Maneuver/Fluid Warfare

by Capt G. I. Wilson

Maneuver warfare is the art of putting so much out there for the enemy to deal with that he finds it impossible to act or react effectively.    -Capt William A. Woods

What is maneuver warfare? Why do we need it? These questions are being asked with increased frequency throughout the Marine Corps and other branches of the Armed Forces. An attempt will be made herein to provide some insight into these questions and stimulate additional dialog with regard to the maneuver style of warfare.

The Marine Corps today must anticipate combat against forces superior in numbers and material and with logistical support relatively close at hand. In order to make the most of the Corps’ present capabilities in the realm of modern warfare, Marines need to become familiar with the maneuver warfare concept. Even if outnumbered, Marines can exploit enemy’s vulnerabilities and win decisively through the use of this concept.

Maneuver warfare, perhaps better described as “fluid” warfare, is based upon the premise that the enemy can be defeated most readily by cutting inside his “observation-orientationdecision-action-cycle.”* The enemy’s cohesion and organization is destroyed by creating a fluid, turbulent, rapidly and constantly changing environment to which he cannot adequately react. The enemy is unable to cope with the situation in which he finds himself.

Psychologically the enemy perceives that he has lost control of the situation and is being overwhelmed by events and his own inability to influence the action. The destruction is more psychological in nature than physical. Nevertheless, the enemy is physically disposed of when the opportunity presents itself by selective and local concentrations of forces and firepower at decisive points. The enemy is defeated fundamentally by destroying his cohesion and his ability to control his forces. The emphasis is not on killing or destruction but on cutting inside the enemy’s observationorientation-decision-action cycle. William S. Lind in his Mar80 GAZETTE article emphasizes this fact:

. . . The goal is destruction of the enemy’s vital cohesion-disruption-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 speed. Firepower is a servant of maneuver, used to create openings in the enemy defenses and, when necessary, to annihilate the remnants of his forces after their cohesion has been shattered.

. . . In maneuver warfare, 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/systematic 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.

To be sure, the enemy is physically disposed of when the necessity arises. Nevertheless, the primary objective is not to kill the enemy man by man in an attrition contest. Physical destruction is useful only when it leads to the psychological collapse of the enemy. The idea is to shatter the enemy’s cohesion and his ability to fight as an organized force.

The importance of maneuver warfare becomes most apparent when we consider the probable nature of the next conflict. The possibility of Marines being outnumbered is a reality. To engage in firepower-attrition warfare with a greatly superior force inevitably leads to heavy casualties.

Maneuver warfare, however, provides the combat commander the means to conserve the lives of his men and further ensure that those lives lost are not wasted needlessly in a firepower-attrition confrontation.

The effective and economical employment of maneuver warfare will depend in part upon the successful interaction of several related entities which are listed below and discussed in the paragraphs that follow:

* Reconnaissance/Counterreconnaissance Effort

* Mission Order Tactics

* Focus of Main Effort

* Training Mindset

* Subordinate Trust and Reliance

* Effective Use of Artillery

* Flexible Logistics (fuel-it-fix-it-forward)

* Retention of Amphibious Character

* Surfaces and Gaps Concept

Reconnaissance/Counterreconnaissance. The reconnaissance effort must be an exhaustive one in order to ferret out the “soft spots” in the enemy’s disposition for battle. This may include the utilization of a reconnaissance screen. The reconnaissance effort’s true value lies in the ability of the reconnaissance personnel to develop a timely and accurate assessment of the enemy’s vulnerabilities and order of battle, thereby, enabling the combat commander to select the best objectives and commit his forces at the desired point of decision. Armed with the information provided him by reconnaissance personnel, the commander will endeavor to create an aneurism in the enemy’s main arteries of communications and logistics.

In addition, a vigorous and aggressive counterreconnaissance action must be mounted to destroy the enemy’s reconnaissance gathering capability. This effort will dampen the enemy’s initiative and keep him in the dark about our own order of battle and disposition. Counterreconnaissance must give the enemy a distorted and incomplete assessment of our tactical intentions, thus, causing the enemy to commit his forces prematurely and possibly in the wrong direction. The key to counterreconnaissance is to destroy the enemy’s ability to know what is going on with a constant influx of disinformation giving the enemy a distorted perception of our forces. Effective and extensive use of camouflage and deception techniques will be of great importance and can have an adverse effect on the enemy’s reconnaissance effort.

It is imperative that the enemy’s reconnaissance personnel be actively sought out, isolated, and destroyed so as to obscure the enemy’s perception of the battle area. The Soviet-trained commander will be blunted in his attempt to gain and maintain the initiative if robbed of his reconnaissance capability.*

Mission Order Tactics. The essence of mission order tactics is that they do not require detailed control over combat commanders and their subordinates. With mission order tactics, the tactical intent is clearly defined and only those mission control measures which are absolutely essential are cited. Intent is important in issuing mission orders, not volume and format. Giving the order clearly and succinctly is paramount. Subordinates must know exactly and absolutely what the tactical intent of the commander is. Missions are not broken down into implied tasks and intermediate objectives. Details are omitted.

What mission order tactics do is provide the combat commander and his subordinates with latitude to utilize their own initiative, imagination, and resources to the fullest in accomplishing the mission. The subordinate combat leader is given a framework of tactical freedom within which to execute the commander’s broad plan. Subordinates are not strangled by the grip of high technology C^sup 3^ or micromanagement which plagues our present training regime.

Mission order tactics allow each commander and his subordinates to enhance their maneuverability and mobility on the battlefield. The weight of the chaos and confusion encountered in combat is turned against the enemy. The subordinate combat leaders do not just stand there waiting to be told what to do, they act! In doing so the commander and his subordinates create an extremely fluid environment overwhelming the enemy and placing him on the “horns of a dilemma” unable to react effectively.

These tactics, however, do not imply that combat elements run wildly in a random fashion over the battle area. Actions must definitely reflect the tactical goals of the commander; his subordinates must never lose sight of this fact. The mission of the smallest combat element is in concert with the largest. The commander must not only be aware of his unit’s mission but also of the missions of the next two higher echelons. Commanders must remember when dealing with trusted subordinates to avoid issuing orders that detail their every action in the accomplishment of their mission. The commander and subordinates must also be prepared to execute operations based entirely on verbal mission orders. In doing so, the issuance of mission orders are expedited and our ability to cut inside the enemy’s decisionorientation-observation-action cycle is enhanced, thus, paving the way for maneuver warfare. The speed of the modern day warfare will not afford the commander the time to prepare voluminous operation orders in advance. Mission order tactics enables the combat commander, who is physically present on the battlefield facing the combat situation, to evaluate, develop, and respond immediately to spontaneous and fluid events without having to await orders from higher headquarters.

Focus of the Main Effort. The focus of the main effort is the attack’s center of gravity where the weight of the attack is placed. The combat commander defines the main effort in terms of a unit and designates one of his combat elements as the focus of the main effort. Designation of the main effort provides a flexible means whereby the tactical intentions of the combat leader can be rapidly shifted on the move when the situation dictates.

By defining the main effort in terms of a unit, a combat commander can task organize to give that combat element the necessary assets, (e.g., tanks, LVTs) to punch through the enemy’s organization at a selected weak point or gap. If enemy resistance is considerable in his initial attempt to break through, the combat commander can redesignate his main effort and continue the attack at a more vulnerable point in the enemy’s organization. This action would include the shifting of the necessary assets to provide the new main effort, with the capability needed to punch through.

It is exceedingly important that combat commanders and their subordinates develop the capacity to act independently when guidance is not immediately forthcoming from higher headquarters. The combat leader does not wait to be told what to do when he commands the unit carrying the weight of the attack. He strikes boldly at the enemy’s flanks, headquarters, logistic, and communication installations. The focus of the main effort is intended to rupture the enemy’s order of battle with possibly the reserve being committed to exploit and reinforce success thus giving added crushing weight to the attack’s center of gravity.

It is emphasized, however, that the concept of main effort should not be thought of simply as a main attack. The focus of the main effort will be found not only in the main attack but in the supporting attack as well. Additionally, it is pointed out that the concept of main effort carries with it the need to task organize wisely to give it the required combat support and logistical support to each element of the attack. It is simply an operational means, compatible with the tactical freedom found in the framework of mission order tactics, by which the tactical desires of the commander are brought together with the concept of operations on the battlefield.

Training Mindset. Extensive training of personnel will be of paramount importance in conveying the concept of maneuver warfare, and it needs to be approached from the aspect of developing and fostering initiative among combat leaders and subordinates. We need to train officers and NCOs to utilize their own resources, to develop situations, and to rely upon their own ingenuity to manage unexpected situations as events evolve.

It is absolutely imperative that we move away from teaching classroom solutions for every possible combat situation. Training in rote techniques and not learning concepts along with these techniques only leads to predictable stereotyped tactics. Cookbook formulas and checklist tactics serve unwittingly to prevent development of the capacity to operate independently on the spur of the moment.

Training needs to be conducted free from the two-up-one-back, get-on-line, hot -chow-onthe-high-ground mentality. Exercises or training evolutions cannot be expected to be flawless. Training should be freewheeling, an arena where mistakes can be made. Combat leaders and subordinates should be allowed to experiment and not be hammered for displaying initiative and independent action as long as they strive to accomplish their mission and the tactical desires of their commander and higher echelons. Zero-defect thinking should not be the overriding consideration. It must be accepted that during training combat leaders and subordinates will make mistakes; it must be recognized that they will learn best if they are free from artificial limits.

Combat leaders and subordinates should not be unduly criticized for making mistakes but rather reinforced for taking the initiative and independent action when the situation presents itself. It is the combat leader or subordinate who sits back and fails to act (who, consequently, makes no mistakes because he has done nothing except wait to be told what to do) that should be singled out and urged to seize favorable opportunities when they arise. It must be realized in our training scenarios that there is a place for making and taking well calculated risks to further the accomplishment of the mission. Marines must be given adequate freedom in the conduct of exercises to determine their limits without the benefit of a graded evaluation in the initial phases of training.* The training mindset we seek must be one which stresses flexibility in thinking and the ability to innovate when unexpected and new situations are introduced into tactical exercises. The essence of training should be to expect the unexpected coupled with the teaching of concepts. Emphasis is on innovative independent action and content of an order-not its format.

Subordinate Trust and Reliance. Reliance upon and trust in the judgment of subordinates at all levels must be festered. The basis for this reliance and trust will be the extensive training of the NCOs and officers. The combat commander must be confident in the fact that his subordinate leaders have been trained to take the initiative and to adapt to unexpected situations. By placing trust in, and reliance upon subordinates, the responsibility of doing one’s duty is laid squarely on the subordinates’ shoulders. Higher levels of command must learn to relinquish subordinates from the yoke of micromanagement and allow them to utilize their own initiative and resources to accomplish the mission. Once established this trust should provide a setting for the subordinate to act independently and respond to unexpected combat situations on the spot with the subordinate learning to lead himself when the situation calls for it.

Trust in subordinates, however, does not relieve the combat commander from leading at the front instead of directing from the rear. The combat commander does not take over the commands of his subordinates at the front but rather coordinates and inspires subordinate commanders. The front provides the combat commander with the best possible vantage point to determine what is going on. In addition, by being at the front the combat commander is sharing the same risks as his subordinates.

Decisions in maneuver warfare have to be made at the lowest level possible in order to cut inside the enemy’s decision-action cycle. Reliance upon subordinates’ judgment enhances the ability to act consistently faster than the enemy and thus destroy the enemy’s cohesion.

Effective Use of Artillery. The use of artillery within the maneuver warfare concept requires that it be highly mobile and possess the capability to move in close proximity to the assault forces. Towed artillery must displace, rapidly to measure up to the challenge of fluid warfare. Artillery is of great importance to the ground combat commander in that it is more dependable than air as an all-weather, continuous fire support resource. Artillery doesn’t care if rain, snow, or fog covers the battle area. The effect of reduced visibility lies only in the ability to visually acquire targets and adjust rounds. Additionally, the ground combat commander can take his artillery with him into battle. It is an instantly available means of suppressive fire to the combat commander. The more highly mobile the artillery pieces in the Marine Corps arsenal, the better. Serious consideration also needs to be given to acquiring a lightweight and mobile rocket launcher system to augment our artillery.

In employing artillery, it should be located as far forward as possible, moving with the assault forces, or positioned in extremely well camouflaged, concealed locations and not utilized until the enemy has disclosed his weapon systems. The combat commander strikes boldly at a weakened gap in the enemy’s order of battle, thus, causing hostile weapon fire to reveal the position of the enemy’s weapon system. The combat commander then unleashes his artillery, which was concealed far forward. The artillery has been simply held in reserve. This is not a new idea, but one that is essential to maneuver warfare.

Flexible Logistic Systems. Maneuver warfare demands the employment of highly mobile logistic systems capable of sustaining multiple attacks on a continuous around-the-clock basis. Logistic elements will need increased mobility in order to stay up with the rapidly advancing assault forces. The thrust of the logistic effort must be continuous and forward to the point of application. Emphasis is placed on taking the logistic burden from the assault elements.

The successful execution of maneuver warfare tactics will hinge in great part on logistics. Logistical and tactical consideratons must be completely integrated. The logistician cannot divorce himself from tactics and the tactician cannot divorce himself from logistics. Though not glamorous, logistical planning is the foundation of maneuver warfare. Without the fuel, water, rations, ordnance, and maintenance to sustain multiple and simultaneous attacks on a continuous basis, tactical success is unlikely.

Logistical support must be compatible with the operational concept and at the same time must avoid developing a large logistical tail. Highly mobile logistic detachments moving with the assault echelons, force feeding logistic needs on a continuous regime, can help in avoiding a burdensome train. The fluid nature and lightening pace of the modern day battlefield will not tolerate catch-up logistics. Providing logistic support will be an incredibly demanding task requiring nothing less than professional logisticians. The tempo of operations involving maneuver warfare will be fever pitched and logistical support systems will have to be available in a sundry of modes to include trucks, air cushioned craft, tracked vehicles, and air delivery systems. Additionally, logistic operations must continue during hours of darkness. Although this will aid in the concealment of the logistic effort from the enemy, it will present difficulties to untrained logisticians. Exercises must include a variety of night logistical activity such as unit resupply, refueling operations, intense maintenance tasks, movement of material, salvage, and replacement of weapon systems along with the establishment of dumps far forward.

A fuel-it-fix-it-forward thinking must prevail and be actively developed. Even battle damaged vehicles and weapon systems may continue to have some tactical or logistical value. Vehicles with weapon systems knocked out are still capable of moving forward loaded with supplies and replacements. Vehicles whose mobility has been destroyed but whose weapons systems are intact can be dragged or towed forward to a concealed firing position, thus, providing the opportunity to put rounds on an enemy target. The important thing to keep in mind when a vehicle or its weapon system has sustained damage; the priority of work is to repair the weapon system first, thus, providing some measure of protection to the maintenance team as they attempt to restore the vehicles’ other systems.

In maneuver warfare combat service support (CSS) must have centralized control with decentralized execution. To keep pace with mechanized forces will require mobile combat service support detachments (MCSSD) configured into logistic trains. Attention needs to be given to developing tracked and wheeled vehicles with characteristics peculiar to logistic train use such as tankers to haul fuel and water along with maintenance vans and ammo carriers. The development of logistical support vehicles would greatly aid the mobile combat service support detachments attempts to stay in close proximity of faster moving assault vehicles and forces.

There is also an increased requirement for recovery vehicles and tank transporters to be used in recovery, repair, and salvage operations. Need for a detailed vehicle recovery plan is clear. Battle-damaged vehicles and weapons systems which cannot be repaired forward will have to be evacuated to a repair or salvage facility. Therefore, a well planned and executed vehicle/weapon system recovery and repair operation will be indispensable to returning major end items back to combat quickly. A point to remember, the further forward a vehicle or weapon system is repaired or replaced, the sooner it can return to the fight. Since the demand for recovery vehicles will be high, more need to be added to the inventory. Again, the prevailing attitude should be fuel-it-fix-itforward-as far forward as possible! The key to flexible logistics will come from the fuel-itfix-forward thinking and the integration of logistical support directly with the forward assault elements and units in reserve. Assault forces will need to make the maximum use of their own organic logistical capabilities as limited as they may be. Maintenance will depend a great deal upon field expedients and improvisations. One word of caution must be interjected. Flexible logistics will not be achieved by simply piling on more equipment and creating an even larger logistic tail. The pile-it-on mentality will serve only to impede the logistic effort associated with the maneuver style of warfare. A flexible logistic system is contingent upon total integration of the logistic support effort into the operational scheme.

Retention of Amphibious Character. To be certain, the Marine Corps must retain its amphibious and naval character. With the advent of the air cushion vehicle (ACV), a new dimension has been added to amphibious and maneuver warfare. The ACV can navigate over water, land, ice, and snow, and it is not restricted by tides, gradients, or composition of beaches. The ACV will have the effect of greatly increasing the coastline over which amphibious operations are feasible. The enemy will find that these increased number of potential landing beaches will be that much more difficult to defend. The ACV will enhance our ability to land where the enemy is not and to achieve surprise.

The force structure of today’s Marine Corps must be revised to provide greater mechanzation and ground mobility without relegating our amphibious role to the military attic. Naval shipping is still the best means to move large numbers of personnel and vast quantities of material over great distances. The ability to assault an enemy suddenly and unexpectedly from the sea perhaps does more than anything else to enhance the Marine Corps’ potential to wage maneuver warfare.

Concept of Surfaces and Gaps. Surfaces and gaps may be thought of in terms of the enemy’s strong points and weak points; basically it is where the enemy is or isn’t. A surface is an area of enemy strength, one offering considerable resistance. The surface may be a piece of ground physically occupied by the enemy, such as a fortified position, or an open space, field, or draw not physically occupied by the enemy but covered by small arms fire, mortars, artillery, or mines. A gap is an enemy weak point or hole in the enemy’s position characterized by little or no resistance. In the broadest sense of the term, gaps can be any psychological, sociological, organizational, or tactical weakness.

Reconnaissance units will be expected to search out the enemy’s position locating and identifying surfaces (strong points) and weak points (gaps) for the combat commander. The reconnaissance element will pull the assault or infiltration forces through the gaps in what is termed a “recon-pull” technique. Probing attacks can also be employed to determine surfaces and gaps.

Once gaps are discovered, local forces rapidly pour through the weaker points bypassing or isolating surfaces and rendering the strong points tactically irrelevant. Gaps are often exploited by infiltration techniques allowing units to attack the enemy’s rear and flanks helping to shatter his cohesion and organization. By getting into the enemy’s rear areas, surfaces are effectively reduced by throwing strengths against weaknesses. The concept of surfaces and gaps coupled with infiltration techniques provides an excellent means of cutting inside the enemy’s observation-orientation-decisionaction cycle as described by Boyd.

Conclusion. An attempt has been made to bring into focus some of the concepts which constitute part of the tactical thought process characteristic to the maneuver style of warfare. The concepts of main effort, surfaces and gaps, and mission order tactics are not a checklist or equation for maneuver warfare. There are no formulas for maneuver warfare. A formulistic approach only locks the combat commander into predictable courses of action.

What is important to recognize is that priority goes to accomplishing the mission, not to strict unwavering compliance to an inflexible operation order. Maneuver warfare is a continuous tactical thought process of selecting and combining combat techniques with concepts and the art of war to influence the situation at hand.


* Col Boyd describes the complete O-O-D-A cycle in a five-hour brief entitled “Patterns of Conflict,” which has been given to officers at Quantico.

* Capt Miller emphasized this in Winning Through Maneuver (Oct & Dec79 GAZETTES).

* LtCol W. C. Fite underscored this point in his excellent article in the Sep8O GAZETTE.