Maneuver Warfare

By Capt Daniel R Grazier & William S Lind

In the early 1990s, the United States Marine Corps officially adopted maneuver warfare, also known as Third Generation War, as doctrine, in a movement led by then-Commandant Gen Alfred M. Gray. The Corps issued a set of excellent doctrinal manuals, starting with FMFM-1, Warfighting, and including MCDP 1-1, Campaigning, which focused on the operational level of war, MCDP 1-3, Tactics, and MCDP-6, Command and Control.1

With Gen Gray’s retirement, that is where the effort largely stopped. Attempts to move forward since that time, such as the Jaeger air experiments sponsored by Gen Charles C. Krulak when he was Commandant, began with promise, but received no long-term support. Individual commanders of units and schools have here and there attempted to change what the Marine Corps does to match what it says, creating “islands” of maneuver warfare. But these usually last only until the next commander arrives, when the second generation sea sweeps over the island. For the most part, Marines have been content to apply the terminology of maneuver warfare to their accustomed practice of attrition warfare, often to a degree that verges on the farcical. When one civilian visitor to the CAX at Twentynine Palms said that it did not seem to reflect maneuver warfare, the senior Marine officer replied, “Marine Corps doctrine is maneuver warfare, so anything Marines do is maneuver warfare.”

Several factors are to blame for the Corps’ failure to institutionalize maneuver doctrine. Over the past decade, the bulk of intellectual energy has been expended studying counterinsurgency theory and practice. This, combined with constant deployment preparation and theater-specific training, has left little room for attempting to change fundamental doctrine. Today’s Marines are a generation removed from people like Col John Boyd, USAF(Ret), and Col Michael D. Wyly, who initiated the maneuver warfare movement in the late 1970s in response to America’s defeat in Vietnam. The military reform movement of the 1980s is unknown to most serving Marine officers.

The greatest challenge to overcome, however, has been the U.S. military’s natural tendency towards attrition. That style of warfare fits within our existing military culture of perfect alignment, ruler straightness, and impeccable grooming. It is a continuation of the culture of order of First Generation War, war of line-and-column tactics. An attritionist, second generation approach covers every base, pours firepower on every threat, and leaves nothing to chance (except war itself). This is the style of war best suited to rigidly hierarchical organizations. It embodies the American military ideal of seeking to eliminate all friendly friction. The culture of order, of inward focus, is maintained by making all decisions at the highest possible level with little room for initiative at the bottom.

Improved weapons have driven changes in procedures and techniques. However, neither tactics nor the underlying mindset—the corporate culture—have moved beyond the second generation. Pivoting the focus away from objectives defined as terrain or attrition levels to seeking “to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating environment with which the enemy cannot cope,” to quote FMFM1 (now MCDP-1), the Corps’ most basic doctrinal manual, is a feat not easily accomplished.

The end of America’s ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan offer an opportunity to launch a new maneuver warfare effort in the Marine Corps, one with the goal of making maneuver warfare what Marines actually do, not just words on paper. In our view, such an effort is critical to the Marine Corps’ future. The outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show the limits of attrition warfare in the face of fourth generation threats. If the Corps is to remain relevant to America’s defense needs, it must move to make maneuver doctrine real. Irrelevance threatens the Corps’ continued existence.

The purpose of this article is to suggest concrete, specific actions the Marine Corps can take quickly, inexpensively, and relatively easily to restart the maneuver warfare movement that largely ended when Gen Gray retired. That is not to say deeper and more difficult changes are not also required. The most important of these is reforming the personnel system. Maneuverist militaries have personnel systems that work completely differently from those of attritionist militaries.

But we believe much can be done simply and quickly to make maneuver warfare real in the Marine Corps. Among these changes are the following:

  • The most important first step is to eliminate some of the heavily scripted exercises and embrace true freeplay training. This would require a dramatic alteration to the overall concept of training in the Marine Corps and a move away, to a certain extent, from the current training and readiness program. Training should not always be planned to incorporate specific mission essential tasks. The current methodology is counterproductive, but it is born from the fact that in the U.S. military, techniques have been raised to the level of tactics. Freeplay exercises are extremely useful for forcing leaders at all levels to make decisions in an environment of uncertainty against a thinking enemy—the same conditions they would face in war. Certain exercises should begin with no other goal than to provide subordinate units time to conduct force-on-force training in any way the commanders see fit. Training evaluators could observe such training and, using their judgment, identify training and readiness tasks demonstrated for reporting purposes.
  • For 2dMARDIV, restart the freeplay exercises at Fort Pickett, which Gen Gray began when he took command of the division in the 1980s and proclaimed maneuver warfare the doctrine for the division. These were the first freeplay exercises most Marines had experienced, and they did a great deal to convince Marines of the merits of maneuver warfare and teach them how to do it.
  • Reissue the original versions of the doctrine manuals that were written during Gen Gray’s tenure. These remain the best. MCDP 1-3, Tactics, is a hopeless muddle compared to the original FMFM. It is available for comparison at The other manuals have not suffered as badly, but the first versions are still superior.
  • Again require the Marine Corps Institute (MCI) Warfighting Skills Program for lieutenants and, now, for staff sergeants as well. The only maneuverist MCI ever issued, it offers an excellent means for self-study. It is also available at
  • Require all officers teaching in Marine Corps Schools to read The Canon, the seven books which take the reader from the first through the second and third and into the fourth generations of modern war. The Canon should also be required as a pre-requisite for Expeditionary Warfare School (EWS) and Command and Staff College.2
  • Teach the tactics developed by the German Army during late World War I at TBS instead of those of 1914. The Infantry Officer Course should then build on that base (instead of having to tell its students, “Forget everything you learned about tactics at TBS”) by teaching true light infantry, Jaeger, tactics.
  • Restore the extensive maneuverist reforms incorporated in the curriculum at EWS over the past half-dozen years. Those reforms were recently abolished and the curriculum was returned to its previous attritionist orientation.
  • Allow company commanders, at their discretion, to reduce the “soldier’s load” as they see appropriate for the situation, including giving them authority to dispense with helmets and body armor. Until Marine infantry can move as fast on its feet as can its adversaries, it will have few options other than hoping to bump into the enemy, and then call in fire support. Foot mobility is a direct function of the soldier’s load.
  • Pivot away from the excessive focus on combined arms integration in live fire exercises. This is a sensitive subject because Marines pride themselves on their skills with regard to combined arms integration. While it is important to skillfully employ weapons and have the ability to concentrate combat power at the decisive point, it is much more important to understand what that decisive point is. Far too often, the focus is simply on the how of employing massive coordinated fires rather than on why you are doing so. Complicated fires packages directed squarely at the strongest part of an enemy’s system will almost never achieve results as good as a lesser volume of fire at his most vulnerable point.
  • Emphasize the simple fact that the integrated training exercise (ITX) is not the capstone of Marine Corps training. ITX does an excellent job training the procedures necessary to execute combined arms operations. But as the exercise is currently conducted, that is where its utility ends. To be successful at ITX, a unit has only to follow an execution checklist and ensure its geometries are clear. This works to teach proper techniques for combined arms integration, but in slow-moving, predictable situations. It does nothing to foster rapid decision making, improvisation, or learning how to defeat the will of a thinking enemy.
  • Large-scale exercises beyond the ITX level should not involve live ammunition. Since combined arms skills are taught at ITX, exercises beyond that should be aimed at a higher level. Exercises such as Steel Knight and Desert Scimitar should be force-on-force exercises pitting one unit against the other. Units should make use of the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES) and test their skills against the independent will of a thinking enemy.
  • Reorient experimentation in the Marine Corps away from complete focus on equipment to add attention to tactical innovation as well.
  • Consider making a series of doctrinal manuals for fourth generation war developed in recent years by Marines and published as manuals of the K.u.K. Austro-Hungarian Marine Corps into U.S. Marine Corps manuals.3 In the period from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the Marine Corps established itself as the most thoughtful and intellectually innovative of all the American Armed Forces. By doing so, it not only profited internally, but also gained immense credit with the press, the public and Capitol Hill. Although the Corps has largely stagnated intellectually since, individual Marines have continued the earlier tradition. Much of their work has been embodied in these unofficial fourth generation war manuals. They represent an opportunity for the Corps to again establish its intellectual pre-eminence simply by making them official USMC publications.
  • Teach Marines how to critique field exercises. Most of the learning from field exercises is currently lost because Marines mistakenly think a critique is simply an (often endless) recapitulation of what happened. A real critique draws out why events took the course they did (which in freeplay training is unpredictable). Such maneuverist critiques are focused, honest about successes and failures on the part of all participants regardless of rank, and short.
  • In training, practice with degraded systems. For example, firing tank Tables I through VI is largely a waste of ammunition for the M1A1 Abrams. The system is so advanced, even a moderately trained crew can hit targets at long distances when the system works properly. Crews can become quite proficient at basic gunnery skills in the Advanced Gunnery Training System. Live ammunition should be largely reserved for degraded mode gunnery in tables the crew is unable to anticipate. In such a manner, training will achieve two goals with the same allocation of ammunition: advanced proficiency with a weapons system and improvisation through rapid decision making.
  • In field exercises, kill key officers, and make those still living take over. At times, kill all the officers and leave SNCOs in command.

The Marine Corps has an opportunity now to reset itself properly to meet the challenges of the future. With all the discussion about the need to “get back to the basics,” it is critical to ensure the Marine Corps gets back to the right basics. Reverting to training methods relevant only to an outmoded firepower attrition force, the Marine Corps will continue to find itself increasingly irrelevant in a changing world.

Maneuver warfare, when properly embraced, properly prepares leaders to face the challenges posed by a world descending into the fourth generation of warfare. A maneuverist leader is empowered to look beyond the doctrinal publications and warfighting manuals and develop innovative solutions to problems generated by an enemy who does not have manuals. We believe making a few adjustments in the way the Marine Corps conducts business will prepare adaptable and flexible leaders, capable of operating effectively long into the future.


1. Fleet Marine Force Manual 1 (FMFM-1), Warfighting, (Washington, DC: HQMC, 1989); Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-1 (MCDP 1-1), Campaigning, (Washington, DC: HQMC, 1997); MCDP 1-3, Tactics, (Washington, DC: HQMC, 1997); MCDP 6, Command and Control, (Washington, DC: HQMC, 1996). MCDP 1-1 and MCDP 1-3 were originally published as FMFMs.

2. The Canon:

  • a. Charles White, The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militaerische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801–1805, (Wesport, CT: Praeger, 1989).
  • b. Robert A. Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919–1939, (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1986).
  • c. Bruce Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914–1918, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1989).
  • d. Martin Samuels, Command or Control? Command, Training and Tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888–1918, (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1995).
  • e. Robert A. Doughty, The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940, (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1982).
  • f. Martin van Creveld, Fighting Power: German and US Army Performance, 1939–1945, (NY: The Free Press, 1991).
  • g. Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War, (NY: The Free Press, NY, 1991).

3. The Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Marine Corps field manuals were developed through a series of seminars involving Marine officers led by Mr. Lind on fourth generation warfare. The draft versions can be accessed at