Maneuver Warfare: Where Are We Now?

by Capt Kevin R. Clover

In 1980, 2d Marine Division commander, MajGen AM. Gray, sent the following correspondence to the Marines in his division:

Realizing that many of our potential enemies could bring superior numbers of men and good equipment to bear against us in a distant theater, it would be fool-hardy to think about engaging them in firepower-attrition duals. Historically, maneuver warfare has been the means by which smaller but more intelligently led forces have achieved victory. It is, therefore, my intention to have us improve upon our understanding of the concepts behind maneuver warfare theory and to train our units in their application.

Under this direction, the 2d Marine Division began to study and practice the concepts of maneuver warfare.

Beginning in the late 1970s and continuing to this very day, an interesting debate has occurred within the Marine Corps about the art of warfare. This has centered on the idea that there are two points on the ends of a “styles of warfare” spectrum. It was argued that all strategy and tactics were some combination of these two styles: maneuver warfare and firepower/ attrition warfare.

Maneuver warfare was also a heated topic of discussion within the other military Services, academia, and even Congress. The House Armed Services Committee directed the Marine Corps to make a formal report in 1982 to explain, “the manner in which maneuver warfare concepts are being or have been incorporated into the policies and training . . . of the Marine Corps.”

The official Marine Corps policy on maneuver warfare was stated in a report sent to the House Armed Services Committee in 1983. The report declared that the “Marine Corps does not subscribe to any exclusive formula or recipe for warfare,” but that “the concepts of maneuver warfare are evident throughout the Marine Corps” and that efforts are being made “to further integrate the concepts of maneuver warfare and amphibious warfare.” The implication of this report was that the Marine Corps considers maneuver warfare to be one of many theories included in the repertoire of Marine commanders on both the tactical and strategic levels.

If the Marine Corps intends to train and fight maneuver warfare, then we need to determine how well we have educated our Marines to fight in this manner. We also need to ascertain how those Marines feel about maneuver warfare. What are their perceptions and attitudes toward it? Insight in these areas would give us a starting point from which to intelligently continue our training.

In June 1986, a survey was completed by a random, representative sampling of 375 Marines in 2d Marine Division. The objective was to determine the level of dissemination of maneuver warfare concepts among these Marines and to appraise their attitudes about those concepts. The 2d Marine Division was chosen because of its reputation as a leader in the area of maneuver warfare. The survey respondents ranged in rank from sergeant to sergeant major and second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel and concentrated on the combat arms military occupational specialty (MOS) groups. The survey was administered to members of 15 battalions. The survey respondents included infantrymen, artillerymen, tankers, assault amphibian vehicle (AAV) and light armored vehicle (LAV) crewmen, and reconnaissance Marines.

This article will report the results of that study by looking first at knowledge about maneuver warfare and its related concepts and then at attitudes toward maneuver warfare.

Knowledge of Maneuver Warfare

Marines were asked to categorize their own knowledge of maneuver warfare tactics as one of the following:

  • I don’t know anything about maneuver warfare.
  • I know very little about maneuver warfare.
  • I have a basic understanding of maneuver warfare.
  • I consider myself an expert on maneuver warfare.

Of the Marines that returned the surveys, 67.3 percent claimed that they had at least a basic understanding of maneuver warfare. Not surprisingly, the enlisted ranks were less confident in their knowledge than the officers, and the number of officers who believed themselves to have a basic understanding of maneuver warfare increased with rank. Very few of the respondents said they knew nothing about maneuver warfare, and very few said they were experts. Of 103 Marine officers surveyed, only one captain considered himself an expert in maneuver warfare theory. Seventeen officers said they knew very little about maneuver warfare and two lieutenants said they knew nothing about it.

The tank/AAV MOS group had the most confidence in their maneuver warfare knowledge with 78 percent reporting at least a basic understanding. The infantry and artillery/engineer groups followed closely at 69.8 and 65.8 percent respectively. The percentage of correct answers to the multiple choice questions did not differ significantly between MOS groups.

In the next portion of the survey, 12 multiple choice questions sought to determine what differences exist in the quantity and/or quality of knowledge about maneuver warfare concepts. The results of this test support both positive and negative conclusions, depending on the criteria of the individual making the conclusion.

If one believes that maneuver warfare can be simply defined as attacking weaknesses and avoiding strengths, then the 2d Marine Division has a widespread knowledge of the concept. Over 80 percent of all Marines surveyed knew that in maneuver warfare, one should “avoid enemy strengths and exploit enemy weaknesses.” Every field grade respondent and 76.2 percent of the sergeants answered the question in this way. Also, the respondents seemed to realize that maneuver is different from mobility and, although there is some confusion, the majority believed maneuver warfare is an innovative way of thinking about war rather than old wine in new bottles.

If, however, one believes maneuver warfare to be a complex concept made up of many concepts and processes, then the knowledge of maneuver warfare tactics among Marines in the division falls short of what is needed, especially among the noncommissioned officers (NCOs), staff NCOs, and lieutenants. Some of the concepts, such as focus of main effort and mission-type orders, are unfamiliar and confusing to many Marines.

An example of this confusion is shown in the answers to the following multiple choice question:

  • “Mission-type” orders require:

a. strict and unquestioning obedience of detailed instructions given during the commander’s briefing.

b. decisions to be made at the highest level possible.

c. that the commander give only general guidance to his subordinates in how to carry out a mission.

d. all of the above.

e. I don’t know.

The percentage of correct responses to this question shows a wide disparity in the level of knowledge about mission-type orders between the officer and enlisted respondents. Over 90 percent of the field grade and company grade officers answered correctly that mission-type orders require “that the commander give only general guidance to his subordinates in how to carry out the mission.” Only 41 percent of the SNCOs and 27.9 percent of the sergeants answered the question correctly.

It is interesting to note that around 25 percent of the sergeants surveyed believed that mission-type orders require “strict and unquestioning obedience of detailed instructions given during the commander’s briefing.”

Another example:

  • The “focus of main effort”:

a. can be changed during an operation,

b. cannot be changed during an operation,

c. can only be changed with specific, detailed instructions from the senior commander,

d. I don’t know.

While 89.7 percent of the field grade respondents answered correctly that the focus of main effort “can be changed during an operation,” only 62.5 percent of the lieutenants and 27.1 percent of the sergeants made the correct response. The number of respondents answering that the focus of main effort “can only be changed with specific, detailed instructions from the senior commander” increased as rank decreased.

Limiting the usefulness of the focus of main effort concept by requiring specific, detailed instructions to be delivered restricts a unit’s ability to maintain the initiative. By quickly and smoothly shifting the focus of main effort, opportunities may be exploited that otherwise could be lost in the drawn out process of creating and promulgating a new operational plan. All Marines must be aware that a senior commander may change the focus of main effort at any time during an operation and they must be able to react accordingly.

In several of the questions, even the field grade respondents displayed a disparity of views concerning the definitions of certain concepts or terms. A “gap,” for example, was incorrectly defined as “a geographical place” by 62.1 percent of the majors and lieutenant colonels. Only 34.5 percent of the field grade respondents answered correctly that a gap could be “any enemy weakness.” Only 29.1 percent of all respondents answered correctly.

This difference between the actual definition of a gap and the definition that the majority of respondents believe correct is a problem. If a large number of the practitioners of maneuver warfare tactics are searching for gaps in the enemy defenses only in geographical terms, then there is the possibility that an enemy weakness or gap of some other form may be overlooked.

The respondents were grouped according to rank to best determine knowledge of maneuver warfare concepts at the levels a tactical order is delivered. The results of this survey show that the definitions a commander has in mind when he delivers an order to his subordinates may quite possibly conflict with the operational definition the subordinate has in mind.

An analysis of the percentage of correct answers based on the amount of time the respondents had spent in the division showed that knowledge levels do not significantly increase with the amount of time spent in the 2d Marine Division. This indicates that Marines coming into the division already have knowledge of maneuver warfare tactics almost equal to those who have been members of the division for some time. This suggests also that there is not, as some authors have stated, a heavier emphasis placed on maneuver warfare tactics in the 2d Marine Division than in the rest of the Marine Corps.

Another survey question asked the Marines to indicate where they had learned the most about maneuver warfare. An analysis of the answers indicates significant differences between officers and enlisted. Enlisted Marines claim they learn the most about maneuver warfare from unit training and operations. Officers believe they learn the most about maneuver warfare on their own initiative-from professional literature and other sources. Neither of these groups believe they learned the most about maneuver warfare from Marine Corps schools.

Attitudes Toward Maneuver Warfare

Command support for maneuver warfare was directly measured through these two survey questions:

  • Does your commander encourage using maneuver warfare tactics during training exercises?
  • Does your entire chain of command support the use of maneuver warfare tactics?

A large number of Marines, ranks sergeant through lieutenant colonel, responded that both their individual commanders and their entire chain of command supported the use of maneuver warfare tactics. However, an equally large number were undecided as to the support for maneuver warfare among their superiors. In fact, 50 percent of the respondents refused to agree or disagree with the statement that their chain of command supported maneuver warfare.

Obviously, there is some confusion among Marines concerning maneuver warfare. This uncertainty could be the result of the intense debate that has surrounded the subject Any Marine who has followed this debate in the professional literature knows there are a wide variety of views concerning maneuver warfare and its related concepts. While this debate is healthy for the Corps, it is obviously confusing to many Marines. While the senior Marine Corps leadership admitted the merits of maneuver warfare to the House Armed Services Committee in 1982, it declined to support it as an exclusive doctrine. And subsequent criticisms made about the Marine Corps and maneuver warfare by the Military Reform Movement probably contributed to this uncertainty. In the summer of 1986, this author sensed that apprehension toward the term “maneuver warfare” was widespread in the 2d Marine Division. As one Marine major put it, “Maneuver warfare is a dangerous subject.”

The next step in determining how the Marines felt about maneuver warfare was to ask if and when maneuver warfare tactics were an appropriate response to current threats to national interests. The respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the use of maneuver warfare tactics in four different types of conflict scenarios. The types of conflicts and the percentage of respondents agreeing that maneuver warfare tactics would be an appropriate response are shown in Figure 1.

The data shown here demonstrate clearly that Marines perceive a direct link between conflict intensity and the appropriate use of maneuver warfare tactics. This is in concert with the official Marine Corps policy that calls for a military response appropriate to the situation. Maneuver warfare, in other words, plays an important, but by no means dominant, role when applied across the spectrum of warfare.

The survey then turned to training. Most every respondent had definite opinions on the adequacy of maneuver warfare training in the division. Very few were undecided. This was measured through the following questions:

  • Is your unit given adequate time for the practice of maneuver warfare?
  • Has your unit trained and operated together enough to perform maneuver warfare tactics in combat?
  • Do your subordinates have the training necessary to perform maneuver warfare tactics in combat?

The results showed that a large number of Marines in the division believe maneuver warfare training to be adequate. An equally large number believe the training is not adequate. This indicates that maneuver warfare tactics are given different amounts of emphasis in training by the units within the division.

When asked where more training emphasis was needed, the Marines as a group agreed that more time should be spent on military education and practicing combat techniques. The priority given to practicing combat techniques was higher than that given to military education.

Perhaps the most important element of any training program is the training environment Two questions were constructed to determine if an environment conducive to the practice of maneuver warfare tactics had been created in the 2d Marine Division:

  • Does your commander encourage boldness and initiative during tactical exercises?
  • Does your commander consider tactical mistakes during an exercise to be educational opportunities rather than grounds for a reprimand?

The results of these two questions were overwhelmingly positive. Only 5.8 percent of the respondents said their commanders did not encourage boldness and initiative and only 5.3 percent of the commanders considered tactical mistakes to be grounds for reprimand. This means that the leadership traits necessary for the performance of maneuver warfare tactics are being cultivated among subordinates by commanders throughout the division. Boldness and initiative are encouraged while tactical mistakes are looked upon as educational opportunities.

Indirect Measurement of Maneuver Warfare Concepts

A rose by any other name . . . .

What if the Marines in 2d Marine Division were not well versed in the jargon of maneuver warfare but were practicing it anyway? Could it be that some or all of the maneuver warfare concepts (see Figure 2) were inherent in the existing division doctrine? Are they performing maneuver warfare tactics but just do not know the terminology?

To probe these matters, six survey questions were constructed to indirectly measure the respondents’ opinions on whether or not some of the underlying concepts of maneuver warfare theory are being practiced in the division. These questions and the maneuver warfare concepts they were intended to measure are listed below:

  • Does your immediate superior commander give only general guidance in his tactical orders and allow his subordinates to accomplish the mission using their own judgment and initiative? (Missiontype orders.)
  • Does your commander issue his orders in such a way that it is very easy to understand what he intends for his subordinates to accomplish? (Commander’s intent.)
  • Does your commander issue his orders in such a way that it is clear which part of the unit’s mission is to receive the highest priority? (Focus of main effort.)
  • Does your commander require his subordinates to request permission to do anything different than what was given in his order? (Mission-type orders.)
  • Do your superiors keep you informed of the commander’s intent at least two levels up? (Example: If you are a squad leader, are you informed of the platoon’s mission and the company’s mission9) (Mission-type orders.)
  • Does your unit avoid attacking enemy strengths and seek to find and exploit enemy weaknesses? (Surfaces and gaps.)

The answers to the first five questions clearly indicated that the Marines believe maneuver warfare concepts are being practiced by the division’s units. The Marines left no doubt that, although they may not understand the terminology, maneuver warfare is included in 2d Marine Division doctrine

The only question on which the respondents were undecided was the last question about avoiding strengths and exploiting weaknesses. This could be a result of official Marine Corps policy that states that different situations require different forms of warfare. Therefore, the respondents would not commit themselves to saying that their unit always avoided strengths. They might have felt that some situations may require directly confronting the enemy’s strengths.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This study was intended to evaluate the impact of maneuver warfare theories and concepts on the 2d Marine Division at a certain point in time. And from this “snapshot,” what exactly did we learn?

First of all, the discussion about knowledge of maneuver warfare demonstrated we have a considerable amount of educating to do throughout the ranks of the Marine Corps. Marines are just not “reading off the same sheet of music” when it comes to maneuver warfare terminology.

Second, there is a great deal of confusion when it comes to whether or not maneuver warfare is official doctrine in the Corps We must reassert the Marine Corps’ position on maneuver warfare so it is clear to all Marines that, in certain situations, the Marine Corps supports the use of maneuver warfare tactics. Mannes must understand maneuver warfare is one style of warfare the Marine Corps intends to keep in its repertoire and that it is a style of warfare requiring great amounts of training.

But there was also some very good news

Maneuver warfare advocates should be encouraged by what appears to be a doctrinal base within the 2d Marine Division that favors a maneuver warfare style of fighting. The commanders of the division should be congratulated for creating an atmosphere that allows their subordinates to show initiative and to experiment with tactics without the threat of recrimination

Also, despite unfamiliarity with the terminology of maneuver warfare, a large percentage of Marines throughout the division are following the basic tenets of maneuver warfare theory, including such important concepts as mission-type orders and focus of main effort.

The Marine Corps appears to have made a good start at bringing maneuver warfare into its doctrine. What now needs done is to further identify those areas requiring attention and act to correct the deficiencies. As a start, I would otfer the following recommendations.

  • Create a program of standardized unit-level training to ensure a common understanding of maneuver warfare tactics and related concepts among Maones.
  • Place more emphasis on educating tactical leaders from the platoon level down in the concepts and terminology of maneuver warfare.
  • Make tactical leaders aware of the differing levels of knowledge about maneuver warfare among their subordinates so that they may ensure all have some common level of understanding. This may avoid costly tactical errors stemming from confusion over terms.
  • Increase the amount of education and discussion of maneuver warfare tactics in Marine Corps
  • Ensure all Marines remember maneuver warfare concepts by adding key definitions to the essential subjects manual.

These are all very simple measures that could be implemented at virtually no cost in dollars. But they are important measures because they would allow us to all read from the same sheet of music. In this way we would make certain, as we reported to the House Armed Services Committee in 1983, that “the concepts of maneuver warfare are evident throughout the Marine Corps.”

Over the past decade the Marine Corps Gazette has been at the forefront of the discussions on maneuver warfare and has contributed notably to therenaissance of interest in warfare concepts stressing mobility and the indirect approach. More than 50 Gazette articlesaddressed these themes from every aspect and with diverse viewpoints. Most of them are as pertinent today as when they wereinitially published. Here are some suggestions, drawn from this group, for those interested in further reading on thetopic schools.

Capt Stephen W. Miller, “Winning Through Maneuver, Part I-Countering the Offense,” MCG, Oct79.

“Winning Through Maneuver, Part II-Countering the Defense,” MCG, Dec79.

William S. Lind, “Defining Maneuver Warfare,” MCG, Apr80.

Maj William C. Fite, “Some Lessons from the Israelis,” MCG, Sep80.

MajGen Bernard E. Trainer, “New Thoughts on War,” MCG, Dec80.

Capt Gary I. Wilson, et al., “The Maneuver Warfare Concept,” MCG, Apr81.

William S. Lind, “Tactics in Maneuver Warfare,” MCG, Sep81.

Col Brace G. Brown, USMC(Ret), “Maneuver Warfare Roadmap, Part I-Trends & Implications,” MCG, Apr82.

Maneuver Warfare Roadmap, Part II-Concepts of Employment,” MCG, May82.

Maj Jack W, Klimp, “Attack on a Fortified Area: Lessons From the Past,” JWCG, Jun82.

Maj James D. Burke, “Maneuver Warfare and the MAGTF,” MCG, Sep82.

LtCol Michael D. VVyly, “Thinking Beyond the Beachhead,” MCG, Jan83.

William S. Lind, “Preparing for Maneuver Warfare,” MCG, Jun84.

Maj Gary W. Anderson, “Maneuver, Attrition, or the Tactics of Mistake,” MCG, Sep85.

LtCol Edward J. Robeson IV, “Forrest War: Putting the Fight Back . . . ,” MCG, Aug86.

William S. Lind, ‘Misconceptions of Maneuver Warfare,” MCG, Jan88.