When reviewing the concepts that make up the doctrine of maneuver warfare, it is quickly discovered that the application is not in the memorization of techniques so much as it is in the application of unconventional thought in applying techniques.

The tactical level of warfare using the maneuver warfare concept is successful in large part upon the willingness of commanders to exercise and allow decision making to be made at the lowest level. The tactical level of decision making in combat must provide the small unit commander the freedom to fulfill commander’s intent while applying the concepts of maneuver warfare to his situation.

In this article, I will discuss commander's intent, and how the higher commander’s "desired end-state" provides subordinate leaders with the freedom to achieve his intent while not being bound by rigid rules. We can work toward understanding the application of the freedom to fail, while at the same time not compromising the big picture in terms of the operational level of war.

There are some fundamentals of maneuver warfare that should be understood when describing how it works. Three parts are essential to its application, these are:

  1. focus-of-effort
  2. mission-type orders
  3. commander's intent

The focus-of-effort or main effort is the bid for success for the higher commander's plan. A subordinate unit is identified as the main effort and all supporting units focus their efforts on backing up the main effort. Depending on the commander’s intent, the main effort will be designated by the commander so that the entire unit can achieve his desired end-state. The "how" is up to the main effort.

Lateral communication is the key amongst those units supporting the main effort. The front-end commanders can best tell the situation as it develops and as long as the higher echelon of command has not restricted the tactical commander with rules, then he will have the freedom to adjust to the gaps and surfaces that present themselves.

The success of the maneuver warfare concept is due to the allowance for creativity and innovation in applying the techniques of battle. The rigidity of rules that bind the tactical leader causes unnecessary loss of life. In Sun Tzu's The Art of War, there is a concept of the chain of command that foreshadows the current strategic, operational and tactical levels of war.

Sun Tzu said, "Normally, when the army is employed, the general first receives his commands from the sovereign. He assembles the troops and mobilizes the people. He blends the army into a harmonious entity and encamps it."

When you see the correct course, act; do not wait for orders. - Sun Tzu

This gives a clear understanding that at the strategic level of decision making, the general is given his national command authority’s intent, and for the most part the how is left to the general. That was a quick zoom out to the big picture, and we can assume that from the general down to the company, platoon and squad level, the trickle down effect leaves opportunity for each level of subordinate leadership to develop the "how" as it applies to them. The only goal is to fulfill the commander’s end-state. Sun Tzu zooms in to the tactical level of decision making when he says, "There are occasions when commands of the sovereign need not be obeyed (emphasis mine). When it is expedient in operations the [leader] need not be restricted by the commands of the [higher]…. When you see the correct course, act; do not wait for orders. … The [leader] must rely on his ability to control the situation to his advantage as opportunity dictates. He is not bound by established procedures."

In Sun Tzu's teachings we see that established procedures, or rules, cause restrictions for small units that need to adapt to situations. The concept of trust is extremely important in maneuver warfare. There must be trust at all levels of command to achieve success. With the decentralized form of command that is utilized in maneuver warfare, a "zero-defects mentality" is not compatible. If we are going to trust our subordinate commanders they must have the freedom to fail. Micromanagement in the field, by requiring constant reporting to the rear will slow down the overall Boyd cycle for the operation or campaign.

The only portion of maneuver warfare working in a successful way that requires rules should be in the training of basic techniques. Unit immediate actions, weapons firing, land navigation, etc. all have rules that need to be perfected to the point of second-nature; this is the ideal place for rules. However, the training for tactical decision making at all unit levels is the honing of the thought process of each commander.

To understand commander's intent, is to understand the commander's thought process two levels up. A squad leader should understand his platoon commander's and company commander's intent. Knowing this, he has an understanding of their thought process, especially should the need arise to shift the main effort or exploit an opportunity. Training for this requires an already acquired mastery of techniques. The tactics of the unit are developed and honed as the unit is given the opportunity to adjust to changes and apply sound decision making while not being bound by rules. Some methods of doing this are sand table exercises and tactical decision games, however nothing beats getting the troops out in the field and going "force-on-force."

So what should happen if we continue to train and fight using maneuver warfare and thereby limiting the restriction of rules to the application of tactics? First, mistakes will be made; in maintaining the tempo of the operational Boyd cycle, mistakes are bound to occur, but it has been said that decisive action with an 80 percent solution is better than no action at all. Within the aggressive nature of maneuver warfare, mistakes will happen. Second, we will win at low cost. One of the capstone benefits of maneuver warfare versus attrition warfare is that in maneuver warfare we avoid surfaces and avoid planning that focuses on terrain, but instead focuses efforts on the enemy. This tends to lower the cost in lives lost during battle.

H.J. Poole in his book, The Last Hundred Yards: The NCO’s Contribution to Warfare states the following: "Winning at low cost involves some controversial tradeoffs. … How much control must be applied to individuals and small units appears to be at the center of the debate. … After memorizing tactical doctrine, a novice decision maker may be tempted to discount any situational variable that doesn’t mesh precisely with the 'book solution'… some military thinkers have gone so far as to connect combat casualties from friendly fire to training that has been too highly controlled."

What Gunny Poole is pointing to here is that because the small unit leader needs to adapt to situations as they develop, the rigidity of rules (and training by the same) is counter to the maneuver warfare concept of winning at low-cost. If we eliminate rules we win at low cost.

Evidence of success in limiting rules on subordinate units can be found in many examples throughout history. The German NCOs of World War I that lead Stosstruppen were trained in making tactical decisions. They were deciding how to engage the enemy, and at a time and place of their choosing. They also decided when not to engage the enemy.

We have seen the basis for success in maneuver warfare lies in some part with the limitation of rules on small unit leaders. The level of trust at all levels of command required in maneuver warfare leads to a clear understanding that commander's intent drives the objectives of tactical operations, without restricting the actions of subordinate leaders. Should the tactical level of decision making in combat be regulated by higher headquarters, then the small unit leader is not given the opportunity to fulfill commander's intent, and the application of maneuver warfare becomes nullified by the "book solution."

Semper Fi!