Small Wars Journal

Meeting Demand: Making Maneuver Relevant to the 21st Century

Wed, 07/05/2017 - 10:06am

Meeting Demand: Making Maneuver Relevant to the 21st Century

Russell W. Glenn

Maneuver – employing forces “in the operational area through movement in combination with fires to achieve a position of advantage in respect to the enemy” – is a longstanding and highly regarded concept whose application spans both the United States armed services and those of many other nations worldwide.[1] It stands as one of several principles of war in our and no few other of these countries (albeit at times with an alternative spelling). One might argue – some do – that it has achieved the status of the sacred, that it allows no contemplation of revision.

Near deity it might be, but that status has not shielded it from challenges. Writing nearly thirty years ago in his well-regarded The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver-Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle, Robert R. Leonard found the above depiction “too restrictive,” in part because “the official definition implies an application fixed at the tactical level of war.”[2]  He went on to observe, “the term maneuver as applied at the operational and strategic levels of war obviously cannot include the idea of battlefield fires,” concluding that the purpose “is not tied to fires, but rather to gain an advantage over the enemy in some ways – positionally or psychologically.”[3] As with many other theorists, Leonard contrasted maneuver with attrition, the latter being defeat of a foe “through the destruction of the enemy’s mass.”[4] Unfortunately, he ultimately chose to use the term “maneuver” in his book as “movement” alone.[5] Similarly, he retained its exclusive focus on the enemy.

Leonard’s concern with maneuver as doctrinally defined being applicable only at the tactical level is a legitimate one. So eloquent a concept can offer much to those concerned with matters operational and strategic. Less-than-convincing counters attempt to overcome this shortcoming by invoking a generalized view of “fires.” Their efforts incorporate psychological operations, cyber resources, provision of aid, communications jamming, social media communications, low-level aircraft flyovers, and virtually any other means of influencing an adversary that at times track logically, at others stretch the bounds of common sense, and threaten to confuse rather than inform. Better to recognize fires as doctrinal usage dictates, “as the use of weapon systems…to create specific lethal or nonlethal effects on a target” (the latter including nonlethal application of potentially lethal munitions as would occur when sending an artillery barrage into an open field to convince a hesitant foe to surrender).[6]

This brief piece suggests the following as a replacement definition for “maneuver,” one facilitating application of the full range of assets available to a leader and their employment in the service of influencing an expanded set of parties. Maneuver becomes “the employment of relevant resources to gain advantage with respect to select individuals or groups in the service of achieving specified objectives.”[7] Fires and their partner movement thereby become but two of many capabilities a coalition can bring to bear in the service of ends sought.

Recent U.S. operations make it clear there is call for (1) recognizing that leaders have many ways to favorably influence mission accomplishment beyond fires and movement alone while (2) similarly acknowledging that adversaries might not be the sole – or even the primary – parties key to that end. It is noteworthy that our proposed definition does not cast fires and movement aside. As is evident in those recent operations, one or both might well be a part of what is needed to achieve success. They on the other hand might constitute only a small part of a larger set of capabilities. Viewing maneuver exclusively in the sense of fires, movement, and foes could therefore be construed as the equivalent of viewing operations through a soda straw, focusing on too narrow a perspective to the detriment of the whole. The developing concept of Multi-Domain Battle (MDB) encourages a broader conceptualization, one encompassing a comprehensive approach that potentially brings to bear multinational, whole-of-government, nongovernmental and inter-governmental organizations (NGOs and IGOs, respectively), and commercial enterprises’ resources in a comprehensive approach appropriate to the objectives at hand.

This enhancement of maneuver recognizes that focus on physical features alone is insufficient. There must additionally be maneuver in the social arena. Capabilities able to influence select individuals and groups will be fundamental to success. Understanding the social infrastructure is therefore no less important than comprehending the makeup of terrain or an adversary’s force structure.

Multi-Domain Battle inherently recognizes this need to consider more than current doctrine’s components of maneuver. (Though the term MDB has gained momentum helpful to its adoption, Multi-Domain Operations might be the better term given its potential for relevance to challenges along the full spectrum of conflict, challenges that may or may not involve combat.) Some grasp of the advantages available in amplifying what is understood as maneuver is evident in of-late operations by other militaries in addition to those of the United States. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) conduct of operations during 2014 Operation Protective Edge is among those offering insights. Maneuver in the context of our current doctrinal definition was fundamental to that undertaking; ground forces moved into Gaza and employed air and ground fires to destroy enemy or deny the foe use of terrain. Yet this traditional conceptualization of maneuver at times undermined more effective operations that could have better orchestrated other capabilities and benefited from considering parties beyond enemy targets alone. Despite the willingness of nongovernmental and inter-governmental organizations to operate in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, IDF efforts to coordinate their own actions with these partners-of-a-sort fell short of potential despite recognition of similar shortcomings during previous conflicts in the strip.[8]

Israel was more successful in bringing multifaceted resources to bear at the strategic level. No one needed to remind Israel’s leaders that sustaining battlefield operations could be as much a function of diplomacy as other factors. Superpower pressure had more than once historically brought about the cessation of hostilities and influenced the character of the subsequent peace during the country’s nearly seventy years of existence, at times to Israel’s disadvantage. The support of key American audiences, some in Europe, and select others around the world in addition to those domestic Israeli were thus of established importance. Government authorities therefore synchronized messages sent out on six social media platforms in an equal number of languages, missives that were likewise coordinated with communications from Israeli embassies. This orchestration of messaging was a dynamic process. Officials tailored output for selected audiences, monitoring social media (Twitter in particular) to gauge chosen recipients’ perceptions and ongoing events, then contacting journalists, other governments’ representatives, and foreign populations directly.[9] Understanding the magnitude of the challenge, government officials also supported volunteer social media efforts to support Israel’s cause.[10] Though understood that it was impossible to orchestrate these semi-official outputs to the extent internally-generated messages could be, the support nonetheless expanded the scope of relevant audiences touched by pro-Israel communications.

The ultimate IDF mission during Operation Protective Edge or any other conflict is of course the survival of the state and its population. Positioning of systems to counter rocket, missile, and unmanned aerial vehicle assaults and employment of these systems’ fires – actions in keeping with traditional thinking regarding maneuver – was key to these ends given the extensive use of indirect fires by foes in Gaza. Yet such counter-fire systems are not foolproof. Nor was it practical to expect citizens to remain in the safe rooms many homes and other buildings in Israel now possess. Countering the psychological and physical damage wrought by Gazan indirect fire threats therefore integrated another element: the Yo application. Originally little more than a gimmick allowing friends to greet each other on their smart phones with the single word “Yo,” defense officials partnered with the app’s creators to provide early warning of incoming fires for those unable to hear audible warnings or others not within the envelope of Israel’s existing Red Alert warning system. This partnering of a simple app with sophisticated counter-fire systems such as Iron Dome provides another simple example of melding traditional approaches to maneuver with those innovative to the benefit of parties other than enemy.[11]

An additional example related to potential future operations in large urban areas spans all three levels of war. The anarchy that existed in parts of 2003 Baghdad in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s fall shines light on the dangers should large cities’ governments be unable to continue effective functioning. Whether due to combat operations, damage wrought by typhoon, or another cause, loss of government control in part or all of a city can leave thousands if not millions without sustenance and at the mercy of organizations capitalizing on the authority vacuum. The magnitude of the challenge could easily overwhelm a force, especially so were combat operations still ongoing. Such a force would have potential allies in neighborhood associations, local nongovernmental organizations, and other parties at once knowledgeable in the way of local social infrastructure, sufficiently interconnected to assist in coordinating delivery of aid and security, and possessed of resources complementary to efforts by a military force. Incorporating these into a coalition of the willing would expand the capabilities at hand for a commander as he or she addresses the needs of parties at risk.[12] Taken collectively, the commander has dramatically expanded his or her palette of options as the force simultaneously addresses the demands of General Krulak’s three block war.[13] So doing reduces the logistical burdens on the force (as nongovernmental or other agencies address given functions or audiences) and liaison requirements (given some organizations such as the United Nations habitually orchestrate the activities of NGOs and inter-governmental organizations).

Some will inevitably argue that this expanding of the conceptualization of maneuver threatens to dilute it to the point that “everything is maneuver.” Such fears extend the proposed definition beyond the implied bounds. To reemphasize, maneuver in the sense recommended here involves only two fundamental elements: (1) the application of capabilities (2) to gain advantage with respect to one or more mission-relevant parties. Yes, the revision expands the number of potential capabilities from two (fires and movement), but that increased number includes only those that can serve to gain advantage. The expansion therefore draws no more on the majority of functions inherent in combat or other operations than is the case with maneuver as currently defined. Most logistics, survivability-related activities, command and control, and other resources would not become part of maneuver given they remain in a supporting rather than primary role.

Summarizing, re-conceptualizing maneuver as proposed embeds its current understanding and capitalizes on its inherent simplicity while adding considerable value by broadening its application. The new definition is inclusive rather than exclusive. It accounts for the already established reality of 21st-century of operations needing to be more than service, joint, or multinational military alone. Operations during the past decade and a half have made it only too clear that success depends on bringing assets to bear that sometimes include but frequently involve a great deal more than fires and movement. Iraq and Afghanistan are among the contingencies demonstrating how challenging this broader synchronization can be. Perhaps the situation would have been different had leaders been able to draw on an expanded understanding of maneuver, one thought of in terms a wider range of resources used to influence more than enemies alone. Benefits of the proposed expansion have the added advantage of lifting maneuver out of the exclusively tactical realm, making it applicable to challenges at the operational and strategic levels. The current doctrinal definition’s inherent strength of relating capabilities to gaining advantage deserves preservation. This elegant simplicity should be left unaltered to serve as the foundation for taking advantage of that elegance in the service of yet better serving today’s leaders as they address the ever-increasing complexity of 21st-century conflict.

End Notes  

[1] Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1.02, Washington, D.C.: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, November 8, 2010 as amended through February 15, 2016, 145, (accessed May 31, 2017).

[2] Robert R. Leonard, The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver-Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle, Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1991, 18.

[3] Leonard, 18. (Emphasis in original)

[4] Leonard, 19.

[5] Leonard, 18-19.

[6] The joint doctrinal definition for “fires” perpetuates the trend to incorporate somewhat dubious capabilities, adding “or other actions” to the above to read, “the use of weapon systems or other actions to create specific lethal or nonlethal effects on a target.” Note that the definition in the main body text above likewise can stretch use of what one would normally consider a weapon system. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 86.

[7] Russell W. Glenn, Questioning a Deity: A Contemplation of Maneuver Motivated by the 2008 Israeli Armor Corps Association “Land Maneuver in the 21st Century” Conference, Latrun, Israel: Israeli Armor Corps Associations, 2008, ix.

[8] Glenn, Short War in a Perpetual Conflict, 88-89.

[9] This point receives further attention in Glenn, Short War in a Perpetual Conflict, 71.

[10] Glenn, Short War in a Perpetual Conflict, 77.

[11] Glenn, Short War in a Perpetual Conflict, 72-73.

[12] For more on the benefits and other implications of expanding current thinking on what comprises a coalition, see Russell W. Glenn, Band of Brothers or Dysfunctional Family? A Military Perspective on Coalition and Alliance Challenges During Stability Operations, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2011.

[13] Charles C. Krulak, “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War,” Marines Magazine, January 1999, online at (accessed May 31, 2017). Succinctly, Krulak’s point was that a unit operating in an urban area could find itself simultaneously dealing with three challenges in three adjacent blocks: force-on-force combat, dealing with demonstrations or other forms of unrest, and providing aid to noncombatants.


About the Author(s)

Dr. Russell Glenn served as Director, Plans and Policy; Deputy Chief of Staff, G-2; U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. He is author of Rethinking Western Approaches to Counterinsurgency and author/editor of Trust and Leadership: The Australian Army Approach to Mission Command as part of the Association of the United States Army book program.