The idea of using rapid movement to keep an enemy off-balance is as old as war itself. However changing technology such as the development of cavalry and mechanized vehicles, has led to increased interest in the concepts of maneuver warfare and its role on modern battlefields.
The attritionalists' view of warfare involves moving masses of men and material against enemy strongpoints, with the emphasis on the destruction of the enemy's physical assets—success as measured by enemy troops killed, equipment and infrastructure destroyed, and territory taken and/or occupied. Attrition warfare tends to utilize rigidly centralised command structures that require little or no creativity or initiative from lower-level leadership (also called top-down or "command push" tactics). This has been called "industrial war" by some since it relies on mass. The semi-static, large scale battles of the American Civil War, Crimean War and World War I are classic examples of attrition warfare.
Maneuver warfare doctrine sees styles of warfare as a spectrum with attrition warfare and maneuver warfare on opposite ends. In attrition warfare the enemy is seen as a collection of targets to be found and destroyed. Attrition warfare exploits maneuver to bring to bear firepower to destroy enemy forces, maneuver warfare on the other hand, exploits firepower and attrition on key elements of opposing forces. Maneuver warfare advocates that strategic movement can bring about the defeat of an opposing force more efficiently than by simply contacting and destroying enemy forces until they can no longer fight. Instead, in maneuver warfare, the destruction of certain enemy targets (command and control centers, logistical bases, fire support assets, etc.) is combined with isolation of enemy forces and the exploitation by movement of enemy weaknesses. Bypassing and cutting off enemy strongpoints often results in the collapse of that strongpoint even where the physical damage is minimal (e.g. the Maginot Line). Fire power, which is used primarily to destroy as many enemy forces as possible in attrition warfare, is used to suppress or destroy enemy positions at breakthrough points during maneuver warfare. Infiltration tactics by conventional or special operations forces may be used extensively to cause chaos and confusion behind enemy lines.
Leonhard summarizes maneuver warfare theory as: preempt, dislocate, and disrupt the enemy as alternatives to destruction of enemy mass through attrition warfare. Clarification of the Clausewitzian center of gravity (COG) concept in maneuver warfare terms suggests the question: is a COG the source of strength or the critical vulnerability? This issue can be resolved using the game of chess as a model: is the Queen (most powerful piece) or the King (whose loss ends the game) the opposing player's COG? Once you knock off the opposing player's King, it does not matter how many other chess pieces you take.
Since tempo and initiative are so critical to the success of maneuver warfare, command structures tend to be more decentralised, with more tactical freedom given to lower-level unit leaders. This decentralised command structure allows "on the ground" unit leaders, while still working within the guidelines of commander's overall vision, to exploit enemy weaknesses as they become evident (also called "recon-pull" tactics or directive control).
War theorist Martin VanCreveld identifies six main elements of maneuver warfare:
One of most famous early maneuver tactics was the double envelopment, used by Hannibal against the Romans at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, and by Khalid ibn al-Walid against the Persian Empire at the Battle of Walaja in 633 AD.
In prehistoric times this began to change with the domestication of the horse, the invention of chariots and the increasing military use of the cavalry. The cavalry had two major uses: one, to attack and use its momentum to break infantry formations; and two, using the advantage of speed to cut communications and isolate formations for later defeat in detail. Similar strategies are also possible using infantry suitably trained and in recent times it was Napoleon who showed this to great effect. He used the combination of cavalry movement and fast infantry movement to bring about the defeat of superior forces whilst they were still moving to their intended place of battle. This allowed his forces to attack where and when he wanted, often giving him the advantage of terrain to disable effective movement by his enemy. Thus he used maneuver both strategically (when and where to fight) and tactically (how to fight the battle he chose).
Napoleon's fame as a general, and indeed his powerbase to become head of the French state, was based on a powerful and fluent campaign in Northern Italy principally against the numerically superior Austrians. He cited Frederick the Great as one of his major sources of his strategy. He trained a normal, if rather undisciplined, French Army of Italy to be able to move faster than most thought possible, certainly likely. In part this was because his Army lived off the land and had no big logistical 'tail'. His ability to move huge armies to give battle where he wanted and in the style of his choosing became legendary and he seemed undefeatable even against larger and superior forces. It was these and later defeats that caused the major doctrinal re-evaluation by the Prussians under Carl von Clausewitz on the revealed power of maneuver warfare. The results of this review were seen in the Franco-Prussian War. Napoleon also arranged his forces into what we today would call 'Battle Groups' of combined arms formations to allow faster reaction time to enemy action. This is an important support measure for maneuver warfare to be most effective and was copied by von Clausewitz.
Napoleon's principal strategy was to move fast so as to engage before the enemy had time to organize, to lightly engage whilst moving to turn the flank that defended the main resupply route, to envelop and deploy blocking forces to prevent reinforcement, and to defeat in detail those contained in the envelopment. All of these activities imply faster movement than the enemy as well as faster reaction times to enemy activities. His use of fast mass marches to gain strategic advantage, cavalry probes and screens to hide his movements, and deliberate movement to gain psychological advantage by isolating forces from each other and HQ are all hallmarks of maneuver warfare. One of his major issues was the relatively slow speed of infantry movement relative to the cavalry.
In the Franco-Prussian War the Prussian Army, knowing that they could field substantially larger forces than the French, devised a war plan that relied on speed by encircling and destroying/bypassing French strongpoints - the Kesselschlacht or "cauldron battle" - while the remainder of the Prussian army advanced unopposed to seize important objectives such as Paris. If, on declaration of war, they could mobilize quickly, invade and destroy French field forces fast enough, then they would be victorious before the French army could react. This tactic was used to devastating effect in 1870, when the Prussian forces were able to rapidly encircle and defeat two large French forces before they were able to retreat.
Given the success they had in 1870s, it is not surprising that the German battle plan for the First World War would be similar. The Germans attempted to repeat the "knock-out blow" against the French armies in the Schlieffen Plan. However technology had changed considerably in the four decades, with the machine gun and considerably more powerful artillery swinging the balance of power decisively to the defense. While all combatants were desperate to get the front moving again, this proved difficult. The introduction of the tank in a series of increasingly successful operations pointed the way out of trench warfare, but the war ended before the British plans to field thousands of them could be put into place. Germany also introduced new tactics against static warfare with infiltration and stormtrooper tactics toward the end of World War I, which bypassed resistance leaving its reduction to other means.
Between the World Wars the Germans again reviewed their doctrine and completely revised their approach again, perhaps getting back to some of the von Clausewitz ideas which were now enabled by motor transport. During the Second World War, Germany pursued its new strategy known to many as blitzkrieg, or "lightning war", perhaps the most famous example of maneuver warfare and derived in part from the theories of many perhaps including British officer J.F.C. Fuller, of which the British army had failed to take advantage. The Soviets used the concept of "Deep Battle" (which they continued through the Cold War). The Western Allies were strategically attrition-oriented, though maneuver-minded commanders included O'Connor, Montgomery and Patton.
The possibility of a massive Soviet offensive in Western Europe led to the creation of the United States Army's AirLand battle doctrine. Though far from focusing on maneuver, it emphasized using combined arms to disrupt an adversary's plans by striking through their depth and was seen as moving towards maneuver warfare in comparison to the earlier Active Defense concept. The AirLand doctrine was seen by Martin van Creveld as "arguably a half way house between maneuver and attrition."
The military concept of Rapid Dominance or Shock and awe was put forward by airpower theorists as a form of maneuver warfare. Shock and awe emphasized high amounts of communication and rapid strikes using airpower and missiles to create confusion in the enemy. It relied heavily on air power, large amounts of central coordination, and focuses on destroying the enemy's command and control structures rather than its supply lines. Implementing this doctrine in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, overwhelming US mobility and firepower allowed a (relatively) small number of US forces to categorically defeat what had originally been presented as a much larger opposing force which would be fighting from fixed strongpoints. The drive to Baghdad was characterized not so much by the destruction of Iraqi forces as by US forces swarming around and past known enemy strongpoints and capturing key cities, transportation assets, and other centers of tactical importance. Post-battle analysis, however, demonstrated that much of the hype behind the airpower theories of Shock and Awe were exaggerated. The enemy was already so self-delusional and therefore de facto decentralized that airpower delivered firepower deep behind the lines was redundant. Indeed, had communications from the top been permitted to continue the confusion endemic to the Hussein regime would likely have made the defenses even worse than they were when American ground units destroyed them.
According to writer Grant Hammond, Boyd believed that the Battle of Marathon, Battle of Leuctra, Battle of Arbela and the Battle of Cannae were battles of maneuver warfare with "unequal distribution of forces to gain a local advantage and decisive leverage to collapse adversary resistance".
An example where such shortcomings have been exposed is during the 2006 Lebanon War where, despite overwhelming firepower and complete air superiority, Israeli forces were unable to deliver a decisive blow to Hezbollah nor effectively degrade its capacity to operate effectively. Although inflicting heavy damage, Israel's inability to locate and destroy Hezbollah's diluted force structure ultimately meant that it did not meet its war aims. Additionally, the insurgency in Iraq also demonstrates that a military victory over an opponent's conventional forces does not automatically translate into a political one.
Some military theorists such as William Lind and Colonel Thomas X. Hammes propose to overcome shortcomings of maneuver warfare with the concept of what they call fourth generation warfare. Others, for example Lieutenant-Colonel S.P. Myers writes that: "manoeuvre is more a philosophical approach to campaign design and execution than an arrangement of tactical engagements". Myers writes that maneuver warfare can evolve and that: "manoeuvrist approach in campaign design and execution remains relevant and effective as a counter-insurgency strategy at the operational level in contemporary operations".