The current doctrine of combined arms maneuver was constructed by the United States Army and her NATO allies in reply to the Warsaw Pact’s quantitative dominance in Central Europe in the 1980s. Almost forty years later, and despite its successful application in both the First Gulf War and the conventional combat phase of the Second Gulf War, some military thinkers are questioning its likely efficacy in future wars. They argue that the changing character of conflict and increasingly urbanized populations have changed the operating environment; rather than fighting conventional forces in open spaces, future war will be fought in towns and cities against irregular opponents. If their observations are a true reflection of modern warfare, how fit for purpose is maneuverism—the predisposition toward maneuver rather than attrition—in the twenty-first century, and what is the alternative?
In December 2020, Professor Anthony King of the University of Warwick spoke to Professor Peter Roberts, RUSI’s director of military sciences, as part of the institute’s Western Way of War podcast. Professor King’s thesis is that future conflict is likely to be predominantly seated in the urban environment—an environment to which the heavy metal of combined arms maneuver is unsuited. The changing character of conflict has made maneuverism obsolete. Warfare, he argued, has become positional, greatly advantaging the defense and favoring an attritional approach as a counter. Professor King highlighted a number of recent examples, from across the globe, which he believes support his theorem, noting that the West’s reply appeared to have become the adoption of the concept of “remote warfare,” resultant of reduced public appetite for direct military involvement and demonstrating both the prohibitive cost of combined arms maneuver and its redundancy.
On the face of it, Professor King has a point. The West’s opponents, seeking an asymmetric answer to conventional dominance, have used, and will doubtlessly continue to use, the urban environment and civilian populations to unhinge the advantages of combined arms formations, creating technical and moral dilemmas to which some commanders have only one answer—attrition. These occasional failures do not, however, represent a flawless indictment of maneuver warfare. Rather, they demonstrate a deep-seated cultural preference for attrition, particularly in parts of the United States Army. The belief that combined arms maneuver has had its day fundamentally misunderstands its nature, the concept upon which it is built, and the purpose of doctrine as a guide, not an instruction.
Maneuver is the modern term for an ancient concept of war. Sun Tzu’s aphorism of winning without fighting encapsulates its purest form—avoiding an opponent’s strengths while exploiting their weaknesses and attacking their critical vulnerabilities. It sits at one end of a conceptual continuum, the polar opposite of which is attrition. Whereas attrition seeks to defeat an opponent by physical destruction, applying superior force and mass to a contest, maneuver seeks to defeat an opponent by a combination of preemption, deception, dislocation, and disruption, leading to moral collapse. Being theoretical, neither is practicable; real-world activity takes place at a position in the range between them, not at the extremities. Western armies aim to fight with a bias toward maneuver. As such, they are maneuverist—one might say maneuverish—but that does not preclude an underlying appetite for attrition. One only has to look at the carnage on the “Highway of Death” in February 1991 to see maneuvrism’s attritional edge.
Commonly, opponents of the contemporary utility of maneuverism point to battles like those in Fallujah in 2004 as damning evidence of maneuver battlegroups being stymied by the urban environment. In an excellent episode of the Modern War Institute’s Urban Warfare Project Podcast, Lt. Gen. James Rainey spoke about his experience as a battalion commander during the Second Battle of Fallujah, noting that the urban terrain gave his enemy a 20:1 advantage, rather than the customary 3:1 ascribed to the defending force in more open country; moreover, he stated that the city’s importance to the insurgency was as a key logistic base, critical to their efforts in Baghdad. If we apply the tenets of maneuverism, we might ask why the overall commander chose to fight on the terms of the insurgents rather than exploiting their weakness? A maneuverist approach would avoid urban battle, where the opponent is strongest, and instead dislocate the insurgents from the people—a critical vulnerability—by siege, contiguously occupying open spaces, where the insurgents are weakest, interdicting and disrupting their logistic networks on the move. This would be slower, perhaps, but surely more effective and arguably significantly less costly.
Contrary to the arguments of the attritionists, the recent history of warfare is replete with examples of the successful application of maneuverist principles in an urban environment. In The Art of Maneuver, Robert Leonhard uses the example of Operation Just Cause, the ousting of the Noriega dictatorship from Panama by the United States in 1989–90, as a demonstration of the effectiveness of a maneuverist approach in an urban environment. Successes are not reserved to the twentieth century; the twenty-first has thrown up several successful operations too. In his recent book, Blood, Metal, and Dust, retired Brig. Ben Barry recounts the story of both the 1st UK Armoured Division at Basra in 2003 and the US 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division in Sadr City in 2008. In both examples, a blend of tactics was used to dislocate and disrupt the insurgents from their critical vulnerability—the people—leading to their withdrawal and defeat. In both instances, restraint paid dividends, while resort to the use of overwhelming force could have proved catastrophic.
Paradoxically, then, recent observations that appear to highlight the failure of maneuver warfare actually vindicate it. Invariably, the occasional frustrations of Western armies in the contemporary urban environment are not the result of too much maneuverism, but a dearth of it. Rather than seeking to fight in the urban environment, where the West’s technological and doctrinal advantages are neutralized, it should, where possible, be avoided. That is not to say that armies should not train and prepare for it—John Spencer’s campaign for enhanced training and study is entirely laudable—but we must be clear that urban warfare further advantages the defense, rewarding the irregular opponent. Western armies should instead analyze, understand, and counter the enemy and rely on their strengths to prey on underlying weaknesses. In his 1932 book, Lectures on F.R.S III, British military theorist Maj. Gen. JFC Fuller commented that “to attack the nerves of an army, and through its nerves the will of its commander, is more profitable than battering to pieces the bodies of its men.” Maneuverism is a frame of mind, not a prescription.
Paul Barnes is a serving warrant officer in the British Army and a Fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is also uniquely a Chief of the General Staff’s Fellow and a Chief of the Air Staff’s Fellow; he has seen operational service in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or British Army.
Image credit: Spc. Arnell Ord, US Army
Mr. Barnes makes a convincing argument, to a certain point. And that point is one of time, maybe 2010 or so. The article’s silence on developments since then speaks volumes. That’s very unfortunate, because it seems representative of western armies’ limited thinking about air defense in recent years — except for the Israelis.
Maybe a more interesting and convincing article would have begun with the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, where tanks were at the mercy of simple and cheap air-delivered munitions. Then, with a quick look at the effects of such weapons versus exorbitantly expensive conventional air defense, it could have examined ways to improve the cost-effectiveness of air defense, and thereby preserve the ability to maneuver.
Are lasers the answer? I remain unconvinced, given the possible answers to those. But it seems someone smarter than me needs to start working this out. Otherwise, countries which have spent so much on tanks and IFV, and have high-tech air forces which are apathetic about CAS and the resulting plight of ground forces, are about to receive some nasty surprises.
The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war highlighted the effective use of (Azerbaijani) drones for Anti-tank warfare. However, upon closer analysis, one has to remember that Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) works when the explosives are INSERTED into (ALL) the reactive armor blocks. There has been no indication that the ERA in the Armenian tanks had their ERA blocks filled with explosives to be reactive to HEAT warheads. Hence, the T-MBTs were just like steel-hulled T-55s with no ERA protection if no explosives were inside the ERA blocks.
Furthermore, when under surprise attack, the best tank tactic is to "pop smoke grenades" and turn on the smoke generators and maneuver wildly into the smoke coverage. This didn't happen, as the videos show the tanks slowly sat there and got "plinked" by the UAVs' munitions from above. No tank zigzag maneuvers were performed in the videos to break UAV ISR lock, and no radar, Cyber, C5ISR, SHORADS, high mountain lookouts, or snipers with binoculars were seen on the battlefield for better situational awareness. In effect, the tanks lacked combined arms with infantry to oversee and advise the battlefield as the UAVs occupied the high ground.
There is no indication that either side paid money to purchase smoke grenades and explosives for the ERAs, let alone other defensive munitions, active defense, SHORADs, camouflage netting, radar dishes, AAA, combined arms, etc. As the videos show, none of the TCs fired their 12.7mm AAA MGs wildly into the air when their comrade's tanks were hit, meaning that I don't believe the TCs even knew what hit their platoon and caused the nearby AFVs to explode. The UAVs could have well been "stealth F-117As" if they weren't even suspected or detected.
The lack of training was evident. Sun Tzu's "Know Thy Enemy…" quote comes to mind.
There is no doubt that future conflicts will be multidimensional, most likely beginning as unconventional, then into expanded tactical air warfare and eventually building into larger maneuver element conflict, There is little to be gained for any army to attempt a repeat of the German style blitzkrieg as there is just too much intelligence gathering capability on all sides. Anyone who thinks there won't be large maneuver elements rolling through the enemy's terrain at some stage of future conflict is just naïve or purposely ignorant. Undoubtedly the days of Napoleonic style warfare where Army or Corps sized elements roam the earth are past as there is no one, not even the Chinese and especially the Russian, who would be able to constitute elements of that size or support them logistically. One one hand the assertion that large scale maneuver elements are a thing of the past is disproved by the Iraqi War, the Americans demonstrated clearly that they are capable of doing so if required, but the probability of that are extremely low. The nightmare scenario is for that style of warfare cutting a swath through Central Europe and no academic is capable of envisioning that.
This article is great, because its concise, not overly technical and makes strong points to recent operations that demonstrate the inherent integration of "maneuverist" (love that term) operations into events largely considered to reflect "attritionist" dominated operations. Of particular note is mentioning LTC Rainey's (then LTC Rainey's) interview and involvement in Fallujah with his combined arms battalion (CAB) from 1CD, and the pivotal role it played as a maneuver element within the urban environment, and how imaginative use of maneuver enabled the American task force to "dislocate" the insurgent's defense and seize the initiative despite a heavily fortified urban defense. I highly recommend listening this episode, for anyone who wants to make or take notes on how one can employ a lethal armored force with "Blitzkrieg-ish" tactics successfully. I definitely wish this case study had been discussed and communicated while I attended the Maneuver Captain's Career Course (MCCC) at Fort Benning, GA. Cheers to this article.