The View From Olympus: A Maneuver Warfare Revival?

One of the principal themes of the military reform movement of the 1980s was the need for America’s armed services to move from firepower/attrition warfare to maneuver warfare.  Historically, these are, respectively, the French way of war and the German.  The former reduces war to merely putting firepower on targets in a mutual attrition contest.  The latter uses surprise, speed, and the indirect approach to shatter the enemy’s ability to respond cohesively, on both the physical and mental levels.  When the two doctrines met on the battlefield in 1940, the French, who had more tanks and better tanks than the Germans, went down to defeat in six weeks.

In this country, the push for maneuver warfare peaked in the early 1990s when the U.S. Marine Corps, under Commandant General Al Gray, formally adopted maneuver doctrine and wrote some first-rate field manuals to explain it.  The U.S. Army dabbled around with it a bit, and under General Wayne A. Downing U.S. Special Operations Command issued a maneuverist field manual of its own, USSOCOM Pub 1, Special Operations in Peace and War.

But that was as far as maneuver warfare went.  No service institutionalized maneuver warfare, which means the Marine Corps could talk about it, but no one could actually do it.  Our way of war, as we see in Afghanistan, remains a matter of putting firepower on targets.

The fact that putting lots of firepower on lots of Afghan targets has not moved us any closer to winning that war may be one reason my sources are now reporting a revived interest in maneuver warfare.  U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley recently testified to the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee that the Army must have a new helicopter in order to do maneuver warfare against the Russians or the Chinese.  The fact that he tied maneuver doctrine to a piece of equipment suggests his grasp of it is not deep.

Of more importance are reports that the new Marine Corps Commandant, who should take over this summer, is a maneuverist, as is the current 2nd Marine Division Commander.  The Marine Corps’ formal adoption of maneuver warfare began in 2nd MAR DIV in the 1980s when General Gray became the division commander.  It would be a logical place for a new Commandant to begin the task of making maneuver warfare something Marines actually do, not just talk about.

How might a Commandant and Marine division commander go about making maneuver warfare real?  The single most powerful tool is free-play training.  In free-play training, the unit being trained has to go up against an opponent in a field exercise who can do whatever he wants to defeat them, and is not so small as to be a tethered goat.  Currently, some Marine units do what they call force-on-force training, but it is not the same.  Current force-on-force training is almost always scripted, so that the opposing force (OPFOR) is predictable and has to lose.  This is training for an opera company, not a military.  What defines war is the independent, hostile will of the enemy, which means he keeps doing things you never expected.  Only free play training allows the OPFOR to exercise an independent, hostile will.

Free play training quickly creates a maneuver warfare mindset because the side that comes up with the most creative, imaginative tactics usually wins, and Marines don’t like to lose.  Inward focus, which is the essence of firepower/attrition warfare, makes you slow and predictable; outward focus, where Marines of every rank take the initiative to get the result the situation requires, usually brings victory.  In other words, free-play training connects Marines’ desires to win to the behavior maneuver warfare requires.  That is exactly what the Marine Corps needs to do to make maneuver warfare its real, not just its formal, doctrine.

For even free-play training to give maximum value, Marines will also need to learn how to critique.  Most Marine “critiques” are just narratives of events, with the universal conclusion of “The comm sucked but we all did great.”  A real critique focuses on critical junctures, points where action or inaction, right action or wrong action pushed the result one way or the other, and then draws out why events at that point went the way they did.  This in turn requires that the leaders of a critique have military judgement, that they be able to think militarily.  Because no American DOD schools teach how to think militarily, such people are rare in the Marine Corps and our other services.  They will most likely be found among servicemen who, on their own time, are serious war gamers.

Will this all be just another flash in the pan?  Probably.  But I’m glad the Marines are at least making an attempt.  Second Generation, firepower/attrition warfare is hopeless in Fourth Generation war, where the more firepower you put on targets, the more quickly you ensure your own strategic defeat.  Unless the U.S. armed forces can learn to do maneuver warfare–maneuver in all three dimensions, physical, mental, and moral–we would be better off replacing them with an 800 number that says “We surrender” in a variety of languages.

Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.