Naval Maneuver Warfare

By Hughes, Wayne P., Jr. | Naval War College Review, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview
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Naval Maneuver Warfare


Hughes, Wayne P., Jr., Naval War College Review


TO APPROACH THE SEA SIDE OF MANEUVER warfare, one ought first to understand its nature and content in general. Contemporary American military reformers seem to claim that maneuver warfare is everything good: outwitting the enemy, creating and exploiting an information advantage, moving faster and more adroitly, and shooting more precisely and effectively. In the rhetoric, maneuver warfare is "rapid, violent, coordinated attack." But who would espouse the opposite, a "slow, feeble, disorganized attack"? If maneuver warfare is nothing more than fighting intelligently, then its antithesis is "stupid" warfare.

Naval Warfare, U.S. Naval Doctrine Publication 1, says, "Maneuver warfare, based on the twin pillars of decisiveness and rapidity, is our preferred style of warfighting." By way of elaboration, NDP 1 specifies four key concepts of modern maneuver warfare: center of gravity, critical vulnerability, focus of effort, and main effort. Yet we might wonder, are not these four attributes common to all successful styles of warfare? Hence, even though the irreproachable conclusion in NDP 1 is that operational maneuver has always been a core strength of great navies, we must look elsewhere for naval maneuver warfare's distinguishing characteristics.

Some say maneuver warfare may be recognized by relatively bloodless victories. Applying it causes the enemy to be so demoralized and dominated that he concedes our objective rather than fight. This point of view concludes that the opposite of maneuver warfare is attrition warfare, unimaginative and bloody. But even that advocate of maneuver,John Boyd, has devised a paradigm of superior maneuver, the "OODA loop," that refutes this; in it, Colonel Boyd measures success by attrition-specifically, a favorable exchange ratio in aircraft kills. DESERT STORM also illustrates the point. Our coalition achieved an unparalleled exchange ratio in casualties, both of men and machines, yet many people who know the details do not believe the ground campaign properly exemplified maneuver warfare. A competitive alternative to maneuver warfare cannot, then, be attrition warfare.

One might ask, does maneuver as a style of war apply when the enemy is skillful and inflicts his style on us?1 Was there no defense against the Soviet army, which was known to espouse operational maneuver? Does maneuver warfare apply when the enemy is very determined, as were the Germans and Japanese in World War II, and later, the North Vietnamese? The answers lie in doing two things. First we will gain a better understanding of the scope and limits of maneuver warfare by describing a respectable alternative-an antithesis-so that maneuver warfare is not simply seen as embodying all military virtues. Then, as we shift attention from the properties of maneuver warfare in general to naval maneuver warfare, we will study its viability as a tool of strategy, of maritime operations, and of naval tactics.

Power Warfare Introduced and Defined

I submit that the true antithesis of maneuver warfare is power war are. Power warfare achieves success by exhibiting the capacity to destroy the enemy's forces and their support faster than he can destroy ours. That exhibition, of course, usually involves a test in battle, which may be bloody. Power warfare promotes superior firepower over maneuver, but it shares with maneuver warfare the aim of dominating the enemy and his will to fight. It emphasizes advantages in detection and targeting, and in weapon range and accuracy. While it acknowledges that firepower affects the enemy not only in body but in mind and spirit, power warfare emphasizes the capacity to destroy: to impose casualties, eliminate equipage, and break down coherent fighting units into useless rabble. Power warfare emphasizes the permanence of attrition-destroyed men, machines, and battalions cannot fight again later. Power warfare accepts casualties in exchange for permanent, sometimes decisive, results.

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