Military art, over the course of history, has fluctuated between Attrition Warfare and Maneuver Warfare. In a nutshell, Attrition Warfare involves massing men and material and moving them against enemy strong-points. Victory is measured by enemy killed, infrastructure destroyed and territory taken. Throughout most of human history this is how war has been fought.
Maneuver Warfare advocates that through strategic movement, one can more easily defeat an opposing force than he can by contacting the enemy and fighting him until he runs out of forces or the will to fight. In Maneuver Warfare, you look to bypass enemy strong-points, break into his rear areas and cut off communication and supply, leaving the enemy confused and the strong-points left on the vine to wither and die.
There has been “maneuver” in warfare for a long time. Napoleon was noted for his rapid maneuvers, cavalry employment and deployment of cannon. Napoleon was able to maneuver and strike at will, defeating larger opponents. But at its root, just like in our US Civil War (with Gen. Jackson and his Valley campaign of march and counter-march as an example), the end objective was still to mass fire on the enemy and kill as many of them as you could. Maneuver in attrition warfare is not “Maneuver Warfare”. I believe that WWI was the starting line. It was where the necessity of new tactics began to meet communications technology and the mechanized ability to employ true maneuver warfare. The pause between wars let the Germans put all the pieces together.
One can see the beginnings of Maneuver Warfare in the “Stormtrooper” tactics of the Germans in the trenches of WWI. Instead of massing human wave attacks in suicide runs on fixed enemy positions, the Germans sent highly trained, maneuverable elements against enemy weak-points with the mission to avoid enemy strong-points and to attack enemy headquarters and artillery emplacements. Simultaneously, the Allies were developing the Tank to find a way out of trench warfare. WWI ended before any of these tactics could reach full maturity. The combination of these elements finally came to fruition during WWII in the, then revolutionary, military tactic of the Blitzkrieg. Blitzkrieg was a concept involving a highly mobile “combined arms” approach to battle which the Germans “stole” from a British generals theory paper that was ignored by the British military during the inter-war period.
Maneuver in Attrition Warfare, was being able to get your troops into advantageous position for battle. To a troop up against MW, the entire attacking force has bypassed you and they are pushing deep into your rear areas. In effect you are surrounded. After pasting you with some air, arty etc to keep you pinned while they bypass you, your position looks like the moon. Perhaps a few mortar rounds are still landing around you to let you know they are still thinking about you as their armored vehicles stream by outside the range of your weapons. Many regular troops will think about surrendering. As the Iraqis did in Gulf War I.
Since speed of operations and initiative is critical to the success of maneuver warfare, command structures need to be decentralised, with freedom to make tactical decisions given to lower-level unit leaders. This decentralised command structure allows ‘on the ground’ unit leaders, while still working within the guidelines of commander’s overall vision, to exploit enemy weaknesses as they become evident. This is also called the ‘recon-pull’ tactic. As point units recon the enemy positions and find weaknesses, they “pull” the follow on forces through these gaps after them. General Patton was an innovator in this practice. Instead of ordering units to act in accordance to his “plan”. Patton told his subordinates what he wanted accomplished and left it up to them to decide the best way to make it happen. Due to the speed, flexibility, communication and technological demands of Maneuver Warfare, it requires that ones military be more highly trained and technologically capable than its attrition oriented opponent.
Of course maneuver warfare is what you use against another Army. Insurgency, low intensity conflict…that’s a whole different animal.
Some military strategists are saying that we are starting a “4th generation” of warfare. The 1st was massed manpower like 16th-19th century Warfare (Revolution, Napoleon, Civil War). The basic idea was that you lined up masses of men and weapons and fired at each other. The 2nd was massed firepower, like the machine gun swept, artillery pounded no-mans lands of WWI. The weapons and vehicles that were employed made standing in the open and facing each other impractical if not outright impossible. The 3rd generation was/is maneuverwarfare, starting with the Blitzkrieg right up to Gulf War 1. Now military theorists are saying we are entering into a 4th generation of warfare, where the huge disparity in military forces and technologies between nations are forcing opponents to adopt new means. Most are saying that the insurgency and terrorist tactics are a manifestation of this change.