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General Erwin Rommel famously said ‘the British write some of the best doctrine in the world; it is fortunate that their officers do not read it’. This quote is now routinely (mis)used to demonstrate how British military attitudes to doctrine have changed.
Despite its common use, Rommel’s quote is more interesting because of what it does not say. It excludes the majority of the Defence workforce; Civil Servants and ‘other ranks’. Defence needs to think beyond the broadest consumption of doctrine. It’s time to move from reading doctrine to considering who is writing it.
This article makes the case for greater democratisation of doctrine. If Defence dares to think differently about exploiting ideas then it can utilise a wider talent pool and create faster feedback loops. Many modern organisations are more complex than the military and do this already. The article firstly shows why doctrine needs to be democratised. It then looks at two organisations that do it already to discuss the positives and negatives of each approach.
What is doctrine, how is it created, and why is it important?
Doctrine is the written record of how a force wishes to operate. The British Army Doctrine Primer describes it as ‘the fundamental principles that guide how military forces conduct their actions, and provides military professionals with their body of professional knowledge’.
Doctrine is the product of analysis conducted in centralised doctrine centres such as the Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre. It is separated into four levels: philosophy, principles, practices, and procedures. Each layer has a distinct purpose which deals with everything from nuclear deterrence to foot drill. In both peace and war, doctrine is at the very heart of the conceptual component of fighting power.
In both peace and war, doctrine is the heart of the conceptual component of fighting power.
The staff who write doctrine are a mix of specialist officers, generalist staff officers, and Civil Servants. Defence is increasingly assigning higher quality officers to these jobs, however the positions remain rotational. This means that individual interests, biases, and other undesirable behaviours, drive the character and development of doctrine. The core problem, however, is less about those who are charged with writing it and more fundamentally about how corporate knowledge is used.
The problem with centralisation
The reliance of centralised teams acting as the primary source of doctrine disregards the vast pool of divergent thought and experience available to Defence. This centralisation privileges a small cohort of writers who become critical decision-makers. One analysis of such centres in 2006 concluded that they ‘increasingly appear to lack foundations of professional principles and theory that would help them discriminate the practical from the impractical’. A senior doctrine writer made similar, albeit less critical, arguments in 2021 by arguing the doctrine had become too complicated to understand. By implication this means that the practical and the impractical aspects of corporate knowledge are separated. The net result is the production of thousands of pages of words that few will ever read in full. Fewer still will fully grasp the interlocking nature, or notice key changes.
Doctrine is organic
Professor Richard Holmes adds ‘doctrine is not just what is taught, or what is published, but what is believed’. To Holmes, doctrine is alive and evolutionary. It is more than the written word and includes what practitioners think doctrine says. This is best described as ‘espoused [or written and recorded] doctrine’ and ‘theory in use [how forces operate in reality]’. The gap between the written record and how a force operates is often the evolutionary step needed for future success. To exploit this, feedback loops need to be standardised, accessible to all, and fast enough to maintain the pace of thinking.
To produce effective doctrine it needs to be managed as an organic process. Darwin observed that ‘it is not the strongest of the species that survives, it is the one that is the most adaptable to change’. Much like evolution causes organisms to react to survive, the profession of arms needs to be more adaptive to its environment if it is going to keep pace with adversaries.
…the profession of arms needs to be more adaptive to its environment if it is going to keep pace with adversaries.
As an example of the need for faster evolution, David Kilcullen offers an assessment based on dragons (state actors) and snakes (insurgent groups). His model shows some forces evolving to achieve success whilst others, often with significantly more resources, stagnate and cannot win on the battlefield. The snakes have been able to find effective ways to fight; their doctrine has moved with more speed and determination. This friction is well understood with some arguing that ‘success tomorrow relies on disruption today’ but feeling unable to act because of the limitations imposed by centralised structures. The current system loses ideas because of its restrictive nature.
In 2009 Patrick Little, went further and argued that there was hubris in the British Army which was not changing fast enough. Similar trends have been identified in the Royal Navy with one writer arguing in 2019 that the organisation lived in a ‘post Cold-War fantasy’. High level space doctrine was released in 2017 but hasn’t been renewed; this is too long given the speed at which the domain is changing and how thinking has developed. British doctrine doesn’t appear to be meeting the operational challenges deployed forces face. Can our doctrine really be considered the best in the world?
Indeed, against a backdrop of new thinking, even the ‘successful’ rewrite of counterinsurgency doctrine during operations in Afghanistan has been questioned as achieving little in reality. Why, for example, has doctrine not evolved faster to consider ‘hybrid’ warfare, uncrewed vehicles, or to review the baseline assumptions about the manoeuvrist approach? People are asking these questions; doctrine is not.
Defenders of the orthodoxy point to existing processes with lessons learnt reports (et al) measured in months or years. Doctrine writers argue that change is complex and takes longer to codify than many accept. It also takes time to disseminate and apply changes. Given the life and death implications of this decision-making, it is right that there is scrutiny. On the other hand, the sheer range of open-source professional military education writing shows the appetite for involvement and interest in making it faster. If Defence dares to think differently about creating corporate knowledge it can exploit this thinking.
In democratising doctrine, there will need to be a clear point of arbitration and established processes to quickly prove or disprove ideas. This must merge both the art and science of war, be rank agnostic, and be open to a new audience; a stovepiped centralised structure is best placed to do this. And that means a system that can manage a variety of inputs while still having central controls to stop questionable ideas from being endorsed. Modern businesses offer models to follow and point to ways in which doctrine could be democratised.
Wikipedia: The extreme of democratised information
Wikipedia is a free to use online encyclopaedia which anyone can edit. Its strength is the enormous range of contributors and extensive citations. Its weakness is that anyone can edit information. Articles are often changed to alter public perceptions known as hot edits or vandalism. Whilst there are control measures in place for contentious articles, the information held can be as questionable as the intentions of those who write it.
For Defence, uploading doctrine into a similar online system would allow a community of interest easy access and the ability to suggest changes. Hyperlinking texts would increase understanding when interweaving the multitude of written material together. This would expand the community of interest while harnessing relevant knowledge.
Having said that, Wikipedia is at the extreme end of democratised information and a fully open source model is unlikely to work for Defence.
The ‘Remote Manifesto’: A model to follow?
GitLab is a successful multinational software company that has no offices. It works from a document called the Remote Manifesto. A military reader would understand it as ‘doctrine’. GitLab codifies their processes and anyone, anywhere, can access it. All staff are expected to use the latest ‘doctrine’ when conducting their work and to use the latest procedures. They are also expected to write it and consider suggestions from outside the company. All of this is done remotely utilising digital teams.
There are dangers in this approach. From a security perspective not all doctrine can be open to the public. Yet, a cross-government community of interest could be defined in order to allow input and a broad range of selected contributors. This could be flexibly opened to experts when required and closed once input was complete. Technology allows Defence to control who and when access is granted.
If Wikipedia is the extreme of democratised information, GitLab is the pinnacle of how to evolve complex and interlocking ideas with a high level of assurance. Their ‘doctrine’ evolves daily. They exploit the future today. Because of its ability to evolve quickly their staff are culturally inclined to use it. They both read and write it. They are empowered and have ownership. Their employees are involved and engaged in a way which seems incomprehensible to Defence.
Doctrine is both a written record and a living set of ideas. Defence can do more to exploit it if it can democratise the processes surrounding it.
Centralised writing cells, however well informed, will never be able to capture the wealth of thinking taking place in the Defence community. As a result, it is likely that battle-winning ideas will meet staff-created barriers (sometimes called ‘complexity”) or worse, be lost. Democratisation of doctrine would allow Defence to make this process transparent. Companies such as GitLab have proved that democratised processes can be effective. Defence needs to think differently about generating corporate knowledge; but does the organisation have the courage to do so?
Steve Maguire is a British Army Officer serving with The Royal Irish Regiment. He has served at regimental duty, with an armoured infantry brigade, and with the Army Headquarters. He is also the Wavell Room Senior Land Editor.
The views expressed in his writing are his and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.