Force 2030 – Divesting: Maneuver Warfare

By Nathan Fleischaker and Christopher Denzel

The complete divesting of tanks, bridging capability, and most cannon artillery. These have been the most striking facts in the Commandant’s Force Design 2030 updates, catching the attention of Marines and the national security establishment alike. Debate about the wisdom of these divestments has dominated preliminary analysis. Specifically: will the new force “work” in a First Island Chain defense-by-denial scenario, and does this incur too much risk to (an amorphous set of potential) contingency scenarios? Undoubtedly the Commandant and others have been considering these questions, and this important debate must continue throughout the next phase of force development. Still, tanks and other land combat capabilities are not the only missing elements spurring conversations. Some have criticized the lack of open debate, while others have questioned the apparent absence of transparency and intellectual rigor in a sequestered planning process constrained by non-disclosure agreements.

We want to highlight another absence which has, to our knowledge, received no attention: the absence of any references to maneuver warfare.

This omission is especially striking compared with Force 2025’s Marine Corps Operating Concept (MOC), which is filled with references to maneuver warfare. On average the MOC mentions “maneuver warfare” once per page and defines the Marine Corps’ capstone operating concept as being able to execute 21st century maneuver warfare. The MOC’s use of the term is characteristic of a practice employed by Marines of all ranks when justifying decisions and bolstering the credibility of new ideas. Consider Major General Furness’s recent web and print Gazette article, numerous recent articles attempting to apply maneuver warfare to the domain of cyberspace, or even the recently-released MCDP-7. Basic in all of these is the argument that maneuver warfare necessitates an idea, and since maneuver warfare defines Marines, Marines must therefore adopt said idea.

The recent Force Design 2030 report is a sharp break from this formula. While it suggests that the proposed force could support naval and joint forces’ ability to maneuver (in the physical domain), it is completely bereft of any references to maneuver warfare. What is to be made of this? At the very least it forces rethinking of the notion that “maneuver warfare” (as it is generally understood) and the Marine Corps have an essential connection. Thus there are three basic answers to this puzzle: (1) the force design needs to change, (2) the Corps’ connection to “maneuver warfare” needs to change—put another way, we need to divest the Marine Corps of “maneuver warfare,” or (3) the Corps’ understanding of “maneuver warfare” needs to change—we need to divest “maneuver warfare” of dated prescriptions and update it for the present and anticipated security environment.

For those critical of the force design itself, the absence of maneuver warfare references is likely just one more piece of evidence that the Commandant is taking the Marine Corps in the wrong direction. To these critics, the omission indicates that the Commandant is not sufficiently committed to “maneuver warfare” and thus any output of this force design process will be flawed. We find this implausible, first because it does not offer an alternative solution to the future security environment. Second, the Commandant does, in a disciplined way, use “maneuver warfare” to bolster his arguments; he did so in both his Commandant’s Planning guidance as well as the preface to MCDP-7. He has apparently chosen not to do so in Force Design 2030.

For others, those critical of “maneuver warfare,” the omission might be greeted with a sense of, “Good riddance, it’s about time.” Such voices arose more prominently in the Gazette and elsewhere in the 1980’s and 1990’s but still appear today. No matter how rare these direct criticisms of maneuver warfare have become, the specter of a General Screwtape secretly (and successfully) undermining maneuver warfare’s progress has not dimmed. For these Screwtape lieutenants (if they exist), the failure to appeal to maneuver warfare might be viewed as progress: one step closer to divorcing the Marine Corps from speculative theories of war based on a biased, cherry-picking reading of history.

We suggest (after discarding admittedly straw-man alternatives) that the best explanation for the absence of “maneuver warfare” in the Force Design report is simply this: appealing to it would not have been useful. Why? Because the term “maneuver warfare” as it is currently used and understood within the Marine Corps is too imprecise; it refers to several distinct concepts that span everything from a theory and philosophy of warfare to specific prescriptions for conducting operations. Further, while aspects of this formulation reflect timeless and universal truths about war, other emphases reflect FMFM-1 / MCPD-1’s development in context of ensuring Marine Corps relevancy for a late-Cold War contingency in the Eastern European theater. This is evidenced by the Attritionist Letters and other similar dialogues: discussion devolves into trench warfare over definitions and meaning, thereby losing relevance to the original subject of debate. What is needed today is neither blind adherence to a possibly outdated formulation of maneuver warfare nor a complete divesting, throwing maneuver warfare out with the bathwater. Instead, we need a critical assessment designed to apprehend the current lexical imprecision of “maneuver warfare” and then evolve and codify an updated understanding in a revised MCDP-1.

General Berger and his planners conducted a disciplined and unflinching analysis of the current and future security environment in order to make hard calls directing the Marine Corps to divest itself of tanks and other aspects of the force structure. His omission of any reference to “maneuver warfare” suggests the need for another divestment and an implied task: critically analyze the current formulation of maneuver warfare and MCDP-1 in order to identify those emphases that reflect its late Cold-War origin rather than the current security environment. Even a cursory review of MCDP-1 reveals a similar task from General Krulak (in the forward) and General Gray (in the preface): “Our approach to warfighting must evolve. If we cease to refine, expand, and improve our profession, we risk becoming outdated, stagnant, and defeated.”

We should heed a call that has been echoed by multiple Commandants. Perhaps the third time’s the charm? 

Nathan Fleischaker is an Infantry Officer and MAGTF planner. He is participating in the Commandant of the Marine Corps Strategist Program at Stanford University.

Chris Denzel is an intelligence officer. He currently serves in 2d MAW.

  1. LtCol Fleishacker and Capt Denzel,
    Thank you for this contribution to the evolving debate on Force Design 2030. I too have been thinking about the application of this redesigned force: how does this new dog hunt? And I think it would be helpful for Marines to see in more tangible forms how this redesigned force “circumvents a problem” (A2AD) and “attacks it from a position of advantage (EABO, LOCE, Stand In) rather than meet it straight on” (MCDP 1). Interestingly enough the CPG only mentions maneuver warfare three times in relation to some of these operational concepts and their requirement for closer naval integration. Perhaps the Commandant assumes his leadership sees the possibility or applicability of maneuver approaches between these operating concepts and the redesign. I think a broader question worth considering exists give the “thrust” of force design: “causing the adversary to allocate resources to eliminate the threat, create dilemmas, and further create opportunities for fleet maneuver.” (CPG) What is the US Navy’s understanding of and approach to maneuver warfare? Perhaps considering this question with our shipmates is in order.

    1. Col Russell,

      Your concluding question and statement regarding open dialogue with our Navy counterparts is critical to the success of the Commandant’s endeavor to reorient the Corps to support Fleet commanders. Most of the publically available information regarding “Naval Integration” is written by Marines and myopically focused on the Marine Corps. This is only natural considering the lack of Marines on the Naval Component and numbered Fleet staffs. We often speak of the “Navy” or the “Fleet” as a monolithic entity in the same way that we conceive of our own Naval Service as a single entity. Many Marines have experience with the amphibious Navy and we project that view onto the Navy and Fleet as a whole. Furthermore, as a Naval Service that provides tactical level combined arms formation to joint commanders, we project our primarily tactical level understanding and capabilities we bring onto the Fleet which is an operational level of war organization with a wider span of control and vastly more complex organization considering the capabilities available and the operating environment in which Fleet commanders must make decisions.

      Institutionally, we do not understand the Navy or the Fleet on its own terms so that we can orient ourselves properly and design a force that contributes to the Fleet’s sea denial and sea control mission. Formal education and reading are definitely part of the solution, but we can only get so far by attending MSOC and MOPC and reading Corbett, Mahan, and Hughes. We need to throw bodies in the Maritime Operations Centers (MOC) yesterday. EF21 called for it; the Marine Corps Operating Concept called for it. Marines on the Fleet staff who design Maritime Campaigns and contribute to the Fleet commander’s decision making at the operational level is the only way for our tactical level Marine formations to be effective. The MOC is the place where the conversations with our Navy counterparts should be so we can develop shared operational and tactical level solutions that achieve the Fleet commander’s operational level objectives.