What Is Maneuver Warfare?

Maneuver warfare can involve aircraft.
Maneuver warfare can involve aircraft.

Maneuver warfare is a war tactic that focuses on catching the enemy by surprise, making it impossible to organize a defense or seek out reinforcements. The maneuver warfare tactic has been used throughout history. The war tactic contrasts the much older attrition tactic where wars were won based on which army incurred the least losses. The main factor dictating the success or failure of the tactic is the availability of credible intelligence. In the traditional implementation of the war tactic, spies played an integral role, but in the modern setting, technology has taken up the role of the spy, with sensitive information being tracked down using technology. When implemented effectively, maneuver warfare can bring victory to a small army fighting against a stronger enemy.


The war strategy goes back to the very beginnings of human civilization and coincidentally, with the origin of war itself. The traditional strategy employed during prehistoric battles was the attrition warfare where the speed of the marching armies dictated victory, maneuver warfare began in earnest after the horse’s domestication and later, the construction of the first chariots. These two prehistoric milestones gave birth to a new way of engaging in warfare; cavalry which employed speed to catch enemy armies off guard. There have been several documented cases when the maneuver war tactic was employed by some of history’s best-known war generals to great success.

Historic Application

7th-century Islamic general, Khalid ibn al-Walid is fondly remembered for his surprising victory against the stronger Byzantine army, in 634 AD. The Byzantine army had captured southern Syria from Islamic forces and was sternly vigilant in all strategic entry-points to the region, except the Syrian Desert. Khalid knew the Byzantines could not expect an invasion from the desert and employed the maneuver tactic to catch the Byzantine army by surprise, resulting in a resounding victory. Napoleon I was also known for successfully using the military tactic to win battles against more powerful opponents. The source of Napoleon’s success is seen in his military wit, where he focused more on moving armies at great speed to the battlefield. The general relied not only on his cavalry but also in a fast infantry. In application, the tactic involved striking enemy armies at great speed, so that they would have no time to organize themselves or seek out for reinforcements. Using the maneuver warfare tactic, Napoleon I had numerous successful military campaigns all over Europe against stronger and larger armies. The French general was indeed so successful even against way more superior armies, that many thought he was undefeatable.

Modern Application

The Industrial Revolution saw the mechanization of the war tactic, with machines replacing horses. The introduction of steam engine trains in warfare meant that invasions were made faster than ever before, allowing technologically-advanced armies to encircle and subsequently crash their enemies quickly. The maneuver was technologically implemented during the American Civil War, with trains transporting armies to battlefields and surprising their opponents. However, the advancements in weapons, such as the introduction of the machine gun in the early 20th century, hindered the success of the approach. Nonetheless, the tactic was employed in the two World Wars, especially after the introduction of war tanks.


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