Communications and Maneuver Warfare

by Col John R. Moore

Much has been written in professional journals and military literature about maneuver warfare, its theories, its orientation, and its dynamic approach to the business of warfighting. The Marine Corps has in particular adopted it as operational philosophy. One needs to look no further than works like OH 6-1, The Ground Combat Element, or the latest publication, FMFM 1, Warfighting, to see the truth in this last statement. However, the role of communications and its relationship to maneuver warfare have not been examined or discussed anywhere in these and other publications.

An old saw says “Congress makes them generals, but communications makes them commanding generals.” Nowhere is this more true than in maneuver warfare, which emphasizes upfront leadership, independent action, and situational awareness. Maneuver warfare requires a new approach to tactical communications. This article seeks to provide some useful ideas about that as Marines pick up the banner of maneuver warfare and march off into the 21st century.

Today’s communications equipment can barely keep up with the initial demands of maneuver warfare, let alone the fast-paced actions certain to emerge in the future. VHF/FM radios, the mainstay of the units conducting maneuver warfare, have been in service since the Vietnam era. The promised replacement, SINCGARS (single channel ground and airborne radio system), languishes in fiscal “never-never land.” The VRC-12 series of VHF radios has just had its service life expectancy extended to 1998. Age breeds maintenance problems and a lack of reliability. Lack of reliability restricts the commander engaged in the freeflowing kind of warfare envisioned by the maneuverist. Other equipment items are not mobile enough to keep up with rapidly displacing units and command posts. The size, complexity, and length of the logistic train frequently eliminate the use of other equipment. Command posts (CPs) designed around World War I tentage are not conducive to emerging doctrinal concepts.

Any new approach to tactical communications requires an examination of communications from the viewpoint of the commander and his staff. The relationship between the commander and his communicator, the bureaucracy that produces communications equipment, and the system that educates commanders and communicators need also to be parties to this examination. Only when we have brushed the dust and mold from our doctrine and the inertia and lack of awareness from our headquarters can communications begin to support maneuver warfare.

The commander and his staff must approach communications as both a limiting factor and as a force multiplier. Communications as a factor limiting maneuver warfare should be obvious. While the tenets of maneuver warfare urge the commander to command from the front and not to be confined to his CP, if the commander cannot communicate, he cannot control, regardless of the principles of maneuver warfare. The commander and his communicator must be acutely aware of the communications environment created by every scheme of maneuver.

As a force multiplier, a properly designed and supported communications system allows the commander to take advantage of the tactical situation, revise his task organization, and pursue an advantage momentarily offered. Communications is too important to be left only to the communicator; the commander and his staff must become proficient users of their communications system, understanding the capabilities and limitations of the equipment they employ. The days of handing the problem over for the communicator to solve must never return. Maneuver warfare requires reliable communications for “recon pull” and other techniques and tactics to work against the surfaces and gaps it creates. Exercises can succeed in the face of poor communications; armed warfare cannot.

It is also useful to view the command and control system at every level as composed of a series of “range rings,” much like the range rings of concern to a fire support coordinator. Beyond certain distances commanders cannot communicate with any degree of reliability. These range rings of communications may pose unavoidable iimilations on the commander that, in turn, may cause him to revise his scheme of maneuver. The commander must also realize that his commander is also making the same estimate and will want to increase the radius of his own communications rings. But the laws of physics are inflexible; no amount of badgering or ignoring will change or modify them. The commander goes beyond his communications range at his own peril. Just as the wise commander does not exceed his span of control, the wise commander does not exceed his communications range.

Maneuver warfare places unusual requirements on the unit communications officer in lerms of organization, equipment techniques, and leadership. No longer can the communications officer be content, or be forced, to chase the arrows of up and down radio nets. He must think in terms of his frontage, the location of his units today and tomorrow, his commander’s intent, and his own personnel and equipment. No longer can he afford the coffee-drinking, bean-counting, business-as-usual approach to communications that the less demanding requirements of static operations allowed in the past. Maneuver warfare requires the communications officer to train his noncommissioned officers (NCOs) to solve today’s problems, while his staff noncommissioned officers (SNCOs) prepare for tomorrow, and he prepares for the day after tomorrow. The communications officer must anticipate his commander’s intent through careful coordination with the staff, frequent liaison visits, briefings of the commander and his operations officer, and learning the spirit of the unit. The communicator’s focus of effort must be his commander’s information requirements.

The communications officer must be both a leader and a manager. As a leader he must learn to do the correct thing, while as a manager of a multimillion dollar inventory he must learn to do things correctly. The communications officer must know the details of his equipment, but must not let himself become only a technician. He must be a generalist as well, aware of the environment about him, its requirements, its spirit, its philosophy, and his commander’s intent. The communications officer must be able to understand the tactics of the G/S-3, the logistics of the G/S-4, the control measures of the fire support coordinator, and, most importantly, the intent and focus of effort of his commander.

While he leads his Marines in their usually unheralded duties, the communications officer must also manage the communications system. he must be able to translate the plans and intent of his commander into the realities of frequencies, call signs, nets, links, and circuits; yet he cannot let himself become bogged down in the details of today’s battle. Hopefully his Marines have trained to function this way long before it was required. This also presumes that the commander has allowed his communicator time to train his Marines in their speciality.

The ability of communications to support maneuver warfare directly depends upon the suitability, reliability, and appropriateness of its equipment. Maneuver warfare requires smaller, better, lighter, cheaper, and more capable equipment than in the past. Only when equipment developers and maintainers recognize that the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) must live and die with their mistakes can communications begin to support maneuver warfare. The current process of developing, fielding, and maintaining equipment only marginally supports the FMF. Communications equipment in the inventory today was designed in the 1970s, based on 1960s experience, funded with 1980s money, and will probably be poorly supported by the fiscal realities of the 1990s. Some of this equipment no longer meets the needs of commanders who rapidly displace, operate on the move, and communicate only when absolutely necessary. The communicator and his commander are being promised and fed sophisticated equipment that will not last nor be used on a fastmoving battlefield. The emphasis seems to be on the complex and the complicated at the expense of the simple and the reliable. In addition, training is not in synch with equipment fielding due to funding delays, training delays, and the lack of an integrated approach. One year after the recent reorganization of the development, acquisition, and support organizations, the situation has not measurably improved. No equipment should be fielded until the FMF can use it. Equipment complexity is another issue that does not need to be repeated here. Communications equipment must be designed to be operated by a fighting Marine, not by a graduate engineer.

Professional schools must also approach maneuver warfare with the view that communications can support or cripple the commander’s intent. The curriculums of our professional schools must teach not only the technical details of communications, but also the effective use of the communications system, the system that carries information. The staff officer who routinely demands that historical reports be transmitted with immediate precedence and who complains that his messages are not getting through obviously does not understand the limitations of the system. The schools must teach students to distinguish between information that is indispensable and that which is nice to have. Information cannot be routinely demanded-the use of filters, areas of interest and influence, liaison officers, and key indicators must all be used to tailor the information for the commander.

Our schools must also teach that decisions must be made at the lowest possible level, that information flows up and down the chain of command; that headquarters and command elements need to actively search for information rather than rely on reports; and that electrical communications should be used only for information that is critical in nature and time-sensitive in urgency. Finally, organizational techniques, task organization, supervisory management, and battlefield leadership must be taught lest the student not have the time to develop and grow on his own.

Communications can support maneuver warfare if there is a desire to excel, a positive outlook, and a systems approach to problems. Realistic expectations and awareness of equipment capabilities and limitations will do a lot to reduce both perceived and actual communication problems. Only when the commander and his communicator understand this and use their communications assets intelligently will the true potential of maneuver warfare be realized.