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The Case Against Maneuver Warfare

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The Case Against Maneuver Warfare

Michael Gladius

Ever since the 1970s/1980s, maneuver warfare has been regarded as the ideal form of warfare. It’s associated primarily with the German Army of WWII and the Mongol Empire, and everybody wants to emulate their successes. However, Maneuver Warfare has several real weaknesses that do not translate well into the American way of war. In this essay, we will look at 2 ways in which maneuver warfare can be defined, their weaknesses, and then how America can incorporate their benefits into its own doctrine.

Definition #1: OODA Loops

The first definition of Maneuver warfare brought up by reformers is the ideal of always getting inside an opponent’s OODA Loop. This is the time-honored art of beating one’s opponent to the punch and doing it over and over again. While this is desirable, it is not a complete doctrine in and of itself; it is one variable among many. Being able to hit an opponent faster than he can react only works if one’s own decision/action can have an effect; actions that effect no change are wasted and slow the tempo. Since the American mind desires to impose our own will upon the situation, and change it to our liking, we require a certain set of tools in our toolbox. Some of these must necessarily slow the tempo in order to impose change, and we have designed our military to withstand any blows that may land while we take aim.

Reducing all doctrine to quick reaction times also does not consider the possibility of facing an opponent who makes decisions at the same speed, particularly if he has short interior communication lines. Even on the open plains, two equally mobile and reactive opponents can block each other’s moves, cancelling each other out. These opponents must then resort to other means in order to break the stalemate, as happened in the Overland Campaign in 1864.

A third issue is that relying solely on one’s ability to beat an opponent to the punch under all circumstances requires varying degrees of luck. Most of the greatest maneuver warfare victories in history depended on the winner being extremely lucky. During Operation Barbarossa, maneuver warfare’s finest hour, the Germans outnumbered the Russians by 1.1 million men and accidentally caught them out of position, hundreds of miles west of their fortifications, mid-deployment to Ukraine, understrength, and with all major decisions requiring approval from commissars with little understanding of military tactics. The same happened in France 1940: The German attack through the Ardennes could have been blunted or stopped completely had the Franco-British commanders unleashed their bombers on the backed-up German columns.[i] Yet when firepower warfare wins under such lopsided circumstances, the successes are automatically dismissed out of hand. General Grant and the Soviet Union both defeated their opponents with only a 2-to-1 numerical advantage, rather than the traditional 3-to-1, and both are still described as senseless butchers today.

Relying heavily on luck can lead to spectacular victory, or backfire horribly. Sometimes we’ll miss the mark or throw our opponent off balance only for him to land on top of us. Beating an opponent to the punch is the ideal way to utilize one’s resources but does not offer insights or guidance as to which resources or goals should be pursued. Many supporters of maneuver warfare boast of the superiority of the ‘moral’ level of war over the physical, but this necessarily presumes that our opponents are at a moral disadvantage: either unwilling to fight or will surrender because of a few clever maneuvers. This also requires a rational enemy- it’s hard to win moral victories against an irrational or stubborn opponent.

By contrast, firepower warfare does not rely on luck or a weak-willed enemy and offers clear guidance in many fields. It calls for maximizing the ability of individual soldiers and small units to inflict significant damage onto their enemies, and to make every enemy movement costly. America’s offensive, attrition mindset further gives us incentive to relentlessly hammer our opponents harder, and for longer. Like the Greek virtue of Andreia (Courage), the virtue of perseverance and endurance, it is not mutually exclusive with seizing fleeting opportunities when they arise. Andreia was the mark of true masculinity in the Ancient Greek world because it was not impulsive or easily discouraged by hardships or setbacks. One could joke that Murphy’s Law is more relevant to America’s Army than Sun Tzu ever will be. Maneuver warfare embodies Greek Thrastyes, or boldness, which is powerful in the short-term but collapses in the long term. Maneuver warfare’s biggest enemy is time.

On the Moral Level of war, firepower warfare assumes the enemy is willing to fight, and won’t automatically surrender. If the enemy does surrender, then those forces tasked with reducing his defenses can be redirected to exploit. The OODA version of maneuver warfare prefers to focus on the moral/strategic level of warfare at the expense of the physical/tactical levels, but firepower warfare believes that destroying an enemy’s ability to fight is more important than messing with his head. Anyone can change his mind, but dead men don’t win wars.

The underlying issue being brought up in this context is the need for decentralizing command structure, and creating a better command culture. Although this is not strictly doctrine, it is arguably more important. An army can have perfect doctrine, but if its leaders are subjected to micromanagement, petty feuds and backstabbing, then the organization will fail. BG Bolduc has written several excellent columns dealing with leadership and administration issues that must be resolved before America’s Army can expect to take on a peer opponent, regardless of doctrine. I, too, have suggested in two other columns some basic steps to further this goal. Another good move already underway is the Army’s decision to employ freshly-graduated 2nd Lieutenants in Boot Camp to assist with training and administrative duties. The Military’s literature is chock-full of timeless wisdom that is perfectly applicable today, so what remains is implementing it now as ruthlessly as George Marshall did in 1939.

Definition #2: The Eastern Way of War

Orientalism is nothing new in the West, and the second most commonly used definition of maneuver warfare argues in favor of the Eastern style of warfare. Most proponents focus on the Mongols and Chinese and describe their style of warfare as a blend of deception and mobility. This also arises when discussing the Vietnam War, and the supposed combat superiority of the VC/NVA as they presumably ran in circles around slow-moving, overburdened American conscripts, evading their firepower. The key element of Asiatic warfare that is almost always overlooked, however, is their reliance on sheer weight of numbers. The Mongols outnumbered their enemies in every major battle. The Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese, and even North Koreans all relied on numbers as their primary weapon. Although Russia’s way of war is distinct from the Asiatic way of war, it still contains many of these same elements. Soviet Deep Battle Doctrine also utilizes mass, and Russia today is pioneering the mass introduction of drones onto the battlefield.

Why should mobile warfare, particularly in Asia, be so dependent upon numerical superiority? The first reason is its tactic of choice: encirclement. An army performing an encirclement must necessarily have longer front lines than its opponent and must deploy in depth to prevent breakouts and rescues. Such a move is manpower-intensive against a serious opponent, or in a large theater of operations. The second reason is the choice of arms for mobile forces. Mobile forces are very lightly armed, and therefore lack punch. A large enough mass, however, can compensate. Finally, mobile forces are lightly armored to preserve their speed, which reduces their survivability; therefore, larger armies can more easily absorb losses. The crippling weakness in relying on numbers, however, is crowd psychology. Crowds are prone to mass panics and extreme emotion swings; thus, relying on the strength of the crowd means that if the crowd breaks and flees, there is little that can be done to stop or reverse it.

The second attribute of Asiatic/Eastern warfare is its dualist worldview. Most Americans are familiar with the Yin-Yang dynamic, and this translates to a push-pull approach in war. Eastern Armies deliberately have units yield, in order to draw the enemy into a trap, while other units apply pressure to prevent the enemy from escaping or taking advantageous ground. This worldview, however, is very one-dimensional, and requires using live troops as decoys. It can be countered using the same tactics used at Leuctra by the Thebans; i.e., defeat the strong and the weak will lose heart. As for the secrecy of Asiatic warfare, this is a defensive, not offensive, tool, and America’s Army is by nature an offensive-oriented culture. Good concealment and misleading the enemy is useful in preventing him from using his strongest elements, but surprise does not add to one’s own strength. Deception wears off quickly once battle is joined, concealment doesn’t protect against massed artillery strikes, nor do they blast an enemy out of his fortifications.

Western culture and warfare are based on trinities rather than dualities. The maneuver warfare school of thought is dualist when it describes firepower warfare/maneuver warfare as contradictory opposites. Yet to a Trinitarian worldview, this artificial constraint makes no sense. Like in boxing, most fighters or armies can manage 2 out of 3: heavy hitter, fast mover, and endurance fighter. Of the three possible combos, the American Army currently uses the heavy hitter-endurance fighter model. American firepower can deliver knockout blows (and take punishment), while our logistics enable us to keep fighting over a prolonged period of time. Tactically, the trinity is between firepower, maneuver, and guerrilla/ranger[ii] tactics. Airland Battle was intended to employ conventional fire-and-maneuver tactics, while using ranger tactics on an operational level.[iii] Deep Battle, on the other hand, utilized great volumes of firepower at the tactical level, large-scale operational maneuvers,[iv] and left ranger tactics[v] to the strategic level.

Should America adopt Asiatic-style warfare, we would have to give up one of our two existing advantages. Between strength and endurance, the current trend is towards retaining the latter and weakening the former through reliance on light infantry and light vehicles. Against the Chinese, Koreans, or Iranians, this strategy would result in a draw at best. Against the Russians, such an approach would be crushed like eggshells. In both cases, widespread conscription would become necessary, as casualties would be massive, and America’s army is nowhere near big enough to have numerical superiority on more than one front.

The Solution

So how can America integrate the benefits of maneuver warfare into Multidomain Operations? The main problem to be solved involves:

  • A mixture of massed artillery/missile/drone strikes
  • Asymmetric warfare
  • The enemy possessing the numerical advantage
  • A2AD anti-weaponry platforms.

The Chinese are most likely to rely largely on A2AD and superior numbers/firepower on the offense. Defensively, China will utilize A2AD and asymmetric forces. Iran is most likely to rely on proxies for both offense and defense. Russia’s military falls somewhere in the middle, with a more balanced blend of conventional and unconventional tactics. China believes it can defeat the Unites States in a rapid victory, while Russia and Iran represent opponents who believe that an attritional, guerrilla-style struggle is necessary to wear out America’s will to fight.

The first task is command decentralization. As mentioned above, the OODA Loop proponents believe that reaction times are key, and a decentralized command structure will maximize ours, regardless of the type of unit in question. Personnel policy should be modeled around the notion that every man must find his niche, and then reward him for staying there. Other ideas for seamless integration could involve requiring high-ranking officers to share an office in peacetime, regardless of branch. The 5-Paragraph Order could incorporate ‘Commander’s Intent’, as Mr. William Lind suggested in his 1986 ‘Maneuver Warfare Handbook.’[vi] Further integrating 2nd Lieutenants into basic training after they complete officers’ training should become a permanent fixture.

On a practical level, the Trinitarian view provides a firm foundation for combined-arms warfare. Such a mindset produces many useful triads:

  • Infantry, Cavalry/armor, artillery branches
  • Shock/firepower, mobile/maneuver, ranger/guerrilla tactics
  • Heavy, light, special/unconventional forces
  • Binary, triangle, square orders of battle

Thus, some forces should be optimized for purely mobile warfare, while others should specialize in siege/urban warfare. In terms of how to fit these numerous styles together into the order of battle, America should opt for combined-arms warfare simultaneously on all three levels: tactical, operational, and strategic. Maneuver warfare theory proposes copying the Germanic-Prussian method, which only has combined-arms on the operational level (usually division),[vii] and the current IBCT uses this model. The German Army in the 20th century quickly discovered, however, that combined-arms was also necessary at the tactical level, and so resorted to ad hoc Kampfgruppen, which were not permanent formations. They believed this was an effective way to empower junior-level commanders, but this is not the only method for doing so.

America ought to reorganize her order of battle to design all companies, battalions, brigades, divisions, and corps to be self-reliant at combined-arms warfare. This partially exists already and should be carried out to its logical conclusion. Tank companies should include infantry platoons, just as infantry companies include weapons platoons. Battalions, brigades, and even divisions should contain light and heavy variants of infantry, armor, and artillery (including nuclear weapons), all mixed together in various combinations. The variety alone allows units to be custom-tailored for a wide variety of possible scenarios and adopting combined-arms at all three levels turns the debate into one of degree, rather than of kind. America’s army operates in all climates, environments, and against every sort of enemy; thus, we need a flexible system that offers all-of-the-above in terms of weapons and doctrine.

In the end, Multidomain Doctrine is the best doctrine for America’s military, and should be pushed to its limits. Maneuver warfare is too limiting, physically and mentally, by relying on a single sort of specialist and a dualist worldview. Specialists are crucial to the military’s power, and it is the duty of doctrine to bring them all together. Every man and idea must have his niche. Soldiers who believe that urban warfare requires its own specialists should have a place. Soldiers who believe in the power of dedicated COIN formations should have a place. The list goes on. Doctrine cannot be reduced to equipment or maneuvers alone, it must have them all. The Russians did not make this mistake, and neither should we.

End Notes

[i] This did not happen because the reports from reconnaissance planes were dismissed as impossible by the Generals. Even without bombing, the Germans suffered massive traffic jams and confusion on the narrow roads of the Ardennes.

[ii] Guerrilla and ranger tactics are the same, but historically the former term was used when fighting defensively while the latter term was used when these tactics were used offensively

[iii] i.e., fighting retreats, local hit-and-run counterattacks, targeting Soviet reserves and supply columns, etc.

[iv] Particularly encirclement of entire enemy armies

[v] like Spetsnaz and paratroopers

[vi] Mr. Lind is an outspoken opponent of the American way of war, but unwittingly endorsed the 5-Paragraph order as a useful tool for teaching leaders how to think when he suggested this addition.

[vii] The French had combined-arms at the tactical level, down to companies, while the Russians had combined-arms at the strategic level, up to corps and army groups.

About the Author(s)

Michael Gladius is the pseudonym for a budding commentator in the fields of military history and theory. His goal is to blend the lessons of history, principles of human behavior, and practical wisdom in order to draw upon a wide array of factors for optimized solutions and problem-solving. He is currently studying in Europe.


Forgive my bluntness, but please use endnotes for sourcing so we know you actually read up before writing this. It doesn't show.

I don't think you understand what maneuver warfare is, to start, as many of your characterizations of historical "maneuver" or "firepower" warfare are just wrong. For a simple explanation, attrition warfare is hitting your opponent in the face, while maneuver warfare is stepping around to strike your enemy in the back. There is a time and place for both styles, but always defaulting to attrition will be very hard on your fists.

I would echo Mike Jacobson above on his recommendations; I would also recommend you study Operation Bagration (1944), and how Soviet forces used extraordinary mass of fire to break through German lines so they could exploit their mobility advantages in maneuver warfare.

Mike Jacobson

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 4:06pm

This article is superficial and the author ignores much more important exemplars of maneuver warfare.

I would suggest a thorough read of Von Moltke's exploits and accomplishments during the Franco-Prussian war and a study of Hindenburg and Ludendorff East Front campaign in 1914-1916.