Maybe It’s Time to Reconsider Maneuver Warfare

by Maj Michael S. Chmielewsk, USMCR

While the discussion about a revolution in military affairs (RMA) predates the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War, it has recently become the center of attention in the Department of Defense (DoD). Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has created an Office of Transformation, headed by retired VADM Arthur Cebrowski, with responsibility for identifying innovative systems and concepts that could significantly change the way we fight.1 My purpose is to review some of the current trends in thinking about the future of warfare and whether we should reconsider our warfighting philosophy of maneuver warfare in light of DoD’s emphasis on transformation.

With the publication of Fleet Marine Force Manual 1 (FMFM 1), Warfighting in 1989, the Marine Corps adopted maneuver warfare as our warfighting philosophy. Subsequently revised in 1996 as Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 (MCDP 1), Ww)fighting is strongly influenced by Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, and it emphasizes uncertainty and friction as fundamental characteristics of warfare.

Maneuver warfare… seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.2

Maneuver warfare, however, stands in stark contrast with other theories of warfare currently embraced by the other Services and DoD, which appear to be developing a more attrition-oriented warfighting philosophy; the pursuit of:

victory through the cumulative destruction of the enemy’s material assets by superior firepower . An enemy is seen as a collection of targets to be engaged and destroyed systematically.3 By the nature of their methods of power projection, the Navy and the Air Force have emphasized their ability to systematically destroy enemy forces by projecting long-range precision guided firepower. Even the Army’s Objective Force will rely heavily on precision fires, closely aligning the Army with the Navy, Air Force, and DoD.

Transformation is fundamentally about creating “differences in kind, as opposed to differences in degree.”4 It is about taking the military out of the industrial age of the 20th century and moving it into the information age of the 21st century, radically changing the way we will fight in the future. In fact, this effort began several years ago with the publication of Joint Vision 2010 (JV2010) in 1996, which described high-tempo military operations enabled by information superiority.5 Updated in 2000 and renamed as JV2020 it reaffirmed this emphasis on information superiority.6 While he was President of the Naval War College, VADM Cebrowski developed his concept of network-centric warfare based on his observations of:

. . fundamental changes in American society, in particular the co-evolution of economics, information technology, and business practices and organizations …. By shifting to modern digital technology, we can increase battlespace awareness to yield increased combat power, with more targets destroyed.

While much has been written about the RMA, network-centric warfare, and transformation, the Marine Corps has for the most part remained silent.

At a time when ‘military transformation’ reigns at the Pentagon, the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) is distinguishing itself as a service that does not plan on changing. USMC structure and weapons are not outdated instruments of the Cold War and therefore the service does not need to redefine itself around the absence of a Soviet threat, argues Maj Gen Robert Magnus, the USMC’s Director of [Quadrennial Defense Review] QDR…. Because the force has always had to be ready for an adverse, chaotic environment on arrival, ‘we’re pretty relevant right now,’ Magnus added. While the rest of the military is striving to become, in some ways, more like the Marines, the USMC is emphasizing its differences from the other services.8

Unfortunately, this approach may not work for much longer. While some might argue that the publication of Warfighting over a decade ago represents a transformation in the Marine Corps, this is clearly not what Secretary Rumsfeld has in mind. Transformation into a force enabled by information superiority has become so important that Cebrowski has warned the Services that weapons systems and concepts of operation that are not designed to implement the Pentagon’s transformation goals will be subject to elimination.9 For example, the Marine Corps may have to show that the MV-22 Osprey is more than simply a new way to conduct vertical envelopments. We may soon be required to demonstrate how it will fundamentally change how we fight. Of course, the development of the Marine Corps’ big-ticket acquisition programs-the MV-22, advanced amphibious assault vehicle (AAAV), Joint Strike Fighter, and lightweight 155mm howitzer-were all conceived in the 1980s, before the end of the Cold War. Like the Army’s much maligned Crusader self-propelled howitzer, it is not enough to justify how we would employ these systems to accomplish our missions better and with fewer casualties in a post-Cold War environment. We will have to show how they enable entirely new ways of fighting, using innovative warfighting concepts like HuNTER WARRIOR.

Individually, a handful of Marines have voiced concerns over the years about the emerging RMA and its emphasis on information superiority. LtGen Paul K. Van Riper, USMC(Ret) chastised those who believe that:

* If you see the battlefield, you win the war.

* If we had today’s sensors, we would have won in Vietnam.

* In the near future we will be able to find, fix, track, and target-in realtime-anything of consequence that moves or is located on the face of the earth.

* Technology now provides the ability to identify virtually everything of military significance, in realtime, in any kind of weather, at any time.10

Van Riper also criticized JV2010 as “inconsistent with Marine Corps doctrine, especially Warfighting and MCDP 6, Command and Control.”11 Col TX. Hammes disagreed with Cebrowski’s analogy of warfare to business and the conclusion that network-centric warfare would change the fundamental nature of war.12

Institutionally, the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL) was responsible for designing and conducting experiments with new systems and concepts to enable new ways of fighting. The guiding idea behind the concept for their first experiment, HUNTER WARRIOR, was the use of long-range precision fires enabled by small teams of Marines using networked communications. The mission of these teams was to accurately locate enemy forces for destruction using precision guided weapons while avoiding direct fire engagements. There was no maneuver, and fires were intended to be decisive. The HUNTER WARRIOR concept was criticized in the Marine Corps Gazette by Maj John F. Schmitt, USMCR, the principal author of FMFM 1, as “inconsistent with existing doctrine, requiring reconsideration of one or the other.”13 It was, however, clearly an early effort to implement the tenets of JV2010. MCWL conducted a subsequent experiment with the use of handheld computers and networked communications down to the squad level to determine whether information superiority could reduce friendly casualties in an urban environment. The results of URBAN WARRIOR, however, were not very promising. Randy Gangle, a retired Marine colonel working with the MCWL said that information technology “wasn’t an enabler, it was a disabler.”14 Following URBAN WARRIOR, MCWL was refocused, and while they continue to participate in joint warfighting experiments and conducting their own limited objective experiments, they now concentrate their efforts on accelerating the development and fielding of promising technology to the Operating Forces.

Perhaps information technology will improve in the future to a degree that it might eventually “lift the fog of war,” a phrase used by retired ADM William Owens, former Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.15 Owens has long been an advocate for the use of information technology to create a “knowledge umbrella” for pinpointing and attacking enemy forces. 16 In fact, determining the exact location of all enemy forces has become so important that VADM Cebrowski foresees the “emergence of sensorbased warfare.”

The sensor has moved to a position of primacy. In some areas of warfare, they’ve always been important, now they are universally important. This is a feature of the information age, and we have to start thinking in terms of sensors as elements of maneuver force.17

Like us, the Navy is also struggling with DoD’s recent emphasis on transformation. One of the Navy’s programs that was of great importance to the Marine Corps was DD 21, the next-generation “land attack” destroyer. This surface combatant program was originally intended to fill the void in naval gunfire created by the retirement of the Iowa-class battleships. Based on Marine Corps requirements for sustained volume of fire in support of maneuver, the Navy planned to build 32 ships, each armed with 2 155mm advanced gun systems and a total of 1,200 to 1,500 rounds per ship, as well as 128 to 256 vertical launch system cells for missiles. Last summer, however, this ship program was not seen as transformational and was replaced by DD(X).18 While the requirements remain the same, DD(X) will likely be smaller, with a lot fewer rounds in the magazines. While the Navy has not yet determined how many of these destroyers to build, it appears likely that they will build far fewer than 32 ships. The Navy is currently getting beaten up by those in DoD who don’t see a need for volume of fire and believe that this ship will be able to destroy more targets with fewer precision guided projectiles. The Marine Corps has chosen not to get involved in this food fight, and as a result the Navy will likely end up satisfying DoD’s desires. Meanwhile, the real priority for the Navy is their next-generation cruiser, CG(X), which will be capable of intercepting ballistic missiles. The Navy is also spending $1.7 billion to convert the first two Ohioclass ballistic missile submarines into attack submarines, each capable of carrying special operations forces and launching approximately 150 Tomahawk cruise missiles.19 These efforts are viewed by many as truly transformational capabilities.

If the Marine Corps is to thrive in this era of transformation, then perhaps we should be conducting more experiments with innovative concepts like those used by the MCWL in HUNTER WARRIOR. We shouldn’t try to fool ourselves. Operational Maneuver From the Sea and Ship-to-Objective Maneuver are almost a decade old now and were produced primarily to justify our need for the AAAV and MV-22 in the post-Cold War downsizing of the military. While they may appear to be “transformational,” they’re really intended to simply apply the principles of maneuver warfare to amphibious operations. If we were really serious about transformation, we would experiment with the AAAV and MV-22 using HUNTER WARRIOR concepts to see just how transformational they really are. Maybe we don’t really need them after all. In the future maybe we’ll only need to insert small teams of reconnaissance Marines whose sole mission is to acquire targets for destruction by long-range, precision guided weapons delivered by the other Services. If so, then maybe we won’t need the lightweight 155mm howitzer to provide close supporting fires in support of maneuver. And if we’re not going to have to conduct forcible entry amphibious assaults against defended beaches, then maybe we won’t really need the AAAV or naval gunfire from surface combatants. Maybe we won’t even need a large Marine Corps with infantry and artillery regiments, force service support groups, and Marine air wings. Maybe we’ll just need a couple of reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition units to acquire targets for attack using Tomahawk missiles launched from subs. With the strong push being given to unmanned sensors lately, these Marines could eventually be replaced by robotic sensors. It’s not very hard to see a day when our Nation may no longer require a Marine Corps.

So, maybe it’s time to reconsider our warfighting philosophy. If the fog and friction of war are incompatible with DoD’s transformation, then maybe we need to scrap MCDP 1 and start over. Maybe it’s time to “get with the program” and adopt a philosophy of attrition warfare using long-range, precision guided weapons enabled by information technology in order to destroy more targets more quickly, like the rest of DoD. Or, maybe it’s time to tell the emperor he has no clothes, and that JV2010/2020 and DoD’s transformation goals are inconsistent with our understanding of the fundamental nature of warfare. Maybe maneuver warfare isn’t such a bad idea after all. Maybe.


1. “Cebrowski Appointed as Director of Force Transformation,” DoD News Release No. 599-01, 26 November 2001.

2. Department of the Navy, Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, 20 June 1997, p. 73.

3. Ibid., p. 36.

4. Kaufman, Gail and Amy Svitak, “Pentagon Develops New Transformation Criteria,” Defense News, 11-17 March 2002, p. 4.

5. Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, JV2010, Washington, DC, July 1996.

6. Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, JV2020, Washington, DC, June 2000.

7. Cebrowski, VADM Arthur K., USN and John J. Garstka, “Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1998, pp. 28-35.

8. “QDR 2001: The Battle Begins,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 16 May 2001.

9. Kaufman and Svitak, p. 4.

10. Van Riper, LtGen Paul K., “Information Superiority,” Marine Corps Gazette, June 1997, pp. 54-62.

11. Van Riper, LtGen Paul K., USMC(Ret), “More on Innovations and Jointness,” Marine Corps Gazette, March 1998, pp. 55-57.

12. Hammes, Col TX., “War Isn’t a Rational Business,” Proceedings, July 1998, pp. 22-25.

13. Schmitt, Maj John F., USMCR, “A Critique of the HuNTER WARRIOR Concept,” Marine Corps Gazette, June 1998, pp. 13-19.

14.Freedman, David., “Killed at Their Keyboards,” Business 2.0 Magazine, February 2002.

15. Owens, ADM William A., “The Emerging System of Systems,” Proceedings, May 1995, pp. 35-39.

16. Graham, David E., “Retired Admiral Advocates Smarter Forces, Restructure,” San Diego Union Tribune, 30 January 2002.

17. Hodge, Nathan, “Transformation Boss Sees `Sensor-Based Warfare’ Era,” Defense Week Daily Update, 5 February 2002.

18. McCarthy, Gen Jim, USAF(Ret), Chairman, Transformation Study Group, “Transformation Study Report,” Prepared for the Secretary of Defense, 27 April 2001.

19. Fahey, Michael, “Transforming the Trident,” Newport News Daily Press, 3 March 2002.