The Case for Revising WarfightingPosted on August 15,2023
Article Date 01/09/2023
Modernize doctrine for the future force
>Col Greene is an Infantry Officer and currently the Commanding Officer of Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group.
>>Maj Malcolm is an Infantry Officer currently serving as the Operations Officer for 2/8 Mar. He previously served as Officer in Charge of the Advanced Maneuver Warfare Course at Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group.
“As the character of warfare continues to evolve, as it always has, under the pressure of technological, social, and geopolitical change, we may find ourselves compelled to reexamine assumptions we were able to take for granted when we formed our warfighting philosophy, and to communicate those ideas clearly and comprehensively across the Corps so that our ‘common language’ remain in keeping with the times.” 1
—Gen David Berger,
38th Commandant of the Marine Corps
In 2022, the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group recorded several interviews on the subject of maneuver warfare for its official podcast. The guests for these interviews included both proponents and skeptics of maneuver warfare in general and Warfighting specifically.
Among the criticisms leveled at Warfighting in these interviews, a few are worth noting for the purpose of this article. One issue of concern is the language describing maneuver warfare versus attrition warfare. Warfighting can too easily be interpreted as advocating maneuver warfare as a moral imperative (and by extension, attrition warfare as morally deficient) in all circumstances. While Warfighting does, in fact, state that “pure attrition warfare does not exist in practice” and “firepower and attrition are essential elements of warfare by maneuver,” it also introduces the terms maneuverist and attritionist; the latter is very clearly presented as inferior to the former.2 The connotation thus attached to maneuver warfare and attrition warfare is one of the most obvious, enduring legacies of Warfighting.
Another concern is that Warfighting makes no distinction when and at what level we should “seek to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.”3 Collapsing the enemy system cannot be accomplished everywhere all the time. Moreover, collapsing the enemy system at a certain echelon, location, or time may not actually be accomplishing our higher headquarters’ intent. In fact, there are examples from history in which doing so at one level was actually detrimental to larger operational aims or even strategic goals.4
It must be said that John Schmitt, the author of Warfighting, agreed with some of these criticisms. In fact, the most surprising thing to come out of our conversation was that he flatly does not believe something many of his critics think he does, which is that systemic collapse can easily be achieved if one simply figures out the correct critical vulnerability and pokes it. Quite the contrary, Schmitt does not believe it is possible to get the center of gravity or critical vulnerability “correct.” The value of the center of gravity analysis is in the shared understanding of the enemy as a system derived from the discussion, not in getting the exact right answers. Schmitt has stated that the defeat mechanism of systemic disruption (the label he prefers to systemic collapse) is an aspirational goal that likely cannot be achieved most of the time.5 He has also stated in the past that he believes Warfighting can be improved upon by the inclusion of a discussion on the concept of defeat mechanisms.6
Interestingly, one thing that both critics and proponents agreed upon was that the Marine Corps should tread carefully in revising Warfighting. Despite their criticisms, all our guests were quick to point out how impactful the book has been to their lives and careers and counseled caution against tinkering with what by most assessments has been a successful formulation. As Schmitt put it, “FMFM 1 caught lightning in a bottle. It’s unrealistic to expect to do that again.”
Nevertheless, we feel that, for several reasons, the time is right to update our capstone doctrinal publication. To state the obvious, a lot has happened in the last 25 years since the last revision. While we believe that the type of doctrine represented by Warfighting should change with the climate, not the weather, it does seem to us that the era of the Global War on Terror, followed by the return of great-power competition, and the changes envisioned in Force Design 2030 constitute a considerable climate change. The current strategic context is significantly different from that of 1989 or 1997. Whereas the terms naval and joint are noticeably absent from Warfighting, today’s context has engendered a growing recognition across the Service that to be relevant, we must integrate with and provide value to the Joint Force. Doctrine has evolved, too. Since 1997, two domains—space and cyberspace—have been added to joint doctrine; a third, information, has been added to Marine Corps doctrine. Finally, though our warfighting philosophy is not beholden to technology, we cannot ignore the advances in military technology of the last three decades. To give just one example, in 1997 the majority of priority intelligence requirements were addressed by ground reconnaissance and surveillance units. Today, the majority of priority intelligence requirements are accounted for by airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms.
Perhaps the best reason for a revision, however, has nothing to do with what has happened but with who makes up the Marine Corps. The percentage of the current active-duty Marine Corps that was serving when MCDP 1—let alone FMFM 1—was published is minuscule. Therefore, the vast majority of Marines lack the context of the debates of the 1980s and 90s that led to the adoption of maneuver warfare and publication of Warfighting, and they may have trouble relating to it as a result.
Though a revision to Warfighting is necessary, we take the concerns of Schmitt and others seriously. Therefore, we think it important to state and adhere to a few principles when revising and updating our foundational doctrine. First and foremost, there should be no change merely for change’s sake. Any part of Warfighting that does not absolutely need to be changed should be left alone, even if the authors tasked with the revision think they could improve upon the wording of the original. Second, additions to Warfighting should be kept short. The goal is to add content of value without a significant increase in the size of the publication. Third, as we will describe below, a revision should seek to add nuance but increase clarity. The language must be kept accessible to entry-level Marines without being condescending. Part of Warfighting’s magic is that its language is direct enough to be understood by all Marines while also being sophisticated enough to spur thought. Finally, a revision must not become an exercise in satisficing various interest groups. The salient reason why Warfighting is so coherent, readable, and compelling is that Gen Al Gray entrusted its authorship to one individual to craft within his guidance. A previous attempt at writing a capstone doctrinal publication was rejected largely because, as Col Michael Wyly wrote in his scathing critique, it bore all the hallmarks of having been “done by committee.”7
So, under those principles, what should be the focus areas for change in a new edition of Warfighting? First, we must seek to curb the virtue-vice characterization of the attrition and maneuver discussion. Understanding the post-Vietnam context in which Schmitt wrote the first edition of Warfighting, we can see why he framed the argument as two opposing styles of warfare. What he was arguing against was not seeking to destroy the enemy with firepower, per se, but an approach to fighting in which the enemy is merely a number, the body count is all that matters, and all bodies are treated equally. We argue that what should be cast in negative terms is not attrition warfare but unintentional attrition warfare in which no thought is given to the enemy as a system and efforts are not deliberately focused on critical parts of that system. An intentional attrition approach, on the other hand, is one in which a force assesses its combat power relative to its adversary and concludes that it has an advantage in firepower and a greater capacity to absorb casualties. This was exactly the calculus that underpinned Ulysses Grant’s vision for the Overland Campaign, one of the most brilliant in U.S. history. The reason a firepower-attrition approach to warfare is not suitable for the Marine Corps is not that it is objectively inferior to a maneuver approach, but because the Marine Corps will rarely, if ever, have an advantage in numbers or firepower relative to the U.S.’ peer adversaries. Therefore, the Marine Corps must adopt “a philosophy for generating the greatest decisive effect against the enemy at the least possible cost to ourselves.”8
Second, the revised Warfighting needs to make clear that systemic collapse is aspirational and not to be pursued at all times and locations at every echelon. The desire to shatter the enemy’s cohesion must be balanced against an appreciation for the single battle. If we do not keep in mind our role within our higher headquarters’ battlespace framework, we may encounter a situation in which collapsing the enemy system in one zone of action prevents our higher headquarters from inflicting defeat on the larger enemy system. Similarly, there will be times when a total collapse of the enemy system at a certain echelon runs counter to the accomplishment of strategic objectives. For example, in a war with limited objectives, it would not be beneficial to collapse the enemy system at its national command authority level because there would be no one left with whom to negotiate a peace settlement. The important point is not that we achieve this aspirational goal (we rarely will), / but that by aspiring to it, we prevent ourselves from falling back upon the attritional approach without intentionality.
Third, we need to ensure that readers of Warfighting understand that the Marine Corps is an integral part of the Joint Force. Since long before the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act was passed into law, the Marine Corps has had a culture of self-reliance. It has served us well in many respects, but it must be moderated with the understanding that against a peer competitor, the Marine Corps relies on the rest of the Joint Force for critical capabilities. On the other side of the coin, the Marine Corps must offer something that the rest of the Joint Force wants if it is to stay relevant. Our unique offering has changed over time and will continue to do so. Historical examples include the seizure of advanced naval bases, small wars, and crisis response. Warfighting should not go into the specifics; it merely needs to convey that the Marine Corps does not go it alone and has a responsibility to bring something unique to the table.
Finally, the verbiage used in describing the spectrum of conflict needs to be revised to align it with MCDP 1-4, Competing. The spectrum of conflict should be replaced by the competition continuum described in the latter publication and in the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, and the labels military operations other than war and small wars should be eliminated. U.S. military thinking has moved away from a black-and-white dichotomy of war and peace toward a theory of competition both above and below the threshold of armed conflict. Furthermore, Force Design envisions a Marine Corps whose value to the Joint Force is manifested just as much in competition as in conflict. Our foundational doctrinal publication should reflect these developments.
We attach no importance to a specific number of years; just because 25 have passed does not mean we are due for a revision to Warfighting. Rather, the changes in the character of war and the changes they have necessitated within the Marine Corps have brought us to a point in which a revision is warranted to make us stronger, more agile, and more valuable to the Joint Force. However, care must be taken to make these necessary updates without losing the goodness of the original. Edits and additions must be deliberate, focused, and concise. The author must be given a clear mandate and protected from interference. They must be answerable, as John Schmitt was, to the Commandant alone. Only under these conditions can we deliver an updated doctrinal foundation worthy of the title Warfighting.
1. Headquarters Marine Corps, Training and Education 2030, (Washington, DC: 2022).
2. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 1997).
4. Thaddeus Drake, “The Fantasy of MCDP 1,” Marine Corps Gazette 104, No. 10 (2020).
5. Marinus, “On Defeat Mechanisms,” Marine Corps Gazette 105, No. 7 (2021).
6. Damien O’Connell, “John Schmitt,” Controversy and Clarity (podcast), April 15, 2021, https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/damien-oconnell/episodes/10–John-Schmitt-euoegn/a-a57jmmo.
7. Michael Wyly, “Review: Operational Handbook 6-1 Ground Combat Operations,” Marine Corps Gazette 72, No. 7 (1988).
8. MCDP 1.
>Authors’ Note: Tactics and Operations is the official podcast of the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group. If you would like to hear the discussions that informed this article, check out the following episodes:
- “Criticizing Maneuver Warfare with LtCol John Meixner.”
- “The Fantasy of MCDP 1 with LtCol Tad Drake.”
- “Defeat Mechanisms and Maneuver Warfare with John Schmitt.”
- Tactics and Operations can be found here: https://open.spotify.com/show/65qyMOctQ78NOXr7Y7fi1s.