Is NATO Land Operations Doctrine Aiming Too High?

August 6, 2021
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As a mechanized infantry platoon leader more than 20 years ago, I practiced conducting a fighting retreat following a hypothetical invasion of Western Europe. We used NATO Standardization Agreements to ensure that any allied infantry unit could take over the prepared demolition charges any allied combat engineer unit had prepared in order to slow the enemy’s advance. I never had to use this training, but I have subsequently witnessed the value of NATO standardized procedures in exercises and operations all over the globe. As a result, I appreciate their importance in the planning and execution of NATO operations.

Unfortunately, it is harder to say the same about NATO’s efforts to standardize abstract concepts involving strategic thinking and leadership philosophy. A series of NATO doctrinal documents — specifically Allied Joint Doctrine for Land Operations, Allied Land Tactics, and Command and Control of Allied Land Forces — seek to codify alliance thinking for all tactical land operations. Yet, the concepts they try to define vary too widely for standardization, both across space and time, as well as between the culturally and historically distinct states in the alliance.



The shortfalls of NATO’s current approach to codifying doctrine have become obvious in my own experience trying to teach and implement concepts like “the manoeuvrist approach” and “mission command.” Based on these two examples, I argue NATO doctrine should “aim lower.” Establishing common language and procedures across the alliance is a sufficiently lofty goal. When it comes to doctrine, though, the alliance would do better to acknowledge the different doctrinal cultures that will inevitably persist instead of trying to standardize them. We can expect everyone to agree on the layout of a form for prepared demolitions. But we cannot expect every military in NATO to think the same way.

The “Manoeuvrist Approach”

Allied Joint Doctrine for Land Operations explains that the “manoeuvrist approach” is “an indirect and sophisticated” one that “focuses on applying strength against vulnerability and recognises the importance of cohesion and will.”

As an instructor at the Belgian Defence College, I would often cover the “manoeuvrist approach” by dividing my class into two groups, then asking one to define the term and the other to identify the necessary conditions for its successful application. After that, I would have them switch whiteboards and would give them a shot at correcting or completing the other group’s work. In a class of 20 to 25 students from roughly 10 nations, we often ended up with as many definitions of the “manoeuvrist approach” as there were officers in the room. In the ensuing discussion, we inevitably came away with the realization that there was much more to the concept than what our official doctrine provided.

The history and current debate surrounding the “manoeuvrist approach” helps explain this confusion. Many people situate its historical origins in the German blitzkrieg of World War II and contrast it with the supposedly mindless attrition of World War I. But this narrative is too simple. Maneuver warfare really originated at the end of World War I and was further developed during the interbellum period. Moreover, the reduction of the conflict to the Western Front very much colors the popular view of World War I as the paragon of attrition by ignoring the doctrinal innovation that occurred on the Eastern Front.

Matters only become more complicated in applying the concept today. First, there is the ongoing transition to Multi-Domain Operations or, in NATO’s parlance, Joint All Domain Operations. As a concept, maneuver warfare originated in the land domain, and redefining it for joint operations remains a challenge. But this pales in comparison to the confusion the addition of non-physical domains creates today. Concepts like “cross-domain maneuver” or “cross-domain deterrence” abound and do not seem to be stabilized just yet.

Secondly, even in the original land domain, recent practice has shown that maneuver warfare at the tactical level is not as universal as some may think or like it to be. Debate over the relative merits of the “manoeuvrist approach” is alive and well. Recent battles, such as those in Mosul and Marawi, have generated books and articles questioning the unquestionable — the absolute merit of maneuver and decisive battle, as compared with attrition or even positional warfare. Even Desert Storm, whose well-known flanking move is often touted as a textbook example of maneuver warfare, involved more pure attrition of the enemy than most of us care to remember.

In short, as my students regularly discover in class, the “manoeuvrist approach” advocated in NATO doctrine is neither universally applicable nor universally understood. 

Mission Command

The first paragraph of Allied Joint Doctrine for Land Operations on the topic of mission command explains that, in contrast to “detailed command”, mission command is “based on the principle of centralized planning and decentralized execution that promotes maximum freedom of action and initiative.” But, just like the perceived dichotomy between maneuver and attrition, this contrast between mission command and detailed command is an extreme simplification of reality. Moreover, the fact that NATO doctrine does not provide a definition of the concept but only long and indirect descriptions is not helpful to readers’ understanding.

The concept of mission command also has its origins in the success of German doctrine at the start of World War II. Subsequently, the U.S. military sought to apply this concept in the context of AirLand Battle, and it was subsequently transferred to NATO doctrine. In short, this concept has been “borrowed” twice and, in both cases, the need for doctrine to be culturally embedded was given short shrift.

Adding to the confusion, the U.S. Army decided in 2012 that its command and control warfighting function was to be renamed “mission command”, which means there are now no fewer than three definitions of mission command: the warfighting function, formerly known as “command and control”; the philosophy historically derived from the German auftragstaktik; and finally the command and control system(s), those procedures and technological tools that facilitate the command and control of operations. When even a member of the writing team for the 2019 U.S. Army doctrine publication Mission Command struggles to succinctly describe what it is and what it isn’t, there seems to be a problem. 

Confusion in Action

Despite the best efforts of NATO doctrinal documents, the understanding and implementation of the concept of mission command still differs widely across NATO forces. So much so, in fact, that it would be better to recognize these differences rather than pursue the chimera of standardization. An example from my own experience illustrates what this confusion can look like in practice.

During one of my deployments, my company was part of a battalion made up of three nationalities that took part in an action involving participants from a total of six countries. Our battalion was put on alert in the middle of the night, and I was told to be ready with two of my platoons to move into a city on foot. I was not, however, told what the mission was. Eventually news trickled down that we were to participate as a cordon force in a time-sensitive search operation in order to avert an imminent terrorist attack. We were not given an exact location or target, and I am not even sure the battalion had that information at the time of departure.

As we moved into the city, one of my soldiers waved a passing car away from our battalion-sized force. In slapstick fashion, the driver was then identified as our target, and an entire platoon of the theater reserve rushed the car with my bewildered soldier still standing next to it.

The trouble in this case came from the interaction between units from different countries with different command approaches. My platoons were used to receiving a mission and then having the freedom to figure out how to achieve the objective. As a result, they were frustrated when they were treated in a very restrictive way and did not even receive a complete mission. Suffice it to say, had we been told the target of our operation, my soldier clearly would have done something else instead of just wave him away.

The point is not simply that mission command is always the right approach. If commanders used this approach with subordinate units used to being told what to do in minute detail, the results would be equally counterproductive and potentially more dangerous.


The problem with concepts like the “manoeuvrist approach” or mission command is that they are not universally applicable, nor universally understood. This leads to vague definition in NATO documents, which, in turn, creates the kind of confusion I observed.

The cultural and historical diversity of the 30 different NATO nations makes it unfeasible to do away with this conceptual confusion through standardization. Diversity is a given and, if there is any truth to Peter Drucker’s quote that culture eats strategy for breakfast, I am sure that it would treat NATO doctrine as a late evening snack. Alliance members don’t even approach NATO doctrine in the same way. Some, mainly smaller, NATO members treat the alliance’s doctrine as capstone documents for their national doctrine, while others seem to ignore it completely when working nationally. That, in itself, guarantees that its loftier concepts will not receive the same attention everywhere.

It would be useful for NATO to accept that all its operations so far have been multinational ones, and that all the participating nations have their own backgrounds and organizational cultures. NATO doctrine should account for the impact this has on collaboration — a tactical commander who assumes that everyone will think and act like him is in for a nasty surprise. NATO can minimize these surprises by writing doctrinal documents that acknowledge and discuss these differences rather than trying to simply standardize them away.



Jeroen Verhaeghe is a Belgian infantry battalion commander with previous postings in Belgium (nationally and with NATO) and as an exchange officer in the United States. He has deployed to Kosovo and to Iraq and, until recently, was assigned to the Belgian Defence College as an instructor in land operations. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Belgian Defence College, the Belgian Land Component, or the Ministry of Defence.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Sgt. John Yountz)