Maneuver Warfare: Can the ACE Adopt This Philosophy of War?

by Majs Gordon C. O’Neill and Daniel A. Driscoll, Jr.

In March 1989, the Commandant of the Marine Corps made maneuver warfare doctrine for Marines when he published FMFM 1. Over the past two years the Gazelle has published numerous articles addressing Marine aviation and its role in maneuver warfare. These articles and the general interest in maneuver warfare have stirred up quite a bit of controversy about Marine aviation and its supposed reluctance to accept maneuver in its training programs. In truth, Marine aviation is undergoing a healthy period of self-reevaluation, one that will help it learn to “fight smarter” and deal more effectively with declining defense dollars.

On future battlefields, one of the keys to success will be how well Marines communicate within and among each element of the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF). In fact, the better we communicate, the better we’ll be able to make timely and sound decisions in the heat of battle. Maneuver concepts include mission-type orders, commander’s intent, focus of effort, center of gravity, surfaces/gaps, reconpull, logistics push, and more. As aviators, we must understand these concepts and use them to communicate with our ground counterparts, the ground combat element (GCE). The aviation combat element (ACE) can successfully adopt maneuver warfare and all that it represents. In order to accomplish this, however, Marine aviation must improve its MAGTF training programs.

This article will examine some of the precepts of maneuver and what they mean to Marine aviators. Obviously, our thoughts are not all-inclusive of everything that maneuver represents. In fact, only three of the six Marine aviation functions are discussed due to time and space considerations. Our hope is to provide a starting point and help resolve part of the maneuver controversy.

The Marine Corps is a unique and widely envied military organization throughout the world. It is the only air-ground-logistics team in the world task-organized to deploy and fight against any threat to our Nation. When the MAGTF goes to war, it will fight for one of the unified combatant commands throughout the world. In order to succeed in this arena, the MAGTF commander and his staff must be able to operate in this joint and possibly combined environment. They must be able to ask the right questions when tasked to perform a mission and at the same time educate our sister-Service counterparts about the MAGTF’s capabilities. In order to do this we must be familiar with the different levels of war and where the MAGTF fits in.

Through strategy, or the strategic level of war, our government achieves its national policy and objectives; the ends of strategy are the vital interests of national policy.

Tactics, or the tactical level of war, is combat and the level of war at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to accomplish military objectives through fire and maneuver. As Marines, we take pride in our ability to excel at this level of war. The means of tactics include the hardware we design to destroy the enemy; the ways include the techniques and tactics we develop to defeat the enemy in order to achieve the end-victory. Tactics is the art of winning battles and engagements.

Operations, or the operational level of war, is the one at which campaigns are planned, conducted, and sustained to accomplish strategic objectives within a theater of war. The operational commander’s primary tool to organize and synthesize all military efforts in his theater of operations is the campaign plan. The operational commander decides when and where to give battle to the enemy, or conversely, not to give battle.

The essence of operational art is the enemy’s center of gravity, his critical vulnerability, and the application of our superior combat power against that source to achieve the strategic aim over time through the campaign plan. As Marines, we seek to put our strength against the enemy’s critical weaknesses-supporting units, supply depots, lines of communication, airfields, command posts-in order to exploit these weaknesses and force him to lose cohesion. Marines call this maneuver warfare; it is our philosophy of warfighting. We use maneuver, in time as well as in space, to gain an advantage against the enemy commander and exploit it by operating at a higher tempo than the enemy. The precepts of maneuver warfare apply equally at the operational and tactical levels of war.

Where do Marines fit into this picture? The MAGTF commander will operate at both the operational and tactical levels of war. The commander’s area of influence is described as that area in which he can influence combat operations through maneuver or fire support organic to his command. The GCE commander’s area of influence is roughly 18-20 kilometers, which is the maximum range of his organic artillery. On the other hand, the MAGTF commander’s area of influence is several hundred miles beyond the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA). This influence is achieved by the long spear of the ACE‘s combat power-the AV-8Bs, A-6s, F/A-18s, AH-1Ws-as well as the other components of Marine aviation. This makes the Marine Corps unique and very lethal and is reflected in the MAGTF commander’s role as a fighter and not just a facilitator. For these reasons, the ACE‘s combat power must communicate with the GCE and combat service support element (CSSE) in order to synthesize their individual combat power into a hammer and anvil delivered with speed and sustained with a system of logistics push.

Antiair Warfare

Antiair warfare (AAW) is one of the six functions of Marine aviation; the others include offensive air support, assault support, reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and control of aircraft and missiles. Every MAGTF Marine will participate to some degree in AAW, which is subdivided into two phases called air defense and offensive AAW. Air defense includes all means, active and passive, to destroy enemy aircraft and missiles and to nullify or reduce their effectiveness if an attack is made. Active air defense is a direct defensive action taken to destroy attacking enemy aircraft and missiles, including aircraft, air/groundlaunched missile intercepts, air defense artillery, automatic weapons, small arms, and electronic countermeasures. The MAGTF employs passive air defense to reduce the effectiveness of air attack and includes the use of cover, concealment, camouflage, deception, dispersion, and protective construction. Marine aviation seeks to conduct offensive AAW against enemy air, air defense assets, and installations before they can be used against us.

The ACE commander, acting through his tactical air commander (TAC), executes the six functions of Marine aviation in order to support the MAGTF commander’s intent and focus of effort against the enemy’s critical vulnerabilities. The TAC’s first priority in this process is to dedicate assets to AAW. This fact confuses and upsets many Marines and military reformers because they interpret AAWs priority to mean there will be no assets for the other five functions of Marine aviation and therefore no close air support (CAS). This simply is not the case. The ACE must accomplish all MAGTF requirements with its available assets, but it cannot do this unless it survives the enemy air threat. AAW is vital to the success of the MAGTF mission and really separates the Marines from our sister Services because the MAGTF commander owns these tactical air assets. Perhaps a couple of AAW historical examples might help clarify this situation.

The Yom Kippur War of 1973: At 1400 on 6 October 1973, the Egyptian armed forces achieved strategic and tactical surprise as they launched a preemptive attack against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) stationed along the broad front of the Suez Canal. Simultaneously, the Syrian armed forces attacked the IDF in the Golan Heights in northern Israel. Both the Egyptians and Syrians used their air defense commands (ADCs) as the primary weapon against the vaunted Israeli Air Force (IAF). Following the Six-Day War in 1967, the Soviets had outfitted the Arab ADCs with new surface-to-air missile (SAM) equipment such as the SAM-2, SAM-3, SAM-6, SAM-7, and the ZSU-23/4 mechanized antiaircraft artillery system. Thus, during the first three days of the Yom Kippur War, the IAF flew into the most formidable air defense umbrellas since Hanoi-Haiphong in Vietnam. The Israeli ground forces desperately needed air support to blunt the Arab attacks on two fronts, but the initial Israeli airstrikes met with disaster. The Syrians and Egyptians shot down approximately 25 A-4 Skyhawks and 5 F-4 Phantoms within the first 90 minutes of combat. At 1600 on 6 October, Gen Elazar, the Israeli Chief of Staff, suspended all tactical sorties until the IAF could devise new tactics that would counter this Arab air defense threat. By 1730, the IAF was airborne again using new tactics that involved staying away from the surface-to-air threats. However, IAF losses continued to rise at a staggering rate.

By the end of the first day the JAF had lost 40 aircraft (30 Skyhawks and 10 Phantoms). By 10 October, after 3 days of combat, the IAF had lost approximately 70 tactical aircraft to the surface-to-air threat, primarily the SAM-6 and ZSU-23/4. This was the IAF’s darkest hour, since it started the war with only 240 jet aircraft. Even more critical, the IAF lost 50 frontline combat pilots. Although the IAF owned the skies against Arab MiGs, it had failed to suppress the Arab air defense barrier and did not gain air superiority. The IAF suffered prohibitive combat losses while providing air support. This was a very hard lesson the IAF would not soon forget; it changed tactics on 10 October, destroyed the Arab surface-to-air threat, and then significantly helped the IDF win the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War of 1973.

The 1982 Israeli “Peace for Galilee” Operation: On 6 June 1982, the IDF attacked into southern Lebanon. The IDF mission was to demilitarize the area from all enemy forces up to a range of 40 kilometers in order to prevent further shellings into northern Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Syrian Army manned this area in Lebanon. The PLO consisted of 15,000 fighters equipped with infantry weapons, some artillery and tanks, and a large number of antitank and antiaircraft weapons. The Syrian Army consisted of a division-size force that included 2 tank brigades; 2 infantry brigades; and more than 20 air defense batteries that included SAM-2, SAM-3, SAM-6, SAM-7, and hundreds of antiaircraft artillery pieces.

On 9 June, after two days of beating back the PLO, the Israeli ground forces encountered heavy fighting against the Syrian Army in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. At this point the IAF decisively entered the battle. The IDF needed CAS for its heavily engaged ground forces. However, from lessons learned in the 1973 war the IAF knew it had to neutralize the Syrian surface-to-air missile threat in order to gain local air superiority prior to flying any CAS missions.

In the afternoon of 9 June, the IAF launched a massive airstrike against the SAM sites in the Bekaa Valley. Within 10 minutes the IAF destroyed 19 SAM sites and severely damaged 4 more. At this point, the IAF began a steady flow of CAS sorties for the Israeli ground forces. The Syrian Air Force reacted immediately, and over the next three days the largest air battles since World War II took place. When they were over, the Syrian Air Force was shattered. Amazingly, the IAF shot down 86 Syrian MiGs without any losses.

In combat the ACE commander will face many difficult decisions. Based on the MAGTF mission, commander’s intent, concept of operations, and the enemy’s center of gravity, he must make an intelligent recommendation to the MAGTF commander about the apportionment and allocation of his assets. The ACE commander must ask himself, “How can I best support the MAGTF focus of effort, and how can I best employ my aviation assets to decisively defeat the enemy?” AAW priority is not “some abstract rule” as the military reformers suggest, but as history clearly shows, it is a necessary requirement to achieve mission success. Successful MAGTF AAW ensures that enemy air does not impede the other five functions of Marine aviation.

Offensive Air Support

Marine aviation conducts offensive air support (OAS) against enemy ground forces in order to neutralize or destroy their installations, equipment, and personnel. OAS is divided into two areas depending on the proximity of friendly troops when the ordnance is delivered; these are deep air support (DAS) and CAS. DAS is an air action conducted against enemy targets located beyond the fire support coordination line (FSCL) in order to destroy, neutralize, or delay the enemy from attacking our GCE units. DAS does not require detailed coordination with the fire and movement of Marine ground units, but it must be integrated with the MAGTF commander’s overall focus of effort. CAS, either preplanned or immediate, is an air action against enemy targets in close proximity to friendly troops and requires detailed integration with the supported unit’s scheme of maneuver and fires for each CAS mission. As we have noted, in order to successfully conduct both DAS and CAS, Marine aviation must gain and maintain air superiority. As the air threat diminishes, more AAW sorties can be diverted to OAS.

What is the best employment of Marine aviation performing OAS? Should all the assets be dedicated to CAS at the expense of DAS? If so, how does the MAGTF commander shape the battlefield 12-72 hours away? Marine aviation decisively affects the outcome of battles and engagements at the tactical level of war by delivering ordnance in support of the GCE during CAS. In the defense, CAS supports the GCE commander and is a last resort, almost worst-case, scenario. Its use means that DAS and GCE indirect fire has failed to destroy the enemy. In the offense, the GCE will use aviation and artillery to shape the battle.

DAS, on the other hand, supports the MAGTF commander and his ability to affect or shape the battlefield 1272 hours away (or more). DAS sorties decisively affect campaigns and help the MAGTF commander achieve strategic objectives at the operational level of war. The ACE and GCE commanders must integrate and synchronize their efforts in order to maximize the destructive capabilities of both DAS and CAS. Numerous campaigns in World War II and Korea show the importance of integrating the air campaign with ground maneuver.

The Korean War: On 25 June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) stormed south across the demilitarized zone and began a war to unify the Korean peninsula. Gen Douglas MacArthur, the United Nations commander, requested Marine reinforcements to help beat back this NKPA preemptive attack. The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, commanded by BGen Edward A. Craig, embarked on Navy transports one week after receipt of orders. It arrived in Korea on 3 August 1950, less than 30 days after receiving the initial warning order. This brigade was the advance unit for the follow-on 1st Marine Division/1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) team, which arrived in Korea in early September 1950.

The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, composed primarily of the reinforced 5th Marines and the squadrons of Marine Aircraft Group 33, went to the Korean War as a truly integrated airground team. During their first month of combat, the 5th Marines fought three battles in the Pusan perimeter. These included counterattacks against the NKPA in the Chinju corridor as part of Task Force Kean, 7-14 August; in the Naktong Bulge at Obong-ni, 17-20 August, and again at Obong-ni, 3-5 September. Flying F4U Corsairs from the carriers Sicily and Badoeng Straits, Marine aviators flew CAS missions for each of these counterattacks. They used highly successful World War II, Marine-developed CAS tactics, which they had practiced after the war. Repeatedly, Marine aviators provided the margin needed for victory as they consistently destroyed enemy armor, machinegun nests, artillery, and other targets. The low-flying Leathernecks became heroes to the 5th Marines they supported.

On 6 September, 8th Army Headquarters pulled 5th Marines out of the line so the regiment could join the rest of the 1st Marine Division embarked on Navy transports at Pohang. On 15 September, the 1st Marine Division landed at Inchon and began a 10-day campaign to retake Seoul. In a model for successful air-ground tactics, the Marines took Seoul in a bitter fight. Following this operation, the division made an unopposed landing at Wonsan, North Korea, on 25 October and attacked north toward the Chosin Reservoir and the Yalu River. It then fought the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s 9th Army Group. The Marines destroyed seven enemy divisions in freezing-cold mountain warfare during the 1st Marine Division’s fighting withdrawal.

The Marine successes during the last five months of 1950 once again verified the concept of the air-ground team. Marine aviation integrated air support into the ground scheme of maneuver with devastating results for the North Korean and Chinese communists. Unfortunately, later in the war Marine aviation fell under 5th Air Force as part of “theater air,” and its ability to provide air support to the 1st Marine Division was significantly reduced. The 1st Marine Division’s wait for CAS rose from an average of 15 minutes with 1st MAW to as high as 45 minutes.

OAS cannot be planned and executed in the dark without a clear understanding of what the MAGTF commander wants to achieve and how he visualizes air support affecting the battle. When the GCE is the MAGTF’s focus of effort, which will be most of the time, the ACE cannot plan OAS sorties alone. The ACE and GCE staffs must work together to integrate their efforts in support of the MAGTF’s focus, not just to avoid conflict among their actions. Campaign success depends on the ability to closely integrate ground maneuver, DAS, and CAS.

Assault Support

The Marine Corps first employed helicopters in a combat role during the Korean War. When the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade arrived in Korea in August 1950, its aviation assets included several light utility helicopters. During their withdrawal from Chosin Reservoir, the Marines used these helicopters for command liaison and medical evacuation. During the summer of 1951, HMR-161, the first helicopter transport squadron, lifted infantry companies to and from the frontlines. In 1952, the Marines employed helicopters to execute troop movements, combat resupply, and tactical inserts. In virtually every combat operation and major exercise since the Korean War, Marine units have used assault support aircraft. As we look to employ MAGTFs in maneuver warfare, assault support will continue to play a critical role providing operational mobility for the MAGTF. The ACE commander will employ his assets to accomplish the MAGTF commander’s intent, both in support of GCE/CSSE missions and as a maneuver element. In what manner can helicopters be employed as a maneuver element?

A MAGTF commander is not likely to employ a helicopter squadron as a separate maneuver element. Transport helicopters move troops and equipment in order to accomplish tactical, logistical, and administrative missions. They may be an integral part of a maneuver element, but transport helicopters do not lend themselves to independent action. Attack helicopters, however, are ideally suited for maneuver roles, such as screening a flank or conducting deep operations against armored or mechanized threats. However, the relatively small number of attack helicopters in a Marine wing limits the scope and duration of these operations. The ACE commander can better accomplish these missions by task organizing fixed- and rotary-wing units to achieve the synergistic effect of combined arms.

By executing a heliborne assault, the MAGTF commander extends the area that he can influence with the GCE. Normally, the GCE can influence an area of about 18-20 kilometers in depth. Employment of unrefueled CH-46s extends this to a depth of approximately 80 nautical miles. This heliborne assault incorporates surprise and swiftness; it also neutralizes the effects of natural and manmade obstacles on GCE mobility. Employing forward arming and refueling points (FARPs), the helicopter unit can make itself available on short notice to withdraw or reposition the ground maneuver element and to provide resupply, casualty evacuation, and close-in fire support (CIFS).

A heliborne assault will normally include provisions for the inserted maneuver unit to link-up with mechanized or motorized forces. An employment option that does not require linkup is the heliborne raid. MAGTFs are well suited to conduct such raids. The fixed-wing support requirements, particularly AAW and OAS, are planned along with assault support requirements under a single command, the ACE. CAS and CIFS aircraft are available to the ground maneuver units immediately upon insertion. Additionally, artillery units are helilifted into positions in order to support the raid force mission, and command and control is enhanced through the use of utility helicopters equipped with command communications modules.

In future combat operations the MAGTF will likely encounter an enemy who possesses a superior armored and mechanized capability. The MAGTF commander will have to employ superior combined arms and maneuver skills in order to defeat this threat. Two Marine Corps Gazette articles in August 1989 suggested adopting battlefield air interdiction (BAI) within our OAS doctrine in order to enhance the Marine Corps’ combined arms capability. BAI is an Air Force term that encompasses airstrikes against targets short of the FSCL, but not directly under control of the ground maneuver element. In a BAI mission the ACE would employ its assets as a maneuver element. But what does this have to do with assault support?

Although BAI is largely an OAS mission, the ACE could easily integrate helicopter assets into this operation. For attack helicopter employment, Army doctrine calls for a joint air attack team (JAAT). (See FM1-112, Attack Helicopter Battalions.) On a JAAT mission, attack helicopters, Air Force CAS aircraft, and field artillery conduct simultaneous attacks against the same target. Army doctrine calls for artillery indirect fire to engage the target while helicopters move into attack positions. Once there, the helicopter flight engages the target, and then the helicopter flight leader coordinates the air support between the ground commander and the CAS flight leader. The ACE could easily use similar tactics in support of the MAGTF.

BAI takes the fight to the enemy and disrupts his scheme of maneuver before he can make contact with the GCE. This gives the GCE commander time and maneuver space to accomplish the MAGTF commander’s mission and intent. If required, transport helicopters can lift artillery into position to support the JAAT. The ACE can improve JAAT responsiveness to identified targets by positioning FARP packages before mission execution. The MAGTF commander possesses built-in flexibility for this mission since all required aviation assets come under a single tactical commander, the ACE.

Screening a flank is a “maneuver mission” that the MAGTF commander might assign to the ACE. The light armored infantry (LAI) battalion conducts screen, guard, and cover operations, which are traditional security missions. Although the speed and agility of the light armored vehicle (LAV) make it suitable for these missions, it is vulnerable to direct fire weapons, particularly from enemy armored or mechanized forces. The ACE can augment the firepower of the LAI battalion with attack helicopters. With MAGTF approval the ACE can integrate AH-1W Cobras, using overwatch techniques, into the LAI mission. Cobras provide CIFS and antiarmor punch using both the TOW and Hellfire missiles. A habitual relationship developed between the ACE and the LAI battalion would provide the MAGTF commander with an enhanced ability to shape the battlefield.

Assault support assets provide a great deal of flexibility and mobility to the MAGTF commander, if they are effectively used. As such, helicopters play a major role in concentrating combat power against enemy critical vulnerabilities. Helicopter effectiveness may be degraded when requirements exceed the assets available. The ACE must ensure that the allocation and employment of its helicopters most effectively supports the MAGTF commander’s intent.

Future assault support aircraft will expand the maneuver capability of the MAGTF. The MV-22, currently under flight test, will have a minimum combat radius of 200 nautical miles and a cruise speed of 250 knots. This is far superior to the 120-knot cruise speed and 80-nautical-mile combat radius of the CH-46. The MV-22 will give Marine commanders a far better capability to conduct air assaults deep into enemy territory. Current fiscal constraints may jeopardize MV-22 procurement; however, we should continue to develop tactics in line with tilt-rotor capabilities. Just as Marines developed doctrine for transport helicopters in 1947, we should plan for the tilt-rotor concept in 1991. While the Marines may not procure the MV-22, this technology clearly represents the new generation helicopter we will take into any future conflict.

Recommendations and Summary

The MAGTF has an awesome arsenal of weapons and well-trained Marines to carry out any mission. Clearly, the ACE maintains the preponderance of the MAGTF’s “Sunday punch.” This combat power allows the MAGTF commander to influence what will be on the battlefield 12-72 hours in the future as well as support the GCE’s battle right now. The MAGTF commander owns these aviation assets and will use them to best achieve the strategic aim. Although not used frequently in the past, the MAGTF commander may use the ACE as the MAGTF focus of effort or as a maneuver element. This is not new. History is full of successful examples of using air as a maneuver element. On today’s battlefield, there are many examples of missions the ACE could perform as a maneuver element; these include screening forces, direct support CIFS/ CAS aircraft, deep raids, LAI/helicopter reconnaissance, and more.

During the summer of 1989, the Marine Corps University instituted maneuver warfare training at all Marine schools. This education, coupled with the Commandant’s new warfighting doctrine articulated in FMFM I, is increasing all Marines’ knowledge of, and experience in, maneuver warfare. As recent graduates of Amphibious Warfare School and Command and Staff College return to the Fleet Marine Force (FMF), they will also share their knowledge of maneuver from the academic environment. However, is this enough? Are there any other ways we in Marine aviation can increase our knowledge of things maneuver? We think so.

Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 (MAWTS-1) is the Marine Corps’ collection of duty experts regarding the best employment of Marine aviation. Twice a year, MAWTS-1 conducts a Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) Course at MCAS Yuma. Marine Corps captains from all the wings attend the course; they are chosen based on tactical performance in their fleet aircraft and their career potential. Upon completion of the very rigorous WTI syllabus, they return home and assume the duty as their squadron’s tactics instructors.

Over the last two years, MAWTS-1 has conducted command element training for several Marine expeditionary brigade (MEB) staffs. This training centered on the best employment of the ACE; it followed the WTI course, but took place before the aircraft returned home. In this fashion, a MEB staff had available more than 100 Marine aircraft that represented a typical force structure in combat, coupled with the extensive training areas of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. Additionally, over the last year the Marine Corps University has conducted MEB battle staff training with each MEB prior to the training conducted at MAWTS-1. These programs are invaluable and an ideal way to get experts, not only in weapons and tactics, but also in maneuver, back to the FMF.

The common “sheet of music” for all Marines, whether it be in training or in combat, is maneuver warfare and the concepts that make up maneuver. As Marine aviators, we must communicate with our ground brethren in a clear, concise manner. Maneuver warfare concepts will enable us to accomplish this at the operational and tactical levels of war. In FMFM 1, Gen A. M. Gray states that maneuver

. . . represents not just guidance for actions in combat, but a way of thinking in general . . . a philosophy for action which, in war and in peace, in the field and in the rear, dictates our approach to duty.

For 75 years, Marine aviators have answered Marine infantrymen’s call while engaged in mortal combat. In the future this will not change as Marine aviation adopts maneuver and learns to fight smarter, pitting strengths against enemy weaknesses in order to make him lose cohesion and the will to fight.