They Shoot Synchronizers, Don’t They?

by Maj Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr.

The preceding articles that critique my “Fighting in the Real World” (MCG, Mar94) are intelligent and well written, making it easy to rapidly sum up what their authors like about my ideas on synchronization: nothing. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the authors for responding to my article and for sharing their responses with me so I could offer these comments.

In debating complex subjects, it’s often best to attempt to find some common ground, however slight, that provides a mutual frame of reference-to recognize that the world isn’t black and white, but often shades of gray. The hard-line “maneuverists” reject even the possibility of this and instead choose to craft their criticism in an “either-or” framework that accentuates extreme positions. Their criticisms are very useful, and many of them should give us pause, but we do not need to make the choice they demand: rejection of synchronization in all its forms and acceptance, without deviation, of a hard-line maneuverist view of the world. Their reasoning is elegant, but it is based on a false premise: that the use of a tool is equivalent to the abuse of a tool. This false dilemma, coupled with a refusal to recognize a middle ground in this argument, makes it hard to view their arguments as more than interesting but intellectually incomplete ideas. Their thinking certainly answers part of the puzzle, but standing alone it is not the key.

Rather than engage in a protracted struggle over definitions and who said what, I reaffirm that “Fighting in the Real World” seeks to lay out clearly what I think synchronization is, what it means to the Marine Corps, and how it supports our warfighting doctrine of maneuver warfare. Despite the articles in rebuttal, I still think it accomplishes these three objectives. To move the debate forward, my plan is to address in this article four areas of reasonable disagreement that will benefit from further discussion. These are centralization, the box, the either-German-or-Soviet comparison, and the “so what?” test.


Does the reaffirmation of the command element (CE) as the principal planner and warfighter in the Marine airground task force (MAGTF) create an unwarranted and unneeded degree of centralization that will destroy the bottom-up flow of opportunities so vital to maneuver warfare? As a corollary, does synchronization automatically equate to overcentralization? I don’t think so, and for these reasons:

It is a matter of fact-not an assertion and not an opinion-that today the MAGTF CE is the nexus of command within all MAGTFs from Marine expeditionary units (MEUs) to Marine expeditionary forces (MEFs). It may or may not be in accordance with maneuver warfare holy writ, but it is undeniably reflected in the way our MAGTFs are organized, deploy, and fight. The ground combat element (GCE), aviation combat element (ACE), and combat service support element (CSSE) do not fight independent battles. They participate in a single MAGTF battle, and that battle is commanded by the MAGTF CE.

This is the headquarters that pushes down opportunities for initiative and decisionmaking to the lowest possible level, while maintaining an overall concept-a direction-of the campaign. Doing this does not remove opportunities or the requirement for initiative and decentralized decisionmaking from the GCE, ACE, and CSSE, but it does reflect the unique capabilities of a force that must fight simultaneously in vastly different operational and functional regimes. We teach this in our schools, it is reinforced by the efforts of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command’s MAGTF StaffTraining Program, and is, in short, the way business is done today. Formal doctrinal publications nearing completion, such as FMFM 2, The Marine Air-Ground Task Force, and FMFM 2-1, MEF Operations, will reflect this outlook.

Interestingly, this signals a return to the original view of MAGTF doctrine. Over the course of several decades, the GCE had assumed de facto primacy within the MAGTF. Other elementsthe ACE and CSSE-simply supported the GCE’s courses of action. The MAGTF command element served as a facilitator and provider of assets, but it too was clearly in the slipstream of the GCE. This changed with the Gulf War, as the inadequacies of a GCE-centered command system became obvious amidst the joint warfighting structure within U.S. Central Command. The MAGTF CE reasserted itself, actively planning and executing combat operations and tasking all elements of the MAGTF-ground, air, and logistics-in pursuit of campaign objectives.

The primacy of the MAGTF CE is essential on a three-dimensional battlefield within which combat actions may spread across hundreds of kilometers in depth and height and require the realtime, simultaneous integration of intelligence, fires, maneuver, logistics, and other battlefield activities. The CE’s planning of an extended battle need not restrict the scope of subordinate headquarters to plan and execute operations, but it does require they understand and work within the three-dimensional nature of the MAGTF battlefield in support of MAGTF objectives.

All headquarters, indeed all leaders, synchronize-from the fire team leader who balances resupply of ammo and water within his squad’s attack, all the way to the MAGTF CE, where extended battlefield activities are synchronized. It is neither useful nor accurate to consciously decouple “fighters” (read: good guys) from “headquarters” (read: Colonel Blimps). While there are successive headquarters echelons in the MAGTF, it doesn’t follow that as a matter of course they must all be progressively out of touch with reality or that they are all populated with officers who are predisposed to meddle with subordinates’ plans, stifling agility and initiative.

There is no “master” synchronization matrix upon which all elements of the MAGTF down to the lowest level are laboriously plotted, maintained by a single commander who tries to be allknowing and all-seeing. Instead, there are a series of hierarchical efforts, as each commander synchronizes his activities within the MAGTF and adjusts to his unique situation, all operating with a “general framework of order.” Every level of command integrates its activities in time, space, and purpose. The level and detail of synchronization may vary greatly from echelon to echelon, based on the situation and personalities. The MAGTF CE is going to be thinking about things that do not concern a company commander, just as the latter’s focus excludes the minutiae of the fire team leader’s world.

The Role of Doctrine

MAGTF doctrine is unique; no other force attempts to closely integrate fixed- and rotary-wing aviation, ground, and logistics operations at the tactical level under a single commander. The challenge becomes even greater when it incorporates movement between land and sea or extended seabasing in a littoral battlespace.

FMFM 1 remains a guide, not constitutional law. Its failure to address all concepts of employment of the MAGTF doesn’t mean that such concepts are sec ondary, or that the Marine Corps must either mark time, awaiting new tablets from on high, or that we must feverishly search for supporting verbiage from FMFM 1 for any new idea. As Gen A. M. Gray wrote in its foreword, “it provides broad guidance,” but “requires judgment in application.” It is a useful guide for thinking about warfare, but to hold to it unthinkingly will turn good ideas into dogma. As warfare evolves, we may well end up very far away from the teachings in today’s keynote doctrinal publication.

The Maneuverist Critique

Criticisms of synchronization provide an interesting window into the purist view of maneuver theory. It is unrelentingly based on a small-scale ground combat model. While this model is excellent as far as it goes, and is extremely useful in thinking about small-scale ground combat operations, it does not provide complete conceptual guidance for the diversity of activities that a MAGTF, fighting in all dimensions, will have to perform.

Maintaining air superiority, conducting strike operations or air interdiction; controlling aircraft and missiles; building up a maritime prepositioning force lodgment; coordinating deep, close, and rear combat operations; and, last, plugging into, and perhaps commanding, a joint theater infrastructure all require some level of anticipatory top-down planning by headquarters at different levels. The joint world within which we must function is a world that synchronizes. As the 9 May 94 final coordinating draft of Joint Publication 0-2, Unified Action Armed Forces states: “Combatant commanders should ensure that their joint operations are synchronized in time, space, and purpose …”

Operations incorporating air, ground, and logistics elements moving at widely differing rates over long distances can’t be driven exclusively from the bottom up by subordinates on the spot, armed only with the commander’s broad intent. Some degree of anticipation, based on probabilities is needed, if you want Class V to get to the shooters, if you want tankers at the air refueling control points, and if you want close air support when needed by the GCE. Such things cannot be left to uncoordinated initiative.

Our Amphibious Nature

Perhaps most important, the maneuver school does not fully address the careful synchronization that is fundamental to amphibious operations, We are, and will remain, an amphibious organization. A MEU(SOC) playbook or a landing plan at any level reflects the careful coordination that is critical, not optional, if intent is to become reality. While it is easy to sneer at “the plan,” it is dangerous to attempt operations of this nature without careful planning (and synchronization), even though these sacrifice some element of spontaneity in order to gain unity of effort.

One thing remains certain: The issue of centralization and the role of the MAGTF CE is too complex to be falsely constrained by the straightjacket of “either-or” reasoning demanding an “all-ornothing” solution. Yet those who argue exclusively from an extreme maneuvertheory perspective do precisely that. We should not ask too much of any single model of conflict, or everything of maneuver warfare. To paraphrase the historian Paul Johnson, maneuverists must learn to differentiate between varying decrees of centralization.


When using synchronization to plan, are we drawing a box that inherently subverts the reality of the battlefield? Yes. Any representation of reality is going to be inaccurate to some degree, and will grow more inaccurate over time, unless continually updated and refined. This is true of any planning methodology. Certainly, any plan that is large enough to encompass all possible alternatives is too large and amorphous to be of practical value. Does this mean we shouldn’t plan? Of course not. The plan doesn’t have to be perfect, only good enough to implement action that is relatively better than our enemy’s.

Synchronization does not mean lockstep overcontrol or a rigid formula of execution. In the Marine Corps Command and Staff College’s Commander and His Staff Planning Guide for Academic Year 93-94, the following cautionary guidance is provided about the use of synchronization matrices:

Never become a slave to the process. With the matrix, it is very easy to allow style-or form-to dictate substance . . . The matrix is merely a tool . . . Do not hesitate to change what is in the matrix if it suits your purpose to do so . . . the matrix can not think, it can not compare, it can not differentiate. It will not substitute for honest analysis and hard work . . . Modify, experiment, and change ruthlessly. It is your tool-don’t let the matrix technique circumscribe your thoughts.

This is hardly a closeminded deification of the planning process; in fact, this seems to be a very moderate, openminded attempt to achieve balance in the use of a tool. Matrices can be useful tools, but only as a means to an end; they are not central to the process. Only the maneuverists argue that the matrix “is the very thing the whole process (synchronization) is working toward.” To be sure, it is useful to argue this, if you are bent on attacking synchronization, but this is an attack on their own rhetorical construct. The draconian, rigid synchronization they use as an example is not the way synchronization is being taught within the Marine Corps.

Occasional abuse is inevitable, and may lead to slowness in execution, but the threat of this is probably no greater than the danger of abuse by intemperate misapplication of the principles of maneuver warfare, which may result in shoddy, uncoordinated planning and execution. Both dangers are disastrous, and both must be avoided. The reasonable course is in the middle, as the Command and Staff College manual clearly attempts to capture.

A commander continually balances what he knows of his own situation and capabilities against what he knows of the enemy. His mission must be at the point of balance; it is what he must accomplish. In his own mind he creates a model of future friendly action that will animate his forces in time, space, and purpose. Innately qualitative, it may be long term and extremely complex, or it may last only minutes and be very simple. It will certainly change, perhaps unrecognizably. The commander must also balance quantitative constraints as part of his plan: fuel, ammunition, ranges of weapons systems, closure times, and a myriad of other measurable data. At the MAGTF level, the commander considers the unique demands of air, land, and sea warfare. He shapes the deep battle, which requires the synchronization of fires; and in designating the main effort, he must prioritize sustainment.

He must also think carefully about what the enemy may do. In doing this, the commander cannot assume from the beginning that the enemy will act irrationally every time, otherwise he will be forced to tell his Marines-“look, we’ve got a crazy bedlamite foe out there; anything can happen! Don’t plan for anything, it’s too time intensive. Just use your initiative.” If we accept this bizarre view, we will fight an exciting, ammunition-intensive, high casualty battle.

Obviously, this nihilistic line of thought is not particularly useful. In thinking about the enemy, we certainly want to look at the terrain, avenues of approach, his doctrine, where he might be, and what he might do. Quantitative information is part of intelligence preparation of the battlefield, whether we call it that or something that is less offensive to maneuverists.

The commander will also have to begin to make informed decisions about what the enemy is likely to do: a qualitative process. This is an inevitable narrowing, as commanders match insufficient assets against possibilities and probabilities. To be prepared for everything is to be prepared for nothing. Time retains certain immutable physical properties, not the least of which is its linear nature, and no foe will retain all options forever. If this means that intelligence officers must work hard and make constantly tested predictions upon which the commander will base friendly actions, then so be it. This does not mean that commanders are locked into the “PERT Chart from Hell” that mechanically predicts what our foe should be doing.

The commander’s plan must be constantly updated or replaced, as some, but never all, probabilistic assumptions and possibilities are replaced by facts, which, of course, may then be replaced yet again. He seeks relative advantage over the enemy, not perfection-there will always be an element of uncertainty. The plan may be highly detailed, as in an amphibious operation, or it may use the lowest level of synchronization: the designation of a main effort. William S. Lind, writing in Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology, has provided a very accurate description of what a commander does in planning and synchronizing:

… he determines what action he thinks will be decisive, then ruthlessly focuses combat power to be stronger than the enemy in that action … He often takes major risks elsewhere . . .

The techniques and procedures used to concentrate, to focus, combat power in time and space are the tools of synchronization. Obviously, this requires constructing a plan-or box for the future.

The degree of control the commander will exercise over his subordinates in achieving this focus depends on the nature of the situation and the personalities of the individuals involved. Operations of heavy forces conducting a penetration attack within restricted maneuver space will have to be more carefully synchronized than the same forces operating in an exploitation or pursuit, in open terrain. Because of this, the approach to command and control adopted by the commander, whether directive or detailed, may very well change over the course of an operation.

As Robert Leonhard argues in The Art of Maneuver, both detailed and directive control have advantages and disadvantages. Both are useful, and both have applicability. The tension between directive and detailed control equates to the dynamics of what was described in “Fighting in the Real World” as the relationship between control and opportunity. The reconciliation of competing imperatives-the foundation of all art-is also at the center of the art of command. This dynamic, unique to each situation, can only be solved by commanders at each level of war, balancing the factors of METT-TSL.* Surely, this is not too much to ask of Marine commanders..


According to maneuverists, when thinking about maneuver theory, we must choose either a Soviet or German heritage. There is no middle ground-all is black or white, a Manichaean approach that requires Marines either be “with us or against us.” If this sounds too constraining, that’s because it is! The “either-or” didacticism that permeates the entire “maneuverist” critique is a false choice.

The German and the Soviet schools of maneuver theory were the products of cultural and historical factors that were unique to their time in history. The Germans owed their remarkable successes to reasons far more subtle and complex than simply a maneuver-based tactical doctrine, as demonstrated by Martin van Creveld in his book Fighting Power. The Soviets adopted a more centralized view of maneuver theory than the Germans, yet ultimately political and social pressures, not only military factors, forced them to drop this approach to maneuver theory. Given the vastly different cultures and settings involved, it is uncertain, at best, how much of this is directly relevant to the current American situation.

This uncertainty is reinforced when we return to a familiar maneuverist hard line: German thinking is good, everyone else’s is bad. The argument is this: Marine synchronization, French methodical battle, Soviet maneuver theory, and the U.S. Army are all basically alike-nonGerman and therefore wedded to a lockstep, centralized-control model that is doomed to failure. We will always be eating Prussian dust, trapped by a rigid American passion for order. This condescending view ignores societal, cultural, and historical factors that are critical in studying and understanding why and how armies develop certain styles of fighting.


The principles of maneuver warfare theory form our tactical doctrine. It is a mistake to frame a discussion of the utility of synchronization concepts as an “either-or” argument that requires us to choose between maneuver warfare or synchronization. Synchronization techniques are not compering doctrine but rather a body of supporting tools. They do not innately undermine maneuver theory-and we do not have to choose.

Instead, we should pragmatically take what works within the constraints of specific situations. Some situations will require a high degree of synchronization, unity of effort, and possibly, centralized control. Other situations will be more suited for decentralized operations. Undoubtedly, a strong bias for decentralization will serve us well, but the situation on the ground must dictate.

The maneuverist argument demands we choose an extreme position and rejects the possibility of a more balanced compromise. Luckily for the Marine Corps, we do not require their approval to obtain a workable synthesis of an umbrella concept of maneuver warfare theory, implemented when and where appropriate with the tools of synchronization. By denying this dialectic, maneuverists risk marginalizing themselves. The world is passing them by. This will be unfortunate, because many of their ideas have been and will continue to be important for the Marine Corps.

Synchronization in various forms is being used throughout the Marine Corps today. These ideas have arrived, and they are now part of our doctrine and formal schools system. Different organizations are taking as much or as little as appropriate, and most of them are doing so because synchronization works. If synchronization doesn’t work, then it will be rejected. Marines, being results-oriented, will apply the principle of natural selection. Theorists, pundits, and their fierce arguments in the Gazette will ultimately yield to the effectiveness of these ideas in the field.