Maneuver Warfare & the MAGTF

by Maj J.D. Burke

As a result of his study of the “whole history of war,” Capt B.H. Liddell Hart postulated two great maxims for military leaders. During 1929, he wrote that “in face of the overwhelming evidence of history . . . the military commander is never . . . justified in launching his troops to a direct attack upon an enemy firmly in position.” He further counseled that “instead of seeking to upset the enemy’s equilibrium by one’s attack, it must be upset before a real attack is, or can be, successfully launched.”

It would follow then, that the objective of the military leader should be either to (a) conduct his attack indirectly against an unprepared enemy or (b) cause his opponent to conduct a direct attack against his firmly entrenched, psychologically prepared defense. These, in a true sense, are the choices between the indirect approach (maneuver warfare) and the direct approach (firepower/attrition warfare) strategies being widely discussed by civil and military leaders today. Let’s examine the applicability of these opposing strategies to Marine airground task force (MAGTF) operations in the initial phases of a conventional war.

Maneuver Warfare

What exactly is maneuver warfare? Marine Corps doctrine states that “the object of maneuver is to dispose forces in such a manner as to place the enemy at a disadvantage and thus achieve results which would otherwise be more costly in men and materiel.” This is almost, but not quite, the basis of maneuver warfare.

A leading contemporary proponent of the indirect approach as typified by maneuver warfare is Col John Boyd, USAF(Ret), who serves as a DOD consultant and lectures at professional military schools. Col Boyd explains maneuver warfare (also termed “fluid warfare“) as being based on the premise that the enemy can be defeated most readily by cutting inside his “observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) cycle.” This is accomplished by operating at a faster tempo than one’s adversaries. 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. Although the enemy is physically disposed of by selective and local concentrations of forces and firepower at decisive points, he 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 OODA cycle. The payoff in maneuver warfare tactics is enemy disorientation, surprise, shock, and disruption. The aim of maneuver warfare strategy is to create weaknesses or opportunities, then exploit them, pulling the adversary apart and causing his collapse.

Col Boyd sees the essence of maneuver warfare as the ability to create, magnify, or exploit ambiguity, ambivalence, deception, and rapid maneuvering. He believes that weapons systems and operations should be chosen for their inherent ability to generate a rapidly changing environment that will confuse the enemy by confronting him with situations that appear to be menacing, ambiguous, and misleading.

A generalized example of a weapons system suitable for maneuver warfare would be a fighter aircraft which could outturn a foe, thus being able to force an overshoot, or stay inside a hard-turning defender. An example of a maneuver warfare approach to amphibious operations would be a series of coordinated feints and raids along a defender’s seaward flank.

What is required of a force or a general to accomplish all these desirable ends? Maneuver warfare requires an ability to assess changing circumstances quickly and move forces rapidly to take advantage of them. It implies “an effective and flexible command structure, mobile and responsive forces, and a doctrine that emphasizes the exploitation of enemy weaknesses” as opposed to doctrines designed for seizure of key terrain objectives or the destruction of enemy forces.

What sort of tasks must be accomplished to upset the enemy’s equilibrium before you attack? According to the Israeli Gen Yadin, three tasks must be accomplished:

First, cut the enemy’s lines of communication thus paralyzing his physical buildup. Second, seal him off from his lines of retreat, thus undermining his will and destroying his morale. Last, hit his centers of administration and disrupt his (tactical) communications thus severing the link between his brain and his limbs.

The U.S. Army’s FM 100-5 Operations, considered to be the capstone publication for U.S. prosecution of maneuver warfare campaigns, specifically advises field grade officers:

to plan rapid concentrations of battalions over multiple routes-attacking through friendly positions and obstacles, transitioning immediately from defense to the attack, routinely modifying fast moving operations.

Company grade officers are urged to:

exploit terrain, organize (armor) combat teams by use of formations appropriate to the terrain, rely on battle drill for reaction to contact, and manage fire control and distribution at the (tank) platoon level.

Still other writers have emphasized the need to interdict the enemy’s second echelon, attack his command and control means, and destroy his artillery, while friendly defensive forces deal with his initial echelon.

From an analysis of these tasks it is clear that firepower is a part, but not the raison d’etre of maneuver warfare; clear also that forces must fight in depth and not rely primarily on the retention of key terrain. With this understanding of maneuver warfare, let’s turn now to firepower/attrition warfare.

Firepower/Attrition Warfare

Firepower is the use and massing of weapons. Attrition is the destruction of military forces. But to understand firepower/attrition warfare one must understand the quantifiable elements of combat: striking power, mobility, and protection. Striking power is the ability to hit and incapacitate one’s enemy; mobility is both reaching and escaping from that enemy; protection is the ability to save oneself from injury while engaged in the other two. Col Boyd, sees the essence of firepower/attrition warfare as the use of striking power to generate widespread destruction, the use of mobility to focus destructive force on the enemy (or avoid his destructive force), and the use of protection to minimize the enemy’s destructive force by (a) taking cover, (b) dispersing people and resources, and (c) camouflaging/concealing prospective targets. The payoffs in firepower/attrition warfare are the breaking of the enemy’s will and capability to resist and the seizure and occupation of key terrain. The aim of firepower/attrition warfare is to compel the enemy to surrender and sue for peace.

In order to determine whether maneuver or firepower/attrition warfare should be used by a MAGTF, it’s first necessary to discuss the contemporary battlefield, the profile of Soviet forces, and the concept of employment of the MAGTF itself.

The Battlefield

In past decades the machinegun, tank, and attack aircraft have each had a turn at dominating the battlefield by possessing and exploiting the characteristics of striking power, mobility, and protection to a degree far surpassing other weapons of their respective times. The main battle tank of the last three decades personified combat power by possessing all three characteristics. Recently, however, the explosive missile, developed to defeat armor, aircraft, air defense batteries and other high value targets, has effectively eliminated any single weapons system or platform from dominating the battlefield. Sophisticated belligerents must now prepare to fight a combined arms battle.

Strong words, these. Where is the proof? The lessons of the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 (known to the West as the Yom Kippur War) proved that massed armor cannot withstand the fire of infantrymen armed with antitank missiles. Likewise, high performance aircraft were proven vulnerable to air defense batteries composed of sophisticated radars guiding lethal surface-to-air missiles. Ships of the line can today be sunk by missile armed patrol boats and fast assault craft.

The advantages of missiles are accuracy and lethality at great range; the current disadvantage is the vulnerability of the crew and platform when acquiring, tracking, and firing at a target.

The range, rate of fire, accuracy, and lethality of other conventional weapons systems continue to improve, but none with the order-of-magnitude firepower (striking force) increase of the missile. Mobility to the mass of combat infantry still means tracked or wheeled vehicles. (This may change in our lifetime as progress is made with tilt rotor aircraft and air cushioned vehicles.) Protection means armor or the foxhole, as it has since World War II. At this point it is wise to note the words of Martin van Creveld analyzing the military lessons of the 1973 war: “As usually happens in periods when firepower is on the ascendances, it is the tactical defense which stands to gain the most.”

Given this state of weaponry on the contemporary battlefield, what does the enemy look like, how is he equipped, and how does he plan to fight?

The Soviet motorized rifle battalion (see Figure 1) is a well-balanced combat organization featuring the characteristics of armor (shock, firepower, and mobility), a heavy mortar battery providing responsive indirect fire support, a modest forward air defense system, and a moderate antitank capability. Aggressor doctrine states that this battalion and many others like it will be massed in at least two armored echelons, advancing forward under cover of a rolling artillery barrage and the close-in fire suppression support of regiments of assault aircraft. (The Soviets can be expected to fire chemical munitions delivered by aircraft or artillery.) Armor units and supporting infantry will seek a weak spot in their adversaries defense and mass to penetrate, consolidating on the flanks, using the second armor-mechanized echelon to exploit the breakthrough, passing through to cut adversary lines of communications, reinforcement, and resupply.

Does this sound like maneuver warfare in action? Decidedly not. The maneuver warfare theorists classify Soviet tactics as clear examples of firepower/attrition warfare.

Employment of the MAGTF

The central question is quite simply “how are Marine forces to be best used to defeat a Soviet adversary?” Well, Marine forces means MAGTF, because the MAGTF is the way we organize for deployment and combat. How is the MAGTF with its four basic elements (See Figure 2) to be employed. Undoubtedly, as the result of some crisis, it will be committed as a limited, defensive response to the threat, or fact, of aggression. The MAGTF will, at least initially and, probably for the duration of the conflict, be outnumbered. Realizing his limited sustainability and combat power, the MAGTF commander will move his force to occupy key terrain from which he can best accomplish his mission (secure a beachhead, air terminal, or port facility and defend against further enemy moves.

How can today’s MAGTFs fight and defeat a Soviet (or Soviet-styled) adversary? Is there a way?

Yes, there is, but the way is not maneuver warfare. The success of the MAGTF will be achieved as a result of the application of firepower/attrition warfare doctrine applied in the defense.

This is not to say that firepower/attrition warfare (direct approach) is inherently superior to maneuver warfare (indirect approach) or vice versa. What I am saying is that the MAGTF is organized and equipped to fight firepower attrition warfare, not maneuver warfare. This is not really surprising because (a) the MAGTF will be committed as a limited, defensive response to the threat and, (b) since the MAGTF builds its combat power from zero, it is logical to look to the tactical defense as a probable solution.

An analysis of the new Marine infantry battalion structure (see GAZETTE, Jan82) shows it to be personnel intense and equipment light relative to its Soviet counterpart. Reinforced with artillery, amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs), reconnaissance teams, combat engineers, tanks, TOW antitank weapons, etc., a Marine rifle battalion totals approximately 1,100 USMC/USN. Its staff is capable of detailed fire support planning and coordination, more so than any other infantry battalion in the world. It enjoys a significant antitank capability and has heavy machineguns capable of defeating the lightly armored Soviet BMPs. Lastly, due to its size and employment of ground search radars and other surveillance assets, this battalion is capable of occupying and covering by fire a very large area.

Why Defend?

As was previously mentioned, the MAGTF must build its combat power from zero, across the beach. As competent as we may be at amphibious warfare, this takes time, several days or weeks depending on the size of the MAGTF and characteristics of the amphibious objective area. Assumption of the tactical defense is compatible with this reality. Additionally, as the defender, the MAGTF commander can select the ground on which to fight, deploy troops and site weapons for maximum effectiveness and mutual support, enjoy full use of available cover and concealment, reinforce the defensive characteristics of the terrain with mines and other obstacles or barriers, and probably have the option of firing first.

Selection of the tactical defensive for the MAGTF means that Soviet or Soviet-type aggressors must fight on “the MAGTF‘s ground,” exposing themselves in the movement to contact phase, clearing mines and obstacles while under fire, attacking optimally sited weapons that enjoy all the advantages of cover and concealment. Estimates of the combat power that must be massed to defeat an established defender vary from three-to-one to nine-to-one. That large a ground force is itself a high value target.

Soviet doctrine calls for a multiechelon combined armor-mechanized attack on a wide front covered by a rolling barrage of artillery fire. Soviet artillery is covered by forward air defense batteries. Initial MAGTF supporting arms fires will (a) cause Soviet armor to button up to avoid casualties from air bursts and, (b) suppress enemy air defenses as MAGTF fixedwing aircraft destroy first the air defense batteries and then the supporting artillery. MAGTF antitank missiles will engage enemy armor at maximum range (3,000 meters) enhancing the long-range destruction initiated by barriers and minefields. As the aggressor closes on the MAGTF‘s position, he will encounter heavy fire and obstacles which will weaken and confuse him, breaking up his attack. When Soviet elements threaten a breakthrough supporting arms fires will be shifted to focus full destructive firepower on the threat. Subsequent Soviet echelons advancing without the cover of artillery and surface-to-air batteries will be defeated by Marine infantrymen. When the enemy force, accepting defeat, attempts to break contact, it will be pursued by fire, and maneuver units, if appropriate.

The success of the MAGTF does not depend on the nonquantifiable maneuver warfare factors mentioned earlier. There is, for example, neither need nor desire for loosely controlled mission order tactics in the combined arms arena. There is a need for thorough, competent, detailed fire support coordination and planning. MAGTFs use the combat operations order to coordinate troop dispositions and taskings and to detail the defensive fire support plan and counterattack plan.

MAGTF logistical response is not maneuver warfare flexible; it is MAGTF dedicated and passes across the secured beachhead, a narrow front. Protected logistics support routes to forward units are the lines of resupply (and often communication). Friendly positions must be both known and stable enough to permit logistic support.

Once ashore, the MAGTF is not tactically mobile in the maneuver warfare sense. One-third of the assault elements are normally mechanized. The rest of the MAGTF must be shuttled about by helicopter airlift or motorized convoy. Neither of the latter methods are feasible unless we maintain air superiority.

Maneuver warfare implies the offensive. The offensive nature of a MAGTF‘s mission is limited. Maneuver warfare is attractive because it implies victory through finesse and intelligent maneuver, because it suggests decisive action and reduced casualties. But the Soviet aggressors will come ready to fight firepower/attrition warfare. Initially alone, the MAGTF will have to fight it better.

Fighting Firepower/Attrition Warfare

What Marines need to improve is the ability to bring the preponderance of firepower to bear on the enemy at the right time and place.

What can Marine units do to enhance unit firepower/attrition warfare effectiveness?

If defensive warfare is an art, deploying troops on highly defensible terrain is a start. Selecting positions close enough to be mutually supporting will further complicate the difficulties of the attackers. Applying the basics of individual weapons firing (flanking, interlocking, grazing) to crew-served missile weapons systems will multiply their effectiveness. Continuing to improve mine warfare proficiency and barrier planning and construction also will help.


Marines can talk maneuver warfare all they like. However, MAGTFs are not structured to fight maneuver warfare and are unlikely to be given an offensive combat mission while employed before the outbreak of general war. Our mission statements and perceived functions for MAGTF components are not oriented toward maneuver warfare.

MAGTFs lack mobility ashore.

MAGTFs lack the organic offensive firepower to enable them to exercise the initiative of the offense. Due to the armor heavy profile of the aggressor, they are better suited to the defense.

MAGTF amphibious operations can be used as an example of maneuver warfare.

MAGTF operations ashore are clearly firepower/attrition oriented.

The effectiveness of firepower/attrition techniques is continually improving.

Marines should be studying how to enhance MAGTF firepower/attrition warfare capabilities today.

The next and the most helpful step that could be taken is a comprehensive analysis of a notional MAB’s organic firepower in order to see if it is bringing enough antiarmor firepower to the battlefield. I frankly don’t think it is.