There are many who want argue that warfare consists of either attrition or manoeuvre.
The ultimate aim of any war is to locate, identify and overwhelm the enemy with fire or to annihilate the enemy in order to force an end to hostilities and/or to restore the political balance. When an enemy’s armed forces are destroyed, his political machine is not left with too many options.
The more casualties the enemy sustains (attrition), the lower his morale and the less likely he is to want to oppose the forces pitted against him. This reality is not only applicable to countering an insurgency but also to large-scale conflicts where home support wanes when the casualties – along with the economical and political costs - become simply too high to accept.
In brief, war by attrition implies massing men and equipment against enemy positions with the aim of destroying the enemy’s forces. Success is measured by territory gained, enemy killed, wounded or captured, equipment captured and destroyed and the damage inflicted to the enemy’s infrastructure.
Attrition warfare can be used very effectively when a smaller force takes on a larger enemy and conducts guerrilla operations against the larger force. This type of attrition has been witnessed in numerous modern conflicts and wars. World War 1 is an example of 20th century attrition warfare at its most brutal by sides almost equally matched.
Manoeuvre warfare, on the other hand, is aimed at isolating the enemy’s decision-making capabilities, thus rendering him unable to continue with viable military operations or paralysing his abilities to wage war. But, it is not a form of warfare based on a humanitarian approach aimed at reducing enemy casualties. Indeed, it is the opposite.
Whereas manoeuvre warfare appears to have become a mantra to many, it is as old as warfare itself. When man decided to move to a more advantageous position with his legs, on a horse, with a chariot or whatever in order to overcome and destroy the enemy, he was applying manoeuvre. This led to flanking movements, pincer movements, encirclements and numerous different envelopments.
Today, there are those who view manoeuvre warfare purely as a concept and not as an acknowledged approach to warfare. However, one cannot conduct effective manoeuvre without attrition nor can one conduct effective attrition without manoeuvre.
Manoeuvre warfare is not restricted to mechanised forces although many view it as an approach solely reserved for mechanised forces. Motorised forces, airborne forces and marine forces are all capable of conducting very effective manoeuvre warfare operations.
In the COIN environment, Light Infantry can be very effectively used to conduct manoeuvre warfare operations to strike the enemy’s bases and rear areas. Stopper groups or cut-off groups can be seen as a form of manoeuvre albeit at the tactical level. Likewise, the leap-frogging of forces can be viewed as a form of manoeuvre. But, these movements require mobility, a pre-requisite to effective manoeuvre warfare.
Mobility does, however, not imply wheels, tracks, boats or airlift capabilities – it also includes the ability to infiltrate and/or position forces on foot – such as Light Infantry - into positions that can gain an advantage over the enemy.
Effective manoeuvre warfare requires, amongst others:
1. Decentralised command and control
2. Up-to-date intelligence
3. High tempo operations
4. Surprise coupled to speed of action and exploitation
6. The ability to rapidly deploy or redeploy forces
7. Effective logistical supply lines
8. Balanced forces such as independent and self-contained Combat Teams and Battle Groups
10. Adequate air support and air superiority
11. The concentration of effort and force at the correct place and time
In the African context, manoeuvre warfare can be used very successfully to isolate and/or attack an enemy’s trinity of gravity. However, it requires that careful consideration is given to protecting the logistical supply lines and preventing them from becoming vulnerable to enemy attack as well as denying the enemy the ability to exploit the local population for own purposes. It is especially here that COIN forces can play a significant role is assisting and supporting manoeuvre forces.
All strategies are – or ought to be - intelligence driven. Intelligence during manoeuvre warfare operations should not only rely on manned and unmanned aerial reconnaissance and POWs. Small-team reconnaissance elements and/or pseudo-teams are essential in gathering intelligence ahead of the manoeuvre forces, ambushing enemy patrols, calling in fire-force teams and attacking enemy infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Successes must be exploited as rapidly as possible in order to maintain momentum and keep the enemy off balance.
A danger lies in over-extending the manoeuvre forces and thus becoming a victim of one’s own success. To prevent this, commanders need to ensure that the logistical chain functions smoothly and efficiently and that operations do not out-run the logistical abilities of the force.
The African theatre of operations provides numerous opportunities to conduct effective manoeuvre warfare operations in order to destroy the opposing forces and break the will of an enemy. If these opportunities are not exploited, the enemy will live to fight another day.