Warfighting: The US Marine Corps on agility

Few institutions face greater turbulence than the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines’ missions include not only combat but also evacuations, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and counter-terrorism in some of the most unsettled spots on earth. The end of the Cold War made the world more turbulent for the Marines, which deployed every five weeks on average during the 1990s, a threefold increase in deployment frequency.

When General Alfred M. Gray became Commandant of the US Marine Corps in 1987, he began a series of far-reaching changes to the Marines. Gray had served in Vietnam, a war in which the Marines’ deaths exceeded the Corps’ combined fatalities in in seventeen of the eighteen wars that preceded Vietnam. Like many soldiers of his generation, Gray sought an alternative to the the attrition approach the Marines pursued in Vietnam, and commissioned a fundamental rethinking of Marine Corps doctrine.

The resulting manual, entitled Warfighting articulated the Marines’ view of war and enshrined maneuver warfare–the military version of agility–as Marines’ preferred approach. Warfighting is short enough to be read in a sitting. And it should be read by anyone who wants a deeper understanding of action in the face of turbulence–in markets, industry, or politics. The manual provides the most vivid description of environmental turbulence and clearest summary of agility I have read in any domain. Then there is the prose, which at its best approaches the sparse power of Hemingway.

In the heat of battle, plans will go awry, instructions and information will be unclear and misinterpreted, communications will fail, and mistakes and unforeseen events will be commonplace. It is precisely this natural disorder which creates the conditions ripe for exploitation by an opportunistic will. (8)

Disorder, uncertainty, friction, fluidity

Warfighting starts with a trenchant analysis of the nature of modern war, and highlights disorder, uncertainty, friction and fluidity as the defining characteristics of turbulence in combat. (DUFF is easy to remember, by the way, for Simpson fans who recall Homer’s favorite beer).

  • Disorder: High-tech weapons, fragmentation of potential adversaries, and guerrilla tactics create complexity that breeds disorder. “Each encounter in war,” according to Warfighting, “will usually tend to grow increasingly disordered over time. As the situation changes continuously, we are forced to improvise again and again until finally our actions have little, if any, resemblance to the original scheme.” (9)
  • Uncertainty comes from many sources, including the enemy, the environment, terrain, weather, political shifts, and one’s own forces that can interact to affect the best course of action. Warfighting recognizes that uncertainty can be reduced but never eliminated. “The very nature of war makes absolute certainty impossible; all actions in war will be based on incomplete, inaccurate, or even contradictory information.” (6)
  • Friction, or the force that resists all action, and results from the many small things that can go wrong to frustrate a plan as well as the difficulty inherent in trying to co-ordinate multiple actors in war. Friction, according to Warfighting, makes “the simple difficult and the difficult seemingly impossible.” (4)
  • Fluidity: The rapid sequence of events also means that modern battle is fluid. According to Warfighting each episode in a modern battle “merges with those that precede it and those that follow it–shaped by the former and shaping the conditions of the latter–creating a continuous, fluctuating fabric of activity replete with fleeting opportunities and unforeseen events.” (7) While disorder on the battlefield may create opportunities, fluidity implies that they will not last long, and must be seized quickly or lost forever.

A philosophy for action

Warfighting not only analyzes the nature of war, it also provides a theory of how to prepare for a war, and how to fight it effectively.Warfighting is not a how-to manual. In the Introduction, General Gray writes:

“You will notice that this book does not contain specific techniques and procedures for conduct. Rather, it provides broad guidance in the form of concepts and values. It requires judgment in application…. This manual thus describes a philosophy for action which, in war and in peace, in the filed and in the rear, dictates our approach to duty.”

In my next post, I will elaborate on one aspect of this philosophy for action, which I call reconnaissance pull.

Leading in turbulent times

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Don Sull is professor of management practice in strategic and international management, and faculty director of executive education at London Business School. This blog is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs, managers, and outside directors to lead more effectively in a turbulent world.

Over the past decade, Prof Sull has studied volatile industries including telecommunications, airlines, fast fashion, and information technology, as well as turbulent countries including Brazil and China, and found specific behaviours that consistently differentiate more, and less, successful firms. His conclusion is that actions, not an individual’s traits, increase the odds of success in turbulent markets, and these actions can be learned.