Maneuver, Attrition, or the Tactics of Mistake?

by Maj Gary W. Anderson

In the past decade the maneuverattrition debate has forced the Marine Corps to examine and reevaluate some of its doctrinal concepts. One major element in the debate is the use of the term “maneuver warfare” and its corresponding association with the Wehrmacht. Unfortunately, use of German terms offends older officers who remember the “krauts” only as twotime losers. Even worse, the maneuver label has a whole bunch of lieutenants looking for tanks and armored personnel carriers that the Marine Corps doesn’t own, can’t afford, and couldn’t get to an objective area on time. Word has it that the uniform shop at Quantico has run short of Rommel glasses.

Maneuver warfare, as I understand the term, has a lot less to do with maneuver than it does with exploiting the mental and physical weakness of one’s opponents. Maneuverists stress that the secret of victory is in the process of helping the enemy to lose battles and campaigns. This is really what novelist Gordon Dickson calls theTactics of Mistake.” Quite simply, most of history’s battles have been lost rather than won. This article attempts to take the concepts of tactical and operational employment away from the Hegelian extremes of maneuver and firepower attrition. It will explore the art of finding the enemy’s weak links and exploiting them by helping him to beat himself. It is not a rejection of maneuver, but seeks to examine the tactical and operational realm from another angle.

The term “Schwerpunkt,” or focus of effort, conveys the idea that there is an actual physical point where any enemy should be attacked. Maneuverists would admit that this point can be mental as well as physical, but this idea isn’t communicated well enough. The tactics of mistake can be applied defensively as well as offensively. George Patton realized that they are best applied offensively, but even he knew that there are other ways to get inside the enemy’s “turning circle.”

History is replete with examples of battles being won through simple tactical error rather than initiative and tactical flair. At Crecy, and later at Agincourt, English leaders found sound defensive positions and dug in for an attritional battle. Their order of battle combined the longbow, wielded by sturdy English yeomen, with armored knights. The decisive factor in the battle hinged not on the range of the longbows, but rather on the illdiscipline of the French noblemen, who persisted in launching a series of uncoordinated attacks on English positions where they were slaughtered piecemeal.

At Hastings, the battle turned not on William the Conqueror’s audacious, daring leadership, but on the excessive zeal of the Saxon’s right wing, which broke ranks at the moment of perceived victory to pursue the withdrawing Normans and was subsequently routed. William may not have fought Hastings brilliantly, but he took advantage of that single Saxon mistake to gain an empire. Douglas MacArthur emulated William on a grand scale in 1950 when he identified the North Korean weakness to be a supply line that was vulnerable from the sea. His decision to land at Inchon exploited this weakness to the fullest.

The ability to see the enemy’s weakness and exploit it is emphasized by Col John Boyd, USAF(Ret), in his theory of the observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) cycle, but Boyd does not effectively cover the whole potential of the tactics of mistake. Some enemies simply don’t have OODA loops that are complicated and efficient enough to disrupt. For instance, the Soviets have launched numerous combined arms campaigns designed to paralyze the command, control, and communications of the Afghan resistance, but the Afghans simply don’t have a system that is susceptible to conventionaltype attack. Some observers point out that the Soviets, realizing this, have adjusted their tactics accordingly. Hence, they are now attempting to remove the local population so the guerrillas won’t have any “sea of people” to swim in. Further, these observers believe that the current Soviet terror campaign is a calculated attempt to drive the population out of vital areas in order to repopulate them with Russians or other “safe” Soviet citizens. This ruthless method of dealing with a hostile population worked in the Baltic states following World War II. It is an example of Liddell Hart’s indirect approach in a most brutal form.

The ability to exploit the weakness and mistakes of an enemy is the mark of true military genius. Alexander the Great possessed it at the tactical and operational levels. On the tactical level at Arbela in 331 B.C. he spotted a break in the Persian lines that allowed him to lead a brilliant cavalry charge that disrupted his opponent’s command group, throwing the numerically superior Persians into confusion. Operationally, Alexander had already beaten the superior Persian Navy by marching over land and destroying its seaports with his army. Denied its ports, the Persian Navy died before the Persian Army could react to support it. In both cases Alexander had the foresight to see his enemy’s weakness and react to it before the enemy force could learn from its own mistakes.

In early 1945 George Patton was continually frustrated by Gen Eisenhower’s attempts to construct a theater reserve following the Bulge offensive in December 1944. Patton instinctively knew that the Germans had exhausted themselves in the Bulge campaign. He opted for attack everywhere with all available forces. He could see the weakness of the enemy and wanted to exploit it while the time was ripe.

Despite these examples of successful maneuver, there are numerous examples in military history of ill-conceived maneuver that led to disaster. In 1876, LtCol George Armstrong Custer divided his small command of the 7th Cavalry in order to surprise an Indian encampment on the Little Big Horn River. In other circumstances Sitting Bull and company might have retreated as had other Indian forces, but the desperate Plains Indians were fighting for their lives when they attacked Custer’s small party, and in all likelihood they would have attacked any U.S. force of even greater size out of sheer desperation.

In the heat of battle Custer made a decision that a good maneuverist would approve of; he issued a mission-oriented order to Capt Fred Benteen, one of two subunit commanders detailed to carry out Custer’s plan. The order, dispatched by Custer’s trumpeter, read as follows: “Benteen-Come on. Big village bring packs. P.S. bring pacs.” (Spelling incorrection Custer’s own.) Benteen and Capt Marcus Reno didn’t respond to that order in timely fashion. There are any number of speculations as to why the order wasn’t followed, and there is good evidence that the result wouldn’t have been much different had Custer’s order been obeyed. Despite this, it is obvious that Benteen and Reno had no idea of their commander’s intent.

Custer used a clearly maneuverist reconnaissance pull approach in a situation where the tactics of mistake would indicate that an attritionist method of deliberate pursuit with a far larger force would have been more appropriate. Custer and the Indians both fought a bad battle, but Custer ran out of troops before Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse ran out of Indians. One could score this as an example of firepower attrition over maneuver, but it would more appropriately be chalked up to the tactics of mistake.

The difference between Custer in 1876 and Patton in 1945 was that Patton had correctly identified the enemy’s weakness. Patton knew his enemy, and he updated his knowledge continuously. Custer used a formula that had worked before, but he didn’t update it to meet the existing situation. This is a superb example of a maneuverist being defeated by allowing his own weakness to be exploited.

Gen U. S. Grant is much maligned as an attritionist, but many historians forget his brilliant Vicksburg campaign that, as J. F. C. Fuller points out, was a splendid example of maneuver. When faced with a tactically superior Gen Robert E. Lee, Grant applied the tactics of mistake. Grant knew that Lee had two great weaknesses-a paucity of replacement soldiers and a vulnerable southern supply system. By using Sherman to disrupt the supply system, Grant solved the greatest strategic problem. Grant’s operational plan of fighting Lee anywhere he could be engaged may have been mediocre, but it addressed Lee’s other great weakness. Again, the tactics of mistake transcended the attritionmaneuver arena and compensated for the relatively less competent Union personnel.

The maneuverists have been accused of overemphasizing blitzkrieg tactics, but in reality that’s not the case. One of their favorite historical examples is the early Israeli-Arab conflict, where the Israelis learned that Arab forces wouldn’t stand against a bayonet attack. This seemingly un-Israeli frontal assault tactic had a “breaking glass” effect along the entire front, having an effect all out of proportion to the actual attacks. This condition was repeated in the Falklands where the threat of the Gurkhas was far more effective than their actual physical presence.

The failure of Japanese cold steel in the Pacific from 1942-1945 and the ineffectiveness of the Gurkhas in Afghanistan in the 18th century are other examples of the situational nature of the tactics of mistake. Disciplined troops and religious fanatics are usually immune to panic at the appearance of bayonets.

The real key to the tactics of mistake is to create an atmosphere of confusion among your enemies. Once this atmosphere has been created, timely exploitation should follow. The following paragraphs expand on this theme:

Knowing One’s Enemy

George S. Patton, Jr., often observed that the only way to truly learn about one’s opponent is to fight him in a real battle. This experience must be updated constantly, even in the heat of battle. This concept is inextricably tied to the principle of mission-oriented orders and the ability to learn from experience. Let’s take a scenario: In a mideast campaign our best estimate of the prebattle situation tells us that the enemy will not stand up to sustained firepower. In actuality he moves smartly through all our suppressive fire and uses his own firepower effectively to suppress ours. However, we discover that he slows and stops when he runs low on ammunition. The obvious reaction to this is to find a way to go after his ammunition supply or to make him outrun it. What can easily get lost in the analysis is the ability to recognize this as an enemy weakness at the high command level in the first place. This is only possible if a “real time” lessons-learned communications link exists from the platoon level to the highest echelons of command. Some Marine Corps units do this instinctively, others never get the hang of it. We must institutionalize this art.

Wargaming in peacetime can help systematize this link if it is properly employed. First, it can help to develop a true team approach in rapidly identifying an enemy’s mistakes and weaknesses. Second, it can show us how to quickly disseminate those lessons back down to all elements of the command. Finally, and most important, wargaming can encourage us to develop a mission-oriented approach to making the enemy’s weak points the real objectives of our operations. Wargaming lets us learn about the enemy in an effective way.

The Danger of Reconnaissance Pull

The maneuverists make a good point that warfare shouldn’t be a function of checklists, but even the very progressive 2d Marine Division has an element on its Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation (MCCRE) checklist that reads, “Did they use recon-pull tactics?” Reconnaissance pull has caused its users as many defeats as victories, if not more. Custer at the Little Big Horn, Varus at the Teutoberg Forest, and Samsonov at Tannenberg were all using a variation of this form when each met his respective demise. Reconnaissance is only one element of intelligence, and it shouldn’t be used in the absence of a feel for the character of the enemy. In the hands of Alexander against Darius III at Arbela, reconnaissance pull was masterful. In the case of Custer against the desperate Plains Indians, it was disastrous. Reconnaissance pull can be a brilliant exploitation or a disastrous ambush-such are the tactics of mistake.

Cohesiveness or Groupthink; A Fine Line

Adm Nelson’s “band of brothers” concept was one of the first articulations of the concept of mission-oriented orders, but there is a dark side to the concept. The phenomenon of “groupthink” can develop where a team becomes so cohesive that it cannot accept ideas contrary to its preconceived notions. Irving Janis identified this as one of the contributing factors to the debacles at Pearl Harbor and the Bay of Pigs. A military force that cannot update its perceptions to accept changes in the external environment is more than half beaten before it becomes decisively engaged.

Nothing dies harder than a preconceived notion. In any large military organization, hundreds of rice bowls get knocked over when an element of doctrine fails to live up to expectations, but true military tactical greatness is the ability to recognize these failures early and change them. Erich F. W. von Ludendorff, our own H. M. Smith, Erwin Rommel, and George Patton were masters at this. Each in his own way was a genius at recognizing the strengths and limitations of his own forces as well as those of the enemy. All of those great commanders could translate these lessons into effective battlefield action. The crux of these skills lies first in the recognition of the enemy’s true weakness and the second in the ability to exploit that weakness in a timely manner. Let’s take a look at a theoretical example:

In an attempt to break out of the force beachhead line (Figure 1), a Marine amphibious brigade (MAB) commander encounters heavy resistance from enemy dug in a series of villages (A). Intelligence reports indicate that a reinforced Soviet-equipped motorized rifle battalion (MRB) is moving southeast toward the road junction (B). The MAB commander orders a reinforced rifle company from the MAB reserve to conduct a helicopterborne assault to seize (B) and delay the enemy MRB until (A) can be reduced. While flying over the brush country (C), the helicopters come under severe surprise attack from a squadron of Mi-24 Hind helicopters covered by jet fighters. Three CH-46s and two Cobras are lost; the attacking force turns back. In a hurried debrief, the surviving helicopter pilots and infantry officers confirm there was no ground fire or sightings of ground troops along the entire axis of (C). They also report numerous trails that didn’t show up on the maps. Reconnaissance teams inserted into the area confirm that it is free of enemy troops except for patrols; they further report that the woods are trafficable for armored and wheeled vehicles.

The MAB commander concludes that the opposing force is covering its flanks with airpower alone. Accordingly, he adjusts his main effort. Figure 2 shows the adjusted scheme of maneuver. The MAB commander knows that the enemy is surprised and is launching his counterattacks piecemeal; the MAB commander had identified the enemy’s counterattack force as the main area of weakness to be exploited through the medium of a two battalion attack through the woods at (B). This opens the Soviet force to the possibility of attack from the flank (Figure 2) or the rear (Figure 3) depending on the relative progress of the MRB making the counterattack. By employing a two-battalion flank attack, the MAB commander has changed the focus of his effort from a frontal attack to the flank in order to exploit the enemy weakness.

This quick identification of the source of enemy vulnerability is the real key to the concept of the tactics of mistake. In this case the combatants quickly reported the break on the MAB’s right flank, and the commander reacted to their observations in a timely fashion. This is much more easily written than accomplished. Despite what you choose to call it, maneuver warfare or the tactics of mistake, the success of such an operation depends upon early recognition of the enemy’s vulnerability, followed by the timely exploitation of that weakness.

Exploiting the tactics of mistake requires a true team effort. German buzzwords aside, a commander needs to keep asking one question . . . “How can these guys best be beat?” The key to victory resides in finding the answer to that simple question in a timely manner.

Bill Lind is correct when he points out that we can look backward for inspiration. In World War II up to the battle of Peleliu, Marines were able to use the Japanese banzai charge against the Japanese by inviting such forays over ground chosen by Marine commanders. These charges were generally considered to be the backbreaking climax of the battle because they drained the Japanese of their manpower. These defensive Marine Corps tactics didn’t celebrate firepower attrition any more than they rejected maneuver. By exploiting the Japanese tendency to play into the hands of our superior firepower, Marine planners validated the tactics of mistake . . . there is a lesson in that for us all.

The maneuverists have a lot of good ideas, but a position that ultimately rejects either firepower attrition or maneuver would be a step down the road to perdition. By thinking in terms of the tactics of mistake, we can start to develop a frame of reference that will help the enemy beat himself while allowing us to use our forces most effectively. The truly great organizations of military history have developed a corporate feel for the destruction of the enemy. Today’s training environment with assets such as the multiple integrated laser engagement system, modern wargaming, and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms can come close to giving the Marine Corps that capability before the first shot is fired. If we don’t maximize those assets, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Quote to Ponder:

The “Information War”

The improvements in sensing, electronic warfare, and command, control, and communications bring the “information war” to the forefront. The attempt to gain an information advantage by observing the other side’s forces and activities while denying them such information about one’s own forces becomes a primary rather than an ancillary part of direct conflict.”

-Seymour J. Deitchman

in “Weapons, Platforms, and the New Armed Services,”

Issues In Science and Techology, spring 1985.