Wisdom in Doctrine? Success, the Role of Force, and the Unknowable


I have rarely read words of wisdom in military doctrine. At best, doctrine provides broad principles and guidelines, along with best practices that are applicable in a limited set of operational environments. At worst, they offer no principles or guidelines and little more than a set of assumptions that are supposed to work as long as the enemy and the environment cooperate.

Yet, the new Army Operating Concept does indeed contain nuggets of wisdom that provide a strong foundation for the future force. The Army Operating Concept demonstrates a wise understanding of three important insights that are essential to developing and employing the Army’s future capabilities: the strategic character of success, the important but incomplete role of firepower, and the unknowable nature of the future security environment. Though translating these insights into action will be difficult, the Army deserves credit for taking the important first step of recognizing their significance for its future capabilities.

Regardless of the document’s shortfalls, the following statement from the preface carries with it vital and fundamental insights that America’s national security leaders would do well to remember when initiating and guiding our country’s military activities in the coming decades:

The problem we [the Army] are focusing on is how to “Win in a Complex World.” “Win” occurs at the strategic level and involves more than just firepower. Complex is defined as an environment that is not only unknown, but unknowable and constantly changing.

The first insight is that ultimate success is determined at the strategic level. Winning on the battlefield is critical, but it is not the same as strategic success. Acknowledging the difference between the two is a difficult idea to accept, because strategic success requires that the Army reach beyond its own boundaries –winning at the strategic level requires bridging the divide between military and civilian leadership. Crossing this divide is fraught with challenges that are sometimes addressed successfully but sometimes unsuccessfully.

Achieving strategic success cannot be accomplished without involvement from civilian leadership. Strategic success is determined by the accomplishment of strategic goals, and those goals are inseparably related to and affected by the methods used to achieve them.   Thus, strategic success requires a constant and consistent dialogue between the people who establish those goals (civilian leadership) and those who have primary responsibility for achieving those goals (military leadership) so that each can understand how one affects the other. Our greatest strategic victories inseparably linked civilian and military involvement – the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. As Eliot Cohen has shown, civilian leadership has a sacrosanct responsibility to be involved, to ask hard questions, and to make hard decisions.  Although difficult, such a dialogue between military and civilian leadership is absolutely critical so that the strategic goals and the ways of achieving those goals will be appropriately aligned.

The second insight is that winning requires more than firepower. This challenges institutional assumptions made even about operations and tactics. It is conceptually impossible to separate an army from its guns, tanks, and artillery. An army without its weapons is a captain without a ship — you might get where you want to go without them, but it’s going to be a long swim.

If the coming decades of warfare resemble this century’s first decade and a half of warfare, then terms like “complex” and “hybrid” (as per Frank Hoffman) are appropriate descriptors. Warfare will cover the spectrum of political, economic, and military activities. Combat, intelligence, cyber, informational, psychological, unconventional, and stability operations will be employed together and often overlap in geographical and temporal space. As per the “three block war” concept of warfare (or, the “four block war”), military forces may need to conduct a variety of types of operations sequentially or concurrently. Making matters more difficult, they may have to move back and forth between these activities with little warning, and a linear progression cannot be assumed.

The Army is, at its heart and soul, currently an organization of firepower. The three main “tribes” of the Army are the infantry, armor (including cavalry), and artillery branches, and all three excel at delivering firepower. The fact that every Army Chief of Staff since 1903 except for two (Leonard Wood and Peter Schoomaker) have come from one of these three branches testifies to their incontestable authority over the organization. The control that these sub-groups wield is not just a reflection of organizational priorities, but the control and power that their members have at all levels of command ensure that their principles, preferences, and culture are reinforced and nurtured.

The recognition, then, that success “involves more than just firepower” inherently threatens the status quo. The leaders who drove the Army Operating Concept—Generals Odierno, Perkins, and McMaster—are all soldiers of firepower, yet they have come to recognize that only the full breadth of operational and tactical capabilities will meet the strategic goals of the future. As with any change to the status quo, Army leaders will face organizational resistance in translating this recognition into practice, and their success will ultimately depend on how they overcome such resistance.

Finally, in my opinion, the most challenging but powerful insight is the recognition that the security environment of the future is one that is “unknowable and constantly changing.” How do we fight an enemy we do not yet know? How do we train for an environment we do not fully understand? How do we build and structure an organization—its processes, its capabilities, its cultures—to address what is “unknowable?”

These questions are both individually and organizationally disconcerting. The organizational discipline of a military organization is built on the individual trust that the soldier has for her or his leadership. At a fundamental level, it is much harder to develop trust when sacrifices necessary to conduct the training and preparation for war are inconclusively linked to the environment that soldiers will face. The Cold War carried a certain amount of psychological stability because the enemy and the environment were known, and all activities could be focused on preparing accordingly. Soldiers could trust that their leaders were doing everything possible to prepare them for the potential war, because the organization could confidently describe it. Few people and even fewer organizations are comfortable when facing an unknown future, yet that is exactly what our military forces currently face. We must become comfortable both in facing the unknown and in learning (together) how to address its challenges.

But a known future does not guarantee success. History demonstrates that even when we think we know the enemy and the environment, our first battles of war prove to be less than victorious. Instead, they are opportunities to adapt and innovate in ways that lead to future success. This is the essential organizational quality of facing an unknowable future—that all preparations must be made to minimize losses in the first operational engagements; with success resting in the organization and its members’ abilities to adapt and innovate. The Army Operating Concept itself quotes the historian Sir Michael Howard, who wrote, “No matter how clearly one thinks, it is impossible to anticipate precisely the character of future conflict. The key is to not be so far off the mark that it becomes impossible to adjust once that character is revealed.”

An unknowable and changing environment is not an excuse for inaction and the Army does not take it as such, but new skills must be developed. Adaptation and innovation are now buzzwords bordering on inconsequence, but developing these characteristics within the individual officers and soldiers of the future Army is not just beneficial but obligatory. We simply cannot send unprepared soldiers into war — they will fail and our citizenry demand that we do not sacrifice our soldiers as such. But adaptation and innovation are often in direct conflict with discipline and following orders. The concept of mission command (i.e., the ability of leaders to take initiative within the constraints of their orders) addresses this challenge, but it is far from a complete answer until it is made a permanent part of the organization. Mission command must be internalized at the individual level in order to develop independent and creative leaders who follow orders but also know when and how to challenge those orders if they contravene strategic success. These leaders must be trusted to act without oversight, and they should not be terminally punished (in a career sense) when their initiative does not succeed. As adaptability and innovation become real at the individual level, there will be an ever-present tension within the organization between stability and instability, initiative and obedience. Whether the Army can successfully balance these tensions and translate concept into action is unknown at this time, but the intent has certainly been established.

It is always easier to throw rocks than to build walls, yet the Army has established a solid foundation towards meeting the complex security challenges of the future. The Army’s 2014 Army Operating Concept surely has weaknesses, but it also reflects an organization that, at least for now, is confident enough to say, “We have more work to do.” There is honor to be found in humility.


Josh Jones is an operations research analyst with the Center for Army Analysis at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He holds a PhD in international relations from American University’s School of International Service, a master’s degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and he served as a cavalry officer in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2004 with one tour in Iraq. The views expressed herein are those only of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army