On the Verge of a New Era: The Marine Corps and Maneuver Warfare

by Maj Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr.

As the dawn of a new century approaches, the Marine Corps is poised to employ a sophisticated, highly structured version of maneuver warfare as its principal tactical doctrine. The preparation of a formal doctrine heralds the beginning of a new age in Marine Corps tactical thinking: an age in which the philosophies of maneuver warfare, now accepted as the Corps’ style of fighting, gain structure through a variety of planning and combat systems. The sum of this is to lend precision and speed to combat, while supporting the tenets of maneuver warfare. To understand the significance of this change, it is necessary to journey back more than a decade to 1980 and follow the development of maneuver warfare in the Marine Corps. This development occurred in two distinct periods, and a third period is currently struggling to emerge.

The First Period: Experimentation

The first period of maneuver warfare in the Marine Corps was from 1980 until 1989. During this time of experimentation. Marines tried, adopted, and discarded tactics and techniques, seeking to find a measure of equilibrium between fire and maneuver on the battlefield. Competing philosophies of warfighting sparred, all explicitly rejecting the traditional primacy of fire over maneuver. This was a response to Army and Marine Corps doctrine of the 1970s, which reflected a firepower based outlook on war. rooted firmly in the American tradition of overwhelming strength and technological superiority. The 1973 Arab-Israeli War seemed to support this vision of a lethal, highintensity battlefield dominated by fire. Centralized control was more important than the possible positive effects of decentralized execution and decisionmaking. In the Army, this was the “active defense.” In the Marine Corps, suppression of maneuver in favor of fire was expressed through restrictive control measures, rigid reporting requirements, and an obsession with linear deployment.

The recurring credo of the 1970s was concentration. Mobility was a means to serve the end of concentration, which produced the superiority of firepower needed to overcome a numerically superior foe. If anything, a doctrine that emphasized fire over movement fit the Marine Corps better than the Army. The Marine division faced significant problems in attempting to maneuver on the battlefield because its table of organization did not provide adequate organic lift for sustained mobile land combat.

By 1980, criticisms of the firepower model coalesced around what seemed an inescapable fact: the doctrine did not offer a formula for decisive victory. Since attrition-a favorable exchange ratio-was the goal, it was difficult to shape battles to a larger purpose: the annihilation of the enemy.

Like a boiling pot, a spillover was inevitable. In a March 1980 article in the Marine Corps Gazette, “Defining Maneuver Warfare for the Marine Corps,” William S. Lind sounded an overture to the birth of maneuver warfare in the Marine Corps. In attacking the attrition model, he argued for:

. . . warfare on the model of Genghis Khan, the German blitzkrieg and almost all Israeli campaigns. The goal is destruction of the enemy’s vital cohesion-disruption-not by physical setpiece destruction. The objective is the enemy’s mind, not his body. The principal tool is moving forces into unexpected places at surprisingly high speeds. Firepower is a servant of maneuver. . . . Maneuver warfare is more psychological than physical.

Presciently, Lind’s article used as an example a future war in which Marines were employed to assist Saudi Arabian forces in thwarting an Iraqi invasion. Lind’s maneuver warfare thinking was based on the “Boyd Theory,” the work of Col John Boyd, USAF(Ret). The Boyd Theory proposed the reiterative cycle of “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act,” or the “OODA loop,” as a practical model of military decisionmaking in battle. It followed that the side that could execute its OODA loop faster eventually could paralyze enemy decisonmaking. The publication of this article provoked a virtual explosion of writing and thinking on the subject.

MajGen A. M. Gray assumed command of the 2d Marine Division in 1981. An aggressive innovator and maneuverist, he soon transformed the 2d Division into a virtual cauldron of bubbling, evolving doctrine. Gen Gray published a “Battle Book” for subordinate commanders that codified maneuver warfare principles by functional area. He identified four ideas as key: the OODA loop, mission tactics, commander’s intent, and the point of main effort. Within the division, his highest priority became the creation of an atmosphere that nurtured mission tactics, or decentralized execution, under the rubric of commander’s intent.

To spread these principles, the 2d Marine Division Maneuver Warfare Board was established, to act as a clearinghouse for ideas on maneuver warfare. Many of these ideas percolated to other Marine formations. The 1st Division established the Junior Officer’s Tactical Symposium, roughly comparable to the 2d Division’s Maneuver Warfare Board.

Throughout the 1980s, ideas about maneuver warfare were unevenly applied within the divisions of the Marine Corps, and its concepts were bruited about within the Corps’ school system. Local commanders partook as much or as little as they desired, with no “top down” resolution or guidance. Despite this, a single fundamental principle colored Marine Corps thinking everywhere on maneuver warfare. The global outlook and spectruin of potential adversaries an expeditionary force might be required to face seemed to dictate a certain broadness in the cast of its doctrine. To retain this flexibility, diffusiveness and imprecision found their way into maneuver warfare thinking. The Corps was particularly resistant to the elaborate architectural structure that accompanied AirLand Battle, the Army’s maneuver-based response to the dilemma of firepowerattrition.

The doctrinal debate became personalized and emotional, and suffered from overidentification with Lind and the 2d Division. Who wanted to be labeled an attritionist with all the bloody baggage of Passchendaele, static warfare, and heavy casualties? Conversely, to be called a “maneuverist” implied a giddy, carefree vision of flitting about the battlefield-moving for the sake of movement alone. The overexuberant and confrontational arguments advanced by proponents of maneuver warfare tended to further polarize the issue.

Maneuver warfare thinking in the Marine Corps followed the rise of its most vocal proponent. Gen Gray. When he became Commandant in 1987, few doubted that the maneuver revolution was complete. He wasted little time in spreading the gospel, this time from the top down. The publication of OH 6-1, Ground Combat Operations in January 1988, explicitly reflected maneuver warfare thinking both in the offense and the defense. Additionally, OH 6-1 affirmed for the first time the innate consistency and congruence of maneuver warfare and AirLand Battle principles.

The Second Period: Acceptance and Employment

The appearance of FMFM 1, Warfighting in 1989 as Marine Corps doctrine marked the beginning of the second phase of maneuver warfare in the Marine Corps: the period of institutional acceptance and employment that has lasted until today. Gen Gray’s “little white book,” the Corps’ capstone doctrinal publication, was intended to set forth a broad philosophy of warfighting in the manner of the Army’s FM 100-5, Operations. In it, maneuver warfare was formally adopted as the Corps’ doctrine, and was given this definition:

Maneuver warfare is a warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a series of rapid, violent, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which he cannot cope.

The subsequent publication of FMFM 1-1, Campaigning, and FMFM 1-3, Tactics, in 1990 and 1991 respectively, completed the doctrinal trilogy of maneuver warfare manuals, and provided the Marine Corps with broad conceptual guidance on how to fight. It was now Corps-wide doctrine, pushed from the top down.

Despite the institutional acceptance of maneuver warfare theory, it still remained more a philosophy than a doctrine. It was applied unevenly throughout the Corps, since it still remained largely an insurgent interloper, linked too closely to the personality of Gen Gray, in the minds of many commanders. Despite the support of Headquarters Marine Corps, an aggressive Commandant, and the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC), it became apparent that maneuver warfare thinking in and of itself did not lend adequate analytic precision to combat operations. A philosophy of war did not automatically yield a comprehensive doctrine. Something was missing: a framework for the consistent application of maneuver warfare theory.

While maneuver warfare might be fine as a philosophy, or as a vision, there was precious little in print about how to translate resolution-so ably provided in Warfighting and its sisters-into directed, coherent, consistent action. Warfighting was inarticulate about how to allocate air sorties, how to prepare and command a deep battle, how to organize a Marine expeditionary force (MEF) headquarters, and virtually all of the myriad other critical enabling tasks of maneuver warfare. It was a crippling omission for a doctrine. Talk of centers of gravity, critical vulnerabilities, and Schwerpunkt might be fine for theorists, but such flowery prose provided little guidance on how to organize a MEF to fight a maneuver-based engagement.

In 1990 and 1991, the need for an architecture of the battlefield grew, and became the object of detailed studies at MCCDC. The answer to these analyses was found in the Army’s AirLand Battle, which had taken a different approach in the 1980s to arrive at the same maneuverist end. The Army’s complex hierarchical model organized all aspects of combat under a series of master concepts for employment. As part of this, the Army had always recognized that AirLand Battle doctrine at the battalion/task force level was maneuver warfare. Now, the Marine Corps began to realize that integrating the aviation combat element (ACE) of the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) in a controlled deep interdiction capacity was, by any name, AirLand Battle doctrine. This recognition signalled the birth of a dialog and debate that sought to seek the best way to impose structure as an enabling tool of doctrine.

The Birth of the Third Period: A Mature Doctrine

The ongoing preparation of FMFM 2-1, known variously as MEF Doctrine. Fighting the MEF, and Sustained Operations, may signal the culmination of maneuver warfare thinking in the Marine Corps, the movement into a third era. Although still evolving, this developing concept features the dissemination of a mature, balanced doctrine that for the first time systematically articulates the philosophies of maneuver warfare thinking in clear, logical, enabling tactical terms and techniques. Theory is matched to techniques, and philosophies are shaped into reality in an overarching plan for MEF-level tactical employment.

The draft of FMFM 2-1 introduces the Marine Corps to a set of precise terms and techniques that can be used to describe and control combat. Built around the largest MAGTF, the MEF, it stresses expeditionary, joint, and combined operations. Despite this, its principles are applicable to any size MAGTF. In many ways, it is a close cousin to FM 100-15, Corps Operations, an Army manual that describes a Corps-level operational environment. Basically, FMFM 2-1 introduces three concepts fundamental to AirLand Battle Corps-level planners, but new to the Marine Corps, at least as formal doctrine: (1) battlefield geometry, (2) the battlefield operating systems/battlefield activities (BOS/BACT), and (3) top-down planning (TDP).

Battlefield geometry divides the battlefield into three areas: deep, close, and rear. By assigning clear responsibilities, this geographic division has the effect of making commanders-at all levels-extend their horizons to encompass areas of interest as well as areas of influence. It greatly extends the arena of combat. Hand in hand with this geometry is an emphasis on intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB), a sophisticated analytic approach to templating various enemy courses of action, frontages, speeds, and options. It is a tool to aid the commander in making rapid decisions, often based on incomplete information, using operations analysis techniques. IPB requires a revolutionary leap forward for Marine intelligence officers. Well-done IPB can resurrect Marine Corps tactical intelligence. The sum of these principles is to ensure that proper organization of the ground subtly shapes and speeds the flow of the commander’s thinking.

Organization in this manner also emphasizes the importance of the deep battle, fought largely by Marine aviation. The ACE, for the first time, has a consistent doctrine for its application and synchronization as a coequal partner in the MAGTF. The Marine Corps has always talked of its unique air-ground interactive team, but now there is a possible doctrine that provides a framework for fully integrating the effects of the MAGTF’s aviation element.

The introduction of the BOS/BACT concept of organizing combat functions is also a new approach for the Marine Corps. When grouping combat activities by function, instead of by tradition or emotion, planners are forced to think rationally, always seeing and considering the requirement to coordinate. FMFM 2-1 recognizes seven primary operating systems: command and control, maneuver, engineer operations, aviation, fires, intelligence, and combat service support. The hidden goal of these ideas is synchronization, naturally reinforced by the BOS/BACT and battlefield geometry. Synchronization permits combat and combat support systems to obtain seamless coordination in time and space, creating opportunities for agile forces to achieve decisive results.

To employ the BOS/BACT as an orchestrating tool on a complex battlefield requires a top-down approach to planning. Alien to many Marines, who equate it with the over-control of previous eras, TDP actually is a tool that enables the MEF commander to allocate scarce and decisive assets-usually intelligence systems and fire support-while preserving decentralized execution. TDP is not incompatible with maneuver warfare principles, and in fact tends to support maneuver by rapidly and efficiently defining the main effort.

The force of these arguments will be to resurrect the MAGTF headquarters as the “warfighter.” Through decades of neglect, it has fallen into the slipstream of the ground combat element. Now, if we accept a doctrine that calls for the simultaneous capability to fight deep as well as close, it may enjoy a renaissance. Indeed, the Marine Corps’ long neglected MAGTF doctrine seems better designed for the principles of AirLand Battle than the uneasy alliance of Army and Air Force.

With the debate over FMFM 2-1, maneuver warfare doctrine in the Marine Corps has moved beyond the partially formed visions of its founding enthusiasts and is close to becoming a workable nuts and bolts doctrine. From the complementary but separate concepts of maneuver warfare and AirLand Battle, the Marine Corps is fashioning a doctrinal synthesis. This synthesis is the maneuver warfare thinking of the 1980s, now codified and weighted with precision by the structural organization of battlefield geometry, the BOS/BACT. and TDP. Two successive classes at Command and Staff College have studied the various versions of these new idea, and they carry its teachings with them into the Fleet Marine Force.

Maneuver warfare is close to maturation, and is entering the third period of its existence within the Marine Corps. Vague and partially formed philosophies are being translated into discrete, manageable systems that permit commanders and staffs to function through the friction of war. It has taken the Marine Corps some 10 years to approach the leap from vision to complete, comprehensive doctrine. The reasons for the delay have been political and historical, driven by normal organizational resistance to change and a misplaced xenophobic reaction to borrowing Army doctrine. The slowness of adoption was also due to the Corps’ maritime outlook, which, because of a need for global utility, tended to reject doctrines that were founded upon specific threats.

Maneuver warfare, practiced within the organizing envelope of FMFM 2-1 and supporting publications, provides the doctrinal advantage the Marine Corps needs to fight effectively in its traditional expeditionary role into the next century. Marines of today are the intellectual heirs of Pete Ellis and John Archer Lejeune, men who with great courage and foresight redefined the future of the Marine Corps in the first half of this century. We now live in equally turbulent and exciting times. The same opportunities and responsibilities are being met by this generation of Marines.