Outmanoeuvring the Velvet Curtain
Military language has a curious duality; exclusive and inclusive, it is both a gatekeeper and a conduit. It acts to permit access to those who know the right words while excluding those who don’t; for those who do, it has the potential to open a world of possibilities, for those who do not, exposure to it can be an intellectually damaging experience. In 2005, while on my sergeant’s qualification course, my colleagues and I were set a simple tactical problem; fresh from combat experience in Iraq, I gave a good, effective solution, only to be chastised by the officer commanding for a failure to use doctrinally correct vocabulary.
To be clear, I had never been taught the right words, let alone the doctrine, but it did teach me a valuable lesson: if the Army wasn’t going to give me access to effective professional military education, I would educate myself.
This week’s blog is in part the result of that decision, but equally a reaction to some very supportive feedback from my last blog post. Like last week, I will take a military concept, simplify it, and clarify some of the related issues. The language may not please the doctrine Nazis, but it will hopefully help soldiers to understand that the gobbledegook spoken by their superiors is merely a smokescreen, not something to be feared: the doctrine wizard behind the curtain has lots of expensive education, but no magic. I joined the British Army in the wake of the first Gulf War, at that time all talk was of manoeuvrism; an avid reader of military history even then, I understood that movement in war was important, but I had no cognition of manoeuvre warfare.
This week’s concept is manoeuvrism – the art of moving to create advantage, while striking the enemy’s weaknesses- the military equivalent of swerving to avoid a punch, while kicking your opponent squarely in the balls.
There are two dominant concepts of war, attrition and manoeuvre. A good way of understanding the difference is by envisioning them as different types of heavyweight boxer. Attrition is enormously heavy and powerful, but lacks speed and agility; against an opponent Attrition has but one option, to slug it out, remorselessly grinding an opponent down, hoping that greater resources will win out in the end. Manoeuvre is lighter, less powerful, but far more agile, aiming to win by landing precise blows at critical points while moving to avoid the opponent’s strength.
History is replete with examples of both, but for ease consider the war on the Western Front during most of the First World War as an exemplar of attrition, while Operation Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, exemplifies manoeuvre. It is important too to remember that although manoeuvrism has only been official doctrine since the 1980s, it has a history as old as time itself. There is nothing new under the Sun.
The British Army has not always favoured manoeuvre over attrition. As stated previously, as late as the early 1980s British doctrine aimed to wear down its opposition with concentrated firepower, literally slogging it out with the Red Army on the North German Plain. The problem for Britain was that by that time it lacked the resource in both men and material to prosecute the sort of war it had fought from D-Day to Berlin (it had been barely sustainable in 1944) and advances in precision-guided munitions, air power, and networked computing were profoundly changed the character of warfare.
On both sides of the Atlantic, but in particular in the United States, reviews of recent combat experience, notably in Vietnam and of the Israeli experience in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, together with assessments of German and Soviet operational art in the Second World War, and an examination of the Soviet military’s contemporary strengths and weaknesses, led to a change in approach away from attrition and towards manoeuvre with the adoption of the concept of AirLand Battle in 1982.
AirLand Battle sought to dislocate and disrupt the Soviets’ critical weakness, its highly centralised command and control systems while using air superiority to cut supply lines and destroy units paralysed by the resultant lack of direction. Precision fires would thus denude the opponent’s will to fight, by precision targeting, eventually leading to the enemy’s collapse. This new sort of war would still be fought at the tactical level but would be won at the operational level, with the conduct of the campaign – operational art – being more important than individual tactical success.
Although this concept was never tested against its intended adversary, it was accepted on both sides of the Iron Curtain that the West had an unassailable advantage, an advantage that proved devastating against Saddam Hussein’s army (modelled and equipped like a Soviet Bloc force) in Kuwait in 1991 and again in 2003.
Times change, however, and the West’s opponents have not sat still. As described last week, the West’s opponents, keen to avoid triggering a devastating conventional response but cognisant of the lack of resilience in Western societies, Western political timidity, and economic weakness have chosen to exploit the ‘grey space’.
In addition, state actors are developing state-of-the-art anti-access area denial (A2AD) systems and reforming command and control structures, while non-state actors are exploiting subterranean methods to defeat Western sensor arrays and moving the fight into densely populated urban areas to further negate the West’s putative conventional advantage.
This has caused a number of dilemmas for Western manoeuvrism to which, theoretically at least, it has risen with concepts like Information Manoeuvre, the Army Operating Concept, and Multi-Domain Operations, each of which intends to incorporate both the physical and the virtual. In short, the US and British militaries have come to accept that the kick in the balls must hurt the mind and the body.
So, to sum up, manoeuvrism is the use of movement and blows, both virtual and physical, to pre-empt, dislocate, and disrupt an opponent and in doing so bring about his physical and moral collapse.
It is a beautiful concept, but one that must keep evolving as the enemy evolves….
This article first appeared on The Warrant Officer on 17 August 2019 and is republished here with the kind permission of The Warrant Officer.
Barney holds a Master of Arts in Military History from the University of Birmingham, a Royal Air Force (RAF) Chief of the Air Staff’s Fellowship, and am a Henry Probert Bursar of the RAF Historical Society. He is also the founding organiser of the ‘War Talks’ Talk Series.
This article was published by Central Blue on October 9, 2019.