21st Century Maneuver

by The Ellis Group

What is perhaps the longest armored raid in military history occurred in August 2014 in Eastern Ukraine. Under then-Col Mikhail Zubrowski, the Ukrainian 95th Air Assault Brigade, which had been reinforced with armor assets and attachments, launched a surprise attack on Separatist lines, broke through into their rear areas, fought for 450 kilometers, and destroyed or captured numerous Russian tanks and artillery pieces before returning to Ukrainian lines. They operated not as a concentrated brigade but rather split into three company-sized elements on different axes of advance. Col Zubrowski is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and modeled the attack on a similar raid that occurred during the American Civil War.1

The story of Zubrowski’s raid demonstrates that certain principles of warfare hold true across military history. Since that time, however, the conflict in Ukraine has solidified. Russiansupported Separatist forces operate advanced capabilities, including electronic warfare (EW) and persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) enabled by advanced commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) unmanned aircraft systems. Ukrainian positions have been reduced to a lengthy series of underground trenches reminiscent of World War I. During that conflict, the ubiquity of indirect fire artillery produced stasis in the lines through sheer imprecise volume of fire. In Ukraine, that same stasis is the result of precision-guided munitions married to persistent ISR that renders volume of fire unnecessary. No Ukrainian offensive has been able to repeat the success of Zubrowski’s maneuver.

Maneuver is the core of our maneuver warfare philosophy. It is also the core of our force structure: every MAGTF is built around a maneuver unit. Maneuver, however, is not just limited to a spatial definition, and maneuver units are certainly not the only units required to execute maneuver warfare. Maneuver is described in MCDP 1, Warfighting, as any means of attacking from a position of advantage.2 The original FMFM1-3, Tactics, identifies two general types of maneuver: in space and in time.3 The Marine Corps Operating Concept {MOC) identifies four ways to gain advantage: psychologically, technologically, temporally, and spatially.4 Maneuver warfare means that we favor any indirect or non-linear method to gain an advantage, whatever means by which we maneuver. In the years since the adoption of maneuver warfare as the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy, spatial maneuver has been favored. In the 21st century, however, Marines must also master alternative maneuver spaces. What does maneuver mean in a strategic environment where every movement can be detected?

Strategic Context

To understand maneuver in the 21st century, we must examine it against a backdrop of the strategic environment in which it will be employed. The current and near-future operating environment has been described in the MOC and in this series of articles as being characterized by complex terrain, technol- ogy proliferation, information warfare, EW (“The Battle of the Signatures”)* and an increasingly contested maritime domain.^ These trends offer not only threats but also opportunities for maneuver-for us and our adversaries.

The proliferation of advanced weaponry and technology to even non-state actors is clearly an opportunity for our adversaries and, thus, a threat to us. Access to high-end weapons systems not only allow adversaries to mitigate our technological advantages but, due to other factors such as their willingness to accept or inflict civilian casualties, allows them access to advantages barred to us.

The global digital media environment enhances an already existing aspect of the nature of war, information, and influence. Even high-end peer competitors, like Russia and China, now routinely employ military deception in any action because of the potency of information warfare. EW will no longer be an option but will necessarily be central to large operations, both offensively and defensively.

Complex terrain limits traditional forms of maneuver but allows other forms. We see the rise of megacities, especially in the littoral environment, as a challenge and a limitation to maneuver. Adversaries, however, see megacities and their concentration of civilians as terrain to exploit in an attempt to negate our fire support and airpower advantages. Cities, however, are just one form of complex terrain; arctic, mountain, and jungle environments will see more conflict in the 21st century.

Lastly, because of the wide availability of advanced weapons systems, fortifications are returning to wide use, and every environment is contested. A network of trenches that would not be out of place during World War I now exists in Ukraine, and both sides in the ongoing Battle of Mosul are using fortification techniques. This trend reduces the ability of forces to employ spatial maneuver and places a new premium on armor and combat engineer units.

These trends combine to form two major conclusions. First, the line between conventional and irregular tactics is all but dissolved. The non-state actor known as the Islamic State holds territory that it won with our own weapons, and the Russian military in Ukraine employs as much, if not more, deception and information warfare as any terrorist organization. “Hybrid” warfare is no longer a special designation, but simply the normal form of warfare. Secondly, the combination of technology proliferation, automation of weapons, and constant aerial surveillance make the modern and near-future battlefield more dangerous than it has ever been, with the one exception of World War I.

Tactical Trends

These trends add up to a battlefield where protection and mobility are still important, but the need for units to operate in a dispersed and decentralized manner is vital. This is not to say that massing in order to concentrate combat power against enemy vulnerabilities will not happen or will not need to happen. It will. Rather, units will need to operate on a dispersed base routinely and only concentrate as the mission and situation dictates. This means that a maneuver unit’s agility-its ability to transition quickly between concentration and dispersion-will matter more than its ability to do one or the other.

Consequently, legacy command and control (C2) hierarchies will be increasingly ineffective in modern combat. Because of both advanced cyber and EW that can disable the means of C2- communications-and the high tempo of tactical decision making required to survive the battlefield, decentralized C2 will become a matter of survival. When a maneuver unit’s survival on the battlefield depends on quick concentrations and dispersions, C2 hierarchies designed solely for top-down command will no longer be feasible. Some measure of hierarchical C2 necessarily remain, especially in non-maneuver units. The point is not to entirely favor one or the other, but our C2 system is no longer “one size fits all.” More organic and flattened C2 will need to be adopted based on battlefield realities.

A high tactical tempo and greater dispersion must be enabled by organic firepower at the lowest levels. Maneuver forces need the capability to use fire and maneuver without losing tempo and, thus, initiative. In other words, this means utilizing combined arms without sacrificing the ability to continue to move in space and/or time. This requires an organic combined arms approach down to the squad level-a mix of direct and indirect fire weapons, including high explosives such as grenades, out to roughly 800 meters. There will still need to be an ability to call for fire support from outside agencies and battalion/regiment mortars, but tempo should be sacrificed to leverage inorganic support only when absolutely necessary. A stationary unit is a detected unit. This translates to the greater use of shoulder-fired missiles and/ or rockets by infantry forces and places a premium on combat engineering at the bleeding edge of the fight.

Lastly, to be successful on this modern battlefield, sustained investment needs to be made in maneuver forces, particularly infantry units. As firepower and ISR drives a greater need for dispersal of smaller and smaller units of maneuver, the danger to those forces of being outnumbered and defeated in detail increases. To mitigate this risk, the training and employment of infantry forces must be modernized; increasing squad-level firepower is only part of the solution. The dilemma is how to increase the capability and potency of infantry forces without overburdening them with gear. In a recent book, retired Army MG Robert H. Scales laid out a plan to do just that. In Scales on War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), Scales describes numerous ways to increase infantry capabilities based on a modern, scientific understanding of the physiology of humans in combat that takes into account cognitive, physiological, and social aspects of the nature of infantry combat. In a recent issue of the Gazette, four infantry officers reviewed the book and offered detailed recommendations tailored to the needs of the Marine Corps. Many of these recommendations are inexpensive, or are only expensive in the short term, but still offer an asymmetric advantage that adversaries will be unable to match.

Maneuver Spaces

The technical capabilities of the weapons and systems that maneuver torces can bring to bear are important, but conceptually, the most drastic change is the need to expand our idea of maneuver space. As the Nation’s amphibious force, we inherently seek to leverage the sea as maneuver space. However, this is just one way by which we seek to gain advantage.

Psychological. We seek to gain a psychological advantage over the enemy by either removing his ability to react to our actions or corrupting his perception of our actions and the situation. We can accomplish the former through surprise and the latter via military deception efforts. Boldness and aggressive action also offer psychological advantages that cannot be discounted.

Technological. A technological advantage can be acquired and maintained both by ensuring that maneuver forces have both the organic equipment to outmatch their opponents (discussed above) and the ability to “reachback” and leverage inorganic support from across the MAGTF and the joint force. However, we should be wary about relying too much on technological advantages. They are always temporary as adversaries acquire similar technology or develop countermeasures.

Temporal. We gain a temporal advantage over the enemy by manipulating the relative operational tempo to our advantage and to gain and maintain the initiative and by preserving our ability to make decisions and act upon them faster than the enemy. We mitigate the enemy’s temporal advantage via countermobility and interdiction actions. If the enemy’s temporal advantage is that he can outlast us in theater-such as is the case with insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan-we must take steps to ensure we do not culminate or contribute to the culmination of domestic political support.

Spatial. Expanding our conception of maneuver space does not mean that achieving a spatial advantage over opponents by maneuvering against flanks, rear areas, and gaps in the opponent’s system will not remain an important tool. The ability to maintain our mobility in the face of enemy attempts to diminish it, such as improvised explosive devices, is of the utmost importance.

Informational. We seek an informational advantage by exploiting various information warfare means to selectively withhold and release information. We utilize operational security to prevent the enemy from gaining an awareness of our actions and operations. We seek to gain information about enemy forces not only to assist in our planning processes but also to use it to our advantage. Information regarding enemy actions that violate the Law of Armed Conflict, for example, can be released and highlighted in order to undermine the legitimacy of their goal among local and international audiences.

To be sure, these maneuver spaces overlap. For example, a temporal advantage allows us the ability to rapidly employ spatial maneuver, which contributes to the ability to surprise the enemy, creating a psychological advantage. Utilizing decentralized decision making assures our temporal advantage by forcing the enemy to react to increasingly inaccurate information as he is successively out-cycled. Additionally, because any enemy is a thinking and reacting entity, they will attempt to gain their own advantages in each realm as well. Evaluating the enemy system and identifying both surfaces and gaps in terms of maneuver space across these dimensions will be imperative for future fights.

21st Century Maneuver Forces

While 21st century maneuver involves more than just “maneuver forces,” they remain the core of our organization and the base unit of any operation.

True light infantry forces will be a necessity on near-future battlefields. The more complex the terrain, the higher the premium placed on light infantry. As improvised explosive devices, precision guided anti-tank guided missiles, and precision ordnance continue to proliferate, the use of motorized and mechanized infantry forces will become more restricted. Since light infantry forces lack protection and rapid mobility, air assault operations will become more prevalent. Additionally, the Marine Corps needs to make innovation focused on augmenting infantry units without overburdening them an institutional main effort. Manned-unmanned teaming will be the most lucrative area of investment, but weapons systems that contribute to combined arms operations at the squad level and modern training simulators equivalent to those used to train pilots will be important as well.

That being said, the proliferation of firepower systems-both improvised and traditional-demands the MAGTF employ highly-mobile mechanized forces alongside light infantry. It is especially important for the MAGTF to have a dedicated reconnaissance/counterreconnaissance task force able to both ascertain gaps in the enemy’s array and to protect friendly vulnerabilities (see “21st Century Reconnaissance,” MCG, January 2017). MAGTF commanders will also need a capable mechanized force to act as a reserve and to exploit enemy vulnerabilities identified by the reconnaissance/counterreconnaissance task force. Being able to transport troops via armored personnel carriers is vital to both efforts. Additionally, the options available to “upgrade” an infantry unit’s mobility via vehicle transport will have to expand. Unarmored flat-bed trucks, like the MTVR, will not always be the best or even a viable option. Maneuver units will more and more often look to options such as the internally transportable vehicle (ITV), all-terrain vehicles, or other small mobility platforms. This means that infantry forces will need to be prepared to fight like dragoons (18th and 19th century units that travelled mounted on horses but fought as dismounted infantry once enemy forces were located).

Recent declarations that tank warfare is dead are false; tanks and tank warfare will remain a presence on the battlefield. Tanks themselves, however, will almost certainly evolve. Remotely-operated unmanned tanks are already in use in Iraq.6 With the rise of unmanned tanks, they will increasingly be employed more as a weapons system than a crew/unit. Once the unmanned tanks become common, the variety of tanks will increase. Light tanks, medium tanks, tank destroyers, and other tank concepts that were less than successful during the manned tank’s apex in World War II will become more viable. Unmanned tanks designed for specific complex terrain-urban terrain for example-will be both necessary and possible. Infantry operations in megacities becomes a little less daunting if every squad leader has a “hip pocket” tank small enough to be mobile in canalized urban terrain. In the long term, a modular tank chassis can be deployed and then outfitted with weapons systems 3D-printed on the battlefield based on the real time needs of forward forces.

One way to increase the capability of maneuver units without overburdening them is to revitalize combat engineering. The habitual relationships between infantry and combat engineering units in the division should be as intimate as those between infantry and artillery, if not more so. Combat engineers bring key mobility and countermobility solutions to the lead units, and as automation and robotics advance, the capabilities of combat engineers will only increase in both capability and importance.

Lastly, the importance of mortars as the maneuver commander’s “hip pocket artillery” will in no way diminish. Although precision-guided munitions will extend the range and increase the utility of mortars, especially in urban terrain, the ability to mass a high volume of indirect firepower will still play a key role in combined arms and maintaining tempo.

The Maneuver-Fires Relationship

As the characters of both maneuver and fires on the 21st century battlefield evolve, the relationship between the two will also need to evolve. Since some aspects of fire support lag behind adversary capabilities, the Marine Corps will increasingly need to maneuver to fire; fire support will require more enablers in order to be effective. Spatially, territory may have to be seized to get fire support within range of enemy forces. Maneuvering to fire will not just occur at the tactical level; Marine forces may be called upon to seize and hold territory in order to emplace anti-air defense or anti-ship cruise missiles emplacements that enable joint forces. Other maneuver spaces, such as informational and psychological spaces, will increasingly play a role and perhaps a more important role. As mentioned in “21st Century Reconnaissance,” recon units will be called upon to force the enemy to react so that Marine forces can detect his positions. Marine forces will also need to prevent enemy forces from do the same to us.

Using fires to enable maneuver will still be a key component of maneuver warfare but will be covered in detail a future article.


In some ways, equipping our maneuver forces-both physically and mentally-is the easiest way to prepare for the battlefields of the 21st century. The cost is less than even some single copies of higher-end platforms. In other ways, however, it is the most difficult. It will require innovative ideas and sustained effort, and it will mean traditions will have to bend. The hierarchical organization currently in use is flexible only to a point, a point that is being reached. More organic and modern command and control organizations are now necessary. (This will be addressed further in a future article, “21st Century Command and Control”).

Combined arms across five domains requires a greater variety in the type of weapons that the MAGTF can bring to bear. Greater diversity of arms, and thus flexibility, will be reflected within maneuver units as well not just among the wider Marine Corps. Maneuver is about attacking the enemy from an advantageous angle. The MAGTF itself is reflective of this as it is structured to shift between ground, air, and logistics efforts at any time. Maintaining our ability to maneuver in the 21st century is about maximizing the amount of options and arms available to the Marine on the ground.


1. Phillip Karber, “Lessons Learned from the Russo-Ukrainian War: Personal Observations,” Report for the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory & U.S. Army Capabilities Center, (Vienna, VA: The Potomac Foundation, 8 July 2015), 35.

2. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP1 Warfighting,, (Washington, DC: 1997), 37.

3. Headquarters Marine Corps, FMFM 1-3, Tactics, (Washington, DC: 1991), 33-34.

4. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Operating Concept: How an Expeditionary Force Operates in the21st Century, (Washington, DC: 2016), 8.

5. Ibid., 5.

6. Kelsey D. Atherton, “Iraq’s War Robot Makes Battlefield Debut at Mosul,” Popular Science, (Winter Park, FL: Bonnier Corporation, 2 November 2016), accessed at http:// www.popsci.com.