Maneuver warfare

Maneuver warfare

Military history

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Maneuver warfare, or manoeuvre warfare (German: Bewegungskrieg), is the term used by military theorists for a concept of warfare that advocates attempting to defeat an adversary by incapacitating their decision-making through shock and disruption brought about by movement. Its concepts are reflected by a number of strategies seen throughout military history.



Methods of war stand on a continuum between maneuver warfare and attrition warfare, the focus on achieving victory through killing or capturing an adversary. Maneuver warfare advocates recognize that all warfare involves both maneuver and attrition.

Maneuver warfare concepts have historically been stressed by militaries which are smaller, more cohesive, better trained, or more technically able 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"[1] 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.[2] However changing technology such as the development of cavalry and mechanized vehicles, has led to increased interest in the concepts of maneuver warfare and its role on modern battlefields.


Military orthodoxy believes that with some exceptions, most battles between established armies have historically been fought based on an attrition warfare strategy. Closer examination however reveals this view is not universally held, and many military doctrines and cultures are based on replete historical examples of maneuver warfare.

The attritionalists' view of warfare involves moving masses of men and material against enemy strongpoints, with the emphasis on the destruction of the enemy's physical assets - success as measured by enemy troops killed, equipment and infrastructure destroyed, and territory taken and/or occupied. Attrition warfare tends to utilize rigidly centralised command structures that require little or no creativity or initiative from lower-level leadership (also called top-down or "command push" tactics).

This has been called "industrial war" by some since it relies on 'mass'. The semi-static, large scale battles of the American Civil War, Crimean War and World War I are classic examples of attrition warfare.

Maneuver warfare doctrine sees styles of warfare as 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. Attrition warfare 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 advocates that strategic movement can bring about the defeat of an opposing force more efficiently than by simply contacting and destroying enemy forces until they can no longer fight. Instead, in maneuver warfare, the destruction of certain enemy targets (command and control centers, logistical bases, fire support assets, etc.) 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 (e.g. the Maginot Line). Fire power, which is used primarily to destroy as many enemy forces as possible in attrition warfare, is used to suppress or destroy enemy positions at breakthrough points during maneuver warfare. Infiltration tactics by conventional or special operations forces may be used extensively to cause chaos and confusion behind enemy lines.

Leonhard summarizes maneuver warfare theory as: preempt, dislocate, and disrupt the enemy as alternatives to destruction of enemy mass through attrition warfare. Clarification of the Clausewitzian center of gravity (COG) concept in maneuver warfare terms suggests the question: is a COG the source of strength or the critical vulnerability? This issue can be resolved using the game of chess as a model: is the Queen (most powerful piece) or the King (whose loss ends the game) the opposing player's COG? Once you knock off the opposing player's King, it does not matter how many other chess pieces you take.

Since tempo and initiative are so critical to the success of maneuver warfare, command structures tend to be more decentralised, with more tactical freedom given to lower-level unit leaders. This decentralised command structure allows "on the ground" unit leaders, while still working within the guidelines of commander's overall vision, to exploit enemy weaknesses as they become evident (also called "recon-pull" tactics or directive control).

War theorist Martin VanCreveld identifies six main elements of maneuver warfare:

  • Tempo: Tempo as illustrated by John Boyd's OODA loop.
  • Schwerpunkt (focal point): The center of effort, or striking the enemy at the right place at the right time. According to vanCreveld, ideally, a spot that is both vital and weakly defended.
  • Surprise: based on deception.
  • Combined arms
  • Flexibility: According to VanCreveld flexibility means a military must be well rounded, self contained and redundant.
  • Decentralized command: Rapid changing situations may out pace communications. Lower levels must understand overall intent.

Early examples

For the majority of history armies were limited in their speed to that of the marching soldier, about equal for everyone involved. This meant that it was possible for opposing armies to simply march around each other as long as they wished, with supply conditions often deciding where and when the battle would finally be fought. In prehistoric times this began to change with the domestication of the horse, the invention of chariots and the increasing military use of the cavalry. The cavalry had two major uses: one, to attack and use its momentum to break infantry formations; and two, using the advantage of speed to cut communications and isolate formations for later defeat in detail. Perhaps the last and most famous example of this ended with the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, prior to which Henry V of England avoided combat while marching to Calais to resupply, allowing him to pick the battlefield.

One of most famous early maneuver tactics was the double envelopment, 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.

Khalid's invasion of Roman Syria in July 634, by invading Syria from the most unexpected direction, the Syrian desert, is also an example of taking enemy defenses by surprise. While the Byzantine army held the Muslim forces in Southern Syria, and had expected the reinforcement from the conventional Syria-Arabia road in South, Khalid, who was in Iraq, marched through the Syrian desert and entered Northern Syria, completely taking the Byzantines by surprise, cutting off their communications with Northern Syria.

Napoleon's use of maneuver

Similar strategies are also possible using suitably trained infantry, and in recent times it was Napoleon who showed this to great effect. He used the combination of cavalry movement and fast infantry movement to bring about the defeat of superior forces while they were still moving to their intended place of battle.

This allowed his forces to attack where and when he wanted, often giving him the advantage of terrain to disable effective movement by his enemy. Thus he used maneuver both strategically (when and where to fight) and tactically (how to fight the battle he chose).

Napoleon's fame as a general, and indeed his powerbase to become head of the French state, was based on a powerful and fluent campaign in Northern Italy, principally against the numerically superior Austrians. He cited Frederick the Great as one of the major sources of his strategy.

He trained a normal, if rather undisciplined, French Army of Italy to be able to move faster than most thought possible. In part this was 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 in the style of his choosing became legendary and he seemed undefeatable even against larger and superior forces.

Napoleon also arranged his forces into what we today would call 'Battle Groups' of combined arms formations to allow faster reaction time to enemy action. This is an important support measure for maneuver warfare to be most effective and was copied by von Clausewitz.

Napoleon's principal strategy was to move fast so as 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 these 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 HQ are all hallmarks of maneuver warfare. One of his major issues was the relatively slow speed of infantry movement relative to the cavalry.

It was these and later defeats that caused the major doctrinal re-evaluation by the Prussians under Carl von Clausewitz on the revealed power of maneuver warfare. The results of this review were seen in the Franco-Prussian War.


As a result of the introduction of various forms of mechanized transport, starting with the steam powered trains in mid-19th century, logistics have been vastly improved and the 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 the system could provide only limited support. Armored trains were among the first armored fighting vehicles employed by mankind.

In the Franco-Prussian War the Prussian Army, knowing that they could field substantially larger forces than the French, devised a war plan that relied on speed by encircling and destroying/bypassing French strongpoints - the Kesselschlacht or "cauldron battle" - while the remainder of the Prussian army advanced unopposed to seize important objectives such as Paris.

If, on declaration of war, they could mobilize quickly, invade and destroy French field forces fast enough, then they would be victorious before the French army could react. This tactic was used to devastating effect in 1870, when the Prussian forces were able to rapidly encircle and defeat two large French forces before they were able to retreat.

Given the success they had in 1870s, it is not surprising that the German battle plan for the First World War would be similar. The Germans attempted to repeat the "knock-out blow" against the French armies in the Schlieffen Plan.

However technology had changed considerably in the four decades, with the machine gun and considerably more powerful artillery swinging the balance of power decisively to the defense. While all combatants were desperate to get the front moving again, this proved difficult.

The introduction of the tank in a series of increasingly successful operations pointed the way out of trench warfare, but the war ended before the British plans to field thousands of them could be put into place. Germany also introduced new tactics against static warfare with infiltration and stormtrooper tactics toward the end of World War I, which bypassed resistance leaving its reduction to other means.

Between the World Wars the Germans again reviewed their doctrine and completely revised their approach again, perhaps getting back to some of the von Clausewitz ideas which were now enabled by motor transport. The integration of the main battle tank, with close air support, rapid movement of troops, and concentrated forces, were described as blitzkrieg, "Lightning War' by Heinz Guderian, who then deployed these tactics during Second World War. Blitzkrieg is perhaps the most famous example of maneuver warfare and derived in part from the theories of many, perhaps including British officer J.F.C. Fuller, of which the British army had failed to take advantage. Modern "Shock and Awe" tactics such as used by the US and Coalition forces in Desert Storm, are closely related to Blitzkrieg methods.

The Soviets used the concept of "Deep Battle" (which they continued through the Cold War). The Western Allies were strategically attrition-oriented, though there were many maneuver-minded commanders including O'Connor, Montgomery and Patton.

Maneuver Warfare Doctrine

According to the United States Marine Corps, one key concept of maneuver warfare is that maneuver is traditionally thought of as a spatial concept, that is the use of maneuver so as 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."[3]

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 United States Army's AirLand battle doctrine. Though far from focusing on maneuver, it emphasized using combined arms to disrupt an adversary's plans by striking through their depth and was seen as moving towards 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."

Development of Maneuver Warfare theories

By far the most important development of maneuver theories took place in Germany and the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s, notably with the development of the "Deep Battle" concept that was integrated into he Red Army field regulations doctrine by Marshal Tukhachevsky.[4]

While the Wehrmacht developed from this the operations named Blitzkrieg, in the USSR this led to the creation of the Cavalry Mechanised Groups during the Second World War, and the Operational maneuver groups during the Cold War.[5]

The Finnish army used maneuver warfare concepts successfully in the Winter War part of the Second World War, in particular at the battle of Suomussalmi where Finnish ski-based troops used superior maneuverability to encircle Soviet infantry and tanks based troops who were forced to use only roads in the thick snow. The Finnish army defeated Soviet opponents more than twice their size and far outgunned, using rapid maneuver to their advantage.

John Boyd and US acceptance of maneuver warfare:

Much of the credit for acceptance of maneuver warfare in the United States military is given to fighter pilot John Boyd. None of Boyd's main ideas of maneuver warfare theory were his ideas alone or original to him, but rather they were based on his research of military history. Boyd's research began during development of the close air support aircraft, the A-10.

Boyd and designer Pierre Sprey interviewed Stuka pilots and armor commanders for data regarding tactical information such as the time required to find and target a tank from the air. Boyd then broadened his research in an attempt to understand the German army's rapid successes against France in 1940. To further understand concepts used by the German military in World War II, upon which maneuver warfare is largely based, Boyd studied Clausewitz, Jomini and the Napoleonic era.

Boyd also studied tactics used by the Mongols, Byzantines and Ottomans. Boyd traced military thought back to Sun Tzu. The basic idea derived was that of a combination of light troops and heavy troops seeking the enemy weak point for a decisive blow.

Boyd believed that many Western commanders focused on winning the battle while Eastern commanders fought against the enemy's mind. Boyd's critique of Clausewitz was that while Clausewitz saw the "fog of war" as producing difficulties and sought to reduce friction so as to fight the enemy more effectively, Sun Tzu actively sought to increase friction and confusion among opposing forces.

According to writer Grant Hammond, Boyd believed that the Battle of Marathon, Battle of Leuctra, Battle of Arbela and the Battle of Cannae were battles of maneuver warfare with "unequal distribution of forces to gain a local advantage and decisive leverage to collapse adversary resistance". [6]

Recent theorists:

Aside from John Boyd, other recent military theorists of a non-firepower focus include Robert Leonhard, Robert Bateman, Michael Wyly, and Donald Vandergriff.

Limitations in a modern context

A key requirement for success in maneuver warfare is accurate, up-to-date intelligence on the disposition of key enemy command, support and combat units. While such intelligence has been available for many of the higher profile conflicts characterising the last two decades, in operations where intelligence is either inaccurate, unavailable or unreliable, the successful implementation of strategies based on maneuver warfare can become problematic.

Furthermore, when faced with a maneuverable opponent capable of redeploying key forces quickly and discretely, or when tempered, the capacity of maneuver warfare strategies to deliver victory becomes more challenging.

An example where such shortcomings have been exposed is during the 2006 Lebanon War where, despite overwhelming firepower and complete air superiority, Israeli forces were unable to deliver a decisive blow to the command structure of Hezbollah nor effectively degrade its capacity to operate. Although inflicting heavy damage, Israel's inability to locate and destroy Hezbollah's diluted force dispositions or neutralise key command centres ultimately meant that it did not meet its war aims. Additionally, the insurgency in Iraq also demonstrates that a military victory over an opponent's conventional forces does not automatically translate into a political one.

Some military theorists such as William Lind and Colonel Thomas X. Hammes propose to overcome shortcomings of maneuver warfare with the concept of what they call fourth generation warfare. Others, 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 writes 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".

See also


  1. ^ Maneuver Warfare Handbook by William Lind.
  2. ^ Air Power and Maneuver Warfare by Martin vanCreveld
  3. ^ MCDP 1 United States Marine Corps Warfighting
  4. ^ p.32, Simpkin, Erickson
  5. ^ pp.139-186, Simpkin
  6. ^ The Mind of War Grant T. Hammond


  • Boyd, John. Patterns of Conflict. 1986. Available online, accessed 5 February 2005.
  • Simpkin, Richard E. Race to the Swift: Thoughts on Twenty-First Century Warfare. Brassey's, 2000.
  • Richard Simpkin in association with John Erickson Deep battle : the brainchild of Marshal Tukhachevskii, London, Brassey's Defence, 1987. ISBN 0-08-031193-8
  • Lind, William S.. Maneuver Warfare Handbook. 1985. Westview Special Studies in Military Affairs. Westview Press Inc. Boulder, CO.
  • Leonhard, Robert. The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver-Warfare Theory and Air-Land Battle. 1991. Presidio Press. Novato, CA.

External links

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