Leveraging Science in the Manoeuvrist Approach to Counterinsurgency Operations

October 15, 2010

According to British military doctrine, the Manoeuvrist Approach is considered the most effective way to defeat an opponent. Rather than focusing exclusively on the destruction of an adversary’s capability through attrition warfare, this approach resolves to shatter the enemy’s morale and will to fight through ingenuity and skillfulness.1 It concentrates one’s own strengths against an opponent’s identified vulnerabilities and applies all conceivable ways to overwhelm his capacity to make timely and well-informed decisions. The Manoeuvrist Approach does not just target the physical component of an adversary’s fighting power, it also applies direct and indirect methods to undermine the conceptual and moral components of that power.2 By doing so, the Manoeuvrist is able to gain momentum, tempo and agility which, in turn, enable him not only to achieve operational initiative on the battlefield but also to progress toward a strategically decisive victory.

Much of the credit for advancing the Manoeuvrist Approach is attributed to American fighter pilot John Boyd, who studied the German army’s successful Blitzkrieg strategy during World War II. 3 In particular, he researched Germany’s rapid victories against France, and he gained an appreciation for how the Germans had planned their operations around a center of gravity through which they concentrated maximum effort. To better understand these military concepts, Boyd traced the German strategy back to Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu, who believed successful militaries identify and target their enemy’s critical weaknesses in order to gain decisive victory. As Sun Tzu shrewdly wrote,

Nothing is more difficult than the art of maneuver. What is difficult about maneuver is to make the devious route the most direct and to turn misfortune into advantage. Thus, march by an indirect route and divert the enemy by enticing him with bait. So doing, you may set out after he does and arrive before him. One able to do this understands the strategy of the direct and the indirect.

Hence, the Manoeuvrist Approach derives from Eastern principles codified around the third century B.C., which emphasized simplicity, contemplation and naturalness.

Unfortunately, the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that it is the insurgents who have adopted a Manoeuvrist Approach. Employing a number of highprofile suicide attacks, it is the insurgents who have become proficient at shaping the operational environment by creating the perception that they are fully committed to achieving their end-state of imposing their own form of rule. With a keen comprehension of their asymmetric advantages, it is the insurgents who have aggressively attacked their adversary’s cohesion by executing their operations with greater initiative and surprise. Single-minded in their resolve to expel unwelcome foreign interference, it is the insurgents who have shown resolve in protecting the cohesion of their own forces while exposing the vulnerabilities in their enemy’s tenuous political and military coalitions. Taking maximal advantage of propaganda and the media, it is the insurgents who have advantageously exploited the situation by communicating both their own successes and the mistakes of their enemy. Historian Samuel Griffith sums up the advantage insurgents have in the following way:

Because of superior information, guerrillas always engage under conditions of their own choosing; because of superior knowledge of the terrain, they are able to use it to their advantage and the enemy’s discomfiture.

Thus, the task of defeating the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan has become an increasingly difficult undertaking.

An even bleaker picture for carrying out a successful counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign emerges when reflecting on prominent historical examples where insurgents prevailed using a Manoeuvrist Approach. During the Wars of Scottish Independence from 1296 to 1357, Scotland successfully forced the English invaders out mostly by avoiding large battles, isolating British outposts and initiating a scorched-earth policy. In the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783, the outnumbered and illequipped American irregulars repelled the British Regulars with constant skirmishes and hit-and-run tactics from behind trees and bushes. During the Iberian Peninsular War from 1807 to 1814, Spanish guerrilla fighters were able to sap the strength and morale of Napoleon’s superior Grand Army using raids, ambushes and sabotage.

From 1916 to 1918, T. E. Lawrence helped defeat a numerically superior Ottoman Army during the Arab Revolt through highly effective mobile raids focused on the Turks’ vulnerable rail lines and supply nodes. The Chinese Communist War of Liberation from 1935 to 1949 gave rise to Mao Tse-Tung and the strategy of the people’s war, allowing the communist People’s Liberation Army to gradually wrestle away public support from the corrupt Nationalists, who initially had overwhelming advantages in manpower, weapons and international support. During the Vietnam War from 1959 to 1975, the tenacious Viet Cong communists became particularly effective at using a strategy known as armed propaganda that resulted in the assassinations of so many local officials that the South Vietnamese government ceased to function throughout 3 the overwhelming majority of its rural areas. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a growing number of those disheartened by the protracted struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan regard COIN operations to be unwinnable.

Despite these difficulties, many nations engaged in counterinsurgencies are adapting their military plans and updating their military doctrine to better comprehend, analyze and resolve the challenges posed by such cunning, adaptable and determined adversaries. This paper attempts to contribute to these efforts by examining how military planners can utilize modern science not only to better understand insurgencies but, more important, to leverage what is known about improving COIN doctrine. In particular, this paper delves into the topics of Disruptive Change, Complexity Theory and Markov Chains so that nations might be able to use them to help formulate winning COIN strategies. Just as John Boyd advanced military thinking in the aftermath of World War II through his research of history and statistical analysis of first-hand wartime accounts, this paper affirms that it is indeed possible to apply science to show that the Manoeuvrist Approach can prevail against insurgencies.