When Maneuver Fails

by LtCol Gary W. Anderson

The current edition of OH 6-1 describes maneuver warfare as:

. . . an approach to war which emphasizes disrupting the cohesion of the enemy’s tactical units and the mental process of the enemy commander’s ability to make correct and timely decisions rather than simply attempting to inflict casualties at a greater rate than they are sustained.

There is a key unanswered question here: What happens if the enemy doesn’t have cohesion or a decision-making cycle worth disrupting?

This question is not academic. At the operational level of war, the Soviets have grappled with this problem in Afghanistan; the Israelis continue to wrestle with it in southern Lebanon. Both the Russians and the Israelis have tried in vain to identify a point of main effort at which to strike the decisionmaking process of their foes; both have failed. At the tactical level in these two conflicts, the Soviets and Israelis have had notable successes; however, they have not been able to string these tactical successes together into operational victories in the manner prescribed by theorists such as John Boyd and William Lind.

The situations in Afghanistan and Lebanon are not unique. The pattern seen in both of those wars is typical of low-intensity conflict in the late 20th century, and this presents the Marine Corps with a dilemma. The Marine Corps has adopted maneuver warfare as its doctrine, but it also is currently advertising that its most likely scenarios for employment in the next 10 years will be in low-intensity conflicts. On the surface, this appears to place the Marine Corps in the position of having adopted a doctrine not applicable to its most likely form of employment.

In actuality, maneuver warfare is still relevant to the greater scheme of things; however, to appreciate its applicability we must understand that maneuver warfare is just a part of a much larger concept. In a September 1985 Gazette article, I called this concept the ‘Tactics of Mistake” after the title of an old Gordon Dickson novel; but for the purpose of avoiding unnecessary labels we will merely call the construct “enemy-oriented operations.” The following description, found in Lynn Montross’ War Through the Ages, was allegedly penned by the great Byzantine general, Belisarius. It is a good description of enemy-oriented operations.

In the first skirmishes with the Goths, I was always out to discover what were the strong and weak points in their tactics, in order to accommodate my own to them, to make up for my numerical inferiority. I found that the chief difference between them and us was that our horse and our Hunnish Foederati are all expert horse-bowmen, while the enemy has scarcely any knowledge of archery. For the gothic knights use sword and lance alone, while their bowmen are always drawn up to the rear under cover of the heavy squadrons. So their horsemen are no good till the battle comes to close quarters, and (they) can be shot down while standing in battle array before the moment of contact arrives. Their foot archerers, on the other hand, will never dare to advance against cavalry, and keep too far back.

Throughout history, the consistently successful military leaders have shown an ability to accurately determine enemy weaknesses, mistakes, and vulnerabilities in a timely manner. In battle after battle since antiquity the victor was the commander who could most quickly recognize his enemy’s key vulnerabilities and exploit those miscues in a timely manner. Alexander’s timely recognition of a gap in the Persian lines at Arbela combined with his subsequent charge to take out the Persian command group was one of the first documented examples of this concept. Caesar learned early in his career that his barbarian adversaries would charge uphill and tire themselves before they even reached Roman lines. Whenever possible, the opportunistic Roman would find a hill and endeavor to entice his adversaries to charge up it.

This timely cycle of recognition and exploitation of enemy mistakes and weaknesses was possible in the years before the U.S. Civil War because the commander was generally able to view the entire battlefield or, at least, significant parts of it. The commander himself or a key subordinate was usually the individual who spotted the crucial enemy mistake, and this made the cycle of recognition and exploitation (R-E cycle) relatively short. At Arbela, the R-E cycle was nearly instantaneous; it was completed in the short amount of time that Alexander needed to make his decision and raise his arm to signal the charge to his companion cavalry, which was sitting behind him at the moment he made the decision. At Leuctra, Epaminondas positioned himself on his own Theban left where he could supervise a buildup of superior mass against an expected Spartan weakness. When the expected weakness was confirmed, Epaminondas was in a position to execute a very short cycle of recognition and exploitation. As a rule of thumb, the only thing that generally slowed the R-E cycle during pre-Civil War operations was any delay by the commander in making a timely decision or in the physical delay caused by transmitting an order to the exploiting force. At Waterloo, Napoleon probably lost the battle when he uncharacteristically delayed a decision to exploit the capture of the key strongpoint of La Haye Saint for over an hour. In other battles, the R-E cycle was lengthened by lost messengers and subordinate commanders who failed to carry out orders in a timely manner. The true masters of pre-Civil War combat were those commanders who could most quickly complete the R-E cycle.

The flip side of the R-E cycle is the ability to recognize and correct friendly vulnerabilities and weaknesses. This recognition-correction (R-C) cycle is the shield in enemy-oriented operations, while the R-E cycle acts as the sword. The true practitioner of enemy-oriented operations must be careful to concentrate on the really key mistakes and vulnerabilities both friendly and enemy, lest precious time and resources be frittered away in pursuit or irrelevant objectives. Col Joshua Chamberlain’s quick reaction at Little Round Top at Gettysburg is a classic example of the concept of the R-C cycle properly at work. When his unit (20th Maine) ran out of ammunition at a critical juncture during the battle, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge that so unhinged the Confederate force facing him that the rebels withdrew, saving a vital piece of terrain for the Union. The concept of the R-C cycle is key to enemy-oriented operations. It is valid at both the tactical and operational levels of war.

Most readers will note that the theory of the R-E/R-C cycles is similar to the observation-orientation-decision-action (O-O-D-A) cycle; they are similar, but they are not the same. O-O-D-A cycle works in that part of the continuum of warfare where both opponents have a coherent decisionmaking cycle worth disrupting. Indeed, in the area of small unit tactics, the O-O-D-A cycle may be universally applicable. But at the battalion level and above in low-intensity conflicts, the O-O-D-A cycle is less relevant. This is true also at the highest end of the conflict spectrum-nuclear war.

At the high end of the spectrum, maneuver warfare becomes irrelevant if command, control, and communications systems are destroyed. In many cases our nuclear systems are designed to respond despite this loss of control. (Figure 1 shows where maneuver warfare comfortably fits into the conflict spectrum.)

What all of this means is that the O-O-D-A cycle as represented by maneuver warfare doctrine is really one of a number of options to be selected if the enemy’s mistakes or vulnerabilties warrant it However, other elements of what we now call maneuver warfare are universally applicable along the entire spectrum of conflict Figure 2 lists the areas where maneuver warfare as defined in OH 6-1 is universally relevant as well as those that are relevant in conventional conflict

An enemy-oriented mindset as represented by the completion of the R-E/ R-C cycles is a universal construct The O-O-D-A cycle and maneuver warfare are a subset of the greater whole. We need to realize when the precepts of the O-O-D-A cycle are relevant and when they are not Adopting maneuver warfare as a doctrine isn’t a bad idea; it is merely an incomplete one.