Critique of FMFM 1, Warfighting

by LtCol Edward J. Robeson IV

The latest doctrinal publication from the Warfighting Center is now on the street. Appropriately enough, it is entitled Warfighting. It is an excellent document-short, concise, lively, and even easy to read. It has much to commend it. However, there are also several specific areas that I believe could be improved. If you have your copy with you, you might want to examine the following passages with me.

* On pages 3-4, last line:

“Nations not at war with one another can be said to be at peace. However, absolute war and peace rarefy exist in practice. Rather, they are extremes between which exist the relations among most nations.”

Problem. Earlier on this page, war is defined as “a state of hostilities that exists between or among nations, characerized by the use of military force.” Using this definition, peace becomes the absence of war, or a state in which hostilities do not exist between nations and military force is not used. Page 4 elaborates that war “may range from intense clashes between large military forces-backed by an official declaration of war-to covert hostilities which barely reach the threshold of violence.” However, if war is a state of hostilities, which is the traditional definition, then a declaration of war is required to alter the peacetime state between nations. War does not, by definition, require conflict, it simply alters the state between nations. Also, traditionally, absolute peace has not been defined as only the absence of war, but also the absence of conflict. Our new FMFM, probably for the sake of emphasizing “warfighting,” has stood these normal definitions on their heads. While the Marine Corps steered close to this when it published the Small Wars Manual, it saved being contradictory through the use of the modifier “small,” thus making at least one additional category between war and peace. In fact, that manual specifically stated that small wars covered the spectrum from merely demonstrative actions all the way up to extensive conflicts, short of war.

Recommended Resolution. Change the last line on page 3 and the following paragraph to read:

Nations not at war with one another, however, cannot be said to be at peace, for absolute peace, the absence of both war and any conflict, is extremely rare. The need to resort to military force of some kind may arise routinely in the affairs between nations, even when a state of war does not exist. Thus, for our purposes, we understand the broad and continuing utility of military forces apart from time of war. We must be prepared to execute national policy by imposing our will on the enemy at any level, from using intense clashes between large military forces-backed by an official declaration of war-through conducting or countering covert hostilities which barely reach the threshold of violence.

* On page 12, 1st full paragraph:

“Leaders must study fear, understand it, and be prepared to cope with it. . . . Strong leadership which earns the respect and trust of subordinates can limit the effects of fear.”

Problem. While somewhat semantical, it seems important to specify accurately what it is that we really want to learn. We should be studying that. We do not want to learn fear. We want to learn courage. To do this, we need to study how men, who were placed in situations where they could have fallen prey to their fears, did not.

Recommended Solution. Change the two sentences cited to read:

Leaders must study courage, understand its moral and physical roots, and be prepared to exhibit it. . . . Demonstrating strong, tactically proficient and concerned leadership in difficult situations is the essence of courage. It will earn the respect and trust of subordinates and can even limit the effects of fear and inspire courage in them.

* On pages 19-20, paragraph 2, 5th line and paragraph 3:

” . . . As the policy aims of war may vary . . . so must the application of violence vary in accordance with those aims . . . When the policy motive of war is intense, such as the annihilation of an enemy, then policy and war’s natural military tendency toward destruction will coincide, and the war will appear more military and less political in nature. On the other hand, the less intense the policy motive, the more the military tendency toward destruction will be at variance with that motive, and the more political and less military the war will appear.”

Problem. First, we have the earlier problem of a faulty definition of “war”, when “conflict” would have been a better and broader term. Second, we don’t want to run the risk of abdicating our responsibility to continue to inform our political masters that we are not chameleons. What we have been structured, manned, and trained to do, we do very well; but we cannot do well the things we are not designed to do, and we shouldn’t try to do them. While our ability to apply force covers a broad spectrum, and can be “sized,” we should not agree to the concept of “an application of violence” as if we were discussing coats of paint of varying hues and intensities. At the point of application, for his own safety, we should never ask a Marine to diminish his level of violence other than the constraints placed on him by the law of war. Next, “annihilation of the enemy” cannot be our policy aim in war, as that would violate both the laws of war and genocide. We can have a policy aim of unconditional surrender, but we can go no further either legally or morally. Lastly, wars always appear to be completely political in nature. Sometimes the political instrument to force a favorable conclusion in wars and conflicts is military force.

Recommended Resolution. Change the sentences to read:

As the policy aims of a conflict may vary from defending national interests from aggression to requiring the complete capitulation of the enemy, so the military forces brought to hear should be organized to best support that policy . . . . However, we should never assent to artificial constraints that would attempt to use military forces in nonmilitary ways. We should never neuter our Marine’s responsibility to defend himself and his comrades. The introduction of military forces should be clearly understood to imply that violence will result unless the opponent acquiesces to our national policy aims, and the forces introduced should be organized to successfully carry out that assignment with absolute resolve if required.

* Pages 28 and 29:

Problem. These pages, when combined with the statement on page 30 that the United States (and by inference the Marine Corps) has traditionally conducted war by attrition, seem to be an attack on our history. It is as if we must demonstrate that we were getting it all wrong in the past and that we need to radically change to get it right in the future. Surely, with our past record of success, we don’t need to agree so quickly that all of our predecessors were so unaccomplished. It would do us well to tread lightly when we call into question those already in Valhalla. The past giants of the Corps might not agree that all warfare can simply be dumped into one of two piles, i.e., that it is either “attrition style” or “maneuver style,” and that they belong in the first pile. If we have been such attritionists in our past, then what style did Lt O’Bannon use in his indirect approach to Tripoli? How did we fight in our flanking engagements along the approaches to Mexico City and Chapultepec? What tactics did we apply in World War I once the trench stalemate was broken late in the war? How did we operate in Central America in the “small wars” years? Why did we place a ring around Rabaul in the Pacific, bypassing and cutting off units whenever possible? What was our scheme at Inchon, Chosin, and elsewhere? What of DEWEY CANYON and many other operations in Vietnam? To record the results of engagements in concrete terms, i.e., men and equipment destroyed, does not necessarily make one a mindless “attritionist.” In our entire history, it would be very difficult to find a single competent Marine commander who simply bloodied his men on every occasion. Yes, maneuver is a vital component, but maneuver alone will not necessarily dislocate a professional opponent. He may choose to leave one position in order to gain a better position, but if we want to take something of value from any enemy commander worth his salt, we’d better be prepared for the killing to start.

Recommended Resolution. Rewriting these two pages would not be difficult. We could emphasize that, although all warfare uses both fire and maneuver, commanders greatly improve their chances of success when they apply these two concepts simultaneously rather than sequentially, and at a higher tempo than their opponent. While superiority in men and equipment is always desirable, military competence can overcome raw numbers in many instances. The goal is not just to apply our strength against enemy weaknesses. Instead it is to discern exactly where to focus our efforts to prevent enemy success and ensure our own. While the precise intelligence needed to guarantee this may be lacking, a high tempo of operations combined with well-trained Marines will greatly assist the more competent commander in destroying the enemy’s cohesion, command and intelligence links and psychological balance. This will eventually expose the enemy’s vitals to our attack and subsequent exploitation. We could do justice to our grand heritage by showing that our desire to “fight smart” in the 1990s is simply continuing our tradition of adapting new, more capable, flexible, and lethal means to the task at hand on the battlefield.

* On Page 29, 1st full paragrah, lines 9-10:

“While attrition operates principally in the physical realm of war, the results of maneuver are both physical and moral.”

Problem. This statement seems to contradict the statement on p. 13, “. . . the greatest effect of fires on the enemy is generally not the amount of physical destruction they cause, but the effect of that physical destruction on his moral strength.”

Recommended Resolution. Change to read:

Slow, methodical, or predictable operations will not maximize the effect of our combat power on the enemy. We need to see the importance of dislocating him both physically and psychologically. In this way, we can simultaneously erode his moral strength and his physical control of his units, opening him up to defeat in detail.

* On page 35, 2d paragraph, lines 1-6 3d paragraph, lines 1-4:

“We obviously stand a better chance of success by concentrating strength against enemy weakness rather than against strength. So we seek to strike the enemy where, when, and how he is most vulnerable. This means that we should generally avoid his front, where his attention is focused and he is strongest. . . . Of all the vulnerabilities we might choose to exploit, some are more critical to the enemy than others. It follows that the most effective way to defeat our enemy is destroy that which is most critical to him.”

Problem. First we have the problem of concentrating strength against weakness. Unless that concept is carefully explained, “going where the enemy isn’t” can become a goal that simply uses resources and dissipates combat power in an area that the enemy has already decided to cede to you. We, therefore, go where he wants us to, expending time and effort better placed elsewhere. Traditionally, we have spoken of concentrating our combat power at the decisive point, rather than against weakness. The decisive point will usually be strong, but it is where the battle will be decided, and we intend to mass there faster and win quickly. A more serious problem, however, is the presumption that we will face an incompetent enemy. Who else would not recognize and strongly defend his “most critical vulnerability?” I don’t believe that we can assume that we can have it both ways, that we will always be able to go for his “gaps” and still go for his most critical vulnerability.

Recommended Resolution. Change the sentences in the 2d paragraph to read:

We obviously stand the better chance of success if we use the offensive advantages of initiative and surprise, and mass our combat power more quickly than our enemy, striking him while he is still vulnerable at our selected point of decision. Because forces are usually oriented along a particular axis in the defense, we should generally avoid his front, where his attention is focused and he is strongest . . .

* On pages 62-63, last line:

“We believe that implicit communication-to communicate through mutual understanding using a minimum of key, well-understood phrases . . .”

General Comment. This statement is understated in my opinion. Almost nothing is more important to the success of maneuver warfare principles than a common tactical vocabulary. We should all be very careful to guard against any trend to move away from standard terminology. We should never allow common tactical terms to be subverted through the assignment of alternative meanings or multiple meanings. If mission orders are to succeed, we must be absolutely merciless in maintaining a common vocabulary of tactical terms in the Corps. We must have a minimum of key, well-understood phrases that everyone understands without any additional explanation. When the formal schools at MCCDC (Marine Corps Combat Development Command) change tactical terms, the entire Marine Corps needs to know simultaneously, not through conversations with recent graduates. Homemade or special phrases that are not generally understood will not, in my opinion, stand the test of combat where a subordinate may have to carry on the mission due to casualties.

* On page 64, last paragraph, lines 3-4:

“We must not try to maintain positive control over subordinates since this will necessarily slow our tempo and inhibit initiative.”

Problem. Standing alone, this sentence could be misunderstood, it would be a mistake to equate “positive control” with “interference in internal affairs of a subordinate.” I don’t believe that we really want to agree that “positive” control is necessarily negative. Positive control in my mind, is that level of control that the commander needs to exert to ensure mission accomplishment. It varies from very general guidance to detailed instructions and is based upon the personality and experience of the subordinate commander and the capability of his particular unit.

Recommended Resolution. Change the sentence to read:

We must not attempt to overcontrol our subordinates, since that could slow their tempo and inhibit their initiative.

* On page 70,3d paragraph, lines 7-10:

“We leave the manner of accomplishing the mission to the subordinate, thereby allowing him the freedom-and establishing the duty-to take whatever steps he deems necessary based upon the situation.”

Problem. This is a terrific statement, but there should be an exceptional clause somewhere. The higher commander, like a pool player, may need to ensure that his cue ball is positioned correctly for his next move after this one has been completed. It does matter whether backspin was used or not, even if that first ball goes into the pocket. This could be covered by broadening commander’s intent, or by being slightly less free in mission tactics, but it needs to be considered.

Recommended Resolution. Change the: sentence to read:

While there may be an occasion to prescribe where a subordinate’s unit must end up following his present task in order to ensure a proper alignment for the next contemplated mission, it would be inappropriate to unnecessarily reduce any subordinate’s tactical flexibility. In fact, it is important to leave the manner of accomplishing the immediate mission to the subordinate commander.

* On page 73, 2d paragraph, lines 2-8:

“. . . Since the focus of effort represents our bid for victory, we must direct it against that object which will cause the most decisive damage to the enemy and which holds the best opportunity of success. It involves a physical and moral commitment, although not an irretrievable one. It forces us to concentrate decisive combat power just as it forces us to accept risk. Thus, we focus our effort against critical enemy vulnerabilities, exercising strict economy elsewhere.”

General Comment. It is particularly cheering that the term “point of main effort” is not mentioned in this passage, nor is there any mention of “strength against weakness.” It would also be wrong to characterize our Marines in the supporting attack as somehow giving less than their main effort. After all, depending upon relative success, the focus could shift to them anyway. “Focus” is a much better term than “point of main effort” because it implies concentration, mass, coordination, combined arms, etc. This paragraph is one of the best in the book.

* Page 74, 1st paragraph:

“Put simply, surfaces are hard spots-enemy strengths-and gaps are soft spots-enemy weaknesses. We avoid enemy strength and focus our efforts against enemy weakness, since pitting strength against weakness reduces casualties and is more likely to yield decisive results. Whenever possible, we exploit existing gaps. Failing that, we create gaps.”

Problem. There seems to be an inherent contradiction here. While it is clearly stated that we avoid enemy strengths, there is also the recognition that it may not be possible to do so if we are to achieve any kind of decisive result, so we may have to “create a gap.” While the enemy may shift his forces and expose a gap due to other initiatives we undertake, the only way we can create one directly is by attacking a “surface.” However, we have been enjoined not to do this.

Recommended Resolution. Delete all references to “surfaces and gaps” and discuss “soft spots” or “exploitation opportunities.” Particularly annoying is the use of the word “gap.” Not only does it already have a useful tactical meaning as an area in a defensive scheme that cannot be covered by either direct fire or observation, but here it loses any preciseness in definition.

In summary, this is our latest doctrinal book. The Commandant did not mince any words about how he wanted it to be read, studied, and applied. To do this, we need to get the document right not just in general terms, but also in each particular phrase. It is my opinion that, with a few relatively minor exceptions, we have done that. Perhaps best of all are the benefits that will accrue to the Corps as we discuss, seek to understand, and rally around our latest common frame of reference for warfighting.