Doctrine, Principles of War, and the Operational Art
Last week I discussed the operational level of war. To summarize, the operational level links strategic objectives to the tactical deployment of military assets. The operational level of war is often referred to as an art, and for good reason. Nevertheless, before we can discuss what makes planning and leading military operations on a large scale an art form we must first start with the set of rules that gives commanders from the same army a common basis of action: that being doctrine. From there we can examine some key metrics for defining sound generalship. Together that should give you a better idea as to what elements make a good operational level military commander.
Doctrine is the set of rules that determines how a given army fights. Ideally these doctrinal precepts are established before an army is organized (or re-organized as the case may be) and equipped. In addition, with a doctrinal set of rules in place it allows for the training of an army's officers and personnel within a coherent conceptual framework providing for enhanced command and control. An army that chooses to ignore this rule making process is at great risk of fighting in an inefficient and unbalanced manner. This of course then makes it vulnerable to enemy's with thought out ideas on war fighting coupled with a trained cadre of officers capable of taking these rules and at the operational level modifying them as need be toward winning battles and campaigns.
By approaching military operations from a common background via an established doctrine the entirety of the command team can act with an expectation of what their fellow officers will do in a given situation. This helps to speed up decision making and the tempo of operations. As such the operational art flows from doctrine. Just know that doctrine is meant to be a framework for decisions and action. When combined with training, education, and experience, doctrine grants a commander the skill set to creatively react and adjust to the ever changing circumstances in battle and ideally leverage this judgement to achieve victory.
It's important to understand that though doctrinal rules for war fighting are important to create, they must not rigidly bind an army. Armies, like any other organization, have a culture, and this culture and the rules that flow from it as well as past experience all work together to shape the character and capabilties of a given army. For instance, the German army of 1939 did not just invent blitzkrieg out of the blue. Rather, reaching back centuries in time, first Prussian, and then German (after the unification) methods of war-fighting had long favored fighting a war of maneuver. This history and experience thus influenced the German officers remaking the German war machine after defeat in the First World War. Nevertheless, doctrine is only part of what goes into creating a commander capable of finding success at the operational level. There are many other elements that come into play. What follows are principles that all armies try to inculcate in their commanders. They are crucial for you to understand. By recognizing these elements of success you can better assess for yourself what is meant when a historian states that for example Patton (pictured here), Rokossovsky, or Manstein were among the best in their respective armies when it came to operational level warfare.
One of the most important principals to focus upon is in examining how well a commander performs at setting the type of campaign goals most likely to have a cascading effect leading to the destruction of an enemy's center of gravity (a strategic objective). When an Army Group or Army level commander creates a plan this ultimatel goal must always be in mind. For instance, destroying an enemy in the field, or capturing an important economic objective. Moreover, these goals, whatever they may be, should be achievable given the commander's appreciation of the current condition of the armies under his command and the logistical backing made available for those armies. A commander must be clear in setting objectives and imbue in those officers which he commands a vivid understanding as to the ultimate goal they are working toward.
From there the commander must also make sure that enough force has been concentrated to achieve the desired effect. As we learned last week one of the keys to war-making at the operational level lies in maintaining tempo. It is not enough to penetrate an enemy's defensive front. One must have the forces and logistical support in place to back a continuous drive into the enemy's defensive depth. Pauses during these pursuit and exploitation phases are deadly, and need to be avoided. A positive by-product of concentrating force is in economizing the effort needed to defeat the enemy. In avoiding attritional battles limited assets are used to greater effect. That means clarity in goal setting, concentration of force, and economy of effort do much toward not only getting everyone on the same page and creating a campaign winning expectation - but also in bolstering the morale of one's own troops.
Soldiers and officers must not only trust their leaders but have confidence in their decision making. This is also why rigidity in planning and the execution of plans, even after contact has been made and plans made days prior become obsolete, is a sign of poor generalship. The better a military leader is at being clear, confident, but also flexible and responsive to changing circumstances the more likely those that serve under his or her command will act as part of a winning team. Morale is further enhanced by those commanders who demonstrate a clear preference for carrying the battle to the enemy and not waiting for the enemy to sieze the initiative. This is not to say that it makes sense to attack at all times - witness Manstein's "backhand blow" of February-March 1943 (which restored the southern half of Germany's eastern front and delivered a stunning defeat to an otherwise surging Red Army). Nonetheless, it is wise to keep the enemy off-balance and in a reactive state - this is often enough to preclude the enemy from putting in motion plans capable of inflicting great harm on one's own command.
An army that tends to control the battlefield or advance is one that tends to fight more efficiently and be more resilient in the face of the inevitable setbacks that will occur. To help avoid such setbacks good commanders secure their own base of supply, lines of communication, and assemble reserves capable of fueling campaigns. With such security conferred it then becomes possible to act creatively. Not just in terms of doing things like ignoring one's own flanks once a breakout has been achieved, but also in terms of creating the conditions for such a breakout. There are many ways of being creative on the battlefield but one of the most important comes via achieving the element of surprise.
Good commanders are one's that are capable of surprising their opponents, destabilizing their ability to effectively respond, and getting within the enemy's decision loop to leverage speed and tempo toward victory. Achieving surprise also confers another benefit: it further engenders flexibility which also helps in holding the initiative once gained. However, to be flexible one has to have the utmost trust and support of all the critical decision makers such as those providing logistical support, close air support, transportation, indirect fire, intelligence and reconnaissance, as well as integrating that support with the fighting elements at the army's cutting edge. What's more, to be a truly effective practioner of the operational art a military commander must get all or nearly all of the above principles right.
Of course, getting it right is what we are talking about when we are discussing generalship. That requires we look at another range of elements influencing what seperates effective commanders from the merely average or mediocre - our topic for next week.