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What’s the future of Manoeuvre warfare, adapt or die?

Written by on 20 December 2010

Manoeuvre warfare was first adopted by western forces during the 1980s and although it was not a new concept, it was considerably refined. Manoeuvre warfare is based on the assumption that if you develop processes and analytical techniques that allow your forces to analyse, make decisive decisions and act faster (relative to your opponent), you can then translate this process into decisive action on the battlefield.

Manoeuvre thinking

At the heart of manoeuvre warfare is the ability for Commanders to create a tempo superior to that of their enemies, in order to overwhelm their ability to react to your tactical deployments. This organisational agility also needs to be combined with the ability to identify and attack your enemy's critical components. Without these critical components, your enemy's military function would cease to exist. We say that these components are the 'centre of gravity'.

Destruction of the centre of gravity

Current military thinking assumes that the identification of the enemy’s centre of gravity can lead to a neutralisation of that capability, thus leading to an untenable position. It may bring about piecemeal destruction of remaining capability or a capitulation of the remaining force. By identifying the enemy’s centre of gravity, it allows comparatively few military assets to be used in a decisive act to achieve victory over a much larger opponent.

Countering mass

It was realised that manoeuvre warfare could deliver competitive advantage to a technologically advanced but numerically small military force that led the NATO alliance to adopt manoeuvre warfare as an appropriate fighting methodology towards the end of the Cold War. Ironically, the best example of this art of war being effectively employed was during the first Gulf War. The strategic significance of the “big right hook” and the sustained aerial attacks on the Iraq ground forces Command and Control system had the combined effect of making large numbers of the Iraq Armed forces ineffective during the campaign. The lightening ground campaign was an example of a highly refined blitzkrieg attack with devastating consequences.

State on state war

Potential limitations of manoeuvre warfare is that it is predicated on a definable enemy, highly effective when we consider the traditional state on state war with definable military capabilities. However, with the rapidly changing global context, this notion of conflict is becoming less relevant in today's operation environment.

Changing thinking and new challenges

General Rupert Smith wrote the influential book, “The utility of force”, in which he ignited the debate regarding the changing nature of conflict. His experiences during the Balkans conflict (1991 – 1995) convinced him that the future of conflict would not be between nation states but rather a conflict between “the people” - a clash of ideas, civilisations and ideologies.

Theory in practice – Iraq and Afghanistan

A cursory review of the most recent operations would appear to support Rupert Smith's theory of future operations. However, this leads us to ask the question as to whether this is new, and whether the current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are simply not a traditional internal security issue managed differently by a more engaged international community.

Implications for military thinking

Whether Afghanistan represents a new chapter in military conflict or simply just another page, the key question in whether the West’s combat philosophy of manoeuvre warfare is still relevant for today’s operations. At the broadest level, the conceptual approach of manoeuvreism still holds true. The analytical approach of identify the enemy’s centre of gravity is still key, although the level of analysis is far broader than the military capability alone. The ability to utilise a manoeuverist approach in countering an insurgency campaign is more complex and will require greater cross organisational co-operation, not between military resources but rather by the constituents of a society and the willingness of the international community to pool it resources and work together to achieve successful change outcomes.

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