Introduction and fundamentals

Military officers are trained to understand and employ the philosophy of manoeuvre warfare, but why aren’t soldiers? Soldiers and junior leaders in the ADF are known for exceptional tactical appreciation skills, yet the common understanding of the strategic, operational and tactical aspects of manoeuvre warfare is often under-appreciated and misunderstood.

The goal of manoeuvre warfare is a situational dependant statement. For the Army of present, and most certainly the future, manoeuvre is key to maintaining a proactive force that is agile and maintains the initiative. It provides a force with the aggression required to overwhelm an adversary. It provides a force with a capability to rapidly engage the enemy to the point they cannot react to the pure complexity of such a method of war. The theory of manoeuvre is applicable to all forms of warfare and all levels of command, from the section all the way to the division and above. The goal of manoeuvre warfare can be simply explained as:

“Shattering the opponent’s physical and/or mental cohesion”
– Lind, 1984.

But the real question is: is it really that simple? Is a broad effect that is already expected from a fighting force as notorious as the USMC enough to explain a theory for winning wars? Lind's article continues to provide a justified and understandable explanation of how this goal is achieved, it states:

“Presenting the opponent with a succession of unexpected and dangerous situations more rapidly than he can react to them”
– Lind, 1984.

The current common understanding of manoeuvre warfare, from my observations whilst serving in the Australian Army, are that the common soldier and junior leader views manoeuvre warfare as the practical effect, and not as the philosophy that it comprises.

"Manoeuvre warfare is a mental approach to conflict in which we seek to create and exploit advantage by creating a rapidly and continuously changing situation in which our enemy cannot effectively cope. We aim to do this by focusing our strengths against critical enemy vulnerabilities, generating superior tempo and distracting or disorienting our enemy through ambiguity or deception"
– 1994 Royal Australian Armoured Corps Manoeuvre Warfare Handbook.

Understand, appreciate, conduct

A famous example of a prepared force failing to adopt manoeuvre theory would be the Italian Army in the Spanish Civil War. The Italians attempted a similar operation to the Blitzkrieg that was conducted by Nazi Germany into France during the Second World War. The Italians had the understanding, the composition, and the equipment necessary to achieve victory. But the reality was they just weren’t as much of a capable force as the Wehrmacht. We need to ask ourselves though, what separated these two militaries from success and failure? What differentiates a military that is academically sound and equipped from a force able to conduct manoeuvre warfare? Is our military capable enough and prepared to make a drastic war fighting culture change if needed?

The Italian Army relied heavily on the soldiers’ fighting spirit rather than the soldier having cognitive thinking and awareness of large-scale tactics and philosophies. The changes needed for our Army to achieve such effects will be revolutionary, not evolutionary. Crucially there has to be ways to develop these changes in the smallest parts of Army. Training for soldiers and junior leaders in combat roles to provide the understanding of the battlespace as a whole and high echelon intelligence and planning need to be reinforced. To understand is the first step to develop proactive soldiers and leaders in the battlespace, this will begin the journey of being able to confidently and effectively conduct manoeuvre warfare operations.

Anyone can develop a comprehensive understanding of manoeuvre theory through classroom learning; however, to have a practical exposure to its application leads to a better appreciation of tactics and more confidence in its conduct. This is evident by the character of manoeuvre warfare which often sees multiple elements engaging with multiple enemy forces simultaneously, generating complexity and confusion for the enemy commander. To support these tactical advances, the appreciation gained from training and exercises will provide the confidence to soldiers and junior leaders to be able to conduct manoeuvre warfare tactics against a live and reactive opposition force. Soldiers and junior leaders need to be able to see successful examples of manoeuvre warfare and more importantly understand it and be involved in its application.


Soldiers must understand the higher intent. Orders such as 'We must capture this town', or 'I want you to engage the 145 feature' do not give soldiers the chance to understand the commander’s intent, or to use initiative to provide the best capability to their supported unit. Orders that lack the 'in order to' statement give such a basic intent that it leaves little room for employing the capability which will best suit and shape the battlespace in accordance with the commander’s vision. Why does the commander want this town? Why must this feature be engaged? How does this play in the combat team picture? How does this help the battle group’s intent and plan? How will this affect other elements in the battlespace? What future plans are there for the battlespace? Soldiers understanding the intent of their manoeuvre arms commander is key to successful manoeuvre warfare operations.

Why and how is the intent and scheme of manoeuvre being lost at the lowest level? Many of the above questions can be answered in SMEAC orders, but they are being too simplified for the perceived education and ability of the soldiers. Soldiers attend orders from the section to the division, but a conventional soldier does not always understand the way we are fighting in relation to the strategic level. As earlier mentioned, the Australian soldier possesses exceptional tactical appreciation skills, but is lacking the situational awareness for the strategic level. All soldiers, as have I, have heard lines such as 'it’s simple don’t worry about it' and 'you don’t need to know that stuff.' To have the capability of elements in support who not only know, but understand the higher intent will be priceless to the commander due to their ability to shape the battlespace and mould it specifically in relation to current events and in preparation for future courses of action. With a more developed training continuum for the soldier on understanding the application of manoeuvre theory, they will have a greater awareness of the importance in understanding why we are conducting tactics, and will make the Australian Army a more aware, competent, and lethal force against our enemies in the future.


“Army has embraced manoeuvre theory that uses physical means to achieve psychological ends to meet the political and strategic objective”
– LWD 1.

From an anecdotal survey on how soldiers interpret manoeuvre warfare, I have found that soldiers see it purely in the form of physical manoeuvre. It seems soldiers and some junior leaders perceive it as moving towards the enemy, moving around the enemy (e.g. instead of a frontal attack on an enemy position), or to attack the flank or rear. But is that really this whole methodology of war? Offensive tactics like this and defensive tactics focusing primarily on deception and counter attacks will definitely be employed in manoeuvre warfare, but they are not the core tactics to be associated with the definition of manoeuvre warfare.

“Army’s concept of manoeuvre occurs within and across the physical, information and cognitive dimensions. Manoeuvre is a way of thinking about warfare rather than the application of a particular set of tactics or techniques”
– LWD 1.

Manoeuvre warfare strongly relies on avoiding enemy strengths and to be able to throw maximum friendly forces against their weaknesses.

“Its essence lies in defeating the enemy’s will to fight by ‘destroying’ the enemy’s plan rather than destroying his forces. In its most kinetic form, manoeuvre seeks to shatter the enemy’s moral and physical cohesion through a series of actions orchestrated across multiple lines of operation to a single purpose, creating a turbulent and rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy cannot cope. In this context, manoeuvre is used to create an expectation of defeat in the enemy’s mind. Manoeuvre focuses commanders at every level on exploiting enemy weaknesses, avoiding enemy strengths and protecting friendly vulnerabilities”
– LWD 1.

The easiest way of describing the tactics that must be used in manoeuvre warfare are as follows: the tactics must be coordinated in succession or simultaneous, complex for the enemy commander, rapid, and yet – surprisingly to most – they must be abstract as well. By being abstract and versatile it allows our forces to avoid formulistic procedures. If we rely on formulas, our tactics to fight a reactive enemy are predictable. With predictable tactics how can we be expected to create surprising and dangerous situations for the enemy to the point of confusion for their forces? How can we remain unpredictable yet maintain structured and developed tactics?

“It (manoeuvre theory) emphasises the centrality of the human element in warfare including leadership, organisation, cohesion and morale. Manoeuvre draws its power primarily from opportunism – taking calculated risks and the exploitation of chance circumstances and of forced and unforced errors”
– LWD 1.

Historically, such tactics of exploiting the enemy weakness and creating gaps have been very successful on the battlefield. Napoleon was famous for creating these scenarios using concentration of force to decisive effect. Numerical superiority has always had an advantage on the battlefield. Napoleon knew this in his campaign across Italy in 1796 because in this case, the advantage was on the side of his adversary. To counter this, he split his forces up into very small elements stretching a vast amount of ground, forcing the enemy to react and split their much larger force apart. Once the enemy were split in smaller elements, the French concentrated force by joining units together and creating a force that could easily overwhelm the enemy units they faced. These units then manoeuvred to another small friendly element and joined them in another attack with their larger concentrated force against the enemy. Another key to the success in the tactic known as ‘defeat in detail’ is the element of speed. The speed these were conducted in was quite fast, and in such succession to each other that the enemy was made unaware of the size of the force they were fighting, becoming complacent through their underestimation and leading to the blunder of their forces.


The US Army marched into Iraq over its southern border in March 2003, with land forces leading the northbound 'shock and awe' style push. The rest of the forces followed behind in mostly unarmoured vehicles with doors removed and dressed in light flak vests designed to stop shrapnel rather than bullets.

The US Army trained for this type of operation for years, honing their combined arms TTPs and becoming a competent, and unquestionably very manoeuvrable force trained to conduct high intensity warfighting. A force with an understanding and appreciation of their role combined with a ruthless combined arms assault focused on securing objectives, remaining proactive, and maintaining a high initiative is a prime example of applied manoeuvre philosophy. There is no doubt they had unmatched ability to fire and manoeuvre to destroy the enemy in close combat. The Coalition forces of 2003 possessed the highest agility of all in the conflict.

Agility is required to conduct manoeuvre warfare. At the lowest level our refined warfighting agility can be found in vehicles and body armour systems. The present forces all over the world rely heavily on protection. We no longer deploy in unarmoured vehicles, and we wear tactical body armour platforms. But the higher emphasis on protection comes at the expense of agility. Modern adversaries have degraded our land forces’ ability to execute proactive tactics against an enemy.

Recent operations have largely moved from warlike deployments to domestic and peacekeeping operations. The ADF still provides a proactive warfighting component and agenda. After all, the ADF is still a lethal force prepared to do what Government requires of it; whether that be fighting wars, peacekeeping operations, border protection, or the current domestic operations to help the Australian public at home. During the last two years, the ADF has shown its potential for agility through deploying multiple assets in multiple capacities, from war zones to hotel quarantine. Focusing on protection trends forces to be reactive rather than proactive in posture. Reactivity and the lack of agility surrenders the initiative to the enemy to place our forces in more of a defensive posture. The strength of our Army does not solely lie in our superior protection and equipment, but in the initiative and offensive spirit of our soldiers and commanders.

The 1994 Royal Australian Armoured Corps Manoeuvre Warfare Handbook talks force and inertia of a military element in a conceptual framework not commonly thought of:

“All objects with mass, including military units, have inertia – a tendency to remain in a state of rest or continue movement in a straight line. In order to make a stationary object start moving, or to change the direction of movement of a moving object, a force must act upon it. In military terms acceleration is a measure of the responsiveness of the unit. It is important for a unit to be able to accelerate or decelerate, as the case may be, to ensure that the direction of the movement remain appropriate with changing situations. As there is little a commander can do to increase the mass of his unit, if he wishes to increase the effect he can have on the enemy he must concentrate on improving the ability of his unit to accelerate. There are a number of factors that can affect this such as battle procedure, efficiency of staff procedures, the use of standardised drills and formations, as well as the command philosophy of the unit”
– 1994 Royal Australian Armoured Corps Manoeuvre Warfare Handbook.


To achieve manoeuvre warfare in a modern force; a force must be agile, aggressive, and most importantly remain proactive even while maintaining protection. Manoeuvre warfare is forever evolving. There is no set method to achieve it, it must be abstract to ensure the enemy have no idea how to react. The conventional soldier and junior leader in the ADF lacks an understanding of manoeuvre warfare. A developed training continuum designed for the soldier would enhance and develop the Australian Army’s capability exponentially. The soldier is misunderstood with our perception on the most basic application of this philosophy, so a theoretical understanding of manoeuvre warfare is required. A quote from Frederick the Great, the former King of Prussia says, 'If my soldiers were to begin to think, not one of them would remain in the army.' This applied to the armies of the past; the enlisted soldier in today’s army provides forward thinkers with a wealth of knowledge, experience and ideas that will one day decide victory or defeat on the battlefield.

Army’s philosophy moving into the future is for land forces to have a strategic and expeditionary mindset. Turning soldiers manoeuvrist will provide the strategic mindset Army is seeking. Soldiers will better understand orders and will then be able to provide an appreciation of the battlespace and the enemy that some personnel in the strategic level would not be aware of or understand themselves. Responsibility for the dissemination of orders and the tactical plans to the soldiers themselves should be expected of commanders. Looking into the 1994 RAAC Manoeuvre Warfare Handbook, it would have been a confusing and complex idea to wrap your head around back then, but what has the ADF done to help the progression of the enlisted soldier’s perception?

I welcome debate to this article. Debate on this topic is what will get this philosophy in the minds of soldiers. Finally, the biggest and toughest question to be answered, which can’t ultimately be answered until achieved or failed in the battlefield is: Are we, the Australian Army, capable of effective and lethal manoeuvre warfare?