In the early 1980s, a series of books were published that explained what came to be called “maneuver warfare theory”. Maneuver warfare theory was presented as an alternative to what advocates dubbed attrition theory. Maneuver warfare postulated that warfare conducted with an emphasis identification of enemy “centers of gravity”, superior organizational flexibility and battlefield agility, among other things, was superior to attrition-based warfare. Maneuver warfare avoided costly force-on-force engagements to concentrate on enemy vulnerabilities.
The first, Maneuver Warfare Handbook by William S. Lind, was a hard-to-find book best located in university libraries. The book was written with the U.S. Marine Corps in mind, and illustrated theory with tactical problems. Next came Robert Leonhard’s The Art of Maneuver, a post-Gulf War meditation on maneuver warfare and the future of U.S. Army doctrine. The Marine Corps’ manual FMFM-1 Warfighting explained the Corps’ vision of maneuver warfare theory and practice. There have also been countless articles and explorations of maneuver warfare in various military journals, anthologies, and presentations.
Despite this aggregation of martial thought, the best book on maneuver warfare is in fact a 30 year old science fiction novel. Although incomplete in addressing all aspects of theory, Ender’s Game is one of the best books on maneuver warfare ever written.
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. GO AND READ THE BOOK.]
Ender’s Game was first published in 1985. A science fiction novel, it is the story of a young boy that saves mankind from an alien menace. Earth has twice been attacked by insectoid aliens called “The Buggers” or “Formics”, the second invasion having been a very near-run thing. Earth’s government, acknowledging the fact that it needs every advantage against the aliens it can generate, decides to try and breed military geniuses that can lead human space fleets to victory.
I first read Ender’s Game in 1986, in high school. Since then I’ve been continually surprised at it’s popularity. These days, Ender’s Game is particularly popular with geeks and hipsters. My wife read my high school copy, nearly thirty years old, which would have delighted my fifteen year old nerd self.
Ender’s Game follows child genius Ender Wiggin as he undergoes command selection and then training, first participating zero-g laser tag-like sim combat, then commanding platoons of other prodigies, then simulated fleets of Earth ships against buggers. Wiggin’s keenly observant mind, and his ability to innovate new tactics makes him mankind’s best bet. It’s those tactics he innovates that are of relevant interest to us.
Ender’s first taste of combat is in Battle School, where equally-sized “Armies” of 40 students fight battles in zero gravity using training lasers much like the modern-day MILES system. Once a student is hit he or she becomes immobilized and out of the fight. It’s conventional wisdom at Battle School that victory is achieved through killing off the other side. After that, the winning side takes touches the four corners of the enemy’s entrance gate, and passing one soldier through it. This is seen as more of a ritual than anything else.
As a lowly foot soldier in Salamander Army, Ender has an epiphany. The last soldier alive in a battle against Leopard Army, outnumbered 9-1, Ender freezes enough enemy soldiers just as they are about to touch the corners to prevent Leopard from controlling all of them. The battle, just moments before seen as a sure victory, ends in a draw.
Controlling all the corners of and passing through the enemy gate is not just ritual, it’s what wins the battle. Ender realizes that the traditional grinding battles of attrition are meaningless, and that in the end the only thing that matters is fulfilling the conditions of victory. It occurs to him that it is not the raw force that wins the battle, but rather the proper application of force that wins. In actuality, one side doesn’t even have to “freeze” any soldiers on the other side in order to win. Destruction of the enemy is irrelevant.
Ender has also discovered that the Focal Point of each battle (or as maneuver theorists like to put it, schwerpunkt) is the enemy’s gate and the four corners surrounding it. Ender’s predecessor, International Fleet commander Mazer Rackham, beat the Buggers in the Second Invasion by attacking their focal point. During the decisive battle of the invasion, with the human fleet vastly outnumbered, Mazer Rackham had figured out that there was one ship in particular–carrying an invading queen–that the Buggers were attempting to protect. Rackham made the ship his focal point and destroyed it, not realizing that the ship was directly acting as command and control for the entire Bugger fleet.
During the final battle at Command School, Ender made the planet his focal point. Ender equated the planet with the gate from Battle School, and poured everything he had at destroying it. Ender was unaware that the planet was actually the Formic homeworld, and that it was the focal point of the entire war.
Dislocation: Another maneuver warfare principle, dislocation is another discovery of Ender’s. Robert Leonhard, in his book Maneuver Warfare Handbook, describes what he calls “The Alcyoneus Principle”. According to Greek mythology, Hercules was unable to slay the giant Alcyoneus, who would spring back to life each time after being killed. Hercules only beat Alcyoneus when Athena whispered to him that the giant could not be defeated on his home soil of Pallene. Hercules proceeded to pick up the giant and carry him to a foreign land, whereupon he finally slew him.
Ender fights his own giant. Like other students, Ender plays video games in his spare time, games run by the Battle School computer that are veiled extensions of the school curriculum. Ender plays “The Giant’s Game”, a video game in which Ender faces off against a giant that kills players in particularly gruesome ways. No matter what the players do, the giant always wins.
Ender thinks “The Giant’s Game” is unwinnable until, in a moment of frustration, he attacks the giant by burrowing through the monster’s eyeball. Ender has learned that the only way to win the giant’s game is not to play, and force the giant to play his own.
Ender attacks the giant through his face, killing him, and there is peace in his video game land.
The two lessons, that of Hercules and Ender Wiggin, are virtually identical: dislocate the enemy by refusing to play to its strengths, while going to the enemy weaknesses.
John Boyd in Space: In Battle School the focus on attrition strategy has stalled innovation in tactics. Army commanders instead focus on unity of command and training. In response, Ender uses maneuver to achieve an advantage over the enemy. He hurries his troops out into the battle arena to gain the initiative; when that trick has been used he makes the enemy wait. And so on. Ender keeps the initiative by continually thinking up new tactics and retiring them before his enemies can adapt. The lack of innovation among other army commanders has lengthened their decision cycle, and they are unable to respond effectively when presented with new tactics. This is the Boydian decision cycle of maneuver warfare theorists.
Combined Arms and Presenting the Enemy With a Dilemma: By nature, combined arms is supposed to present the enemy with an unending series of dilemmas, alternating types of force. At one point in Battle School, deprived of cover to mask his soldiers’ advance, Ender even improvises combined arms by creating “tanks” made out of a frozen soldiers, complete with gunners, and sending them toward the enemy’s gate. The tank/infantry combination presents the enemy with a dilemma that they had never seen before, and which they are unable to solve in time.
Speed = Power: Speed is another. A small, fast force can achieve a decision through maneuver more rapidly than a large, slow force — particularly if it is faster than the enemy. Ender experiments with using ropes to send troops out at velocities the enemy had never seen before. In the final battle, with two armies pitted against his one, Ender uses speed to hurl a small force — with little margin for error — directly at the enemy gate.
Organizational Flexibility: Ender continues to inadvertedly explore maneuver warfare territory. Ender breaks down his 40-student army into five toons of eight soldiers, instead of the traditional four squads of ten. With each toon further broken down into half toons, that meant he could assign ten different maneuvers to his Army, more than any other army. This gave Ender more options in the deployment of his forces than his enemy, an organic organizational advantage over others. Organizing units for broader tactical flexibility, and the advantages it gave a commander, is something that Robert Leonhard discusses in The Art of Maneuver.
Delegation of Initiative to Subordinates: In a break with unofficial Battle School command philosophy, Ender gives increased initiative to his toon leaders. This harkens back to his experience as a foot soldier, where he saw opportunities to alter the battle go squandered as commanders attempt to preserve unity of command. Ender outlines his concept of operation and is in charge of the main effort, but allows his individual toon leaders to fight their own battles. The delegation of initiative to subordinates is yet another tenet of maneuver warfare philosophy.
Not all precepts of maneuver warfare are explored in the book. The concept of surfaces and gaps, for example, is notably absent. Certain events in the book ascribed to maneuver philosophy could be analyzed differently. Nevertheless, there are enough examples in the book to make a credible case for the book as a primer on maneuver theory.