Picking 'Unfair Fights': Understanding Maneuver
In a recent Armor Magazine article, 1LT James Casey boldly asserted that US Army tactical leaders consistently fail to demonstrate an ability to conduct combined arms maneuver. He's not alone, nor hardly the first to assert as much. But what do we mean by maneuver? In his recent book, On Tactics, BA Friedman defines maneuver as "attacking an enemy force from a position of comparative advantage." William Lind, author of The Maneuver Warfare Handbook, more simply describes the concept, asserting "you always try to avoid the enemy strength and hurl your strength against his weaknesses." As we'll discuss below, tactical commanders and staffs today find difficulties in attacking the enemy's weaknesses while leveraging their formation's inherent strengths. Commanders at echelon do not generally develop operational approaches that deliberately seek to identify and attack from a point at which the formation enjoys a position of relative advantage. But while maneuver is a simple concept, it is far from easy to do. To better maneuver at the tactical level, we must first overcome two hurdles that currently challenge our commanders and staffs. First, we must deliberately plan to attack from a position of advantage relative to the enemy. Second, we have to identify that position of advantage from which we intend to attack through successful information collection and reconnaissance operations.
Commanders and their staffs must focus on fighting the enemy, as opposed to fighting the plan. In his recent article in Armor Magazine, CPT Luke Bowers asserts that “many commanders… will rapidly develop a COA by simply adding a doctrinal template and graphic control measures to their map and graphics. The enemy icons are templated in a manner that supports the friendly plan.” General George Patton once said that “Successful generals make plans to fit circumstances, but do not try to create circumstances to fit plans.” Of these, we seem to do the latter. Because our maneuver warfighters do not plan relative to the enemy, Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) routinely fail to achieve a position of relative advantage.
At the Army's Combat Training Centers, observer-controllers frequently witness evidence of our inclination to fight the plan rather than the enemy. In an article in Armor Magazine, CPT Metz observes that units training at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center nearly always commit to a frontal attack in the offense. Observer-controllers at the National Training Center (NTC) observe much of the same. Yet, those commanders' decisions to commit to the frontal attack or penetration are not informed by an understanding that the enemy defends across too wide a front, wherein these forms of maneuver might be appropriate.
We attack in this manner not because we are seeking to maneuver or exploit an enemy vulnerability, but because that is where we assess the enemy to be and where we can synchronize our combat power against him. In this way, we have unknowingly embraced an attrition-based mindset, often attacking the enemy's strength with our even greater strength. Unlike one with a maneuver mindset, we are not looking for indicators that the enemy is arrayed across too wide a front and, that by massing against his weakest point, we might achieve a physical position of advantage through the conduct of a frontal attack. We do not out an assailable flank to attack at which we might achieve shock and surprise and thereby enjoy a psychological advantage. Instead, we are ‘fighting the plan, not the enemy’ and the results are predictable.
The implications of 1LT Casey's earlier assertions are grave. At NTC, combat losses greater than 60% during a BCT-level operation against a numerically and technologically inferior opposing force are common. While the BCTs on occasion accomplish their assigned mission, such successes are often Pyrrhic victories at best. Commanders and staffs cannot assess courses of action that attack into an enemy's strength as acceptable. But only rarely do US formations achieve a position of relative advantage over the opposing force and when they do, it is by coincidence rather than design. One senior observer recently commented, "We are winning a few fair fights, but we are not picking any unfair ones."
Nor are our formations particularly successful in reconnaissance and security operations necessary to identify those positions of relative advantage from which we might attack. Information collection is often unfocused and integration between the BCT's various information collection platforms remains limited. BCT information collection assets that reside in the Military Intelligence Company, particularly UAS, are often overly focused on observation in support of the targeting of perceived high-value targets in the BCT deep area. Nearer to the BCT close area, Cavalry formations training have rarely proven capable of answering the priority intelligence requirements necessary to inform the BCT Commander's decision making, often due to an inability to reach the reconnaissance objective.
The reasons behind this lack of integration are many. The lack of unity of command over the information collection frustrates shared understanding across the formation, as the Cavalry Squadron Commander, Brigade Engineer Battalion Commander, Military Intelligence Company Commander, and BCT S2 each lead efforts that contribute to the information collection operation, but often in ways not supportive of one another. No single leader within the formation is responsible for the success or failure of the BCT's information collection operation and varying levels of unity of effort is the result. Nor do most tactical leaders possess an understanding of how all information collection platforms work together in holistic approach to information collection. This is due in part to a lack of opportunities to train together. Further, the compartmentalization within our doctrine on intelligence preparation of the battlefield, information collection, and maneuver does not help. Tactical leaders might study ATP 2-01.3, FM 3-55, FM 3-98, and FM 3-90-1 before understanding the linkages between these concepts. But even then, the linkages might remain unclear. Finally, staffs at echelon struggle to provide the necessary products, namely enemy SITEMPs and an EVENTEMP, required to develop a focused information collection plan. As a result, we struggle to determine the enemy's plan and, subsequently, where he is most vulnerable.
Fortunately, as our formations deploy to the CTCs and conduct home-station training, they have begun developing higher levels of proficiency in the individual and collective tasks necessary to successfully maneuver against our enemies. However, much work remains. Successful commanders and staffs will train to develop well-integrated, focused information collection plans that identify the enemy course of action and, thus, his vulnerabilities. Further, successful planners at echelon will allow intelligence to drive operations by planning relative to the enemy, seeking to attack from the position of advantage that the information collection and reconnaissance efforts have identified. These efforts require an understanding of the linkages that exist between IPB, information collection, and decision points. As the US military leaders look to conduct Multi-Domain Battle, understanding maneuver becomes increasingly important. Temporary windows of air superiority may provide a position of relative advantage and opportunities that bold maneuver-minded commanders might exploit. Tactical leaders might employ new capabilities to achieve a psychological position of advantage through a surprise attack across the cyber or space domains. Identifying and attacking from positions of relative advantage in one domain might provide opportunities in others. What matters is identifying the enemy's vulnerabilities and aggressively attacking them with our strengths. Only then will we begin picking unfair fights.