Military doctrine

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For more information, see: Grand strategy.

Military doctrine, or more precisely, the range of options for a nation or quasi-national group to exercise power and influence the behavior of other nations and quasi-national groups, has four commonly used levels of scope. The highest level of this range, grand strategy, not limited to military means but including all national ways to affect behavior. While terms such as strategy go back to antiquity, the modern usage of these levels starts from Carl von Clausewitz's definition of strategy, with variations on how it is translated from the German, as "the extension of national politics by military means". In modern international usage, additional refinements are needed to deal with non-state actors, sometimes more in combat terms but also in lower-intensity efforts, including peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and nation building. There are also military doctrines, typically for national or multinational organizations, that address the various levels in specific contexts, such as insurgency or air warfare planning.

Goals, victory and defeat

Actors that start conflict, without clear ideas of the conditions of victory or defeat, often suffer disastrous conflicts. This principle applies at all levels of warfare; an infantry squad leader should have decided, before starting a patrol, the point at which he should retreat, and the point at which he has achieved his goal and should call for reinforcement.

At a higher level, nations suffer from "strategic overreach". In the Second World War, however, the Third Reich did not have the resources to fight a two-front war. It also did not have a clear idea what to do after the Battle of France.

In the Pacific Theater of Operations of the same war, Japan had established a fairly defensible perimeter in early 1942. As a result of the Doolittle Raid, they made an unwise decision to move the perimeter further east, and fought the Battle of Midway at a location beyond which they could reasonably support their forces.

"Mission creep" is a constant problem in peace operations. In Somalia, the original and limited goal of providing food, in UN-directed UNOSOM I, failed because the logistics forces had insufficient security. Operation RESTORE HOPE was more successful, as it kept the food supply area within manageable limits, but added security under a clear chain of command. The subsequent UNISOM II, however, had mission creep, from food supply to rebuilding governments, and drastically failed both at the strategic and tactical levels. At the tactical level, the Battle of Mogadishu, also known as Operation GOTHIC SERPENT or by the title "Blackhawk Down", the forces deployed to capture a local warlord had become overconfident and predictable; they did not plan well for what to do if they got into trouble.

Principles of force

Within the context of ancient and industrial war, there have been a number of basic principles. These have been evolving, both in the context of decentralized technological war (e.g., swarming, and also in the context of war among the people rather than against a conventional force.

One theorist of swarming holds that several axioms of military doctrine[1] change with the use of swarming:[2]

Edwards on Principles of War Changed by Swarming
Traditional Principle of War Redefinition with Swarming
Mass Dispersed mass
Economy of force Simultaneity
Unity of command Unity of effort

Rupert Smith, a senior British and allied commander, characterizes "war among the people" as having six components:[3]

  • Ends for which we fight are less the absolute defeat of state and industry and more the motivations of individuals and non-state societies
  • We fight among the people, remembering that grand strategy includes the psychological and political dimension amplified by mass media
  • Our conflicts tend to be timeless, involving long evolution to a definitive outcome based on shared agreement
  • On each occasion new uses are found for old weapons; weapons, such as tanks, intended for the battlefield find use in urban warfare, while seemingly simple boobytraps (i.e., improvised explosive devices) have a major impact
  • The sides are mostly non-state, including both multinational groupings and adversaries that are not states

Levels of doctrine

For centuries, there was, at best, a distinction between military strategy and tactics. They used Clausewitz's definition of strategy to define the objectives to start a conflict, and a generic discussion of tactics as how the battles would be fought. Battles, of course, differ in the type of units and rules of engagement, for which there are doctrines. A doctrine for a naval blockade will be very different from a doctrine for light infantry in high-altitude mountain warfare.

In World War II, strategy was at the level of theaters of operations, operational art was at the level of ground units from army group to corps, and naval units at the fleet level; tactics were from division to fire team. The current trend, however, is for militaries with advanced technology to use smaller units at the various levels.

There are levels of abstraction above and below strategy, and the definition of strategy itself has evolved. The main levels are:

Level Objectives Types of units involved
Grand strategy Deciding the full range of national policy toward other actors Military as a whole, diplomacy, economic warfare, information operations, covert action, intelligence, international law enforcement
Strategy Determining the composition of the military and its deployment; high-level regional objectives in war Geographic theaters of operations, field army and larger units on land, special operations forces under high-level command, long-range aviation and missiles, sea control and major naval operations
Operational art; also theater strategy Preparing for battle within a geographic or other large scope, and creating the opportunities to engage in battle on favorable terms Ground troops traditionally at corps size (i.e., 25,000 to 75,000 conventional soldiers), but in highly technological militaries, down to brigade equivalent. Air forces directed as a theater or campaign resource.
Tactics How battles are fought once begun, or the methods and objectives of quick strikes Ground troops from fire team (3-5 soldiers) to division (up to 25,000 soldiers); the lowest level of operational rather than tactical scope is moving to lower levels

Grand strategy

The greatest general wins without fighting Sun Tzu, circa 400 BCE

For more information, see: Grand strategy.

Grand strategy includes, but is not limited to, military means, but also diplomacy, economic measures, covert action, international law enforcement, intelligence collection and analysis, information operations including psychological warfare, etc. Its goals include both the deterrence and compellence of other nations and quasi-national actors.


For more information, see: Military strategy.

Strategy is still considered associated with using military means to influence behavior of other actors, but the term "grand strategy" goes beyond military means as a way to implement politics (or policy).

In contrast, [military] strategy is the highest level of how to structure and deploy a nation's military forces. It must first deal with the strength, composition, and capabilities of those forces, and then decide on a command structure, which is often based on geographic areas of operations, and often domestic or military politics. For example, a basic Allied strategic decision in the Second World War was to divide operations into European, Pacific, and Mediterranean, but, in the Pacific, it was necessary to divide into Southwest Pacific and Pacific Ocean areas. The necessity came from the need to manage the notable ego and skills of Douglas MacArthur, a strategic exercise of its own.

Units that can independently strike deep in the enemy rear areas can be considered strategic. The most obvious example are long-range bombers and guided missiles, but special operations forces can carry out strategic missions, and either exfiltrate, or stay behind and raise guerrilla forces.

The generations of warfare described by these authors are:

First generation warfare

The first minimally industrialized warfare involved rigidly linear troop movements (e.g., line and column), principally direct fire muskets and small cannons. tactics of line and column; which developed in the age of the smoothbore musket. Napoleon introduced some of its concepts, including the division as an early form of combined arms operations, synchronization with the first portable and accurate watches, and the beginnings of decentralization to the level of corps.

Second generation warfare

This was a gradual transition in movement, as artillery and repeating rifles greatly increased the power of the defense. Technology became important in support (e.g., railroads) and communications (e.g., telegraph).

It is difficult to put an exact start on this period, except it is fairly clear that first-generation methods became obviously ineffective at the Battle of Gettysburg. Admittedly, some forces were still learning about the even greater power of the defense in 1914.

Third generation warfare

Usually considered to have started with non-linear movement, by combined arms forces, and attacks in the enemy's rear by air or missile attack or special operations forces, the most common start of this phase is associated with German blitzkrieg operations in 1939. Command was increasingly decentralized.

There were earlier hints of breakthrough operations, such as German use of chemical weapons at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, the U.S. Army (Union) army to use large explosives with penetration Battle of the Crater in 1864, or British use of massed tanks at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. All these potential breakthrough operations failed due to failures of communications, understanding of weapons capability, and unimaginative commanders.

Fourth generation warfare

Continuing the nonlinear trend of third generation warfare, this is characterized by extreme decentralization enabled by advanced electronics, special operations forces and non-national actors including revolutionary warfare, and continuous operations. In very different ways, Mao's revolutionary warfare, airmobile operations in Vietnam, and the first network-centric warfare in the Gulf War are all different fourth generation models. Some suggest that the extensive networking among "sensors and shooters", with much improved situational awareness, coupled with the use of precision-guided munitions, may be a fifth generation.

Operational art

Git there fustest with the mostest men — Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate States of America

Operational art is a relatively new term, between tactics and strategy. If strategy defines one's areas of operations, operational art defines the priorities and campaigns within the various areas. A master of operational art sets conditions such that battles happen at the places, times, and other circumstances that give maximum advantage to one's side. The term "preparation of the battleground", or, in more recent jargon, "preparation of the battlespace", applies here.

Rupert Smith prefers the term "theater strategy" to the less familiar operational art. In either case, it is the level that links national strategy to tactics. A theater commander, such as Dwight Eisenhower in the invasion of Europe, had to understand the political context of his operations and thus was working in more than a purely military dimension.[4] Units that are highly mobile within part of a theater, such as air assault troops, or amphibious forces maneuvering at sea, are key ways of selecting the place and conditions of battle, a basic characteristic of the operational level.


No battle plan survives contact with the enemy — Helmuth Moltke the Elder

Tactics deal with how those battles are fought. Unfortunately, the term deals with levels of fighting with organizations ranging from divisions of 25,000 soldiers down to fire teams of 3-5 soldiers.

Military folklore greatly respects Murphys Law of Combat Operations at the tactical level. Some classics include:[5]

  • Teamwork is essential; it gives the enemy other people to shoot at.
  • If it's stupid but it works, it's not stupid
  • Professional soldiers are predictable; the world is full of dangerous amateurs.
  • The most dangerous thing in the world is a Second Lieutenant with a map and a compass
  • A retreating enemy is probably just falling back and regrouping

Combat support and combat service support

Amateurs talk tactics. Dilettantes talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics


  1. (14 June 2001) Field Manual 3-0: Operations (PDF). Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army. 
  2. Edwards, Sean J.A. (September 2004). Swarming and the Future of War. Pardee RAND Graduate School. 
  3. Rupert Smith (2007), The Utility of Force: the Art of War in the Modern World, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN 9780397265623, pp. 19-20
  4. Smith, pp. 15-15
  5. Murphys Law of Combat Operations