Military Strategy vs Military Doctrine


The concepts of military doctrine and military strategy are sometimes wrongly used as if they were the same concept; while the two concepts are related, the student and practitioner of warfare must understand the differences and not confuse them with each other. This article will briefly discuss the two concepts and their relation. 


Military Strategy

In the hierarchy of strategies, military strategy resides just below grand strategy and should in theory bring detail to the grand strategic use of the military instrument of power.[1] Colin Gray defines military strategy as “the direction and use made of force and the threat of force for the purpose of policy as decided by politics.”[2] Quoting Gray again, “the hierarchy [of strategies] is clear enough in principle, but in practice the traffic among the levels – policy, grand strategy, overall military strategy, joint and single-geography strategies – should be continuous. Feedback – feed-up, feed-down, and feed across – and adaption are the key terms describing how strategy is designed, defined, and applied in real-time.”[3] Consequently, at the level of military strategy, strategies for the other instruments of power should exist as well, i.e. a strategy for Diplomacy, an Informational strategy, and a strategy for the Economic instruments of power (i.e. the acronym DIME). These individual DIME strategies are sub strategies for the detailed use of the individual instruments in accordance with the grand strategy; each strategy should detail how the instrument fulfills the role it has been given in the grand strategy. Using the military strategy as the example, it should also detail how the military strategy supports the other instrument of power strategies, as well as how they support the military strategy. In practice, however, explicit strategies for all DIME instruments of power rarely exist. This obviously makes it more difficult to achieve political-military integration in the grand strategy.

Having thus discussed military strategy and its relation with the other instruments of power, the paper now moves on to the concept of military doctrine. Military strategy is frequently confused with military doctrine;[4] consequently, the next section discusses the relationship and differences between these two concepts.

Military Doctrine

Military doctrine is an important part of the building material for military strategy. It represents central beliefs or principles for how to wage war in order to achieve the desired military ends.[5]  Doctrine thus provides ways to use military means against a given type of threat or scenario. Military doctrine might be tailored to deal with a specific threat, as was the case doing the European inter-war period (e.g. French military doctrine focused on defending against a German attack, German doctrine focused on defeating France through offensive operations)[6] and the Cold War period (i.e. deter and defend against a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe), or it may be more generic and deal with ideal types of threats as in the latest US and NATO doctrines. It may encompass a very service oriented approach or a more joint approach to warfare.[7] Doctrine thus has implications for force structure, training, and equipment. The ideal military doctrine would be truly joint – i.e. integrating land, air, maritime, and special operations in an efficient and effective way to achieve the military objectives – and flexible enough to deal with any kind of foreseen and unforeseen threats, as well as a range of political objectives. However, the reality is that in addition to unforeseen scenarios, political, economic, or social considerations invariably constrain operations and strategies; therefore, doctrine will always have to be adapted to the specific strategic context of a crisis or war.[8] Military joint planning doctrine describes how the military commander leads this adaptation by using operational art to bridge military doctrine with the specific strategic and operational context to produce a military strategy. Thus, the term operational art corresponds in part to the Clausewitzian ‘art of strategy.’[9]

Military strategy uses the available military means in specific ways to achieve military strategic ends (objectives) in a given strategic context. The key point is, while doctrine has implications for present and future force structure, training, and equipment (to the extent that these are endorsed politically), military strategy in a given situation must use the available force structure, training, and equipment (see “Figure 1. The Doctrinal Cycle” below).[10] Military doctrine and military strategy could be almost the same in a static strategic environment, but will hardly ever be identical in a dynamic strategic environment.

Moreover, Figure 1 above shows the relationship between military theory and military doctrine. Thus, ideally doctrine contains military theory for a defined part of warfare that has been validated by training, war games, and experience from previous wars, and, in accordance with Clausewitz’ theory of war, doctrine must also reflect the political interests and objectives, as well as the capabilities made available for warfare. Yet, as part of the paradoxical nature of strategy, historical experience from previous wars might be a poor guide for the development of doctrine for the next war. Thus, potential adversaries also try to learn from previous wars and prepare doctrine for countering historical successful strategies; this is the paradox doctrine must attempt to overcome.

Indeed, good doctrine must neither be based on innovative theory and beliefs alone, nor be based too much on best practice and experience from previous wars; in both cases, it risks being useless at best and dangerous at worst. As an example of the former, the U.S. strategic bombing doctrine of daylight precision bombing used initially against Germany in World War II was based primarily on theory and beliefs, with little realistic training to support it, no historical war experience, and capabilities that did not match the threat posed by Luftwaffe air defenses. As an example of the latter, the offensive doctrines of both sides in World War I were based on previous experience from the German unification wars of the last half of the 19th Century. However, initially both sides in WWI failed to appreciate how technological and organizational changes had made such experience outdated. Thus, the introduction of the machine gun as standard military equipment, combined with a front with no flanks due to the use of conscript based mass armies, made the offensive doctrines fail utterly in the beginning of the war.


This article has briefly discussed the concepts of military strategy and military doctrine, and their relationship. In short, ideally military doctrine represents an armed force’s best practice and reasoned expectations in a given area of warfare; it is a military theory reinforced by experience, with implications for training, organization, and equipment. Military strategy is more contextual and dynamic; it uses doctrine as a building block, but tailors it to the specific strategic and operational situation through the use of operational art (or art of strategy, as Clausewitz called it).

Professor Sir Michael Howard captures the essence of the discussion in this paper in his often quoted comment:

I am tempted indeed to declare dogmatically that whatever the doctrine the armed forces are working on now, they have got it wrong. I am also tempted to declare that it does not matter that they have got it wrong. What does matter is their capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives.[11]

General Tony Zinni, former Commander-in Chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997-2000, gets the last word with a similar perspective that emphasizes the requirement for art as opposed to generic models and formulas:

No matter how much experience you have, each conflict brings it its own unique requirements. You have to develop a process distinctive to it. Sure, you can maybe call on or modify previous experiences, but there are no models, formulas, or formats that will necessarily help you reach your goals … It doesn’t work that way. What happens is this: gaining more experiences builds up your experience base and your understanding of the possibilities, and that shows you how to combine, mix-match, develop, and modify from past experiences to fit the unique situation you’re in. Experience does not give you any big answers. It shows you how to be creative.[12]



Clancy, Tom, Tony Koltz, and Tony Zinni. Battle ready.  London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2004.

Gray, Colin S. The strategy bridge: theory for practice.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Howard, Michael. "Military Science in an Age of Peace." RUSI Journal, no. 119:1 (1974).

Jackson, Aaron P. The Roots of Military Doctrine: Change and Continuity in the Practice of Warfare.  Fort Leavenworth, KA: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2013.

NATO, North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "AJP-3.3(A): Joint Air & Space Operations Doctrine (RD03)." Bruxelles: NATO HQ, 2008.

———. "AJP-3.3: Joint Air & Space Operations Doctrine (Change 1)." Bruxelles: NATO HQ, 2002.

———. "AJP-5: Allied Joint Doctrine for Operational-Level Planning." Bruxelles: NATO HQ, 2005.

Posen, Barry R. The sources of military doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany between the world wars. Cornell studies in security affairs.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Rosen, Stephen Peter. Winning the next war: innovation and the modern military. Cornell studies in security affairs.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Yarger, Harry R. Strategy and the National Security Professional: Strategic Thinking and Strategy Formulation in the 21st Century.  Westport: Praeger Security International, 2008.

[1] For this interpretation, see also Harry R. Yarger, Strategy and the National Security Professional: Strategic Thinking and Strategy Formulation in the 21st Century  (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2008).  Grand strategy is defined by Colin Gray as “the direction and use made of any or all the assets of a security community, including its military instrument, for the purposes of policy as decided by politics.”  While many U.S. scholars use a broader, global contextual conceptualization of grand strategy, this article finds Gray’s definition more suitable for non-superpower practitioners of grand strategy.  Colin S. Gray, The strategy bridge: theory for practice  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). 19.

[2] Gray, The strategy bridge: theory for practice: 29.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Ibid., 83.

[5] According to NATO, “doctrine is defined as the fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives.  It is authoritative but requires judgment in application’ (AAP-6).  It provides the philosophical basis for the particular action taken by military forces and the reasons behind that action”   North Atlantic Treaty Organization NATO, AJP-3.3: Joint Air & Space Operations Doctrine (Change 1), (Bruxelles: NATO HQ, 2002). 1-2, 1-3.  For a more detailed discussion of the concept of military doctrine , see Aaron P. Jackson, The Roots of Military Doctrine: Change and Continuity in the Practice of Warfare  (Fort Leavenworth, KA: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2013).

[6] Barry R. Posen, The sources of military doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany between the world wars, Cornell studies in security affairs (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).

[7] However, in reality joint doctrine often represents the lowest common denominator of the individual services, rather than a truly integrated vision for fighting and winning the nations wars.  This reflects the internal military ideological struggle over how to achieve victory, as argued by Stephen Rosen.  Thus, each service doctrine represents itscentral beliefs and guiding principles for achieving victory. See Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the next war: innovation and the modern military, Cornell studies in security affairs (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991); Gray presents a similar argument, see Gray, The strategy bridge: theory for practice: 76-79.

[8] NATO doctrine states this explicitly. See for example North Atlantic Treaty Organization NATO, AJP-3.3(A): Joint Air & Space Operations Doctrine (RD03), (Bruxelles: NATO HQ, 2008). 1-1.

[9] Operational art is a key concept of the innovative military planning doctrine that was developed in the U.S. and NATO after the end of the Cold War.  NATO doctrine defines operational art as “the skillful employment of military forces to attain strategic and/or operational objectives through the design, organization, integration and conduct of campaigns, operations and battles.”  North Atlantic Treaty Organization NATO, AJP-5: Allied Joint Doctrine for Operational-Level Planning, (Bruxelles: NATO HQ, 2005). 3-3. 

[10] As the figure shows with the double arrow, military strategy can also influence force structure, training, and equipment.  This represents a situation where a military strategy is ahead of doctrine and requires immediate changes in the figure’s Outputs box and thus short circuits the normal doctrinal cycle.  NATO, AJP-3.3: Joint Air & Space Operations Doctrine (Change 1). 1-2. 

[11] Michael Howard, "Military Science in an Age of Peace," RUSI Journal, no. 119:1 (1974): 7-8.

[12] Tom Clancy, Tony Koltz, and Tony Zinni, Battle ready  (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2004). 358.