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)
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”,