Implementing Maneuver Warfare in Daily Operations

by 1stLts J.L. Currie & Matt Hartley

We observe a conversation happening across the Marine Corps, a conversation that asks, “Is the Marine Corps heading in the right direction?” Within the context of this broader question, devoted and enthusiastic officers and enlisted Marines are asking: What ?s the future of amphibious warfare? How can we adapt to (the elusive concept of) fourth generation warfare? How can we marry the rapid pace of technological development with a traditional warfighting organization? This, we believe, ?s a positive response to the Commandant’s call for disruptive thinkers. Much of this debate is centered around questions that are as interesting and exciting as they are large in magnitude, for which no obvious answers or solutions exist. This has been evident in the debate surrounding Capt Joshua Waddell’s article, “Innovation: And other things that brief well” (MCG, Febl7). As young lieutenants, we feel the frustrations expressed ?n Capt Waddell’s argument, but we also acknowledge Capt Jeffrey E. Little’s logical response ?n “A Modest Rebuttal: Response to ‘Innovation: and other things that brief well.'”

Like many thinkers across the Marine Corps, these questions have been the background to our own conversations. In this article, we hope that our analysis offers something unique: a specific focus on individual Marines operating at the platoon, company, and battalion levels. Instead of attempting to address the apex question (“Is the Marine Corps heading in the right direction?”) or other, larger questions, like the ones previously mentioned, we address practices on our level by asking, “How does cell phone and email use affect the way we operate and plan?” This question may seem trivial, innocuous, and possibly silly, but we believe it contains broader moral and existential importance.

We are not arguing for a return to simpler communications technology or, in the extreme, none at all; we argue for discipline: rules on using these technologies consistent with our warfighting philosophy and modern science. We purport to fight maneuver warfare, but ungoverned availability and access to these communications technologies is antithetical to our warfighting philosophy. They deprive us of initiative, reduce efficiency, and degrade effectiveness. A total ban is regressive, but rules and etiquette for bounded use are both practical and necessary. The first section of this article sets the foundation, reviewing maneuver warfare theory, introducing fundamental documents, and defining key concepts. In the second section, we offer comments and observations from our own experience. In the final section and conclusion, we reiterate that discipline is critical, providing useful recommendations for regaining the initiative in daily operations.

Concepts & Definitions

The foundational publication of the Marine Corps’ warfighting doctrine, MCDP 1, establishes maneuver warfare as the standard by which the organization executes military action. MCDP 1 defines maneuver warfare as

a warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot coped

Recent Marine Corps publications such as Expeditionary Force 21, (Washington, DC: HQMC, 2014), and Marine Corps Operating Concept, (Washington, DC: HQMC, 2016), review and reinforce maneuver warfare‘s central tenets of speed, decentralized command, and rapid decision making. The Marine Corps Operating Concept reaffirms maneuver warfare as the method to ensure the Marine Corps defeats its future enemies.2 Theory and practice, however, hardly align. Juxtapose the central tenets of maneuver warfare against daily battalion operations across the Marine Corps. We believe we fail at the lowest levels to execute the maneuver philosophy envisioned by theorists such as Col John Boyd, USAF(Ret).

Maneuver warfare is ultimately about disrupting and out-cycling an opponent’s observation-orientationdecision-action process, also known as the OODA loop. Col Boyd developed the OODA loop as a theory for how human beings make decisions. He first explained it in Destruction and Creation. He further examined this concept and fleshed out the implications and principles inherent in maneuver warfare in his groundbreaking brief, “Patterns of Conflict.” These ideas laid the intellectual basis for Capt John Schmitt’s publication, commissioned and endorsed by Marine Corps Commandant Gen Alfred Gray as FMFM 1, Warfighting. Throughout the creation of Warfighting, Schmitt conferred with fellow maneuver enthusiasts, including Gen Bernard Trainor, Col Mike Wyly, and Gen Paul Van Riper, to refine and capture the major tenets of maneuver warfare.3 First published in 1989 as FMFM 1, it was later revised in 1997 to become MCDP 1, Warfighting.

In this article, we focus on three key concepts from maneuver warfare theory: initiative, decentralized command, and commander’s intent. In our analysis, we use these concepts as the standard for measuring our daily operating effectiveness. Initiative, as defined ?n MCDP 1, is “the willingness to act on one’s own judgment.”^ Boyd argued initiative was a requirement for shaping and adapting to change, that the warfighter must avoid passivity.3 Decentralization ?s a prerequisite for inspiring initiative. Decentralized command enables high tempo in the face of uncertainty, disorder, and the ever-changing events of combat.6 The imperative for action, however, must still be in harmony with the larger organization’s goals. To achieve this effect, commander’s intent harmonizes initiative with the overarching tactical, operational, or strategic goal. It is the commander’s intent that allows subordinates the freedom to deviate from the original plan as circumstances change yet remain focused on achieving the end state.7

Practiced ?n concert, these concepts have the unifying effect of rapid decision making; and the ability to make decisions faster than the enemy is the essence of Boyd’s theory and maneuver warfare. The combatant who acts quickest generates the tempo and controls the momentum of the conflict. The Marine Corps, down to the smallest unit, moves through this decision-making cycle. As such, it is imperative we understand and analyze the effect communications technology has on this cycle and our ability to make decisions.8

Email &? Cell Phones: What’s the Big Deal?

Despite the focus in recent months and the previous few years on disaggregated operations, it remains unattainable if access to cell phones and email remains unconstrained in training. Warfighting asserts that, “In order to develop initiative among junior leaders, the conduct of training-like combat-should be decentralized.”^ Even in peacetime, training must mirror combat. Warfighting continues,

subordinate commanders must make decisions on their own initiative, based on their understanding of senior’s intent, rather than passing information up the chain of command and waiting for the decision to be passed downT

Unrestrained email and cell phone use eliminates the need for clear commander’s intent; it strips the decision-making power from subordinates. It ruins our ability to communicate clearly and implicitly. The end result ?s an organization that does not train like it fights. The daily habits and practices needed for decentralized operations are slowly whittled down. When the day of reckoning comes and we find ourselves again involved in a conflict, will we have the experience or understanding to create a coherent decision-making cycle? Who needs an enemy to disorient us when we can do it ourselves? In the words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Too often, our ability to work in solitude and think through our most difficult challenges is interrupted by the constant stream of emails cluttering our inbox. If, as stated in MCDP 1, “the mind is an officer’s principal weapon” and “the military profession ?s a thinking profession,” then only through solitude can we discover the solutions that will truly make us a better force. We often avoid our most difficult problems, inadvertently choosing the distraction of email. Rather than taking the time to face truly essential problems and improve our units, it appears we are merely reacting to the day s email traffic. In the book Focus, Daniel Goleman references a Harvard business study that examined the inner work lives of a team tasked with completing innovative challenges. The study found the most critical aspect to the team’s success was protected time to think freely within a “creative cocoon.” 11 As William Deresiewicz argued in his speech “Solitude and Leadership,” leaders need protected time to think through problems, focus their efforts, and decide which actions are truly important for success and improvement. Solitude allows us the time to clarify our thoughts and beliefs, enabling us to focus our efforts with greater resolve and precision.12 Gen Moshe Dayan, an Israeli Defense Force commander who helped orchestrate the exemplary display of maneuver warfare by the Israeli Defense Forces during the 1967 Six Day War, was known to reserve time to think in solitude.13 We have too few leaders who spend time deeply thinking and too many reacting to distractions.

We confuse busy work with progressive work. Answering and receiving emails (busy work) gives the illusion of progressive work because it ?s a timeconsuming endeavor leading to a constant shift ?n focus. As Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, said, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”14 With email, each new “ding” becomes a new priority. As a result, we cannot focus on one problem long enough to develop a solution, “Patterns of Conflict” advises maneuver warfare practitioners to “present many simultaneous and sequential happenings to generate confusion and disorder.”13 Every time a message pops into our inbox, we are forced to orient on an entirely new information set, inflicting damage to our own OODA loop. To paraphrase Warfighting, email creates a rapidly deteriorating situation in which we are no longer able to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information. Instead, we are left with the impression that we accomplished something because we were busy throughout the day.

To be clear, cell phones and email are not inherently problematic-how we use them is. Ultimately, how we use communications technology is a direct reflection of how we communicate:

We believe that implicit communication-to communicate through mutual understanding, using a minimum of key, well-understood phrases or even anticipating each others thoughts-is a faster, more effective way to communicate than through the use of detailed, explicit instructions. We develop this ability through familiarity and trust, which are based on a shared philosophy and shared experience.

This concept has several practical implications. First, we should establish long-term working relationships to develop the necessary familiarity and trust. Second, key people-“actuals”-should talk directly to one another when possible, rather than through communicators or messengers. Third, we should communicate orally when possible, because we communicate in how we talk-our inflections and tone of voice. Fourth, we should communicate in person when possible because we communicate also through our gestures and bearing.1*’

We wager that the entire Marine Corps violates these four practical implications. The misuse of communications technology decreases face-to-face interaction, preventing the necessary development of familiarity and trust. We observe our seniors, subordinates, and even ourselves choosing to use a cell phone or landline to speak with someone across the street or even in the same building. Furthermore, orders and warning orders passed through text message increase uncertainty, confusion, and disorder-explicit communication at its worst.

Without disciplined structures governing the use of emails and cell phones, we will continue to delay decisions, shift priorities, and inhibit our ability to think through complex challenges. Rather than operate off implicit communications, staffs increasingly turn to the explicit communications found in email, slowing tempo and increasing the time for action. Leaders become more hesitant to make decisions, waiting until they have complete information. This dependence on explicit communications creates a mentality that centralizes command and develops a pattern of behavior grossly opposed to the guidance expressed in MCDP 1. A flood of email traffic or the constant access to a cell phone reduces the clearness of commander’s intent.

The Information Age brought us the Internet, the smartphone, and email. As these technologies have progressed, instantaneous access has become commonplace. Knowing when and how to use and access these technologies is the key; otherwise, undisciplined use results in intellectual, cognitive, and psychological torpor. Furthermore, access to this technology without restraint has operational side effects. It robs us of initiative and lessens the importance of commander’s intent. It degrades the quality of our communications, placing emphasis on explicit communications. Finally, it inhibits our ability to practice decentralized command and therefore disaggregated operations.

Conclusion Recommendations

There ?s great value in the speed, range, and ease of use provided by cell phones and email. These systems can enhance command and control in Marine Corps units but only through discipline and clearly defined boundaries. The rampant email abuse and cell phone addiction throughout the Marine Corps destroys our ability to solve the right problems. We regress as a warfighting organization and fail ?n our execution of maneuver warfare by remaining addicted to and dependent on these systems.

Discipline ?s what separates mobs from armies. As John Keegan points out ?n The Face of Battle, discipline has created and upheld victorious military units for decades:

Inside every army is a crowd struggling to get out… For a crowd is the antithesis of an army, a human assembly animated not by discipline but by mood, by the play of inconstant and potentially infectious emotion which, ifit spreads, is fatal to an army’s subordination.12

Gen John A. Lejeune draws a clear connection between discipline and morale in his 1921 address to the Army General Staff College: the more disciplined a unit, he argues, the higher their morale.18 Rules, limits, and guidance for cell phones and email are not merely matters of efficiency and effectiveness. As Lejeune points out, the morale of the fighting unit is at stake.

Although anecdotal, we believe the doctrinal argument compelling: Constant access to cell phones and email degrades our ability to implement maneuver warfare. The addiction to cellular devices has other pernicious effects: it worsens sleep,^ mirrors substance addiction,20 and increases anxiety.21 Rules need to be written based on operational concepts and scientific evidence.

As a starting point, we propose the following recommendations for managing cell phone and email use at the battalion level:

* Personal cell phones will not be used between 0800 and 1600 during the work day.

* Limit email use to two hours during the work day.

* Communication should be done in person.

* Communications required to occur over a phone will be made through a DSN (Defense Switched Network) number.

As a result of these (or similar) boundaries, we believe units will improve their ability to solve problems, increase individual initiative, exploit implicit communications, and generate a faster OODA loop consistent with commander s intent.

Writing and enforcing rules for email and cell phone use consistent with history, science, and our warfighting philosophy seems to be common sense. We believe the effect will be dramatic and immediate. We encourage all commanders to institute and enforce stricter rules governing cell phone and email availability during accepted working hours.

For our part, we already have and will continue to do so.


1.Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, War1, (Washington, DC: 1997).

2. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Operating Concept: How an Epeditionary Force Operates in the 21st Century, (Washington, DC: 2016).

3. Dan Grazier, “The Creation of Warfighting, with John Schmitt,” Project on Government Oversight, (podcast, Online: November 2016), available at

4.MCDP 1, Warfighting.

5. John R. Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict,” eds. Chet Richards and Chuck Spinney, (PowerPoint, Online: January 2007), available at http://ww w.dnipogo .org.

6. MCDP 1, Warfighting.

7. Ibid.

8. For a deeper understanding of the history and ideas behind the Marine Corps’ adoption of maneuver warfare, the authors suggest Robert Coram, Boyd, (New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, 2002).

9. MCDP 1, Warfighting.


11. Daniel Goleman, Focus, (New York, NY: Harper, October 2013).

12. William Deresiewicz, “Solitude and Leadership,” The American Scholar, (Online: March 2010), available at https://theamericanscholar. org.

13. Steven Pressfield, The Lions Gate, (New York, NY: Sentinel, 2014).

14. Focus.

15. “Patterns of Conflict.”

16. MCDP 1, Warfighting.

17. John Keegan, The Face of Battle, (London, England: Penguin Books, 1976).

18. LtCol Charles P. Neimeyer, USMC(Ret.), ed., On the Corps, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008).

19. Liese Exelmans and Jan Van den Bulek, “Bedtime mobile phone use and sleep in adults,” Social Science and Medicine, (Online: January 2016), available at https://wwwncbi.nlm.nih. gov.

20. Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014). See also Aeapdonlinelive, “Simon Sinek Q&A: How Do Cellphones Impact our Relationships?,” YouTube Video, 12:57, (Online: September 2015), available at and Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2015), which document the social and psychological effects of unfettered access to cell phones.

21. Ibid.