The Mission and ‘The Offensive Spirit’

In Sep82 Maj J.D. Burke assessed the missions and capabilities of Marine air-ground task forces (MAGTFs) and concluded they were not oriented toward, or well suited for, maneuver warfare in an extended land campaign. He recommended that Marines study the improving firepower/attrition techniques and work to enhance the MAGTF’s ability to apply them rather than emphasize ground maneuver in future combat. His views inspired considerable discussion:

by Maj Edward J. Robeson IV

Although Maj Burke’s suntan could make one very suspicious as to how much work is actually going on at the RDJTF Headquarters, perhaps we should be grateful-maybe he’s had more time to think. Certainly his recent article, “Maneuver Warfare and the MAGTF,” (Sep82) should be reviewed and debated at the highest level. He is correct. The MAGTF is not configured to fight land “maneuver warfare” either by mission or organization, and the addition of LAVs will not influence this to any significant degree. Shouldn’t we be content to be true “maneuverists” at the amphibious task force level, and our traditional selves at the landing force level-assault troops trained and equipped to seize and defend advanced naval and air bases?


by LtCol L.G. Karch

I believe that Maj J.D. Burke is largely correct . . . [when] he states that MAGTFs must confront Soviet forces with a firepower and attrition strategy in a tactical defense. Indeed, the only reason why MAGTFs would be committed against Soviet forces would be to hold strategic territory while the central and decisive battle was waged elsewhere-perhaps in central Europe. A shortfall in strategic mobility is a long-term fixture of U.S. military capability. This shortfall precludes projecting and sustaining the heavily mechanized forces required for offensive maneuver warfare into multiple combat theaters.

However, I do believe that there is a place for maneuver warfare in a MAGTF’s defensive strategy. I would look to the exploits of the Confederate cavalry officer Col John Singleton Mosby for inspiration. Mosby was so effective with his raids in the Union rear, and his reputation was so widespread, that the so-called Gray Ghost was reportedly sighted on numerous occasions as far north as New York and New Hampshire even though neither he nor his forces were ever anywhere near those places.

Typically, Mosby would strike quickly where he was least expected and then proceed to wreak all sorts of havoc. Logistic centers, transportation links, and communication facilities alike would be destroyed in the course of a single operation before the Gray Ghost would vanish as quickly as he had appeared. Mosby avoided pitched battles with Union forces whenever possible, and Union reinforcements could never react quite fast enough to catch up with him. No wonder that Mosby seemed like an ephemeral spirit to the North and the Union Armythey could see his handiwork, but they never saw him.

Mosby felt that the number of enemy soldiers he killed or wounded did not particularly matter. But rather what counted was the number of Union soldiers forced to watch for him. Union soldiers assigned to protect rear areas were simply not available for use in Union campaigns against Lee and Jackson. In much the same fashion, a MAGTF commander should force a Soviet commander to thin out his attack formations in order to provide flank and rear area security. If the Soviet commander does not take these precautions, then he should risk destruction of his POL dumps and pipelines, nuclear and chemical weapon storage sites, communications and logistics centers, and even his headquarters to quick-hitting maneuver forces appearing out of the ether.

A MAGTF maneuver element might consist of a ground force of tanks and LAVs with mounted infantry operating, as much as possible, under the cover of darkness or low visibility and making the maximum use of masking terrain. Air support would necessarily be both continuous and heavy. Attack helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft would reconnoiter for the maneuver force and strike enemy formations, particularly armor, that could interfere. Fighter aircraft would conduct sweeps along the axis of advance to destroy enemy ground attack aircraft and deny aerial reconnaissance. ECM support and deception would blind and confuse the Soviets as to the nature of operations. In some cases, helicopterborne Marines might be landed at key points to execute critical missions and join-up with the ground maneuver force. Finally, artillery concentrations would be on-call to protect the withdrawal of the maneuver force. Overall, such an operation should be conducted with a maximum of speed and deception and a minimum of signature.

In summary, although I agree MAGTFs must principally employ a firepower and attrition strategy keyed to terrain to hold strategic territory, the option to employ maneuver warfare in limited offensive operations should be held at the ready. The fear that some Marine Gray Ghost will come crashing into vulnerable rear areas should be instilled in every Soviet commander’s mind.


by Capt R.S. Moore

While Maj Burke has, at least superficially, examined the concepts of both maneuver warfare and Marine Corps MAGTF doctrine, he appears not to understand either. In contrasting firepower/attrition and maneuver warfare, the author seems unable to truly differentiate the two, claiming that the former seeks to break the enemy’s will to resist, earlier proclaiming the same aim for maneuver warfare. The essential difference, implied by the major, between the two is one of technique rather than objective. Unfortunately, Maj Burke’s analysis of firepower/attrition warfare fails to recognize historical record. Based on a study of American military campaigns since World War I, one should quickly realize that firepower/attrition warfare, as practiced by U.S. forces, with a few notable exceptions, has been based on the physical, not the psychological destruction of the enemy. Such destruction has required quantitative manpower and materiel superiority. Fortunately, in many of our past campaigns, such superiority was present; unfortunately, future wars probably will not grant us this advantage.

This faulty conceptual analysis is followed by discussion of the MAGTF that largely ignores Marine doctrine, indulging instead in questionable overestimates of weapons capabilities. In discussing the MAGTF, Maj Burke relegates the Marine landing force to that of a static organization whose mission is limited and defensive in nature. While this may be true of a forwarddeployed MAU, applying such restricted criteria to all MAGTFs is contrary to Marine doctrine as set forth in FMFM 0-1, which states that a task force is just that, a force designed for a specific task, which may well be offensive in nature. Once the author’s MAGTF has landed (although one can only wonder what is its task), it suddenly becomes capable of suppressing Soviet-style weapons and neutralizing air defenses and artillery with fixed-wing aircraft, while its TOW gunners destroy enemy tanks at maximum range. Yet, despite this evident superiority, the MAGTF remains unable to engage the enemy offensively due to lack of air superiority. The whole scenario leaves the reader wondering at MAGTF capabilities, portrayed as simultaneously both powerful and impotent.

Perhaps the real weakness in Maj Burke’s analysis rests in the idea that doctrine must conform to organization. After arguing that a MAGTF lacks the necessary mobility and firepower for offensive operations, the author seeks to find a tactical doctrine for a force which he admits, by implication, is improperly organized. Such a bureaucratic argument, unfortunately, only serves to denigrate one of the very assets of MAGTFs that would enable them to fight maneuver warfare style, their flexibility and mission-orientation. Let us hope that we, as professionals, are not so hidebound that we are unable to develop new doctrinal concepts to improve our capabilities, both offensive and defensive, even if they challenge established routine. Hopefully, Maj Burke’s article does not reflect any widespread reluctance to do so.


by LtCol M.D. Wyly

Having stated that firepower is on the ascendancy, Maj Burke quotes Martin van Creveld’s observation that when firepower is on the ascendancy, it is the tactical defense which stands to gain the most. Maj Burke uses this logic to form his thesis that in future amphibious warfare “the success of the MAGTF will be achieved as a result of the application of flrepower/attrition warfare doctrine applied in the defense.”

In proposing primacy of the defense for the Marine Corps, Maj Burke is rejecting lessons learned through experience in World War II and Korea about how to succeed in amphibious warfare. At Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, Marines hit the beach and went as deep as they could as fast as they could. In 1950 when Marines landed at Inchon, the object was to get to Seoul as quickly as possible. In these experiences, Marines did not focus their main efforts on defenses of beaches. Their purpose was to defeat the enemy, well beyond the beaches.

I am not proposing that we prepare to fight the last war. Nor am I ignoring that modern day opponents may have considerably more firepower available to them than did the Japanese. I am saying that to make defense of the beachhead our main effort is not a solution. Maj Burke is erroneously assuming that the enemy will throw away his forces against the strong point that we have established. I think that most of our potential enemies know better. Even if our enemy does commit this error, we must remember that he has lots of forces that he can afford to throw away. But, besides having more firepower, our future enemies may also have more mobility, especially if we are fighting in more open terrain than we did in the Pacific. In this case, we may find ourselves outmaneuvered and dislodged from our beachhead. In any event, our object is still going to be defeating the enemy, not establishing a beachhead. The threat to our enemy is not going to be that we might put beachheads on his shore. The threat is that we might defeat his forces. Seizing the beachhead is coincidental to defeating him, and the only way to keep the beachhead safe is to take out the enemy.

I am unconvinced that Soviet forces are going to, as Maj Burke believes, depend on firepower and attrition to blast away at our strong points at the sacrifice of great numbers of their troops. If that be the conventional wisdom, what are we to think about such writings as that by Col V. Ye. Savkin of the Soviet Army in The Basic Principles of Operational Art and Tactics (Moscow 1972) in which he states:

The goal consists of dumbfounding the enemy and catching him unawares when he is least prepared to parry an unexpected attack, of paralyzing his will to resist, depriving him of the opportunity of taking quick, effective countermeasures, and thus, resolutely routing his forces with least losses for friendly troops. Mobility and high tempos of combat operations bring success in a battle or operation.

The offensive and maneuver must continue to be, as always, the Marine Corps’ strong suits. Firepower is, of course, important, too. Without maneuver, however, it will be as indecisive as the Battle of Verdun-and as costly.

If we just go ashore and sit there and blast away at the enemy, you may depend on it that he will blast back at us. And, he won’t go away until we force him to, by maneuver.

I appreciate that Maj Burke has put thought and research into the subject of tactics and operations, that he took the time to write about it. In particular, I appreciate that he is concerned that the MAGTF is not suited for maneuver in offensive action. The MAGTF’s basic structure, that is, all arms under one commander, gives it the potential to be the most maneuverable organization in the world. By no means is it beyond improvement. Positive thinkers should be looking constantly for adjustments to its organization and training to make it more maneuverable. When it is finally tested in battle, it must win!


Author’s Reply

by Maj J.D. Burke

Simply stated, my point of view remains that in the initial stages of a conventional war, the MAGTF will be most successful when it adopts a strong, coordinated, defensive posture exploiting the natural advantages of terrain and organic firepower.

To those readers who feel this point of view needlessly sacrifices the “spirit of the offensive,” please read the unclassified “Long Term Goals, Marine Corps Planning Guidance” extracted from the FY 85-89 Defense Guidance which states:

As a principal element of naval power projection, Marine forces should be prepared for the seizure and defense of advance naval bases; (sea line of communication) SLOC defense; extension of control over sea areas of operation; reinforcement of allies by projection on the littorals; and the seizure/control of strategic oceanic choke points. In the prosecution of a land campaign, Marine forces will be prepared to seize/ establish lodgements for the subsequent introduction of follow-on forces.

What could be clearer?

Our national defense policy is one of deterrence, and failing that, the use of the military instrument to defend our vital interests. This is the mindset Marines are chartered to exercise. We are not organized and equipped to fight a protracted ground campaign.

Should large scale horizontal or vertical escalation occur, the MAGTF will not be in it alone.

Secondly, several maneuver warfare theory advocates have hastened to recall historical references, in my view, invalidly.

Historical references are useful in pointing out trends and in illustrating principles. However, their applicability is limited when discussing future strategy or tactics because events never occur the same way twice. And, like the traits and principles of leadership, one can usually find diametrically opposed guidance to support contrasting actions.

The final point is Capt Moore’s stated view that doctrine need not conform to organization.

If that state of affairs sadly comes to pass, then we could be faced with a mismatch between doctrine (strategy) and force planning, which is to say, we brought the wrong team to the game we knew we had to win. The Defense Guidance tells us what “games” we much be ready to play.

The MAGTF can use a tactical defense to win. Let’s get on with improving our execution of the game plan.