Maneuver Warfare in the Cognitive Domain

by the U.S. Marine Corps Strategic Communication DOTMLPF-P Working Group*

In recent years the term “strategic communication” has experienced a significant rise in relevance. No doubt this is due in part to revelations about the huge disparity between the cultures either engaged in, or peripheral to, the current global struggle. A renewed interest in counterinsurgency and irregular warfare, a recognition of various kinds of hybrid threats, and the explosive spread of the Internet, cell phones, and other communications-related technologies have also certainly contributed. While increased recognition of this important concept is definitely a good thing, there’s a downside. Its use has outpaced the work necessary to truly define it, understand it, and apply it effectively. The net result is that, beyond the basic, high-level definition by the Department of Defense1 at the department and joint levels, there are almost as many definitions, perceptions, and opinions about what constitutes the term as there are people throwing it about. The risk in this is multifaceted. Misunderstood, strategic communication (not communications – referring to the mediums or means of communication; e.g., radio, television, Internet) can lose operations and tactical relevance. Senior leadership could undervalue strategic communication supporting capabilities. Planners and commanders might not appreciate its true importance as an operating philosophy and fundamental guide for MAGTF operations. Its major tenets might not be applied at every level or integrated seamlessly into every operation. If acknowledged at all, strategic communication practitioners could be relegated to a functional support role in a manner similar to the way we thought about supporting arms before the advent of the term “combined arms.” True strategic communication is not just the purview of public affairs, psychological operations, civil affairs, or information operations specialists alone. It is not just a support activity cataloged in Annex Y of the operations plan and performed by subject matter experts in an ancillary, supporting role.

The term strategic communication, in fact, represents a way of thinking and operating that transcends even maneuver warfare philosophy. Or, better said, it represents the next logical step in the evolution of maneuver warfare theory. For, if the essence of maneuver warfare is to impose our will on an enemy, directly or indirectly, the essence of strategic communication is to do something vastly more difficult – namely, to influence the thoughts and actions of not just “the enemy” but of all those who either physically occupy the contested area or who are affected by the outcome of actions within it.

As Gen Alfred M. Gray, 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps, so eloquently stated in his preface to Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication J, Vfärßghting (Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, 1997):

Like war itself, our approach to warfighting must evolve. If we cease to refine, expand, and improve our profession, we risk becoming outdated, stagnant, and defeated.

Subsequent Commandants have often echoed these remarks. Whether one sees strategic communication as a replacement for maneuver warfare theory or an extension of it is immaterial. The point is that the theories and concepts that undergird the term are an almost perfect match with those that undergird success in the kinds of operations our Marines and MAGTFs face in the current fight – and in those anticipated for the indefinite future.

Major Tenets

So, what are the major tenets of strategic communication when viewed as an operating philosophy? Much has been written recently about the nature of strategic communication. This article will not attempt to summarize or restate this voluminous amount of information. We believe that all of those ideas can be grouped under one of several major tenets or principles. In effect, they represent the first-level subfunctions if one were to do a functional decomposition of the term. The first principle is to have as complete an understanding as possible of the operating environment – its history, culture, geography, and future potentials must all be completely understood and continually appraised. Second is the principle of effective listening. Even a perfect understanding of the operational environment will prove useless unless it can be placed in a wider context that can only be attained by very careful listening. Third is the principle of effective communication. Unless every member of the force understands how to communicate effectively, rhe ability to act consistently within both a preconceived plan and the exigencies of the immediate circumstances that result from the plan’s execution will occur only randomly. Arguably, the fourth and final high-level principle is the heart and soul of effective strategic communication. It is the creation and maintenance of critical relationships. Every activity within the MAGTF should be conceived and executed with this in mind. Whether it is with an identified enemy force, the inhabitants of a local village, or the random bystanders present as a resupply convoy transits a busy intersection, each engagement between the MAGTF and the other occupants of the operating environment must be treated from the point of view of a “critical relationship.” Critical relationships are characterized by possessing consequences, potential or otherwise, that will exist after the actual physical engagement concludes. Unless the MAGTF has the ability to operate at this very cognitive level, success is potentially jeopardized. When the term strategic communication is perceived in this context, the connection between it and other operational philosophies is readily apparent. Just as maneuver warfare evolved from rhe “firepower/attrition” models that preceded it, a new philosophy based on the principles of strategic communication is the natural extension of maneuver warfare. While maneuver warfare can be considered to be a refined method for applying, or threatening the application of, kinetic force against an enemy, strategic communication is a refined method for creating a “win-win-win-win-lose” situation in which all of the occupants of the contested area realize a victory, except the actual enemy – not an easy proposition, but an achievable one if the MAGTF has the right operational philosophy to guide it and the capabilities and training necessary to carry it out.

A second, and equally important, reason for accepting strategic communication as an underlying operational philosophy is the dichotomy represented by the employment of 21st century military technologies in an environment that has more in common with the first millennium than the current one – or even the last one. What are the most important attributes of a successful third millennium force conducting a “four block war” in a first millennium world? One thing seems certain. It’s not just the ability to apply overwhelming force, or even the ability to apply that force with great precision and discretion. Even the most sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance targeting and weapons delivery capabilities will be largely ineffectual if the force employing them is insensitive to the cultural environment in which they are employed. Unless all of the Marines in the MAGTF are instilled with an understanding of the culture in which they are operating, and given the skills and tools necessary to allow them to operate effectively within it, operating concepts like strategic corporal and enhanced MAGTF operations, and the tactics and techniques associated with independent, dispersed, small unit operations over vast geographic areas, are at risk. The psychology of operations of this type, in environments of this type, against threats of this type, with both enemy and nonenemy using communications technologies, channels, and tactics as effectively as we do (or even more so) is not the psychology of force-on-force warfare against a peer competitor. Modern Marines operating in first and second millennium environments, dispersed over vast areas in small groups, have more in common with the Marines of a Vietnam-era civic action team than they do with the Marines in a line company engaged in a World War II- or Korean-style amphibious assault with subsequent operations ashore. Accordingly, we need to adapt not just our small unit tactics, equipment, command and control methods, and other tools and techniques of war, but also the very philosophy from within which our Marines categorize and engage all of the human beings who occupy the contested area.

Institutional Understanding

The fundamental skills and tools associated with strategic communication as an operating philosophy – effective listening, meaningful communication, and creation and maintenance of critical relationships – warrant much more treatment in our formal schools, training institutions, and operational doctrine. It’s time to advance our institutional understanding of maneuver-based operations in the cognitive domain to the next step.

Consistent with its long history of innovation and adaptation, the Marine Corps is doing just that. Experienced Marines now serving in education and combat development assignments are expanding our intellectual envelope, thinking through the details and complexities of these kinds of operations. While much of this adaptation begins with a review of the small wars tactics and techniques made famous by earlier generations of Marines, new concepts are being written that document and build on experiences gained in recent operations. Capability developers at Marine Corps Combat Development Command are teaming with strategic communication practitioners from across the Marine Corps to develop a strategic communication functional concept that should have DOTMLPFP (doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy) implications across the entire set of Marine Corps operating concepts and capability development scenarios. New organizations, like the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning, the Marine Corps Information Operations Center, and the Security Cooperation Education and Training Center, have been established for the express purpose of advancing capabilities fundamental to effective strategic communication. Advanced technologies and new techniques for employing them, and for thinking about the way they contribute to operational success at every level, are being continually developed. Even though the Marines involved might not presently describe them as such, all of these activities fall under the conceptual umbrella now being recognized as strategic communication.

Strategic communication, as a descriptive term for an overarching operational philosophy, might not be as appealing as maneuver warfare with its obvious emphasis on combat and bias for action. The term strategic communication carries with it an obligation to act, but also an obligation to listen, to think, to be creative, to be influential, and to be consistent in both word and deed. Whether it’s called strategic communication, communication integration, maneuver warfare II, or any number of proposed conventions, the MAGTF needs the ability to think and to act in an environment not entirely envisioned by current maneuver warfare theory.

The articles that will follow in the April issue of the Gazette describe various aspects, subfunctions, and organizations devoted to advancing the MAGTF’s ability to strategically communicate. They have been written to inform and to inspire additional thought and discussion. The defining characteristic of all Marines is a bias for action. Strategic communication enables that characteristic and adds to it a bias for thought. The members of the U.S. Marine Corps Strategic Communication Working Group, who authored this article, are hopeful that the ideas contained here and published in future Gazette articles on this topic will do just that.


* The MAGTF Strategic Communication DOTMLPF-P working group’s mission is to identity, develop, and integrate ioint. Marine Corps, and MAGTF warfighting strategic communication capability requirements and advise the MAGTF command element advocate (Deputy Commandant, Capabilities Development and Integration (CD&l)) how to best provide this capability to the MAGTF commander. The working group is comprised of representatives from Washington, DC, CD&I’s Capabilities Development Directorate, G-3 (Operations)/G- 5 (Plans) Division; MAGTF Staff Training Program, Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning; Deputy Commandant, Plans, Policies, and Operations, Information Operations and Space Integration Branch; Marine Corps Information Operations Center; the Division ot Public Affairs, HQMC; and Marine Corps Systems Command.

1. The definition is from Joint Publicwon 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, p. II – 2. “Focused US Government efforts to understand and engage key authences in order to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of US Government interestes, policies, and objectives through the use or coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power.”