On War: Understanding the Importance of Doctrine – Forward Observer Shop

On War: Understanding the Importance of Doctrine

Doctrine is an important topic in warfighting, and perhaps the most important area for an intelligence officer to understand.  Doctrine defined is The guiding principles that an adversary uses to plan and execute his operations.  When we understand adversary doctrine, we’re better informed about what he might do in the future because we understand what he’s been trained to do.  Adherence to doctrine is stressed in training to ensure that each unit commander and his troops can work in unison with others to accomplish the mission.  Doctrine applies to conventional adversaries — tanks and infantry soldiers; what we call ‘maneuver warfare’ — much more than it does to irregular adversaries like insurgents, guerrillas, or gangs.  That’s not to say that irregular threats don’t rely on doctrine.  Unlike the soldiers who make up professional militaries, amateur warfighters grouped together in bands or cells typically don’t share the same type of training regimen as any other band or cell.  But we can still observe what insurgents do, find similarities in their tactics, and then deduce some common doctrinal themes that our irregular adversaries share.

There was an old Army Logistics document — literally the stuff of urban legend — that contained quotes about doctrine that read:


“One of the serious problems in planning against the American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals nor do they feel any obligations to follow their doctrine.” — From a Soviet document

“The reason that the American Army does so well in wartime is that war is chaos, and the American Army practices chaos on a daily basis.” – A German General Officer

“If we don’t know what we are doing, the enemy certainly can’t anticipate our future actions.” – Anonymous US Army soldier


Outside the textbooks, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have been training their soldiers on observed Hezbollah battle doctrine.  The 2006 Lebanon War, which pitted the IDF against Hezbollah, is largely regarded as a failure.  The IDF learned a great deal, and one of their top lessons was that air power is not enough to win a guerrilla war.  Another was that their ground forces weren’t as prepared to fight Hezbollah, as Hezbollah was prepared to fight them back.

Throughout the 33-day conflict, Hezbollah routinely hid themselves and their equipment among the Lebanese populace — a move that resulted in civilian casualties and infuriated the Lebanese, even if they weren’t pro-Hezbollah.  Up to that point, the IDF had been training to fight in open areas against invasion, which is a far cry from the population centers in southern Lebanon.  The IDF simply wasn’t prepared to fight against urban tactics and underestimated Hezbollah fighters’ ability to disperse after hit-and-run attacks.  In effect, if the IDF understood the fighting doctrine of Hezbollah, then they sure didn’t let anyone else know.

So in preparation for the next war, the IDF has been holding combat exercises against other IDF units who fight just like Hezbollah.  A few infantry companies have been trained in common Hezbollah tactics, and “form a ‘thinking enemy’ for training units,” according to a senior IDF source at JPost.  “[O]ur training is much more suited to the threat compared to 10 years ago… Today, we train only in closed areas with boulders and hills, and in built-up, urban areas,” the source said.




Jomini, Doctrine, and Intelligence Analysis

A quick story… Antoine Henri Jomini was a Swiss military strategist who as a young officer studied the campaigns of Frederick the Great and Napoleon.  Jomini wrote a book describing the principles of war, called A Treatise on Grand Military Operations, and went looking for a professional army to join.  He first applied to join the French army, and was denied.  Then he applied to the Russian army, and was again denied.  In fact, he’d given a copy of his book to a Russian officer, who scoffed that such a young man — around 20 at the time — could teach nothing to old Russian generals.

He then volunteered as a staff officer on one of Napoleon’s campaigns, and offered a copy of the book to Napoleon, who had a staff officer read it to him.  After the first several pages, Napoleon exclaimed that the book described perfectly his own principles of war — his doctrine that made him such an effective military leader — and he became concerned that his enemies might read the book.  If his enemies understood his principles so clearly, then they could defend against his attacks.  Napoleon said that the treatise contained wisdom that his military professors never taught him and which few generals understood.

So, at the age of 20, Napoleon promoted Jomini to the rank of colonel in the French army, where he became a trusted advisor to Napoleon himself.  During the Prussian campaign, Jomini took leave and said that he would return and see Naploeon in Bamburg (in present-day Bavaria, Germany).

“Bamburg??” Napoleon asked.  “What makes you think that I’m going to Bamburg?”

Jomini replied that after studying him for so long, he knew what maneuver Napoleon would employ against a nearby wing of the Prussian army.  That maneuver would land him in Bamburg to set up his next attack.  By studying the doctrine, Jomini could describe what Napoleon was going to do next.  Bewildered but pleasantly surprised at his young protege, Napoleon agreed to meet Jomini again in Bamburg…


Doctrine & Community Security

Bringing this concept of doctrine back around to SHTF security planning, we have to ask, how well do we understand the threat?  How well do we understand the types of activities or the tactics that they might employ? Just as the Prussians and the Russians would have loved to get a first-hand glance at the principles of Napoleonic warfare outlined so neatly by Jomini, so should we learn about the principles of our adversaries if we’re serious about security.

As an exercise, let’s start examining the characteristics and doctrine of potential irregular foes…

One of the most likely characteristics of SHTF threats is going to be a willingness to survive.  That’s likely to be the number one motivation; not to amass wealth or obtain power, but to simply make it to tomorrow.  I think we can generally apply the Pareto Principle to this threat: eighty percent of irregular threats will be out for survival while twenty percent will be out to amass wealth or obtain power, or to commit violence for pleasure.  (Perhaps ten percent to amass wealth or obtain power, and the other ten percent to commit violence for pleasure.  It’s up for debate based on a number of factors, most notably the human terrain that surrounds you.)

Along with motivations, we have to consider the leadership and organization of SHTF threats.  Based on current and future threats, how large of a group could we expect?  Individuals and small bands of two or three, or perhaps as many as five, will comprise of the largest “gangs” I’ll have to face.  Your area may be different, especially depending on population density. Knowing this, I can make some judgements about their mobility.  The mobility of five individuals is going to be far less restricted than a group of 500.

What kind of leadership will these groups have, and how might they be organized?  I would think that poor leadership and organization are likely to plague these small groups, but it’s going to be impossible to judge the quality of these characteristics for an unknown, potential adversary we haven’t met.  Yet the more we understand about our community and the people who live in it, the better determinations we can make about how ad hoc gangs might be formed and then how they might operate.

The more characteristics we can describe for our prototypical SHTF threat, the better we can begin to describe how he operates.  A large mob is going to have different tactics (or doctrine) than a single criminal, so we may need to observe their level of success.  Criminals are going to stick with what’s working, so the sooner we can identify what works for them (or what will work for them in a SHTF scenario), the better we can understand their doctrine and anticipate what they’re going to do in the future.

Remember when plotting potential courses of action, there’s a Most Likely Course of Action and a Most Dangerous Course of Action.  We refer to these as the MLCOA and MDCOA, respectively.  (Em-ell-ko-ah and em-dee-ko-ah.)  Every infantry and intelligence officer leaves training understanding these concepts.  Charting out what an adversary unit is going to do in the future can be a complex problem, however, the more we understand about doctrine, the unit and its leadership, and their previous engagements, the easier our task becomes.

Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper

P.S. If you’re concerned about where we’re headed as a country, whether on the near-end of the spectrum or the far end of the spectrum (social, political and economic instability; domestic conflict; or collapse of empire), and want to stay informed on what the headlines don’t cover, then I invite you to try us out. If you’re not happy within the first two weeks, I’ll refund your monthly or annual subscription cost – no questions asked. You can get access to our intelligence reporting and training area here.

Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.


  1. Pareto Principle – it’s nice to now have a name for it. ISIS, as described by the Canadian woman model and fighter, is made up of cowards except for a small hardcorp group of some 5,000. That’s about 20% of ISIS. Great article.

  2. Byron Skinner. A good posting but the writer forgets something about US Doctrine. First off there are two different areas cover here doctrine and policy. Doctrine is the movement of formations, policy is how individual soldiers comport themselves. This as you can see leaves a huge hole and that is tactical doctrine at the individual unit level. In both the Soviet and Nazi German Armies at the regimental level and below it was just follow the orders. In the American very often and a three strip Sgt. Squad leader will determine, under his Platoon Leaders supervision, how a mission will be executed…No manual in the world is superior to an NCO who has seen the elephant.

  3. I’m still not clear on the definitions of doctrine and policy but the Russian and Nazi comments referred to at the top of the article really addresses the American soldiers unfettered determination. On the other hand the average Japanese soldier was physically tougher than the american soldier and had better gear (see Shots Fired in Anger) and was a more disciplined soldier but, alas, too disciplined, too obedient – no room for individual decision making and determination, which often proved their undoing.

    And there is no more determined fighter than the citizen-soldier.

    1. Really, gee my father was in the CBI (Merrill’s Marauders) theater during WWII, and yes the Japanese may have had better equipment, but my father who is in his 90s now, can still kick my butt.

      1. The average American soldier was not in the same physical condition as the already-battle-hardened, hand-picked Merrill’s Marauders.

  4. I ran into this article on Facebook but here is my say.

    I found it an excellent guide for me, a tabletop general. Studying and understanding my opponents greatly helps me anticipate their moves and plan accordingly to respond to them.

    It has taught me to identify weak points and threats and either destabilise enemy armies by isolating and removing Key elements and by effectively shutting down their combat potential.

    I have no military education but i have read some books and my father was a military officer who taught me about the basics about doctrine, strategy and tactics.

    A good example I faced was going against someone who had a close range assault unit that relied on stealth to approach. Knowing that he would most likely send it against my lightly armoured ranged unit I stripped away his defence, namely the ability to approach undetected by deploying units that could deal with that. Thus my ranged unit was able to minimize the threat and reduce his flank to a less than optimal fighting capacity.

    The only way he won was the fact that his let’s call them tanks outgunned mine, but I was able to maintain control for most of the tabletop engagement.

    Still a valuable article. I knew he would rely on fast, hard to hit troops in general and I was able to deal with them accordingly.

  5. And we have trained soldiers all over the world in our tactics, basic skills, and techniques…… many who now are our enemy.

  6. Everyone, even churches have doctrine whether written or unspoken. Even if you say we have no doctrine….that is a doctrinal statement. To know that we disregard normal doctrine when in chaos is also doctrinal. Even if it is located only in your subconscious or gross motor skills, you must have orthodoxy (correct doctrine) before you can have orthopraxy (correct practice).

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