The View From Olympus: A Response to a Critique of MCDP 1, Warfighting

The October issue of the Marine Corps Gazette published a thoughtful, challenging, and important critique of the Corps’ doctrine of maneuver warfare and its primary official statement, MCDP 1, Warfighting.  Since I started the debate over maneuver warfare with a paper I wrote in 1976 and I was heavily involved in writing Warfighting, it is appropriate that I respond.

The Gazette article, “The Fantasy of MCDP 1” by Lt. Col. Thaddeus Drake, Jr., USMC, states its challenge up front:

Our doctrine, Warfighting, has transcended the generally recognized purpose of standard military doctrine and no longer provides a useful guide to Marine Corps operations in the 21st century.

Yet this is no ignorant dismissal of maneuver doctrine, of which I have seen too many over the years:

There is nonetheless much to love about MCDP 1.  Indeed, it is probably the most effective military doctrinal publication since the Wehrmacht’s Truppenführung.

Lt. Col. Drake offers three objections to Warfighting.  The first is that it does not meet traditional definitions of military doctrine:

The most essential issue around our doctrine remains the tension between the overall purpose of military doctrine: the aspirational versus the practical. . . In the Marine Corps, the commonly accepted understanding of doctrine is that it represents a collection of best practices and broad guidelines–that may or may not be followed, depending on the situation.  In contrast, the most generally accepted definition of military doctrine is Barry Posen’s suggestion that doctrine describes “what means shall be employed and how shall they be employed. . .” MCDP 1, our foundational doctrinal definition, fits in neither of these definitions.

What Lt. Col. Drake misses is that the definition of doctrine changes between the Second and Third Generations of modern war, which is to say between the French and German ways of war, attrition warfare or maneuver warfare.  Second Generation doctrine tells soldiers what to do, similar to Posen’s definition.  Third Generation doctrine is about how to think.  As it should, MCDP 1 fits the latter definition.  It was clear from the beginning that Warfighting is aspirational because its purpose was and remains moving the Marine Corps from the Second to the Third Generation way of war.  That purpose remains valid because, as Lt. Col. Drake agrees, the Marine Corps has not yet made the transition in terms of institutional structure, behavior, or culture.

Lt. Col. Drake’s second criticism is directed at Warfighting’s focus on systemic collapse.  He writes,

In the 30-plus years since the development of this doctrine, there are scant examples that show success in this sort of systemic destruction–despite the fact that the Marine Corps has been involved in combat for at least 25 of those years!

An obvious response is to point to the first phase of the Second Gulf war, the phase where we were fighting the armed forces of the Iraqi state.  Here, Lt. Col. Drake hits on a major change in war but does not grasp what it is:

It is also accurate to say that the Marine and Army elements penetrated the (Iraqi) enemy system, causing it to break down, and then it subsequently reformed itself into a warfighting system far more resilient and effective against U.S. conventional forces. . .

By creating a doctrine where we deliberately focus on systemic disruption as the ultimate goal, it is possible that the Marine Corps has placed its leaders and planners in an impossible situation, where they attempt to disrupt complex enemy systems, and in doing so created an endless spiral of more complex problem sets.

What happened in Iraq was that in collapsing the Iraqi armed forces we destroyed the state itself.  Welcome to Fourth Generation war.

Warfighting was written for a world in which war was fought between states.  That had been true for more than 300 years, despite occasional challenges from non-state elements such as tribes that always lost.  It is true no longer.  What happened is that, in the Second Gulf war, maneuver warfare worked perfectly until U.S. forces faced non-state opponents.

Does this call for revision of MCDP 1?  Absolutely.  Unfortunately, like the rest of the U.S. military, the Marine Corps refuses to think about Fourth Generation war.  It has chosen to live instead in a fantasy world where the main threat we face is China instead of spreading state disintegration.  Puffing the dragon is much more useful for padding budgets and seemingly requires little institutional change.

To fill the void, Lt. Col. Greg Thiele USMC and I wrote the Fourth Generation Warfare Handbook.  Until the Marine Corps wakes up and rejoins the real world, all I can do is recommend the Handbook to Lt. Col. Drake and other Marines who see Fourth Generation war raises challenges that cannot be addressed by maneuver warfare alone, as important as the culture of the latter remains.

Lt. Col. Drake’s third objection is that mission order tactics, Auftragstaktik, which are central to maneuver warfare, are not possible for today’s Marines, for two reasons.  First, neither contemporary American national culture nor the culture of the Marine Corps permit them:

Rarely have we addressed the difficulty and general inability of our culture to integrate the concept of Auftragstaktik wholesale.  Nationally, American culture may simply not support the idea of mission tactics.  Since militaries are necessarily the products of their larger society, the basic culture of that society will also be a part of its military. . .

The institutional Marine Corps also has a number of cultural characteristics that prevent the wholesale importation of mission tactics.  Compared to the originators of the concept, we are overly hierarchical, bureaucratic, and resistant to developing cohesive elements through deliberate manpower management strategies.  Indeed, since the inception of Warfighting, we have increased the bureaucratic complexity of our force. . .

I do not concur that broad American culture makes Auftragstaktik impossible.  German culture also presented obstacles to the concept, which the German military overcame through training.  For them, the problem was that broader German culture did not reward or (often) even tolerate initiative.  For us, it is the other cultural requirement of Auftragstaktik that poses a challenge: self-discipline.  But here again, the right training can deal with the problem.  Even with the Corps’ current process-oriented, Second Generation training, I have repeatedly seen enlisted Marines operate successfully with mission orders.  When has that happened?  When they were told they were aggressors.  From almost 50 years of observing Marine Corps training, I would argue that both the ability and the desire for Auftragstaktik live right below the surface of most enlisted Marines.  Their great frustration is that, even with Warfighting as the Corps’ capstone doctrinal statement, they almost never get the chance to show what they can do.

Lt. Col. Drake’s second reason for believing mission tactics are impractical is changes in communications technology:

Finally, technology has a crucial part to play in the discussion regarding the efficacy of mission command.  In the modern world, where wireless communications and computer technologies enable the collection, transmission, and analysis of massive amounts of information, instant, ubiquitous, and constant communication is the norm. .  .  One of the fundamental reasons for the employment of mission tactics as a command style is to minimize the requirement for constant instruction from higher headquarters–originally designed this way because constant instruction was impossible. . .  This is no longer the case; worse. . . the society we live in has inculcated young men and women with an expectation of constant connection.  It is pure fantasy to believe we will be able to break our young Marines and Sailors of a literal lifetime of training with connected devices to instead execute mission tactics with no communications.

This challenge to Auftragstaktik is not new.  The German Army faced the same issue between the wars because of the advent of voice radio coupled with small radio sets that could be acquired in large numbers and carried virtually anywhere.  The debate was resolved then in favor of mission tactics in part because many German officers recognized that there are two problems with centralized control.  The first is that centralization can slow tempo even with modern communications technology.  The second, which Lt. Col. Drake overlooks, is that the picture of events at the front becomes more and more distorted as it moves up the chain of command.  This means decision-makers develop false orientations, which is a long standing and serious military problem.  Col. John Boyd said orientation was the most important element in the OODA Loop, because if you get that wrong, everything else will be wrong too.  Far from reducing this problem, computer technologies worsen it because computer graphics make the false picture transmitted up the chain seem even more real.

At the same time, I think Lt. Col. Drake is correct that the young people the Marine Corps takes in are accustomed to being in communication all the time, thanks to various mobile devices.  Indeed, many are addicted to these technologies.  Training can help diminish this dependence but it is unlikely to go away–even though, as Lt. Col. Drake acknowledges, in a war with a major power all communications may be shut down almost from the outset.

This situation must be addressed by advocates of Auftragstaktik.  My own solution would be not to drop mission tactics but to expand them.  They should be re-defined to allow Marines at every level, down to the greenest rifleman, to use their devices as they see fit to obtain the information they want from an open-architecture system.  That system would feed them very little, only what mission tactics have always required: the commander’s intent, the Schwerpunkt and their unit’s mission within the context created by the other two elements.  Beyond that, they would search on their own for what they want, within and beyond information provided by the Marine Corps.  At headquarters, commanders and operations officers would similarly take the information they want from the constantly changing, open-architecture network.  Headquarters should seldom need to ask subordinates for information because the connected generation will constantly be telling everyone who cares to listen what they are doing.  What if the enemy listens in?  The technologies easily adopt encryption, and because in maneuver warfare the tactical situation changes rapidly, by the time the enemy has processed information it will usually be outdated.  Obviously, more security is required at the operational and strategic levels, but few Marines will have to deal with that.

In addressing what is to be done about the problems with Warfighting Lt. Col. Drake perceives, he calls for eliminating a “false dichotomy” between attrition warfare and maneuver warfare.  He notes that Warfighting says attrition and maneuver exist on a spectrum, which is correct in a narrow context.  However, in a broader context it is not because when the terms are used to describe two different approaches to war, they refer to the Second and Third Generations, with the radical institutional and cultural differences between the two.  Of crucial importance is the fact that while a Third Generation military can do attrition warfare, a Second Generation armed service cannot do maneuver warfare once events outrun its initial plan.

Lt. Col. Drake identifies what is perhaps the central doctrinal issues facing the Marine Corps as he concludes his highly important article, which justly won the 2020 Chase Prize Essay Contest, the contradiction between what the Marine Corps says in Warfighting and what it does:

The contrast between what MCDP 1 states and the micromanagement that most Marines experience on a daily basis creates a massive say-do gap that undermines leadership and creates an enormous amount of disillusion throughout the force.

Col. Boyd argued that no institution can indefinitely survive such a say-do gap.  I agree.  Either the Marine Corps should make the changes in its personnel system, education, and training a Third Generation military requires or it should adopt doctrine that reduces war to merely putting ordinance on targets.  The former approach is what the Commandant called for in his initial guidance.  So far, no progress is evident, continuing a failure that has now lasted thirty years.  The second choice dooms the Marine Corps to failure against Third and Fourth Generation opponents; we have watched the latter failure unfold over the last twenty years. What it comes down to is simple: change or die.  If the Corps cannot learn how to win future wars, which requires it actually doing what Warfighting says, then the future Marine Corps will be one battalion of embassy guards.  As things now stand, that is where it is heading.