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Maneuver warfare, or manoeuvre warfare, is a military strategy which seeks to shatter the enemy's overall cohesion and will to fight.
Maneuver warfare, the use of initiative, originality and the unexpected, combined with a ruthless determination to succeed, seeks to avoid opponents' strengths while exploiting their weaknesses and attacking their critical vulnerabilities and is the conceptual opposite of attrition warfare. Rather than seeking victory by applying superior force and mass to achieve physical destruction, maneuver uses preemption, deception, dislocation, and disruption to destroy the enemy's will and ability to fight.
Historically, maneuver warfare was stressed by small militaries, more cohesive, better trained, or more technologically advanced than attrition warfare counterparts. The term "tactical maneuver" is used by maneuver warfare theorists to refer to movement by forces to gain "advantageous position relative to the enemy," as opposed to its use in the phrase "maneuver 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 mechanized vehicles, has led to an increased interest in the concepts of maneuver warfare and in its role on modern battlefields.
Although most battles between established armies have historically been fought based on attrition warfare strategies, many military doctrines and cultures are based on replete historical examples of maneuver 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-centralized command structures that require little or no creativity or initiative from lower-level leadership (also called top-down or "command push" tactics).
Conventional warfare doctrine identifies a spectrum with attrition warfare and maneuver warfare on opposite ends. In attrition warfare, the enemy is seen as a collection of targets to be found and destroyed. It exploits maneuver to bring to bear firepower to destroy enemy forces. Maneuver warfare, on the other hand, exploits firepower and attrition on key elements of opposing forces.
Maneuver 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 maneuver warfare, the destruction of certain enemy targets, such as command and control centers, 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 maneuver warfare. Infiltration tactics, conventionally or with special forces, may be used extensively to cause chaos and confusion behind enemy lines.
The retired officer and military theory author Robert Leonhard summarizes maneuver warfare theory as "preempt, dislocate, and disrupt" the enemy as alternatives to the destruction of enemy mass through attrition warfare.
Since tempo and initiative are so critical to the success of maneuver warfare, command structures tend to be more decentralized with more tactical freedom given to lower-level unit leaders. Decentralized command structures allows "on the ground" unit leaders but still works within the guidelines of the commander's overall vision, to exploit enemy weaknesses as they become evident, which is also called "recon-pull" tactics or directive control.
The war theorist Martin van Creveld identifies six main elements of maneuver warfare:
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 to use 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 center 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 center. Before the battle, Datis had re-embarked his cavalry—to which the hoplite formations had little real defense—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 defenses 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.
See also: Mongol military tactics and organization
The Mongol emperor Genghis Khan used a military system of maneuver warfare that focused on rapid, decisive maneuver, utilizing the skill and endurance of his Mongol horsemen. He used operational maneuver, command and control, deception, and precise battlefield tactics which were vastly superior to those of his opponents in China, Russia, Persia, and Eastern Europe and defeated virtually every enemy army that he faced.
An example of his usage of maneuver warfare was the defeat and annexation of the Khwarazmian Empire between 1219 and 1221 CE, which wielded an army nearly three times the Mongol army, in just a few months of fighting. The Mongol army's constant movement and maneuvering tied down the Khwarazmian forces, denying them the ability to gain the initiative as well as shocked and demoralized the Khwarazmian Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad as well as his army, thus ending the campaign before the Shah could bring to bear his much larger numbers.
Similar strategies are also possible using suitably trained infantry. Napoleon I used preemptive 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 disabled effective coordination of enemy forces, even when they were superior in numbers. That 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 Henri de La Tour d'Auvergne, Viscount of Turenne as one major source of his strategy.
He trained a normal, if rather undisciplined, French Army of Italy into moving faster than most thought possible. That was partially because his army lived off the land and had no big logistical "tail." Both his ability to move huge armies to give battle where he wanted and the style of his choice would become legendary, and 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. That strategy is an important quality in supporting the effectiveness of maneuver warfare and was used again by Carl von Clausewitz.
Napoleon's principal strategy was to move fast to engage before the enemy had time to organize, to 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; deliberate movement to gain psychological advantage by isolating forces from one another; and their headquarters are all hallmarks of maneuver warfare. One of his major concerns was the relatively slow speed of infantry movement relative to the cavalry.
It was that and subsequent defeats that caused a major doctrinal reevaluation by the Prussians under Clausewitz of the revealed power of maneuver warfare. The results of that review were seen in the Franco-Prussian War.
In the mid-19th century, various forms of mechanized transport were introduced, starting with trains running on steam power. That resulted in significant logistic improvements. Opposing armies were no longer limited in speed by the pace of march. Some train-borne maneuvering took place during the American Civil War in the 1860s, but the sizes of the armies involved meant that the system could provide only limited support. Armored trains were among the first armored fighting vehicles employed by mankind.
During the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussians, knowing that the French could field a larger army than theirs, made a plan that required speed by surrounding the French strongpoints and destroying or bypassing them; it was called the Kesselschlacht, or "cauldron battle". The remainder of the army could advance unopposed to take important objectives. If war was declared, Prussia could quickly mobilize and invade, destroy French field forces, and win before the French army could fully react.[original research?] That tactic was used to devastating effect in 1870 since Prussian forces surrounded and defeated French forces, captured Napoleon III and besieged Paris. The Germans' battle plans for World War I were similar. Germany attempted to repeat the "knock-out blow" against the French armies in the Schlieffen Plan. However, technology evolved significantly in the preceding four decades; both the machine gun and more powerful artillery shifted the balance of power toward the defense. All combatants were desperate to get the front moving again, but that proved to be difficult.
Germany introduced new tactics with infiltration and stormtrooper "shock troops" toward the end of World War I to bypass resistance. Russian General Aleksei Brusilov used similar tactics in 1916 on the Eastern Front during the Brusilov Offensive.
The introduction of fully armored tanks, in a series of increasingly successful operations, presented a 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 to use tanks to break through the lines and then to wreak havoc on the German lines of supply and communication.
During the interwar period, the British developed ideas for fully-mechanized all-arms warfare with the Experimental Mechanized Force. The Germans reviewed their doctrine and revised their approach by expanding on infiltration tactics and amplifying them with motor transport. Heinz Guderian was a leading proponent of armored 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 (Schwerpunkt), and aggressive independent local initiative. All was strictly coordinated by radio and contributed to new tactics during the Battle of France in 1940. Theories in Germany about armored 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 during the Cold War.
In the Soviet Union during the 1920s and the 1930s, the concept of "Deep Battle" was developed and integrated into the Red Army field regulations doctrine by Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky. That led to the creation of cavalry mechanised groups during World War II and to operational maneuver groups during the Cold War.
According to the US Marine Corps, one key concept of maneuver warfare is that maneuver is traditionally thought of as a spatial concept, the use of maneuver to gain positional advantage. The US Marine concept of maneuver, 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 maneuver 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 US Army's AirLand battle doctrine. Though far from focusing on maneuver, it emphasized using combined arms to disrupt an enemy's plan by striking through their depth and was seen as moving toward maneuver warfare in comparison to the earlier Active Defense concept. The AirLand doctrine was seen by Martin van Creveld as "arguably a half way house between maneuver and attrition."
The British Joint Forces are limited to consider air assault or airmobile operations in their 2016 publication "Joint Doctrine Note on Air Manoeuvre".
A key requirement for success in maneuver 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 maneuver warfare can become problematic. When faced with a maneuverable opponent capable of redeploying key forces quickly and discreetly or when tempered, the capacity of maneuver warfare strategies to deliver victory becomes more challenging.
The 2006 Lebanon War is an example of such shortcomings have being exposed. Despite overwhelming firepower and complete air superiority, Israeli forces were unable to deliver a decisive blow to the command structure of Hezbollah or to degrade its effective capacity to operate. Although inflicting heavy damage, Israel was unable to locate and destroy Hezbollah's diluted force dispositions or to neutralize key command centers. 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 maneuver warfare with the concept of what they call fourth generation warfare. For example, Lieutenant-Colonel S.P. Myers writes that "maneuver is more a philosophical approach to campaign design and execution than an arrangement of tactical engagements". Myers goes on to write that maneuver warfare can evolve and that "maneuverist approach in campaign design and execution remains relevant and effective as a counter-insurgency strategy at the operational level in contemporary operations."
In the early stages of the 2022 Ukraine war, Russia's advances were stalled by Ukraine widespread deployment of man-portable anti-tank missiles. The scholar Seth Jones argued that Russia was forced to abandon maneuver warfare after an inept failure to apply combined arms, forcing a transition to a war of attrition.
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The first war fought under the new doctrine of Maneuver Warfare, with several observations and suggestions for future change.