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The Relevance of Military Doctrine

I am often asked why is doctrine needed and what makes it so important? In answering this question I often find myself first explaining what doctrine is; and as such I would like to start there again today as it is probably the most logical approach.

The word “Doctrine” doesn’t actually originate from the military, rather from Christian theology. Today, however, in most modern militaries the word “doctrine” has been generally accepted to describe the institutional beliefs about what works in military operations; often based on historical lessons learnt during periods of conflict. Doctrine provides a baseline for the planning and execution of operations through approved and accepted sets of principles, beliefs and methods which military commanders contextualise to a given situation in order improve their chances of success.

British Major General J.F.C. Fuller, a senior army officer, noted military historian and strategist, summarised this question about what is doctrine into one simple statement, “Doctrine is that which is taught”. This simple statement also seems to be the source of most modern definitions.

A number of western militaries define doctrine as, “the fundamental principles by which military forces guide their actions in support of objectives. It is authoritative, but requires judgement in application”. While the Soviets defined doctrine as, “a nation’s officially accepted system of scientifically founded views on the nature of modern wars and the use of the armed forces in them, and also on the requirements arising from these views regarding the country and its armed forces being made ready for war”.

"Doctrine provides a baseline for the planning and execution of operations"

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In his book Call Sign Chaos, United States Marine Corps General Jim Mattis states, “What is war doctrine? Basically it’s a written guide, based on historical precedents, of the best fighting practices for commanders and troops to follows. Doctrine lays out principles that have worked in the past and establishes guidelines for how an organisation fights, based on lessons learned in experiments or at great cost in bloody battles. Every corporation and government agency follows a doctrine, whether written or unwritten”.

The British Army also recently took Fuller’s definition a step further by noting that, “Doctrine is what is taught and believed, assimilated and applied”.
Coincidentally the British and South Africa have an interesting relationship when it comes to doctrine. It was as a result of the British Army’s poor performance in the South African War (1899 – 1902) that they saw the benefit of written doctrine and thus first published their Field Service Regulations in 1909.
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This publication was considered ground breaking at the time; the first of its kind as it now provided Army commanders and teachers with definitive guidelines with regards similar operations. So serious were they about not repeating the same mistakes made in South Africa, that the FSR stated, “The principles given in this manual have been evolved by experience as generally applicable to the leading of troops. They are regarded by all ranks as authoritative, for their violation, in the past, has often been followed by mishap, if not disaster. They should be so thoroughly impressed on the mind of every commander that, whenever he has to come to a decision in the field, he instinctively gives them their full weight”.

That being said, it is rumoured that only a few years later German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel would state, “The British write some of the best doctrine in the world; it is fortunate their officers do not read it”. Hence the importance of adding “believed, assimilated and applied” to the modern day definition.

Military doctrine is therefore the officially sanctioned, formalised expression of a set of beliefs or principles that provide armed forces with guidance in terms of their actions towards the achievement of national objectives. Military doctrine provides the military profession with a professional body of knowledge by providing a common basis for understanding the nature of armed conflict.

"Doctrine is what is taught and believed, assimilated and applied..."

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The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) highlights the importance of doctrine by stating, “The successful execution of military operations requires a clearly understood and widely accepted doctrine, and this is especially important when operations are to be conducted by allied multinational or coalition forces”.

Doctrine provides the commander with a link to the past, to past commanders, the wars they fought, the conditions they faced, the options they had, the decisions that they needed to make, the time in which they had to make them and finally the outcome of those decisions and the lessons they learnt. These invaluable insights into the past provide commanders with some comfort that leaders before them also faced the “fog of war”, had their doubts, felt the political pressure and had incomplete information upon which to make decisions that would alter the lives of their soldiers and possibly even alter the course of history. General Mattis shares some insight into the importance of this link to the past when he states in Call Sign Chaos, “Before going into battle, you can learn by asking veterans about their experiences and by reading relentlessly. Lieutenants come to grasp the elements of battle, while senior officers learn how to outwit their opponents. By studying how others have dealt with similar circumstances, I became exposed to leadership examples that accelerated my expanding understanding of combat”.

It was the Prussian statesman Bismarck who suggested that it is better to learn from the mistakes of others than to learn from your own; a point which was recently emphasized by General Mattis, “We have been fighting on this planet for ten thousand years; it would be idiotic and unethical to not take advantage of such accumulated experiences. If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you. Any commander who claims he is “too busy to read” is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way. The consequences of incompetence in battle are final. History teaches that we face nothing new under the sun”.

The Soviet military strategist, Sokolovsky argued that military doctrine depends directly on the social structure, domestic and foreign policy, and the economic, political and cultural state of a country, it was after all Clausewitz domestic and foreign policy, and the economic, political and cultural state of a country, it was after all Clausewitz who argued that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”.
Armed forces generally write their doctrine at three levels, strategic, operational and tactical. The higher levels of doctrine usually link to government policy or strategy and are conceptual and descriptive; focused more on the “what” than the “how”. Lower levels of doctrine are mostly associated with tactics, techniques and procedures which are more prescriptive. These various doctrinal publications are then used throughout the colleges, schools and other centres of excellence within the armed forces to establish a common framework or basis for the planning and execution of operations. They serve as the “soldier’s text book” to the science and art of war!

"Any commander who claims he is too busy to read is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way” – Lt Gen J. Mattis

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It’s this common framework that ensures that the infantry, artillery and armour can seamlessly integrate to plan and execute operations; while at a higher level the army, air force and naval forces can similarly join together to execute joint operations as an orchestra of war. An armed forces doctrine also ensures that its government, other government departments, agencies and coalition partners understand its purpose and approach to warfare.

So why doctrine? In summary, doctrine lies at the heart of any armed force; it determines identity, culture, ethos and esprit de corps. It provides valuable insights into the organisation’s past, its future and how its commanders will use the power they have been entrusted with. It guides their actions towards the overall achievement of national objectives. Doctrine serves as a guide for action and secures the future for future generations of commanders, soldiers, sailors and airmen. An armed forces without doctrine is like a compass without a needle.

Blog Refrences

British Army Doctrine Publication, Army Doctrine Primer, 2011

Call Sign Chaos, Mattis, 2019

Dictionary of Basic Military Terms, A Soviet View, US Government Printing Office

Field Service Regulations, Part 1: Operations, 1909

NATO, AJP-3(A) Allied Doctrine for Joint Operations, 2007

On War, Clausewitz, 1832

Soviet Military Strategy, Sokolovski, 1963


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