Defining Maneuver Warfare for the Marine Corps

By William S Lind

Several recent articles in the GAZETTE have referred to “maneuver warfare.” The term may have occasioned some confusion among Marines. After all, doesn’t all warfare involve fire and maneuver? Isn’t maneuver just another word for movement? How can there be such a thing as “maneuver warfare“? It may be time to review just what this term means and why it’s important to the United States Marine Corps.

Maneuver warfare refers to an overall concept or “style” of warfare. It has an opposite, the firepower-attrition style.

Firepower-attrition is warfare on the model of Verdun in World War I, a mutual casualty inflicting and absorbing contest where the goal is a favorable exchange rate. The conflict is more physical than mental. Efforts focus on the tactical level with goals set in terms of terrain. Defenses tend to be linear (“forward defense”), attacks frontal, battles set-piece and movement preplanned and slow.

In contrast, maneuver war is warfare on the model of Genghis Khan, the German blitzkrieg and almost all Israeli campaigns. The goal is destruction of the enemy’s vital cohesiondisruption-not piece-by-piece physical destruction. The objective is the enemy’s mind not his body. The principal tool is moving forces into unexpected places at surprisingly high speeds. Firepower is a servant of maneuver, used to create openings in enemy defenses and, when necessary, to annihilate the remnants of his forces after their cohesion has been shattered.

Maneuver conflict is more psychological than physical. Effort focuses more on the operational than on the tactical level. The goal is set in terms of destroying the enemy’s forces not seizing terrain seen a priori as “key.” A defender places only a “tripwire” forward and relies on counterattacks into the flanks and rear of enemy penetrations. “One up and two back” is the rule. Attacks ooze through and around enemy defenses. Battles are usually meeting engagements. Rates of advance are high. Movement is constant, irregular in direction and timing and responsive to fleeting opportunities.

A key to understanding maneuver war is to realize that not all movement is maneuver. Maneuver is relational movement. Maneuver is not a matter simply of moving or even of moving rapidly. Maneuver means moving and acting consistently more rapidly than the opponent.

Recently, the concepts behind maneuver war have been organized and expanded into an overall theory of conflict. This theory was developed by Col John Boyd, USAF (Ret.) and is appropriately known as the “Boyd Theory.”

Col Boyd was the father of energy management air combat tactics. More recently he has devoted himself to studying the nature of conflict in general. He observed that in any conflict situation all parties go through repeated cycles of observation-decision-action. The potentially victorious party is the one with an observationdecision-action cycle consistently quicker than his opponent’s (including the time required to transition from one cycle to another). As this party repeatedly cycles inside his opponent, the opponent finds he is losing control of the situation. Because of his longer cycle time, his reaction is facing a later action by the faster party than that which it was intended to oppose. Instead of achieving convergence with the first party’s action, he finds himself facing everwidening divergence. Suddenly, he realizes there is nothing he can do to control the situation or turn it to his advantage. At that point, he has lost. Often he suffers mental breakdown in the form of panic and is defeated before he is destroyed physically.

The Boyd Theory is the theory of maneuver warfare. In maneuver war, if the enemy is destroyed physically (and often that is not necessary), that is not the decision but merely the outcome. The real defeat is the nervous/ mental/systemic breakdown caused when he becomes aware the situation is beyond his control, which is in turn a product of our ability consistently to cut inside the time of his observation-decision-action cycle.

The French campaign of 1940 is an excellent example of the Boyd process in operation. The Germans presented the French with a succession of new and unexpected situations at a pace too rapid for the French observation-decisionaction cycle. The nerve of the French high command broke under the strain.

How does the Boyd Theory and its application to ground warfare, maneuver war, relate to the Marine Corps? It is relevant, because maneuver war is the most promising tool for the side with fewer numbers and less weight of metal. In many scenarios Marines are likely to be outnumbered in men and materiel. An attrition contest is not promising for the outnumbered force, while maneuver makes quantitative factors less important by striking at the enemy’s mind. As Dr. Edward Luttwak said in an excellent article in the August issue of Air Force magazine:

While the side that has materiel superiority can choose freely between attrition or maneuver, the side whose resources are inferior overall can only prevail by successful maneuver. If an inferior force remains tied by tradition and attitude to low-risk or low-payoff attrition methods, it must be defeated. In the cumulative destruction of the forces ranged against one another which characterizes an attrition contest, the inferior force will inevitably be defeated. It is not surprising that maneuver warfare is so unfamiliar to American military men-in whose self-image materiel superiority still looms large-while it is almost instinctive to those who see themselves as inferior in resources, be they from Vietnam or Israel.

Maneuver war relates directly to the probable main mission of the Corps during the remainder of this century, supporting the United States’ friends in the Third World. Despite the current Administration’s fixation on NATO, Europe is becoming relatively less important to United States’ interests and non-European areas, developed and less developed, more important. Japan is now the United States’ largest single trading partner. America’s vital interest in areas rich in raw materials, especially petroleum, is well known. The increasing economic vitality of parts of Latin America, especially Brazil, suggests our interests in that area may become more important.

In many potential Third World scenarios, the Marine Corps faces an opponent superior in numbers and in materiel-possibly quality as well as quantity of materiel. For example, if we consider the possibility of Marine Corps intervention to assist Saudi Arabia against an attack by Iraq, we see Iraq has an army of 180,000 men, compared to only 80,000 for Saudi Arabia (including the Saudi National Guard). Iraqi forces include four armored and two mechanized divisions. Equipment includes T-62 and AMX-30 tanks, BMPs multiple rocket launchers and ZSU-23-4 antiaircraft guns-equipment equal or superior to that possessed by Marines. The supporting air force has 339 combat aircraft, including modern MiG-23s, SU-20s and Mirage F-1s. While Saudi equipment is also modern, quantities are smaller. Operational effectiveness also may be less.

Maneuver warfare would offer a Marine amphibious force (MAF) the best chance in assisting Saudi forces to victory. An attrition contest between well-equipped Iraqi mechanized divisions and a single MAF would not be promising. The need is for a force which, although small, can wage maneuver warfare in support of an ally who probably cannot, against an opponent who probably cannot.

Indeed, the force multiplier effect of maneuver warfare should be more striking against a Third World opponent. While Third World armies may be large, well-equipped and competent at operating their weapons systems, they are likely to be tactically and operationally inflexible. Third World nations can produce some highly competent officers and planners, as the Egyptians demonstrated in the canal crossing in 1973. But they are not likely to have many such officers, and flexibility may be lacking in field forces. The impact of maneuver warfare, with its emphasis on speed, surprise and the creation of unexpected situations, could be devastating. Such has been Israel’s experience in several wars with her Third World neighbors. However good the prewar planning and set-piece operations of the Arabs, the Israeli maneuver style of warfare triumphed dramatically once the situation became fluid. The reason was not that Israeli equipment was better or that Israeli troops were more courageous, but that Israeli field forces showed great flexibility. Their opponents did not.

It is sometimes mistakenly thought that maneuver warfare automatically means armored warfare. To be sure, foot infantry cannot fight effective maneuver war in open terrain. But in rugged terrain, maneuver concepts apply fully to infantry warfare. Indeed, maneuver war was first manifested in the West in this century during World War I by German foot infantry in so-called infiltration “von Hutier” or “soft-spot” tactics. The World War II blitzkrieg differed little in concept from these early infiltration tactics, merely substituting tanks for storm troops and achieving the higher rates of advance permitted by mechanization. Infiltration tactics may offer as much potential to Marine foot infantry as to future Marine mechanized units.

Changes will be required in the Marine Corps if it is to fight maneuver warfare effectively. Maneuver doctrine must be developed and disseminated. Marine foot infantry may have to become lighter if it is to fight maneuver warfare effectively in appropriate terrain. Mechanized forces must be formed for open terrain, not based on heavy tanks and tracked infantry fighting vehicles which restrict strategic mobility but on a family of lightweight, probably wheeled combat vehicles such as those discussed by Maj Jim Williams in the October 1978 issue of the GAZETTE. To provide strategic responsiveness, equipment for substantial mechanized units should be prepositioned at sea in potential trouble areas, probably on rollon, roll-off (RO-RO) ships. Some arms, especially artillery, may require expansion.

But unlike the Army, the Marine Corps can develop a strategically responsive force to fight maneuver war in Third World areas. Bound as it is to airlift and to land prepositioning, the Army cannot quickly move mechanized forces over strategic distances. The Army, like the Marine Corps, could preposition equipment at sea. But then the Army would become another Marine Corps, and few force planners think we need two.

A shift to maneuver warfare offers a major challenge to Marines. But it is an exciting challenge, especially for company and field grade officers. In maneuver warfare, the responsibility placed on company and field grades increases dramatically. The key to maintaining a rapid observation-decision-action is to make all decisions on the lowest possible level, the company and battalion level. This is one of the fundamental principles of the German army and is central to their concept of mission orders tactics (Auftragstaktik). Mission orders tactics require company and field grade officers to understand the concepts of maneuver war and of the operation in which they are engaged. Only through a solid conceptual understanding can they hope to make the right decisions on their own as events occur in the field.

There is no question Marines can meet the challenge. By adopting a maneuver concept of war, they can give the United States the capability it needs to defend its vital interests outside Europe. And by performing that task, the Marine Corps can assure itself a solid mission of unquestionable value.