What is doctrine and why is it so important?

Most official definitions talk about doctrine as though it is the bedrock of all things naval. This one comes from the USN’s Naval Doctrine Publication 1 (NDP1) Naval Warfare: “Naval doctrine is the foundation upon which our tactics, techniques, and procedures are built.” This definition gives the impression that doctrine must come first: that it is somehow a precursor for tactics. But the RCN has never had its own doctrine, instead relying upon either NATO or allied nations for its ‘foundations’. But, none has ever been adopted officially as being Canadian. Why not?

John Hattendorf argued that there are doctrines associated with at least four levels of thought – political, military-strategic, operational and tactical (Naval History and Maritime Strategy, Kreiger, pp.241-242). I maintain that doctrine applies only at the operational level where the notional employment of functions and capabilities shape the way in which plans are drawn up and executed. Higher processes are theoretical in nature and their goals are laid down in statements of policy or principle. Tactical activities are described specifically in terms of time, space and physical effects. The guidance for tactical action is procedural in nature, rather than conceptual. Doctrine connects strategy and tactics. It is the key for evaluating the feasibility of political goals with respect to ways and means. Doctrine is a coherent body of knowledge that translates the intent of general goals into specific actions intended to accomplish tasks. This operational crossover zone is where plans are formulated and the capabilities available can be evaluated against the perceived requirements.

Levels Principles Purposes Guidance
Strategic Theoretical Goals Policies
Operational Conceptual Aims Doctrine
Tactical Procedural Objectives Instructions

The RCN always functioned as a bolt-on adjunct to either RN or USN formations. Its tactical activities and objectives did not require a Canadian version of doctrine. The major exception was the creation of Canadian Northwest Atlantic Command during the Second World War. Not surprisingly, the RCN commander, Rear-Admiral Leonard Murray, struggled to get issues of navy-air coordination and USN-RCN cooperation sorted out. It never happened, largely because he was too focused on tactical activities and not on operational aims. His lack of a doctrinal foundation was surely a major impediment.

There are critics of doctrine that believe it is ‘dogma’, but they confuse it with prescriptive procedures, rather than conceptual guidance. Doctrine incorporates the lessons of history and codifies the naval experience gained through both success and failure. Canada has a rich naval history, but it has not been mined for the conceptual lessons that are there to be learned. Instead, we focus on the number of U-boats sunk or the number of corvettes lost, instead of looking for the greater and deeper meaning of these events.

Because doctrine is derived from careful analysis of practical activity, Robert Foulke says it is based on “the practice of seamanship [which] is often complex, demanding imagination and discrimination more that adherence to fixed rules of procedure.” (“Conrad and the Power of Seamanship,” The Great Circle: Journal of Australian Association for Maritime History, Vol. 11 (1989): 15) Naval doctrine is, therefore, completely distinct from that of land warfare. By extension, joint doctrine cannot be exclusive of the conceptual processes of either land or sea warfare, but must recognize that the environment will dictate which functions and capabilities will be dominant in the formation of plans. The mania for uniformity that has ruled the CF since unification has expunged the idea that the services are unique and has promoted the idea that there is only ‘one true doctrine’. I used to tell my students of the Maritime Component Program at the Canadian Force College that a joint commander that did not know the difference between naval and land doctrine was dangerous and probably should not be in command. The MCP has been dead for several years now but the navy has no plans to create the means for naval officers to learn the ways of naval operations.

The products from analysis of joint or naval operations may be technical in nature, but their relevance must be couched in conceptual terms that are related to the roles and functions of sea power. Too often technical details remain the focus of tactical analysis, rather than being translated into conceptual terms. Because of what Milan Vego calls “this obsession with tactics,” that which passes for naval doctrine is viewed skeptically by professionals. (“Obsessed with Tactics: The navy neglects the importance of operational art,” Armed Forced Journal, May 2008) These ‘lessons’ should really be classed as modifications to Standard Operating Procedures or Fighting Instructions. Doctrine, because it is conceptual in nature, remains relatively unchanged except by all but the most profound of technological advancements. When properly recognized, categorized and assessed, these changes are the key drivers to determining new capability requirements. The ability to conceptualize future operations through the analysis of doctrinal trends is the key to defining and justifying future capability requirements.