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I saw active service in conventional, clandestine and covert units of the South African Defence Force. I was the founder of the Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes in 1989 and its chairman until I left in 1997. Until its closure in 1998, EO operated primarily in Africa helping African governments that had been abandoned by the West and were facing threats from insurgencies, terrorism and organised crime. EO also operated in South America and the Far East. I believe that only Africans (Black and White) can truly solve Africa’s problems. I was appointed Chairman of STTEP International in 2009 and also lecture at military colleges and universities in Africa on defence, intelligence and security issues. Prior to the STTEP International appointment, I served as an independent politico-military advisor to several African governments. Until recently, I was a contributing editor to The Counter Terrorist magazine. All comments in line with the topics on this blog are welcome. As I consider this to be a serious look at military and security matters, foul language and political or religious debates will not be entertained on this blog.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


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
5. Flexibility
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
9. Deception
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.


John said...

Good Morning Eeben,

As I have come to expect a good subject to discuss on the week - would this be a good place to insert examples/thoughts on the effectiveness of Koevoet and the Saints? I would imagine you would have far more insight on these groups than the balance of us.


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Koevoet and the RLI were extremely effective, John, especially when one considers their lack of equipment against odds that few can imagine. Although they operated totally different from one another, they still achieved remarkable successes. But, they too suffered casualties.

I know that there are some ex-Koevoet guys and one or 2 ex-RLI who visit from time to time and perhaps they would be best qualified to give their thoughts on manoeuvre warfare. I believe that they could certainly add balance to this discussion.

The old-SADF’s 61 Mech Inf were good practitioners of manoeuvre warfare and their one-time OC (Col Roland de Vries) wrote a very good book on the subject. Unfortunately, it is in Afrikaans and very hard to come by. My copy got lost somewhere along the line and fortunately a good friend of mine was able to loan me his copy.



John said...

Good Afternoon Eeben,

Sounds like there can be a lively discussion if the ex "K" and Saints join in.

As for your rare text Abe the Bookfinder is an excellent resource to dig-up hard to find references - though he is out of hand after sunset on Friday evenings.



Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks for the info on Abe, John. Given that the book I am referring to was printed in limited numbers and in the early 1980s, I wonder if Abe will be able to find a copy? I will drop him a line on that one.

Yes, if they join the discussion, it would be very interesting to get their perspectives on manoeuvre warfare.



Alex said...

Morning Eeben,

Very interesting points on both aspects of warfare you describe. I have to wonder how many commanders, and how many military training programs and academies, truly grasp these concepts. When it is laid out as clearly as you put it here, it seems to be very self-evident. Of course I wouldn't deign to understand how to actually apply such theories in the field myself, but it would seem to me that it would be impossible to fight a truly effective campaign without understanding and internalizing these tenets.

Given the nature of the conflicts the West is now facing-particularly Afghanistan- it seems to me that a balance between manoeuvre and attrition is in some ways more crucial than ever. Although I suppose it's the sort of thing 32 Bn and other SADF units did as a matter of routine, given the nature of the conflicts then?

Anyway, a very interesting and critical point for discussion. Hopefully some people more qualified than I can shed some more light on the discourse surrounding it.


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Obviously there is a lot more to manoeuvre warfare than I tried to spell out here Alex, but in very broad terms - to be effective - attrition and manoeuvre go hand-in-hand. I sometimes think we do not exploit what we have sufficiently and thereby surrender a lot of initiative to the enemy.

The men in EO applied it very successfully and coupled it to smaller actions in various places to throw the enemy off balance. That allowed certain strategic and tactical deception measures to succeed and allowed the enemy’s trinity of gravity to be eroded and then destroyed.

I am sure many qualified visitors will give their opinions for us all to learn from.



John said...

Good Evening Eeben,

Good Luck with "Abe" - he actually found

"Hunt, Colonel F. R. (ed.) Internal Ballistics, Philosophical Library, Inc., New York, 1951"

for me something like a decade ago - very rare and esoteric. He did actually hang up on me on a Friday night as I was talking with him about that book. His website seems to have changed so I hope that he still is the owner/operator. Good luck on your search, hate to have great references disappear.


P.S. Classical guitar - no wonder you were a formidable opponent in the field. Glad you fought for our side against communism....

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

It seems as though Abe can be a bit tetchy then, John? Nevertheless, I shall certainly be contacting him for some books I am after.

Musically, I was simply an inspired amateur...but it didn’t stop me enjoying the talents of others.



matt said...

Eeben, excellent topic. It actually motivated me to re-read that Fighting Columns in Small Wars paper that discussed Operation Modular. That operation, along with all the other operations leading up to it, completely supports the concepts you are talking about.

What perked me up after reading it again, is the mention of some key elements of these fighting columns. Here are some snippets. Casspirs (MRAPs), Seekers (UAVs), and lots of artillery. Also, the logistics to keep up with all of that combat power sounded like a challenge. The deception stuff was very cool too. Bravo to the SADF for destroying this larger force of soviet/cuba backed FAPLA. Very impressive.

Also, the Marine that wrote the paper sounded like he was influenced by John Boyd. He mentioned OODA at one point, along with some of the commanders and tactics that impressed Boyd.


Colonel Rolend De Vries, 20 Brigade's Chief of Staff during Operation
Modular, published a text on South African doctrine just before the start of the campaign.
He stressed the primacy of mobility and suggested the utility of combining conventional
mobile warfare with the techniques of guerrilla action. He also noted the requirement to
perform both modes of warfare proficiently at night. All three doctrinal elements -
mobility, guerrilla tactics, and night operations - figured prominently in Operation

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I was not part of Op Modular Matt, but spoke to many who took part in it whilst working on my new book on warfare in Africa. The greatest danger they too faced – apart from the enemy - was out-running their logistical lines.

The absolute importance of integrating conventional mobility, guerrilla tactics and night operations cannot be over emphasised. Successfully employing these doctrinal issues led to massive successes.

The book by Col de Vries was compulsory reading on our Battle Group Commanders course in 1987. The only disadvantage to scholars today is that it was written in Afrikaans and there never was an English translation.

Finally, we never regarded MRAPs as IFVs but merely as delivery systems. But, if forced to we would fight from them.



matt said...

Boy, that would be a cool book to read if they ever printed in English. I am sure some publisher could sell a ton of them in America and throughout the world.

As for the logistics, how was the logistics for your operations in Sierra Leone or Angola with EO? Did those battle groups or units have to slow down at all in order for supplies or fuel to catch up? Also, did you have any worries about anti-aircraft weapons in either country, that might have hinder air resupply?

What is interesting about today's manoeuvre warfare is that concept of fire and forget anti-tank missiles. A guy in a Hilux pickup, armed with a Javelin missile or similar, could basically take on an M-1 tank. Dismounts with multiple Javelins could actually take on multiple tanks and defeat them. Ten tanks, ten missiles, ten kills. That is how accurate today's munitions are. Plus with UAVs, a small force could have some eyes in the sky to help them see such an advancing force.

The Israeli Lebanon war in 2006 is a very interesting war in this regards, because it was tanks versus guys in pickup trucks armed with TOWs or similar. Hezbollah was also able to prep the battlefield which further added problems for Israel's fighting columns. Interesting little war.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

The book is most certainly valuable Matt, BUT one needs to understand the South African way of warfare during those times to fully appreciate it. Read without that background, I think it is certainly difficult to understand.

At times, EO can close to out-running its logistical lines but we also made use of air-drops at times, especially in Angola. But, given the enemy we were fighting, they used very similar equipment and therefore, when necessary we could replenish ammo etc after battles off their dead and captured. But usually, the movement was done in bounds with the logistics sticking to the movement plan and thus allowing refuelling and replenishment to take place. In Angola, our helicopters did a lot of logistical supplying and I recall them having to fly through a heavily defended area with AAA belts enroute to Cafunfu, a UNITA diamond-mining stronghold that was the enemy’s hub of financial support to their war. But we knew that this part of the trinity had to be captured or destroyed to break the enemy.

The accuracy of modern munitions does make the battlefield more dangerous but again, we need to adapt and modify tactics – and not neglect reconnaissance and intelligence. I also think the role of light infantry has not really been exploited in many of today’s small wars as they present us with many options – even in manoeuvre warfare.

Yes, the 2006 Israeli war was certainly interesting and I believe that many valuable lessons have come out of that one.



matt said...

Hey Eeben, over at Free Range International, Tim Lynch gave EO a big endorsement. His blog is also read by a ton of military and etc. that are all interested in Afghanistan.
The stuff he is talking about is pure cost effective warfare or COIN-related activies. Specifically, using contractors in the Nimroz Province in Afghanistan to help administer aid. Of course these contractors would be more like armed project managers. Here is the link.


Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks for the link, Matt.

Tim runs a very good, no-nonsense blog that people who wonder about Afghanistan ought to read. Also nice to know that you checked out SADF operations. I suspect that there are some lessons to be learnt there.