June 24, 2016

Exploring the Politics of Military Doctrine



Late last year, the Journal of Strategic Studies published a forum on “Understanding Military Doctrine,” bringing together scholars from both the United States and abroad. The forum brought to bear a variety of perspectives to understanding military doctrine. Those perspectives are helpful in illuminating challenges the Department of Defense will face as it tries to encourage greater innovation in the U.S. Armed Forces.

At least two articles in the forum, from two of the country’s most prominent thinkers on military affairs, demonstrate something of a paradox in how and why organizations adopt doctrines. For example, in the foreword to the forum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist Barry Posen argues that military organizations adopt doctrines to reduce uncertainty. Bureaucracies in general implement standard operating procedures and hierarchical structures to provide stability in the provision of a public good or service. Military organizations face even higher levels of uncertainty than other government agencies though.

Posen highlights five sources of uncertainty military organizations and four functions doctrines fulfill in managing them. The sources of uncertainty include domestic politics, potential intervention by civilian officials who provide resources to the organization, differing motivations of organization members, few opportunities to practice the organization’s craft realistically, and the fact that the organization’s purpose, when put into action, is to destroy another similar organization.

Those last two sources are particularly important causes of uncertainty. Militaries are idle for much of their existence in regards to their main organizational task, but once mobilized they attempt to destroy another organizations and sacrifice parts of themselves in the process. According to Posen, as a tool for managing these problems, doctrines signal to allies and adversaries that the organization is prepared to fulfill its purpose, signals to civilian officials and society what resources the organization needs, provides organizational leaders a conceptual framework and source of cohesion for their subordinates, and motivates members of the organization.

In another article in the forum, Antulio Echevarria II, a West Point graduate who currently holds the Elihu Root Chair in Military Studies at the U.S. Army War College, also addressed the relationship between military doctrine and uncertainty. Echavarria explored how the post-Cold War U.S. military failed to adopt a variety of doctrines to deal with uncertainty in defense planning following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Armed with visions of an information-based revolution in military affairs (RMA), defense planners denigrated historical experience in pre-industrial age wars that could have provided a variety of doctrinal templates. Instead, the U.S. military doubled down on its preference for conventional war, retaining its Cold War doctrine, and grafting RMA technology into its existing structure. “Information technology was increasingly integrated into defense hardware of all types,” Echevarria writes, “but no doctrinal concepts developed suitable for the full spectrum of conflict.”

Taken together, Posen and Echevarria are arguing that military organizations adopt doctrine to manage organizational uncertainty, but in times of uncertainty a variety of doctrines are necessary. So how do military organizations choose their doctrine? And what would it take for them to consider a variety of doctrines?

Posen argues in his foreword to the forum that, even though doctrine is a way to manage organizational uncertainty, certain tradeoffs need to be made. Those tradeoffs, Posen writes, “are themselves reflective of the politics of the moment.” The politics of the moment at the end of the Cold War, which Echevarria discusses in his article, were a product of the “peace dividend” that the collapse of the Soviet Union would provide. Near-record levels of defense spending during the Reagan military build-up of the 1980s led to exploding deficits. Absent the threat of the Red Army pouring through the Fulda Gap and into Western Europe, resources would be redirected to deficit reduction and social spending.

Echevarria is right that the 1990s should have been a propitious time for the U.S. military to explore a range of potential doctrines to prepare for an uncertain future. Instead, the military services fought to hold onto as much as they could in the face of falling resources. As retired Army officer Richard Lacquement has documented, military leaders presented a unified front that stymied different attempts to alter the U.S. military’s force structure and doctrine between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror.

General Colin Powell, at the time chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, started the process with his proposed “Base Force”—a plan conceived before the fall of the Berlin Wall for a 25 percent reduction in the size of the U.S. military but no change in force structure or doctrine. Military leaders initially balked at the planned force reduction, but they eventually signed on to avoid more fundamental changes. This unified front remained steady in the face of various attempts by civilian policymakers to induce doctrinal change over the course of the next decade-plus.

While current attempts by Pentagon officials to spur innovation in the U.S. military have thus far focused largely on technology, the need to address doctrine will eventually arise. Given its importance to military organizations, policymakers need to be cognizant of what it takes to spur doctrinal change as much or more so than technological change to avoid a similar situation to the one Echevarria describes: a technologically-exquisite military prepared for one type of war, but fighting one in which its chosen doctrine is irrelevant.

Given the fact that falling resources were a contributing factor to doctrinal stagnation in the 1990s, it is tempting to say that increased defense budgets will lead to a variety of doctrinal options. However, scholars have found little evidence of a causal connection between the total resource level and innovation. And in times of uncertainty and rapid technological change, limiting defense spending can also limit poor investments. Instead, officials should learn from their post-Cold War predecessors and ensure that military leaders have fewer chances to unify to stymie civilian attempts to encourage change. Resource competition between the military services is one source of innovation. And the resulting attempts by each individual organization to manage uncertainty through doctrine can provide the variety of doctrinal options Echevarria encourages.