MANOEUVRE WARFARE: Applying the basics to Canada's current role in Iraq

 (Volume 24-01)

By Colonel (ret'd) Pat Stogran

Regular readers of “The Armchair Colonel” will recall I offered a definition of military operational strategy (“the art of advantage”) and last month I introduced the concept of manoeuvre warfare (MW), which I intend to expand on to use as a construct to consider coalition operations in the Middle East.

Manoeuvre in the context of strategy means the adroit and clever management of affairs in order to shatter the moral cohesion (in the psychological not the ethical sense of the word) of an enemy rather than the detailed destruction of their physical capabilities.

Before I can delve into some of the tenets and techniques in the application of MW as it might pertain to Canada’s involvement in Iraq today, I will have a look at the fundamental mechanisms of the concept.

For a very brief period of time, back in 2006 when I was uniform, I was seconded to the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre (PPC). It was my first occasion to work for a senior public servant, as the president was an ex-director general from RCMP headquarters. It was the second most frustrating job in my life, next to being the Veterans Ombudsman. One of the responsibilities assigned to me, a “gruntasaurus-rex” incognito as a civilian executive, was the formulation of a business development plan. I really seized on the task as an opportunity to learn a little something about management at senior levels in the business world. I interviewed all the employees and met with clients, management consultants and professors at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, and reoriented my private study from warfare to business systems.

After extensive research and consideration, I identified niche markets and capabilities, systems and an organizational structure that, I thought, would wean the Centre off the teat of government handouts, which we had been warned were going to be terminated. The president didn’t like the outcome of my study, discarding my draft report out of hand, and took grave exception to my assessment that the projects the Centre were pursuing was “busy work” and would do little to make the PPC financially independent of government. Professionally, I ended up following in the footsteps of the other dinosaurs, as that was also the first of two times in my life that I was fired, the other one being the ombudsman job.

I guess the PPC never did find a niche that would sustain it without government funding, as it ended up closing down operations. That’s what busy work does. It keeps the troops busy but contributes little to winning the war. In the private sector, war is a metaphor for the bottom line; but it isn’t in the military where busy work costs lives. That is not to suggest that lives are not lost and ruined by military operations that are based on carefully calculated effects-focused effort, but the latter approach to business stands a much better chance of achieving a substantive and enduring operational end-state. MW is what I consider to be the antithesis of busy work, fighting for fighting sake alone, which is why I very quickly became a disciple.

In the Maneuver Warfare Handbook, William Lind suggests there are three “filters” that are fundamental to the manoeuvre approach: mission-type orders, the focus of effort, and surfaces-and-gaps. Let me approach these in reverse order. Surfaces-and-gaps (SG) is a label for exploiting enemy vulnerabilities rather than engaging where they are strong. Back in my mechanized operations days, SG was achieved simply by pinning down pockets of opposition and bypassing them to attack the enemy in depth. Such shock action was a key ingredient for the early and spectacular successes of the German blitzkrieg in the Second World War. The application of surface-and-gaps on the mechanized battlefield is the very manifestation of Sun Tzu’s warning not to besiege walled cities. If Sun Tzu’s principle of avoiding what is strong and striking what is weak could stand the test of time and be relevant in Industrial Age warfare, how can it not be now in the global insurgency we are facing in fourth generation warfare?

Another MW filter is the focus of efforts: an interpretation of the Schwerpunkt of German Army doctrine of focusing combat power on key enemy vulnerabilities in order to be decisive, and the practical application of the principles of war of concentration of force and economy of effort. In MW terms, the concept is represented as the point of main effort (ME) and supporting efforts (SE). The aim is to concentrate combat power against high value targets (HVT) and high payoff targets (HPT). In manoeuvre warfare, HVTs are objectives that can be expected to seriously degrade the enemy’s capability to interfere with our operations; HPTs are objectives that will contribute significantly to the success of our operations.

Operations are often broken down into phases in order to concentrate sufficient combat power sequentially against HPTs identified in the planning. Such efforts are nested hierarchically, in that the ME of a subordinate unit should be a SE to the higher formation’s ME. In my instructor days at the Land Warfare Centre in Australia, I used to assert that combat power not apportioned to a main or supporting effort is often wasted effort.

Lind’s third filter, mission-type orders (MTO), is a protocol for tasking subordinates that seeks to optimize the quality of decision-making in terms of timeliness and impact. It compels superior commanders to articulate what the goal of their mission is in terms of what they want to have happen to the enemy and how that contributes to the higher formations plan, as well as to identify what I call the “defeat mechanism” (Volume 23 Issue 9). A fundamental rule of MTOs is that higher commanders must inform their subordinate commanders what they are expected to achieve and why, but not how they should do it. This is a very important feature of MW.

Another renowned manoeuvre theorist, Richard Simpkin, in his epic Race to the Swift: Thoughts on 21st Century Warfare, coined the term “directive control” to describe this filter of Lind’s. The idea is that operations should be launched with a minimum of instruction, in what he considers more characteristic of military “directives” than the level of detail that is normally included in operations orders. In doing so there will undoubtedly be gaps in the master plan, so subordinate commanders are expected to use their intellect and initiative in order to fill those in “on the march.” This requires well-trained, confident and empowered subordinate commanders. In my opinion, controlling operations by timely directives rather than time-consuming, detailed orders is the essence of a leadership-biased organization.

Thus far I have been considering MW at the tactical level, by interpreting MEs, SEs, HVTs and HPTs in terms of combat power. Strategically, one must consider the instruments of national power; namely diplomacy, information, economics, and defence. Clearly, analyzing the battlefield in terms of the MW filters is a complex process, and more of an art than science. At the strategic level it is even more difficult because the environment is often much more ambiguous and vague. For that reason the commander-in-chief must remain flexible, another principle of war, and reassign main and supporting efforts as the operational situation develops. MW doctrine fosters agility, the capability of an organization to act and react very quickly in order to, once again, keep focused on the defeat of the enemy.

At this point in my columns you have been introduced to many of the tools that would help us to assess the intervention in the Middle East critically and objectively. No doubt everyone is well aware of Canada’s military involvement in Iraq. Would you consider military operations to be our main or supporting effort in the defeat of Daesh and ISIL? What would you consider the coalition’s main and supporting efforts? What is the defeat mechanism sought to eradicate the threat of radical Islamic criminals? How well do you think we are doing?

I look forward to hearing your opinions on this issue and each month I offer a copy of my book, Rude Awakening: The Government’s Secret War Against Canada’s Veterans, to the contribution that I find most thought-provoking.