Smart Tactics Takes Thinking Police Leaders...Leading Thinking Cops

Chet Richards as another timely piece up on his Slightly East of New blog. The title of the piece is Smart Tactics in which he discusses how the United States Marine Corps took 15 years to evolve from attrition warfare and centralized control methods to maneuver warfare and decentralized control (Mission Command).

In the last post, I mentioned that the effort to change Marine Corps doctrine from attrition to maneuver took nearly 15 years before General Gray made it official in 1989. An important component of this campaign was research into the history of warfare and publication of the results, particularly in the Marine Corps Gazette.

Policing has been researching and discussing the benefits of decentralized control over centralized control methods for now going on 40 years. The benefits are directly related to community policing and problem solving and an understanding that a police officer working a beat can solve crimes, crisis and conflict as well, as quality of life issues that lead to crime, crisis and conflict is he is allowed to use his or her initiative and make decisions in real time that can actually make a difference in their communities.

I love the example, Chet has laid out from some seven years (1982) before maneuver warfare was officially adopted. It’s a letter to the editor of the Gazette by G. I. Wilson and one of his colleagues responding to a critique of articles on maneuver warfare and it addresses the uneasiness the LTCOL is having with the ideas. This uneasiness I have experienced in policing as well when discussing, teaching and implementing adaptive leadership and a decentralized approach to preventing and resolving policing problems. I think this short response from G.I. Wilson although his context is the United States Marine Corps, he hits the nail on the head of what a big part of the problem is when it comes to implementing the ideas in policing.


LtCol Batchellor’s poignant uneasiness with maneuver warfare thinking (Apr82) may result from too casual a reading of the recent articles in the Marine Corps GAZETTE. Understanding the tenets of fluid/maneuver style of warfare requires careful, thoughtful reading and reflection.

Modern maneuver/fluid war took root at the small unit level with infiltration tactics developed in 1918 and conceptually has not changed since. It is applicable at every level from MAF to fire teams.

To understand maneuver warfare concepts, it is necessary to make the basic distinction between tactics and techniques. Techniques are those things that all armies must learn to do well in order to succeed, e.g., movement to contact, assault on a fortified position, and weapons proficiency. Tactics are the imaginative combination of those techniques allowing forces to move into unexpected places, at unexpected times, with unexpected speed, deception, and surprise. When a force continually strings techniques together in the same sequence, i.e., when it uses the same tactical doctrine, again and again, it becomes predictable and can be easily defeated. The “maneuverists” argue against tactical cookbook recipes because stereotype tactics lead to predictability and defeat.

They do not reject battle drills that have proven successful, only the combining of such drills into dull, repetitious, and rote tactics. They do not advocate a policy of simply turning loose subordinate commanders on the battlefield. Such a command and control system, or rather the lack of it, would soon lead to total chaos and a possibility of defeat in detail.

Maximum flexibility and initiative can be given to subordinates by the senior commander clearly expressing his overall tactical intent, by tailoring mission-type orders to support that intent, and by designating a point of main effort for combat, combat service, and combat service support units. Through these command and control methods the senior commander can retain enough control to ensure a cohesive, coherent effort from his force.

Amphibious operations are not an end in themselves. They are merely a means of arriving on the battlefield. In order to be successful in any subsequent operations ashore, however, it is vital we possess a maneuver capability equal to or greater than our adversary. We do not fight decisive battles in the surf. This does not necessarily mean more mechanized vehicles (and all the attendant problems). Maneuver warfare advocates have never argued for increased mechanization as a means of increasing maneuverability. The maneuver they advocate is mobility in relationship to our enemy, and this is not something that is dependent upon mechanization or tied to machines.

The maneuver warfare advocates are attempting to institutionalize fighting smart. They believe that the Marine Corps’ potential adversaries will not give it time to rethink its tactical doctrine after the shooting starts. Marine officers owe it to themselves and their profession to discover as much as they can about the tenets of maneuver/fluid warfare before dismissing it as “good old flexibility and boldness.” It is so much more than that.

We need thinking leaders that lead thinking police officers. We need to give more discretion back to police who work the streets. To understand decentralized command concepts, it is necessary to make the basic distinction between tactics and techniques. Techniques are those things that all police officers must learn to do well in order to succeed, e.g., movement to contact, ongoing deadly action responses, and weapons proficiency, social skills, problem solving strategies, and community engagement. Tactics are the imaginative combination of those techniques allowing police to move into unexpected places, at unexpected times, with unexpected speed, deception, and surprise using their sense-making abilities and adaptability.

Thoughtful reading and reflection as well as critiquing our daily courses of actions in a robust effort to learn and understand the why behind the decisions making, along with solid realistic training and development in the techniques and procedures we develop and their meaning will help us resolve policing's dichotomy of intentions, "championing initiative and decentralized control and smart tactics, while behind the scenes controlling and stifling initiative with too many rules, checklists and micro-management."

Solving crimes, preventing and or responding crises and conflict and the quality of life issues requires we reflect deeply on where we are currently and what we are trying to accomplish and then think about the results, community wide results we are actually getting. Then make the changes we all too often talk about with little or no meaningful and lasting change. Policing a free society is a great responsibility and not something we should look at and think about casually. Do we lack understanding or are too many of us just reluctant and resistant to change? What say you?

Stay Oriented!