Artillery in Maneuver Warfare

by Col Kent O. Steen

Artillery, often regarded as the principal arm of attrition-style warfare, is in reality a crucial element in maneuver warfare. Properly employed it is ready to meet the challenges of the Corps’ emerging maneuver doctrine.

This article addresses the role of the field artillery in maneuver warfare. My proposition is that the historical standard missions of Marine Corps field artillery contain no bias that automatically predispose the arm to any style of warfare. The arm, outrageously efficient in killing, is uniquely organized to respond to any competent force commander’s style of waging war. I am writing only because in the decade-old polemics on the subject, some maneuver enthusiasts continue to regard field artillery as a symbol of attrition warfare. To right this wrongful view, I will summarize and interpret the standard missions of the field artillery in light of the concepts currently governing ground combat. Since the standard missions form the central logic for how the field artillery is orchestrated, they are worth examining for bias toward any style of warfare. I will conclude with what I believe to be appropriate characteristics of field artillery being employed in a maneuver setting.

Standard Missions

First, a word about the purpose of standard missions. Standard missions have evolved to promote efficiency and flexibility within artillery while complying with the intent of the force commander. Embedded within each of the terms “direct support”, “reinforcing”, “general support”, and “general support reinforcing” are a host of automatic actions and responsibilities that are triggered with the receipt of a new mission. The standard missions are supremely practical and tested by experience. For example, the simple order for an artillery battalion to assume direct support of a given maneuver element, normally a brigade, instantly trips levers, switches, and attitudes resulting in the establishment of appropriate communications, the dispatch/reorientation of forward observers, adjustment of the zone of action (or however the maneuver elements responsibilities are delineated) to that of the supported unit, and relocation of forces as necessary to support the mission and commander’s intent. Further, fire planning to prosecute the mission of the supported maneuver element begins.

Direct Support (DS)

The most comfortable and familiar mission of the artillery, but ironically the one least consistent with the effective application of fire support in a maneuver warfare climate, is DS. A field artillery battalion assigned a DS mission is immediately responsive to the fire support needs of a particular maneuver element. Force commanders in fluid offensive situations, however, will flinch from an arithmetic or egalitarian parceling of field artillery assets, for such usage beggars the precept of focus of main effort and undermines the benefits of unexpected massing of fires that can promote maneuver breakthroughs, pursuit, and decision through the violence of the field artillery. For training efficiency in garrison, habitual artillery-infantry relationships promote understanding and confidence in capabilities. However, when the force commander’s intent involves maneuver, optimum centralization of control may be necessary to achieve decision, and habitual direct support relationship is entirely inappropriate.

Reinforcing (R)

When indicated, field artillery battalions reinforce other field artillery units in support of maneuver units. The R mission is derived from, and is a clear expression of, the force commander’s intent. An artillery battalion so tasked does not abandon its original DS mission altogether, but the R mission permits the ready shift of priorities in keeping with the fluid nature of offensive combat. A reinforced artillery battalion may be reinforced by any number of artillery battalions. Prudence and the standard mission, however, permit a battalion to reinforce only one other artillery unit.

General Support Reinforcing (GSR)

The standard mission of GSR begins to give maximum flexibility to the force commander through the centralized control of his artillery. The GSR mission enables the field artillery to “lean forward” to exploit opportunities that arise with maneuver success. A commander may shift his main effort by the sudden application of artillery, which he has positioned for exploitation through the assignment of the GSR mission. The reinforcing component of the GSR mission keeps the artillery battalion in the action. Further, the GSR mission fulfills the precept of not having artillery in reserve when there are lulls in the tempo of fire support requirements for the force as a whole and little activity for the general support component of the mission.

General Support (GS)

The field artillery GS mission, as indicated above, provides the force commander with the artillery he determines that he needs to fulfill his intent. Centralized control is the most efficient and effective way to meet both the needs of area defense and economy of force considerations. Perhaps unexpectedly, centralized control best enhances the force commander’s ability to prosecute his intent in offensive operations.

For the record, a more detailed discussion of the standard Marine artillery missions can be found in FMFM 7-4. As can be gleaned from the foregoing, these standard missions are indifferent or neutral as to the style of warfare being conducted. There is nothing in the language describing any of the missions to suggest that they were designed for or dedicated to an attrition style of warfare.

Nonstandard Missions

Field artillerymen don’t turn away work. Artillery is never in reserve. The only reason for its existence is to provide firepower in support of other MAGTF (Marine air ground task force) elements. Accordingly, nonstandard missions can be contrived for any circumstance. The zeal to be creative and responsive, however, must be tempered. The artillery whole can be greater than the sum of its parts only through the combat multiplying effects of massing and adroit centralized control. The use of the label nonstandard serves as a useful speed bump for the dangers connected with ad hoc mission assignments.


Attachment is not a standard artillery mission. There are circumstances that dictate that the artillery be attached out, but the assumption must be that support cannot be provided by revising the standard mission of other artillery units. A single stalled or ambushed artillery battery is of little use to anyone. Units with attached artillery have acquired new administrative and logistic support burdens that they are rarely qualified or prepared to meet.

Characteristics Needed for Maneuver


If artillery is to provide proper support in a maneuver style of warfare, there are several characteristics or considerations that must be emphasized. Some of these, although neither apparent nor of interest to the casual spectator, are of overriding importance to artillerymen and the maneuver element they support. These considerations and characteristics are summarized below:

Centralized Control

As history has proved repeatedly, in peacetime there is too much field artillery. In maneuver combat of the future, field artillery will be a precious asset (at least on our side) that must be conserved and applied judiciously by the force commander to shape outcomes and promote decision. If we are to be successful, I believe more centralized control than we habitually practice in peacetime will be required. The force commander’s expression of centralized control is best attained through use of GS/GSR standard missions for the field artillery.

Surprise Fires

In maneuver warfare the field artillery displaces at night and into unexpected positions. Registrations will be rare in hopes that maintaining silence until commitment will promote surprise. Reliance will be placed instead on use of atmospheric data and individual velocity characteristics of the field pieces. These common gunnery practices can enable first round accuracy without sacrificing surprise. Finally, the ground will be organized to permit the attack of targets with a minimum of radio communications. Wire will predominate where physically possible.

Attack of Targets

Artillery in maneuver settings should be fired in battery and battalion volleys rather than after an adjustment phase. This practice is parallel to the logic of the superior effect of surprise fires previously discussed. Besides the scientifically demonstrated increase in effectiveness, a rule to fire only in battery and battalion volley provides a degree of self-control. Hard criteria must be consciously addressed by the force commander and set forth in attack guidance before the field artillery is employed. Is the target worth attacking at all considering betrayal of field artillery positions? Is the amount of ammunition expended consistent with the force commander’s intent and anticipated future needs? These are hard questions, but the answers for them provide the force commander the controls he needs to shape outcomes.


All available artillery in maneuver warfare will be focused in short, unexpected, and violent preparations in order to promote maneuver. Further, every effort will be made to mass the field artillery with every other arm available. This massing includes mortars, aviation (to include theater assets), armor, and naval gunfire. The Soviet-style “fire sack” will be employed to freeze the enemy, as an economy of force measure, or to divert him.

Control Measures

Maneuver warfare abhors control measures because all control measures restrict thinking and maneuver. Artillery understands this. Accordingly, the normal tapestry of unit boundaries and fire support coordination measures, which festoon overlays, may be absent. Coordination will be conducted from the “front,” regardless of direction. The field artillery commanders will be in the Alice packs of committed maneuver commanders at critical moments to clear the fog of war and to bring fire support to bear. This is particularly true of field artillery that can be focused for support of the main effort.

Contemporary thinking on maneuver warfare has its origins in the German experience in the “great offensive” of the closing days of World War I. The same German artillery that spent the first part of the war engaged in a futile battle of attrition was employed by the German General Staff as the linchpin for the infiltration tactics, which many regard as the forerunner of today’s maneuver warfare. The German artillerymen under the centralized control of the brilliant Col Georg Bruchmuller used scientific principles to improve accuracy and effectiveness. Preparations were shortened and made more violent. Gas was used. Otherwise, the field artillery in material and philosophy of support to the infantry was identical to that available to the German Army before the new tactics were introduced. The field artillery available to Marines today relates to maneuver concepts in almost exactly the same way. USMC