Regardless of whether aircraft, ground forces, space ships or waterborne ships are used, there are three different types of war that can be waged. The most common type is called Attrition Warfare. This is what most movies and books portray. It is simply a matter of force on force. “The enemy is here, we attack at dawn” type mentality is attrition warfare.
In attrition warfare, forces attack in an attempt to destroy enemy forces. Units move to trap and concentrate fire on the enemy. In this case, quantity is usually the key. Three men firing at one man are usually going to win, all else being equal. Three battalions attacking one are usually going to win, all else being equal. World War One and Two were wars of attrition, men were sent against enemy forces and attempted to overwhelm the enemy through sheer numbers and firepower. In the Pacific during World War Two, it was almost a different kind of war. Entire Japanese held islands were ignored in order to capture islands closer to Japan.
Attrition war is often bloody and can be decisive. It can be easily measure in ground captured and enemy destroyed.
Maneuver War is different. While Attrition War is fought to destroy the enemy’s ability to fight, Maneuver War is fought to destroy the enemy’s will to fight. This is not as easily measured as Attrition War, however, the effects of Maneuver War can be devastating. Desert Storm was an example of Maneuver War on a grand scale. While many Iraqi’s were killed they still remain a powerful force today.
A practitioner of Maneuver War frequently goes around main battle units, infiltrating or breaking through the enemy battle line. Once behind enemy lines the Maneuver Warfighter attacks the enemy support structure, headquarters, or whatever is available. Frequently a target is already decided before the penetration.
By attacking the enemy’s rear, the enemy’s morale is attacked. The front line soldier begins to realize that the enemy could come at him from any direction. If his supply lines are cut he begins to starve and get thirsty. If his headquarters is destroyed he doesn’t know what is going on and what he should do.
An enemy commander who has his lines breached can rapidly lose control of the situation, especially if the attacker acts quickly and takes advantage of his situation. The commander needs information and time to decide what to do, the attacker makes every effort to deny the enemy that advantage. By the time the enemy commander has devised a plan, it is obsolete and the situation has changed again. For instance the commander is informed of a breach so he sends his reserve to deal with it. By the time his reserve gets the command, the attackers have taken out an artillery battery and allowed another unit to breach the enemy lines.
Attrition War is simple because it works like clockwork. Units follow a set battle plan, initiative is encouraged in smaller units because it might upset the battle plan. Coordination and planning is the key to Attrition War. Maneuver War is almost the opposite, the fighters enter combat and act aggressively. War is about taking risks, the bigger the risk, usually the bigger the gain. Attrition Warfare seeks to minimize the risk by using a formula. An example of this ‘formula’ is that a unit will only attack an enemy if it has three to one odds in its favor. Three platoons (a company) will attack one platoon, three squads will attack one squad, ect.
Another formula of Attrition War is that the objective will be heavily bombed before the attack in order to soften up the opposition. These are formulas for success, they don’t need brilliant commanders to execute, just a lot of firepower and cooperation between the units. Very simple and strait forward, you don’t need smart troops, just troops that will follow orders.
Maneuver warfare pratictioners don’t play this ‘game’. A practitioner of Maneuver War must be willing to take risks, he must be able to realize when a situation presents itself so he can take advantage of it. This means small unit leaders must be well trained and encouraged to take the initiative. In most militaries this is discouraged, especially in peace time. Non-Commissioned Officers are the key to maneuver warfare. They are usually there, on the ground seeing what is going on. By the time he has explained what is going on over the radio, the situation may have changed already and the opportunity lost.
There are many differences between Maneuver War and Attrition war that are not obvious to the beginner. The easiest way to understand this is that in Attrition War soldiers are trained to follow orders, not to think for themselves. Officers are the ones who make plans and give the orders, synchronizing the operation so it is successful. In Maneuver War it is the small unit leader, the platoon commander, the squad leader who uses the natural chaos of the battlefield to seize an advantage. In Maneuver War a leader may not wait for orders before taking action.
In Attrition War a commander gives very detailed orders to his subordinates telling them exactly what he wants them to do and they do it. If ordered to do so a unit will throw itself at the enemy repeatedly, suffering horrible casualties because they were ordered to do so. In Maneuver War a commander will tell his subordinates what he wants accomplished and why, not how. He leaves it up to his leaders to get the job done.
For example. In Desert Storm, the US Marines penetrated the Iraqi lines and drove strait for Kuwait City. For the most part they ignored the Iraqi units to either side and they penetrated in several different areas. The average Iraqi soldier learned very quickly that there were Marines in front of and behind him, feeling surrounded and helpless (especially after so many weeks of being bombed) he quickly surrendered. Iraqi units who were in the rear were suddenly faced with enemy forces they didn’t expect to see and feeling surprised and scared they surrendered or died. The Iraqi’s were not prepared for such a sudden vicious thrust into their territory.
The Army went around the Iraqi’s flank. Their mission was to cut off Kuwait and destroy the Republican Guard. However, because of failed coordination, they did not move fast enough. One unit saw the Republican Guard fleeing and had a chance to destroy it, however, they did not have orders to advance further at that point and felt that by continuing to advance they were taking too much of a risk. So the Republican Guard got away.
Had a Marine Unit been there instead of an Army unit they would very likely have attacked without orders because that was part of their mission.
Maneuver Warfare allows a smaller force to defeat a larger one because the smaller force concentrates its firepower on a specific enemy weakness. Maneuver Warfare can be used in the defense quite well also. For instance. During Desert Shield my battalion was tasked with defending an area from a possible Iraqi attack in Saudi Arabia. The Infantry Battalion was positioned in a rock quarry astride a main road. Fighting positions were built at the edge of the quarry where we could see out several kilometers to the front. We were infantry facing tanks and armored personnel carriers. Anti-tank rockets usually do not work well against the front of a tank’s armor. Armored personnel carriers are more vulnerable. In the regular scheme of things infantry usually get slaughtered by tanks and enemy infantry (in the APCs). Tanks are vulnerable to infantry when they do not have infantry of their own because enemy infantry can sneak up and shoot a rocket into their weaker side or rear armor.
The plan was that if we were attacked, we would concentrate on taking out the armored personnel carriers first. By stripping the infantry from the tanks we have suddenly made the tanks more vulnerable. At that point we would have pulled back into the quarry where infantry can move freely but tanks must follow specific routes (because of the rough terrain). Because we could go where the tanks could not and because the tanks wouldn’t have infantry to protect them, we would have massacred them by using multiple prepared ambushes that attacked the weak points in their armor.
Maneuver Warfare recognizes that the enemy soldier is intelligent and is not a simple stupid automaton. The enemy soldier has hopes and fears. Maneuver warfare attempts to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses and fears. Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher who wrote “The Art of War” advocated a form of maneuver war. He wrote that you don’t hit the enemy where he is strong, you hit him where he is weak.
For more on Maneuver Warfare see the Marine Corp’s Home page, it has the Marine Corps Doctrine Manual on Maneuver Warfare.
The third type of war is Revolutionary War. This is one bloody war. Vietnam, Ireland and Afghanistan were Revolutionary Wars. In this kind of war there are no definite front lines, there may be safe areas but it may not always be possible to identify the enemy. The Guerrilla seeks to evade destruction while slowly grinding away at the enemy. Attrition war does not work against someone practicing Revolutionary War. The enemy is not interested in staying and fighting, the enemy thrives on ambushes. If the enemy cannot stand up and fight, it fades away, disappearing into the local population. Guerrillas attack the government and kill its leaders. They seek to turn the people against the government and the government against the people. In this way the Guerrilla movement grows and the government is weakened.
Revolutionary war is one of the most difficult types of wars to deal with because the Guerrilla is usually willing to keep the war going for ten or more years. If not dealt with effectively this long term war will slowly weaken the national resolve and strengthen the enemy. Wars are expensive, the cost in dead and wounded alone can be staggering. In Vietnam the insurgents were more than willing to bleed the US dry, pint by pint. They knew they couldn’t defeat the US in a stand up fight but they knew they could destroy America’s will to fight. The same thing happened in Afghanistan to the Soviets. The Soviets had the raw firepower to deal with any rebels that opposed them but the rebels were not willing to stay around long enough so the Soviets could focus their firepower. They killed the Soviets a soldier at a time and in fear and frustration, the Soviets massacred innocent women and children. Those massacres only made the rebels fight more viciously and it caused the rebel’s numbers to grow. Eventually the cost, psychological as well as financial, forced the Soviets to withdraw.
There have been several Revolutionary Wars that failed. In Burma, the British prevailed by killing insurgents and going out of their way to make peace with possible insurgent recruits. In Brazil the government did the same thing. Instead of trying to fight a war of attrition the government forces sought to isolate the guerrillas by offering the locals more than the guerrillas, the government forces also sought to protect the locals from the guerrilla terror tactics. In effect, the government turned the locals against the guerrillas. Without support from local people the guerrillas became nothing more than a unit cut off behind enemy lines.
In a way, Revolutionary war is about not killing more than anything else. Revolutionary war is about intangibles, about emotions and beliefs rather than killing enemy troops. Killing the enemy is a means to an end, not an end to itself.
In my opinion Attrition Warfare is the exact opposite of Revolutionary War and Maneuver War is somewhere in between. It should be noted however, that not every warfighter will remain strictly with one method of warfighting. Frequently they will occasionally display a characteristic of another method of war.
The VC occasionally stayed and fought, or attacked major installations like during the Tet Offensive. The US used small special operations groups to out-guerrilla the guerrillas and were amazingly effective.
A practitioner of Attrition War can win against a revolutionary if the Attritionist is willing to completely depopulate a country. It will make for a very bitter and bloody war but in theory an Attritionist could win.
One thing to note is that there are many different arguments about which is better, Attrition War or Maneuver War. It should be noted that Attrition War is best for a government that wants a great deal of control over their troops. For example, the Soviet Army was an attrition Army to the full. Operations were carefully planned, personal initiative was discouraged. Perhaps the Soviet Army feared to teach its soldiers to think for themselves because they might rebel. Who knows.
A Maneuver Warfare military is a true asset to a nation. Generally Maneuver Warfare style armies are smaller, more professional and able to defeat a larger more ‘powerful’ foe. Maneuver Warfare militaries also make a point to insure wars are as brief and bloodless (for them at any rate!) as possible.
The US Marines and to a point the US Army are trying to become Maneuver Warfare militaries. This only makes sense with current cutbacks. However, one major problem is officers are not trusting their NCO’s and are in some cases micromanaging them. Officer’s are very concerned with promotion (like most people) and to look good they do not tolerate mistakes in their subordinates. For this reason they micromanage their NCO’s and the NCO’s and Junior Officers do not have much of a chance to make, and learn from, mistakes. Training Operations are usually choreographed and ‘canned’, and don’t provide opportunities for junior leaders to take advantage of developing situations.
What this means is that Junior Leaders, the one who make Maneuver Warfare work, are not being trained properly. Should a war occur it is not unlikely some units will fall flat on their faces.