Several recent articles in the GAZETTE have referred to
maneuver warfare. The term may have occasioned some confusion among
Marines. After all, doesnt all warfare involve fire and maneuver?
Isnt maneuver just another word for movement? How can there be such a
thing as maneuver warfare? It may be time to review just what this
term means and why its important to the United States Marine Corps.
Maneuver warfare refers to an overall concept or style of warfare.
It has an opposite, the firepower-attrition style. Firepower-attrition is
warfare on the model of Verdun in World War I, a mutual casualty inflicting and
absorbing contest where the goal is a favorable exchange rate. The conflict is
more physical than mental. Efforts focus on the tactical level with goals set
in terms of terrain.
Defenses tend to be linear (forward defense), attacks frontal,
battles set-piece and movement preplanned and slow. In contrast, maneuver war
is warfare on the model of Genghis Khan, the German blitzkrieg and almost all
Israeli campaigns. The goal is destruction of the enemys vital
cohesiondisruption-not piece-by-piece physical destruction. The objective is
the enemys mind not his body. The principal tool is moving forces into
unexpected places at surprisingly high speeds. Firepower is a servant of
maneuver, used to create openings in enemy defenses and, when necessary, to
annihilate the remnants of his forces after their cohesion has been shattered.
Maneuver conflict is more psychological than physical. Effort focuses more on
the operational than on the tactical level. The goal is set in terms of
destroying the enemys forces not seizing terrain seen a priori as
key. A defender places only a tripwire forward and
relies on counterattacks into the flanks and rear of enemy penetrations.
One up and two back is the rule. Attacks ooze through and around
Battles are usually meeting engagements. Rates of advance are high. Movement is
constant, irregular in direction and timing and responsive to fleeting
opportunities. A key to understanding maneuver war is to realize that not all
movement is maneuver. Maneuver is relational movement. Maneuver is not a matter
simply of moving or even of moving rapidly. Maneuver means moving and acting
consistently more rapidly than the opponent.
Recently, the concepts behind maneuver war have been organized and expanded
into an overall theory of conflict. This theory was developed by Col John Boyd,
USAF (Ret.) and is appropriately known as the Boyd Theory. Col Boyd
was the father of energy management air combat tactics. More recently he has
devoted himself to studying the nature of conflict in general. He observed that
in any conflict situation all parties go through repeated cycles of
observation-decision-action. The potentially victorious party is the one with
an observationdecision-action cycle consistently quicker than his
opponents (including the time required to transition from one cycle to
another). As this party repeatedly cycles inside his opponent, the opponent
finds he is losing control of the situation. Because of his longer cycle time,
his reaction is facing a later action by the faster party than that which it
was intended to oppose. Instead of achieving convergence with the first
partys action, he finds himself facing everwidening divergence. Suddenly,
he realizes there is nothing he can do to control the situation or turn it to
his advantage. At that point, he has lost. Often he suffers mental breakdown in
the form of panic and is defeated before he is destroyed physically.
The Boyd Theory is the theory of maneuver warfare. In maneuver war, if the
enemy is destroyed physically (and often that is not necessary), that is not
the decision but merely the outcome. The real defeat is the nervous/
mental/systemic breakdown caused when he becomes aware the situation is beyond
his control, which is in turn a product of our ability consistently to cut
inside the time of his observation-decision-action cycle.
The French campaign of 1940 is an excellent example of the Boyd process in
operation. The Germans presented the French with a succession of new and
unexpected situations at a pace too rapid for the French
observation-decisionaction cycle. The nerve of the French high command broke
under the strain.
How does the Boyd Theory and its application to ground warfare, maneuver war,
relate to the Marine Corps? It is relevant, because maneuver war is the most
promising tool for the side with fewer numbers and less weight of metal. In
many scenarios Marines are likely to be outnumbered in men and materiel.
An attrition contest is not promising for the outnumbered force, while maneuver
makes quantitative factors less important by striking at the enemys mind.
As Dr. Edward Luttwak said in an excellent article in the August issue of Air
Force magazine: While the side that has materiel superiority can
choose freely between attrition or maneuver, the
side whose resources are inferior overall can only prevail by successful
maneuver. If an inferior force remains tied by tradition and attitude to
low-risk or low-payoff attrition methods, it must be defeated. In the
cumulative destruction of the forces ranged against one another which
characterizes an attrition contest, the inferior force will inevitably be
This entire section is full of misinformation. Maneuver
warfare is NOT unfamiliar to American military men but has been a standard
method use in all conflicts since earliest colonial times. Miles Standish well
understood it. Norm Schwartkop was a master in its application. His prediction
about Iraq was proven to be rediculous. And the two subsequent wars were not
examples of 'attrition' warfare but of 'annihilation'.
It is not surprising that maneuver warfare is so unfamiliar to American
military men-in whose self-image materiel superiority still looms large-while
it is almost instinctive to those who see themselves as inferior in resources,
be they from Vietnam or Israel. Maneuver war relates directly to the probable
main mission of the Corps during the remainder of this century, supporting the
United States friends in the Third World. Despite the current
Administrations fixation on NATO, Europe is becoming relatively less
important to United States interests and non-European areas, developed
and less developed, more important.
Japan is now the United States largest single trading partner.
Americas vital interest in areas rich in raw materials, especially
petroleum, is well known. The increasing economic vitality of parts of Latin
America, especially Brazil, suggests our interests in that area may become more
important. In many potential Third World scenarios, the Marine Corps faces an
opponent superior in numbers and in materiel-possibly quality as well as
quantity of materiel.
For example, if we consider the possibility of Marine Corps intervention to
assist Saudi Arabia against an attack by Iraq, we see Iraq has an army of
180,000 men, compared to only 80,000 for Saudi Arabia (including the Saudi
National Guard). Iraqi forces include four armored and two mechanized
divisions. Equipment includes T-62 and AMX-30 tanks, BMPs multiple rocket
launchers and ZSU-23-4 antiaircraft guns-equipment equal or superior to that
possessed by Marines. The supporting air force has 339 combat aircraft,
including modern MiG-23s, SU-20s and Mirage F-1s. While Saudi equipment is also
modern, quantities are smaller. Operational effectiveness also may be less.
Maneuver warfare would offer a Marine amphibious force (MAF) the best chance in
assisting Saudi forces to victory.
An attrition contest between well-equipped Iraqi mechanized divisions and a
single MAF would not be promising. The need is for a force which, although
small, can wage maneuver warfare in support of an ally who probably cannot,
against an opponent who probably cannot. Indeed, the force multiplier effect of
maneuver warfare should be more striking against a Third World opponent. While
Third World armies may be large, well-equipped and competent at operating their
weapons systems, they are likely to be tactically and operationally inflexible.
Third World nations can produce some highly competent officers and planners, as
the Egyptians demonstrated in the canal crossing in 1973. But they are not
likely to have many such officers, and flexibility may be lacking in field
The impact of maneuver warfare, with its emphasis on speed, surprise and the
creation of unexpected situations, could be devastating. Such has been
Israels experience in several wars with her Third World neighbors.
However good the prewar planning and set-piece operations of the Arabs, the
Israeli maneuver style of warfare triumphed dramatically once the situation
became fluid. The reason was not that Israeli equipment was better or that
Israeli troops were more courageous, but that Israeli field forces showed great
flexibility. Their opponents did not.
It is sometimes mistakenly thought that maneuver warfare automatically means
armored warfare. To be sure, foot infantry cannot fight effective maneuver war
in open terrain. But in rugged terrain, maneuver concepts apply fully to
infantry warfare. Indeed, maneuver war was first manifested in the West in this
century during World War I by German foot infantry in so-called infiltration
von Hutier or soft-spot tactics.
The World War II blitzkrieg differed little in concept from these early
infiltration tactics, merely substituting tanks for storm troops and achieving
the higher rates of advance permitted by mechanization. Infiltration tactics
may offer as much potential to Marine foot infantry as to future Marine
mechanized units. Changes will be required in the Marine Corps if it is to
fight maneuver warfare effectively.
Maneuver doctrine must be developed and disseminated. Marine foot infantry may
have to become lighter if it is to fight maneuver warfare effectively in
appropriate terrain. Mechanized forces must be formed for open terrain, not
based on heavy tanks and tracked infantry fighting vehicles which restrict
strategic mobility but on a family of lightweight, probably wheeled combat
vehicles such as those discussed by Maj Jim Williams in the October 1978 issue
of the GAZETTE.
To provide strategic responsiveness, equipment for substantial mechanized units
should be prepositioned at sea in potential trouble areas, probably on rollon,
roll-off (RO-RO) ships. Some arms, especially artillery, may require expansion.
But unlike the Army, the Marine Corps can develop a strategically responsive
force to fight maneuver war in Third World areas. Bound as it is to airlift and
to land prepositioning, the Army cannot quickly move mechanized forces over
Another mistake proven to be such.
The Army, like the Marine Corps, could preposition equipment at sea. But then
the Army would become another Marine Corps, and few force planners think we
need two. A shift to maneuver warfare offers a major challenge to Marines.
But the Marine Corps has always conducted maneuver
warfare, including at the strategic level, throughout the Pacific.
But it is an exciting challenge, especially for company and field grade
officers. In maneuver warfare, the responsibility placed on company and field
grades increases dramatically. The key to maintaining a rapid
observation-decision-action is to make all decisions on the lowest possible
level, the company and battalion level. This is one of the fundamental
principles of the German army and is central to their concept of mission orders
tactics (Auftragstaktik). Mission orders tactics require company and field
grade officers to understand the concepts of maneuver war and of the operation
in which they are engaged. Only through a solid conceptual understanding can
they hope to make the right decisions on their own as events occur in the
field. There is no question Marines can meet the challenge. By adopting a
maneuver concept of war, they can give the United States the capability it
needs to defend its vital interests outside Europe. And by performing that
task, the Marine Corps can assure itself a solid mission of unquestionable