Adapt or Die

The maneuver warfare imperative MCDP 1 ignores

>Maj Jessup did not provide a bio.

Philosophy, not prophecy; innovative, not inviolate—MCDP 1, Warfighting, is a living document long past due for revision. MCDP 1 was not written as a stone epitaph; yet, for a quarter century, that is how the Marine Corps has treated it—an exegesis to be exalted, rather than a paradigm to be parsed. The prohibition on this lapse could not be starker than the injunction in the foreword to the 1997 revision: “Warfighting can and should be improved. Military doctrine cannot be allowed to stagnate, especially an adaptive doctrine like maneuver warfare.”1 Improvements are warranted and overdue.

First, MCDP 1 needs a bold disclaimer: the publication is only a starting point for professional competence in maneuver warfare. Second, it needs a refined focus—warfighting—with expanded horizons; maneuver warfare does not apply to everything, but it applies to much more than the physical battlefield. Third, it needs a deeper appreciation of time and adaptation; time is the constant feature of all systems competition, and adaptation is the engine that underwrites successful competition.

 MCDP 1 needs a bold disclaimer. Maneuver warfare is a complex and nuanced paradigm in which MCDP 1 is neither alpha nor omega. Rather, MCDP 1 is a foundational summary, written for simplicity and broad accessibility. This fact needs to be formalized in the publication itself as a catapult to compel centrifugal, rather than centripetal, study.2 Put differently, MCDP 1 is not a self-licking ice cream cone; the study of maneuver warfare might begin with MCDP 1, but to conclude there is a severe and reckless disregard for professional intellect. If maneuver warfare is truly the Marine Corps’ philosophy for winning America’s battles, then Marines ought to have a depth of professional familiarity exceeding a 45-minute read. The gravity of its subject—a warfighting philosophy—makes this imperative intransigent.

MCDP 1 also needs a refined focus. The present edition bizarrely suggests maneuver warfare applies to everything the Marine Corps does: “[w]hether the mission is training, procuring equipment, administration, or police call, this philosophy should apply.”3 This is wrong. Systems competition between two hostile and irreconcilable wills furiously operating complex decision-making models where proper orientation paired with superior adaptation and its component parts of variety, rapidity, harmony, and initiative (VRHI) can induce the adversary system to collapse is not a philosophy suited to everything.4 This is an incoherent paradigm to conduct a court-martial, manage a maintenance cycle, balance a budget, pilot a promotion board, and a myriad of other military matters. If maneuver warfare applies to everything, then it applies to nothing and no one cares about it. MCDP 1’s institutional relevance should accord with the implacable gravity of its subject—a warfighting philosophy sufficient to “secure or protect national policy objectives by military force when peaceful means alone cannot.”The Marine Corps undermines the institutional relevance of maneuver warfare by rendering it a ridiculous panacea for all ills.

While MCDP 1 needs a refined focus, it also requires a more holistic scope. The current publication retains an unhealthy gaze on the physical battlefield.The overplayed and dubious dichotomy MCDP 1 cultivates between attrition warfare and maneuver warfare7 is a prime example that draws the reader into a universe of Materialschlacht,8 obfuscating maneuver warfare as a “moral-mental-physical”9 defeat mechanism.10

MCDP 1 describes attrition warfare in purely physical terms.11 Maneuver warfare is presented as its opposite, but the emphasis on the physical battlefield remains: “[f]irepower and attrition are essential elements of warfare by maneuver … [maneuver warfare] may involve outright annihilation of enemy elements.”12 The emphasis on the physical battlefield even carries through to the maneuver warfare examples MCDP 1 highlights: the German invasion of France in 1940, the failure at Anzio in 1944, the breakout from Normandy in 1944, Inchon in 1950, etc.13 Emphasis on the physical battlefield is also prominent in Chapter 4 (“The Conduct of War”): firepower and speed are discussed in the context of the physical battlefield, shaping actions “render the enemy vulnerable to attack, facilitate the maneuver of friendly forces, and dictate the time and place for decisive battle,”14 combined arms embraces mobility and firepower in a terrestrial melee.15 None of this is wrong; maneuver warfare is entirely applicable to the physical battlefield, but its application vastly exceeds this limited arena.

This emphasis on the physical battlefield is a particularly glaring difference between John Boyd’s nuanced conception of maneuver warfare and MCDP 1’s blunted summary.16 Boyd believed the most efficient and effective warfighting systems will synthesize attrition warfare (exploiting kinetic means in the physical domain),17 maneuver warfare (exploiting an information differential),18 and moral warfare (severing an adversary’s internal cohesion)19 into a unified whole that will “[d]estroy [the] adversary’s moral-mental-physical harmony, produce paralysis, and collapse his will to resist.”20 This holistic concept includes, but far exceeds, the physical battlefield—the opponent is not merely pitting strength against weakness on the field of battle but rather destroying the adversary’s systemic moral, mental, and physical harmony.21 Put differently, Boyd expects successful warfighting systems to utilize a combination of destructive force (attrition), an escalating information differential (maneuver), and friction aimed at inciting internal alienation (moral) to “produce paralysis and collapse [the adversary system’s] will to resist.”22 While MCDP 1 does not entirely blunder past this theme,23 its plane of engagement is usually couched in the physical battlefield and this presents a stunted view of maneuver warfare.24

Third, MCDP 1 needs a deeper appreciation of time and adaptation. Maneuver warfare is incoherent apart from time. Time is implacably pervasive and domineering in every aspect of conflict (and even the peaceful preparation for the contingency of conflict). It “defines the limits of political and military power. It defines the possible and impossible. In short, there is no understanding warfare apart from time.”25 Accordingly, time is a uniquely uniform feature of all systems competition. Yet, MCDP 1 offers a severely undersized and elementary appreciation of time; it recognizes only one aspect of time—frequency—and demands only one application: be faster relative to the adversary.26 This approach disregards the other characteristics of time—duration (the temporal span of a conflict), opportunity (“time-sensitive decision point[s]”27), and sequence (“the order of events”28)—and only accords advantage to a unidirectional view of frequency.29 For brevity, consider just one illustration of how limited a unidirectional view of frequency is: in his book, Fighting by Minutes, Robert Leonhard acknowledges the advantage of high frequency (MCDP 1’s traditional view of tempo); however, he also persuasively illustrates how low frequency can be similarly exploited with decisive effect. Essentially, operating at a tempo beneath an adversary’s expectation precludes the adversary’s effective orientation (mirroring the impact—impaired orientation—of high frequency, only with a vastly different kind of tempo and associated systemic economy).30 Leonhard cites a variety of examples in the context of small wars to illustrate this point and concludes that the United States has normalized a frequency of conflict and has difficulty responding to adversary operations beneath this frequency.31 Leonhard’s studious examination of time generates dazzling illumination that adds significant depth of insight to the philosophy of maneuver warfare.

MCDP 1 also needs an explicit discussion of adaptation as the engine of systems competition and its component parts of VRHI. These components are fundamental to John Boyd’s conception of superior adaptation;32 however, their treatment in MCDP 1 is oblique and glancing at best.33 Nonetheless, these concepts underwrite much of what i does explain; for example, mission tactics generate superior adaptation because they incorporate harmony (a commander’s intent) without jeopardizing variety, rapidity, or initiative.34 While MCDP 1’s discussion of mission tactics and commander’s intent is excellent, it would be materially improved by direct association with the fundamentals of systems competition: adaptation and VRHI.

The success of the Marine Corps demands a warfighting philosophy characterized by reasoned adjustment, not regimented adulation. MCDP 1 is concise, not complete. Maneuver warfare is a complex subject and MCDP 1 must regard itself as a starting point on the path to professional competence. Further, unless the gravity of its subject is cut loose from universal applicability, its institutional relevance will remain flagging and professional study suppressed. A philosophy suitable for everything is suitable for nothing. MCDP 1 expresses a warfighting philosophy, and it should be so constrained; however, it must also embrace a more holistic vision of this subject. MCDP 1s undue emphasis on the physical battlefield obscures the mental-moral-physical defeat mechanism that maneuver warfare champions. Finally, proper handling of this holistic outlook cannot be sundered from a deep appreciation of time and adaptation. Time accords to maneuver warfare as gravity to physics—it is incomprehensible without it. Similarly, adaptation and its component parts of VRHI underwrite the application of maneuver warfare and must be made prominent.

MCDP 1 is a living document; thus, these changes will not finish it, only improve it and that is precisely what MCDP 1 demands. “Warfighting can and should be improved. Military doctrine cannot be allowed to stagnate, especially an adaptive doctrine like maneuver warfare.”35 Put simply: perfection is a myth; all systems adapt or die; MCDP 1 draws no exception.


Notes1. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 1997), Foreword.

2. While MCDP 1 does plainly command individual study of the profession of arms, it does so on general terms. See Ibid. Further, it does not identify its substance as a summary or mere starting point for professional competence with maneuver warfare; to the contrary, it regards its content as the warfighting philosophy of the Marine Corps, without caveat or disclaimer, and ordains internal study of the publication itself, not external exploration to obtain maneuver warfare mastery. The Foreword and Preface are particularly striking examples of this feature.

3. Ibid.

4. Opting for MCDP 1’s summary description of maneuver warfare does not improve this prognosis; consider: “[m]aneuver warfare is a warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter the enemy’s cohesion through a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected actions which create a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope.” Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. See Scott H. Helminski, “No Room for Maneuver: The Reduction of Maneuver Warfare from Cognitive Approach to Physical Concept in Marine Corps Doctrine, Discourse, and Education,” (paper, U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, 2017).

7. See William F. Owen, “The Manoeuvre Warfare Fraud,” Small Wars Journal, September 5, 2008, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-manoeuvre-warfare fraud#:~:text=The%20concept%20of%20Manoeuvre%20Warfare,and%20generic%20concept%20of%20operation; B.A. Friedman, “Maneuver Warfare: A Defense,” Marine Corps Gazette, December 1, 2014, https://mca-marines.org/blog/gazette/maneuver-warfare-a-defens (“The biggest problem for maneuver warfare proponents is the simplistic maneuver versus attrition warfare dichotomy that occupies a central place in the document. There is really no such thing as attrition warfare: there has never been an attrition warfare theorist or book that proposed that attrition warfare should be utilized. Rather, attrition warfare serves as a straw man against which to compare maneuver warfare.”).

8. A German word roughly translated “material battle;” an important inclusion here since no essay on maneuver warfare is complete without some talismanic incantation of at least one German military phrase.

9. John R. Boyd, Patterns of Conflict (unpublished manuscript, 1987).

10. See “No Room for Maneuver,”; See “Maneuver Warfare: A Defense.”

11. “Warfare by attrition pursues victory through the cumulative destruction of the enemy’s material assets … An enemy is seen as a collection of targets to be engaged and destroyed … the logical conclusion of attrition warfare is the eventual destruction of the enemy’s entire arsenal … The attritionist tends to gauge progress in quantitative terms: battle damage assessments, ‘body counts,’ and terrain captured …” etc. MCDP 1.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. See “No Room for Maneuver.”

17. Patterns of Conflict.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.; See Frans Osinga, “‘Getting’ A Discourse on Winning and Losing: A Primer on Boyd’s ‘Theory of Intellectual Evolution,’” Contemporary Security Policy 34, no 3, (2013).

21. Patterns of Conflict, 136; “No Room for Maneuver.”

22. Patterns of Conflict.

23. MCDP 1.

24. “No Room for Maneuver.”

25. Robert R. Leonhard, Fighting by Minutes: Time and the Art of War, (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 1994).

26. Ibid., (defining frequency as: the “pace at which things happen … the tempo of events.”); MCDP 1, (“speed over time is tempo—the consistent ability to operate quickly.”).

27. Fighting by Minutes.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.; and MCDP 1.

30. I.E., disrupting an adversary’s orientation by operating at an incoherently low (as opposed to high) frequency, is often a more economic and efficient use of resources in comparison to high frequency which naturally is more resource intensive.

31. Fighting by Minutes. While Leonhard published in 1994, his conception of frequency presciently describes America’s contemporary struggle to challenge the various gray-zone activities of peer adversaries—operations exceeding international customs and the liberal order but ostensibly lingering beneath the so-called threshold of war.

32. Patterns of Conflict; “‘Getting’ A Discourse on Winning and Losing.”

33. For example, MCDP 1’s handling of mission tactics, commander’s intent, and implicit communication approximately grasps at harmony. See MCDP 1. Nonetheless, these touchpoints are largely centered on overcoming friction and uncertainty; they do not incorporate the associated components of variety, rapidity, or initiative or contemplate the VRHI quartet as collective enablers of superior adaptation. Like analysis obtains for the other components individually—variety, rapidity, and initiative receive glancing and solitary handling. At no point does MCDP 1 explicitly tie these components together or describe their critical interplay in enabling superior adaptation.

34. See MCDP 1.

35. Ibid.

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