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#5thgenmaneouvre: A Historical Perspective on Manoeuvre – Jo Brick

On 24 October 2019, the Sir Richard Williams Foundation held a seminar examining the requirements of #5thgenmanoeuvre. The seminar aimed to examine the differences and potential gaps in how the Australian Defence Force must  equip and organise for multi-domain operations. A basic premise was that the new capabilities being introduced into Australian service required an update to Australia’s manouevrist approach to warfare. However, before it is possible to review a concept, you must first understand its history. At the seminar, that role was filled by Central Blue editor Wing Commander Jo Brick, who provided a historical perspective of manoeuvre. Jo’s presentation provided a much-needed overview of a critical concept in Australia’s approach to warfare; accordingly, we have opted to publish it as it was presented.

Terrain does not fight wars. Machines do not fight wars. People fight wars. It is in the minds of men that war must be fought. John Boyd[1]

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am privileged to be presenting to this Williams Foundation Seminar on Fifth-Generation Manoeuvre, amongst a roster of illustrious speakers. My task is a simple one – it is to set the stage for the remainder of the presentations by providing an outline of the history of manoeuvre theory. Rest assured that I will not be focusing on the theoretical and doctrinal aspects, but rather the incredibly rich story of how humans have sought to place themselves in a position of advantage relative to their adversary so that they can remove that adversary from the contest. This is the essence of manoeuvre warfare at its simplest.

As an Air Force officer, I was not specifically taught about manoeuvre theory, as much of the training and education in my early years tended to focus on air power theory, doctrine, and the key air power roles. Much of my interest in manoeuvre comes from associating too much with armoured corps officers in recent years in many of the joint roles I have had. I am still learning and refining my thinking in relation to manoeuvre warfare, but you will not be surprised to find that air power has a fundamental role to play in manoeuvre concepts.

It is useful to begin by considering the question ‘what is manoeuvre?’ William S. Lind, a civilian author who wrote about the theory of manoeuvre warfare and was a contemporary and supporter of John Boyd, provided three basic answers:[2]

  1. Manoeuvre is a synonym for ‘movement’. He considers this a colloquial use of the term that has little relevance to manoeuvre warfare.

  2. Manoeuvre as movement relative to an enemy’s position. This is about obtaining physical positional advantage and includes moving to encircle, flank, or attack the rear areas of the enemy force.

  3. Manoeuvre warfare – ‘an entire style of warfare, one characterised not only by moving in relation to the enemy to gain positional advantage but also – and even more – to moving faster than the enemy, to defeat him with superior tempo’.[3]

Lind’s work, however, focuses on the operational and tactical level, with a focus primarily on the physical domain and speed, or tempo, to outpace the enemy. By contrast, Robert Leonhard – a US Army officer and scholar whose book The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle is a foundation text on this topic – distinguishes between tactical, operational, and strategic manoeuvre. Tactical US Army doctrine defines manoeuvre as ‘the movement of forces supported by fire to achieve a position of advantage from which to destroy or threaten destruction of the enemy’. At the operational or strategic level, Leonhard states: ‘The purpose of movement in our case is not tied to fires, but rather to gain an advantage over the enemy in some way – positionally or psychologically’.[4]

I believe manoeuvre theory is much more than this. Consequently, this historical overview will focus on three central concepts. Firstly, manoeuvre applies to all domains and is not restricted to the physical environment. Secondly, the ‘manoeuvrist approach’ is a way of thinking or a philosophy that is relevant to all domains (physical/informational/cognitive) and does not specifically involve kinetic means in execution. Finally, the manoeuvrist approach provides us with a useful framework for dealing with the spectrum of 21st-century security challenges.

The manoeuvrist philosophy focuses on obtaining a position of advantage relative to an adversary in order to remove them from the contest. Note, I do not limit manoeuvre to warfare. This is because manoeuvre concepts, while born out of warfare, are a mindset or ‘way of thinking’ that is useful outside of war. Today, we talk about ‘conflict’ and ‘competition’ rather than war. In this contemporary context, the manoeuvrist approach remains relevant in the information age, more so than the preceding industrial one. The information age provides greater opportunity to obtain that position of advantage over the adversary or competitor.

Manoeuvrist approach for all domains

The manoeuvrist approach is relevant to all domains – not just the physical environment. Major Marc Romanych, a US Army officer, provides a useful model for information operations  – see below – that is relevant for understanding manoeuvre across domain.[5]

The interactions between the physical / information / cognitive domains are central to the manoeuvrist approach. In basic terms, the physical or information environments are exploited or manipulated to obtain a cognitive advantage which manifests in superior morale and/or decision-making, placing one side in a position of advantage relative to the adversary or competitor. This advantage can be used to neutralise or otherwise ultimately remove an adversary from the contest.

A few historical examples can assist in the explanation here. The historical examples are similar in that they are focused on actions in the physical world that are intended to affect the information developed about that physical action, which then informs the cognitive aspect (primarily decision-making). In some examples, the focus was on manipulating the information environment through deception or denial of information through surprise.

Air power as manoeuvre: Seizing the ‘high ground’ has always been important in warfare as it offers the side holding that ground the advantage of broad fields of view and tactical positions for enfilade fire. The use of aircraft for military purposes in the First World War provided the ‘ultimate high ground’, offering surveillance and intelligence collection on enemy force dispositions, and bombardment of fortified positions from above. In 1921, Giulio Douhet proposed bombardment of civilian populations as a method for dissolving the morale of the population before land and sea forces meet in battle:

A complete breakdown of the social structure cannot but take place in a country subjected to this kind of merciless pounding from the air. The time would soon come when, to put an end to horror and suffering, the people themselves, driven by the instinct of self-preservation, would rise up and demand an end to the war [6]

Douhet’s work was shaped by the need to avoid the protracted stalemate and attrition of the trenches in the First World War.

Today we are reliant on air and space capabilities to give us the ultimate high ground vantage point. We use the information obtained from air and space-based ISR capabilities to inform find, fix, track, target, and engagement of the enemy. The absence of such capability would challenge our ability to make operational decisions and command geographically disparate forces. In other words, air (and space) power are central to our ability to obtain a position of advantage to remove the adversary from the contest.

German Way of War – speed and surprise: During the interwar period, the German military achieved a ‘military revolution’ commonly called ‘blitzkrieg’. This was achieved despite the restrictions and sanctions imposed under the Treaty of Versailles.[7] Under the leadership of generals such as Hans von Seeckt, Erich von Manstein, and Heinz Guderian, the Germans refined their way of war by developing and consolidating combined arms and air power that formed the foundation for manoeuvre centred on speed and surprise. According to Robert Citino, the ‘German Way of War’ was about the ‘maneuver of large units to strike the enemy a sharp, even annihilating blow as rapidly as possible. It could be a surprise assault on an unprotected flank or, better yet, both flanks – or even better than that, his rear’.[8] The Germans favoured the Kesselschlacht or ‘battle of encirclement’, which was enabled by developing close coordination between mechanised and self-contained combined arms units – specifically Panzer divisions – and air power.[9] The use of radio communications provided the necessary command and control that made the coordination between these units more effective. The net result was that these capabilities not only achieved large encirclements but also battles of annihilation.

More importantly, the Germans mastered manoeuvre warfare because they developed two important cultural characteristics – an army and officer corps imbued with aggression and a tendency to attack no matter the odds; and a flexible system of command and control (‘mission type orders’ or auftragstaktik) that enabled low ranking commanders to act on initiative and commander’s intent.[10] The strength of such a military force was its mobility rather than its mass. Von Seeckt wrote that the goal of blitzkrieg was ‘to achieve a decision with highly mobile, highly capable forces before the masses have even begun to move’.[11]

The epitome of this German way of war, with manoeuvre at its foundation, is the German drives through Poland (Case White) and then Belgium and France (Case Yellow). The latter operation ultimately led to the defeat of British and allied forces and their retreat via Dunkirk. The boldness of the German way of war and successful coordination of rapid mechanised forces supported by radio technology and air power removed the ability of Allied commanders to make a decision.[12] By the time they had obtained an appreciation of what was happening, it was too late.

The Double Cross System – Manoeuvre in the Information Domain: The ‘Twenty Committee’ (called ‘Double Cross’ for the Roman numerals denoting the number 20) was established in January 1941 and met until May 1945. This committee managed the double agents on the Allied side. It met weekly with the aim of determining what information could safely be allowed to pass to the Germans, and what could not. It was essentially a clearinghouse where the work of various double agents could be compared and coordinated.[13]

The committee ran double agents so extensively that it dealt with a system of agents rather than a number of isolated cases. According to J.C. Masterman, the Chairman of the Twenty Committee, they ‘did much more than practice large scale deception through double agents; splinter/isolate the double agent system [they] actively ran and controlled the German espionage system in [the United Kingdom]’.[14] The work of the double agents were a large part of the machinery of deception employed by the allies. The work of these agents augmented in the minds of the Germans other pieces of deception transmitted via wireless, visual deception, and actual movement of troops in Britain.[15]

One of the more celebrated double agents run by this Committee was Agent GARBO – Juan Pujol Garcia. He was a Spaniard who deliberately set out to become a double agent, initially being recruited by the German Abwehr – with the code name ‘Arabal’. He was ultimately successful in convincing MI5 to recruit him as a double agent and was managed under the XX System. GARBO played a key role in Operation FORTITUDE, the deception plan for Operation OVERLORD, the Normandy landings.[16] The intelligence that GARBO provided the Germans helped to instil in their minds that the main invasion was aimed at Pas de Calais. GARBO was so successful as a double agent that he was awarded the Iron Cross in 1944 for his contribution to the German war effort.[17]

The case studies provide us with examples of the employment of manoeuvre concepts – where the physical and information domains have been exploited and manipulated to obtain a significant advantage over the enemy and influencing their cognition and decision-making in a manner favourable to the opposing side. A position of advantage is gained, and manoeuvre is achieved. However, to conceive of conflict, competition, or war in this manner requires a particular philosophy or mindset.

Manoeuvre as a philosophy

There is not one generally accepted definition of ‘manoeuvre warfare’. However, it is clear that many theorists consider manoeuvre to be about obtaining a position of advantage relative to an adversary in order to remove them from the contest. When considering some of the fundamental ideas relating to the manoeuvrist approach, three names come to mind.

The first is Sun Tzu. He is generally advocated as one of the key strategists who proposed an approach that was focused on winning without fighting. He said: ‘To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence’.[18] This is because even when we win the battle, we still lose people and resources, so it is better to avoid the fight. According to Leonhard, ‘the commander’s job is not necessarily to attack the enemy, but rather to defeat the enemy’.[19]

Sun Tzu was also focused on the psychology of war. The target is the mind of the enemy, with the desired effect on ‘deception, morale, and the anticipation of the enemy’. A focus on the mind of the enemy is based on the key consideration proposed by Leonhard that ‘defeat is a psychological phenomenon’.[20] The focus should not be on quantitative measures such as numbers of battlefield assets destroyed or enemy forces dead.

Leonhard sums up the core of Sun Tzu’s philosophy as follows: ‘The concept of winning without fighting is one of the basic principles of maneuver warfare. It manifests itself not only in strategic considerations, as Sun Tzu generally emphasises, but also in operational art and tactics. And it is the drive to win with as little fighting as possible that leads maneuver-oriented commanders to seek every possible advantage over the adversary.’[21]

The second theorist is Basil Liddell Hart. In Strategy of the Indirect Approach, he studied hundreds of battles and found that the side that obtained the psychological advantage was likely to overcome the adversary.[22] He argued that success in past wars involved the use of the ‘indirect approach’, which he described as ‘strategic, operational, and tactical moves designed to defeat the enemy as economically as possible’.[23] This involved deception, subtlety, and avoidance of strength.

The most well-known manoeuvrist of the late 20th century is Colonel John Boyd (USAF). Boyd was a fighter pilot who developed his own strategic thinking over two decades. His manoeuvrist approach manifested at the tactical level in his work on the Aerial Attack Study, which was a mental framework centred on understanding the operational context of fighter air combat and the spatial aspects in order to gain a physical position of advantage in air-to-air combat.[24]

Boyd is best known for his OODA loop (Observation/Orientation/Decision/Action). A general conception of Boyd’s work on this concept is focused on ‘getting inside’ the adversary OODA loop, or going through your cycle faster than the adversary. This is a simplistic perspective of Boyd’s theory and often based on a misunderstanding. However, as Dutch air force pilots and Boyd scholar, Air Commodore Frans Osinga’s research has shown, there is more sophistication to the OODA loop, which was discussed throughout the body of Boyd’s work.[25] Some key aspects of his ideas are identified by Osinga, are:[26]

  1. Boyd accepted fog and friction as fundamental and generally unavoidable in conflict. The OODA loop attempts to depict the need for constant adaptation while degrading the adversary’s ability to adapt.

  2. ‘Getting inside the OODA loop’ is about infiltrating adversary vulnerabilities, and weaknesses to splinter/isolate/dislocate/disconnect the adversary system – to penetrate the moral-mental-physical being of adversaries in order to pull them apart or bring about their collapse.

Boyd’s approach can be contrasted to Clausewitz. Boyd saw friction and uncertainty as tools for targeting the mind of the enemy (for example, through deception). Clausewitz saw uncertainty and friction as impediments to be overcome or reduced, without considering the idea of increasing the adversary’s uncertainty and friction.[27] Clausewitz also advocated for targeting blows to the enemy’s mass (as the centre of gravity), whereas Boyd considers the idea of targeting vulnerable but critical connections and activities on which the mass depends.[28]

The manoeuvrist mindset is very different from the Clausewitzian approach, which focuses on the ‘decisive battle’.[29] Concept of ‘decisive battle’ is an obstacle that impedes progress towards true manoeuvre at all levels and in all domains. But the reality is that ‘decisive battle’ has been in decline since the massed armies of the Napoleonic age. The ability to stamp defeat in the mind of the enemy via the destruction of military forces was diminishing from that time.[30] Indeed, the creation of the operational level of war – focused on ‘emphasizing the importance of maneuvers between battles – was intended to orchestrate many disparate battles to bring meaning to them and movement towards achieving the reason (i.e. goal/strategy) for the use of military force in the first place. This included the development of sophisticated C2 and logistics support to sustain mass armies distributed throughout a large area of operations.

The manoeuvrist approach entails seeing beyond the battle. Indeed, the ideal is to defeat the enemy by avoiding battle altogether. A new approach is required to focus on winning without fighting or weakening the enemy before the decisive blow. I argue that this is more achievable in the information age than it was in the industrial one.

The contemporary relevance of manoeuvre theory

The historical examples above focused on obtaining advantage primarily through the physical environment – whether it was the use of the third dimension (air power) or speed and surprise through blitzkrieg. Even the deception and espionage activities of the XX Committee were achieved via physical actors in the form of double agents. It was difficult to impact directly on the information itself.

However, the information age has enabled the direct targeting of the information environment. Arquilla and Ronfeldt, in their paper from 1993 – Cyberwar is Coming! – refer to ‘netwar’, which is:

information-related conflict at a grand level between nations or societies. It means trying to disrupt, damage, or modify what a target population “knows” or thinks it knows about itself and the world around it. A netwar may focus on public or elite opinion, or both […] In other words, netwar represents a new entry on the spectrum of conflict that spans economic, political, and social as well as military forms of “war”.[31]

The information age has made ‘winning without fighting’ more achievable than ever before. The transition between industrial and information-based social systems has perhaps eroded the monopoly on industry and capital held by states. In other words, coercive effects are no longer reliant on the use of physical force by the military. Information is the new weapon system of this age and is the vector for shaping and influencing perceptions of reality and decision making in a manner that is favourable to one side vice another.

The free flow and accessibility of information during the Information Age effectively means that an adversary can shape, deny, manipulate, and alter information to influence whole societies. War is, after all, a social phenomenon. So why focus only on the military forces – why not shape the cognitive dimension of all the citizens in a nation by manipulating the information they access, so that their actions are more favourable or advantageous to you? An adversary – states or non-state actors – can now shape action through the vector of information.

P.W. Singer explores the use of social media in this manner by non-state actors like Daesh, whose invasion of Iraq in 2014 was, as Singer says, launched by a hashtag.[32] Daesh is an interesting case study in how to effectively use social media to influence, convince, and coerce a global audience to support its cause. Daesh uses the information environment to support and complement its operations in the physical space – tweeting about its success, and all forms of media to push its worldview and rally people to its cause.

The accessibility of information and its use as a method of deterrence, coercion, and its ‘weaponisation’, underlies the ‘grey zone’ conflict discussion that is prevalent today. Such ‘grey zone’ challenges can be met by strategic manoeuvre and a whole-of-government approach because such challenges do not fall neatly and exclusively within the military domain.

The definition of ‘strategic manoeuvre’ in Land Warfare Doctrine – The Fundamentals of Land Warfare is useful in this regard.:[33]

Strategic manoeuvre […] is the coordinated application of the instruments of national power, directly or indirectly, in pursuit of national strategic objectives, and seeks to prevent or contain conflict. The employment of the military element of national power requires strategic manoeuvre to ensure that favourable circumstances are achieved.

Ideological conflict occurs throughout the spectrum of peace and war, and requires a synchronised strategic manoeuvre approach. From a strategic perspective, manoeuvre provides a useful foundation for unifying and synchronising efforts across all elements of national power to place a nation in a position of advantage relative to a particular adversary.

Australian Army’s Accelerated Warfare acknowledges the complexity of the contemporary security environment – that our adversaries challenge us short of the threshold of war. Accelerated Warfare is focused on a response that rapidly outpaces, out-manoeuvres, and out-thinks conventional and unconventional threats, which necessitates strategic manoeuvre to address it.[34]


The decisive battle is no longer relevant – indeed, the point is to avoid battle altogether. As highlighted in Accelerated Warfare, manoeuvre is about outwitting, and not necessarily physically attacking, the opponent in order to defeat them. If there is one fundamental aspect of the manoeuvrist approach it is this – success lies in targeting the mind of the enemy. It has always been this way throughout the history of conflict, competition, and war, and will likely continue to be so into the future.

Wing Commander Brick is a Legal Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and is currently Directing Staff at the Australian Command & Staff Course, Australian War College. She has served on a number of operational and staff appointments from the tactical to the strategic levels of the Australian Defence Force. Wing Commander Brick is a graduate of the Australian Command and Staff Course. She holds a Master of International Security Studies (Deakin University), a Master of Laws (Australian National University) and a Master (Advanced) of Military and Defence Studies (Honours) (Australian National University). She is a Member of the Military Writers Guild, an Associate Editor for The Strategy Bridge, and an Editor for The Central Blue.

The author acknowledges the support and assistance provided by Lieutenant Colonel Grant Chambers, Australian Army, in exploring some of the concepts discussed in this paper.

[1] John Boyd quoted in Henry Eason, ‘New Theory Shoots down Old War Ideas,’ Atlanta Journal–Constitution, 22 March 1981. Cited in John Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, edited by Grant T. Hammond (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 2018), p. 9.

[2] William S. Lind, ‘The Theory and Practice of Maneuver Warfare’ in Richard D. Hooker Jr (ed), Maneuver Warfare – An Anthology (Novato: Presidio Press, 1983), pp. 3-4.

[3] Lind, ‘Theory and Practice of Maneuver’, p. 4.

[4] Robert Leonhard. The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver-Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle (New York: The Ballatine Publishing Group, 1991), p. 18.

[5] Marc Romanych, ‘A Theory Based View of IO’, IO Sphere, Spring 2005, p. 14.

[6] Giulio Douhet. Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (New York: Coward-McCann, 1942), pp. 58-9.

[7] See Robert M. Citino. The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2005).

[8] Citino, The German Way of War, p. xiv.

[9] See discussion regarding Panzer divisions in Citino, The German Way of War, pp. 254-5.

[10] Citino, The German Way of War, xiv. The Germans called the war of movement at the operational level Bewegungskreig.

[11] Quoted in Citino, The German Way of War, p. 243.

[12] Citino, The German Way of War, p. 290.

[13] J.C. Masterman. The Double Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945 (Canberra: ANU Press, 1972), p. 10.

[14] Ibid, p. 3.

[15] Ibid, p. 147.

[16] See Juan Pujol with Nigel West. Operation Garbo – The Personal Story of the Most Successful Double Agent of World War II (New York: Random House, 1985), pp. 115-151.

[17] Pujol, Operation Garbo, pp. 159-62.

[18] Leonhard, The Art of Maneuver, p. 28.

[19] Ibid, p. 29.

[20] Ibid, p. 30.

[21] Ibid, p. 28.

[22] Ibid, p. 46.

[23] Ibid, p. 46.

[24] Frans Osinga. Science, Strategy and War:  The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (The Netherlands: Eburon Academic Publishers, 2005), p. 42.

[25] See Frans Osinga, ‘Getting A Discourse on Winning and Losing: A Primer on Boyd’s “Theory of Intellectual Evolution”’, Contemporary Security Policy, 34:3 (2013), pp. 603-24.

[26] Ibid, 614.

[27] Osinga. Science, Strategy and War, p. 146.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Leonhard, The Art of Maneuver, p. 41.

[30] Ibid, p. 40.

[31] John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Cyberwar is Coming! (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1993), p. 28.

[32] P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), p. 4.


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