The Theory of Maneuver in USMC Doctrine and Force Structure

by LtCol George S. Lauer

1992 Chase Prize Essay Contest Honorable Mention

Is the theory of maneuver warfare the proper lens through which to view modern tactical combat? The answer to this question has great implications for how the Corps builds its future doctrine and the force structure to fight according to that doctrine.

Theory will have fulfilled its main task when it is used to analyze the constituent elements of war, to distinguish precisely what at first sight seems fused, to explain in full the properties of the means employed and to show their probable effects. to define clearly the nature of the ends in view, and to illuminate all phases of warfare in a thorough critical inquiry.


The word theory, for most of us, brings to mind visions of endless debate over the interpretation of this or that quote from Clausewitz, Jomini. or the maneuverists of today-great for classroom aetivities, but of little immediate relevance. Given the current investigation into Service roles and missions, theory may soon take on a whole new and personal interest for Marines. Whether we realize it or not, theory performs a basic role in how we develop doctrine and how we build force structure to apply that doctrine.

Theory acts as a lens through which we view all aspects of warfighting. The lens focuses our view of combat experience, technology, and potential adversaries. That view then guides the development of doctrine and force structure. The theory, or lens, must be chosen carefully. It must be ground to provide a true focus on the fundamental nature of war, or it will lead to a flawed warfighting doctrine and force structure.

In today’s environment in which the cry for ever greater and deeper cuts in the Defense budget drives the debates over Service roles and functions, the need for clear insight into the fundamental nature of war becomes dramatically important. We are called upon today to justify our force structure decisions based on the perception of reduced threat in the post-Cold War world. There are calls to reevaluate not only the need for Marine Corps aviation, but also tanks and heavy artillery, infantry force structure, and indeed, the Corps itself.

Up until a very few years ago, the Corps had adopted no formal theory of war. On what did we base the analysis that provided the doctrine and force structure used to fight so successfully throughout this century? Where was the description of this lens, or theory, transcribed for us so that we spoke with one voice on matters of tactical combat?

The Marine Corps theory of war was our own institutional experience in battle. Our experience of combat ground the lens, giving the Corps a clear view of the requirements of land tactical combat. That view then shaped our doctrine and the force structure we built to carry out that doctrine.

Warfare for the Marine Corps was intensely personal: a “brutish, inglorious” experience against strong enemies ill-disposed to moral disruption or surrender. In our experience, victory over an enemy occurred as the result of his annihilation. The nature of war demanded the crossing of no man’s land. Marine Corps doctrine stressed the practical nature of war, combining fires and movement to close with an enemy. Our enemies did not collapse morally or physically until we closed with them and killed them.

Closing demanded high technical knowledge of weapons (ranges, effects) and skill at combining the movement of individuals and units in close coordination with fires. Our type of warfare demanded high personal skill and courage. The Marine Corps practice of war demanded great imagination and the innovative application of the tactics, techniques, and procedures to successfully close with and destroy an enemy at the least cost to ourselves.

In the premaneuver Marine Corps, combat experience provided the institutional lens through which warfare requirements were evaluated, justified, and codified into doctrine and force structure. Today, the Corps has formally adopted the theory of maneuver. In contrast to our past, maneuver theory proposed a radical change in the fundamental nature of ground tactical warfare. Based on a revision of World War II German Army combat methods, and the application of air-to-air combat observations to land combat, this theory postulates that modern combat does not require forces to close with an enemy in order to break him physically and morally. Physical destruction is considered to be wasteful, slow, and unimaginative. Moral disruption is the key to victory, and physical destruction has little part to play. Through quick movement and the selective application of fires, movement against critical enemy command and control nodes (or other key areas) can present the enemy with an ever-increasing series of events with which he cannot cope, thereby causing his moral collapse. It is this maneuver inside this decision cycle which is the real cause of victory-a victory that belongs to the force which is light, imaginative, and moves quickly.

Let me give just one comparison of how radically different the solutions to the needs of tactical ground combat can be when viewed through these two very different lenses.

Prior to DESERT STORM, why did the Marine Corps have a force structure. Active and Reserve, that included 5 tank battalions and over 700 tanks? The Corps had never fought a major tank battle. Certainly, we had never fought a tank battle which would, on its own, justify the need for so many tanks. In our premaneuver warfare days, employing a theory based on combat experience, we determined that to successfully prosecute modern land tactical combat, the doctrinal need existed for relatively large numbers of mobile protected firepower systems. Tanks were necessary to provide the tempo of destruction; they were capable of crossing either through or around no man’s land, then closing quickly to destroy an enemy. Despite the cost, we successfully fought to put that force structure in place. Hence, the doctrine and force structure necessary to fight the war against Iraq were ready when needed.

Under a theory of maneuver, the Corps made force structure decisions to reduce the actual tank force from over 700 to just over 200 tanks (albeit with a structure goal of 490). Tanks are heavy and firepower intensive; they need large maintenance structures and extensive logistics support; they can slow the tempo of movement. In a warfare theory in which the definition of tempo is speed of movement, the tempo of destruction, for which protected, mobile firepower is required, is of greatly lessened consequence. Therefore, tank force structure can be radically altered. There is no need to justify the high cost of relatively large numbers of unnecessary tanks. The maneuver lens radically changes what is needed to prosecute land combat.

Similar arguments can be applied for any other firepower-intensive asset, whether they be the multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), fighter/ attack aircraft, or line infantry. With the adoption of the theory of maneuver, we now view war through a fundamentally different lens-a lens that is not ground on Marine combat experience. In the maneuver Marine Corps, that experience became an invalid criterion on which to judge land combat. Marine practice of war was incorrect-too slow and methodical. We accepted as our own a theory of war that implies that our insistence on the destruction of enemy forces (who did not have the good sense to surrender) was wasteful in lives and time, and that Marine combat experience in the past involved the unimaginative application of faulty combat doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures based on an attrition style of warfare.

If approved theory tells you that fighting is not essential, you need only justify and maintain enough transport in the form of helicopters, trucks, and light armored vehicles (LAVs) to move your minimum infantry to occupy the few critical enemy nodes that will cause that enemy to collapse like a house of cards. A couple of tanks, a few airplanes, and some light artillery would seem to be all that is required for the prosecution of war in the maneuver Marine Corps.

The theory of maneuver, however, is a flawed lens. It focuses the Marine Corps on dangerously unproven concepts and tells us that our previous doctrine and force structure were fundamentally unsound. The force structure in place for DESERT STORM still represented a premaneuver doctrinal compromise between heavy and light. The key to understanding the success of our premaneuver doctrine is that it represented the best compromise between the need to get the force to the beach and the need to fight once there. We are called “soldiers of the sea” because our task is to “soldier” in land combat once ashore or, when necessary, to “soldier” our way inland by fighting across the beach.

We do not have the luxury to choose where, when, or at what intensity we will fight. As in DESERT STORM, we cannot dictate that we be given the room to practice the doctrinal demands of our maneuver theory and its tenets of psychological disruption. Maneuver theory concepts provide little comfort to a force that must breach a fortified defensive line. When fighting an enemy whose dependence on centralized command and control is minimal, or an enemy with the discipline to continue to fight when cut off and surrounded, the maneuver theory offers little insight. Our lighter Marine Corps-the Corps of our maneuver theory future-departs far too radically from our exoerience of combat.

How does the Corps avoid being unprepared by doctrine and force structure to fight the battles of the future? How do we justify the need for a force that can fight under any conditions and at any intensity? How do we answer the questions about why we need our aircraft wings, our own tanks, our own heavy artillery and the MLRS, sizable infantry units, and sufficient amphibious lift?

Discard the Maneuver Warfare Theory

Marine Corps doctrine and force structure should be focused through the same lens which guided us throughout most of this century-our own combat experience. Rather than encouraging our Marine intelligentsia to try and justify the theory of maneuver, let’s bring them together and put them to work on composing a theory of combat based on our own experience. An analysis based on that combat will enable our officers to go before Congress and the Nation and fight for what we need to win and survive on the modern tactical battlefield. I submit that the experience needed to justify the MV-22 Osprey, sufficient tanks, LAV-105s, MLRS, fighter/attack aircraft, and sufficient infantry strength will come from this analysis.

Return The Basic School to the study of basics. Let’s teach our lieutenants the value of solid grounding in tactics, techniques, and procedures. Evaluate our leaders on their ability to use their imaginations to innovatively employ the technical and human materiel at their charge.

Provide rigor in the use of terms. Drop pseudo-psychological references to mental disruption and train to ensure that the enemy’s moral collapse occurs through a doctrine that stresses closing with and destroying the enemy.

As with the knights of legend searching for the Holy Grail, we need only see that the goal of our quest lies in the journey itself. Our answer, our grail, lies in our own institutional combat experience. Through the lens of that experience lie the answers to questions of doctrine and force structure. In the end, the task of the Marine Corps is to provide tactical combat forces to the warfighting commanders-in-chief. Let’s return the focus of the Marine Corps to its appropriate place-tactical ground combat. Abandon the theory of maneuver in favor of one tested by timeour own experience of combat in this century.