By Andrew Wallace
Foto: Försvarsmakten

Foto: Försvarsmakten

The Kingdom of Wu was smaller and inferior to the neighbouring kingdom of Chu. Which gave Wu cause for concern as Wu was a target for Chu and was likely to be invaded. The king of Wu turned to Sun Tzu and gave him command of the army of Wu. After training the army, Sun Tzu did the unthinkable; he invaded Chu. But Sun Tzu didn’t attack the much superior army of Chu. Instead, he attacked lightly, if at all, defended towns in the kingdom of Chu. Manoeuvring from one town to another, striking at will, until the army of Chu was forced to leave its stronghold and seek battle with the army of Wu. When the final engagement was apparently on them, as the army of Chu closed in, Sun Tzu sent part of his army to attack the now defenceless capital city of Chu. In doing so, Sun Tzu forced Chu to surrender.

Another time, another place; T. E. Lawrence commanded a force of irregular Arab cavalry during the First World War. But instead of using that force to engage the Ottoman Turks directly, he used them as small, light, manoeuvrable elements that he then used to strike at the enemy where they were weak. An example of this was his attacks against the Hejaz railway. Relying on speed and mobility he would strike at the railway, quickly withdraw only to quickly strike again at another location. This caused the Ottoman Turks to break up their large strong formations and spread their troops thinly in order to protect the railway. Large numbers of Ottoman Turk troops were tied up in this operation, effectively taking them out of the war.


“Det som gör mig bekymrad är dock att den entusiasm som finns för lättrörliga snabba förband inte resulterar i en beskrivning av hur striden – den egentliga krigsverksamheten – skall gå till. Hur får man verkan i målet samtidigt som man överlever för att kunna göra nästa insats?

Enligt Clausewitz är stridens mål att förinta eller besegra motståndaren och det är svårt att åstadkomma utan vapenverkan.” – Col 1gr. Ulf Henricsson.

Perhaps I misunderstood but that did come over to me as if somewhere the concept of manoeuvre warfare hasn’t been really understood in the Swedish armed forces. It is not just the above, but there have been several things I have read and seen as well as recent experience from an exercise I was on in January that all seem to push me to the same conclusion. I’m not even really sure the author of MSD16 really understood the concept either.

Or to put it another way; what I am seeing is not consistent with my understanding of manoeuvre warfare. Perhaps that is language or a culture problem?

Both of the examples above achieved victory without concentration of effort nor through destroying the enemy in a traditional Clausewitzian way. They begin to answer the question posed by the good colonel 1gr. How do we survive? Well, both Sun Tzu and T. E. Lawrence did it by using a Chinese stratagem called “to entice a tiger from the mountains”.

The examples fit in with how I understand manoeuvre warfare, so perhaps I should explain my understanding?

To start with, to me, manoeuvre warfare is not about manoeuvre. In a way, I think “manoeuvre warfare” is a misnomer.

To say manoeuvre warfare is about manoeuvre is a bit like saying sword fighting is about fighting with swords. Well, yes it is but no, it is not. If you study sword fighting, say longsword fighting as I do, then you will study a lot of techniques to fight with a sword. But that is not the objective. At the end of the day, sword fighting is not about swinging a sword around. It is about sticking the pointy end into someone else before they stick one in you. In other words, sword fighting is about conflict resolution with pointy sticks. All that waving them about is a means to an end.

The same with manoeuvre warfare. All that manoeuvring about is not what manoeuvre warfare is all about; it is a means to an end. It is that end that manoeuvre warfare is all about. So, what is that end?

What if you could achieve the ends without all that waving swords about. Say by sticking your pointy stick in your enemy’s back while they slept?

Mind Games

At this point I would like to bring in US Air Force Colonel John Boyd who made this observation:

“Terrain does not fight wars. Machines don’t fight wars. People do it and they use their minds. So you better understand the people, because if you don’t understand them, you ain’t going to make it, period.”

“Machines don’t fight wars, terrain doesn’t fight wars, people do and they use their what? Minds. So you keep track of that all the time. So if you got their minds, or you get inside the other guy’s mind, you pull his socks down. He gets inside yours, he pulls your socks down.”

– John Boyd, Patterns of Conflict.

And that, to me, captures what manoeuvre warfare is all about; manoeuvre warfare is a mind game. All that manoeuvring about is a means to an end; to get inside your enemy’s mind space.

So, when Sun Tzu defeated the army of Chu, he did so by getting into his enemy’s mind space, causing his enemy to do something he did not want to do. The same for T. E. Lawrence.

As another example we can look at the Russian annexation of the Crimea. There, the Russians managed to capture the peninsula with hardly a shot fired. That was an example of another Chinese stratagem; “to loot a burning house”.  The Russians got inside the Ukrainians’ mind and exploited the political situation to take what they wanted, leaving the Ukrainians virtually paralysed.

We can really sum it up if we look at OODA. The OODA loop was proposed by John Boyd as a way of modelling the thinking process of a person (or even a group). He developed the concept after studying why American Sabre pilots out performed Chinese MIG pilots despite the MIGs being superior planes on paper. He then applied the concept to conflicts throughout history.

It takes time for a person to first Observe what is happening, then to Orientate themselves (which is the really complicated bit) before they can Decide what to do then Act. In a conflict, the one who does the OODA loop first is the one most likely to win. If they can get to Act first, they change the situation, making their enemy’s actions obsolete, and force their enemy back to the Observe part.

If you can get inside your enemy’s mind you change the situation in such a way that the enemy’s understanding of what is happening is no longer relevant. His orders are out of date.

Understanding that leads to understanding manoeuvre warfare isn’t just something for the battlefield. As Sun Tzu says:

“The supreme art of war is to defeat the enemy without fighting.”

Understanding that leads to an understanding of current Russian behaviour and perhaps sheds light on the US withdrawal from Syria and INF. Putin plays the game like a master of Sun Tzu.

So, coming back to the question; how do you get the effect in the target while surviving to be able to make the next effort? You get inside your enemy’s mind space, You use stratagems.

Much of manoeuvre warfare theory can be understood in terms of this mind space idea; mission type orders are a way to act such as to get inside the enemy’s OODA loop. Tempo, is all about right time right place so you get inside the enemy’s OODA loop. Centre of gravity? Isn’t that all about defeat being a psychological phenomena? Doesn’t that mean getting into the enemy’s mind space?

What does that mean as regards small mobile units as opposed to larger brigade size units? To my mind, we need both. Or to be more precise; we need units that can do both. So, brigades that can dissolve into smaller mobile units and then reform into larger units. We need both because we need to be unpredictable. We are not going to get inside the enemy’s OODA loop if we just have one formation, If we just follow the book. It would be like standing in a line with our backs against an object. It won’t take much for an enemy to know how to defeat us.

Flexible units is another way of looking at the ordinary / extraordinary force. A small mobile force could act as an extraordinary force, whereas a more traditional brigade could act as an ordinary force. But what happens if the units change roles? The mobile units form a brigade and the brigade dissolves into mobile units. We would start to become more unpredictable. In doing so, we have the possibility to get inside the enemy’s OODA loop and that is how we survive.

The author is a senior software engineer at cgi in Umeå in artificial intelligence.