An Alternative to Maneuver Warfare

by Maj Andrew D. Walker

Winner 1991 Bevan G. Cass Award

The challenge is to identify and adopt a concept of warfighting consistent with our understanding of the nature of war and the realities of the modem battlefield.

-FMFM 1 Warfighting

The U.S. Marine Corps has sought to meet this challenge by adopting maneuver warfare as its warfighting style, an action based on a conclusion made about the nature and realities of modern battle. As with any conclusion, its truth depends on the validity of the underlying assumptions. By examining these assumptions, it can be determined whether maneuver warfare is truly consistent with the nature of war and the realities of the modern battlefield.

The cogent evidence presented to support acceptance of maneuver warfare is presented in Fleet Marine Force Manual 1 (FMFM 1), Warfighting. The reasoning is based on two assumptions about combat. First, combat has two basic components: fire and movement. Second, combat has two distinct styles: an attrition style based on firepower and a maneuver style based on movement. The attrition style is described as the systematic “destruction of the enemy’s material assets by superior firepower and technology.” Maneuver style applies strength against weakness with “the object of shattering the enemy’s cohesion, organization, command, and psychological balance.” FMFM 1 continues:

Potential success by maneuver-unlike attrition-is often disproportionate to the effort made. But for exactly the same reasons, maneuver incompetently applied carries with it a greater chance for catastrophic failure, while attrition is inherently less risky.

Because of the expeditionary nature of the Marine Corps and the proliferation of high-tech weapons, the Marine Corps can no longer presume vast numerical and technological superiority. It must win quickly by finding enemy weaknesses and exploiting them. A maneuver style of warfare makes this possible.

The assumption that combat is composed of only two basic components and therefore is defined by two styles of warfare is a vast oversimplification of a complex concept. The U.S. Army Field Manual 100-5 (FM 100-5) Operations, in what it calls the dynamics of combat, describes two components in addition to firepower and maneuver (FMFM 1’s fire and movement). These additional components are leadership and protection. Leadership is described as the most important dynamic and the facilitator of the others. Protection is the countermeasure to firepower and maneuver. It follows that under certain circumstances firepower and maneuver can be neutralized by superior leadership and protection. Maneuver may actually uncover friendly forces, thereby rendering them vulnerable to destruction by well-led and protected forces, in which case, combat power is not made greater with increased maneuver.

As in any human behavior, war has innumerable variables. If these variables could be quantified into a model of warfare, then their effects on war might be more clearly understood. However, to try to create a model that included every component of combat would be impractical. AirLand Battle Doctrine maintains a more accurate model can be formed from six battlefield operating systems: intelligence, firepower, maneuver, protection, command and control, and logistics. A concept of warfighting based on the interrelationships between these components will be a much truer representation of the nature of war than a concept based on only two components.

On today’s battlefield, it is possible for the United States to enjoy a vast numerical and technological superiority. Certainly the United States enjoyed that advantage in the Gulf War. The Marine Corps can expect a similar advantage in many stabilization operations involving the Third World. There is no doubt that the Marine Corps needs the capability to fight in an environment of disadvantage; however, an expeditionary force does not need to take unnecessary risks when it enjoys numerical and technological superiority simply in order to engage in maneuver warfare.

It is both shortsighted and dangerous to follow doctrine that assumes that all combat operations need to take the form of maneuver warfare and that the only enemies the Marine Corps must be prepared to fight are those of equal or greater strength. Though maneuver warfare has much utility in various situations, the Marine Corps must base its doctrine on a more complex understanding of the nature of warfare and on a more realistic appreciation of the varied modern battlefield.

The object of warfare is victory. The idea that a commander has a choice to seek victory on the one hand through the systematic destruction of the enemy (attrition warfare) or on the other hand by shattering the enemy’s cohesion, organization, command, and psychological balance (maneuver warfare) ignores the complementary aspects of the two styles of warfare. To imply that the enemy can be confused into surrender by intricate, high tempo maneuver alone is irresponsible. This may work against a poorly led army with low morale. But an army with the will to fight will not be overcome only by maneuver. The enemy’s means to resist often must be destroyed before victory is certain.

The 19th century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz described the nature of war when he wrote:

How are we to prove that usually, and in the most important cases, the destruction of the enemy’s forces must be the main objective? How are we to counter the highly sophisticated theory that supposes it possible for a particularly ingenious method of inflicting minor direct damage on the enemy’s forces and control of his will-power as to a constitute a significant shortcut to victory? [Maneuver warfare?] Admittedly, an engagement at one point may be worth more than at another. Admittedly, there is a skillful ordering of priority of engagements in strategy; indeed that is what strategy is all about, and we do not wish to deny it. We do claim, however, that direct annihilation of the enemy’s forces must always be the dominant consideration, We simply want to establish this dominance of the destructive principle.

Real confusion of the enemy will result from the systematic destruction of his command and control systems, air defense systems, and major weapons systems. This destruction will limit his ability to observe the battle and to fire back accurately. All warfare should attempt to do this.

The destruction of enemy forces has become an important element of the modern strategic objectives of war. An enemy left with a potent military force poses a considerable threat of future conflict. This opinion would have met with disagreement from Sun Tzu, the 4th century B.C. Chinese military theorist and early maneuverist. He wrote, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill” and, “Generally, in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this.” These maxims are held by maneuverists as the ultimate measure of success.

However, Sun Tzu is referring to the Chinese practice of conquering other warring states with relatively small professional armies. To seize the conquered state intact with low casualties was to add power to the victor’s state without bankrupting it. Modern warfare is different in that it has limited strategic objectives. Today it is unacceptable to absorb sovereign nations. The Gulf War is the most recent example of this reality. Clausewitz saw modern warfare more accurately, writing that:

We are not interested in generals who win victories without bloodshed. The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity. Sooner or later someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our arms.

The destruction of the offensive capabilities of a defeated enemy should always be a strategic objective of modern war. The maneuverist’s optimal result, that of a bloodless war, is not consistent with the objectives of modern war.

As a commander must focus his tactics on the enemy and not terrain, the style of warfare chosen for combat must be consistent with the capabilities and intentions of the enemy. The art of war is knowing what the capabilities and intentions of the enemy are. Clausewitz understood the relationship of warfare to the unpredictable reactions of the adversary. His “fog of war” is based on the elements of uncertainty that arose largely from the impossibility of gauging enemy intentions and reactions. The commander who can properly counter the enemy’s capabilities and intentions will have freedom on the battlefield. This is not to suggest that warfare is a step-by-step process that is reactive to the enemy. Many proactive operations can be prosecuted simultaneously, as long as the objective is to destroy the enemy’s means to resist. Once the enemy’s ability to affect the battle has been neutralized, victory is only a matter of attrition-enemy attrition.

Development of a doctrine or concept of warfighting must be based on the interrelationships of the principal components of combat. The six operating systems of combat previously mentioned (intelligence, firepower, maneuver, protection, command and control, and logistics) are appropriate for this purpose. Instead of only one style of warfare, this more complex model suggests many possible styles. The difference in styles of warfare is in the application and integration of the different components of warfare to bring about the destruction of the enemy’s ability to fight. To suggest maneuver warfare or any one style of warfare is consistent with the multifaceted nature of war is to ignore the need for the flexibility of matching friendly strengths to enemy weaknesses in all the components of warfare. Before a concept of warfare can be created based on these components, they must be defined, and their interrelationships understood. Additionally, if this concept is to stand the test of time, future trends of these components should be examined.


FM 100-5 defines intelligence operations as

the organized efforts of a commander to gather information on terrain, weather, and the enemy. Obtaining useful intelligence prior to the initiation of operations is a vital task.

The art of war is knowing the enemy’s capabilities and predicting his intentions. Intelligence is principal to clearing this “fog of war” so that the commander is able to see the battlefield accurately.

The trend of the future will be realtime intelligence. Real-time intelligence is the optimal tactical intelligence. The goal is for all tactical leaders to have an accurate picture of the battlefield at the very moment they are making their decisions. Real-time intelligence at all levels of command would be the ultimate union of intelligence and command and control. Just as the AWACS (airborne warning and control system) can be downlinked into the cockpit of a fighter aircraft, the target information gathered by JSTARS (joint surveillance and target attack radar system) needs to be downlinked in a usable form to all levels simultaneously. This will facilitate centralized control of fires, but localized execution. The principal shortcoming of intelligence has always been getting the appropriate information to the right commander. This problem will resolve itself as computers network information, and the information passed becomes that which the tactical commander wants, namely, critical target information. The strategic and operational commanders may need analyzed intelligence but the tactical commander’s primary concern is target acquisition.


“Firepower provides the destructive force essential to defeating the enemy’s ability and will to fight.” Firepower can be used to facilitate maneuver by suppressing enemy fires or it can be used independent of maneuver to destroy the enemy’s operating systems (i.e., intelligence, firepower, maneuver, protection, command and control, and logistics). Firepower is the decisive element of combat. If victory is gained by the destruction of the enemy’s means to resist, then firepower is responsible for the destruction. All other components (the six operating systems) ultimately support firepower.

Firepower of the future will be increasingly accurate with greater effect and will be susceptible to fewer adverse environments and less jamming. The smart weapon is here to stay. However, dispersion and mobility will be critical to the survival of forces on the future battlefield. To optimize firepower, the systems will have to be able to fire on the move and concentrate fires even while dispersed. The Ml tank is an example of the “fire on the move” technology present on today’s battlefield. To concentrate moving, dispersed fires, networked onboard computers will have to generate the gun data for an entire battalion of self-propelled artillery pieces, all in different locations. No matter how effective one weapon system becomes, the integration of combined arms systems will always allow for the most effective use of firepower. Any one system can be defeated when employed by itself. However, the effectiveness of a weapon system employed as part of an integrated package is multiplied many times.


Maneuver, according to FM 100-5, “is the movement of forces in relation to the enemy to secure or retain positional advantage.” It is the means by which firepower can be concentrated at a critical time and place to achieve surprise and gain momentum. Technological improvements in mobility and communications have given maneuver additional speed and flexibility. However, maneuver will rarely be possible without firepower and protection. Though firepower must support maneuver, ultimately maneuver supports firepower by positioning firepower to advantage on the battlefield. Maneuver is the dynamic component of combat. The less the enemy is prepared to handle a dynamic battlefield, the more maneuver becomes effective.

Maneuver on the future battlefield will stress dispersion and mobility. Speed and freedom of movement will become increasingly important. The air arm presents a medium that allows for both speed and freedom of movement. Tilt-rotor technology will expand the horizons of maneuver tactics. Distances, speeds, and loads will increase as vertical envelopment becomes the maneuver of choice.


Protection is “the conservation of the fighting potential of a force so that it can be applied at the decisive time and place.” FM 100-5 divides protection into two categories-first, actions to counter the enemy’s firepower and maneuver and, second, actions to keep soldiers healthy and their morale high. Though the latter actions are important, the former actions are those that have application to a warfighting concept. Actions to counter the enemy’s firepower and maneuver include security, air defense, dispersal, cover, camouflage, deception, suppression of enemy weapons, mobility, and counter-mobility. More than any other component, protection is structured to the enemy’s capabilities. As enemy capabilities are reduced, actions to provide protection can be reduced to afford greater offensive flexibility.

Protection techniques will also be needed on the battlefield of the future. Effective protection starts as deep as possible on the battlefield. “Star Wars” technology for antimissile and antiair defense is here today with the Patriot missile system. Ultimately, the use of space to position defensive weapons will provide a versatility that cannot be matched. No matter how sophisticated protection becomes, the key ingredient will be the individual warrior’s desire to fight. No protection will be sufficient to protect an army that does not have the desire to fight.

Command and Control

FM 100-5 points out that command and control “must facilitate freedom to operate, delegation of authority, and leadership from any critical point on the battlefield.” The principal element of this component is leadership. It is leadership that “will determine the degree to which the firepower, maneuver, and protection are maximized.” Without competent and confident leadership, the courage and competence of soldiers, the excellence of their training, the capability of their equipment, and the soundness of their combined arms doctrine are meaningless.

For the force to be successful, this competent and confident leadership must be present in the battlefield commander. He must be decisive, experienced, and able to affect the action. Clausewitz believed much of the success of any operation was due to the “genius” of the commander. “Genius” did not refer as much to clever tactics as to the ability to find a way to carry on through adversity. Combat requires a commander who would rather advance on his own responsibility than remain waiting for orders. Complementary to this “genius” is a plan flexible enough to allow for shifting the focus of main effort. With a commander decisive enough to capitalize on a momentary advantage and a plan that allows for exploitation of momentary advantages, determination and flexibility are wed.

The modern battlefield has produced many advantages in command and control. However, the strength of command and control is best tested when no communications exist. If the commander’s intent is understood and subordinate independent action is encouraged and expected, then the enemy will be incapable of stopping the force by disrupting command and control systems.

Command and control in the future will rely on reliable, directional, covered burst communications. With the increased fluidity of the battlefield, communications with adjacent units will become as important as communications with superiors. The future will see the increased use of artificial intelligence to make the standard decisions that fire support coordinators and air controllers do today. The computer will verify the target information, compare it to restrictions, and decide who should fire the mission. The challenge for the commander will be to use the technology to its best advantage without becoming a slave to it.


The final component is logistics. It has been said by many that “amateurs speak of tactics; professionals speak of logistics.” This maxim recognizes the principal importance of logistics to warfare. All else becomes irrelevant if the forces in the field cannot be sustained. Napoleon’s march on Moscow is the classic example of what happens when this military maxim is ignored. FM 100-5 lists six key sustainment functions: manning, arming, fueling, fixing, transporting, and protection of the sustainment system. Technology on the modern battlefield has become necessary to manage the incredible amounts of supplies required to fight a high-tech army. Computer systems for ordering and warehousing supplies have become commonplace. Containerized shipping and cargo movement systems are now utilized for rapid offload and distribution. The future battlefield should see artificial intelligence systems planning and executing lift and sustainment operations to optimize time and space requirements.

No matter how high-tech the battlefield may become, certain tenets of logistics will never change. Logisticians must anticipate the requirements of combat if they are to keep up with demand. They must “push” supplies to the front, rather than wait for requests to “pull” supplies forward. Logistics must be integrated into the concept of operations from the beginning of the planning process. Logistics must be continuous and redundant. Supplies cannot be interrupted because one mode of support is temporarily or permanently lost. The system must be responsive by performing surge operations if the momentum and initiative are to be maintained by maneuvering forces. Improvisation is required of every good logistician. Those who can improvise will always have an advantage over those who cannot.

To form a doctrine of warfare these six components must be brought together in a workable concept. The maneuverist might expect that increasing maneuver increases combat power. But this in only true when the enemy’s mobility, countermobility, fire support, and command capabilities have been brought under control through other means. If the reality of today’s battlefield is that “the United States can no longer expect to enjoy vast numerical and technological superiority,” as is noted in FMFM 1, then maneuver may very well lead to disaster. Certainly maneuver against an enemy with limited command and control that can no longer see and react in its area of influence is the tactic of choice. However, a well-protected enemy with greater numbers of conventional arms and equal technology is not automatically a candidate for maneuver. Once the battlefield has been shaped by a coordinated effort against the enemy’s ability to see and react, maneuver becomes viable.

A doctrine of warfare should be appropriate for every environment and enemy. It must be adaptable to the jungle as well as the desert, be equally applicable to high-intensity conflict and to low-intensity conflict, and prove effective against high-tech enemies as well as primitive ones. What must be considered in each situation is the unique and distinctive nature of the environment and the enemy. A relative advantage in one of the components of warfare must be developed. Once one advantage is attained, others can be developed. This is the doctrine of “relative advantage.”

This principle of relative advantage is valid at all levels of war: strategic, operational, and tactical. Strategically, a country should choose the type of war that matches its relative strength. Using Clausewitz’s trinity of war (the government, the military, and the public) as the components of a country’s strength, a country with a stronger military than its adversary should obviously engage in military action. However, a country with a stronger public will to fight but a weaker military than its adversary may prefer to use guerrilla tactics, and a country with stronger political means may find cold war tactics (i.e, economic and political sanctions) to be its most effective strategy. At the operational and tactical levels, the six components of warfare are the strengths to be evaluated-the areas in which relative advantage should be sought.

The United States’ doctrine, weapons, and tables of organization were formed for fighting high- to mid-intensity conflicts. Low-intensity war will provide much different problems for maneuver warfare. The command and control of insurgents is decentralized and therefore is difficult to confuse. Large formations of troops are purposely not present in guerrilla warfare and therefore cannot easily be maneuvered against. The insurgents’ vulnerability is their logistics. Successful counterinsurgencies have always started with the separation of the guerrilla from his support.

The Soviets’ inability to cut the Afghan rebels from their sustainment is the reason for the defeat of a high-tech army by a low-tech army, not the Soviets’ inability to maneuver. Though the Vietnam War was not an insurgency, it was low intensity in most cases. An argument can be made that a type of maneuver warfare was practiced in Vietnam. However, it was not effective because the jungle environment did not allow for the fixing of the enemy. Their true vulnerability, logistics, was never fully neutralized for primarily political reasons. But for whatever reasons, maneuver warfare was not the appropriate warfighting style.

If the doctrine of maneuver warfare has alerted the Marine Corps to a forgotten component of warfare-maneuver-then it has served its purpose. Certainly maneuver is a dynamic factor of combat that positions firepower for the destruction of the enemy. But firepower is not subordinate or even equal to maneuver. Firepower is the decisive factor in combat. Firepower can support maneuver, but ultimately maneuver supports firepower. Historically, maneuver was invented to concentrate firepower for the maneuvere’s advantage. From Frederick the Great’s oblique formations to Napoleon’s parallel columns, maneuver has always had the purpose of concentrating firepower into the enemy’s relative weakness.

To use maneuver on today’s and tomorrow’s battlefields, the preparation of the battlefield is crucial. It is only through the disabling of the enemy’s ability to fight that maneuver becomes viable. The disabling or neutralizing of the enemy’s components of warfare is done by applying the friendly forces’ relative advantages to the enemy’s relative weaknesses. As the enemy’s capability is diminished, the battlefield becomes free for use of maneuver. This is not to say that maneuver cannot be used early in some situations. Maneuver may be the relative advantage the friendly force enjoys. However, there are some circumstances where maneuver will not be a relative advantage early in the conflict. Only after the enemy’s ability to stop maneuver is neutralized does maneuver become effective.

Although maneuver warfare is valid under certain circumstances, the nature of war and the realities of the modern battlefield call for a much more flexible doctrine of warfare. The concept of relative advantage, focusing on the six essential operating systems of combat discussed above, may serve this purpose.