Modern Marine Corps doctrine was born on 6 March 1989 with publication of Fleet Marine Forces Manual 1: Warfighting. With the ink still wet, the Marine Corps rode its new doctrine to spectacular success in the deserts of Iraq during Desert Storm. In 1997, the service revised and renamed Warfighting to Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1: Warfighting (MCDP 1) but left the core of its warfighting philosophy largely unchanged. A few years later, the Marine Corps took that warfighting philosophy with it into the war on terrorism.
After 16 years of counterinsurgency, the Marine Corps has captured many lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, but MCDP 1 remains unchanged, making the Corps’ warfighting philosophy ripe for revision. Before Iraq and Afghanistan fall too far behind in the rear-view mirror, the service should pause to revisit MCDP 1 and ensure it reflects the lessons from these past years of combat.
The Marine Corps chose maneuver warfare as its warfighting philosophy. Its version of maneuver warfare can be summarized in one sentence (“The Sentence”):
Maneuver warfare . . . 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.1
Although there are many components to maneuver warfare—commander’s intent, main effort, mission type orders, orienting on the enemy, speed of action, and integration of arms—The Sentence is the essence of the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy. Its importance cannot be overstated.
There are three components to The Sentence:
• The explicit focus on the enemy
• The desired end state: a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation
• The method for achieving that end-state: rapid, focused, and unexpected actions
When maneuver warfare was adopted by the Marine Corps in 1989, the memory of the Vietnam War was fresh and the Soviet Union was an immediate threat. The service needed a warfighting philosophy that avoided the attrition-style warfare of Vietnam while enabling it to defeat a relatively larger adversary such as the Soviet Union in a high-intensity conflict. One group of thinkers—the maneuverists—turned to the German blitz into France for inspiration.2
In 1940, the Germans invaded France and defeated the much larger Allied force with relative ease. Their blitz style of warfare used fast-moving units to avoid Allied strengths and exploit Allied weakness, slicing the opposing force in two: Sichelschnitt (“sickle cut”). With the situation rapidly deteriorating, the cohesion of the Allies eroded and France surrendered to the Germans after just six weeks of fighting.3
Forty years later, the maneuverists borrowed key elements of the German blitz style of warfare and tailored them for the Marine Corps. They called it “maneuver warfare” and maximized it during Desert Storm when Coalition forces rapidly exploited the Iraqis’ weaknesses, shattering their cohesion and culminating with the withdraw of the Iraqi Army along the Highway of Death just 100 hours later.4
After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, the Marine Corps took maneuver warfare into the war on terrorism. Again, the initial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were successful, but then came the descent into insurgency and a lower intensity conflict. In response, the Army and Marine Corps jointly published FM 3-24 / MCWP 3-33.5: Counterinsurgency.
Counterinsurgency (COIN) can be summarized as steadily improving the plight of the local populace to reduce the appeal and effectiveness of the insurgents. The objectives of COIN are legitimacy, security, stability, and the rule of law. The keys to achieving those objectives are unity of effort, restraint, intelligence, and understanding. The primary focus of COIN is the local populace; the enemy is a secondary focus.5 The timeframe is long; years and decades of conflict are common.6
Compared across the core dimensions displayed in Table 1, the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy is not aligned with its COIN doctrine. Where maneuver warfare is focused primarily on the enemy, COIN is focused primarily on the local populace. Where maneuver warfare seeks a turbulent, rapidly deteriorating situation, COIN seeks a stable, steadily improving situation. Where maneuver warfare emphasizes speed, surprise, and unpredictability, COIN emphasizes restraint, intelligence, and understanding. Where the maneuverist seeks to complete the mission in hours, days, or weeks, the counterinsurgent must be patient, sometimes waiting years or even decades before achieving success. On these key points, the Marine Corps’ COIN philosophy is directly at odds with its warfighting philosophy.
That is not to say maneuver warfare and COIN are completely incompatible. Army General Stanley McChrystal used speed, intelligence, and unpredictability to great effect against al Qaeda in Iraq, contributing directly to the resolution of the Iraqi insurgency and the later departure of U.S. forces there.7 Further, many other elements of maneuver warfare—commander’s intent, main effort, mission type orders, etc.—are equally applicable to COIN.
The core components of COIN philosophy, however, are misaligned with the core components of maneuver warfare, and this misalignment is not trivial. It has real effects: it creates dissonance up, down, and across the entire chain of command. This is exemplified by a quote from a private first class who fought in Afghanistan:
There was a lot of confusion, you know, because infantrymen . . . your mission is to close with and destroy the enemy. And then we’re out there handing out watercolor maps of Afghanistan, wondering, how is this going to work? How do we beat the Taliban this way?8
This quote illustrates the conflict between COIN and maneuver warfare. Where maneuver warfare charges the private to seek out the enemy and destroy him, COIN advocates an alternative focus—helping the local populace. When this dissonance is multiplied across the force—from private to noncommissioned officer to officer—it becomes a cacophony of conflicting intentions. Day after day, this dissonance weighs on everyone, clouding judgment and decision making. The result is a force that is less effective than originally designed.
Resolving the Dissonance
There is more than one option for resolving the dissonance between the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy and its COIN doctrine. Ironically, the most promising solution comes from an original maneuverist and author of Warfighting: Captain John Schmitt.
In September 1989, just a few months after Warfighting was first published, Lieutenant Colonel H. T. Hayden argued that maneuver warfare, as described in Warfighting, was not appropriate for unconventional conflicts. Hayden drew on the U.S. experience in Vietnam to point out that combined arms teams seeking out and destroying the enemy “have no place in most forms of low-intensity conflict.”9
Schmitt responded, pointing out that maneuver warfare should not be viewed strictly in spatial dimensions; it is more broadly applicable than simply outflanking an adversary. Maneuver warfare is about “creating and exploiting advantage in any form; opportunism,” which is just as applicable to low-intensity conflicts as it is to high-intensity conflicts. To clarify, Schmitt proposed a revised definition of maneuver warfare, a portion of which could form the basis for a new warfighting philosophy:
Maneuver [warfare] – a mental approach to conflict, born of opportunism, variety, and cunning, by which we create and exploit advantage as a means for success . . .
Maneuver [warfare] is manifest in a certain state of mind, a mental approach to conflict. It is at its source an approach based on intelligence and all this implies: being selective, being focused, being clever, being creative, being crafty. It is an approach that ruthlessly exploits advantage.10
Notice that this revised definition of maneuver warfare—best summarized as “opportunistic advantage” (OA)—does not focus on the enemy. This ensures its applicability to both high-intensity, conventional conflicts and low-intensity, unconventional conflicts. Also, notice how many of the existing tenets of maneuver warfare—speed, opportunism, focus, exploiting advantage—are now married up with tenets from COIN doctrine—intelligence and selectiveness. Opportunistic advantage captures the essence of maneuver warfare without restricting it to conventional conflicts that resemble the blitz style of warfare.
The benefit of OA is its flexibility. The end-state and focus are tailorable. In a low-intensity, COIN-type of conflict, the Marine Corps can focus on the stability of the local populace. In a high-intensity, blitz style of conflict, the Corps can focus on shattering the enemy’s cohesion. OA is even flexible enough to work in operations other than war, such as humanitarian relief and peacekeeping.
Some might cringe at the thought of demoting “The Sentence” and the Marine Corps’ current manifestation of maneuver warfare. The Sentence is powerful, clear, and appropriately prescriptive: rapidly exploit the enemy and shatter his will to resist. For 30 years, it has served the Marine Corps well, guiding it through Iraq to success on two occasions. Fortunately, OA is malleable enough for The Sentence to continue to exist. Rather than being the Marine Corps’ overarching warfighting philosophy, however, The Sentence can take its place as the service’s method of winning high-intensity conflicts. In low-intensity conflicts, a more COIN-centered philosophy can take center stage. In both types of conflict, the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy of opportunistic advantage will be aligned with its methods for achieving success.
Another benefit of OA is that it is compatible with many of the other key concepts of the Marine Corps’ current maneuver warfare philosophy, namely, commander’s intent, main effort, mission type orders, speed of action, and integration of arms. These important tenets of maneuver warfare will be retained as a part of OA.
Former Marine Corps Commandant General A. M. Gray, one of the original maneuverists, notes in the preface to MCDP 1: “Like war itself, our approach to warfighting must evolve. If we cease to refine, expand, and improve our profession, we risk becoming outdated, stagnant, and defeated.” The time has come for the Marine Corps to refine its warfighting philosophy, lest it become outdated. This task takes on extra importance as the Corps shifts its focus from Iraq and Afghanistan and on to the future conflicts outlined in the Marine Operating Concept.11
There are many avenues by which the Marine Corps can improve its warfighting philosophy; opportunistic advantage is but one. The desired end state is a flexible, comprehensive warfighting philosophy that is equally applicable in every type of conflict.
2. Damian Fideleon, The Road to FMFM 1: The US Marine Corps and Maneuver Warfare Doctrine, 1979-1989 (Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University, 2008), ch. 1.
3. Gary Sheffield, “The Fall of France,” BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/fall_france_01.shtml.
4. Jonathan Beale, “Operation Desert Storm: Last of Its Kind,” BBC, www.bbc.com/news/world-35327084.
5. Department of the Navy, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33.5: Counterinsurgency (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, 2006), 1-21.
6. National Defense Research Institute, Victory Has a Thousand Fathers: Sources of Success in Counterinsurgency (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010), Table 2.1.
7. GEN Stanley McChrystal, USA (Ret.), Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (New York: Penguin, 2005).
8. Sarah Koenig, “Serial,” podcast, episode 6, season 2, www.thisamericanlife.org.
9. H. T. Hayden, “A Marine for All Seasons: Maneuver Warfare vs. Low Intensity Conflict,” Marine Corps Gazette 73, no. 9 (September 1989), 55.
10. John Schmitt, “Understanding Maneuver as the Basis for Doctrine,” Marine Corps Gazette 74, no. 8 (August 1990).
11. Department of the Navy, Marine Operating Concept (Washington DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, 2016).