Meaning of manoeuvre, The

meaning of manoeuvre, The

Kiszely, John

The concept of manoeuvre, now a central aspect of British Defence Doctrine, has attracted and continues to attract much controversy. In this article Major General Kiszely analyses the reasons for this, examining what exactly is meant by the term manoeuvre, and explaining why the concept is not well understood. He discusses the relationship between manoeuvre and attrition, traces the origins of the terms `manoeuvre warfare’ and `the manoeuvrist approach’, and gives an account of the debateparticularly lively in the USwhich has surrounded the subject. Major General Kiszely then turns to assess the validity of the manoeuvrist approach across the whole spectrum of military operations from warfighting to peacekeeping and, lastly, asks whether such an approach is universally applicable.

If the influences of Liddell Hart, Fuller and Sun Tzu can clearly be seen in some of today’s approaches to warfare-in particular, what is termed `manoeuvre warfare’ and `the manoeuvrist approach’-the purpose of this brief survey is not so much to assess the degree of that influence, as to examine the meaning of ‘manoeuvre’. Here we shall examine what precisely the word means in this context, how these terms have come into the military lexicon, and their status in British military doctrine, before assessing their validity, applicability and limitations. But first some definitions, because I contend that the debate, sometimes heated, which has surrounded these concepts has been due largely to a failure by those concerned to define-not just describe and explain, but define-their terms.1

Finding a definition

The Concise Oxford Dictionary gives the word ‘manoeuvre’ a number of meanings. As a noun, it is `planning and controlled movement, (in plural) large scale exercise of troops, warships, etc.; deceptive or elusive movement; skilful plan’. As a verb, it is to `perform, cause (troops, etc.) to perform manoeuvres; employ artifice; force, drive, manipulate (person, thing, into, out, away, etc.) by scheming or adroitness’. But there is no definition of manoeuvre as an adjective, and no such word as ‘manoeuvrist’. In effect, therefore, we have two types of manoeuvre: first, the purely physical one of movement; secondly, the deceptive, elusive, scheming adroitness which causes someone to be forced, driven or manipulated out of something.

The British military’s definition of the word sits somewhere between the two: `the employment of forces on the battlefield through movement in combination with fire, or fire potential, to achieve a position of advantage in respect to the enemy in order to accomplish the mission.’2

Often we see the term ‘manoeuvre warfare’ used in the sense of warfare involving a great deal of physical movement, and contrasted with positional or attritional warfare -attrition being aimed at `the reduction of effectiveness of a force by the loss of personnel and materiel.’3 Of course, in practice, warfare is a balance of manoeuvre and attrition, but opponents tend to place emphasis on one or the other in their approach, depending on where they perceive success to lie.

The weaker opponent, for example, is unlikely to choose a mutuallywearing contest of attrition which is likely to lead to his defeat.

Manoeuvre warfare

There are also those who use the term `manoeuvre warfare’ to describe the second dictionary definition, that of warfare based on the deceptive, elusive, scheming adroitness which causes someone to be manoeuvred into or out of something. This implies deceit and sleight of hand, but not necessarily any physical movement at all. It involves one opponent seeking to mentally outmanoeuvre the other, as in a game of chess. Again, this is an approach often favoured by the weaker, who wishes to avoid a slogging match.

There is nothing to prevent the stronger from playing the same game, but he may prefer just to let attrition take its course. These two uses of them term `manoeuvre warfare’ are therefore, rather different, although both are alternatives to attrition.

The avoidance of unnecessary attrition in achieving victory is very much in the spirit of Sun Tzu: ‘. . . to fight and win one hundred battles is not the acme of skill; to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.’4 In practice, of course, that acme is rarely, if ever achievable; some fighting is almost invariably required. The object of this fighting need not always be the mutually wearing-away activity that is attrition. J F C Fuller neatly encapsulated the alternatives:

‘There are two ways of destroying an organisation:

* By wearing it down (dissipating it).

* By rendering it inoperative (unhinging it).

In War, the first comprises the killing, wounding, capturing and disarming of the enemy’s soldiers (body warfare). The second, the rendering inoperative of his powers of command (brain warfare). Taking a single man as an example, the first method might be compared to a succession of slight wounds, which eventually lead him to bleed to death; the second-a shot through the head.’5

Liddell Hart, for his part, differentiated between what he called the direct approach, highly attritional in nature, and its antithesis, the indirect approach, which, he claimed, not only promised, but would deliver, victory at minimum cost. None of these theorists, however, use the term `manoeuvre warfare’. From where does this term come?

The debate

In 1976, and in the wake of the Vietnam War, the United States Army published its new operational doctrine, `Active Defence’, largely focusing on the NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation in Europe.6 The new doctrine attracted fierce criticism on the grounds that it overemphasised firepower at the expense of manoeuvre, and relied on attrition when this played to the strength of the enemy. Amongst the critics, William Lind deplored this `Maginot mentality’, proposing instead what he referred to as `maneuver doctrine.’7 Stephen Canby talked of `. . . infantry versus armoured style of warfare. In the first, war is attrition; in the second, war is the avoidance of costly battle with the aim of unravelling the opponents ability to organise himself to act.’8 Edward Luttwak argued that this attritional approach was an American style of warfare, based on a self-image of materiel superiority and on warfare as an industrial process in the application of firepower.9 He used the term `maneuver warfare’ to describe an approach which sought to achieve disruption, and in which forces were structured and configured not so much to maximise their own allround capabilities, as to exploit weaknesses particular to the enemy. He subsequently10 developed the thesis, using the term `relationalmaneuver’, the goal of which was `systemic destruction’-the incapacitation or collapse of the enemy’s whole system-rather than ‘cumulative destruction’-the result of a series of attritional engagements. He also pointed to how this might be achieved, emphasising, in particular, the importance of high tempo (the rhythm or rate of activity relative to the enemy), and simultaneity (posing so many dilemmas to the enemy that his command and control became overloaded and collapsed). And he highlighted the close relationship between this approach and the operational level of war. In 1985, at the behest of some in the US Marine Corps, Lind published a practical guide, the Maneuver Warfare Handbook;ll and in the same year Richard Simpkin, a retired British Army officer, published Race To The Swift,lz a somewhat under-edited book which, amongst many other ideas, described what he called ‘attrition theory’ and its antithesis, `manoeuvre theory’, important roots of which he traced to Russian theorists, principally Tukhachevskii. Simpkin asserted that those who favoured an attritional approach were so wedded to it as to warrant the tag `addicts of attrition’ and that the attritional approach was an inherent characteristic of the British military. An examination of the validity of that claim is outside the scope of this survey,l3 but the claim itself helps to explain the degree of heat that has sometimes surfaced in the debate.

A number of other commentators,l4 mainly in the United States, joined the debate, many of them urging a change in doctrine towards a less attritional approach. Some produced widely different ideas of how this might be achieved, but invariably labelled them as manoeuvre warfare, almost invariably failing to define what this term meant. These ideas became the subject of debate on this side of the Atlantic, particularly at the British Army Staff College, where some of the ideas chimed with the less attritional approach being advocated by General Sir Nigel Bagnall (although not under the title of `manoeuvre warfare’). The absence of an agreed definition did not prevent heated debate of the subject, but it did tend to make much of the debate meaningless.

In 1994 the Army Staff College recognised that the term `manoeuvre warfare’ was misleading, and in an effort to focus on the mental activity required to outmanoeuvre the enemy commander, introduced the term `the manoeuvrist approach’. The publication of the UK Armed Forces’ capstone doctrinal publication British Defence Doctrine15 in 1996 produced for the first time an agreed definition of the ‘manoeuvrist approach’: `The manoeuvrist approach to operations is one in which shattering the enemy’s overall cohesion and will to fight, rather than his materiel, is paramount’. It also describes the means by which the manoeuvrist approach can achieve its ends: attacks on the enemy’s command and control systems, the requirement for high tempo and simultaneity. And it focuses on the deceptive, elusive, scheming adroitness which causes someone to be forced, driven, or manipulated out of something.

Manoeuvre in the British Defence Doctrine

Although the British Defence Doctrine defines and describes the manoeuvrist approach, and states that it `is equally applicable to all types of military operations’, it does not prescribe it as the approach which must be adopted, drawing attention, for example, to the fact that the manoeuvrist approach is inherently risky and less certain than the application of overwhelming strength. The UK Doctrine for Joint and Multinational Operations is more prescriptive: `Rather than relying principally on attrition, a better approach, irrespective of the nature or intensity of conflict, is one which seeks to shatter the enemy’s will and cohesion rather than simply destroy his manpower and material.l6 Similarly two of the three Services’ doctrines point towards the manoeuvrist approach. The Royal Navy’s Fundamentals of British Maritime Doctrine advocates that `Historically and from a standpoint of modem doctrine, a navy does not have a choice between manoeuvre and other styles of warfare’; but a caveat follows with the statement, `It may be considered to be more an attitude of mind than an operational blueprint.’17

The Army’s `British Military Doctrine’ claims that ‘. . . the successful application of the manoeuvrist approach inspires a particular attitude of mind and a method of analysis that is relevant to any circumstances involving the use of military force to resolve conflict.’18 The Royal Air Forces’s doctrine,19 however, is silent on the subject; although it should be said that the Single Service doctrine publications pre-date the British Defence Doctrine, and are being revised in the light of it. In passing, though, it is worth noting that nowhere do any of these doctrines suggest that the manoeuvrist approach has in any way changed the nature of warfare; nowhere do they suggest that it in any way absolves the Armed Forces from the need to fight, nor the need to train to do so, nor that fighting is less likely, nor that the military philosopher’s stone has at last been discovered.

If the meaning of ‘manoeuvre’ is now more clearly defined within the Armed Forces’ doctrine, this is not to claim that its meaning is already well understood throughout the Armed Forces themselves, let alone outside them, amongst those who do not know of, or share, that definition. Indeed, there are still some who attribute supernatural powers to it as a military panacea, comparable to Liddell Harts’s advocacy of his Indirect Approach; some who choose to interpret it as having supplanted the need for any fighting at all; and, equally, others who deride it as myth.20 In that sense, the debate is not dissimilar to that which surrounded the Indirect Approach, which at one time raged in the columns of the Institute’s Journal.21

How valid is the concept of manoeuvre warfare?

Having looked at the meaning, derivation and status of the term `the manoeuvrist approach’, and accepting the British Defence Doctrine definition, it is necessary now to examine the validity of the concept, itself. Can an enemy be defeated by the shattering of his overall cohesion and will to resist, rather than by the incremental destruction of his forces? Are these, indeed, opposites? A brief glance at history will show us incidences where an enemy has been defeated solely by complete destruction, without shattering of cohesion and without surrender, just as there are incidences-Napoleon at Ulm, for example-where overall cohesion and will to resist were shattered without any physical attrition taking place. But these are extremes, and rarities to the extent of being collectable items; in practice, warfare is, as noted earlier, a mixture of manoeuvre and attrition. A graphic example of complete defeat caused by the shattering of cohesion and will to resist rather than by destruction of forces and materiel is, of course, the collapse of France in 1940. But blitzkrieg also provides a graphic example of the risks of relying on shattering cohesion and will to resist when used, as in Russia, against those whose cohesion and will to resist is strong. But turning to the other end of the spectrum, it is sometimes argued that it is the rarity for one side in a conflict to set out to achieve victory purely by cumulative destruction to the point of the opponent’s collapse-`bleeding their opponent white.’22 But Falkenhayn is far from alone; General Westmoreland was probably not consciously echoing him when he outlined his strategy for victory in Vietnam as `We’ll just go on bleeding them until Hanoi wakes up to the fact that they have bled their country to the point of national disaster for generations.’23

Wider applicability

But what is the wider applicability of the manoeuvrist approach? Is it applicable, first, at every level of warfare-strategic, operational and tactical? It is probably most applicable at the operational level, translating strategic direction into tactical action by means of a campaign plan. Here the focus on a catastrophic vulnerability, or `centre of gravity,’ and the means of reaching it through a series of stepping stones or `decisive points,’ leads to consideration of engaging the enemy only in achievement of a decisive point or in the attack on the centre of gravity.

Indeed, it could be argued that without the manoeuvrist approach, there is no such thing as `operational art.’ Manoeuvre at the tactical level is more likely to be manoeuvre in the sense of movement, combined with the application of firepower. It is, however, the purpose of that movement and firepower which defines the attritional from the manoeuvrist approach. In the former, the enemy is a series of targets to be serviced; firepower is applied to destroy them; movement is the search for `targetrich environments’ and is the means of applying firepower. In the latter, fighting is more often a means to allow us to move into a more advantageous position; firepower is used not so much to destroy the enemy as to neutralise him: `fight to move,’ as opposed to `move to fight.’ At all times, however, there is a choice between defeating the enemy by maximising the focus either on firepower or on manoeuvre-in the latter, drawing the enemy into a contest of manoeuvre. An epitome of this approach was Rommel in the Western Desert in 1941-42. As David Fraser describes, ‘. . . he believed that the menace posed to the enemy by the depth and impetus of his thrust would somehow, somewhere, force a reaction whose exact nature none could foresee, and that in the consequent unpredictable fighting his own swiftness of action and the training of his troops would bring victory.’24 And such an approach is, of course, by no means confined to land operations. Nelson similarly developed tactics to draw his enemy into a fluid, chaotic melee, explaining, ‘I think it will surprise and confound the enemy. They won’t know what I’m about. It will bring forward a pell-mell battle, and that is what I want.’25

The tactical level

But is manoeuvre in the sense not just of physical manoeuvre but of the manoeuvrist approach also valid at the tactical level? Can a tactical level commander shatter the enemy’s cohesion and will to fight, rather than destroy him through incremental attrition? Clearly, there will be occasions-maybe more often than not at the tactical level, where the scope for manoeuvre in terms of space and time is so often limitedwhen an attritional approach is necessary. But that should not prevent commanders at all levels pausing to think whether their enemy’s cohesion and will to fight can be shattered other than by cumulative destruction of his forces. Again, Rommel provides an example. In the Battle of Caporetto in 1917, as a company commander, he achieves a series of spectacular tactical victories (which earned him the pour le merite) by a mixture of attritional and manoeuvrist means. Having just taken one enemy position by frontal attack, he adopts a different approach with the next. ‘. . . Rommel estimated some three battalions of Italians were assembled. Rommel decided to walk slowly towards them. Nobody fired. He walked further, calling now and waving his handkerchief. Still nobody fired. He reached a point 150 yards from the nearest Italians. Suddenly the Italians started tearing away in different directions. Hundreds rushed up to Rommel and hoisted him on their shoulders with cries of `Viva Germania!.’ Hundreds of others threw down their arms and surrendered. These were fifteen hundred men of the Salerno Brigade.’26 The difficulty at the tactical level lies in training: to train soldiers to have the necessary aggression, tenacity, and desire `to close with the enemy and kill him’ is difficult to reconcile with the requirement to consider other options before doing so. Furthermore, overemphasis on manoeuvre can obscure the importance of fixing the enemy before striking him.

Operations other than war If the manoeuvrist approach can be applied to all levels of warfare, can it be applied to operations other than war-for example, in peace enforcement, counter insurgency or even peace keeping? Providing one substitutes the word ‘opponent’ for ‘enemy’, there seems to be no reason why this should not be so, since one’s opponent in these scenarios has cohesion and a will to resist which can be targeted. This holds true equally at the tactical level: a junior commander, for example, facing a road-block in Bosnia, and permitted by Rules of Engagement to do so, may choose to force his way through; but, equally, he might achieve his aim by distracting his opponents and sneaking round a flank, by jamming their radios, or by getting his superior to threaten sanctions against his opponent’s superior. An attritionally-minded commander might naturally select the first course; a commander imbued with a manoeuvrist approach would, I suggest, tend to consider the other options first. Universal applicability?

But, lastly, if, as has been argued, the manoeuvrist approach can be applied at every level and across the whole spectrum of military activity, is it universally applicable? Certainly there are circumstances in which attrition is the preferable means. A contestant hugely stronger in firepower who wishes to avoid a high tempo, pell-mell battle-for example, Montgomery at Alameinmight be wise to rely on attrition.

And since to excel at high tempo operations a high standard of training and a decentralised system of command is required, those who lack them may wish to do likewise. Furthermore, since the manoeuvrist approach relies on deception, and therefore on security, it will be a poor approach if security is likely to be breached. Moreover, that approach is inherently risky-in Luttwak’s words, when it fails it fails `catastrophically’, whereas attrition fails ‘gracefully’;27 and high risk is often politically very uncomfortable. Nor is `the manoeuvrist approach’, as defined in the British Defence Doctrine, necessarily recommended in a multinational operation with allies whose doctrinal approach is different. Finally, it requires commanders who are adept at it; who are deceptive, elusive, and scheming; who are focused on getting into the mind of their opponent and mentally outmanoeuvring him or her; who can apply originality and imagination to problem solving; who can recognise fleeting opportunities and act decisively on them; and who are risktakers, happy in `the province of chaos and uncertainty’. This may require a change in ethos greater than that which is achievable.

Can the manoeuvrist approach, therefore, be prescribed as the universally preferred approach? Here, it seems to me, one has to be careful. If one takes the definition as excluding attrition one cannot prescribe it, since attrition is sometimes the appropriate means. If, however, one sees the manoeuvrist approach as always seeking alternatives to attrition before resorting to it-attrition being the last resort-it does seem a valid approach to prescribe. The British Defence Doctrine is not as clear as it might be on this point.

In summary, the manoeuvrist approach has a specific meaning as defined in our doctrine, but the concept is far from universally understood within the Armed Forces, let alone outside them. It has a possible applicability at every level of warfare, in all environments, and throughout the spectrum of military activity. But that is not to say that, as defined, it necessarily has universal applicability; indeed, there are circumstances when relying on shattering the enemy’s cohesion and will to resist will be inadequate. There is, however, much to commend an approach which considers alternative approaches before resorting to attrition. Above all, we would be wise to recognise that the law is not in the doctrine; `the law is in the circumstances’.Z8 2


1. See M Elliott-Bateman and J Moore `Language: The First Problem of Military Reform’, in Defence Analysis, Vol 3, No 4, 1987, pp. 361-366, and M Elliott-Bateman, `Vocabulary: The Second Problem of Military Reform-II Tactics’, in Defence Analysis, Vol 6, No 4, 1990, pp. 329-350.

2. NATO AAP-6 `Glossary of Terms’ 1995.

3. Ibid.

4. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Samuel B Griffith, (Oxford University

Press, 1963), p. 77.

5. J F C Fuller, On Future Warfare, (Sifton Praed, London, 1928), p. 93. 6. J L Romjue, Active Defense to AirLand Battle, (TRADOC Historical Office, 1984), p. 16.

7. W Lind, `Some Doctrinal Questions for the United States Army’ in Military Review, 57, No 3, March 1977, pp. 54-65. 8. S L Canby, `NATO: Reassessing the Conventional Wisdom’ in Survival, 21, No 2, March-April 1979, pp. 164-168. 9. E N Luttwak, `The American Style in Warfare and The Military Balance’ in Survival, 21, No 2, March-April 1979, pp. 57-60.

10. E N Luttwak, `The Operational Level of War’, in International Security, Vol 5, No 3, Winter 1980/81, pp. 61-79. See also E N Luttwak, `Strategy-The Logic of War and Peace’, (Bellknap, Harvard UP, 1987), especially Chapter 7. 11. W S Lind, Maneuver Warfare Handbook, (Westview Special Studies, 1985). 12. R E Simpkin, ‘Race to the Swift’, (Brassey’s, London, 1985). See also his `Manoeuvre Theory and the Small Army’ in British Army Review, No 78, December 1984; ‘The Universal Net’ in British Army Review, No 84, December 1986; and Deep Battle, (Brassey’s, London 1986). 13. See J P Kiszely, `The British Army and Approaches to Warfare Since 1945′, in Military Power: Land Warfare in Theory and Practice, Holden-Reid (ed), (Frank Cass, London, 1997).

14. See, for example, R D Leonhard The Art of Maneuver, (Presidio Press,

Novatio Ca, 1990) and R D Hooker, Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology, (Presidio Press, 1993).

15. British Defence Doctrine, JWP 0-01, (HMSO, London, 1996).

16. UK Doctrine for Joint and Multinational Operations, JWP-10, (HMSO, 1997).

17. The Fundamentals of British Maritime Doctrine, BR 1806, (HMSO, London, 1995), pp. 73-74.

18. Design for Military Operations-The British Military Doctrine, Army Code 71451, (HMSO, 1996), pp. 4-21. 19. RAF Air Power Doctrine, AP 3000, (HMSO, 1995).

20. See, for example, Brigadier R Fry, `Myths of Manoeuvre’, in RUSI Journal, December 1997, pp. 5-8.

21. See J P Kiszely, The British Army and Approaches to Warfare Since 1945. 22. ‘. . . so werden sich Frankreichs Krafte ver^1uten . . .’, Falkenhayn, quoted in Deutsche Militaergeschichte in Sechs Baenden, (MGFA Hrsg, Munich, 1983), p. 510.

23. Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, (Cape, London, 1989), p. 643. 24. D W Fraser, Knight’s Cross, (HarperCollins, London, 1993), p. 323. 25. 0 Warner, Great Sea Battles, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1963), p. 176.

26. DTW Fraser, Knight’s Cross pp. 71 72.

27. E N Luttwak, `Strategy. The Logic of War and Peace’, p. 95.

28. Attributed to Mary Parker Follett.

Based on a presentation to the Institute on 13 October; by Major General John Kiszely MC, Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Programmes).

Copyright Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies Dec 1998

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