Misconceptions of Maneuver Warfare

by William S. Lind

Over the past 10 years, Marines have made significant progress in understanding and applying the concept of maneuver warfare. Many Marine officers now devote substantial time and effort to studying tactics, reading military history, and thinking about the art of war. In terms of both level of interest and knowledge, the situation has advanced greatly from where it was in the mid-1970s.

At the same time, a number of misconceptions of maneuver warfare have arisen. This is a normal part of the process of change and innovation. But it will strengthen the debate and help move it forward if the misconceptions outlined in the following paragraphs can be corrected.

* Maneuver warfare is just some theory propounded by a small group of “armchair generals. “Maneuver warfare is not the- ory; it is historical fact. Everything that maneuver warfare proponents (who include many Marine Corps and Army officers) call for has been done, in combat, by armies-successful armies. Focus of effort, surfaces and gaps, and mission-type orders are concepts with long combat histories. All the theorists have tried to do is explain the common threads that run through these histories and relate the experiences of other times and nations to today’s Marine Corps.

* Maneuver warfare advocates claim that with maneuver, there need be no real fighting, no killing. A look at history lays this misunderstanding quickly to rest. Did Stonewall Jackson or George Patton avoid real fighting? Have the Israelis avoided fighting and killing? All war is bloody business, and maneuver warfare is no exception. It will involve plenty of hard fighting. What maneuver warfare advocates have pointed out is that maneuver can often reduce friendly casualties, compared to running head-on against an enemy at his strongest point; that in a campaign of maneuver, a relatively high proportion of enemy casualties are often prisoners (again, a historical fact); and that the amount and difficulty of actual fighting is situational, depending on the skill and toughness of the opponent. We need to prepare and train under the assumptions that our opponents will be skilled and the fighting, tough. If, as on Grenada, that proves not to be the case and maneuver alone is sufficient to collapse them, so much the better, but we cannot count on that.

* Firepower is not important in maneuver warfare. Nothing could be further from the truth. Firepower, often massive firepower, is highly important in maneuver warfare. Rommel’s Infantry Attacks describes cases where a few squads were given whole machinegun companies and artillery batteries for fire support Rommel constantly stressed plastering the enemy with tire as soon as he is encountered.

What changes in maneuver warfare is the use of firepower. It is used to open the way, to support maneuver by blasting a “gap” or fixing an enemy in place so you can maneuver around him, not just to cause enemy casualties. Perhaps the greatest change is the stress on immediacy of fire support. Tempo must not be sacrificed to the need for fire support control; fire support must accommodate the tactics, not the other way around. This places increased emphasis on direct fire weapons and implies a revolution in command and control of indirect fire weapons-including air support. A few rounds that are immediately available may be worth more than a massive bombardment hours or days later, after the enemy has had time to regain his equilibrium or prepare his positions. In sum, maneuver warfare will require that fire support be made more responsive, perhaps through more decentralization of control, but it in no way lessens the importance of firepower.

* Maneuver warfare is irrelevant to amphibious operations. Maneuver warfare relates directly to amphibious warfare at both the tactical and the operational levels. At the tactical level, it offers the landing point amphibious assault as an alternative to current doctrine. The landing point assault carries the infiltration attack over into the amphibious assault itself, with multiple deep penetrations on separate axes. At the operational level, maneuver warfare opens a vista on the amphibious campaign, which may be more important under modern conditions than the amphibious assault. It suggests that we look at amphibious warfare not only in terms of Tarawa and Iwo Jima but also of Moore and Wellington in Iberia.

* Maneuver warfare means heavying up-mechanizing the Marine Corps. Actually, for most of the Marine Corps, maneuver warfare means lightening up. It requires the conversion of most Marine infantry from line to true light infantry. That means getting rid of vehicles, cutting the Marine’s load to no more than about 46 pounds, reducing greatly the size and complexity of headquarters, etc. True light infantry is the most mobile type of force in close terrain, and maneuver warfare demands mobility. For mobility in open terrain, vehicles are required, but for the Marine Corps, these may be trucks, LAVs, and motorcycles rather than personnel carriers and tanks. The goal should be a mix of light infantry and mounted forces, from which a force appropriate to the terrain can be task organized.

* Maneuver warfare is just common sense tactics. Depending on one’s philosophical approach, everything that is successful in life may be termed “just common sense.” Common sense is certainly useful in maneuver warfare, but if that were all it required, history would have seen many more “Great Captains” of maneuver warfare. In fact, developing an accurate picture of the battlefield and figuring out how to outmaneuver the enemy in a specific situation requires considerable ability. It requires commanders and operations officers with what Clausewitz called a “talent for judgment,” composed of imagination, creativity, and intuition. It requires study of the enemy, his weapons, techniques, doctrines, and, if at all possible, his commander’s tendencies. It adds up to a good deal more than is usually meant by “just common sense.”

* Maneuver warfare is just a formula for flank attacks. In maneuver warfare, a usual goal is to attack the enemy in an unexpected place. But that does not just mean flank attacks. If you always attack his flanks, he will soon figure out the pattern you follow, and he will be waiting for you at the flanks. His flanks will, in effect, become his front.

More fundamentally, maneuver warfare is not a formula for anything. Maneuver warfare tactics never follow a checklist. Those who just make up a new checklist with “commander’s intent” and “focus of effort” on it do not understand maneuver warfare. It is a way of thinking, a way of thinking that recognizes that each combat situation is different and, therefore, requires a unique approach. Through education, training (especially free play, force-on-force training), and careful selection of commanders and operations officers, it cultivates the creativity, active spirit, and willingness to innovate and take risks that yields situational rather than checklist tactics. Maneuver warfare requires officers who have been taught how to think, not what to do or what to think.

* Focus of effort (or Schwerpunkt) is just a new buzzword for the main attack. It is much more than that. When a commander designates his focus of effort, he says, in effect, “This is the unit with which I will achieve a decision.” It is not a casual or simple decision, nor one to be taken lightly. Then he ruthlessly concentrates combat power to support that unit, often taking major risks elsewhere. This second element in particular is somewhat new to Marines, in that it often means depriving other units and sectors of what they regard as “their” assets. In Marine exercises, such assets are usually distributed so that everyone gets his “fair share.” That contradicts the concept of focus of effort. Focus of effort demands the total focusing of combat power at what the commander thinks will be the decisive point.

* Maneuver warfare advocates don’t consider techniques important. Not true. A military with sloppy techniques will be ineffective in combat, no matter how good its schemes of maneuver. Excellence in techniques is very important in maneuver warfare, and many maneuver warfare advocates strongly support such efforts to improve technique skill levels as the new Marine Corps Battle Drill Guide.*

At the same time, maneuver warfare brings some changes in techniques. Examples include the three-element assault, where a small assault element, supported by a strong suppression element, makes a small breach through which a large exploitation element is passed to collapse the enemy from the rear while pushing still deeper into his depth;** forward push logistics; and the use of ambushes in the attack.

* Advocates of maneuver warfare ignore the chaos and confusion of combat; they think battle is neat and orderly. Quite the contrary. Maneuver warfare is rooted in the realization that combat is dominated by uncertainty and rapid change, by what Clausewitz called “friction.” The very core of the maneuver warfare concept is that we can turn the confusion and chaos of battle to our advantage, but only by taking risks, using mission-type orders, allowing wide latitude for subordinates to act as the situation requires (and expecting them to do so), and by placing heavy stress on junior leader initiative. While attrition warfare usually attempts to eliminate the chaos and friction of war with centralization and strict control, maneuver warfare accepts chaos and confusion, seeking to work within it while magnifying it for the enemy. Maneuver warfare also recognizes that “friction” increases as you move up the chain of command and away from the actual scene of battle. Therefore, it stresses commander’s intent, commanders forward, and initiative and flexibility on the part of subordinate commanders who are closest to the actual fight.

* Maneuver warfare advocates are not interested in aviation, fire support, or logistics. In fact, all three are vitally important in maneuver warfare. However, all supporting arms and combat service support must be keyed to supporting the ground scheme of maneuver. The great challenge is embodied in the ideas of immediacy and decentralization. In the areas of aviation, fire support, and logistics, the state of the discussion is about where it was 10 years ago in ground tactics. We need to generate thought and debate in each area, beginning not by asking for answers but for the right questions. How can air support and artillery support be made more responsive? How can each be focused, not on following its own procedures and methods, but on the ground scheme of maneuver? Can logistical support be pushed forward, especially to the focus of effort? Are organizational changes and changes in institutional culture required?

Maneuver warfare advocates urge all Marines to join in the attempt to create thoughtful debate and discussion in each area-debate like maneuver warfare itself has generated in relation to ground tactics and operations. Clearly, maneuver warfare will bring changes in each area. What those changes need to be can best be thought through by Marines, especially Marine aviators, artillerymen, and logisticians.

Again, Marines have made great progress in understanding and beginning to implement maneuver warfare. The fact that some misconceptions have arisen is understandable and indeed inevitable. The task now is to clear up those misconceptions, deepening the understanding and expanding the experimentation. The achievements of the past decade are substantial. On the base they provide, progress can be steady and rapid toward the shared goal of improved combat effectiveness.