Maneuver Warfare from the Air Domain (Part I)

The Air Domain’s utility in maneuver warfare is underappreciated in doctrine but has great potential if planned and executed correctly.

Approximate reading time: 15 minutes

By Keith Anderson

Editor’s Note: This topic will be covered in two parts and uses excerpts from a monograph written by Keith Anderson while at the School of Advanced Military Studies. His monograph describes the history of the USAF’s doctrine and how it relates to contemporary operations. His monograph asserts the USAF generally operates with an attritional style of warfare, however, he presents three methods in which the air domain’s effects can be planned and utilized as a maneuver warfare force. He concludes his monograph with two historical examples to support his thesis. The first part of this OTH series presents Keith’s methods of air domain maneuver warfare, while the second part of the series will present one of the historical examples that supports his theory. To obtain the entire monograph, please contact Keith Anderson.

U.S. Air Force doctrine stresses the maneuverability of air power but gives little guidance on what it actually means to maneuver. Doctrinally, maneuver is the combination of movement and fires, but for the Air Force the emphasis has shifted to movement to merely deliver fires. This is evident in that doctrine regards the maneuver potential of air power as simply engagement at anytime, anywhere. This study proposes that air forces do more than deliver fires; that there is a latent form of maneuver warfare in the air domain, not laid out in doctrine and therefore not understood by airmen. To foster understanding, is to answer a fundamental question – what is maneuver from the air domain? The methodology applies the characteristics of air power to the physical and cognitive maneuver mechanisms developed in the 1980s as part of broader maneuver warfare theory. The result is a proposed definition of maneuver from the air as employment of air power to dislocate, disrupt, or overload an enemy, ultimately providing freedom of movement to friendly forces. Ultimately, air power employment and results from two case studies – Operation Rolling Thunder and Operation Iraqi Freedom – support that the proposed definition is a useful way to define maneuver from the air domain.

Maneuver from the Air Domain
Maneuver expressed as simply “movement and fires to gain a position of advantage with respect to the enemy” lacks depth of detail as a definition in any domain, including in the air. Understanding what it means to maneuver entails understanding the mechanisms through which to apply movement and firepower in order to develop practical ways to fight in a maneuver-centric way. The mechanisms identified here are dislocation, disruption, and overload, with an emphasis on the fact that movement and firepower applied through them at a high tempo will generate both positional advantage, and cause surprise, confusion, and disorder within the enemy force.

Although the authors in the 1970s and 1980s wrote about these mechanisms primarily with respect to the land domain, maneuver warfare is ultimately still a theory, conceptual in nature and therefore applicable to all domains. The argument presented here therefore, is that there is not some form of maneuver unique to the air domain. Instead, understanding maneuver from the air domain entails applying the unique capabilities of air power to the mechanisms within the larger maneuver warfare theory. As such, this section presents a view of air power applied first to the general concept of maneuver warfare, followed by specifics on how air power fits into the physical mechanisms of dislocation and disruption, and the cognitive maneuver mechanism of overload.

Recalling the maneuver warfare framework in a broad sense, forces operating within it seek to avoid enemy strengths, and use firepower to facilitate movement to a position of advantage. Army doctrine through the construct of AirLand battle actually expressed the potential for air power to do just that. It argued that air assets should attack “not only those enemy forces in contact, but enemy forces held in reserve or rear echelons as well.” This is essentially an expression of air power in an interdiction role, defined in current Air Force doctrine as “air operations conducted to divert, disrupt, delay, or destroy the enemy’s military surface capabilities before it can be brought to bear effectively against friendly forces.” On the surface, this seems attritional – aircraft use movement only to facilitate better fires on rear echelons – but when viewed in the larger joint context, it is maneuver-centric for two reasons.

First, as envisioned by FM 100-5, aircraft essentially execute a vertical flanking movement to attack the enemy’s weakness in the form of vulnerable rear echelon forces. That those aircraft do not necessarily need fires on the front line to facilitate their movement is irrelevant – within the larger joint fight, they are still seen to be executing in accordance with the principles of the extraordinary force. Second, FM 100-5 argues that air interdiction gives commanders an opportunity to counterattack by degrading the enemy’s flexibility and denying his reinforcements, and that close air support enhances the opportunity to break through the enemy lines. The implication is that air-delivered fires provide freedom of movement for the ground force. Thus, aircraft can in fact use superior movement to facilitate fires, which appears attritional, but in the larger sense, the purpose of those fires serves the greater movement of the joint force to a position of advantage.


Focusing on the dislocation mechanism, the previous discussion implies that functionally dislocating the enemy from the air equates to using air power capabilities within some form of combined arms. The Army conception of destructive combined arms integrates capabilities to present the enemy with a choice dilemma, but focuses on unit types like infantry, artillery or armor. In the modern Air Force, a unit-type framework is problematic because many platforms serve multiple roles and conversely, many capabilities exist across a range of platforms. Therefore, it is appropriate to consider combined arms in the air domain not as types of units or platforms working in concert, but instead to focus on the capabilities themselves, irrespective of platform type. The capabilities of air assets create effects that are complimentary and that negate enemy strengths by introducing an unsolvable choice dilemma. This thinking is in line with the Air Force concept of an effects based approach to operations, which is “about creating effects, not about platforms, weapons, or particular methods.”

To use an example similar to Leonhard’s armor and infantry combined arms team, suppose an enemy’s integrated air defense system is a defensive strength that friendly air forces wish to functionally dislocate. One way to accomplish this would be to combine suppression of enemy air defense and counter air attack missions targeted against individual surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, or the sector operations center. The SAM operators face a choice dilemma because the suppression and attack missions are complimentary. If they target the SEAD aircraft, they reveal their position and are vulnerable to strike from the attackers. If they target the attackers, they are vulnerable to electronic attack and reactive fires from the suppression aircraft. If they do nothing in attempt to hide their individual positions, the attack aircraft destroy the sector operations center, rendering the entire air defense system less effective.

Although the example highlights specific mission types that appear complimentary, it is the effects they create through their capabilities that matter. By doctrine, counter air attack missions seek to “destroy, disrupt, or degrade counter air targets on the ground…through kinetic or non-kinetic effects.” SEAD missions on the other hand are “designed to neutralize, destroy, or degrade enemy surface-based air defenses by destructive or disruptive means.” The two sound remarkably similar but are doctrinally separate because whereas the former covers a broad range of targets, the latter focuses on a specific threat category that can require specific capabilities.

Regardless of the specific aircraft type, SEAD-capable aircraft are able to detect, identify and provide the approximate location of enemy targeting radars, with the effect of providing threat awareness to the attack aircraft. Others have the capability to jam the targeting radars, with the effect of providing access for the attack aircraft to strike, if required. These two specific capability and effect pairs compliment the weakness of attack aircraft that may be unable to locate or jam the enemy targeting radars on their own. The capability of the attack aircraft to strike the threat compliments the weakness of SEAD aircraft, often configured only for self- protection.

This is but one example of using combined arms in the air to present the enemy with a choice dilemma, but there are countless others. For example, grouping escort and strike missions together can present an enemy air force with an unsolvable choice dilemma; if they choose to engage the strikers they risk being shot down by the escorts, and conversely, if they engage the escorts, the strikers will likely reach their targets. Grouping the capabilities inherent in ISR missions with counter land missions can present an enemy ground force with an unsolvable choice dilemma. If it remains static or dispersed to avoid detection and attack from the air, it is vulnerable to an opposing ground force advance. Conversely, if it moves to contact or masses for defense, ISR aircraft detect its movements and it is vulnerable to attack from strike aircraft.

The second example is an important one, because it highlights that air assets can employ combined arms not just in the air, but also as part of a joint combined arms team. Reflecting back on Leonhard’s original concept of combined arms, it becomes apparent that adding airpower only worsens the enemy’s choice dilemma because he must contend with complimentary threats across multiple domains. In fact, rotary-wing attack aviation served exactly that function in the Army’s original AirLand Battle concept in 1986.

Disruption – attacking the enemy’s center of gravity – is the physical maneuver mechanism best reflected in US Air Force history and doctrine. During WWI, planners on both sides grappled with exactly how to integrate air power into their military structures, but understood the broad implications of aircraft that could bypass field fortifications to operate behind the enemy’s front lines. Essentially, they recognized aircraft as having the capability to be Sun Tzu’s extraordinary force. After the war, Sir Hugh Trenchard of the British Royal Air Force put forth the idea of strategic bombing as a method to interrupt the industrial production and transportation of the enemy state, while simultaneously causing alarm and general loss of morale among the people. Air power advocates in the US Army saw an opportunity for greater autonomy through strategic bombing, and consequently placed heavy emphasis on it during the interwar years, throughout WWII, and beyond.

Strategic attack, the term used in modern doctrine, in the US Air Force’s main mechanism for disruption. Strategic attack “involves the systematic application of force against enemy systems and centers of gravity, thereby producing the greatest effect for the least cost in lives, resources, and time” and “may achieve strategic objectives without necessarily having to achieve operational objectives as a precondition.” This echoes back to the chess example, in which taking the queen provides an operational advantage, but is not a prerequisite for taking the king, nor necessary to end the game overall. Although the Air Force possess specific “strategic” bombers with nuclear capability, it is once again not the platforms or weapons that count, but the capability inherent in the air domain to engage centers of gravity directly, without the need to engage fielded forces first.

Strategic attack would appear to be perfectly in line with the concept of maneuver by disruption, however the former takes a much broader view on the focus of attacks, and what actually constitutes a center of gravity. First, strategic attack targets not only centers of gravity, but also enemy systems overall, either by attacking the nodes directly or by affecting the linkages between them. Second, strategic attack doctrine does not identify the center of gravity in accordance with Leonhard’s view of the critical vulnerability. In fact, doctrine refers to the center of gravity variously as a balance, or leverage point, a source of power, and a focal point that holds a system together. The unifying idea between these is that affecting the centers of gravity within an enemy system creates “significantly more change than would be achieved by affecting parts of the system that are not centers of gravity.” Thus, although the conception of centers of gravity within strategic attack does not match Leonhard’s definition, the overall intent of attacking specific elements to create disproportionate effects remains. Ultimately then, strategic attack is not the same as disruption; it is a tool through which to accomplish disruption.

From the previous discussion, cognitive maneuver seeks to degrade the enemy’s capacity for adaptation, and comprises both having a faster decision-making process than the enemy, and intentionally slowing the enemy’s decision-making process down. One method, which Boyd called disorientation, focuses on the internal decision-making tempo of an organization as it proceeds through the OODA loop. Disorientation generates surprise and confusion by creating a cognitive mismatch between what the enemy observes and orients on, and actual friendly actions, which adversely affects his ability to adapt. Disorientation does require actions as an expedient to create a divergent reality from what the enemy perceives, but the decision-making process still facilitates those actions. Thus, since the focus of disorientation is the tempo of consecutive OODA loops, it is not domain specific; there is arguably little difference between employing disorientation in the air domain, and any other domain. The other method, overload, focuses externally in that it seeks to degrade the enemy’s ability to adapt by exceeding his mental or physical capacity to do so. In this second case, the air domain does present unique opportunities through the capabilities of speed and parallel attack.

The mechanism of overload in Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict is a conflation of surprise and shock, which represent exceeding mental and physical capacities respectively. Surprise exceeds the enemy’s mental capacity because it is “disorientation generated by perceiving extreme change over a short period of time.” Shock exceeds the enemy’s physical capacity because it is a “paralyzing state of disorientation generated by extreme or violent change over a short period of time.” The overall aim of both, as expressed by Boyd is to exploit multiple vulnerabilities and weaknesses in order to pull the adversary apart. Boyd did not include his understanding of “extreme” change in his original presentation, however his emphasis on short periods of time and multiple vulnerabilities suggest that overload of an enemy’s physical capacity through shock entails attacking in many places, as close to simultaneously as possible.

A useful way to think about employing air power to overload an enemy is through the lens of John Warden’s five rings model. In his first major written work, The Air Campaign, Warden represented the enemy as a system of subsystems, which he labeled leadership, key production, infrastructure, population and fielded forces. He arranged these visually as the concentric circles of a dartboard with leadership in the middle, to show that targeting the inner rings would cause rippling effects through the outer ones. Warden’s early conception of how to use his model favored disruption; he recommended focusing efforts on the leadership ring in the center to cause significant change through all the other sub-systems. Attacks on the outer rings on the other hand would primarily provide access to, or put indirect pressure on the center. Air power then, is the ideal tool for Warden’s model because it can bypass the outer rings and attack the center directly.

The other aspect of Warden’s model that aligns more with overload is the idea that an enemy can have multiple centers of gravity. Although Warden focused on leadership as the center of his model, he also contended that each of the rings or, subsystems, has its own center of gravity, linked to the other subsystems. In his more recent writing, Warden argues that along with the ability to strike at the center, air power is an ideal tool because it can bypass fielded forces to strike multiple centers of gravity in parallel. His theory is that simultaneous attack of as many centers of gravity as possible causes compounding effects through all the rings, denying an adversary the ability to react and adapt, leading to complete system collapse. This idea is completely in line with Boyd’s description of extreme change leading to physical overload.

Ultimately then, while the tempo of the OODA loop is important in all domains, the ability to maneuver from the air domain in the cognitive sense, comes primarily from air power’s unique ability to overload the enemy through multiple, rapid, parallel attacks that exceed his physical capacity to adapt.


Summary: What is the Purpose of Maneuver from the Air Domain?
Section two traced the evolution of maneuver warfare theory in the US military, starting with disagreement over the plan for “active defense” of the Fulda Gap in 1976, and culminating in the development of Air Land Battle doctrine. This section began with the assertion that maneuver from the air domain entails using the unique attributes of air power within specific mechanisms of maneuver warfare theory – dislocation, disruption, and overload. After further analysis, the hypothesis is that maneuver from the air domain means using the movement and firepower capabilities of air power to place the enemy at a disadvantage in three ways:

  1. Through its unique ability to move three dimensionally, air power disrupts the enemy by vertically outflanking his strengths to attack his centers of gravity directly.
  2. Through combining complimentary capabilities either in the air domain, or across domains, air power presents unsolvable choice dilemmas, thereby functionally dislocating the enemy by negating his strengths.
  3. Through rapid, parallel attacks on multiple nodes within an enemy system, air power

overloads the enemy, causes disorientation, and degrades his ability to adapt by exceeding his mental and physical capacity to do so.

A final question worth asking before moving on to historical case studies is: what is the purpose of maneuver from the air domain? The answer to that question goes back to the most basic tenant of the maneuver warfare framework – firepower enables movement. Although the stated hypothesis references placing the enemy at a position of disadvantage, it is important to remember, that maneuver is about movement to a position of advantage for the friendly force. Therefore, whether airpower is dislocating the enemy’s strengths, disrupting the enemy by attacking his centers of gravity, or overloading his capacity to adapt, the result should be increased freedom of movement for other assets in the air domain, or for the joint force overall. Understanding the basic purpose of maneuver is important in judging the usefulness of the hypothesis because it provides criteria with which to evaluate historical examples. For example, an instance where air power enables freedom of movement, and its employment is in accordance with the hypothesis, supports that the hypothesis is a useful definition of maneuver from the air. Conversely, if there is an instance in which air power does not enable freedom of movement, but its employment is also not in accordance with the hypothesis, it actually supports that the hypothesis may still be a useful definition. With those ideas in mind, the discussion now turns to two historical case studies. The first, Operation Rolling Thunder during the Vietnam War, is an example in which air power employment did not demonstrate maneuver from the air domain. The second, Operation Iraqi Freedom, is an example in which air power used each of the maneuver mechanisms from the hypothesis to generate freedom of movement.

Keith Anderson is F-15E pilot by trade, currently serving as a Strategic War Planner at US Central Command. His primary focus area is planning the ongoing Operation Inherent Resolve campaign to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Anderson is a graduate of both Air Command and Staff College and the School of Advanced Military Studies – the U.S. Army’s school for operational planners. His interest in maneuver, maneuver warfare, and its applications in the air domain began during his time in the Cross-Domain Operational Strategist elective at ACSC, and carried through to form the basis for the SAMS monograph reproduced in part here.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government

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