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Should the US Marine Corps Revisit Their Maneuver Warfare Doctrine?


John is a writer based in Portsmouth in the United Kingdom who enjoys writing on a wide range of personal and professional interests.

At the direction of Commandant General Alfred M. Gray, the US Marine Corps propagated Fleet Marine Force Manual 1 (FMFM-1), Warfighting. This new doctrine promoted a new approach to understanding war with a focus on the concept of maneuver warfare. FMFM-1 Warfighting, now MCDP-1, has since informed all subsequent Marine Corps doctrine and operational concepts, spawning several further volumes, and arguably has further defined the current organizational culture of the US Marine Corps (Terriff, 476).

More recently, the debate over the rise of so-called “fourth generation warfare” and failures at the strategic level to successfully conclude wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have called into question the application of MCDP-1 as an all encompassing doctrine for use by the US Marine Corps (Grazier and Lind, 24). This essay argues the case for a revision of MCDP-1, an update rather than discarding, to provide new adaptations to address concerns over its current relevance and adaptation to new technology on the battlefield and fourth generation warfare.

Alfred Gray, 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Alfred Gray, 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps.

FM-FM 1 was born of a debate in the post-Vietnam era where Marine officers and military writers debated a new approach to warfare, following rise in prominence of the ideas in particular of Colonel John Boyd (Terriff, 476). Terry Terriff has argued further, however, that the adoption of the Corps’ new doctrine was as much about questions of Marine Corps survival as a distinct service and symptomatic of its cultural characteristic of ‘organizational paranoia’, which shaped what was perceived as an acceptable response or reaction to what was the war of attrition Vietnam (Terriff, 477). Paradoxically, more recent criticisms about the Corps apparent failure to fully adapt the tenets of maneuver have signalled the Corps has instead regressed to attrition warfare, the natural tendency of the US military since the mid-twentieth century (Grazier and Lind, 24). MCDP-1 states that the nature of war is “timeless and ever changing” while warfare and its methods and means continues to evolve and remains the subject of intense debate (MCDP-1, 17).

U.S. Marines of "G" Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in action during Operation Allen Brook in South Vietnam, 1968

U.S. Marines of "G" Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in action during Operation Allen Brook in South Vietnam, 1968

The seminal article by William S. Lind and his colleagues highlighted the prospect and problems of the evolution of a fourth generation of warfare driven in part by new technologies, which they argued benefitted non-state actors in conflicts against better equipped states (Lind, et al, 25). The advent of so-called hybrid warfare along with fourth generation warfare also forced a consideration of the application of maneuver warfare.

The modern battlefield now faces several ways to characterize contemporary conflicts. Of contemporary interest, political analysis sometimes distinguishes two particular categories: that of internationalized civil wars which see the intervention of one or more foreign powers, and that of extra-state wars, such as interventions against a non-state actor. The former might best characterize the current wars in Yemen and Syria, in which the US is now involved. The latter conflict is perhaps best characterized by the conflict against Al Qaeda and its offshoots such as ISIS, where both the conflict and strategic thinking has forced consideration of how to wage asymmetric wars between a state and a non-state actor, or two actors using different means, military or otherwise. The debates over how warfare has evolved continues, especially as some analysts point to the inevitable advent of further innovations in warfare (Hammes, 23).

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For the Marine Corps, how to best direct the force and efforts of a MAGTF and its combined arms and firepower against threats and tactics of this kind has further complicated the debate. For this reason especially, the Marine Corps doctrine of maneuver warfare needs a revision with two areas proposed here: absorbing recent lessons and new ideas into the maneuver warfare doctrine, and focus on training and equipping the Corps in line with these expectations.

The Us Marine Corps Is Expanding Its Cyber Warfare Capabilities to Meet the New Challenges on the Battlefield

Firstly, the Marine Corps must properly absorb the lessons of the most recent conflicts and accept a critical internal evaluation of its successes, failures, and conduct. Improved weapons systems, the proliferation of social media and other communications technologies affecting the political as well as military landscape, and the variety of conflicts in which the US has become involved have not been evaluated in detail for improved tactics and procedures to address these problems, nor properly evaluated in field problems or exercises. The lessons from these must take into account the focus of the new multi-layers of the modern battlefield. For example, Capt Brian Raike offers a deconstruction of how cyberspace can be broken down into different areas of operation owned by the JFC and assigned accordingly (Raike, 44). Raike cites the fact that while cyberspace continues to evolve, so must we expect to understand the means and methods to influence it. To this end, Raike also cites how cyberspace will become a domain to be mastered or dominated, similar to airpower in the twentieth century (Raike, 45).

Cyber Warfare Is Already a Real Threat to the Modern Battlefield

As Capt Daniel Grazier and William Lind have proposed, inclusion of both the lessons of our recent conflicts and the inclusion or consideration of the new layers of conflict must be included in a series of new doctrinal manuals to address the developments of fourth generation warfare (Grazier and Lind, 27). These might be better, however, integrated as revisions or updates to existing manuals minimizing the need for superfluous or redundant volumes.

Capt Dan Grazier Explains the Us Marine Corps' Departure From Its Doctrine of Maneuver Warfare

Secondly, the attention given to artificial intelligence, technology, and robotics are in part a distraction from the essential fact that war remains a human endeavor. As Daniel Egel and colleagues have cited, it is unlikely that in the very near future, artificial intelligence will be able to significantly mimic, influence or alter the drivers affecting irregular conflict, but will assist in its efficiency (Egel, et al). Ultimately for the time being, humans remain the decision-making platform to force both decisions and actions, and evaluating in turn what those actions truly mean and remains difficult to scale (Egel et al). The problem of integrating technologies and platforms into Marine Corps units has not been properly addressed, although it has been recognized. Capt Austin Duncan has cited that the MAGTF is currently deficient in the organic assets to affect cyberspace (Duncan, 34). No clear solutions are offered, but Duncan makes a point about clear rules of engagement to delineate targets—attacking WiFi are a powergrid can have very different effects (Duncan, 35).

The Magtf—Marine Air Ground Task Force—Is the Basic Element Comprising the Us Marine Corps Expeditionary Force

These are increasingly important decisions and issues to sort through as certain actions can now be conducted by computer programs—will the MAGTF be able to write their own programs? Will these be coordinated in a joint fires list for action? This must be addressed, as well as the personnel manning requirements. The inclusion and power of cyber technology has the prospect of being a great force multiplier on the battlefield. Kenneth Payne cites the relatively small number of people needed to begin to take actions in the cyber battlefield as much of the work is pushed by computers.

Payne cites how one party wielding superior AI may be prompted to use a first strike to negate an enemy capability (Payne, 3). The relative speed of this, before an enemy can field a soldier or launch a missile. It is therefore clear that decisions on where and when to push must be clearly spelled out as a matter of policy with clear thresholds for action and analysing those of our adversaries. These must in turn be interpreted in maneuver doctrine. MCDP-1 cites both speed and focus as essential elements in war. Specifically, “speed over time is tempo” and that “speed is a weapon” and finally “in war, it is relative speed that matters rather than absolute speed” (MCDP-1, 40). This principle transcends the evolutionary stages of warfare, but proper interpretation of this in the face of new technologies, tactics and procedures, as well as training, manning and equipment, must be conducted.

Wrapping It Up

To conclude, none of the proposals here are beyond the abilities of the Corps at present. As history will attest, such reflection and adaptation extends beyond the relatively more recent adoption of Warfighting. In the 1934–1935 academic year of the Field Officers’ Course, the pre-cursor to today’s Command and Staff, the Marine Corps famously closed the doors of the school and broke students and staff out into working groups to develop the foundations of the Corps’ amphibious doctrine (Bittner, 22). Such a moment may again be necessary, but with a wider application to include the staff academies and schools at all ranks and levels for focus on subsets of the larger problems within. Proper attention to evaluating the lessons since the adoption of the maneuver warfare doctrine must be conducted, and as necessary expanding on or implementing new complementary volumes.

References and Sources cited:

- MCDP-1, Warfighting, United States Marine Corps: Quantico, VA

  • Bittner, Don, Curriculum Evolution Marine Corps Command and Staff College

1920-1988, History and Museums Division, (Washington D.C.: US Marine Corps, 1988)

  • Duncan, Capt Austin, “On Cyber: Preparing the 21st century MAGTF to fight in the cyberspace domain”, Marine Corps Gazette, (April 2018).
  • Egel, Daniel And Eric Robinson, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Charles T. Cleveland, And Christopher (Cj) Oates, “AI and Irregular Warfare: An Evolution, Not a Revolution”, War on the Rocks, October 31, 2019 – accessed from https://warontherocks.com/2019/10/ai-and-irregular-warfare-an-evolution-not-a-revolution/
  • Grazier, Capt Daniel R. and William S. Lind, “Maneuver Warfare: Making it real in the Marine Corps”, Marine Corps Gazette, Vol 99, no 4, (April 2015) 24-27.
  • Hammes, T.X., “Fourth Generation Warfare Evolves, Fifth Emerges”, Military Review, (May June 2007) 14-23.
  • Lind, William S; Nightengale, Keith; Schmitt, John F; Sutton, Joseph W; Wilson, Gary I, Marine Corps Gazette, vol 73, no10, (October 1989) 22-26.
  • Payne, Kenneth, “AI, warbot”, New Scientist, Vol. 239, Issue 3195, (September 15, 2018).
  • Raike, Brian T., “Maneuver Warfare in Cyberspace: A battlespace approach”, Marine Corps Gazette, (October 2018), 42-45.
  • Terriff, Terry, “‘Innovate or die’: Organizational culture and the origins of maneuver warfare in the United States Marine Corps”, The Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 29, no. 3, (June 2006) 475 – 503.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 John Bolt


John Bolt (author) from Portsmouth, UK on February 10, 2020:

Thanks Bill, these ideas came from a short paper from recent coursework, they are very simple and need further definition, but I find it a useful way to introduce what is essentially an ongoing debate now in the USMC (and arguably elsewhere in the US DoD). First, there is the need to acknowledge that the doctrine was never really adopted seriously. If its tenets are still valid, then must be studied again. Second, there is a need to examine how the changes in technology especially (cyber warfare) must be included - those comments by Grazier.

There is much more debate over so-called "hybrid warfare" or "fourth generation" or "fifth generation" warfare - some will argue these are real, others say this simply warfare as usual with another name. Either way, the distinction between an attritionist approach and a maneuverist approach is more pronounced (I think).

Bill Spickerman from Louisiana & NorthLas Vegas on February 07, 2020:

A wealth of interesting, detailed information that provides an education for those of us that may be out of touch with the massive impact tremendous advances in technology have on the mission of the U. S. Marines, as well as all the military branches.

As a 24+ year veteran of two wars, your article is of great interest to me personally. Your inclusion of multiple references and related articles is appreciated.