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Methods of war are typically held to stand on a continuum between maneuver warfare and attrition warfare, the focus on achieving victory through killing or capturing the enemy. Maneuver warfare advocates recognize that all warfare involves both maneuver and attrition.
Maneuver warfare concepts have historically been stressed by militaries that 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" 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, 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.
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Military orthodoxy[specify] believes that with some exceptions, most battles between established armies have historically been fought based on an attrition warfare strategy. Closer examination, however, reveals that the 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 combatants killed, equipment and infrastructure destroyed, and territory taken and/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).
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 (such as the Maginot Line). Firepower, 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 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.
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. The decentralized 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 van Creveld identifies six main elements of maneuver warfare:
For the majority of history, armies were limited in their speed to that of the marching soldier, about equal for everyone involved. That meant that it was possible for opposing armies to 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, that began to change with the domestication of the horse, the invention of chariots and the increasing military use of cavalry. Cavalry had two major uses: to attack and use its momentum to break infantry formations and, using 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, 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 Hoplites at the battle of Marathon against the forces of Datis in 490 BC and the subsequent pincer movement by the Athenian forces on the flanks used a similar tactic. The intent was to draw the Persian core forces, Persians and Saka axemen, forward while the Hoplite flanks drove off their opposite numbers and then enveloped the Persian center. Prior to 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 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 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.
Similar strategies are also possible using suitably trained infantry, and it was Napoleon I who showed it to great effect. He used a 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.
That 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 tactically, both in terms of when and where to fight and how to fight the battle he chose.
Napoleon's fame as a general and indeed his power base to become head of France, 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, it 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 today would be called 'Battle Groups' of combined arms formations to allow faster reaction time to enemy action. That is an important measure supporting the effectiveness of maneuver warfare and was copied by 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 and deliberate movement to gain psychological advantage by isolating forces from each other 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 this and later defeats that caused a major doctrinal re-evaluation by the Prussians under Carl von Clausewitz of 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 the mid-19th century, logistics were 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 it could field substantially smaller forces than the French, devised a war plan that relied on speed by encircling and destroying or 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, it could mobilize quickly and invade and destroy French field forces fast enough, it would be victorious before the French army could fully react. That tactic was used to devastating effect in 1870, when 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 the 1870s, it is not surprising that the German battle plans for World War I were 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 intervening 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, it now proved difficult.
Germany introduced new tactics with infiltration and stormtrooper "shock troops", toward the end of World War I, which bypassed resistance, leaving its reduction to other means. Russian general Aleksei Brusilov used similar tactics in 1916 on the Eastern Front during the Brusilov Offensive.
The introduction of the tank, in a series of increasingly successful operations, pointed the way out of the deadlock of attrition warfare and trench warfare, but the war ended before the British plans to field thousands of tanks could be put into a large-scale offensive. Fuller had proposed Plan 1919 which would use tanks to break through the lines and then wreak havoc on the German lines of supply and communication.
In the interwar period the British developed ideas for fully mechanized all-arms warfare with the Experimental Mechanized Force.
Between both World Wars, the Germans again reviewed their doctrine and revised their approach, expanding on the infiltration tactics and amplifying them with motor transport. Heinz Guderian was a leading proponent of armored combat in the interwar years. The German military stressed several key elements: versatile tanks combined with mobile infantry and artillery, close air support, rapid movement and concentration of forces, and aggressive independent local initiative, all strictly coordinated by radio. All this contributed to new tactics during the Battle of France in 1940, which became known as Blitzkrieg or "lightning war". Blitzkrieg is perhaps the most famous example of maneuver warfare. Theories of armored warfare developed in Germany 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.
According to the United States 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 U.S. 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."
In the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s, the concept of "Deep Battle" was developed and integrated into the Red Army field regulations doctrine by Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky. This led to the creation of Cavalry Mechanised Groups during the Second World War and to Operational maneuver groups during the Cold War.
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 of the early 21st century, in operations whose 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 discreetly 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. There, 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. Thus, 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 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".
The first war fought under the new doctrine of Maneuver Warfare, with several observations and suggestions for future change.