The Gulf War, Maneuver Warfare, and the Operational Art

by LtCol G. I. Wilson, USMCR

Much of the success of the Gulf War hinged on maneuver warfare, a philosophy that has percolated through the ranks of a new generation of intellectual Marine Corps officers . . .

The Gulf War took place in one of the world’s most strategic locations. As such, geopolitical considerations were dominant, but matters of political leadership, international cooperation, economic concerns, resources, strategy, national will, and dozens of other matters added to its complexity. In my view, however, much of the war‘s success hinged on maneuver warfare and the operational art.

Fred Kaplan of the Boston Globe writes that maneuver warfare was once espoused by a clique of renegades and reformers. This philosophy, however, has percolated through the ranks of a new generation of intellectual officers. The Gulf War displayed not only new technologies in American weaponry, but also the new breed of American warrior imbued with this philosophy.

Maneuver warfare was ushered into the Marine Corps over 13 years ago by Gen A. M. Gray and Col John Boyd, USAF(Ret). It took root in the 2d Marine Division in 1981, appearing first as a maneuver warfare board made up of “Young Turks.” Only two unpublished documents existed then: “Gray’s Battle Book” and “Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict.” The effort was accompanied by numerous articles in the Gazette. Now FMFM1. Waifighting and FMFM 1-1, Campaigning have codified maneuver warfare and operational art philosophy for the Marine Corps. Moreover, this philosophy has become Marine Corps doctrine.

The success of this doctrine was spelled out in Gen H. Norman Schwarzkopfs brief of “How the War Was Won.” It is all there: the refusal to join ground combat prematurely; deception operations; multiple simultaneous thrusts; collapsing a flank by deepsweeping forces; firepower in a maneuver context, creating ambiguity; uncertainty, hesitation, and psychological operations shattering enemy unit cohesion.

Gulf War operational art used tactical events (i.e., battles, engagements, and the refusal to join battle) to strike directly at Iraq’s strategic center of gravity. The idea was to win strategically without resorting to a prolonged ground war. It was a matter of deciding where and when to fight, and where and when not to fight. The heart and soul of the operational art was the correct identification of Iraq’s center of gravity. It was not Kuwait, but Baghdad itself. The refusal to enter a ground war prematurely let military planners shape the operation and focus on winning the war at the highest possible level-the strategic level.

War-winning operational art centers on achieving a decisive outcome quickly without visiting the butcher shop of a nasty ground war. The application of the operational art and the correct identification of Iraq’s strategic center of gravity proved central to the maneuver-style success.

The strategic center of gravity, Baghdad, was much more than a geographic location on a map. It was the nerve network and infrastructure of Iraq’s political-military organization. By throwing strength against weakness, allied air against Iraq’s weak air and air defense, Iraq’s command, control, and communications capability was effectively erased. This helped the coalition forces to stay one step ahead of Iraqi forces. Loss of the ability to communicate and exercise command and control at the highest levels prevented Iraq from coordinating the defense of the so-called Saddam Line and counterattacking.

Early naval actions and blockade set the stage for developing the operation to our advantage. From the beginning the United Nations’ sanctions and naval blockade quietly and insidiously tightened the vise on Iraq’s logistics system. The overall effect of naval actions and air served us well in preparing for the ground action vice ground warfare. As a consequence of cutting off all viable logistics support to Iraqi troops, coalition forces rapidly flushed the Iraqis out of Kuwait without having to dig them out in a mutual bludgeoning contest.

Carrying the war directly to Baghdad and refusing to commit ground forces prematurely in Kuwait enabled the warfighters to shape the operation and decide where and when to undertake ground actions. Iraq had the initial advantage of choosing the ground over which to fight. But its static defense quickly turned this into a disadvantage, ultimately fixing its forces in place and limiting other military options. The quick, in-and-out artillery and light armored infantry (LAI) raids by Marines preempted Iraqi efforts. BGen Richard I. Neal, in a Riyadh briefing, noted how the Iraqis were in severe trouble because “we’re inside his (the Iraqi’s) decisionmaking cycle.”

Such actions kept the Iraqis off balance and guessing where and when the Marines were to come from-land, sea, or both. While air power was used to help cut inside the Iraqi decisionmaking cycle, it also was integrated and sequenced to throw strength against weakness. The technological strength of our air was leveraged against the technologically weak and relatively unsophisticated Iraqi Air Force and air defense. Having eliminated most of the Iraqi command and control capability, our air continued to disrupt logistics that were already suffering from sanctions and naval actions. The corps-level Iraqi fire support coordination capability was nullified and any Iraqi offensive action was checkmated.

While air pounded away, preparing the Kuwaiti theater of operations (KTO) for a ground offensive, Iraq tried unsuccessfully to draw Marines into a premature battle. Refusing battle may have been as important to the Marines’ ground success as actually joining battle. This refusal to enter into the fight too early illustrates that the coalition was truly in control of time and space in the KTO.

Gradually, the Iraqi Army lost the mobility needed to offset a static defense in depth. It was thrust upon the horns of a dilemma: if it tried to move out of its static positions, it was exposed to increased and precision allied air and artillery and certain death. If the Iraqi Army stayed in its defensive positions, it was vulnerable to attack by maneuvering forces from the west, the south, and the sea. This dilemma, exacerbated by lack of logistics and intelligence, set the Iraqi Army up for a decisive blow from a swift ground action.

Gen Schwarzkopf commented:

We knew that he had very, very limited reconnaissance means. And therefore, when we took out his air force, we took out his ability to see what we were doing down here in Saudi Arabia. Once we had taken out his eyes . . . when we knew that he couldn’t see us anymore, we did a massive movement. . . .

Because the Iraqi Army was unable to see the field of battle and communicate, Saddam Hussein could not exercise command and control of his forces. The coalition outmaneuvered Iraq by creating a high tempo of operations and posing dilemmas that occurred unexpectedly and faster than the Iraqis could keep pace with.

According to LtCol Ray Cole, 1st Marine Division operations officer, maintaining a fast tempo in the 1st Division’s advance was imperative. He noted:

If you are to maintain that quick tempo, you must keep moving. If we would have taken the time to fight everybody in every hole, that would have slowed us. We took a chance on speed and won.

Going through as fast as we did made every action they [Iraqis] took irrelevant, especially when we were behind them already. . . . If you go where the enemy isn’t and then get behind him, their morale is beaten to nothing and you’re going to have a lot of EPWs [enemy prisoners of war], which was the case. The Iraqis were subject to deception as well. Task Force Troy created an illusion of a large troop concentration using decoys and broadcasting noises simulating advancing armor. Ground and amphibious deception literally “faked out” the Iraqis. Marines poised for a large amphibious assault on Kuwait forced the Iraqis to concentrate a reinforced corps along the coast. This significantly tied up well-armed Iraqi forces, allowing Allies to shift to the west and collapse an exposed flank. At the same time the 1st and 2d Divisions penetrated seams in the Saddam Line at weak points as Saudi and other Arabic forces pushed up the coast.

The success of Marine forces breaching the barrier on 24 February 1991 stemmed partially from bold actions by 2d LAI Battalion on 21 February 1991 while raiding deep into Kuwait. This action diverted the Iraqis’ attention from the actual breaching points. The deception worked well and misled the Iraqis. The ground war started 3 days later and ended as abruptly as it began in a 100-hour blitz crushing Saddam’s forces and freeing Kuwait.

The Gulf War capitalized on the maneuver warfare philosophy, generating the greatest decisive effect against the enemy and his plan with the least possible cost to ourselves. The essence of the Marine maneuver style rings clear in the words of MajGen James M. Myatt, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division: “Our focus was not on destroying everything. Our focus was on the Iraqi mind and getting in behind them.”

The operational art embodied in Operation DESERT SHIELD/STORM represents the practical application of this philosophy. It involved surprise, deception (both ground and amphibious), multiple thrusts, bypassing strong-points, sweeping quickly around collapsing flanks, and getting behind the Iraqis, forcing them to give up without a fight. By any measure the Marines’ brand of maneuver warfare was splendid, with two divisions of Marines gobbling up 13 to 18 Iraqi divisions.

“While we should be proud of what we have done, I don’t think it’s wise to get a big head about this war,” reflects LtGen Walter Boomer in the Wall Street Journal. Phil Gold of Insight magazine cautions, “All that can be said of the next war-and there will be a next war-is that it is probably unimaginable today.” Nevertheless, even in the next war, let us not overlook maneuver warfare, the operational art, and Gen Gray’s FMFM 1, Warftghting.