Preparing for Maneuver Warfare

by William S. Lind

Over the past several years, the GAZETTE has published a number of articles describing maneuver warfare. Readers have been acquainted with the goal of maneuver warfare (shattering the opponent’s physical and/or mental cohesion); the means (presenting the opponent with a succession of unexpected and dangerous situations more rapidly than he can react to them); and some useful tools (Schwerpunkt or focus of effort, mission orders, “surfaces and gaps,” reconnaissance pull, and the distinction between tactics and techniques). Enough has been written telling GAZETTE readers what maneuver warfare is that those who still don’t know must be uninterested.

It seems about time to take the next step: to move beyond describing maneuver warfare to discussing how the Marine Corps must change if it is to be able to do it. In order to do maneuver warfare in combat, it is of course necessary to understand what it is. But that is only the beginning. It would be entirely possible to have a Service where the officer corps has a thorough academic understanding of maneuver warfare-it could pass written tests on the subject, read and write articles about it, indicate “commander’s intent” and “focus of effort” in op orders, etc.-yet where the institution were entirely incapable of doing it in combat.

During the Spanish Civil War, the Italian Army attempted something very like blitzkrieg. The Italians had some of the same ideas as the Germans; they had an appropriate organization, and they had adequate equipment, considering the opposition. The result, however, was a fiasco. Why? The Italian Army simply wasn’t the Wehrmacht. A wide range of factors made these two armies very different. What these factors were and are-what differentiates a firepower/attrition military from one capable of maneuver warfare-should be the next subject of discussion among Marines.

What will it take to make the Marine Corps capable of maneuver warfare? From what I have seen in field exercises, in wargames and CPXs, and in the preparation of Marine officers in the schools at Quantico, the changes will have to be many and far-reaching. Some of them will have to be revolutionary, not evolutionary, although much of the “revolution” will actually be backwards toward what the Marine Corps was in the 1920s and 1930s.

There will have to be far more changes than one article can discuss. The purpose of this effort is merely to begin the debate. But, with that purpose in mind, it attempts to do two things. First, it proposes a framework for the discussion. Second, it presents some specific examples of the kinds of changes the Corps should be looking at.

The framework is simple. There appear to be two basic types of changes needed. The first is in institutional structure and behavior. While it is vitally important that all Marines think and write about these, few readers of the GAZETTE other than the Commandant are currently in positions where they can implement them. The second type is made up of things that can be done now, at the battalion and company levels, through local initiative.

Institutional Changes

What kinds of changes do we need if the Marine Corps is to be capable of maneuver warfare?

First, we need to educate officers in the operational art. Soviet specialist Christopher Donnelly has recently been talking about Soviet preparations to defeat NATO on the operational level. He argues that the Soviets have identified NATO’s inability to fight on the operational level as its principal weakness, and that new creations such as the Operational Maneuver Group and an operational headquarters, the TVD, are intended to take advantage of this weakness. According to Donnelly, if all goes well for the Soviets, a war in Europe would find many individual NATO units successfully defending their assigned sectors, but quickly discovering that their tactical successes were meaningless. Before the tactical war is even well underway, the Soviets will have won operationally.

What is the operational art? Broadly, it is the art of winning campaigns. It fits between tactics-the art of winning battles-and strategy-the art of winning wars.

If we think of operational as the art of the campaign, that tells us what it is, but not much more. Can we come up with a more useful definition? Perhaps looking at a case where the operational art was successfully practiced can help us do so.

After Gen Heinz Guderian crossed the Meuse at Sedan in 1940, he was dependent on a single bridgehead. Strong French forces threatened that bridgehead from the south. What did he do? He left a single infantry regiment and part of one Panzer division to guard his crossing and attacked immediately to the west with most of his corps. He was concerned less about the battle at the Meuse-his tactical situation-than about the need to shatter the French strategy by cutting the Allied armies in Belgium off from those in France itself. Further victories against French forces south of Sedan meant nothing in terms of attaining this strategic goal, so Guderian faced them with only the bare minimum of Germans he needed to defend his bridgehead. Attacking west, toward the Channel, was what could shatter French strategy, and that is what he did-successfully, as it turned out.

The operational art here was the thought process Guderian used to see the meaning in his tactical situation, to see that a victory against the French to his south meant nothing, while a successful advance to the west meant everything. It was the art of linking his tactical to his strategic situation in such a way as to see what future tactical actions he should take. It was the art of using tactical events-the crossing of the Meuse-strategically, and of deciding what tactical actions to take-where to fight and whether to fight-on the same basis.

What definition of the operational art can we now offer? I suggest the following: The operational art is the art of using tactical events-battles or refusals to give battle-to strike directly at the enemy’s strategic center of gravity. For the commander, it is the art of deciding where and when to fight with reference to the strategic goal.

Why is this important if we are to do maneuver warfare? Because it is through excellence in the operational art more than through maneuver in tactical battle (as important as that is) that a smaller force can defeat a larger one. Traditionally, American armies have tried to attain their strategic goals by accumulating tactical victories. They have given battle wherever and whenever it has been offered wearing their enemy down engagement after engagement. This is attrition warfare on the operational level. Even if each battle is fought according to maneuver principles, it is inappropriate for the smaller force, because even the best-fought battle brings some casualties. Fighting this way, a smaller force can win battle after battle, only to find itself facing yet another battle, but with no forces left to fight it.

The small force wins only by using battle sparingly, by giving battle only where and when a victory will strike directly at the enemy’s strategic center of gravity. Determining when and where to fight so a tactical victory has a strategic result is the 26 operational art. If the Marine Corps is to do maneuver warfare, it must have Marine amphibious brigade (MAB) and Marine amphibious force (MAF) commanders who are expert in this art. The first steps toward this are to recognize the operational level in doctrine (as the Army has done in the new FM 100-5), to begin teaching it in the schools at Quantico, and to incorporate it in the planning for campaigns and in the CPXs that rehearse those actual contingency plans.

A second area where institutional change is needed is officer education. Today, officer education at Quantico is largely a matter of memorization of techniques and terminology. A sad example is provided by the final examination in tactics given to the 1983 class at the Amphibious Warfare School (AWS). It consisted of 200 questions. All were true/false or multiple choice, none essay. Questions included: “the __________ stove is the primary heat source for the Ten Man Tent,” and “the __________ is the basic ski technique in a controlled movement downhill.” Such an examination says more about the school than about the tactical ability of the students to whom it was given.

What must be done differently if we are to prepare officers for maneuver warfare? First, the goal of education must change. Today, the goal appears to be to give Marine officers a set of procedural skills, a glossary of terms, and knowledge of some battlefield techniques. Some of these are useful, and even necessary. But these should, if anything, be requirements for admission to the schools, not what the schools hope graduates leave with.

The goal of the schools must be to produce graduates who can make quick, well-thought-out, tactical and operational decisions in combat. What must be done differently if that is to be the school’s goal?

* In line with the advice offered by Col H.G. Pestke (MCG, Oct83, p.58 ff.), all schools should first endeavor to teach officers to think “two levels up,” and only then worry about teaching techniques and terminology needed at the officer’s current level of command. This is especially true of The Basic School, which justifies its narrow, technique-focused curriculum on the grounds that “we have to start with the basics.” Col Pestke directly refutes that idea. He states:

For our officer candidates, we use battalion scenarios. He is not a lieutenant yet, but consistent with our (German) method of training two levels up, we put the candidate in the battalion-level situation first. This way he builds a framework of understanding that will enable him to know what he is doing when he begins considering how to employ his platoon.

* Much more time should be devoted to military history. Indeed, the study of tactics and the study of history should largely be one and the same. The purpose of studying history is neither to memorize names, dates, and circumstances of battles nor to learn formulas based on “what successful commanders always do” or “principles of war.” Rather, it is to learn how successful commanders think-to study their thought processes.

To this end, most historical study should be case studies. The instructor’s job in leading the discussions is to focus on points where decisions were made and lead the students in asking questions: What were this commander’s options here? Did he perceive all of them? Why did he select the one he did? Was his decision quick enough to be useful? What were the consequences of his decision? What might have been the consequences of alternative decisions?

A variation on this is the game the Army calls, “What now, lieutenant?” The student is placed in a historical situation he is not familiar with and asked what he would do. The comparison between his choice and that actually taken by the historical commander can illuminate the thought processes of both. A good series of case studies is contained in the “Tactical Problems” Instructional Publications (IPs) published by the Education Center at Quantico in 1982. (See MCG, Aug83, p.8.)

* Faculty selection and career rewards must be improved markedly. There are some very capable faculty members in the schools at Quantico. But it cannot be said of either AWS or the Command and Staff College (C&SC) that the “best and brightest” are systematically recruited to teach there. Nor is there systematic effort to find as faculty those few individuals who have the gift of critiquing another person’s thought process, although that ability is central to what both schools should be doing.

If AWS and C&SC are to be high quality schools, the schools’ directors must have carte blanche to obtain whomever they want from throughout the officer corps as faculty. And the people they choose should be well rewarded. A three-year tour as a faculty member, if performance is satisfactory, should bring either promotion or assignment to a highly sought follow-on billet or both.

* Wargaming should play a much larger role in the curriculums of both schools than it does today. The purpose of gaming should not be to see who wins or loses, nor to “test” or “prove” certain approaches. Rather, it should be to teach students to make quick decisions through a coherent, logical thought process, while under pressure. Dr. R.H.S. Stolfi often talks about his discussion with Gen F. W. von Mellenthin of wargaming at the pre-war German War College. Gen von Mellenthin stressed to Dr. Stolfi the frequency of the games, and the fact that there was no “right answer.” A student was never told his decision was wrong. He was criticized for only two things: failure to make a timely decision and inability to give a logical, coherent explanation for his decision. But if he made either of these errors, criticism was severe.

These changes in the schools should help produce a Marine officer corps with a shared way of thinking. This is important in maneuver warfare, because it is the basis of the C^sup 3^ system. In a military with a shared way of thinking (how to think, not what to think), much of the communication can be implicit. Orders can be brief yet comprehensible, and control can be safely assumed instead of constantly applied, all of which helps increase the tempo of action. Much of the Wehrmacht’s ability to operate at a tempo faster than its opponents was a product of the shared way of thinking among its officers, which was in turn the result of the education its officers received.

Tied to changes in education is another change that would affect the schools and most of the rest of the Marine Corps as well. It is a major change, and one that will be difficult in the American culture. It is, quite simply, a change from fairness to excellence as the basis for promotion and assignment.

Today’s system is based on fairness. Personnel management is largely concerned with giving everyone an equal chance to be promoted. Personnel rotate at a dizzying pace to give as many individuals as possible a fair shot at getting a command-and thus, again, promotion. Standards in schools, standards of performance for those in command, selection for schools, etc., are all formulated to give the average officer who works hard a good chance of succeeding.

This approach is attractive in many ways, and it is consistent with contemporary society. It is the way most civilian institutions function; it is the basis of other government and many private promotion systems; and it has deep roots in American beliefs.

Unfortunately, it is not suitable for a military that wants to do maneuver warfare. In any Service, only a relatively few officers will have the ability to make and execute the kinds of decisions successful maneuver warfare requires. As Gen Hermann Balck said, “In the last analysis, military command is an art; one man can do it, but most will never learn. After all, the world is not full of Raphaels either.”

To put the few people capable of excellence in the key positions must be the goal of the promotion and assignment systems. This means the system must be based on excellence, not fairness. It must bend every effort toward finding “the few who can do it,” developing them, educating them, promoting them, and giving them key commands and staff positions.

This is elitism. By its nature, it is unfair to the majority, who inevitably will not be excellent. It will raise a great cry of protest, especially when it results in reduced chances of promotion for the majority. It is contrary to the American value system, which likes to pretend elites are unnecessary or even nonexistent, and it implies at least an unofficial general staff system, which is still political dynamite.

A fourth necessary institutional change is the creation of a professional noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps. Many Marines have seen such a system in their contacts with the British Army and the Royal Marines. It has two components: an NCO corps that is sharply differentiated from the troops and has a high level of competence; and an overall system that permits and expects the NCOs, not the officers, to run the units on a routine basis.

Why is this necessary for maneuver warfare? If the officer’s time is given largely or exclusively to running the unit, he has no time to think about combat and the enemy. He becomes an expert in human relations, vehicle maintenance, marriage counseling, preparing for inspections-in short, in all the things traditionally left to NCOs. But when does he read military history? When does he do his wargaming, terrain walks, staff rides, and feet-on-the-deck thinking about the art of war? The price the officer pays for becoming a good NCO is not being a very good officer, and certainly not the tactical expert maneuver warfare requires.

The Marine Corps has a long way to go before it can claim to have a professional NCO corps similar to that of the British. Many nominal NCOs-corporals and sergeants-are just first-term enlistees. Far from living on a different plane from the troops, they room with them, dine with them, share the same club, and are paid comparably. Less than half of them have had any schooling in being an NCO.

Part of the officer’s unwillingness to let the NCOs run the units stems from the fact that many NCOs are such in name only. Another part stems from the “zero defects” mentality in the officer corps, from the fact that a platoon or company commander can easily get “gigged” for maintenance, supply, or personnel problems, but seldom for tactics. So it seems safest to play NCO, to make sure all the details are handled right by handling them himself. We end up with lieutenants, captains, lieutenant colonels, and sometimes even generals who are, in terms of their interests and expertise, squad leaders.

What should be done differently?

* First, either make corporals and sergeants true NCOs or rename the E-4 and E-5 ranks and have staff sergeants at E-6 be the first NCO rank.

* If the Marine Corps decides to make E-4s and E-5s true NCOs, create (with DOD and Congressional help) significant differentials in pay, living conditions, and social life between the ranks of lance corporals and corporal. Attaining NCO rank should be neither automatic nor easy. It should require (a) passing a serious entrance exam for NCO school, (b) attendance at an NCO school of at least six weeks length, and (c) graduation from the school (which also should not be automatic).

* Make NCOs formally responsible for certain aspects of the units’ condition, possibly including maintenance, supply, and condition of facilities. This is a drastic step, since it would strike at the longstanding notion that the commander is formally responsible for all aspects of the unit he commands. But is any lesser step likely to be sufficient to free the officer from doing the NCO’s jobs and simultaneously to allow the NCO to do his work without constant interference and oversupervision? We have entrenched habits to break, and it will not be easy. The goal is not a system with formal, bureaucratic divisions of authority between officers and NCOs, but one that divides responsibilities on a commonsense basis, giving the NCOs adequate authority, responsibility, and freedom of action. Some radical steps may be necessary to get there.

Finally-in this article, anyway-we need to reorder some basic priorities. This reaches well beyond the Marine Corps. In fact, it is so fundamental an issue that it almost defines the whole military reform movement. Put simply, we need to make “preparing to win in combat” the guiding, overriding priority in the allocation of our time, our dollars, and our rewards.

Some might argue this is critical for either style of warfare, firepower/attrition or maneuver. To some degree this is true. But firepower/attrition warfare, which is essentially administrative and managerial, can be done better than maneuver warfare by a military that has made administration and management its first priorities in peacetime.

To do maneuver warfare, preparing for combat must be the focus of peacetime activities. Today, it is not. Public statements may say it is, but every Marine officer knows the real story. Training for combat, studying war, all the things that go to create tactical and operational expertise take a back seat to preparing for the grand opera productions called combined arms exercises (CAXs) and Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation System (MCCRES), to the maintenance report, to inspections, even to such trivia as the Combined Federal Campaign and base beautification.

In 1982 we witnessed a clash between an army that made preparing for war its highest priority and one that had many other higher priorities, domestic politics chief among them. The two armies were, respectively, the British and Argentine. In terms of the priority Marines give to winning in combat, they are Argentines, not Britons. That should worry us very much.

Changing this situation will require action beyond the Marine Corps. But it will also take action from within the Corps at the highest levels but also, in the form of demands for change, from throughout the officer corps.

These are examples of the broad institutional issues we face if we want to be able to do maneuver warfare instead of just talk about it. The list provided here is by no means complete, and I hope Marines will add to it in future articles.

Immediate Changes

But there is another category of issues at which we also have to look. While no more important, it is more immediate and therefore perhaps of greatest interest. It is the actions Marines can take locally, on their own initiative, to prepare themselves and their units for maneuver warfare. Again, space precludes a complete list, nor do I pretend to have such a list. Marines will be able to devise more and better ideas that I can. The following possible local actions are offered to stir imagination:

* Set up local free-play field exercises. CAXs, MCCRESs, and most other large exercises (the 2d Marine Division’s exercises at Fort Pickett are a notable exception) are ballets, not tactical training. Because they follow set scripts known to all in advance, they lack the essence of combat-uncertainty and rapid change. Maneuver tactics can only be practiced against an active opponent who is trying to deceive and defeat you. This means only free-play exercises are useful for teaching tactics.

A free-play exercise devised and carried out several years ago by the 1st Tank Battalion shows what can be done through local initiative. The whole battalion went to the field and conducted a two-phase exercise. The first three days were company versus company. The rule was “any other company you encounter is an enemy,” and the battalion headquarters simply gave movement orders that ensured companies would cross paths at unexpected times. After each encounter, there was an immediate critique, into which battalion staff officers, who tried to monitor engagements inconspicuously, sometimes entered.

The second three-day period saw augmentation of the tanks with two infantry companies in amtracs, some helicopters, forward air controllers (FACs), and forward observers (FOs). The tank battalion also introduced its own reconnaissance platoon, which it had created from its own assets and mounted in jeeps. From these resources, an aggressor force of a tank company, an infantry company (mounted), some TOWs, and some helicopters was also formed. The tank battalion assigned the aggressors a broad mission: prevent the friendly forces from passing through a certain area. They could defend, delay, launch a preemptive attack-whatever they chose-and tank battalion headquarters made certain it did not know what the aggressors’ plans were. Both forces had to rely on their own reconnaissance and intelligence for all information about the other.

The result was a series of surprises and counter-surprises-just like combat. Low-level initiative was given a chance to flourish, and it did, aided by the tank battalion commander’s use of mission-type orders. One participant said:

It was mass confusion, just like real war. We quickly learned not to be alarmed by disorder, but to use our commander’s intent as a reference point and make our own decisions. We didn’t shut down when things got confused, we just did what we thought we should to support the intent. And it worked.

Endex brought an immediate critique. There and subsequently, almost all the participants expressed great enthusiasm for the free-play approach, despite some inevitable troop training problems such as units getting bypassed and not having a chance to practice techniques of engagement. “Interesting” and “challenging” were the two words most used by participants to describe the exercise-an exercise which originated and was carried out entirely at the initiative of the battalion. Other battalions can do the same and on a smaller scale, so can companies.

* Begin a regular program of wargaming at the battalion or company level. Suitable games exist both within the Marine Corps and commercially. Some caveats are necessary. Some games encourage firepower/attrition warfare by failing to reward maneuver. This problem can be overcome by the senior umpire, who can use his authority to reward maneuver when appropriate. Also, the umpire or controller must ensure the game is used not as entertainment, but as a tool to compel participants to make decisions, then justify them logically. As in the German use of gaming, the focus should not be doing the “right” thing to win, but making rapid and logical decisions. By using the unit staff as a participant, wargames can be especially helpful in seeing how quickly the staff can make a decision after a tactical opportunity is perceived and in learning how to accelerate that process.

* Establish a company or battalion “officers’ library” that all officers in the unit are expected to read and be able to discuss. This need not be many volumes, but it should include some of the basics necessary for understanding maneuver warfare. These include Capt Tim Lupfer’s study, The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War (published by the Combat Studies Institute, USACGSS, Fort Leavenworth, Kans.), John A. English’s A Perspective on Infantry (Praeger, New York, 1981) and Martin van Creveld’s Fighting Power (Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn., 1982). The library will undoubtedly be taken more seriously if reading from it is considered a duty-time activity, and if the unit commander leads discussions of the books.

* Learn how to critique. The value of field exercises, wargames, etc. is very much a product of the quality of the critique, because it is there that the lessons can be drawn out for all to see. From what I have observed, Marine critiques range in quality from inadequate to abysmal. Often, they are not a critique at all, but simply a narrative of who shot whom. At other times, the critique is stifled by an etiquette that demands no one be criticized and nothing negative be said. When criticism is offered, it tends to be about techniques only, not tactics.

What can be done locally to improve the quality of critiques?

First, the commanding officer can set a ground rule that demands frankness in critiquing. A good way to do this is for the commander to give a trenchant self-critique of his own actions and encourage others to do the same. Beginning a critique with the most junior officers and ending with the most senior can also help encourage frankness.

Second, a critique should be defined as something that looks beyond what happened to why it happened as it did. It may be helpful to look for instances where key decisions were made and ask the decisionmaker such questions as, “What options did you think you had here? What other options did you have that you failed to see? Why did you not see them? Did your disposition of your forces create or restrict your options? How quickly were you able to see, decide, and act? If you were too slow, why? Why did you take the action you did? Was your reasoning process sound, and if not, why not?”

Third, the unit commander can attempt to identify individuals who are good critiquers and have them lead the critique. Not everyone can do it well; there is something of an art involved.

Finally, the unit can hold a class on critiquing and from it develop some critique SOPs. These can help exercise participants look for key points during the exercises, points that can later serve to frame the critique.

Without a good critique, much of the time and effort put into an exercise is inevitably wasted. It is worth putting in some time before hand to ensure a rigorous, frank, and effective critique.

* At least once a month, and perhaps more often, the officers should turn the unit over to the NCOs for a day and leave the area. This is a concrete step toward building a professional NCO corps and toward giving officers, more time to study tactics. A day provides enough time to run a wargame, take a staff ride, or conduct a thorough seminar on some tactical issue. By leaving NCOs in charge without an officer in the next room to whom they can turn “just to check,” they get an opportunity to develop both their authority and greater independence.

The 2d Marine Division has begun to turn the battalions over to the NCOs one Friday each month, but such a program need not be instituted on the divisional level. A battalion could do it or, with the battalion commander’s permission, a company.

These four steps are just illustrations; there are many other things you can do. They need not await high-level direction. They can be done today, at the battalion or company level. They can begin to bring noticeable improvements in our ability to really do maneuver warfare tomorrow.

I hope Marines will build on these suggestions, asking themselves what needs to be done on a broad institutional basis if the Corps is to be able to do maneuver warfare, and also what can be done today, on the local level, despite the obstacles with which we are all familiar. I also hope they will write their ideas on these subjects down and send them to the GAZETTE. An idea not disseminated is an idea without much use. Marines have done an excellent job describing maneuver warfare in the pages of this publication. It’s time to see what they can offer on the question, “What is to be done?”