Kein SchemaPosted on January 13,2021
Article Date Dec 01, 2020
by 1stLt Adam D. Taggett
One point of frustration amongst lieutenants at The Basic School is the seeming contradiction between the Marine Corps warfighting philosophy taught early in the course and the actual tactics taught in conducting rifle platoon operations later on. With MCDP 1 Warfighting’s emphasis on maneuver warfare, tempo generation, and subordinate initiative in the decentralized execution of a commander’s intent, I was at first somewhat disappointed by the severe emphasis placed on “sequencing events,” “setting conditions,” and coordinating with adjacent and supporting units in our platoon-level tactics. How can small unit leaders expect to freely exploit opportunities as they arise if they must constantly coordinate and synchronize their actions with the remainder of the force? Indeed, John Boyd himself protested the inclusion of synchronization in the Army’s AirLand Battle operational concept during its development in the early 1980s, understanding this element to be entirely contrary to the spirit of his ideas.1 Is The Basic School guilty of “backsliding into attritionist habits,” as Capt Daniel Grazier argues the U.S. military at large is doing?2
In short, no. While maneuver warfare in theory may imply that combat leaders must subordinate considerations of coordination and synchronization to those of tempo and subordinate autonomy, the historical record of success in conventional warfare demonstrates that a successful application of maneuver warfare in reality must balance these competing elements. This article seeks to demonstrate how success in conventional combat requires us to approach the theoretical extremes of maneuver warfare with caution by illustrating how that success is impossible without a degree of synchronization and coordination between forces. It then explores the significance of this finding, offers suggestions as to how we may better synthesize these paradoxical elements of our warfighting philosophy, and ultimately concludes that our best path forward in the circle of professional military education is to emphasize the predominance of context-specific factors in determining the optimal conduct of future wars. This article borrows heavily from the experiences gained from German operational methods in World War II, partially due to my own familiarity with that history but also to the decisive influence these methods had in the conception of maneuver warfare theory. Because of the decisive role played by combined arms and logistics in producing success in conventional conflict, the successful application of maneuver warfare requires us to balance considerations of subordinate autonomy with those of cooperation.
Success in conventional conflict is impossible without combined arms coordination, and in producing this coordination, we must depart from a theoretically pure application of the concept of subordinate autonomy as advocated by maneuver warfare. Combined arms requires synchronization, which in turn relies upon a violation of certain maneuver warfare principles:3 if commanders want their subordinate units to synchronize their actions, it is necessary and inevitable that they give their subordinate leaders much less autonomy in accomplishing their tasks however the subordinate deems fit. This complicates the subordinate unit’s tasks, requiring precise timing, less independence in adapting to unforeseen circumstances, and a mechanical approach to combat that is ultimately discordant with the uncertain, fluid, chaotic nature of warfare. Theoretically, a synchronized advance can only move as fast as its slowest unit and is thus not optimized for the high-tempo, disorientation-producing types of operations envisioned by Boyd as the essence of the maneuver warfare concept in the first place.
Yet in practice we see that success relies heavily upon a combined arms approach that incorporates a significant degree of synchronization. The key to success for German operations in World War II that restored mobility to the battlefield and inspired maneuver warfare theory was not the tank, the airplane, or even the doctrine behind it but rather the invention and widespread integration of the radio that enabled cooperation between these combined arms elements.4 Robert Citino in Blitzkreig to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare attributes Erwin Rommel’s successes less to his aggressive style and more to the “triumph of German combined arms working in close cooperation.”5 As Stephen Biddle describes in Military Power, the effective employment of one’s forces in modern operations depends on mutually supportive elements cooperating as coequals: the suppressive effect of indirect artillery fire interacts with the flexibility of the infantry to restore maneuver to the battlefield and enable a breakthrough in the enemy lines.6 Biddle goes on to illustrate quantitatively how this “modern system force employment” is the decisive factor in determining battlefield success in modern conventional conflicts. Essentially, the reality is that we cannot reasonably expect to punch through modern enemy defenses nor to fully exploit those breakthroughs in the absence of combined arms cooperation. Without this cooperation, we risk producing fruitless advances or even fratricide. While a premium must remain on encouraging our leaders to exploit opportunities and to act decisively when unforeseen circumstances arise, we must not allow this to blind us to the opportunities made possible through combined arms.
The success of maneuver warfare in practice also relies upon an emphasis on logistical considerations, which also requires a temperance of subordinate autonomy and tempo. If combined arms cooperation is required to enable a breakthrough against modern enemy defenses, logistical cooperation is necessary to sustain the exploitation of that breakthrough. In a purely theoretical application of maneuver warfare concepts, a subordinate should be able to act aggressively and decisively in advancing once an advantage presents itself. Pausing to coordinate with higher units to confirm the logistical feasibility of an advance runs entirely contrary to the spirit of this maneuver warfare tenet. Indeed, MCDP 1-3, Tactics, presents us with the cautionary tale of MG John Lucas at Anzio and his failure to press forward in the wake of logistical considerations.7 Yet, Tactics goes on later to discuss the decisive role of logistics and supporting units in enabling speed.8 This evident ambivalence perhaps inadvertently highlights the dichotomy explored in this article, but it also raises an entirely valid point about a key shortcoming of maneuver warfare theory. Without coordination with higher and supporting units who understand the “bigger picture” about what initiatives have a reasonable chance of being sustained logistically, those initiatives will either be fruitless or even entirely counterproductive. Indeed, the greatest vulnerability of a force that has achieved a breakthrough is the tenuous connection to the rear support units enabling the advance.9 To return to the example of Rommel, his failure to recognize the centrality of supply and logistics led directly to his failure to capture Tobruk or break through at Alamein and Alam Haifa during the North Africa campaign. Spread too thin, his advances ground to a halt—leaving him overextended and unable to capitalize on his successes.10
It is thus clear that a fundamental tension exists between the drive for subordinate autonomy and initiative in maneuver warfare theory with the need for cooperation and synchronization in practice. This is made especially clear upon an investigation of the role played by combined arms and logistics in modern conventional conflict. This tension is one that must be discussed and investigated further. While Warfighting and Tactics never explicitly emphasize this dynamic, the tactical tenets found in Tactics capture this apparent paradox well. We need to know when to cooperate and leverage combined arms dilemmas into an advantage as well as when to sacrifice cooperation for the sake of adaptability and being faster. To return to the context of The Basic School, the stress placed on setting conditions and sequencing events at the platoon level is entirely appropriate. After all, how much can truly be decided by a rifle platoon operating in isolation of its supporting and higher units? However, the course would benefit from highlighting the apparently contradictory nature of our warfighting philosophy’s various maxims and forcing students to consider the tough questions. Under what circumstances do we subordinate one consideration to the other? How does the increasingly information-rich operating environment affect these considerations? This latter question will prove to be especially crucial, as our forces grow increasingly inter-connected and capable of sharing information about the battlefield. A proper exploitation of Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act framework will require us to be mindful of changes to our environment in formulating an appropriate observation to begin the cycle.11
More than anything, we should emphasize how context-specific factors need to predominate all other concerns in our prosecution of future wars. Some cases will call for extreme aggressiveness and initiative at the lowest levels, while others will merit a more coordinated approach that takes full advantage of the Marine Air Ground Task Force’s combined arms capacity. The German operational methods that inspired maneuver warfare theory were tailored entirely to fit Germany’s geostrategic position and tied inextricably to German culture and traditions engrained in the officer corps centuries prior to World War II.12 When conditions failed to lend themselves to the way of war produced by this officer corps’ warfighting philosophy, even great commanders like Guderian (in Tula during Operation Typhoon) and Rommel (in Tobruk during Operation Crusader) remained tied to their cultural background and failed to adapt.13 Capt Grazier is correct in stating we must be cautious of the American military culture’s natural tendency towards attrition. Equally important, however, is that we think critically before blindly adhering to maneuver warfare theory without deliberating on context-specific considerations of the next war in which we find ourselves. Kein Schema, or “not a formula,” was a common admonition in the prewar period amongst the German staff that evidently was forgotten once the bullets started to fly. We owe it to our nation to not fall victim to the same mistakes. While much of this article has drawn from the experiences of World War II, it seems most appropriate to close with a quotation from a pre-war French corps commander, Gen Victor Cordonnier: “The instruction given by professors of military schools will never furnish a model that need only be reproduced in order to beat the enemy … He who remains in abstractions falls into formula; he concretes his brain; he is beaten in advance.”14
- Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2007).
- Daniel Grazier, “A Maneuver Renaissance: Overcoming the attritionist tendency,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: June 2015).
- Alan Hastings, “Mission Command and Detailed Command: It’s Not a Zero Sum Game,” From the Green Notebook, (2017), available at https://fromthegreennotebook.com.
- Robert Citino, Blitzkreig to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare, (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004).
- Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm.
- Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle, (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2005).
- Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1-3, Tactics, (Washington, DC: 1997).
- MCDP 1-3.
- Edward Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, (Cambridge, MA, The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1987).
- Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2012).
- Paul Tremblay, Shaping and Adapting: Unlocking the power of Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop, (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Combat Development Command, 2015).
- Robert Citino, The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich, (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005).
- The German Way of War.
- United States Army, Infantry in Battle, (Washington, DC: The Infantry Journal Incorporated, 1939).