The View From Olympus: Maneuver Warfare and Navies

The debate in this country about maneuver warfare has centered on the Army and the Marine Corps, not the Navy. (It influenced the Air Force through John Boyd and Pierre Sprey, especially in the development and procurement of the A-10; for a recent look at air power and maneuver warfare, see the K.u.K. Marine Corps Air Cooperation Field Manual, available here. That traces to the origin of the debate, in my critique of the 1976 version of the Army’s basic Field Manual, FM 100-5. The fact that, of all the U.S. armed services, it was the Marine Corps that showed most interest in the concept kept the focus on land warfare. History also played a role: maneuver warfare as we now know it was developed by and institutionalized in the Prussian/German Army between 1807 and 1945.

But it did not start there. It started in the Royal Navy in the second half of the eighteenth century. Years ago, I asked John Lehman when he thought it began, and his answer was when George Anson became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1751. Anson, who led a round-the-world raid on the Spanish in 1740-1744, taking the Manila Galleon, certainly had the characteristics maneuver warfare seeks in a leader.

Another British admiral, I think, did more than Anson to promote the outward focus maneuver warfare demands. That Admiral was the Hon. John Byng, who, on March 17, 1757, following his court martial, was shot by a firing squad on the quarterdeck of H.M.S. Monarch. Of critical importance, Byng was executed not for what he did, but what he didn’t do. The charge against him was that, in action in command of a British fleet fighting the French off the Mediterranean island of Minorca, Byng had not done his utmost. By punishing with death a sin of omission, not commission, the Royal Navy created a bias for action in its officers that, by the time of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, had largely institutionalized what we know as maneuver warfare: outward focus on decisive results rather than inward focus on rules, orders, etc.; valuing initiative over obedience; decentralizing decision-making and depending on self more than imposed discipline. As Voltaire famously wrote, “Sometimes the British shoot an admiral to encourage the others.”

All this seemingly ancient history may have a new relevance in the U.S. Navy. The current PACFLEET commander, Admiral Scott Swift, is doing his utmost to promote the culture of maneuver warfare among his commanders. Driven by a probably accurate concern that, in a naval war with China (which God forbid) our communications will quickly be taken down, he is attempting to drive decision-making down and accustom his fleet to mission-type orders. He appears to grasp the fact that, as Marine Corps General Mike Myatt puts it, “Maneuver warfare is not centralized decision-making and decentralized execution. It is centralized vision and decentralized decision-making.”

If there is one book I could recommend to Admiral Swift, it would be Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game. This very readable volume tells the story of how and why, in the 19th century, the Royal Navy lost the culture of maneuver warfare and focused inward again. At the heart of the matter lay signaling; improved signaling gave fleet commanders the illusion that they could at all times control the actions of every ship in their fleet. And so they did. Gordon does not rest content with history; he relates that 19th century experience to what navies are doing today, as billions of dollars spent on communication equipment again creates the illusion of perfect centralized control.

I wish there were a book I could recommend to Admiral Swift on the development of maneuver warfare in the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century. Sadly, no such book exists. I had lunch with Andrew Gordon a few years ago at the Royal Navy’s Maritime Warfare Centre near Portsmouth, England, which was previously the Allies’ D-Day headquarters. I told him I wanted to write that prequel to his book. He replied that unfortunately, the source material does not exist because the Royal Navy officers who were making it happen were not writing it down. Historians are restricted almost entirely to written sources. If there are none, the history cannot be written.

But it happened, and we know it happened because it was a basis of Britain’s vast naval superiority over the French Navy 1792-1815. That superiority had not previously existed; had the French Royal Navy not been qualitatively equal to the British during the American Revolution, the Queen’s governor general would probably still be sitting in our capital of Philadelphia.

So fair winds and following seas to Admiral Swift. He has a large task ahead of him. But it has been done, it did work, and what has been done once can be done again. Though we will perhaps need to shoot an admiral pour encourager les autres.