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Warfare Theory

Commander Joseph A. Gattuso, Jr., U.S. Navy

There once was a young cardiac surgeon well skilled in meticulously following written instructions for heart surgery. Yet he freely admitted to ignorance regarding "just exactly how that little baby works."

Just so, young warriors can fulfill their tactical tasks by simply following instructions and mastering tactical fundamentals. However, as they progress up the chain of command and assume more responsibility, officers require a deeper understanding of warfare theory--the underlying foundations, principles, and general mechanics of conflict--to master the profession of war. The temptation to remain fixated at the tactical level, just following "schoolbook instructions," must be overcome as command responsibility increases.

What is warfare theory? A theory is the track upon which the train runs. It at once provides the foundation, establishes the direction, and enables movement. In general, the track defines where the train will go. "A valid theory is at least three things: a compact description, a clue to explanation, and a tool for better work."1 To senior warfighters then, warfare theory is a description of the elements of their profession, a clue to the workings and interactions of those elements, and a tool to wring victory from confusion.

It appears that many in the United States military have forgotten that a warrior's best weapon is his mind. There is a tendency today to disdain theory as something that resides only in academia, unsuitable for the world of the operator. Perhaps this inclination has escaped scrutiny because of the overwhelming superiority in force enjoyed by the United States as the world's sole superpower. Or perhaps as administrative tasks consume much of their time, too many officers allow their intellectual rigor to erode because they fail to invest sufficient "quality time" to reading, study, and reflection. Just like the hapless surgeon, who could succeed only in routine heart surgery, today's senior warfighter might succeed in a "routine" tour but fail in a critical time of change and unorthodoxy due to a lack of an understanding of warfare theory. And few wars are "routine."

Why is warfare theory important? Understanding the theory of war allows a senior commander to break free from the constraining bonds of petrified instruction, obsolete doctrine, and slavish adherence to "how we fought the last war."2 It helps the warfighter shape developing situations; it lets the leader dictate and act, not react. In conflict with others who have not studied as well, the master of the elements writes the rules.

Another critical reason to understand the theory of war is that it determines one's warfighting style, which in turn drives one's doctrine. A nation's doctrine determines the type, size, and character of its force structure; the nature, quality, discipline, and morale required of its personnel; and the type of support and direction needed from political authority. Warfare theory, therefore, is fundamental.

The sequence is as follows: Warfare theory determines the warfighting style, which drives the doctrine, from which most else follows.3 Warfare theory is fundamental to every aspect of the military profession.

To get a tangible feel for warfare theory, it is useful to consider how one fights personally. What underlying "rules" do you generally use to plan for combat? How do you approach an assigned target or opponent? To what extent do you invoke established methodologies, and how often do you explore innovative procedures to accomplish the mission? Are you dependent upon checklists, or do you refer to them? Do you seek the enemy's strength or weakness? Do you strike for his body or his mind? Do you announce your intentions honorably, or are you inclined to stab him while he is distracted? Do you wait until you have overwhelming force before you move against him, or, given the opportunity, do you risk a quick thrust with a thin, sharp blade? How do you fight?4 What is your warfare theory?

Fortunately for this discussion, historically there have been but two broad "tracks" upon which warfare theory has run. While the division is not clear-cut, the theory of attrition advocates material superiority, mass, and attacks upon the enemy's strength; maneuver theory attacks the enemy's will, critical weakness, and cohesion.

Attrition Theory

The theory of attrition is essentially concerned with the destruction of the enemy's mass, his physical forces. It searches for the enemy's strength, his center of gravity. The attritionist seeks victory by attempting to destroy the forces in the field, necessitating a focus on battle--the tactical event wherein those forces are engaged and destroyed. Doctrine, force structure, and personnel are accordingly written, procured, and trained toward the decisive battle where the enemy is brought to the field, met cleanly, and decisively defeated. Battle is the preferred method for winning wars. "The key concepts in attrition warfare are those of 'initial-force ratios,' the real or perceived numerical and material superiority of one side or the other; 'loss ratios,' the rate of losses in men and materiel by both sides as a result of battle; and 'fractional exchange ratios,' expressed algebraically as the loss ratio over the initial-force ratio. Attrition warfare...seeks to improve the force ratio by achieving and sustaining an acceptable loss ratio over the enemy."5

Characteristics of attrition theory include an emphasis on the superiority of competing forces, a focus on technology and equipment, primary attention by all command levels to the tactical level of warfare, and the destruction of the enemy's forces by impact and superior firepower. Since attrition theory focuses on force relationships and relative measures of technological advance, an attritional military organization views warfare as scientific, measurable, and definable.6 The focus is on the quantifiable, the tangibles of war.7 Warfare is approached systematically.

Attritionist militaries tend to concentrate on their own capabilities in military planning, identifying enemy "targets" but eschewing overmuch consideration of enemy capability or will. As such, they tend to be weak in intelligence support, assessment of enemy performance, and predictions of enemy intent.8 They are usually focused upon their own plans and activities (they like route packages, target sets, and air tasking orders), and they are thus often surprised by the enemy's actions; when they react, they usually do so late. Attritionist military organizations are usually predictable, because they fight a certain way against a given scenario and threat. Attritional combat tends to be bloodier than maneuver warfare, since there are more frequent incidents of contact with the enemy. Massed assaults, trench warfare, heavy reliance on artillery, and strategic bombing campaigns are all associated with an attritional warfighting style.

There are numerous examples of attrition applied at the tactical and operational level. For example, Napoleon's warfare style exemplified a genius for attritional theory. His method of quickly massing his army to achieve complete destruction of the enemy's forces in the field took the modern world by storm. During the U.S. Civil War, many of General Ulysses S. Grant's later campaigns, with industrial backing and superior manpower, were characterized by attempts to take the battle to the more elusive Confederate enemy, and by horrendous bloodshed when he found it.9 The invasion of Normandy during World War II, while employing deception regarding locale, was a massive attritional approach at the operational level against Fortress Europa. Each South Pacific island assault was one of brutal attrition against a determined enemy.

U.S. forces in Vietnam would, for the most part, be categorized as attritional, attempting to engage the enemy on the field of battle. In On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, Colonel Harry Summers recalls an April 1975 conversation in which he remarked, "You know you never defeated us on the battlefield," to which his North Vietnamese counterpart replied, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant."

Desert Storm exhibited such operational deception and maneuver as threatening an amphibious landing in Kuwait, swinging many of the ground force units west to avoid a direct assault on the Iraqi forces' strongest positions, and incapacitating the Iraqi command and control structure. Notwithstanding, the overriding military objective was the destruction of the Iraqi military forces in the field--and this is attritional.10

The American way of war has, typically, been attritional, relying on the strengths of its industrial society to provide machines, personnel, firepower, mass, and technology.11 Because its national strengths have matched the demands of what Martin van Creveld calls "trinitarian wars," the United States has been fairly successful.12 Where it has been unable to bring these strengths to bear against its enemies, it has been relatively unsuccessful.

The advantages of adherence to attrition theory depend upon one's material assets and whether one has a cooperative foe. With superiority in assets and a greater ability to replenish those assets, a nation is in a good position to engage in conflict an opponent employing a similar warfighting style but less well equipped. One advantage inherent to the successful practitioner of attrition theory is the possibility of reducing casualties through massive amounts of firepower. This is an American tendency (borrowed from the French), though other militaries have also adopted it. The attritionist will expend a considerable amount of explosives (since he has them to spend) rather than risk lives.

Attrition theory fits naturally with a centrally controlled military possessing massive amounts of firepower and advanced, expensive technology--indeed, firepower and technology are the signposts of an attritional military. Political and moral imperatives frame the case for close control of the employment of such destructive power and costly equipment. The predictability and "scientific logic" of attrition theory makes it more attractive and easier to learn than maneuver warfare for those charged with its execution.

In militaries adhering to attrition theory, requirements for personnel with high initiative are reduced. Since attrition frames war as a measurable, quantifiable event, it gives less credence than does maneuver to the intangibles requiring human decision-making abilities, and hence has less need for such skilled officers. Centralized control, antithetical to high initiative, independent thought, and innovation, also reduces the need for these kinds of character traits.

The disadvantages of attrition theory are fairly self-evident. Should a nation lose its superiority in either technological or industrial capacity, it would discover its dependence upon attrition theory insupportable and no longer in its national interest. Also, should the nature of the enemy imply less vulnerability to attritional measures, success in war will come to depend upon matters other than technological mastery or industrial might. Then, adherence to attrition theory would be dangerous, and a military based upon it would be, in Summers's word, irrelevant.13

In future, using attrition theory in a war that does not clearly divide combatants from civilians might make it difficult to engage the enemy on whatever the field of battle might be. To use Van Creveld's phrase, identifying "the woman with the bomb in her purse" will not be easy. Viewing war as quantifiable, scientific, and measurable, having the goal of destroying the enemy's fighting forces, attrition theory will not serve if victory in a conflict (assuming it is identifiable at all) is dependent upon less tangible factors.

In operations other than war, where the military finds itself arrayed against nonmilitary opponents, several requirements emerge that attrition theory fails to meet. In such unorthodox situations, the unexpected is the norm, demanding from leadership innovation and creativity. An attritionist officer corps cannot meet these challenges. Too, such varied operations are consistently characterized by complicated rules of engagement. To attempt to satisfy the myriad "letters of the law," or for central authority to create rules for every situation, is much more difficult than to call upon a thinking officer who can discern the correct course of action and remain flexible within the guiding spirit of the commander's intent.

Devotion to attritional warfighting produces leadership that has difficulty getting its officers to think creatively. Generations of dependence upon an attritional warfighting style eviscerates the officer corps's ability to think and operate independently, dilutes its willingness to discard irrelevant paradigms, and blurs its perception of future needs.

Success in attrition theory depends upon maintaining superior industrial capacity, ensuring a higher quality of technology than one's opponents, possessing numerical advantages in mass and firepower, and fighting wars in which one is fairly certain about the course of events at the tactical and operational levels. A noteworthy disadvantage of this type of warfare is its inherent predictability, from which an astute enemy can learn much. And such knowledge is central to the employment of maneuver theory.

Maneuver Theory

Maneuver theory is as old as the first barbarian to attack his opponent from behind. Sun Tzu captured its essence in his classic work. Yet only recently has a clear and embracing definition of this type of warfare been offered for modern tactics and operations. Retired Air Force Colonel John Boyd, during a study of U.S. success with the F-86 fighter aircraft in combat over Korea, distilled the modern definition of maneuver warfare. His work is described by a later scholar: "Conflict can be seen as time-competitive observation-orientation-decision-action cycles. Each party to a conflict begins by observing. He observes himself, his physical surroundings, and his enemy. On the basis of his observation, he orients, that is to say, he makes a mental image or 'snapshot' of his situation. On the basis of his orientation, he makes a decision. He puts the decision into effect, i.e., he acts. Then, because he assumes his action has changed the situation, he observes again, and starts the process anew. His actions follow this cycle, sometimes called the 'Boyd Cycle' or 'OODA [Observe, Orient, Decide, Act] loop.'"14

In contrast to attrition theory, which targets the enemy's physical forces, maneuver theory concentrates on outperforming the enemy's thought processes with the intent to destroy force cohesion.15 The enemy's mental, moral, and physical stability is the object of maneuver theory; its focus is upon the enemy's ability to observe, orient, decide, and act. This may or may not entail a primary concern with the enemy's forces in the field. The maneuver theorist eyes the enemy closely and adopts whatever methodology works to preempt, dislocate, or disrupt him. This style of warfighting carries enormous consequences for doctrine, force structure, personnel requirements, and leadership.

The first characteristic of a maneuverist military is a tendency toward decentralization. The primary need is to work quickly through the OODA loop; passing information up and down a centralized chain of command is inimical to deciding and acting faster than the enemy. Maneuver theory produces a military notable for generating and then thriving upon confusion and disorder in enemy organizations. Because decentralized command arrangements depend upon local subordinate-unit initiative to solve the situation at hand, the enemy is likely to discern no regular pattern of operations. The maneuverist military disdains standardized or traditional solutions to problems. "There is no formula you can learn. When someone says, 'cut all the bull about theory and tell me what to do,' you can't. You can talk about how to think, and about some useful techniques. But you can't give new formulas to replace the ones...taught."16 A maneuverist military places a strong emphasis on the quality, trust, and independence of thought and action of and within its officer corps. Discarding a dependence upon formulas or fixed solutions requires lower-level leaders who can act individually based upon the situation, personalities, and intentions involved. A great degree of trust is required from senior leadership.

With the focus on the enemy's thought processes, as well as the requirement for high-initiative, creative, innovative, and trustworthy leadership, a maneuverist military tends to be "people-centered" in contrast to an attritionist military, which by nature tends to focus on technology and hardware. Maneuver militaries ensure that their officers are sufficiently educated in the profession of war, look with a close and stringent eye to promotions and other reward systems, and place emphasis upon rigorous historical study.17 As a corollary, they prefer less complicated technologies and weapons; technology is the trade--people and leadership are the professions.

When it succeeds, maneuver warfighting accomplishes its goal more decisively than does attrition. The collapse of the enemy, wrought through the destruction of mental, moral, or physical cohesiveness, is more dramatic. Panic, rout, or a resigned passivity are the hallmarks of an enemy defeated by maneuver warfare.

Hannibal's victory over the Romans at Cannae was an early example of tactical maneuver warfare. More recently, in U.S. history, the early successful campaigns of the Confederacy exhibited an ability to outthink opponents at the operational and tactical level and strike sharply at Union operational and strategic cohesiveness. Early in the Second World War, the Germans were exemplars of maneuver warfare, especially in their 1940 campaign in France; the French high command was literally paralyzed by the assault upon its awareness and control of the battle. During the war in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, maneuver warfare theorists to the core, applied their theories at the tactical, operational, and most notably the strategic level, where they effectively attacked their opponents' national cohesion and will to fight. In 1979, Vietnamese units effectively repelled an invading People's Liberation Army force, causing the leaders of China to reconsider their nation's attritional approach to ground combat.

Maneuverist high commands focus on the development of leadership, and that leadership takes care of much that belabors the attritionist organization. The advantages of maneuver warfare infuse energy, trust, efficiency, and innovativeness in an officer corps. Such a structure has higher morale, fewer discipline problems, and a better ability to solve unique "people problems" brought about by change, such as stressful social and moral conditions. The reduced reliance on technology to solve military problems usually causes required weapon systems to migrate toward the lower end of the complexity (and therefore cost) scale.18 Less affluent societies are well suited to this type of warfare; in fact, this can be the sole reason why they adopt maneuver warfare theory. When arrayed against an attritionist mindset, the maneuver theorist finds fertile ground on which to work and in the past has often been successful.

The disadvantages of maneuver theory, however, are also self-evident. The primary one is its strong dependence upon individual leadership. (Recall the impact of "Stonewall" Jackson's death on subsequent campaigns.) There are also immense and sweeping cultural differences between a decentralized maneuver military and a centralized attritional service. Establishing the latter involves money, people, time, and resources; developing the former requires something more rare, the development of military tradition, esprit, and education in the military art. For high command to relegate to its lower leadership crucial combat decisions implies a degree of interpersonal understanding and trust not easily achieved. Such trust and understanding must be forged within the framework of a mutual drive toward agreed-upon goals for the common good. Creating this frame of reference, this bonding of shared values and morals, is becoming exceedingly difficult in an amoral American society.

Maneuver warfare theory is not well understood. The very name misleads the casual inquirer to presume that it speaks of moving forces to fire more advantageously. Of the two theories, it is the more difficult to embrace, understand, or infuse. It deals in intangibles, where attrition is the theory of the tangible. Maneuver theory is art, not science; it has no formulas and little in common with engineering disciplines. It is therefore not well received in technologically oriented military organizations or societies. Also, maneuver theory does not play to the strengths of technology. It employs but does not feature them. If a nation is well advanced technologically relative to its potential enemies, and also wealthy, it may find maneuver theory unsuitable for its purposes. Further, it does not align itself with a traditionally chivalrous way of looking at war. Many Westerners view sneaking about hunting for the enemy's weakness and attempting to win at little cost, or even before the battle begins, as smacking of immorality, cowardice, and a general lack of fortitude.

Maneuver theory entails risk. There is more risk for high command because critical decisions are made by commanders actually at the scene, and because the objects of attack are the enemy's enigmatic "cohesion targets" instead of his very tangible, threatening, and visible armed forces in the field. There is also great risk if the battle develops and flows in ways that the high command did not foresee, or could not have.

Success with this theory is dependent upon the level of trust throughout the command structure, the ability of officers to devise creative and unorthodox solutions to problems. It relies on their capacity to discover, at every level of warfare, just what constitutes the enemy's critical weakness, the linchpin of his cohesion, upon which the least amount of force will exert the greatest leverage.

Which Theory Is Best?

The answer, of course, depends upon one's needs, assets, and the nature of political oversight. Regardless of military or national inclinations toward one theory or the other, certain parameters must be considered.

Personnel. Contrary to expectation, in a theory that espouses high technology, attrition requires a lower level of intellect and imagination than does maneuver. Most people can be made to adhere to checklists and be taught to operate or maintain even the most complex pieces of technology.

However, maneuver warfare requires creativity, innovativeness, a propensity toward the unorthodox, and a certain independent cast of mind. Personnel systems must be structured to identify and promote officers possessing these intangible but indispensable qualities. This places a significant burden on those who must screen and evaluate fitness reports, which will contain subjective commentary on each officer's character. And it takes character to know character. Attrition theory places much less demand on personnel systems. Assessing officers using quantifiable measures with numbers or relative numerical rankings is simpler. Personnel are required mainly to possess engineering or scientific skills. Maneuver theory will be concerned with what an officer is, attrition with what an officer does.

Where attrition warfare calls for scientifically inclined personnel, maneuver warfare requires a different sort of individual, one with a martial bent and dedication to certain tenets that Western societies may find extreme. These tenets can be moral, religious, ethnic, or conceptual--such as the devotion to old-fashioned ideals of the military officer or the sustaining hope of a new nation born in the fires of revolution. Maneuver theory requires a greater degree of moral courage among its practitioners; innovative and independent officers will naturally encounter situations where disobedience of orders will be required if they are to succeed.

Equipment. Attrition-warfare armament must exceed at least the quality and preferably the quantity of that of the enemy. It takes the highest priority.19 Attrition theory demands significant wealth and technological expertise. The strength of an attritional military rises or falls with the strength of its equipment, which in turn depends upon the strength and vitality of its national economy. Fiscally constrained militaries will find adoption of or continued adherence to attrition theory unsustainable, unless they expect to face even more constrained foes.

While maneuver warfighting also depends to a degree upon equipment quality, its primary reliance upon the ability of leadership enables its adherents to go further with less (as has usually happened). Maneuver militaries are therefore less subject than attritionists to the vicissitudes of national economic strength.

The more complex the equipment, the more time needed to train to use and maintain it. If one's theory holds that equipment is the centerpiece of strength, such a commitment is quite acceptable. On the other hand, if one's theory holds that people are the strongest part of the military, complex and expensive equipment is potentially incongruous; the preponderance of training time will be devoted to improving the intangible skills of the officer corps.

Threat. A military selecting a particular warfare theory will need to consider carefully its likely threats. Will it encounter diverse, nontrinitarian, unorthodox guerrillas, low-intensity conflict? Maneuver theory has proved the most successful tool against such enemies.20 Facing traditional military enemies employing conventional combined-arms battlefield techniques, attrition has proven more effective, as in the world wars against industrial nation-states. Will the conflict be long or short? In the short term, attrition has not performed well against maneuver warfare theorists--only after an extended period of buildup (and, frequently, heavy casualties) can those who employ attrition theory overwhelm their maneuverist enemies.

Risk. The level of acceptable risk that senior military leadership is willing to endure is very important when selecting a suitable theory. Maneuver warfare usually entails more risk. There is a comforting certainty in viewing warfare as quantifiable, measurable, and scientific. It ameliorates the mystery and terror of something otherwise uncontrollable, indecipherable, and opaque. We may conjecture that this is a main reason why maneuver warfare is resisted in America. Americans hope that war is not inevitable; but if there is a war, they expect someone of great genius to emerge and take care of things until the nation can mobilize its great power. Such a philosophy has brought heavy casualties to American troops in the beginning of conflicts. Only later do they rely on massive firepower and technological superiority. Unfortunately, geniuses rarely appear on cue.

Attrition theory suits the style of societies that believe human nature is inherently good; that war is an avoidable aberration; that war takes place between military forces--clearly designated combatants; and that aggressors can be dissuaded by the clear demonstration of overpowering force.

At the foundation of maneuver warfare is the philosophical tenet that human nature is inherently flawed and that because of human greed and frailty, warfare is an inevitable fact of life. Here is found the belief that war is an all-embracing human activity, not confinable to the clean (if bloody) boundaries of the battlefield, and that the crux of warfare is man's mind.


  1. Stephen B. Jones. "A Unified Field Theory of Political Geography," Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1954, p. 111.

  2. This is not to imply that all doctrine is either restrictive or to be disdained. With a more complete understanding of warfare theory, doctrine is improved. The two are complementary, not exclusive. There may be times, however, when established doctrines do not address the exact situation, and it is here that an understanding of theory enables one to enter waters unexplored and unsupported by existing doctrine.

  3. That so much follows from doctrine may seem anomalous, our attention having only recently been turned to it. Yet, codified or not (mostly not), our doctrine largely determines how we fight, or perhaps how we think we will fight, and what we think we will need to fight with.

  4. Coming late to an understanding of warfare theory and the art of war is not uncommon in our modern military, as Colonel John C. Studt, USMC, Ret., recalls: "I served over 31 years active duty with the Marine Corps, saw combat in both Korea and Vietnam, and attended service schools from The Basic School to the National War College. Yet only toward the end of my military career did I realize how little I really understood the art of war. Even as a Pfc [private first class] in Korea after being evacuated along with most of my platoon after a fruitless frontal assault against superior North Korean forces, it seemed to me there had to be a better way to wage war." See William S. Lind, The Maneuver Warfare Handbook, Westview Special Studies in Military Affairs (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1985), Foreword, p. xi. As Harvey Logan asks, "Rules? In a knife fight?" William Goldman, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (New York: Bantam, 1969), p.26.

  5. Robert Leonhard, The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver-Warfare Theory and Airland Battle (Novato, Calif.: Presidio, 1991), p.19.

  6. "If the [attritionist] appreciates war's intangibles at all (such as morale, initiative, and shock) he sees them only as combat multipliers with which to fight the attrition battle better." Ibid.

  7. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's approach to warfighting is perhaps the most notorious recent example.

  8. While the attritionist military often employs very high technology to garner intelligence, and thus gathers a great deal of it, its ability to disseminate appropriate or applicable intelligence to the fighting forces tends to be weak, because subordinate decentralized commanders are less important than the centralized command element.

  9. The Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns are in notable contrast.

  10. Ironically, Saddam Hussein apparently also was adhering to an attritional theory. Reportedly, he believed that his ground forces could inflict such high casualties on the coalition forces that domestic support for the war, especially in the United States, would collapse.

  11. Doctrinal assertions to the contrary (see Joint Warfare, NDP-1), the evidence found within our force structure, acquisitions, personnel policies, and training reveals that attrition theory is still our dominant model.

  12. Martin van Creveld uses this term for the "three-legged stool" upon which nations have traditionally built their warmaking potential--the army, the state, and the people.

  13. Enemy resistance might be based upon an ethnic, religious, or political cause, or upon the political will of the people.

  14. Lind, p. 5.

  15. Some have said this theory is ill named--that it has little to do with the actual movement of forces. Further, it in no way implies the maneuverist will make less use of firepower; it is simply that the target differs.

  16. Lind, p. 7.

  17. This is not to endorse slavish imitations of historical solutions to problems of the past (which is one way the study of history can be dangerous).

  18. Nothing here should be construed as implying that the maneuver theorist eschews advanced technology. He views technology as servant to the warrior, whereas the attritionist is likely to end up serving his technology.

  19. Note the list of attendees at the recent rollout of the F/A-18 E/F Hornet aircraft at McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft Company.

  20. Compare the varied experiences of the U.S. Marines, typifying maneuver theory, and the U.S. Army, as a more attritional force, in Somalia.

Commander Gattuso, a naval aviator, is the requirements officer and liaison to the acquisition community at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, Fallon, Nevada. He flew A-7Es and F/A-18s prior to his selection as an Aerospace Engineering Duty Officer. [Return to Top]