Firepower Vs. Maneuver

This won’t be an extended treatise on on doctrine, but I came across a brief passage in a paper (that I’ll expound on in a later post) that I wanted to share with you:

Further the tension between firepower and maneuver-based doctrines
often appears as more of a false dichotomy than self-styled maneuver theorists might allow. As DePuy stated in partial response to critics who accused him of being an attritionist, “maneuver warfare is not a doctrinal choice, it is an earned benefit.”

Put aside the COIN vs. Full Spectrum Operations (or whatever the hell the Army is calling it this week) argument, for decades, there’s been the tension between the advocates of attritional firepower versus the advocates of maneuver warfare.

To which I say-

You need firepower to give you freedom of maneuver, and maneuver to effectively place firepower.

Big Army, especially the armored and mech infantry side of the house, are frequently castigated as the attritionists. That’s fairly odd, because DePuy, supposedly the head attritionist in chief, was the guy that strongly encouraged the revisions to the ‘76 version of FM 100-5, inviting input that eventually lead to a far more “maneuverista” approach, eventually enshrined in 1982 as AirLand Battle Doctrine.

On the flip side, the Marines, famous for frontal assaults throughout history, are currently seen as a hotbed of maneuveristas, holding it as the high holy grail of doctrinal thought. Heck, they named their doctrine Operational Maneuver From The Sea. Maneuver is great, but at some point, you need firepower. You can dance all around put eventually, if you gotta land some punches.

By the way, let me get definitional here for a second- maneuver is not movement. It usually involves movement, but is more than that. One dictionary definition of maneuver, as a verb, is:

carefully guide or manipulate (someone or something) in order to achieve an end.

“they were maneuvering him into a betrayal of his countryman”

intrigue, plot, scheme, plan, lay plans, conspire, pull strings

“he began maneuvering for the party leadership”

Movement simply implies the effect on your own force. Maneuver is intended to have an effect on the enemy force. Indeed, every action our forces take should remember that. The goal of operations is to induce an effect on the enemy towards achieving our desired end state. The flip side of the coin, firepower, well, it too must be harnessed. But as LeMay once said, if you kill enough of them, they quit fighting.

18 thoughts on “Firepower Vs. Maneuver”

  1. “Big Army, especially the armored and mech infantry side of the house, are frequently castigated as the attritionists. That’s fairly odd, because DePuy, supposedly the head attritionist in chief, was the guy that strongly encouraged the revisions to the ‘76 version of FM 100-5, inviting input that eventually lead to a far more “maneuverista” approach, eventually enshrined in 1982 as AirLand Battle Doctrine.”

    Here’s my take on DePuy and the ’76 manual. DePuy was a realist, but at the same time damn good at manipulating the dialog (verbal maneuver, if I may). What he gave the Army in the ’76 manual was a “face the reality of the situation” doctrine. From the earliest days of the Cold War the Army’s operational approach, in the books, expected the “bomb” would be enough to deter a war to begin with. Stacking up tactical nukes just reinforced that notion.

    Yet two major wars, and dozens of brushfires, indicated something else. Vietnam was the docturnal turning point. Aside from the realities of COIN, there was also a realization that non-nuclear, conventional combat was more likely than the super-powers flinging even tactical nukes about. But the Army’s doctrine just didn’t fit. In a fight in which “the bomb” was not used, the Army would attempt to fight standing up in the face of the Russian horde. In short, we’d be playing their game with less chips to start with.

    DePuy approached the revision of FM 100-5 as a chance to kick the Army’s intellectual mid-section. Instead of some esoteric or “academic” doctrine, he demanded (from his staff) a manual which could be applied practically. It had to be something understood from top to bottom. Yes, based on the great military thinkers from the past, but broken down into the practical nuts and bolts. One subordinate put it best – DePuy wanted the equivalent to the instructions for a Toro lawn mower. That meant taking the left-overs of Cold War doctrine, walking that over the practical application, and laying out the derivative for all to see. In the most-planned for (not necessarily the most likely) scenario, the US would fight in Central Europe with no option to trade space for time and at the same time outnumbered at the point of contact. The result was a doctrine focused on application of firepower, less on maneuver.

    What DePuy did was put that ugly realization down on paper knowing full well the reaction it would prompt. Had DePuy proposed something akin to AirLand as the ’76 revision, he’d be swarmed by critics. What he did, in my opinion, was to silence the traditionalists in the community while at the same time giving the stage to some who would propose changes (some radical in retrospect). The output of that conversation (and recall that DePuy retired in 1977) was to find maneuver space of a different sort by seeking agility of operation.

    Most important, DePuy rank the bells – if the Army was going to have a plan to fight, then that plan had to be the foundation throughout recruitment, procurement, training, and execution. Perhaps an obvious presumption, but not one that had existed in the US Army in prior years. (Especially during WWII when the combat branches, AGF, and Ordnance Corps all had different opinions as to what doctrine to use and what weapons to employ.)

    1. DePuy and later Starry had one big advantage over their modern day successors- they had the Soviet Army facing them across the Fulda Gap providing a clearly defined threat to focus their attention. Designing a doctrine that could address that was messy, but it also kept everyone on generally the same page. And the iterative process tended to build buy in from the field. After all, it ain’t doctrine until 51% of the force agrees with it.

      For the lay reader, I’ve long recommended Orr Kelly’s King of the Killing Zone, a design history of the M1, as a primer on the development of AirLand Battle Doctrine.

  2. The Marines, for our part, have maintained against considerable USAF and US Army opposition, an organic combined arms firepower package that includes heavy direct fire weapons load-out for our infantry and armored formations, considerable indirect fire capabilities, and a completely integrated capability for air fires. We are both maneuveristas and firepower people. Combined arms. Combined not only with other fires types, but with the operational and tactical maneuver that both takes advantage of those fires and enhances them. Has been the case since the 1930s.

    There is a reason we don’t give up our air to the JFACC. We know if we do, they will fly his priorities, and not ours. And we have less than zero trust in the Air Force in those priorities. Justifiably so. They have a view of warfare and combined arms combat that is not at all grounded in reality.

    1. The Air Force thinks so, but the Marines allowed air sorties to be allocated to the AF for shaping only, and from that point forward, only as a coordinator and not in actual control. Methinks Horner was smart enough to allow Marine Air to prosecute Marine targets. And in DS, it hardly made a difference because of the lack of opposition. But post DS, the USMC will offer up spare sorties only, and will not surrender air assets to any “integrated air plan”.

    2. “…have maintained against considerable USAF and US Army opposition, an organic combined arms firepower package….”

      I won’t go into the rather obvious USAF rational for opposition. We know… we know…

      But the USA opposition is often misunderstood. When you look at the nuts and bolts of that conversation, it is not so much inter-service rivalry as often portrayed. More so from the Army’s concerns for compatibility.

    3. In my opinion, any opposition by the Army is merely to our inability to talk to Marine rotary wing except through their guy. Bottom line, I prefer to talk to RW aviation than to relay through the FCT (or is it SALT?). For fixed wing, to the Army, a sortie is a sortie, though the Marine aviator is far more likely “get it” than is the USAF. I got great Marine CAS support in al Anbar.

    4. The ability to have Army talk to Marine RW CAS should not present an insurmountable problem. Hell, the Marines don’t mind. The AF has an allergy to attack helicopters, anyway.

    5. The AF has an allergy to any TacAir other than its own. And, that’s the basic problem with the AF. It has its own agenda, and usually that does not accord with that of the ground services who are actually having to prosecute the war.

  3. I once had a very long internet conversation (argument) with some Euro-types over what Maneuver Warfare even meant. That was early 2000s, but I was shocked how much ignorance there was in basic terms and concepts. Its almost as bad as talking religion, because you realize you aren’t just talking about a concept that is written on paper but rather an entire structure built in your opponent’s mind that may or may not bear any resemblance to reality.

    A second, shorter point. Maneuver is a doctrine that has little relevence at the tactical level, and FMFM 1 Warfighting and FMFM 3 Tactics state that clearly. At the tactical level firepower and destruction are paramount. Maneuver “critics” need to have that point blasted into their heads.

    1. There is a difference between Maneuver and Maneuver Warfare. Maneuver has been an element of warfare for millenia. Maneuver Warfare is a codified operational and tactical-level technique which theoretically shortens friendly decision cycles (mission orders and cmdr guidance) and presents the enemy with problems of time and distance that preclude his being effective everywhere he needs to be. While there are examples of this relative to movement rates and technology throughout the history of warfare, the real development of Maneuver Warfare as an operational concept took place with the militarizing of the internal combustion engine for operational and tactical mobility, and for development of military aviation.

  4. Maneuver, as a verb, is simply movement, with fires or potential fires. Generally to achieve a positional advantage. This concept is and can be executed at anything from tactical to strategic echelon. Maneuver warfare is simply the same concept writ large. Maneuver enables the destructive effects of direct and indirect fires.

    1. Too simple. Manuever Warfare as defined by the USMC has little to no applicability at the tactical level. Its more than a dictionary definition, its a doctrine. Simplifying it to the level of “its a verb” ignores much that defines Manuever Warfare, but does make it easy to engage in straw man attacks against it.

      I’m not stating that is your intention, but it is a VERY common trope used by those with little understanding of the doctrine but a lot of misplaced anger against it.

    2. My defining of maneuver is based on 24 years (and continuing) service ranging from team/squad leader to battalion commander, with side jobs instructing tactics to majors and as Observer Controller at an army CTC. I assure you that I have no misplaced anger and am not building straw man arguments. Maneuver serves the same purpose at all echelons, though it may look different in execution.

    3. By results, sure, because at the tactical level, the end result of maneuver is the killing of the enemy. But at higher echelons, successful maneuver achieves effects out of proportion to the scope of the maneuver, and doesn’t necessarily require much in the way of destruction. But I contend that maneuver at all echelons is as simple as combining movement and fires (or potential fires) to achieve positional advantage from which to defeat the enemy. That defeat does not necessarily require the physical destruction of the enemy force.

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