Thursday, December 27, 2018

Doctrine - Battle of Vella Gulf

We’ve often discussed tactics and strategy and have occasionally touched on doctrine.  In simplified form, doctrine is a set of standardized actions in response to a given situation. 

For example, the Navy/Marines have devised a doctrine for executing an amphibious assault.  That the doctrine is an unworkable fantasy doesn’t change the fact that it’s the accepted doctrine.

As another example, a naval surface group would have an anti-air doctrine – how to position the various ships, how to allocate defensive measures, whether to emphasize passive or active defenses, and so on.  Of course, there is a great deal of overlap between doctrine and tactics.

The advantage of having doctrine is that the individual soldiers, sailors, ships, and planes don’t need detailed orders since they understand the guiding doctrine and can act accordingly with the knowledge that everyone else understands the same situation and will act in a unified manner – at least, that’s the theory.

The classic example of the successful use of naval doctrine was British Admiral Nelson’s engagement at Trafalgar.  Nelson devised a new doctrine that provided general guidance about his intent to his Captains but left room for the specifics to change.  His plan entailed cutting off, isolating, and overwhelming the last third of the enemy fleet.  With this guidance in place, Nelson and his Captains were freed from any concerns about the order of their ships or the exact placement or maneuvering as long as the individual Captains acted under the overall guidance.  This greatly reduced the need for in-battle communications and helped reduce the inevitable confusion of battle.  Every Captain had all the information they needed prior to the battle, in the form of Nelson’s doctrine.  From Wiki,

Nothing is sure in a sea battle, so he left his captains free from all hampering rules by telling them that "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy." In short, circumstances would dictate the execution, subject to the guiding rule that the enemy's rear was to be cut off and superior force concentrated on that part of the enemy's line. (1)

One can debate whether Nelson’s new tactics were truly doctrinal since, by definition, doctrine is a standardized set of actions and his tactics were not, at that time, standardized across the entire British Navy. They were, however, standardized across his fleet. This devolves into a semantics discussion and is irrelevant to the point of the post.

The point is that a set of standard, generalized guidance (which is what doctrine is) allowed the British ships to operate with minimal orders, each secure in the knowledge that every other ship and Captain in the fleet would operate in the same way.  There was no need to issue orders in the midst of the battle and no need to ask for orders.

Let’s move, now, to WWII and the early naval battles around Guadalcanal.  US Navy pre-war and early war doctrine had the destroyers tied tightly to the battle line (cruisers, since the battleships had been sunk at Pearl Harbor and not yet replaced).  The initial night battles revealed the folly of this doctrine as the US Navy suffered multiple defeats and the US destroyers were ineffective and poorly used.

As the Navy gained operating experience, doctrine changed, culminating in a decisive night battle in which the destroyers were allowed to operate independently.  The battle resulted in an overwhelming victory for the US at the Battle of Vella Gulf.

Rather than being tied to cruisers, six US destroyers, operating under Comdr. Frederick Moosbrugger, sailed independently to intercept a Japanese resupply force of four destroyers.  The independence doctrine was further enhanced by a flexible plan of attack that was simple and allowed for the inevitable unexpected actions by the enemy.  
Moosbrugger’s destroyers were split into two groups of three ships each and each group thoroughly understood what to do and what the other group would do regardless of how the enemy behaved.  The Destroyer History Foundation has an excellent and detailed description of the battle for those who would like more information. (2)

Salient points of the doctrine included:

  • Attack instantly upon initial sighting, no waiting, no orders needed
  • Torpedoes first, hold gunfire until the torpedoes reached their targets
  • Operate in two offset groups, each able to take advantage of the enemy regardless of which way the enemy turned (cross fire)
  • The two groups would provide mutual support

Again, one can argue at what point the doctrine descends into tactics but that’s irrelevant.  The main doctrinal point was that, for the first time, the destroyers were free to operate independently and this totally changed how the destroyers behaved and what tactics they could use.

USS Craven - Vella Gulf Participant

This is all very interesting but what can we learn from it?

For starters, the US Navy has no battle doctrine of any kind that I’m aware of.  The Navy has technology instead of doctrine.  In other words, our battle leaders are taught to embrace technology and, when war comes, they’ll be expected to figure out how to use it.  That means that no one but the single commander who formulates the plan will know what the plan is and that, in turn, requires extensive communications during the battle – communications that history has taught us will not be clear and successful in the fog of battle.  We need doctrine instead of technology so that every commander understands how we intend to fight.

Doctrine needs to be validated.  The Navy’s pre-WWII doctrine of tying the destroyers to the battle line proved unworkable because circumstances changed and the Navy failed to anticipate the new circumstances.  The doctrine must be exercised under every imaginable set of circumstances so as to anticipate and prepare for the unexpected, as best as possible.  To the best of my knowledge, the pre-war Navy never exercised night battles in the crowded confines of nearby islands even though that set of circumstances should have been foreseeable in a Pacific campaign.  

To be fair, the Navy never anticipated the complete loss of the battleship fleet on the first day of the war and so they never exercised cruisers and destroyers as the main battle line.  However, that is exactly the kind of alternative exercise that should be practiced.  What if we are forced to attempt naval operations without carrier air cover?  We should exercise that and see what happens and what new doctrine that might call for.

We don’t even practice our main, anticipated doctrine – we don’t have any so I don’t know what it would be but, presumably, it would involve carriers.  We’ve discussed the requirement to operate carriers in groups of four and yet we never exercise that way.  To the extent that that is our battle doctrine, none of our battle leaders know it or have ever practiced it.

Peacetime is a precious commodity for a combat organization.  It is the time to exercise, develop doctrine and tactics, and prepare for combat.  Peacetime is a gift of immeasurable value to a warfighting organization and yet we are squandering it with every conceivable activity except combat preparation.  We need to get our minds right, assume a combat mentality and start preparing by developing and testing battle doctrine


(1)Wikipedia, “Battle of Trafalgar”, retrieved 11-Dec-2018,

(2)Destroyer History Foundation website, “Battle of Vella Gulf”,


  1. The RN Captains at Trafalgar had been fighting their ships for years and knew how their technology worked. Can the same be said for USN Captains ?
    The current USN fixation on networking looks to be the modern version of the Victorian RNs complex flag signal book. How can one create doctrine when one has never tested ones tactical systems at fleet scale ?
    It would be disastrous to find the your networked battle
    management grinds to a halt at 25 ships for example.

    Sir George

    1. "The RN Captains at Trafalgar had been fighting their ships for years and knew how their technology worked. Can the same be said for USN Captains ?"
      The Royal Navy battle fleet was horrendously unprepared for war, the peacetime budget simply didn't allow for mass firings of the cannon, practice was generally dry firing, and fleet at war fought infrequently, between 1778 and 1805 HM Victory fought in only 5 battles.

      The smaller ships, with smaller crews, fewer guns, and Prize rich captains, tended to be far better trained.

      What Nelsons Fleet did have was a clear goal, "bring the enemy to battle at equal or better odds and destroy them".

      Everything else, in theory, came from that.

  2. Well, maybe the reason USN doesn't have doctrine starts from the fact USA really still hasn't acknowledged it has adversaries? I guess you could keep it generic BUT in today's age of power-point and fancy words, I'm afraid a general doctrine would just turn into a mumble jumble of paragraph after paragraph devoid of any meaning.

    You could break it down to who are we fighting: superior forces of China with USA being the weaker, inferior in numbers force. Near peer fight against Russia, probably pretty even on the sea BUT be prepared for lots of EW, cyber, feints,etc....
    Last would be all the other conflicts: NK or Iran (Gulf), where we should have superiority but pretty messy to deal with.

    Doctrine like training is very dangerous: you might learn something! Far better and easier to just wonder around on cruise ships and not worry about what to do if the shit hits the fan. Somebody way up on the pay scale will know what to do, right?

    Even if technology has replaced doctrine and all this networking, data centric eye in the sky wizardry works (unlikely!), the future Nimitz that will be left behind to make the call, where and how did he get his training? Video games?

  3. Before WWII the navy had annual (???) "Fleet Problems"... They had red vs blue wargames with battleship vs carrier or cruiser etc fleets. They seemed to try experimental things and different scenarios. Do we do anything like that today?? Because it seems we dont have any exercises that arent scripted to the point of being worthless. Those Fleet Problems had winners and losers, and we learned from them. They seem invaluable towards forming doctrine based on learning what works and what wont or is questionable. The assumptions of technology and networking being functional in a hostile environment are dangerous and foolhardy.
    Im not sure what is accomplished during a RIMPAC, but I saw a blurb about the recent. Nato exercise: "Trident Juncture focuses on cyber defense, extreme weather conditions, how to respond to critical infrastructure attacks and how to coordinate a major defensive operation."
    A great press release, but in between the lines it sounds like gobbledygook... Was there red vs blue? Were there any losers? Were any Admirals, Commodores, or Captains that came out of it with an epiphany about how poorly their ship/squadron performed, or that their tactics/doctrine were unsound?? If not, then it was all just a waste of fuel in my eyes. We need tougher wargames that create winners AND losers, because from those ranks are where we will grow the next generation of thinkers and warriors, rather than administrators...

    1. "Trident Juncture focuses on cyber defense, extreme weather conditions, how to respond to critical infrastructure attacks and how to coordinate a major defensive operation."

      Do you notice the one glaring omission from the blurb? There's absolutely no mention about any offensive operation. Every item was defensive. We should be practicing how to beat an enemy not merely defend!

  4. "For starters, the US Navy has no battle doctrine of any kind that I’m aware of."

    Doctrine exists although you won't find much details on internet! Search for Pacific Fleet Fighting Instructions.

    1. Thanks for reminding about the Pacific Fleet exercises. I think I'll publish a post on the subject.

      As a quibble, the Pacific Fleet exercises are a step in the right direction but fall well short of being actual doctrine in that the battle doctrine has not been adopted by the Navy at large. So, while the participants benefit the Navy, as a whole, does not. A good next step would be for the Navy to start conducting Navy-wide Fleet Problems and developing actual doctrine.

      I've seen reference to the PFFI but never seen a copy - probably understandable.

      Again, thanks!

    2. RE: PFFI. You can get sense of it from open-source writings by ADM Swift. Regardless: doctrine does exist.

    3. I keep up with naval writings pretty closely and I've never seen anything that gave me any sense of doctrine from Adm. Swift. If you have a specific reference, I'd be happy to look at it.

      Regarding the claim that doctrine exists, I have no doubt that the Navy would claim such. That, however, does not make it doctrine. It also does not make it viable doctrine. We have an amphibious assault doctrine as described in our various manuals but it is not viable. It's pure fantasy.

      Further, any viable doctrine that we do have is not practiced. For example, if we have any multi-carrier battle doctrine we never practice it.

      So, while you may be able to claim that doctrine exists and be technically correct, the claim fails utterly to be viable or practiced. Thus, we have no doctrine worth the name. Again, if you want to point me at something, I'll be happy to look at it.

    4. No. You wrote the Navy has no battle doctrine of any kind. Your words.

      I'm telling you it does. The fact you aren't aware of it doesn't mean it's non-existent.

      If you want commanders intent, read any of Swift's articles in USNI Proceedings from last two years or so.

    5. The Navy has no viable doctrine that I'm aware of. If they do have any, they don't practice it. You claiming they do doesn't make it so. I've invited you to offer evidence to support your claim and you have, thus far, declined which leads me to conclude that your claim is based on wishful thinking rather than fact.

      I've read Swift's Proceedings articles and they contain generalities and platitudes rather than doctrine.

      Unless you can produce some specific references, this discussion is concluded.

  5. Shortly after taking command of Destroyer Squadron 23 in October 1943, Arleigh Burke quipped, “The difference between a good officer and a poor one is about ten seconds.” Burke figured that was the time necessary to act after detecting the enemy. And, as described in the post, Burke favored empowering his commanders to attack swiftly and decisively without orders from their commanders.

    The current commander of Destroyer Squadron 23, Captain William Daly, wrote about this in his post Ten Seconds to Live or Die in the December issue of PROCEEDINGS.

    1. That's an interesting response time, according to ADM Burke. You'd never guess he was a destroyerman, would you? :)

      For the old battle line of BBs, that would hardly be enough time to know the DDs had made definitive contact, and simply forget about having enough information to make any decision worth more than than a random guess. Burke was absolutely right, though, in exactly the same way that first Prussian officers in the 1860s and then all German troops down to their NCOs were trained until WWII culled them down to leavings. Burke was as good as Nelson in his day. But had Nelson lost (and survived), he might well have been shot for disobeying the RN's antiquated Fighting Orders of a century before...

  6. Under another admiral at Trafalgar that wasn't willing to disregard the Admiralty's "Fighting Orders", it might have been inconclusive or even a defeat. Probably not a defeat since the Fighting Orders were pretty much designed to prevent a defeat, not win a victory, but it wasn't so much that British captains and crews were used to fighting their ships, they were used to fighting their ships under Nelson's orders. The mid-1941 Wehrmacht or Genghis Khan's ordes come to mind as similarly well-drilled forces. Besides past 10/42 Pacific battles, of course!

  7. Shattered Sword makes the good point that the Japanese really couldn't have behaved much differently at Midway than they actually did simply because they didn't have the doctrine to do any differently, and that you can't simply make that sh*t up on the fly. If you try, you end up in a disorganized fustercluck. You have to have a doctrine of flexibility and lower command initiative or you end up half-assing it until dead.


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