Maneuver Warfare

by LtCol James D. Burke, USMC(Ret)

Imagine the young infantry officer who, in his first Vietnam combat engagement, experiences overwhelming success against a numerically superior enemy force. Like his grunts, he has been instilled with historic Marine combat victories, but now, he has suddenly experienced victory firsthand! After the fight, he considers what worked and realizes infantry victory built on tactical surprise, firing first-accurately, rapidly, and with better guns from a secure position-and firepower/attrition warfare can be a great way to fight. And the best part? No friendly casualties and plenty of enemy casualties!

This first win would establish his mindset for the rest of his life.

Years later, while serving as a Captain at 8th&I in the mid-70s, he attends a PME conducted by a self-described “defense reformist” named William Lind. Lind, an Ivy League academic, wastes no time in claiming the Marine Corps will never win another battle because we are too light to fight against armor-mechanized forces and too heavy to fight what is now called counterinsurgency. The young infantry officer rises to his feet and directs Lind s attention to the scores of volumes of USMC history comprising the Center House library. The argument, “We were the first to defeat the German infantry at Belleau Wood and the first to defeat the Japanese infantry at Guadalcanal”-that we always find a way-falls on deaf ears. Unimpressed, Lind goes on to claim that the only answer for our Corps is to embrace the defense reformists3 enhanced version of Blitzkrieg entitled “maneuver warfare,” the tenets of which are now known to all. The Captain believes this is easier said than done, that the enemy always has a vote, that he, too, may change his tactics rapidly. Further, he believes that iris better to let a numerically superior enemy throw himself at our tactical defense to be killed and lose much of his combat power before we attack and destroy him than to hope to “outmaneuver” him on his ground.

The defense reformist and the Marine are at a stalemate.

The Marines next tour as a Major with BLTs 2/8, 2/6, and 3/6 over 30 months and two Landing Force Sixth Fleet cruises instruct him in great detail on the capabilities and limitations of reinforced Marine rifle battalions3 ability to attack from the sea and advance ashore under varying conditions. He learns through experience.

Still the bright, shiny object-maneuver warfare-draws much attention at HQMC and Quantico. Respected Marines are advocating maneuver concepts. Now, as a student at the Naval War College with an academic requirement to write a tactical concept paper, the Marine considers the possibility that he might be wrong-that perhaps maneuver warfare should be embraced as doctrine going forward. So he selects “Maneuver Warfare and the MAGTF” as his concept paper topic and reads everything published at the time on maneuver warfare.

He concludes firepower/attrition warfare is still the way to go.

To his surprise, his views are well received at the Naval War College. He is encouraged to submit the concept paper to the Gazette. It is published and “draws fire” from the “maneuverists.” He returns fire. The debate is on!

His eight Gazette-published conclusions emphasize that the 1980s1 MAB {forerunner to today’s MEB) was structured for firepower/attrition warfare, not maneuver warfare, and should be employed as such. And for good reasons-the Marine Corps’ missions were based on “seize, occupy, and defend,” not “outmaneuver! ” Our fundamental imperative is that we need to win our first engagement against peer or near-peer adversaries to set the tone for the campaign and to live up to the heritage handed to us at Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, and other fights. He still believes that firepower/attrition warfare is our primary modus operandi because it brings all the MAGTFs combat power to bear on the enemy at a place, if not time, of our choosing.

2018-a saved round-finally fired. In the big leagues, pitchers don’t succeed with just a fastball, slider, or change up because hitters adjust. Asked today, that not-so-young Marine would reply that decades of counterinsurgency, stability and support operations, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, foreign internal defense, clear and hold, nation building, and expeditionary operations of all sorts combine to demand Marine leaders to consider firepower/attrition warfare, maneuver warfare, and other approaches as tools in the toolbox- ready to be used, as is taught in our tactics courses everywhere-based on “the situation and the terrain!”

You are encouraged to discover the rest of the firepower/attrition warfare maneuver warfare debates for yourself at the Marine Corps Gazette’s online Maneuver Warfare Collection.

>Editor’s note: Access our Maneuver Warfare Collection at