable using military forces designed to fight in traditional conflict. There is therefore a need to debate whether the standard trinity of Navy, Army and Air Force is an appropriate structure for engaging in future, fourth generational, conflict.

Britain needs forces capable of delivering kinetic strike activity, but it also needs the ability to dominate cyberspace, at least locally, and for limited duration, in order to defend national cyber infrastructure, or to attack that of an opponent’s. There is also a strong argument for deliberately targeting an opponent’s wealth using economic warfare, and also for targeting the social cohesion of societies that harbour resentment or opposition to British interests. Referring directly to the threat from Russia, General Sir Nicholas Carter recently stated that “We should Identify Russian weaknesses and then manoeuvre asymmetrically against them.”(RUSI, 2018).

Such statements raise significant ethical dilemmas. The creation of a force capable of delivering such interventions is relatively straightforward, compared with the complex questions of how such a force might be commanded, controlled, and what processes it might use, and the ethical implications of using such a force. These four issues will now be considered in turn.

Force Components

The constituent parts of an Asymmetric Warfare Service largely exist in Britain already. Tier 1 Special Forces units such as the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service provide a precision strike option when ‘boots on the ground’ are needed. Additional kinetic strike, delivered from a stand-off position, is provided by the United Kingdom’s growing fleet of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. 77 Brigade, constituted to prosecute Information Warfare, provides a tactical foundation for non-kinetic operations (RUSI, 2018). The Security Service (MI5) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) provide internal and external intelligence gathering, security and espionage capability, whilst Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) currently provides cyber intelligence and a limited cyber defence and cyber strike capability. The proposed new school for cyber-warfare at Bletchley Park (BBC, 2016) provides a glimmer of hope that Britain is beginning to take the threat of cyber-warfare seriously.

These organisations alone provide useful building blocks for an Asymmetric Warfare Service. However, they still fall short of the full requirement. A dedicated Influence organisation (beyond traditional Psychological Operations and more strategically focused than 77 Brigade) is required, capable of delivering offensive interventions using a range of media and channels. Also vital to delivering full asymmetric capability is an Economic Warfare Unit, focused on targeting an opponent’s economic stability (Dobson (2002) prefers the term Economic Statecraft). Both organisations may require civilian staffing by individuals with business, rather than military, backgrounds. Social media marketing professionals, consumer psychologists, economists and bankers, may all need to become fourth-generation warriors (Grange, 2000) in the fourth generation of warfare.


The efficacy of asymmetric approaches to modern conflict has been proven numerous times in recent years. Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine, resulting in the annexation of the Crimea, is just one example. Britain’s CGS reflected on this by quoting the author, David Patrikarakos, on his experience in that conflict:

“… I was caught up in two wars: one fought on the ground with tanks and artillery, and an information war fought largely, though not exclusively, through social media. And counter intuitively, it mattered more who won the war of words and narratives than who had the most potent weaponry.”2

Russian influence operatives continue to sew discord across the Baltic States and much of Eastern Europe, and it is widely believed that Russian hackers and robots have attempted to influence Western European and American societies during elections and referenda, or else promoted general discord and political instability within target societies. Again, Britain’s CGS acknowledges the threat:

“Energy, cash – as bribes – corrupt business practices, cyber-attacks, assassination, fake news, propaganda and indeed military intimidation are all examples of the weapons used to gain advantage in this era of ‘constant competition,’…”3

Social media has become an important battleground for domestic politics in the United Kingdom, and thus it has also become a target for those wishing to destabilise Britain’s political establishment, and British society at large.

Sub-state actors have also used asymmetric warfare to great effect in recent years. The Islamic State terror group was able to influence and recruit thousands of impressionable men and women from across Europe through sophisticated use of social media; something western governments struggled to combat. One Head of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, observed that:

“The web is the terrorist’s command-and-control network of choice… and their ability to send out 40,000 tweets a day… without triggering spam controls, illustrates their ease with new media.”4

Such groups have always had to innovate in order to compensate for their weaknesses in conventional armed struggle. When faced with such a threat however, developed nations tend to adopt a ‘just enough-just in time’ approach, which is generally defensive in nature, and tends to conform to a counter-insurgency model that has changed little since the Malayan crisis. Rarely, if ever, do western nations attempt to get inside their opponents’ decision making cycles and spheres of influence, by waging counter-campaigns using asymmetric methods. Grange (2000) suggests that in asymmetric warfare, it is a case of being “the hunter or the prey”. Too often, western nations constitute the latter.

A British Asymmetric Warfare Service, given clear missions, appropriate command and control measures, and strong ethical oversight, could deliver a more proactive and holistic response to threats from nation states, terror groups, and disaffected members of society who have no particular affiliation. This can be achieved by dominating cultural narratives, particularly on social and mass media, and what Grange (2000) refers to as the “infosphere”,discrediting hostile information sources, and denying funds to the organisers of radical, anarchic and hostile groups. Coupled with this, enhanced offensive cyber capability could target hostile websites, servers and digital content, hunting it down and destroying it in cyberspace. The internet is vital ground in fourth generational warfare, and thus it must be dominated and denied to the enemy.

Meigs (2003) highlights that the strength of non-traditional adversaries lies in their ability to change form and process dramatically, and at will; including the fusing of both legal and illegal means of pursuing their aims (take for instance the ‘Ballot and the Bomb’ concept of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA during the Northern Ireland Troubles). Thus, there is a need to respond to such threats creatively. Attempting to make traditional force structures and tactics fit non-traditional circumstances is of little value.

Command and Control

One of two thorny issues that present themselves with this concept of a fourth defence service, is that of command and control. It has taken seventy years to achieve high standards of joint operation between land, sea and air components in the United Kingdom’s military. Trying to develop that further into cooperation with a wide range of civilian partners is more difficult, and was often a frustrating experience for all parties during recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (de Waal, 2013). A simplistic model would see all the organisations listed in earlier paragraphs removed from their parent services and centralised under a common organisational brand, leading to a precise sense of identity, and a unique organisational culture. How would such a force be commanded however? Would the military have primacy in decision-making, with civilian contributions being used as an add-on? Or would civilian leaders dominate, at the risk of leaving the kinetic elements of such an organisation feeling hamstrung and impotent?

Perhaps a completely new category of defence leader is now needed? Such defence leaders could originate from any of the traditional military services, or from one of the many civilian staffed agencies. In order to be truly effective however, they would have to undergo compulsory command, leadership and management training designed to make them fit for purpose in regard to commanding such a complex and diverse range of capabilities effectively. An organisation that might produce such holistic, enlightened and capable leaders already exists in the Joint Command and Staff College. It would have to significantly update and enhance its scope however, to produce commanders of sufficient skill and competency required by this new, fourth service.

Another difficult issue is the ownership of the new force. The Home Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Ministry of Defence, would likely be hugely protective of their respective empires, and perhaps resent the loss of executive power over their traditional assets. Also, given that much of the activity conducted by the Asymmetric Warfare Service would sit very close to the borderlines of ethical acceptability, it might be that no one ministry would own this new force. Rather, it might become the specific property of the Cabinet Office, with its missions and tasks being dictated directly by the Prime Minister.

There would be many other practical and rather mundane issues to resolve. However, the idea that Britain might field a multi-faceted, centrally directed, and hugely powerful asymmetric warfare capability, raises exciting possibilities in regard to how the United Kingdom might seize the initiative against a range of contemporary opponents.


Asymmetric warfare sounds, and feels, underhand; railing against the very British desire to play fair and act as a force for good. The idea that Britain might deliberately take a more Machiavellian approach to defence and international affairs will not sit comfortably with many. However, the mere threat of such a capability being exercised might itself disrupt hostile asymmetric organisations.

A robust ethical code needs to be created to ensure that the process of delivering the capability remains firmly within the constraints of international law, but also to ensure that the decision to commit such a force to action, although not necessarily a public one, would nevertheless be transparent and accountable.

As debated by Jack Klum in Naylor (2009), economic warfare can rapidly move from being a legitimate foreign-policy tool to having unintended humanitarian consequences in the target society. This is just one of many issues that need resolving when developing the concept of a fourth, asymmetric, service. By its very nature, asymmetric warfare tends to have complex and wide-ranging consequences. Targeting would be far more difficult than when using traditional kinetic force. The blast area of a 1,000lb bomb can be calculated with some accuracy, whereas the fallout from targeting a nation’s entire economic system is less predictable.

It can be seen from this brief examination of the topic, that battlefields of the near future will often be unseen and intangible. Wars will often be fought in the hearts and minds of societies, rather than across blood-soaked fields and desert sands. Britain’s enemies already use such dimensions, and show little willingness to pursue their aims through more conventional military action. Therefore, it is essential that Britain creates a force capable of engaging this range of shadowy enemies across the full spectrum of new battle-space and, moreover, creates a force that is sufficiently resourced and organised so that it might still apply key principles of war, such as ‘Concentration of Force’; in order to win decisive victories.

Shaping a force that is fit for the new environment of war will not be easy. It will ultimately require the revision and potential abandonment of long-held cultural norms, and require enlightened thinking that focuses on crafting an effective tool with which to prosecute war against the nation’s enemies, rather than focusing on vested self-interest of existing services.

In this spirit, stakeholders would do well to remember the words of the original theorist of asymmetric war and politics – “Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.”(Machiavelli, 1513).

Andy Johnson
Lecturer, Author and Professional Speaker

Andy Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Business and HRM at Anglia Ruskin University London and was formerly Regimental Sergeant Major, 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards.


  1. (Lind et al, 1989, p23)
  2. Patrikarakos, 2017, quoted by Carter (RUSI, 2018)
  3. Carter, 2018 (RUSI, 2018))
  4. Financial Times, p.11, 4th November 2014)

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