TCS Daily


Is There a Doctrine in the House? Special Forces Link Technology to Strategy

By James Pinkerton - October 23, 2001 12:00 AM

(Editor's Note: This article is the first of two parts on the interplay of military doctrine and technology)

Over the weekend, Americans watched green-tinted images of U.S. military personnel operating deep inside Afghanistan, proving the bold claim of the Army's Rangers: "We own the night." On Friday night, U.S. service personnel were able to occupy Afghan turf via parachute and helicopter; they could even secure an airfield long enough to fly planes in and out.

And while it's tempting to put the emphasis on the "gee whiz" high technology - U.S. leaflets urging Talibanites to surrender assert, "Our bombs are so accurate we can drop them right through your windows" - it's equally important to recognize the importance of lessons learned from the past.

After all, less than 10 years ago, the last U.S. Joint Special Operations failed. The mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, on October 3, 1993, left 18 Rangers dead despite significant U.S. superiority in firepower and technology. But in the current campaign, a mere six weeks after "911," America's forces are operating freely, by air and by land, in Osama Bin Laden's back yard.

What has changed? One answer is: better doctrine, that is, new and improved plan for operations. Under the headline, "U.S. Got a Chance to Show It Learned Lessons of the Past," The New York Times' Michael R. Gordon discusses the latest doctrinal iteration - called the Doctrine of Joint Special Operations. For example the new strategic outlook instructs special operations forces to "seize initiative." "Initiative," of course, is another word for "surprise."

The current campaign in Afghanistan calls for using surprise tactics to deprive the enemy of his capacity to fight. "The Taliban now knows we can hit them on the ground, from any direction," one defense official told The Washington Times' Rowan Scarborough. "They cannot spend the same night in the same place two nights in a row." This new Doctrine of Joint Special Operations is extraordinarily effective right now.

Colin Gray, Director of the Centre for Security Studies at the University of Hull, in his book Modern Strategy explains the importance of doctrine in successful military campaigns. "Military organizations have to develop and employ doctrine... if they are to train large numbers of people with equipment in sufficiently standard modes of behavior for them to be predictable instruments of the commander's will." In other words, proper theory, as well as planning for operations, is what combines people and machines into an effective fighting force.

Indeed, a look back at history shows that inferior doctrine can undercut the advantage that might otherwise be gained by superior weaponry.

One might consider, for example, the experience of the French prior to World War I. Having been humiliated by the Kaiser's armies in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War, the French correctly assumed that Prussia, now unified into Germany, would be the next enemy. But as World War I began, they were so focused on the goal of recapturing the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine - which Germany had annexed as a war trophy - that they lost sight of the real goal, which was winning the overall war.

Misguided in their thinking, they formulated Plan XVII, which enshrined the doctrine of offensive à outrance - that is, "to the utmost, even to the death" - and followed it so obsessively in attacking one area, to the east, that they neglected defending to the north.

In other words, their doctrinal mistakes were two-fold: they focused on one particular patch of territory, and they relied on infantry attacks, using bayonets to the death - their own, as it turned out.

So the French troops - dressed in blue tunics and bright red pants, making them easy targets for German machine-gunners - futilely and fatally hurled themselves at German fortifications in Alsace-Lorraine, mostly ignoring the more rationally uniformed German forces wheeling through Belgium, threatening Paris from another direction.

The irony is that the French, preoccupied with infantry attacking, neglected what could have been their real strength, which was a technological advantage. They had arguably the best single weapon of the war, the "75." Formally known as the 75 mm field gun, model 1897, the "75" was a brilliant piece of Gallic engineering; its recoil system consisted of two hydraulic cylinders that enabled the artillery piece to be loaded, aimed, and fired much more quickly than other weapons, which had to be manhandled back into their proper firing position after each shot. Thus the "75" could fire up to 25 rounds a minute. Yet for all its firepower, the "75" did the French little good in the early years of the war, because the faulty French doctrine crippled its effective use.

Indeed, the doctrine of offensive à outrance undercut what had been one of France's greatest martial strengths, its artillery. Napoleon, after all, had started out as a lieutenant in the artillery; even late in his career he would take time to sight his pieces on the battlefield. Possessed of a deep respect and admiration for what a cannonball could do to a square of infantry, Bonaparte was eager to cannonade his enemies for hours before the first attack, thus establishing the modern norm that battles would be long and noise-filled. But in the century after Waterloo, the French forgot all these lessons, even as artillery became even more deadly.

And so while the "75" was comparatively light, weighing just 1140 kilograms, it was too slow to keep up with the heroic bayonet-charge assaults ordered by General Joseph Joffre, the French army chief of staff. For Joffre, as West Point military historian Robert A. Doughty has noted, the "supreme weapon" of the infantry was always the bayonet, and "the mission of the infantry was 'glorious above all.'"

Needless to say, the idea of cold-steel charges instead of the hot-shrapnel barrages was a failure; the French suffered two million casualties in the first six months of the war. But when they figured out how to use the "75" properly - after deploying a new doctrine, emphasizing long-range attrition - they stabilized their front; indeed, the "75" was so good that later in the war the Americans used it, too.

If World War I, with its four years of static carnage, was perhaps the nadir of military thinking, it's no surprise that World War II was an improvement - although sadly, the bad guys did some of the best doctrinal thinking. Hungry for revenge after their defeat in 1918 - just as the French were after their defeat in 1871 - the Germans were obsessed with attack, too. But as they formulated their Blitzkrieg doctrine, they understood that mere élan wouldn't do the trick; they needed mobile firepower as well. Indeed, they figured out how to make artillery move even faster than infantry, in the form of tanks firing shells and airplanes dropping bombs.

Together, these innovations, intellectual and technological, nearly won the war for the Nazis. Indeed, only when the Allies came up with even better ideas, as well as better inventions, did the war turn decisively in our favor. Which leads to the point of a forthcoming column: a look at how America combined superior thinking and tinkering to create the doctrines that staved off World War III and won the Cold War.
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