Manoeuvre warfare is a military strategy which attempts to defeat the enemy by incapacitating their decision-making through shock and disruption.
Methods of war have to be chosen between manoeuvre and attrition warfare. The latter focuses on achieving victory through killing or capturing the enemy; manoeuvre warfare advocates the recognition that all warfare involves both manoeuvre and attrition.
Historically, manoeuvre warfare was stressed by small militaries, the more cohesive, better trained, or more technically able than attrition warfare counterparts. The term “tactical manoeuvre” is used by manoeuvre warfare theorists to refer to movement by forces to gain “advantageous position relative to the enemy” as opposed to its use in the phrase “manoeuvre warfare”.
The idea of using rapid movement to keep an enemy off balance is as old as war itself. However, advanced technology, such as the development of cavalry and mechanised vehicles, has led to increased interest in the concepts of manoeuvre warfare and its role on modern battlefields.
Conservative militaries believe that, with some exceptions, most battles between established armies have historically been fought based on attrition warfare strategies. Closer examination, however, reveals that the type of strategy is not universally agreed to, and many military doctrines and cultures are based on replete historical examples of manoeuvre warfare.
The view on attrition warfare involves moving masses of men and materiel against enemy strongpoints, with the emphasis on the destruction of the enemy’s physical assets, success as measured by enemy combatants killed, equipment and infrastructure destroyed, and territory taken or occupied. Attrition warfare tends to use rigidly centralised command structures that require little or no creativity or initiative from lower-level leadership (also called top-down or “command push” tactics).
Manoeuvre warfare doctrine looks at styles of warfare as a spectrum with attrition warfare and manoeuvre warfare on opposite ends. In attrition warfare, the enemy is seen as a collection of targets to be found and destroyed. It exploits manoeuvre to bring to bear firepower to destroy enemy forces. Manoeuvre warfare, on the other hand, exploits firepower and attrition on key elements of opposing forces.
Manoeuvre warfare suggest that strategic movement can bring the defeat of an opposing force more efficiently than simply contacting and destroying enemy forces until they can no longer fight. Instead, in manoeuvre warfare, the destruction of certain enemy targets, such as command and control centres, logistical bases, or fire support assets, is combined with isolation of enemy forces and the exploitation by movement of enemy weaknesses.
Bypassing and cutting off enemy strongpoints often results in the collapse of that strongpoint even where the physical damage is minimal, such as the Maginot Line. Firepower, primarily used to destroy as many enemy forces possible in attrition warfare, is used to suppress or destroy enemy positions at breakthrough points during manoeuvre warfare. Infiltration tactics, conventionally or with special forces, may be used extensively to cause chaos and confusion behind enemy lines.
Leonhard summarises manoeuvre warfare theory as pre-empt, dislocate, and disrupt the enemy as alternatives to destruction of enemy mass through attrition warfare.
Since tempo and initiative are so critical to the success of manoeuvre warfare, command structures tend to be more decentralized with more tactical freedom given to lower-level unit leaders. Decentralised command structures allows “on the ground” unit leaders while still working within the guidelines of the commander’s overall vision, to exploit enemy weaknesses as they become evident, also called “recon-pull” tactics or directive control).
War theorist Martin van Creveld identifies six main elements of manoeuvre warfare:
- Tempo: as illustrated by John Boyd’s OODA loop.
- Schwerpunkt (focal point): the centre of effort, or striking the enemy at the right place at the right time. According to van Creveld, ideally, a spot that is both vital and weakly defended.
- Surprise: based on deception.
- Combined arms.
- Flexibility: a military must be well rounded, self-contained and redundant.
- Decentralised command: rapidly changing situations may outpace communications. Lower levels must understand overall intent.
Early Examples of Manoeuvre
For most of history, armies were slower than a marching soldier, making it possible for opposing armies to march around each other as long as they wished. Supply conditions often decided where and when the battle would finally start. Prehistorically, that began to change with the domestication of the horse, the invention of chariots, and increasing military use of cavalry. It had two major uses: to attack and use its momentum to break infantry formations and using the advantage of speed to cut communications and isolate formations for later defeat in detail.
One of the most famous early maneuver tactics was the double envelopment. It was used by Hannibal, against the Romans, at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC; and by Khalid ibn al-Walid, against the Persian Empire at the Battle of Walaja in 633 AD.
The retreat of the centre of the Athenian and Platean citizen-soldiers (Hoplites) at the battle of Marathon against the forces of Datis in 490 BC and subsequent pincer movements by Athenian forces on the flanks used a similar tactic. The intention was to bring the Persian core forces forward – Persian and Saka axemen. The Hoplite flanks would then drive off their opposite numbers and enveloped the Persian centre. Before the battle, Datis had re-embarked his cavalry – to which the hoplite formations had little real defence – which substantially weakened his position.
Khalid’s invasion of Roman Syria in July 634 – by invading Syria from an unexpected direction, the Syrian desert is another example of taking enemy defences by surprise. While the Byzantine army held the Muslim forces in southern Syria and had expected reinforcement from the conventional Syria-Arabia road in the south, Khalid, who was in Iraq, marched through the Syrian desert and entered northern Syria, completely taking the Byzantines by surprise and cutting off their communications with northern Syria.
Napoleon’s Use of Manoeuvre
Similar strategies are also possible using suitably trained infantry. Napoleon I used pre-emptive movements of cavalry and fast infantry to interrupt the initial deployment of enemy forces. This allowed his forces to attack where and when he wanted, enabling force concentration, possibly in combination with advantage of terrain. It disables effective coordination of enemy forces, even when they were superior in numbers. This was effective tactically and strategically.
During his time as a general, and indeed his power base to become the head of France, Napoleon’s reputation was based on a powerful and fluent campaign in northern Italy, opposing the numerically superior Austrians. He cited Frederick the Great as one major source of his strategy.
He trained a normal if rather undisciplined French Army of Italy to be able to move faster than most thought possible. This was partially because his army lived off the land and had no big logistical “tail”. His ability to move huge armies to give battle where he wanted, and the style of his choice was to become legendary, he was seen as undefeatable, even against larger and superior forces.
Napoleon also arranged his forces into what would be known in the present as “battle groups” of combined arms formations to allow faster reaction time to enemy action. This strategy is an important quality in supporting the effectiveness of manoeuvre warfare; the strategy was used again by von Clausewitz.
Napoleon’s principal strategy was to move fast to engage before the enemy had time to organize, engage lightly while moving to turn the flank that defended the main resupply route, to envelop and deploy blocking forces to prevent reinforcement and to defeat those contained in the envelopment in detail. All of those activities imply faster movement than the enemy as well as faster reaction times to enemy activities.
His use of fast mass marches to gain strategic advantage, cavalry probes and screens to hide his movements, and deliberate movement to gain psychological advantage by isolating forces from each other, and their headquarters are all hallmarks of manoeuvre warfare. One of his major concerns was the relatively slow speed of infantry movement relative to the cavalry.
It was this and subsequent defeats that caused a major doctrinal re-evaluation by the Prussians under Carl von Clausewitz of the revealed power of manoeuvre warfare. The results of this review were seen in the Franco-Prussian War.
Mechanisation of Manoeuvre
In the mid-19th century, various forms of mechanized transport were introduced, starting with the steam powered trains. This resulted in significant logistic improvements. Opposing armies were no longer limited in speed by the pace of march. Some train-borne manoeuvring took place during the American Civil War in the 1860s, but the sizes of the armies involved meant the system could provide only limited support. Armoured trains were among the first armoured fighting vehicles employed by mankind.
In the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussian Army, knowing France was capable of fielding an army larger than theirs, made a plan that required speed by surrounding the French strongpoints and [also] destroying or bypassing them – the Kesselschlacht or “cauldron battle”; the remainder of the army advanced unopposed to take important objectives. If war was declared, it could quickly mobilise, then invade and destroy French field forces; it would be a victory before the French army could fully react. That tactic was used to devastating effect in 1870; Prussian forces were able to surround and defeat French forces, capturing Napoleon III and besieging Paris. The German battle plans for World War I were similar. They attempted to repeat the “knock-out blow” against the French armies in the Schlieffen Plan. However, technology evolved significantly in the preceding four decades; the machine gun and more powerful artillery resulted in the balance of power in favour of the defence. All combatants were desperate to get the front moving again, but it is now proven to be difficult.
Germany introduced new tactics with infiltration and stormtrooper “shock troops”, toward the end of World War I, which bypasses resistance. Russian general Aleksei Brusilov used similar tactics in 1916 on the Eastern Front during the Brusilov Offensive.
The introduction of the tanks, in a series of increasingly successful operations, pointed the way out of the deadlock of attrition and trench warfare, but World War I ended before the British would field thousands of tanks to be put in a large-scale offense. Fuller had proposed Plan 1919 which would use tanks to break through the lines and then wreak havoc on the German lines of supply and communication.
In the interwar period, the British developed ideas for fully mechanized all-arms warfare with the Experimental Mechanised Force. The Germans reviewed their doctrine and revised their approach, expanding on the infiltration tactics and amplifying them with motor transport. Heinz Guderian was a leading proponent of armoured combat. The German military stressed several key elements: versatile tanks combined with mobile infantry and artillery, close air support, rapid movement and concentration of forces, and aggressive independent local initiative. These were all strictly coordinated by radio, and it contributed to new tactics during the Battle of France in 1940. Theories in Germany about armoured warfare have some similarities with interwar theories of British officers J.F.C. Fuller and B.H. Liddell Hart, which the British army failed to embrace and understand fully.
There are similarities between blitzkrieg and the Soviet concept of “Deep Battle”, which the Soviets used to great effect in 1944 and continued to use as a doctrine through the Cold War.
US Marine Corps Doctrine of Manoeuvre
According to the United States Marine Corps, one key concept of manoeuvre warfare is that manoeuvre is traditionally thought of as a spatial concept, the use of manoeuvre to gain positional advantage. The US Marine concept of manoeuvre, however, is a “warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.”
The US Marine manual goes on to say:
“This is not to imply that firepower is unimportant. On the contrary, firepower is central to manoeuvre warfare. Nor do we mean to imply that we will pass up the opportunity to physically destroy the enemy. We will concentrate fires and forces at decisive points to destroy enemy elements when the opportunity presents itself and when it fits our larger purposes.”
The possibility of a massive Soviet offensive in Western Europe led to the creation of the United States Army’s AirLand battle doctrine. Though far from focusing on manoeuvre, it emphasized using combined arms to disrupt an enemy’s plan by striking through their depth; it was seen as moving towards manoeuvre warfare in comparison to the earlier Active Defence concept. The AirLand doctrine was seen by Martin van Creveld as “arguably a half way house between manoeuvre and attrition.”
Soviet Deep Battle
In the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s, the concept of “Deep Battle” was developed and integrated into the Red Army field regulations doctrine by Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky. This led to the creation of Cavalry Mechanised Groups during World War II and Operational manoeuvre groups during the Cold War.
Limitations of Manoeuvre in a Modern Context
A key requirement for success in manoeuvre warfare is up-to-date accurate intelligence on the disposition of key enemy command, support, and combat units. In operations whose intelligence is either inaccurate, unavailable, or unreliable, the successful implementation of strategies based on manoeuvre warfare can become problematic. When faced with a manoeuvrable opponent capable of redeploying key forces quickly and discreetly or when tempered, the capacity of manoeuvre warfare strategies to deliver victory becomes more challenging.
The 2006 Lebanon War example where such shortcomings have been exposed. Despite overwhelming firepower and complete air superiority, Israeli forces were unable to deliver a decisive blow to the command structure of Hezbollah or degrade its effective capacity to operate. Although inflicting heavy damage, Israeli was unable to locate and destroy Hezbollah’s diluted force dispositions or neutralise key command centres. Therefore, it did not meet its war aims. The insurgency in Iraq also demonstrates that a military victory over an opponent’s conventional forces does not automatically translate into a political victory.
Some military theorists such as William Lind and Colonel Thomas X. Hammes propose to overcome the shortcomings of manoeuvre warfare with the concept of what they call fourth generation warfare. For example, Lieutenant Colonel S.P. Myers writes that “manoeuvre is more a philosophical approach to campaign design and execution than an arrangement of tactical engagements”. Myers goes on to write that manoeuvre warfare can evolve and that “manoeuvreist approach in campaign design and execution remains relevant and effective as a counter-insurgency strategy at the operational level in contemporary operations”.