In a recent article, author Paul Barnes argued against assertions made by Professor Anthony King of the University of Warwick a few months ago in an episode of the Royal United Services Institute’s Western Way of War podcast. During the conversation, Dr. King stated that the future of warfare would be increasingly urban, an environment ill-suited for maneuver. Because of this, he argued, boldly, that “maneuver warfare is dead.” Barnes disagrees, claiming in his article that recent history not only shows that maneuver warfare is alive and well, but that what he calls “maneuverist” principles have proven successful in multiple contemporary urban battles.
At the heart of the disagreement, though, is the fact that there isn’t based on a single, clear, shared definition of maneuver warfare. Is it some grand theory describing the application of state power—an application that uses an indirect approach to avoid an adversary’s strengths and then strike with enough surprise and capability to put the enemy at such physical disadvantage or in such psychological disarray that they lose their will to fight? Is it an ancient form of war, thousands of years old and rooted in Chinese theories about defeating an enemy without even fighting? Or is it a more specific warfighting philosophy that is only a hundred years old and put forth by J.F.C Fuller, B.H. Liddell Hart, and others—a philosophy that requires operational speed, mobility, and decisive strikes against less mobile enemies using formations of tanks and aircraft to destroy an enemy’s ability to exercise command and control or organize counterstrikes? Or is the term more literal, a reference simply to the combination of maneuver (movement to secure an advantage) and warfare (military operations between enemies)? Is there a difference between strategic, operational, and tactical maneuver warfare? Are there differences in the theory if applied in the different warfighting domains?
This lack of a shared definition is likely also why Barnes’s article misses a few important points. The opposite of maneuver warfare, for example, is not—as the article suggests—simply attrition warfare that seeks to defeat an enemy by destroying their personnel and equipment with superior numbers and mass. Positional warfare—the use of tactics, firepower, and movement to displace or deny an enemy from an area of advantage—is closer to being maneuver’s opposite.
To simplify the debate and to effectively assess the usefulness of maneuver warfare in land campaigns, the basis of Barnes’s position, one must turn to what landpower military services say it is. While US Army doctrine does not define maneuver warfare explicitly, it does reiterate US joint doctrine, which highlights maneuver as a principle that seeks to “place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power.” Army doctrine also states that conducting land operations requires “the ability to move quickly, operate dispersed, and sustain maneuver over distance.”
So returning to the subject of the impact of an increasingly urban battlefield on the utility of maneuver warfare, the real question is whether maneuver warfare and its associated modern, land-based operating concepts (be it AirLand Battle, Unified Land Operations, or Multi-Domain Operations) are the most effective warfighting methods to be employed in dense urban terrain. The attributes of urban environments reduce a military’s ability to achieve what are needed in land-based maneuver warfare—surprise, rapid mobility, shock, and combined arms warfighting. The fact is that the complexity of the three-dimensional physical terrain, as well as restrictions on the use of force based on protected populations and sites and international laws, norms, and perceptions, makes urban areas the most difficult environment to achieve physical, temporal, or cognitive defeat of an enemy force.
In defense of maneuver warfare in urban terrain, Barnes presents two ideas that warrant further interrogation. First, he states that a maneuverist force should avoid urban battle where the enemy is strongest. He instead believes maneuverism calls for a military force to dislocate or separate the enemy from the urban environment (both the terrain and the population) by besieging urban terrain and waiting for the enemy force to enter open areas, where they can be destroyed. By all definitions, this is an argument for positional warfare (of which siege warfare is a subset) and not maneuver warfare. This is also in line with other scholars who believe an armed force can avoid or prevent urban combat mainly by employing operational speed to strike or block an enemy before they can get to urban terrain, bypassing enemy-held urban areas to reach some other center of gravity, or conducting a siege to cut off supplies to the enemy and waiting for them to give up.
The problem with placing an avoidance- or prevention-based approach at the core of a warfighting theory is that the enemy gets a vote. All warfare is one combatant seeking an advantage over the other to achieve its objectives—even if those objectives are only to avoid being destroyed or dislocated. Yes, joint combined arms maneuver is the most powerful form of land warfare. Therefore, any thinking enemy will seek to avoid or disrupt that strength by defending in complex urban terrain.
The other foundation of Barnes’s argument is that recent historical case studies show the successful application of maneuverist principles. Yet, every case study provided in the article contradicts the same article’s argument in favor of avoiding, bypassing, or laying siege to a city and waiting a defending enemy out. Each of the case studies shows that those were not options based on strategic, operational, and tactical considerations—be they political in nature or functions of time. Furthermore, assessments of what approach was used in each of the battles Barnes mentions is highly debatable. The 2008 Battle of Sadr City involved no maneuver. It was positional warfare to dislocate an enemy from a piece of terrain (rocket firing points) with a major siege component (walling the enemy inside Sadr City, along with the population, and controlling the entry and exit points). Both the 2003 Battle of Baghdad and 2004’s Second Battle of Fallujah involved positional warfare in a deep penetration frontal attack that subsequently transitioned to a defense. This forced the enemy to dislocate their defense and attack the intruding force.
Barnes may be correct that maneuver warfare is not dead. But it needs to undergo major changes to remain the most powerful form of warfare in any environment and enemy situation. All signs related to global demographics, political violence, conflict trends, and increasing adherence to asymmetric strategies point to urban terrain continuing to be the preferred battleground of many combatants. Instead of arguing that modern military forces should avoid urban battle (or that we are actually good at it), we must embrace reality, adapt maneuver warfare for urban environments, and work tirelessly to develop concepts that will rapidly dominate enemy forces in urban terrain and provide more strategic options. This includes creating a new version of maneuver warfare that incorporates evidence-based requirements for multi-dimensional positional warfare.
To be clear, this will take more than just thinking about urban warfare. We must plan for it, and train, man, and equip for it more than we do today. And we must develop more expertise and better capabilities than we currently have so that when our enemies choose to defend urban terrain our strengths will remain superior.
John Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute, co-director of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project, and host of the Urban Warfare Project Podcast. He previously served as a fellow with the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group. He served twenty-five years as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq.
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, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Joseph Rivera Rebolledo, US Army
I think you are absolutely right about the need for better definitions. A "maneuverist approach" to warfare in general does not preclude taking a positional or attrition based model at a theatre operational level, or a tactical level for a particular operation. We need to stop being so absolutist and recognize that there is a nuance to this argument. It has been argued that Fuller and Liddell Hart were developing doctrine in response to WW1 – they did not want to get bogged down in what was both a positional and attritional fight in trench warfare. However even if "traditional" land based combined arms maneuver at the operational and tactical level must give way to positional or even attritional fights when needed, that does not mean that the west can afford to go back to building castles as defensive bastion's, nor can we raise million person citizen armies in order to overcome the enemy with attrition. However we can consider the urban battle space as a bastion, to be defended or attacked as required, we can attempt to attrite the enemies capabilities, while avoiding the same fate our selves (by maneuvering ?). Lets use the right tool for the right job, and drop the absolutist approach to doctrine, strategy and TTP development.
In many parts of the world today (to include here at home in the U.S./the West?), the "battlefield" looks like this:
a. The more-urban, the more-secular, the more-educated, the more-modern and the more-liberal population groups; these folks are pitted against:
b. The more-rural, the more-religious, the less-educated, the more-traditional population and the more-conservative population groups.
What this such depiction of the "battlefield" tells us is that:
a. Given our domestic and foreign policy goals of altering the ways of life, the ways of governance, and/or the values, etc., of the states and societies of the world (to include our own); this, so as to better provide for and better benefit from such things as globalization and the global economy —
b. These more-rural, more-religious, less-educated, more-traditional and more-conservative population groups (again both here at home and there abroad) — as seen in this scenario — have become our "natural enemies." (Why? Because — both here at home and there abroad — they stand in the way of desired "change.")
"Maneuver warfare" — thus as seen from this perspective — finds our opponents involved in:
a. Aligning themselves with and "courting" the populations groups noted at my item "b" immediately above. (In this regard, see my first quoted item below.) And in:
b. Developing these groups into an "internal opposition" to be used as a "permanently operating front" against us and our progressive/"change" agenda. (See my second quoted item below)
"In his annual appeal to the Federal Assembly in December 2013, Putin formulated this 'independent path' ideology by contrasting Russia’s 'traditional values' with the liberal values of the West. He said: 'We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.' He proclaimed that Russia would defend and advance these traditional values in order to 'prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.'
(See the Wilson Center's Kennan Cable No. 53: Russia’s “Traditional Values” and Domestic Violence" by Olimpiada Usanova.)
"… Asymmetrical actions have come into widespread use, enabling the nullification of an enemy´s advantages in armed conflict. Among such actions are the use of special operations forces and internal opposition to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state, as well as informational actions, devices, and means that are constantly being perfected. …" —Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff.
(See the Army University Press [Sep-Oct 2020 edition] of Military Review and, therein, the article " Russian New Generation Warfare: Deterring and Winning at the Tactical Level," by James Derleth)
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
If the goal of "maneuver warfare" (or, rather, "positional warfare?") is to cause one's opponent to fight you on your own preferred ground (in Putin's case, on the ground of "traditionalism"), might we say that:
a. By causing the U.S. to abandon its long-running “modernization”/"transformative" efforts — both here at home and there abroad — and
b. By causing the U.S. to embrace “traditionalism” more instead (i.e., the only “ground” that our enemies currently occupy and can “win” on); by doing this,
c. Our opponents today (Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists, etc.) have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams?
That "urban warfare" negates maneuver warfare is a fallacious argument – if the context of the definitions is to be defined by terrain/geography as the "urban" designation implies. Urban areas are merely dots on the countryside and aggregations of people and resources. Maneuver warfare encompasses the entire land (and air) battlefield and urban warfare is only an outgrowth of reaching urban objectives – which can be overrun, surrounded, bombed, bypassed or reduced through direct and indirect fires. You CHOOSE to engage in urban warfare once you REACH, usually through maneuver warfare, an urban area.
Once you take an urban area, you become responsible for logistics and security…so it is often best to isolate and bypass them for later pacification. How any of those considerations negate the concept of maneuver is beyond me.
History repeats itself. Positional warfare or the war of posts was conducted during the 16th thru 18th century were seizing control of urban areas was important. It was the end state. Napoleon changed that equation with his Grand Armee where the destruction of the enemy army became paramount as its destruction and follow on capture of the capitol won the war. Now, due to the internet (which needs urban areas to operate consistently) and urbanization, large metro areas dot the terrain creating obstacles to maneuver. What I think will happen is that we will go back to the war of posts where large urban areas are placed under seize with their LOC 's cut. This forces the defender to sit tight and wait for relief or surrender.
I see two key takeaways from this article. The first, I believe, is part of the author’s intent. I’m less certain of the second, but it might be the most significant for the planner:
1). Definitions of this level of warfare are either missing or inadequate for the debate at hand.
How is maneuver warfare, as a principle seeking to “place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power,” any different from positional or attrition warfare?
In each of the three approaches, victory is still largely dependent on leveraging one’s own strengths against the enemy’s weak point – from Alexander at Gaugamela through Hannibal at Cannae and Henry V at Agincourt to Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm, the “flexible application of combat power” is hardly adequate distinction. Is atomic bombing a subset of maneuver? It creates a psychological deterrence that can’t be overstated.
Also, while I agree that “urban environments reduce a military’s ability to achieve what are needed in land-based maneuver warfare,” I disagree that the urban environment has a lesser effect on positional or attrition warfare. Attributes such as “surprise, rapid mobility, shock, and combined arms warfighting” are neither exclusive to nor necessarily more significant in maneuver compared to the other two legs of your triumvirate. In ancient and medieval siege warfare, we see the traditional military branches develop many of their separate distinctions that are recognizable, today – while still having to coordinate their efforts to the same objective. Surprise, speed, and violence of action are still taught as the primary attributes of tactical urban assault. International law and protected targets are much more prevalent, today, but, in theory, they affect attrition much more than position or maneuver.
2). Are these style-of-warfare distinctions as relevant as we make them out to be?
From the viewpoints of pedagogy, theory, or history, absolutely. I, personally, find it fascinating.
However, a focus on distinctions between the different styles of warfare encourages a planner to choose one lens and ignore the others….
A strategic or grand strategic approach that is largely positional (i.e. one of containment) may require an operational approach that is more maneuverist (such as controlling access to certain ports or airfields), which may, in turn, demand a tactical mission that is attrition-focused (destroying rail lines or resource stockpiles). They all may involve aspects of the different views at each level and at different points while shaping the effort. This is an oversimplification, of course, and I imagine it’s rare for any single approach to be the only one necessary.
The debate for whether one form of warfare is dead or not is misguided. Whether we should focus more on one and less on the others is a reasonable argument – but we should be versed and adaptable in all three. To jettison any particular approach as “no longer necessary” is a recurring hubris throughout military history.
There is value to the maneuver-positional-attrition triad concept, but it needs development beyond the scope of a blog.