On War #222
June 17, 2007

Some British Thoughts on Maneuver Warfare

By William S. Lind

[The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Lind, writing in his personal capacity. They do not reflect the opinions or policy positions of the Free Congress Foundation, its officers, board or employees, or those of Kettle Creek Corporation.]

I recently received a thoughtful letter from a British officer just back from commanding a company in Iraq. His subject was not 4GW but 3GW, maneuver warfare, and the British Army's attempts to institutionalize it as doctrine. Like the U.S. Marine Corps, the British Army formally adopted maneuver warfare as doctrine in the late 1980s (their usual term for it is "Mission Command," one possible translation of the German term Auftragstaktik). As this British major notes, however, formal adoption of maneuver warfare doctrine and actual institutionalization of it are two different things. Let me quote some of his observations and offer some comments on them (I do not mention his name for his own protection; the British Army has a long and proud tradition of preferring its young officers not to have ideas).

Since moving to a staff job I have reflected on the business of low-level tactical command and especially how we, the British, 'do"" Mission Command…

I suppose that my major premise is that we think we understand Mission Command because it is now a common part of our lexicon, it has been with us now for around twenty years, and we understand the mechanisms of mission type orders. However, I also think that we are now too comfortable with what is a shallow understanding of what Mission Command is all about; the problem is that that shallow understanding is so widespread and common that it has become the perceived wisdom.

This is similar to the situation in the U.S. Marine Corps. The central maneuver warfare concepts are commonly used, but mostly as buzzwords. Young officers receive classes on the concepts, but when their training moves to the field, they quickly see that what is done is mostly top-down, rigid, 2GW. I cannot count how many U.S. Marines, junior officers and NCOs, have told me, 'What the Marine Corps says is great, but it is not what it does."

The starkest manifestation of this is in UK Doctrine, which throughout discusses Mission Command as an activity delivered by the Commander and his staff. My problem with this is that at Company level there is no staff: …

Here, it is helpful to return to the source, namely the German Army. Not only did World War II German companies have no staff, neither did German battalions. At more senior levels, staffs were very small; a Panzer division staff had about twelve officers. Looking at it from a German perspective, our problem today is not lack of staffs (quite the opposite!) but, too often, a failure to choose the right kind of people as commanders. The Germans understood that you need a different type of person as a commander from those you assign to staff our work. Commonly our commanders are, like our staff officers, "process men," and it is rarely possible to make sound military decisions by following some rote process.

Additionally, and here I think we are different from the US, we do not have the time-resource to train our young officers in Mission Command. Yes they learn the principles, they understand mission-type orders and. they can use them. But this is as part of a mechanistic process; it is instilled in him as a drill, rather than as a culture.

This is precisely the situation in the U.S. Marine Corps, which also takes about a year to develop an infantry lieutenant. Time is part of the problem in the old German Army, it took five years to become a lieutenant but what is done with the time is a larger factor. Little is spent in developing military judgment, most in learning techniques. Free-play exercises, tactical decision games, map problems, staff rides etc. made up most of the German curriculum, but not ours.

The last observation hits at the heart of the matter. Maneuver warfare is not just a change in tactics, it is a change in military culture, from the 2GW culture that is inward-focused on rules, processes, orders etc.; centralized; prefers obedience over initiative; and depends on imposed discipline to a 3GW culture that is outward focused; de-centralized; prefers initiative to obedience; and depends on self-discipline. The U.S. Marine Corps has not made this cultural transition nor have the other American services which means it also turns Mission Command into a drill, i.e., into its opposite.

My experience as (a company commander) therefore highlighted what I would describe as a number of misconceptions about Mission Command…

  • It is a mechanism. It is not: it is a way of thought that requires a deep and common understanding…

  • It allows Commanders to have a more 'hands-off' approach. Here I think I differ with your perspective a little. My view was that the ability of the young officer grew as he deepened his understanding of his profession and of Mission Command…As he increased in ability, I widened his boundaries and gave him more and more freedom of action…

  • "Mission-type orders mean you can do whatever you want." Here I think we have a real problem in that one man's Mission Command is another's over-control; …my perspective was that while failure in training is good for learning, I would control the scope by exercising control measures. I gave them the space within which to fail; but it was not boundless space…

I agree with all these observations. The most important is the first: maneuver warfare is a way of thinking, not a mechanism. Wherever it is reduced to mechanism, it is also reduced to 2GW, regardless of the buzzwords applied to the latter. A sheep in wolf’s clothing remains a sheep.

As to the other two points, I refer again to the German example. German World War II commanders stressed that the degree to which they could use Auftragstaktik depended entirely on the degree to which their subordinates had been developed. As the war went on and the quality of replacements fell, they had to revert increasingly to Befehlstaktik. Mission Command is not a magic wand you can wave over a herd and presto! They become competent military decision-makers and leaders. The German officer selection and development process was rigorous because it takes rigor to find and develop leaders who can do it (see Martin van Creveld’s book Fighting Power for how the Germans selected and developed leaders).

This British officer’s thoughts are important because if the British or the American armed forces are ever to succeed in Fourth Generation war, they must first make the transition from the Second Generation to the Third. That requires a massive change in military culture. On this side of the pond, that cultural change has yet to occur. I wish the British Army better luck, though given the historic rigidity of the British Army command system (see C. S. Foster’s The General), I suspect the challenge is just as great.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact:

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
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The Free Congress Foundation is a 28-year-old Washington, DC-based conservative educational foundation (think tank) that teaches people how to be effective in the political process, advocates judicial reform, promotes cultural conservatism, and works against the government encroachment of individual liberties.

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