The View From Olympus: Another Move Forward for Maneuver Warfare in the Marine Corps

In late June I attended a Marine Corps conference sponsored by Training and Education Command (TECOM) on the subject of how to teach maneuver warfare. This was the second conference in a series; the first was last fall. Both have been run on a civilian-clothes, no-ranks basis, which is necessary for frank exchanges. And both have been productive.

Last fall’s conference concluded unanimously, and correctly, that the Marine Corps has not institutionalized maneuver warfare. “Islands” of it form, based on commanders who get it. But when those commanders leave, the Second Generation sea usually sweeps over the island, obliterating it. The result is an eternal sine-wave and a Marine Corps that can talk about maneuver warfare but for the most part can’t do it.

This June’s conference addressed the question of what needs to change in training and education if Marines are to learn to do maneuver warfare. Training and education are not alone enough; the personnel system must also change in major ways. But TECOM has no control over that, so it rightly focused on what it can change.

One of the highlights of the conference was hearing from junior Marines, many of them Staff NCOs, what they are doing to teach maneuver warfare on their own initiative. Using case studies, tactical decision games, and field exercises, they are putting young Marines in situations where they have to make military decisions, then have their reasoning critiqued. Not surprisingly, the students love this approach to instruction–which all too often is still based on memorizing “learning objectives” and spitting them back on multiple choice tests–and they retain what they are taught.

The conference’s findings were boiled down into a three-slide brief for TECOM’s new commander, General Iiams. As with the previous conference, the findings were not a white-wash. The brief stated the problem frankly:

Our training and education system does not bridge the gap between theory and application, that is, between our warfighting philosophy and how we apply it.

It recommended some “High Payoff Targets” to begin to change this. The list is worth reviewing (words in brackets are mine, not the brief’s).:

  • Emphasize the primacy of force-on-force free play exercises. [Free-play training is the single most powerful tool to promote maneuver warfare, because those who operate maneuver-style usually win and Marines hate losing.]
  • Increase decision-making opportunities in schoolhouses, focusing on critical thinking rather than the order-writing process. [The German training literature says, “Don’t worry about the form of the order.”]
  • Improve the quality of instructors by improving instructor development. [Instructors now get so little preparation that they are put in a position where they have to teach what they do not know. The result is the blind leading the blind. It’s not the instructor’s fault, it’s a systemic problem.]
  • Ensure manning of critical billets with highly qualified individuals. [On a visit to the Führungsakademie several years ago, the head of the Ground Tactics Dept. told me, “I have the personal support of the Defense Minister in getting anyone I want as faculty, and a successful faculty tour brings highly-sought follow-on assignment or early promotion or both.” In contrast, our personnel system just spits out a warm body for a faculty tour and it’s considered a career-killer.]
  • Establish a professional adversary force at MAGTF-TC. [I have been calling for this for decades. As it stands, Marines leave 29 Palms thinking the French fire support coordination exercise they do is real war. That’s true only if you are fighting tires. Teaching tactics requires a free-play opponent, and until 29 Palms has an “aggressor” for non-live-fire free-play, we will continue to have a Second Generation Marine Corps.]
  • Provide top cover and support to current islands of success. [Again, this requires changes in personnel policy. You can only protect islands if new commanders are maneuverists. But at present, the personnel system does not even look at tactical ability in making assignments.]
  • Conduct training and education experimentation to address hard problems. [As the conference showed, we know what works: constantly putting students in situations where they have to make military decisions. The hard problem is getting Marine Corps schools to do that instead of teaching war by process.]

The brief’s concluding slide read:

The collective impact of these immediate actions will begin closing the gap between our maneuver warfare philosophy and habitual action, re-focusing on tactical cunning rather than technique and procedure.

General Iiams has the brief. In our meeting with him he seemed to agree with it. The question now is what, if anything, he will actually do. Das Wesentliches is die Tat.


PS: A Navy SEAL friend who was at the conference gave a great definition of the difference between education and training: “Which would you rather your daughter get, sex education or sex training?”

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