Military Doctrine

by

Dennis Drew and Don Snow

INFLUENCES on the strategy process are both numerous and important. Most are relatively well known and understood because they are similar to the influences that affect almost any political decision. This chapter, however, deals with an influence peculiar to national security strategy decisions—military doctrine. A detailed examination of doctrine is in order for at least two reasons. Doctrine has, or should have, an extraordinary impact on the strategy process, and doctrine is an ill-defined, poorly understood, and often confusing subject in spite of its considerable importance.

What Is Doctrine?

One can readily find a number of definitions for doctrine—some official, some unofficial—that often differ by country or military service of origin. Most fail to capture the significance of doctrine. Official definitions written in legalese even obscure doctrine’s importance. Perhaps the best definition, one that is accurate, concise, and yet retains the vitality befitting doctrine’s importance, is also one of the simplest. Military doctrine is what we believe about the best way to conduct military affairs. Even more briefly, doctrine is what we believe about the best way to do things.

Two words are particularly important in the definition. The use of the word believe suggests that doctrine is the result of an examination and interpretation of the available evidence. In addition, it implies that the interpretation is subject to change should new evidence be introduced. Doctrinal beliefs are not immutable physical laws but are interpretations of changing evidence (e.g., new technology and new circumstances). The word best connotes a standard—a guide for those who conduct military affairs.

Sources

The principal source of doctrine is experience. In a sense, doctrine is a compilation of those things that have generally been successful in the past. The repeated success or failure of actions over time can be generalized into beliefs that, we hope, will be relevant to the present and the future. Unfortunately, not all past experience is relevant to the present (not to mention the future), and there is no guarantee that what is relevant today will remain relevant in the future. Thus, doctrine is a constantly maturing and evolving thing. Those “lessons” from the past that seem to have proved themselves over an extensive period of time, however, can be, and have been, not only generalized into doctrinal beliefs but have also been raised to higher levels of abstraction to become the so-called principles of war—doctrinal beliefs that are axiomatic.

Of course, doctrine is not just the result of experience. Experience by itself has limited utility. As Frederick the Great pointed out, if experiences were all-important, he had several pack mules who had seen enough of war to be field marshals. The real key is the accurate analysis and interpretation of history (experience)—and therein lies the rub. Each individual looks at history through different lenses, lenses shaped by a variety of factors, lenses that interpret history in very different ways. The results are differing views among nations and among military services within nations about the lessons of history and their applicability to the present and future. This problem is best illustrated by the disparate views concerning an enemy’s center of gravity.

Moreover, experience and the analysis of experience are not exclusive sources of doctrine because there are subjects for which there is no empirical evidence on which to base beliefs. This is particularly true of nuclear issues—how to deter nuclear war, how to wage nuclear war, and so on. Even though two nuclear weapons were used during World War II, by no stretch of the imagination could one consider that experience illustrative of what might transpire in a full-scale nuclear war. No one has any real experience to draw on, or any history of the best way to deter or conduct a nuclear conflict. For example, we assume that US nuclear retaliatory forces have deterred attack for four decades, but we have no solid evidence that this is the case.

In such evidential voids as that found in the nuclear arena, we are forced to rely on extrapolations of experience from other areas. We hope that such extrapolations are pertinent, but our standards for judgment can only be logic, intuition, and “gut feelings.” This is, obviously, a risky but unavoidable situation. Even worse is the fact that in the nuclear realm we cannot afford to be wrong.

Development Problems

We have already alluded to several significant problems in the development of doctrine. The lack of concrete evidence in the nuclear area should be placed at the top of the problem list because of the consequences should we make an error. What nonnuclear evidence is pertinent to nuclear issues? Does any nonnuclear doctrine really apply to weapons of mass destruction? Does conventional logic apply when the consequences of nuclear war might include the death of civilization? Would anyone but a madman actually initiate a nuclear war? What would deter a madman? Can there be a winner (in some rational sense) in a full-scale nuclear war? These are all doctrinal questions of the utmost importance that frustrate nearly everyone who has to deal with them.

Problematic nuclear issues are not the only difficulties encountered in the area of doctrine. Objective analysis of experience can be especially difficult. This fact is best illustrated by the US experience in attempting to deal with the legacy of the Vietnam War. The passions of the Southeast Asian experience have died hard and have colored nearly every attempt to analyze the conflict. To some, the lesson of that war is a simplistic plea for “no more Vietnams,” a rather ill-defined lesson at best. Others have attempted to identify scapegoats—finger pointing among some military professionals, civilian leaders, and antiwar activists—the lesson apparently being that if the scapegoats had been controlled or eliminated, everything would have worked out for the best. Still others have passionately criticized how the war was conducted and earnestly proposed fanciful remedies and reforms. In short, objective analysis has been in short supply. In such a situation, it is unlikely that sound doctrine will result. In the case of Vietnam, almost no doctrine has resulted.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous doctrinal problem is the tendency to let doctrine stagnate. Changing circumstances (for example, technological developments) must be constantly evaluated because they can modify beliefs about the important lessons of experience. If current and projected circumstances do not affect the analysis of history’s lessons, doctrine rapidly becomes irrelevant. The French experience after World War I exemplifies the problem. Based on the demonstrated superiority of the defense when ensconced in strong trench works during the war, the French constructed the world’s most elaborate and sophisticated fortifications along the Franco-German border. Unfortunately, the Maginot Line’s static fortifications were irrelevant to the mobile warfare conducted by the Germans in World War II. The French analysis of history’s lessons was not tempered by technological change, particularly the advent of motorized ground warfare supported by air power.

Finally, doctrine can become irrelevant if the assumptions that support it are not frequently reexamined for their continuing validity. The development of US air power doctrine provides a pertinent example. Based on the ideas of Gen William “Billy” Mitchell and further developed at the Air Corps Tactical School by Mitchell’s protégés, the Army Air Forces went into World War II with a doctrine based on the belief that strategic bombing would (and should) be decisive in war. The World War II experience and the availability of nuclear weapons and long-range aircraft in the postwar era further ingrained this notion. Military budgets, force structures, equipment procurement, and training were all based on the central doctrinal belief in the deterrent and warfighting decisiveness of strategic bombardment. Even the tactical air forces became ministrategic forces in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The crisis came in 1965 when the United States entered the Vietnam War and the bombing of North Vietnam began. American air power doctrine was found to be bankrupt in Vietnam because its underlying assumptions were untrue in that situation. Strategic bombing doctrine assumed that all US wars would be unlimited wars fought to destroy the enemy and that America’s enemies would be modern, industrialized states. Both assumptions were crucial to strategic bombing doctrine. They were reasonable and valid assumptions in the 1920s and 1930s, but invalid in the 1960s in the age of limited warfare in the third world. The results were frustration, ineffective bombing, wasted blood and treasure, and eventually the renaming of Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City.

Types of Doctrine

For many years there has been considerable confusion regarding the subject of doctrine. Some of this confusion has resulted from ill-considered doctrinal publications in the wake of the Vietnam War. In some cases these publications reflected the confusion and consternation caused by the American failure in Southeast Asia, and they certainly reflected an inability to analyze the war dispassionately. Part of the confusion about doctrine also stems from the fact that there are three distinct types of doctrine. A brief survey of these types should help resolve some of the confusion.

Fundamental

Fundamental doctrine forms the foundation for all other types of doctrine. Its scope is broad and its concepts are abstract. Essentially, fundamental doctrine defines the nature of war, the purpose of military forces, the relationship of military force to other instruments of power, and similar subject matter on which less abstract beliefs are founded. The following examples are typical statements of fundamental doctrine:

An examination of these statements reveals two significant characteristics of fundamental doctrine. The first is the almost timeless nature of fundamental doctrine. It seldom changes because it deals with basic concepts rather than contemporary techniques. The second characteristic, which is really the basis of the first, is that fundamental doctrine is relatively insensitive to political philosophy or technological change. The statements, if accepted, seem applicable in democratic or authoritarian states and cogent whether discussing Napoleon’s campaigns or recent conflicts.

Environmental

As technological innovations allowed man to put to sea and take to the air, man’s proclivity for war quickly followed. Quite naturally, beliefs also developed about how best to use sea power and air power. Thus, environmental doctrine (the rubric for sea power, air power, land power, and space power doctrine) is a compilation of beliefs about the employment of military forces within a particular operating medium.

Environmental doctrine has several distinctive characteristics. It is narrower in scope than fundamental doctrine because it deals with the exercise of military power in a particular medium. Environmental doctrine is significantly influenced by such factors as geography and technology. Sea power doctrine, for example, is obviously influenced by geography (there are many places one cannot take a naval vessel) and by technology, particularly since the advent of naval aviation and submarine warfare. Air power doctrine, on the other hand, is less influenced by geography but depends totally on technology for its very existence.

Organizational

Organizational doctrine is best defined as basic beliefs about the operation of a particular military organization or group of closely linked military organizations. It attempts to bring the abstractions of fundamental and environmental doctrine into sharper (yet still somewhat abstract) focus by leavening them with current political realities, capabilities, and cultural values. Typically, organizational doctrine discusses roles and missions of an organization, current objectives, administrative organization, force employment principles as they are influenced by the current situation, and, in some cases, tactics.

Organizational doctrine has several salient characteristics that distinguish it from fundamental or environmental doctrine. Organizational doctrine is very narrow in scope. Organizational doctrine concerns the use of a particular force (e.g., US or Soviet) in a particular environment (e.g., US Air Force or Soviet Air Force) at a particular time—today. In addition, organizational doctrine is current and must change to stay current. This tendency to change contrasts sharply with the almost timeless qualities of fundamental doctrine and the considerable staying power of environmental doctrine.

In the United States, organizational doctrine comprises the bulk of doctrinal publications. It has been further subdivided and specialized into doctrine for specific types of forces, types of conflicts, and other subcategories. As the content of these publications increasingly narrows in scope, it assumes the characteristics of regulations or standard operating procedures. The distinction between beliefs about how to do things at this level of detail and directives on the same subject is a matter of conjecture.

Interrelationships

How do these complex puzzle pieces fit together? Clearly, fundamental doctrine is the basis for all other types of doctrine, and environmental doctrine is at least part of the basis for organizational doctrine. One way to understand these relationships is to visualize them as parts of a tree (fig. 4). The trunk of the tree is fundamental doctrine and, of course, has its roots in history—the primary source of doctrine. The tree branches represent environmental doctrine—each springing from the same trunk, each individual, and yet all related. The leaves represent organizational doctrine—dependent on both the trunk and the branches and changing from season to season.

Doctrine Tree

The analogy of the tree can be carried even further. For example, what would happen if the lessons of history cannot be accurately interpreted? The results would be analogous to cutting the roots and therefore killing the tree (i.e., defeat). What would happen if there was no valid fundamental or environmental doctrine? This is analogous to a diseased trunk or branch that could kill the tree, including the leaves (again, defeat). The analogy of the doctrine tree illustrates that doctrine must be a coherent whole to be valuable, shows the dependencies involved, and emphasizes the often ignored importance of fundamental and environmental doctrine.

Relationship of Doctrine and Strategy

Doctrine has many functions. Its first function is to provide a tempered analysis of experience and a determination of beliefs. Its second function is to teach those beliefs to each succeeding generation. Its third function is to provide a common basis of knowledge and understanding that can provide guidance for actions. All three of these functions come to fruition in doctrine’s relationship to strategy decisions.

Doctrine provides, in essence, a knowledge base for making strategy decisions. Doctrine is always somewhat abstract and thus provides the foundation from which to begin thinking when facing a concrete and specific decision. Without doctrine, strategists would have to make decisions without points of reference or guidance. They would continually be faced with the prospect of “reinventing the wheel” and repeating past mistakes. Superior doctrine should be the storehouse of analyzed experience and military wisdom and should be the strategist’s fundamental guide in decisionmaking. The importance of this function was succinctly put by T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) when he commented that with 2,000 years of examples there is no excuse for not fighting a war well.*


*Quoted in J. A. English, "Kindergarten Soldier: The Military Thought of Lawrence of Arabia," Military Affairs, January 1987, 10.


As important as doctrine should be at nearly every level of strategy, it often does not control strategy or even have a significant influence on strategy decisions, a source of great frustration for the military professional. This tendency has been most notable since World War II as traditional military doctrine has often clashed with political decisions in conducting limited warfare. In both Korea and Vietnam, military leaders chafed under the close control of civilians whose decisions about the conduct of the wars often ran counter to military advice. Many military leaders contend such decisions played a major role in preventing a clear-cut victory in Korea and in causing a clear-cut failure in Vietnam. Civilian leaders, on the other hand, contend that traditional military doctrine is incompatible with limited warfare. They believe that either or both of those wars could have escalated to a superpower confrontation if the military had been allowed to implement its doctrine.

The frustrations of Korea and Vietnam highlight the fact that military doctrine is only one of a host of factors influencing strategy decisions. The influence of doctrine is inversely proportional to the importance attached to other factors. In Korea and Vietnam, the threats of escalation and confrontation were of overwhelming importance and negated the influence of military doctrine. These same kinds of phenomena can also occur in peacetime. Military advice and requests concerning force structures, weapon system procurement and force deployment (all of which are—or should be— based on military doctrine) are often ignored, overruled, or modified because of economic and political factors that assume overwhelming importance. In both peace and war, the influence of military doctrine can be negated, modified, or limited by any of the host of other factors that influence strategy decisions. The degree to which doctrine influences strategy depends on the relative importance of doctrine in the eyes of the decisionmaker.

Thus in an imperfect world, doctrine is not always accorded its proper influence, which suggests yet another important function of doctrine. As the best way to conduct military affairs, doctrine provides a standard against which to measure our efforts. Many factors prevent the military from doing “things in the best manner, but doctrine can still provide a yardstick—an indicator of success and a tool for analyzing both success and failure. Doctrine can measure not only its own impact on the decisiomnaking process but also its own relevance. If military doctrine were followed to a substantial degree and success were not achieved, this would indicate that changes to doctrine were in order; that is, experience of failure would feed the development of new doctrine. If, under the influence of doctrine, the strategy decisions led to success, the experience of success would also add to the experience that feeds the development of doctrine. This brings the strategy and doctrine relationship full circle. Doctrine influences strategy (or it should) and the results of strategy become the experiences that are the basis for doctrine.


Reprinted from Making Strategy: An Introduction to National Security Processes and Problems, Chapter 11, August 1988, pp. 163–174.
Published 1988 by Air University Press.