Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 2, Issue 3  /  

Clearing the Air – Taking Manoeuvre and Attrition Out of Strategy

Clearing the Air - Taking Manoeuvre and Attrition Out of Strategy Clearing the Air - Taking Manoeuvre and Attrition Out of Strategy
To cite this article: Petersen, Cole, “Clearing the Air - Taking Manoeuvre and Attrition Out of Strategy”, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 3, Summer 2012, pages 15-19.

In defining the aim of strategy Basil Liddell Hart stated, ‘The perfection of strategy would be…to produce a decision without any serious fighting.’[i] This approach, with its central premise of strategic dislocation, would be the first of what has become an enduring debate within the discourse of war and strategy. This article will evaluate arguments that strategies emphasizing manoeuvre are superior to those that focus on attrition. It will argue that not only does putting the idea of attrition and manoeuvre into opposition create a false dichotomy but that these concepts are tactical, and not strategic, in nature. Ultimately, the ideas of annihilation and exhaustion, as distinct from manoeuvre and attrition, may better serve as components of a superior strategic model.

Formation of the debate

In analyzing the question of strategies of manoeuvre and attrition, we will look at two fundamental problems that become apparent as one sorts through the literature on the subject:

  1. The definitions of manoeuvre and attrition within much of the literature is loose and inconsistent, creating a logical fallacy of a false dichotomy;
  2. Arguments are often framed within poor definitions of strategy itself.

The first notable idea of a distinct strategy based on manoeuvre followed on the heels of the First World War. Basil Liddell Hart, in a series of writings, saw two forms of warfare within what he dubbed the ‘direct’ and the ‘indirect’ approach[ii]. Critical of the stalemate on the Western Front during the First World War, where generals would ‘batter their heads against the nearest wall’ using a direct approach of position and attrition, Liddell Hart proposed the ideal execution of strategy as one that sought ‘not so much battle as…a strategic situation so advantageous that if it does not of itself produce the decision, its continuation by a battle is sure to achieve this.’ This indirect approach aimed to dislocate the enemy, on the physical and (preferably) psychological spheres, to produce dissolution or disruption of his fighting force.[iii]

Debate similar to this would reappear in the 1970s in the format we are most familiar with. Concerned with the U.S. Army’s revision of its fundamental land doctrine, FM 100-5, critique from commentators such as William Lind attacked, amongst other things, a continued adherence to firepower/attrition doctrine, as opposed to manoeuvre doctrine. Lind claimed that attrition doctrine utilized manoeuvre to bring fire on the enemy and cause attrition; while manoeuvre doctrine, developed by the Germans following the First World War, embraced firepower as an enabler for manoeuvre that could then break the enemy’s spirit and will to create favourable operational or strategic conditions.[iv]

As those familiar with the theory know, Lind’s ideas would touch off a long-running debate on the validity (and superiority) of what would come to be termed ‘manoeuvre warfare.’ For Lind, manoeuvre warfare was based upon the idea of Boyd Cycles, or the speed in which a unit could cycle through an iterative process of observe-orient-decide-act. Manoeuvre for Lind was to ‘out Boyd cycle’ the enemy, causing him to lose cohesion and no longer fight effectively.[v] The subject of many a service article or staff college paper, manoeuvre warfare divided the profession of arms.

Contemporaries of Lind also focused critiques on the doctrinal imbalance in Central Europe caused by an American adherence to attritional warfare as opposed to a more dynamic manoeuvre form.[vi] Edward Luttwak would broaden this into his own theory of the manoeuvrist strategy, defining attritional war as a strategy to win through the cumulative destruction of the enemy through superior firepower and material strength. Relational manoeuvre, on the other hand, was a strategy focusing on the incapacitation of enemy capabilities through systemic disruption, rather than physical destruction.[vii]

Other figures, both military and academic, entered the manoeuvre/attrition ring with their own ideas. A leading British proponent, Richard Simpkin, wrote of attrition or positional theory that concerned itself with fighting — focused on casualties to enemy personnel and materiel — to create a shift in relative strengths. This was contrasted with manoeuvre theory, the pre-emption and exploitation of enemy vulnerabilities and the circumstances of the battlefield to undermine the will to fight.[viii] Others engaged in the discussion with variations of this paradigm, but the general idea of a diametric relationship of manoeuvre and attrition remained dominant in the debate over military doctrine.

Conceptual and historical problems

As one takes in the expanse of ink spilled over the manoeuvre/attrition debate, the problem of a lack of firm conceptual definitions becomes apparent. In terms of manoeuvre, there are a variety of explanations as to what constitutes manoeuvre warfare. Liddell Hart’s indirect approach sought dislocation, but did not quite explain how it was to be accomplished. Luttwak proposed relational manoeuvre as systemic disruption through the targeting of enemy weaknesses. Lind states that the essence of manoeuvre warfare is more than gaining physical positional advantage, but also defeating the enemy through superior tempo, specifically in terms of Boyd cycles.[ix] Simpkin points to manoeuvre as an added dimension of attritional warfare that saw the superimposing of active measures for pre-emption.[x]

When taken as a whole, theories of manoeuvre often boil down to simply fighting effectively; the prescriptive aspects of much of manoeuvre theory can be reduced to obvious statements of good tactical sense, such as targeting an enemy’s vulnerabilities or using surprise. Creating a theory that collects all sensible operational activities under one banner has in fact simply formed a mystique that is immune to criticism. If you’re good, you’re a manoeuvrist; if you’re not, you’re a clumsy attritionist fit to sit in the trenches with Haig and Foch. The value beyond any cognitive exercise is apparent; as one critic stated, manoeuvre warfare is ‘a bag of military Doritos – tasty and great fun to munch, but not very nutritious.’

This cherry picking and confusion also finds its way into the historiography of manoeuvre proponents. Lind claims the first recorded instance of manoeuvre warfare as being the battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. simply because the Thebans attacked the Spartans on the flank.[xiii] It seems a stretch to equate tactical envelopment contrived by a wily commander in Epaminondas with a complete system of warfare underpinned by a philosophy of superior tempo to undermine the will of the enemy. The German Wehrmacht of the Second World War also gains laurels as a manoeuvrist force. Proponents handily ignore the facts of grinding campaigns of exhaustion in North Africa and the steppes of the Soviet Union. Instead, the argument tends to focus heavily on the 1940 campaign in France. Yet here, too, sweeping claims of a manoeuvrist approach have since run into trouble against more detailed historical analysis that shows the German victory to be almost accidental or ‘attritional’ at times, with lessons only being codified after the campaign[xv].

The 1940 campaign also serves to show the strawman that is built out of attrition. Manoeuvrists tend to hold the French of 1940 as an attritional force hiding behind the Maginot line. But closer analysis shows the shallowness of this argument; the French had a mobile force and were not seeking costly battles but rather a mobile, forward strategy in the Low Countries. This was strategically sound considering the vulnerability of the northern, resource-rich departments of France. French failure is rooted in reasons far more complicated than simply their desire to fight a war of attrition.

If manoeuvre has been over-credited in the manoeuvrist dialogue, then attrition suffered the fate of the whipping boy. As opposed to manoeuvre, the definition of attrition is quite consistent in various theories; simple, unimaginative physical destruction of men and material, a match of strength-on-strength to overwhelm the enemy. In another showing of poor history, attrition is generally established as an unattractive and less sophisticated option — a punching bag for the shrewdness of manoeuvrists to exploit.

Yet detailed case studies of the actual employment of attrition, from the First World War to Korea and Vietnam, conclude that attritional approaches are actually undertaken for the opposite reasons than those given by manoeuvrists. Attrition in these cases was not used to create bloody slogging matches, but rather designed to preserve friendly forces. Additionally, numerical superiority was not a defining factor of attrition, and annihilation of the enemy was rarely sought.[xvi]

The varied definitions and poor use of history serves to undermine the normative value of the concept of manoeuvre warfare. John Kizsely noted that such oversight has made much of the debate meaningless to military and strategic thought due to its lack of anything more than conceptualism, and its propensity to bandy about terms without consideration of the underlying meaning or context. He highlights the need for a proper conceptual glossary to bring some concrete utility to the concepts.[xvii] There is indeed a need for such discipline.

Adding discipline to the doctrinal discussion

I can now apologize for dragging readers through the trenches of doctrinal debates fought before, but I assure you there is purpose to this. Let’s start with doctrinal discipline. For doctrine to be of use, a common understanding between its practitioners is necessary. These definitions already exist and are agreed upon by western militaries in the form of NATO standardized definitions. Manoeuvre is defined as employment through ‘movement in combination with fire…to achieve a position of advantage in respect to the enemy….’[xviii] Likewise, the common definition of attrition is ‘the reduction of the effectiveness of a force caused by loss of personnel and material.’[xix] To go beyond these simple and effective terms is to invite confusion.

If we use these definitions, we are provided with more concrete explanations as to what attrition and manoeuvre actually are. Attrition is an absolute. If I lose 100 tanks or 200 soldiers on the battlefield, my force has suffered attrition. Manoeuvre is also an absolute. If my armoured brigade penetrates into your rear area astride your lines of communication, then I have clearly employed manoeuvre. Manoeuvrists argue that manoeuvre is more than simple movement to gain advantage, but their disunity as to what the ‘more’ actually entails makes such an argument limited in its utility.

If we accept the definitions above then the first fundamental problem of the manoeuvre/attrition debate becomes evident. When one considers what actually occurs in an engagement, then establishing manoeuvre and attrition as diametrically opposed forms of fighting creates a false dichotomy. Some proponents try to address this; Luttwak is careful to term the relationship of attrition and manoeuvre as one on a spectrum. Others are not so concerned, such as Lind with his generations of war approach; one that clearly points to manoeuvre as a superior form of fighting compared to its older, outmoded opposite of attrition.

The reality is that combat involves both manoeuvre and attrition. Dislocation cannot occur without attrition and destruction cannot occur without manoeuvre. Manoeuvre and attrition are tools of tactics and are better defined as a complementary system, a yin and yang, that occurs in the engagement. Manoeuvre positions forces to inflict attrition on the enemy while attrition disrupts the enemy to enable manoeuvre. These elements are combined in the realm of tactics to cause physical destruction and psychological disruption: resulting in tactical victory.

Critical to all of this is that manoeuvre and attrition are clearly tactical in nature. They are concerned with concrete battlefield events. While theorists will argue that manoeuvre is about an operational level (Lind) or a strategic one (Mearsheimer), nothing about manoeuvre and attrition as explained above really leaves the battlefield. They are not strategic principles.

If manoeuvre and attrition are tactical concepts, then what provides us with a better understanding of strategic tools to link tactics and policy? The discourse on strategy has suffered from the same problems as manoeuvre, with expansion of the definition to be so inclusive at times that it is robbed it of its utility as a military concept.[xx] Hew Strachan laments that strategy — being usurped by politicians, academics and think-tanks — has bled into the realm of policy, presenting the conundrum as to whether a strategy defines a policy or a policy defines a strategy.[xxi]

Therefore, when considering strategy, the classical definition provided by Clausewitz will be used. This, the ways to which means are linked to ends, is ‘the use of the engagement for the purpose of war.’[xxii] How does this classical conceptualization of strategy work? Clausewitz again lends us a useful tool with his dialectic of ends and means. He explained that the political rationale behind a state’s move to war becomes its aim, or the ends of war.’[xxiii] The means, the way to achieve those aims, consists of one primary element, as ‘there is only one means in war: combat[xxiv].’

Lt. Col (Ret.) Jim Storr has provided a graphic depiction of the dialectic of ends and means that provides an excellent picture of the relationships that occur in war. The dialectic of ends (or aims) and means creates competing relationships between aims (political discourse between groups) as well as competing relationships between means (the engagement). It is in the middle ground, consisting of numerous relationships linking ends to means — and how combat and its outcome affect both participants in a war —where the realm of strategy exists:


Figure 1
Figure 1 [xxv]

As illustrated, strategy is a two-way relationship. It is shaped and informed by policy, the aims of war, in the determination of appropriate means. It is also shaped by consideration of the means of war, combat, and its effect on all war aims. Thus strategy shapes, and is shaped by, both aims and means. With the concepts of policy, strategy and tactics overlain on this dialectic, we get the following:

Figure 2
Figure 2

The engagement provides an input into strategy through the provision of tactical decision, and a change in the disposition of the battlefield. Strategy acts to translate these battlefield changes — caused, as we have no established, by attrition and manoeuvre — into something that can feed into both one’s own aims as well as the opponent’s. In targeting the opponent’s aims (and protecting one’s own), strategy can be seen at its root as a system for impacting the will of an opponent to continue pursuing his aims. A successful strategy, therefore, is not one that kills the most soldiers or achieves the ideal manoeuvre in relation to the opponent, but rather one that forces a culminating point on the will of the opponent to continue with his policies.

This provides a simple explanation as to why tactical successes do not always equal victory. The interaction of tactics, which features the relationship of manoeuvre and attrition, can produce dozens of defeated divisions and an advantageously situated friendly force, but strategy must put this to use. As Clausewitz points out, ‘war, that is the animosity and the reciprocal effects of hostile elements, cannot be considered to have ended so long as the enemy’s will has not been broken’. The will is broken when the enemy leadership sues for peace or the population submits.[xxvi]

Influencing strategic will

What elements work within strategy as it attempts to introduce this culminating point on the opponent’s will? A useful concept is derived from Hans Delbruck’s notion of the strategies of annihilation and exhaustion. Originally conceived to explain the linkage of war to politics, Delbruck’s model saw a single-pole strategy (annihilation) that sought decisive battle while a double-pole strategy of battle and movement (exhaustion) aimed to husband resources and seek battle at the appropriate time to wear an opponent down.[xxvii]

But, in our case, we are not looking for a system to discuss decisiveness in battle (this is manoeuvre and attrition) but decisiveness in war. As discussed above, this involves forcing a culminating point on the opponent’s will. The Delbruck model still works, but must be amended to target will, and not enemy forces.

In doing so, the definitions change. A strategy of exhaustion is one that uses the engagement of forces to chip away at the will of the opponent. What is critical in this definition is what separates it from attrition. Attrition is the wastage of physical forces — men, equipment and resources. Exhaustion is the wastage of will. Will can be chipped away through economic strangulation and blockade, social repercussions due to high losses in the field, or through an inability to achieve aims in an acceptable period of time.

A strategy of annihilation is one that seeks to directly disrupt or dislocate the enemy’s will. However, this is much simpler than Liddell Hart’s esoteric dislocation through an indirect approach. A strategy of annihilation seeks to maximize destruction within time and space to impact the enemy’s aims. Unlike the indirect approach, annihilation seeks serious fighting sequenced in a decisive manner. This destruction is a key aspect of conflict and is, realistically, hard to achieve.[xxviii]

A key distinction is that while attrition and manoeuvre are absolute (10,000 casualties are 10,000 casualties), annihilation and exhaustion are contextual and are based upon the aims set by policy and the nature of the group undertaking them – 10,000 casualties will likely have separate implications for state A than state B.

In this model, therefore, exhaustion and annihilation exist as two poles of strategy. But as with manoeuvre and attrition, they exist in a relationship with shades of grey. As one does not simply manoeuvre or attrit, one cannot purely exhaust or annihilate the enemy. Even in cases such as the Franco-Prussian War or the Gulf War, where tactical victory was complete, the losing side continued to pursue an altered strategy (in the former a siege of Paris was required, the latter saw Saddam pull back to Iraq) as it still possessed some will to continue.

For a strategist considering the shades of an exhaustion/annihilation relationship in his approach, a vital area to focus on is the key distinction of time and space. Consideration of the dialectic of ends and means aims to give the strategist an idea of the time and space required to achieve friendly aims (and defeat the opponent’s).

The other key consideration is one’s capabilities as compared to the opponent’s. Such a comparison should inform how one’s means can impact the opponent’s aims. An effective system of strategy should analyse aims and means to determine what degree or mix of annihilation and exhaustion is required to provide the culminating point on the opponent’s will. The variation of annihilation/exhaustion should provide three things to a strategist; support to his own ends, a way to attack enemy means and plans to undermine his ends. With this basic relationship conceptualized, concrete manifestation can begin to take shape with a strategic approach (offence or defence) and strategic employment within theatres of war (naval blockade, limited territorial acquisition, destruction of field armies, etc).

Now for the ‘so what’ of all of this. The fact that manoeuvre warfare’s ability to garner discussion has faded over the last decade in the face of insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq has demonstrated the likelihood of it being a fad. Clumsy attempts to shoehorn it into an insurgent model with ‘Fourth-Generation Warfare’ have not made it any more appealing. For strategic and tactical terminology to be of use, it should have both some enduring properties and some concrete value to those who practice it. I’ve attempted to impose some rules on the model to give strategy this contextual discipline, as described above.

Yet elements of strategy should be relatively immutable, equally applicable in a conventional battle between states or an insurgency in the world’s forgotten corners — and of course, always of some use to practitioners. While I don’t pretend to have this timeless thesis just yet, hopefully I’ve helped to clear the air somewhat on what could be a good start.

References

[i] Liddell Hart, B.H. (1991). Strategy. 2nd rev edn. (New York, NY:Meridian) p. 324.
[ii] Danchev, Alex (1999). ‘Liddell Hart and the Indirect Approach’ in The Journal of Military History. Vol. 63, No. 2, pp. 313-337. P. 313 gives a good overview of the genesis of Liddell Hart’s work.
[iii] Liddell Hart (1991), pp. 324-330 and Danchev (1999), pp. 315-316.
[iv] See pp. 57-59 of Lind, William S. (1977). ‘Some Doctrinal Questions for the United States Army’ in Military Review, Vol. 57, No. 3 (March 1977), pp. 54-65.
[v] Lind, William S. (1985). Maneuver Warfare Handbook. (Boulder, CO:Westview Press) pp. 5-6.
[vi] See pp. 164-165 of Canby (1977), ‘NATO: Reassessing the Conventional Wisdoms’ in Survival, Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 164-168 and pp. 57-58 of Luttwak, Edward N. (1979) ‘The American Style of Warfare and the Military Balance’ in Survival, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 57-60.
[vii] Luttwak, Edward N. (2001). Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. Rev edn. (Cambridge, MA:Belknap Press), pp. 113-116.
[viii] Simpkin, Richard E. (1985). Race to the Swift: Thoughts on Twenty-First Century Warfare (London:Brassey’s), pp 20-22.
[ix] See p. 4 of Lind, William S. (1993). ‘The Theory and Practice of Maneuver Warfare’ in Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology. Ed. Richard D. Hooker. (Novato, CA:Presidio Press) pp. 3-18.
[x] Simpkin (1985), p. 23.
[xi] Good representatives of this critique are p. 5 of Fry, Robert (1997). ‘Myths of Manoeuvre’ in The RUSI Journal. Vol. 142, No. 6, pp. 5-8 and p. 5 of Owen, William F. (2008). ‘The Manoeuvre Warfare Fraud’ in The RUSI Journal, Vol. 153, No. 4, pp. 62-67.
[xii] P. 36 of Bolger, Daniel P. (1993). ‘Maneuver Warfare Reconsidered’ in Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology. Ed. Richard D. Hooker. (Novato, CA:Presidio Press) pp. 19-41 and p. 158 of Betts, Richard K. (1983). ‘Conventional Strategy: New Critics, Old Choices’ in International Security, Vol. 7, No. 4, pp. 140-162.
[xiii] Lind (1985), p. 4.
[xiv] See Fraser, Karl-Heinz (2005). Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West. (Annapolis, MA:Naval Institute Press.
[xv] Doughty, Robert Allen (1985). The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of the French Army Doctrine 1919-1939 (Hamden, CT:Archon Books), p. 184.
[xvi] See p. 939 of Malkasian, Carter (2004). ‘Toward a Better Understanding of Attrition: The Korean and Vietnam Wars’ in The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No. 3, pp. 911-942 and p. 386 of French, David. (1988). ‘The Meaning of Attrition: 1914-1916’ in English Historical Review, Vol. 103, No. 407, pp. 385-405.
[xvii] P. 37 of Kiszely, John (1998). ‘The Meaning of Manoeuvre’ in The RUSI Journal Vol. 143, No. 6, pp. 36-40. and pp. 197-198 of Kiszely, John (1996). ‘The British Army and Approaches to Warfare Since 1945’ in The Journal of Strategic Studies. Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 179-206.
[xviii] Found at p. 2-M-2 of NATO (2008). AAP-6: NATO Standardization Agency Glossary of Terms and Definitions. Assessed online at
[xix] Ibid, p. 2-A-21.
[xx] See p. 34 of Strachan, Hew (2005). ‘The Lost Meaning of Strategy’ in Survival, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 33-54.
[xxi] Ibid, p. 44.
[xxii] von Clausewitz, Carl. (1993) On War, tr. Michael Howard and Peter Paret. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf). p. 207.
[xxiii] Ibid, p. 99.
[xxiv] Ibid, p. 110.
[xxv] Storr, Jim (2009). The Human Face of War. (London:Continuum), p.60; although he presents the dialectic in a slightly different fashion, it is useful here to highlight the relationships in Clausewitz’s classical definition of strategy. The additions to Figure 2 are mine.
[xxvi] Clausewitz (1993), p. 102.
[xxvii] See pp. 341-343 of Craig, Gordon A. (1986). ‘Delbruck: The Military Historian’ in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Ed. Peter Paret. (Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press) pp. 326-353.
[xxviii] P. 329 of Crowell, Lorenzo M. (1988). ‘The Illusion of the Decisive Napoleonic Victory’ in Defence Analysis. Vol. 4, No. 4, pp. 329-346.

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