Just Call It “Warfare”: Why Manoeuvre Warfare Retards Progress in the Profession of Arms - Wilf Owen
Updated: Nov 23, 2022
If you're a manoeuvrist or believe in manoeuvre warfare, then you risk being both a hostage to bad history and to closing yourself off from learning from or conducting operations not based in the false manoeuvre vs attrition dichotomy. This article doesn’t seek to attack manoeuvre warfare but to demonstrate that adopting "styles," brands, and fashions in warfare is usually counterproductive to militaries. Manoeuvre warfare is a brand and armed forces should avoid adopting it.
How armies fight and operate should be based on hard choices of policy, manpower, training, equipment, and most of all cost—what the defense budget allows. In contrast, proponents of warfighting styles, brands, and fashions build their approaches on falsely cited and analyzed military history. This means real lessons and insights are ignored or obscured while people repeat myths and mislead others. Since the emergence of manoeuvre warfare over forty years ago, this concept and its supposedly associated concept of mission command has led to nearly four decades of pointless debate and nugatory writing. Various armed forces have tried to implement both concepts and most have failed, thus leading to more pointless debate. Manoeuvre warfare and mission command are therefore counterproductive to the military practitioner.
The Role of Theory for the Military Professional
For military theory to apply to the practitioner, it must cover the basic tests of scientific theory, not just academic theory. Firstly, theories must explain extant phenomena. Second, they must enable a degree of prediction of phenomena. If a theory cannot explain facts, then it fails. Under these criteria, lots of military theory isn’t theory at all. It’s mostly conjecturing narratives and myths. The German Blitzkrieg is a prime example of this. The Germans never had such a concept, nor is the idea distinct in military terms. Much of the early written histories of Blitzkrieg are dubious compared to the more recent work of Karl-Heinz Freiser, Lloyd Clarke, and John Mosier. If you talk about Blitzkrieg as an actual doctrine with those well-versed in the history of operational methods, you risk looking like a fool.
Modern scholarship shows that the Blitzkrieg was more legend than fact.
The Germans weren’t even the first to execute a decisive long-range ground operation. Consider the British operations in the Battle of Megiddo in Palestine in 1918 or the Poles in the Battle of Warsaw in 1920. Both rarely cited operations had a real material effect on the ideas of leading military officers, including Mikhail Tuhkachevesy, who led Bolshevik troops against the Polish offensive, and Archibald Wavell, a staff officer with the British at Megiddo. Both men would become prominent force designers in their respective pre-World War II armies, and both made similar technical choices often overlooked by historians. The United Kingdom (UK) devoted serious attention to mechanizing its forces, using radios, coordinating land forces with airpower, and employing the technique of infiltration. Indeed, all these topics were covered in the 1935 Field Service Regulations as written doctrine. In a similar vein, the Soviets discussed them in their 1936 Field Service Regulations.
By no means do I deny that armies have unique and identifiable doctrines. They do. "Doctrine" translates from Latin as "teaching." That’s what the word means and nothing more, so the methods of armies are differentiated by what each teaches. Those teachings have been expounded in textbooks, drill manuals, field service regulations, and doctrinal publications. This means that there is auditable, traceable literature on how armies seek to operate. Given that the fundamentals of military operations do not vary as widely as many suppose, there are obvious strong similarities in methods of operation of various armies historically. There are also clear differences.
Doctrine is what armies teach.
A False Dichotomy: Manoeuvre Versus Attrition
What makes manoeuvre warfare unique is that it’s presented as an entirely false dichotomy of manoeuvre versus attrition. Not only does this make no sense, but it also does real damage to our understanding of history. If you believe that such a dichotomy exists, you will be hamstrung in what you can learn from history. You will see manoeuvre and attrition where no such distinction exists unless you apply a false understanding.
What makes this fallacy even more toxic is that it appears to be a corruption of a sound idea often referred to as the Delbrück Conjecture. The conjecture dates to the 19th century, when the German historian Hans Delbrück suggested that, had Karl von Clausewitz been able to edit his magnum opus On War, he would have articulated two general approaches to strategy. The first would have been a strategy of annihilation (Niederwerfungsstrategie) and the second a strategy of attrition (Ermattungsstrategie). Another useful description of the two strategies is “knocking out” versus “wearing down,” respectively. In the first, the enemy becomes incapable of continued action because he is destroyed. In the second, he ceases hostilities because his will to resist has been broken, that is, psychologically broken. If manoeuvre warfare attacks an enemy’s will and cohesion, as opposed to just destroying him, then manoeuvre warfare has historically—and ironically—been described as attrition. Attrition is very powerful. The North Vietnamese won using attrition. The Somalis in Mogadishu won using attrition. The Taliban forced a US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan partly from attrition. Attrition works well. Attrition is how winning battles still means you lost the war. Hannibal was defeated by attrition. Dismissing attrition as something you want to avoid is a massive mistake, and attrition is clearly not and never has been the opposite of manoeuvre if you speak English and have even glanced at the literature on the topic. For example, is an artillery fire plan “attritional?” Were the Gulf and Kosovo air campaigns attritional? Were the U-Boat campaigns attritional? Yes, they wore the enemy down but that's inherent to war. It’s not a stylistic choice based on a competing idea called “manoeuvre.”
Almost all military strategies combine annihilation and attrition. Both are good if applied correctly but have nothing to do with manoeuvre warfare. Manoeuvrists often make the argument that World War One’s (WWI) Western Front was attrition, but this simply avoids the reality of the incredibly high force densities involved. Much modern scholarship has torn down the near-idiotic arguments of many of the more prominent WWI historians, including Basil Liddell-Hart, whom manoeuvre warfare adherents still cite, despite all his ideas being mostly wrong, barring those ideas he stole from other men.
The problem manoeuvre warfare has is that it must sell itself to skeptical and practical soldiers. To do so, it creates a strawman argument about attrition. It may be the wrong word, and English speakers who use it fail to grasp that point, perhaps because few have read many commentaries on Clausewitz. As late as 1997, the US Marine Corps’ Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication-1 Warfighting (MCDP 1) demeaned what it called the “firepower and attrition” approaches. Does this mean you should not bombard the enemy into extinction if you can? MCDP 1 reads as if it’s seemingly beyond contention that firepower can achieve decisive outcomes. It can and has—many, many times.
Manoeuvre Warfare Theory: No Theory at all
Theory and history are, of course, inextricably linked. Without theory, facts remain silent. Manoeuvre warfare has been presented as a theory yet lacks any clear articulation or definition. It mostly uses historical examples. Yet, the examples are often arbitrary and confusing. In William Lind’s 1985 Maneuver Warfare Handbook, Lind explains that the source of manoeuvre warfare was the work of United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd and his observations of battles and campaigns as diverse as Leuctra (371 BCE), Vicksburg (1862-3) and France (1940). Lind states that victory in maneouvre warfare happens when "One side…presented the other with a sudden unexpected change or a series of changes to which it could not adjust in a timely manner."
So, what’s being described is surprise and its effects. Surprise is caused by the inability to prepare for or adapt to unforeseen circumstances or conditions. No one in the entire history of military activity has ever argued against surprise. “Surprise is good.” Why not just say that? Why make surprise complicated and obscure as Lind and other manoeuvrists do?
The citation of Boyd's Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop in manoeuvre warfare poses similar problems. The OODA Loop basically says that, if you act faster than your competitor can react, you will have an advantage. When has anyone said otherwise? Why not just say that? The problems with the OODA Loop supposedly being a model of human decision-making lie outside the scope of this article, but those people who suggest it seem to stand well outside the mainstream science associated with that field of research.
So, manoeuvre warfare theory rests essentially on two simple ideas. Surprise is good. Acting faster than the enemy can react is also good. As previously stated, no one ever said otherwise. There’s no opposing view, no one saying surprise is bad or we shouldn’t act faster than the enemy, unless you invent such a view. The lack of an opposing view and the need to invent one leads to another problem: finding history to support the theory.
The Problem with History
As I said earlier, a theory should explain extant phenomena and enable a degree of prediction. Manoeuvre warfare promotes itself as a theory, but theory must be testable. If the evidence for manoeuvre warfare lies in military history, why are the theory's examples so poor and selective? Why choose bad examples over good, unless there is no definable level of evidence? Manoeuvre warfare adherents have consistently failed to articulate exactly what manoeuvre warfare is in clearly identifiable actions and behaviors. Those actions and behaviors they have offered do not withstand rigor unless argued away as a “state of mind” or being somehow “special” and exclusive.
History poses the biggest problem for manoeuvre warfare, because history supposedly shows manoeuvre warfare as the logical choice for practitioners. And yet, the military history that manoeuvre warfare advocates employ lacks any of the clear distinctions required for a scientific theoretical foundation. The historical examples most often associated with manoeuvre warfare are selective and context-free.
Let’s look at Germany’s Operation Michael in the spring of 1918. Operation Michael is widely advocated as being an example of manoeuvre warfare thanks to Germany’s use of stormtroopers. Here’s what we know from the operation.
a.) The offensive was preceded by a massive and highly effective artillery barrage making copious use of gas, on which its entire success relied. This was a firepower-based operation.
b.) The offensive had no terrain objective until Amiens was selected several days into the operation. There was essentially no plan beyond breaching the front line.
c.) The offensive failed to defeat the Allied reserves and had not planned to. Those reserves conducted successful counterattacks and blocking actions.
d.) The offensive failed and Germany suffered horrendous casualties.
Operation Michael was a failure and the stormtroopers failed. They were never replicated by any other army and never reconstituted in other conflicts. Why would anyone want to copy this?
German stormtroopers in action.
For another example, recon pull is often cited as a key manoeuvre warfare characteristic, but the historical evidence for it is shallow to non-existent. Following the Boer War, a British Army infantry corps would dispatch a force of divisional cavalry to cover 58-60 kilometers of frontage and patrol up to 60 kilometers ahead of the main body. The divisional cavalry would conduct reconnaissance and seek to seize key objectives like bridges. The corps manoeuvred behind this screen. Was this recon pull? The problem with recon pull is that its intent is already described by two pre-existing tactical actions: infiltration and exploitation. (The best proto-doctrinal writing on infiltration and exploitation arguably comes from French General Ferdinand Foch in his 1918 Principles of War, one of the most important works of its time and based on his 1906 staff college lectures.)
At best, manoeuvre warfare’s recon pull merely re-branded itself as these two already well understood concepts. As with the OODA Loop, why not just say, "Surprise is good. Attacks by infiltration will help gain surprise?" In fact, everything manoeuvre warfare suggests as distinct to itself is just widely accepted best practices against which no sane person has ever spoken. It’s thus logical to suggest that the reason manoeuvre warfare has had such a tortured trail of adoption is that it's never been articulated in clear and simple terms. And it’s never been stated in such terms because those things are the same things most good armies do and have always done. Manoeuvre warfare took things deemed to be good and categorized them as manoeuvre warfare and then took things deemed bad or uncool and called them attrition. The problem was that, as with the stormtroopers, sometimes the historical examples were so bad no one knew which was which.
As concepts, mission command and manoeuvre warfare are allies. The presence of mission command as a requirement for manoeuvre warfare is hotly debated, most convincingly by former US Army officer Robert Leonhard. Leonard wrote The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle, judged by many as the most insightful work on the idea of manoeuvre ever produced. It’s also notable that he walked away from manoeuvre warfare in his later work, including his ground-breaking Principles of War for the Information Age.
Unlike manoeuvre warfare, mission command does have some clear distinguishing characteristics. In its most abstract ideal, mission command gives complete latitude to a subordinate as to how to execute his mission. It’s often called decentralized command. It requires high degrees of training, experience, mutual trust, and in modern warfare, very flexible communications. The problem is that war often strips fighting forces of high degrees of training, experience, mutual trust, and flexible communications. In sustained operations where casualties have mounted, a commander may well face newly appointed subordinates he has never met. He needs to implement a degree of centralisation, especially when given complex tasks like major river crossings done on radio silence. The point here is that command must adapt to conditions--no one size fits all. Having mission command as a military organization’s default setting strips commanders of the experience of learning when to flex and pulse the degree of control they require of their forces.
Much of the supposed need for mission command is based on the idea that, in war, junior commanders will not be in contact with their higher levels of command, who will tell them what needs doing and when. This view, which is largely based on experience with unreliable radio systems, asserts that you must plan to have no communications at all and that you will lose your ability to call for fire, report positions, and organize medical and logistical support.
But communications, like command, exists on a spectrum. The idea that the “man on the spot” is the only one who knows the ground truth must be balanced against the fact that even company commanders today may have a pretty accurate high-level picture of what’s going on in a situation. British, American, and Israeli battle groups and formation commanders will almost certainly be more aware of unit locations, logistical states, and terrain than they ever previously were. This alters a lot of the context around which the traditional debates about mission command took place.
The Manoeuvrist Approach
Oddly, the British Army never adopted manoeuvre warfare. They invented their own version called “The Manoeuvrist Approach to Operations.” This occurred as an accident of history. A senior British Army officer named General Nigel Bagnall sought to change how the 1 British Corps (1 BR Corps) would fight the Soviets in Europe at the same time the US Reform Movement was hocking manoeuvre warfare. Bagnall was concerned that the British and NATO would fight in a way that would make it hard, if not impossible, to gain decisive action against the Soviets. Each division would fight its own battle in isolation, and thus would be defeated in detail. This was an old problem and Foch even referred to it as "parallel battle." Foch saw the antidote as being "Decisive Manoeuvre." In general terms, this meant looking for "the crack in the enemy dam" and committing your reserve against it. The reserve was "the club!" This is exactly what Bagnall advocated in a corps-level defense plan when he became commander of 1 BR Corps in 1980. He became commander of the Northern Army Group (NORTHAG) in 1983 and Chief of the General Staff in 1985. To put this in context, Bagnall started his work in 1975 as a division commander. The US Army published its AirLand Battle doctrine in 1982. The Maneuver Warfare Handbook wasn’t published until 1985. In the same year, Richard Simpkin, a retired UK one-star general and World War II veteran, published Race to the Swift. This work examined manoeuvre theory derived from interrogating Clausewitz's ideas and some very novel work of his own, some of which is of debatable quality. It was widely read in the British Army, so the roots of the UK's Manoeuvrist Approach owe little to that of the US Reform Movement. Like the US military, however, the British Army rode roughshod over its own history and simply reinvented the wheel with some new words. The British had reinvented how NORTHAG was going to fight long before the manoeuvre warfare literature was published.
General Nigel Thomas Bagnall
In a 1995 British Army Review article titled, “A Once and Future Army," a Royal Artillery officer called Bryson showed that most of the "new ideas" of manoeuvre warfare were old wine in new bottles. The British Army had long done most of what worked. If your version of history relied on a "Lions Led by Donkeys" cartoon version of the British Army, then this was a very inconvenient fact.
In 2005, the Manoeuvrist Approach was explained as "an attack on enemy will and cohesion." It had become little more than a statement of the obvious. At the end of the day, the Manoeuvrist Approach was simply a rediscovery, something forced by a realization that there had to be a better way to defend West Germany than sitting behind minefields and anti-tank ditches. While that may seem a valid opinion, one of the lost lessons of the Israeli-Arab War of 1973 was that, on the Golan Heights, the Israelis concluded that they should dig more tank ditches, including double ditches, and lay many more minefields. The Israelis also concluded that big, deep bunkers and fixed fortifications were a worthwhile investment. The other missed point of the British Army’s formal adoption of the Manoeuvrist Approach circa 1989 was that the army’s tactical doctrine remained mostly unchanged until quite recently. Regarding mission command in the British Army, the British entered a 30+ year-debate about something that had previously not been an issue. This was true even in the Falklands War.
The Cost: The “So What?”
One might opine that a soldier is only overloaded when he is badly trained or badly led, but sometimes circumstances and events conspire against him to become overloaded regardless. Absent those circumstances, soldiers should not be overloaded. Manoeuvre warfare and its allied concept of mission command fall into the category of intellectual overload. We all know common sense isn’t that common, but when seen, it should still be identified as common sense, not a false argument trumpeting novelty. Adopting manoeuvre warfare in Western armies forced the discussion of tactical doctrine into a false argument of manoeuvre and attrition. It locked command discussions into a context that completely forgot that different troops need different forms of command at different times. One size does not fit all, and if you have a default setting, it needs to be as simple as an iron bar, as in telling people what to do and how to do it. Manoeuvre warfare is a false framework that preaches against the simple and effective in favor of a veil of sophistication and skill, which is simply not there.
There may be social and reputational reasons to identify as a manoeuvrist, but practically and empirically, these are not evident. Warfare is a "show by doing" activity. A theory exists to provide explanations that allow things to get done in the real world and to give meaning to facts. Even rifle shooting requires solid teachable theory. All else tends to be style or branding used for social or reputational reasons. And as styles and branding go, they are transient and ultimately lacking in substance. So it goes with manoeuvre warfare.
Author’s Bio: William F. Owen (Wilf) is the Editor of Military Strategy Magazine (formerly Infinity Journal). Wilf served in both regular and reserve units of the British Army between 1980 and 1993 before going on to work in areas as varied as publishing, writing, and security advisory work in West Africa and the Middle East. He has also worked extensively as a military contractor on doctrine, concepts, equipment capability, and command.
 The British Field Regulations of 1935 consisted of three volumes. (Volume I was published in 1930.) I have hyperlinked Volume II, which deals with operations, in the text. You can find volume III here.