Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Thoughts on Military Doctrines

Before we can discuss the details of a military technological framework, we should try to understand the logic behind why they use the weapons and vehicles that they use.  This means understanding how a particular military force fights, how it combines its various elements into a cohesive whole.  It also means understanding something about the culture behind the army, why they fight, and what their flaws are.

I did some work on Imperial military doctrines, or typical Rebel tactics, and these proved quite popular, if the views are to be believed, so I thought I'd revisit some of the thought process behind how I came up with those, and some of the thoughts that I have when creating my own military forces, both so that I can clarify my own thoughts but also, more importantly, to offer you some inspiration if you're creating your own military force.

Military Doctrine

“Military doctrine is the expression of how military forces contribute to campaigns, major operations, battles, and engagements… Doctrine links theory, history, experimentation, and practice... Doctrine provides the military with an authoritative body of statements on how military forces conduct operations and provides a common lexicon for use by military planners and leaders” -Military Doctrine, Wikipedia

A military doctrine is ultimately how a military fights, but it’s often grounded in why a military fights and with what a military fights and against who the military fights. Thus, in creating a military doctrine, I suggest trying to answer the following questions:

  • Why does the military fight?
Armies fight for a reason. The Roman Empire fought mostly to bring home wealth to its elites and to bring prestige to the general (in part because he could bestow booty upon his supporters and army), thus it treated war as an opportunity to pillage and an excuse for a “triumph,” treating the defeated as conquered. Nazi Germany sought lebensraum, room for its German citizens to flourish and grow, thus it focused on territorial acquisition and, ah, removing the indigenous people; the collateral damage of total war, given such an objective, might not be a bug but a feature! Modern America focuses on (among other things) maintaining the flow of international trade and the capitalistic order of the world (so long as it serves its primary interests); thus it tries to engage in small-scale warfare that focus on ensuring trade continues to flow; blowing up a country and its industry would damage trade and profitability and this would harm American interests as well, thus it tries to avoid collateral damage (the fact that this serves its humanitarian goals is a welcome benefit as well). Why does a particular Psi-Wars military fight? What do they seek to achieve?

  • What resources are available?
A military will certainly be shaped by what it can bring to the table. Obviously, the Roman Empire would have eagerly grabbed any modern technology they could, but none of this was available, so they had to make do with their own technology. Less absurd examples might focus on what local technology, natural resources or human resources are available. In the modern world, civilians are increasingly uninterested in joining their national military as these tend to be difficult and low-paying work compared to other opportunities, but such nations typically have access to phenomenal industrial capabilities, and thus replace man with machine where possible. An insurgent force, by contrast, often lacks raw industrial capability and thus must use hand-me-downs, donations or whatever they can cobble together themselves but, provided they’re a popular insurgency, they tend to have access to considerable amounts of unskilled people, sometimes with fanatical devotion. The use of a “suicide bomber” might be seen as a pointless waste of human resources to an industrial army (just use artillery) but might be an effective tactic of a resource-strapped insurgency flush with devoted would-be soldiers who lack the military training to engage in a more effective strategy.

  • Who does the military primarily battle?
The nature of your opponents shape the sort of combat you engage in. Modern war is often fight asymmetrically, with a massive industrial-scale military vs a much smaller insurgency, and this fact shapes how both armies fight: the industrial military can afford to focus more on anti-rifle weaponry and quick response tactics, while the insurgency needs to develop tactics that will cut off supply lines and turn the local populace against the foreign industrial army. The wars of the 18th-19th century were often fought by aristocratic powers who knew that diplomatic circumstances could easily change and who relied on trade with one another, and so necessarily treated war as a means of settling a diplomatic dispute between nobles, rather than a total war between two industrial bases.

  • Where does your warfare primarily take place?
The shape of the battlefield definitely changes the nature of the military. In the modern world, most military forces are build around local defense, and thus are shaped to the land. A few “super-powers” need the ability to project their power around the world, and thus they need to make use of dynamic forces that can fight on any sort of terrain, and can be deployed relatively quickly to anywhere in the world.

Once you answer these questions, you can more easily answer the how of war, which is the rest of military doctrine. Answering why might determine whether the army focuses on limited war, total war, genocide or on winning popular support. Answering what might determine what sort of gear its soldiers get and what quality. Answering who determines what sort of specialists the military employs, what sorts of tactics it expects to need to counteract. Answering where determines what sort of mobility, if any, the military needs.

Signature Strategies

I like to use “Signature Moves” when designing my martial art styles because, by defining exactly how your style fights, you can more easily choose what skills, perks and techniques your style needs based on how it actually fights. When defining a doctrine, we can determine “signature strategies” for similar reasons and with similar results, only we replace “skills, perks and techniques” with gear, vehicles and spaceships.

A signature strategy represents how a military goes about accomplishing a specific goal. These might be large scale (“How do I conquer a planet?”) or small scale (“How force my opponent out of cover”) but be careful with how much detail you go into, because that’s a pretty deep rabbit hole (one can literally write books…). Not every military doctrine will answer every question. Some military forces prefer to give their soldiers a great deal of leeway, while others are rigid down to defining each action a soldier will undertake. Some strategic questions aren’t even worth answering because the military does not concern itself with such a question (if one does not field a space navy, one does not need to worry about conquering any planet other than one’s own).

Nonetheless, most military forces need to deal with similar questions, and while their answers may differ, I present a list of questions and general topics to get you started on your own military doctrine.

Grand Strategy

Any military force that covers multiple star systems needs to concern itself with how to maintain the space it already controls, how to expand the space it controls, and how to reconquer any space it has lost. These tend to be sweeping, large-scale questions that concern themselves with fleet movements, diplomacy and industrial priorities.

How to Attack a Star System

Whatever one’s offensive goals, generally one should seek to gain “orbital supremacy” first, because all future campaign objectives will depend on not having one’s ships routinely attacked. First, your fleet will drop out of hyperspace, and once it has done so, will likely alert all defenders. This means the fleet will need to move into action as quickly as possible to defend itself and eliminate attackers. If you have primarily short-ranged craft, or slow craft, you might want to know the exact coordinates of the enemy defenses and drop out of hyperspace right on top of them. If you have long-ranged or quick craft, you might want to drop out of hyperspace at a distance and slowly move in. Hitting multiple fleets can allow you to divide your enemy’s forces, but it can also risk your defeat in detail.

Once you’ve won the space battle, you’ll want some means to ensure that no “hidden” enemies remain (perhaps lurking in debris fields or in a nebula), that your enemy cannot launch new ships or, if you can do neither, that you can easily respond to any such attacks, even if distracted by other matters.

How to Conquer/Liberate a Planet

A primary concern for an expanding empire is how to take new worlds. Generally, this involves setting up orbital supremacy, and then once that’s achieved, you’ll need some means of attacking and taking the planet. Generally, this involves moving ground troops from orbit down to the planet, but doing so risks exposure to attack, either from remaining space forces (which is why one seeks orbital dominance) or from planetary defenses. Thus, one needs to prevent such defenses from crippling the orbital drops of ground troops. Once planet-side, those troops need to exert power over the rest of the planet, ideally via taking points of power that they can use to extend influence over the rest of the world.

Ultimately, this tactic depends on the importance of influence. No space navy can hope to carry sufficient forces to control the entire populace of a planet. They can, however, dominate key points, such as the central planetary government and the main starport, as well as eliminating major points of resistance. They can also induce the planet to surrender, either by simple request (typical during a liberation, or offering generous terms of surrender to an outmatched world) or through sheer intimidation; rarely, one may just glass everything that resists from orbit, but most empires seek control, rather than elimination. That said, what the empire seeks to control may vary and this may impact what it focuses its forces on, and what it chooses to destroy from orbit.

How to Defend a World

Unless a world wishes to be easy pickings for a conqueror, it should have some means of defense. Defense of a world consists of hardening its orbit, defending against orbital bombardment and orbital dropships, and maintaining “legitimacy” so the population does not rise against you but, ideally, rises against the attacker. In the cases of defending orbit or the planet itself, this often involves early warning detection networks, fortresses, planetary cannons or planetary shields, quick-launch platforms, and quick-response navies that can respond to an attack from several systems away by jumping in to lend assistance.

Maintaining legitimacy can be very important. Rebellion can result in an invader being seen as a liberator, and after your defensive forces have been eliminated, the people simply laying down their arms and accepting the attacker as their new ruler. Worse, it can result in the people rising up against the owner and casting them from the world. Rule can be maintained through love or fear, through prosperity or the threat of poverty.

Maintaining Borders and Alliances

The best defense against an attack is ensuring that nobody wishes to attack you at all! If an enemy gets the sense that you have too much defense, or will successfully retaliate, he may choose to pick on a lesser opponent. Similarly, if the status quo serves his interests, he will not seek to attack you. Successful empires use diplomacy as an extension of war: they prevent their enemy from uncovering any weaknesses, regularly patrol or “show the flag” to impress their enemies with the size of their fleet, or shoo away raiders or probing scouting parties.

Diplomats serve a useful purpose in maintaining lines of communication and ensuring that all needs of all parties are well known. If a rival empire becomes increasingly desperate for a particular resource that you have in abundance, you can either harden your border against them and exploit that weakness by forcing them to attack your strongest defenses, or you can simply give them the resource, or at least offer a good deal on it and thus eliminate any desire they might have to attack you.

Maintaining good alliances means you won’t be attacked without warning, or you won’t find that several enemies gang up on you. Such a thing might not be necessary if you’re the biggest dog on the block, but it’s vital for smaller powers.

Much of this is actually handled by spies and security, but the military plays its part as well via patrols and tours.

Logistics and Leave

Space logistics mainly involves repairs, food and refueling. In practice, most capital ships will carry months of food, while corvettes might carry weeks and fighters days, if any at all. Fuel tends to be rated for number of “jumps,” with short-ranged craft rated for 1-2 shunts (allowing a trip to a target and, perhaps, back) while long-ranged craft might be rated for up 5 shunts (allowing for a jump, reorientation, a second jump, and back, with a spare jump as an option). Empires will want some means of resupplying their ships, either in home ports, or “on the run” if they have extensive “lines.”

Planetary forces need to keep their soldiers fed, their vehicles fueled and repaired. In the case of defenders, large stockpiles might be sufficient, but interstellar attackers will need to bring their supplies with them, and provide those supplies to ground-based troops if the planetary military campaign endures for any length of time. More than that, people need to relax, and planets make excellent points for leave, but this means that soldiers and spacers will be interacting with the local populace, picking up local diseases and accidentally revealing secret plans to local entertainers. What sorts of policies does the military force have when it comes to leave and relaxation?

Space Tactics

The core question about space combat tactics, and all forms of tactics, is how the military uses combined arms to defeat its foes. Capital ships, corvettes and starfighters each bring their own advantages to the situation and require their own tools to defeat. The ideal strategy pulls an opponent in two conflicting directions, forcing his opponent into an impossible situation that makes survival impossible, while not allowing himself to be brought into the same situation.

Some special situations include:

Communication: If a situation goes badly, if a fleet needs assistance or needs to report some new circumstances, how exactly does it do that? FTL communication has sharply limited range; this might be sufficient for “small scale” empires, but for larger factions, they’ll need some sort of relay system, or some extremely powerful forms of communication. Both represent potential targets for attackers.

Raiding and Evasion: A hit-and-run force might want to slip past enemy detection grids to launch daring planetary raids or space-based ambushes to defeat more dangerous targets. These tend to be preferred tactics of rebels and pirate fleets. The other side of the token is how a fleet generally responds to such tactics.

Boarding and Capture: a starship is a valuable target and often contains useful assets, such as persons of interest, enemy plans or cargo. Pirates will often seek to capture a ship, but so might military fleets. Military forces that favor such an attack should define what their preferred approach is.

Retreat: Escaping from a battle gone sour typically involves little more than charging the hyperspace engines and charting a route. Even so, the time involved can mean the difference between life and death and in the case of very large fleets, everyone running in different directions can leave a fleet scattered and vulnerable to being defeated in detail. How does your fleet handle these particular issues?

Orbital Assault: When a fleet prepares to engage a planet, what sorts of forces does it deploy to the surface? How does it handle the defenses, be it a present fleet or anti-orbital defenses? And how does it manage to land sufficient forces to achieve the objectives it sets out to achieve?

Ground Tactics

As with space combat, most of ground tactics will focus on how best to combine the various elements of their forces to create the “impossible situation” that forces their enemy to defeat. Ground tactics varies from space tactics in that it inevitably circles around the primary form of infantry: the basic rifleman, which gives everyone a starting point around which to build their tactics. Beyond that, ground combat involves balancing infantry with vehicles and the persistent threat of aerial (or orbital) attack.

Special situations include:

Urban Assault and Defense: An urban environment is the most common point of attack, as seizing a capital city or starport are usually primary goals for defeating a world. Given the proliferation of cover and tight corridors, as well as the dangers of collateral damage or enemy hiding among the populace, how does the military force find their targets, avoid ambush and pin their enemy down to defeat them and seize vital points. Once taken, what sort of defenses does the military force deploy, and how to they win the local population to their side?

Wilderness Combat: Not all worlds are heavily urbanized, and not all parts of a world are easily accessible by starship. Worse, once a world’s capital and starport has been conquered, that does not necessarily mean that the world has been placated. The wild, untamed expanses of the world might house guerrilla factions, secret laboratories or factories, or entire settlements might lose themselves in the mountains, jungles or oceans of the world. Each world has its own unique terrain types, and the defenders of that world will often adapt their tactics to those terrains, while attackers will need some means of handling unusual terrain.

Reconnaissance and Commando Raids: Whether in the wilderness or in the heart of a city, orbital dominance cannot provide a perfect view of the unfolding war, and defenders often find themselves cut off from such assets. Ground forces often need to find a way to figure out what’s going on even without an eye in the sky. Similarly, lightning raids at high value targets, like communication platforms or power plants, can damage the enemy out of proportion of the number of lives lost in the fighting. Guerrilla fighters often excel at such tactics, and conquerors will need some means of countering them. Infiltration and insertion of your own commandos can also undermine the powers of the world and prepare it for a full-scale invasion.

Handling the Wounded: Destroyed vehicles can be repaired or replaced, but the flesh of soldiers is not so easily mended, and lost veterans not easily replaced. Great losses of life send shockwaves through an army’s morale and a population’s will to fight: nobody wants to see thousand and thousands of caskets of a generation’s best and brightest. Some factions will have soldiers to spare and might send human wave attacks against their enemy, heedless of losses, especially if they have some sort of iron control over their forces and their populace. Other armies might focus on preventing harm in the first place by ensuring every soldier is well armored. When wounds inevitably happen, how does the military force handle them? What sort of facilities does it deploy? How sever a wound is necessary to send someone home?

Doctrinal Flaws

“You go to war with the army you have” -Donald Rumsfeld

Nobody is perfect, and when creating a fictional military, it’s often tempting to discuss just how awesome they are, but we need to understand how flawed they are too. These flaws can create dramatic tension if the hero is a member of that military force, and a vulnerability one can exploit if attacking. Flaws can also shape a military doctrine, especially if its top officers are aware of said flaws. They also lend an element of authenticity as no matter how elite, how epic and how legendary a military force is, it still has challenges to overcome.

These don’t have to be explicitly described in your doctrine, of course, but it may well inform some of the approaches the military force takes to war. For example, a military that is resource starved might fixate on securing resources first and foremost, and even train specialists in that role!

Lack of Resources

This is probably the most common flaw every military faces, because nobody has infinite resources. Even the US military, which is by far and away the best funded and best equipped military in the world, complains about a lack of resources. Every military must run up against an eventual shortage of something, and this ultimately becomes its limiting factor. For example, in WW2, Japan’s military effort was largely defined by its lack of resources. Its aggressive stance had to do with its lack of access to vital resources like high quality steel and oil. The peculiar and specific designs of many of its engines of war, such as the Mitsubishi Zero, had to do with overcoming those specific deficiencies. Japan tried to fight an efficient war, as its resource pool was dwarfed by the resources available to the US.

Typical resources military forces generally need about include:
  • Raw materials for the manufacture of weapons (especially specialized or rare resources, such as some rare unobtanium for a specific superweapon)
  • Industrial capacity to make said weapons
  • Fuel for the engines of war (Hyperium is explicitly included to be just such a possible bottleneck)
  • Manpower with sufficient skill, training and physical fortitude for war.


In any polity that has multiple voices influencing policy, some of those voices may come into conflict with one another, paralyzing the faction’s ability to wage war. This might be two sub-factions who are simply at odds either with the idea of war (pacifists) or at odds with the success of the other sub-faction (the blues cannot stand it if the reds win the war, but would be happy to win the war if they were in power). Often, this has more to do with local versus global interests. A politician representing a planet might push to have the manufacture of particular engines of war on his planet not because his planet is the best for it, but because it funnels cash and business to his world which provides wealth, jobs and kickbacks for his constituents.

Politicians also use war as a means to expand their own influence. A skilled general may seek to start a war that he’s sure he can win simply to gain glory for himself and thus gain influence and political standing. Likewise, a political opponent of a general might undermine the war effort for no other reason than to see the commanding officer fail and be disgraced. Politicians often divert attention from their own corruption or internal problems by focusing the population on an external threat, whether or not that threat is real, and whether or not the faction can effectively battle that “threat.”

Bureaucratic conflict within the halls of power can also resemble politics. Certain aspects of the government or military can become accustomed to a certain way of operating, or find that they benefit from a status quo, and resist all calls to change. The United States Airforce often sabotages ideas it does not like, such as the A-10 style of close support craft, or the concept of a “Space Force,” because these either do not work the way they prefer to operate, or because the creation of a new branch of the military might threaten their own influence and power.

The Will to Fight

“War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing” - War, by Edwin Starr

War is ultimately an expression of will. Both sides want something, one side acts to take it and tells the other “What are you going to do about it?” and the ultimate expression of what they intend to do about it is war. How far is one willing to go to acquire a particular resource or see that their culture or community are safe from harm? Some people are willing to do whatever it takes, while others are less willing, being more interested in other things (such as survival or their own personal well-being, even if it comes at the expense of others).

A military force needs recruits, it needs political and economic backing, and it needs its own soldiers to maintain morale. The faltering of any of these things can result in a collapsing war effort. Doctrines that do not account for this risk defeat. For example, critics largely argue that the US defeat in Vietnam was largely one of collapsing will to fight; the apologists of that war like to point the finger at specific actors, as though a single activist or media personality could turn an entire population against a war, but note that how the US military portrays itself in anti-guerrilla conflicts has changed in the decades since, suggesting that US military doctrines have adapted to this need to maintain the will to fight.

Most guerrilla campaigns and revolutions by weaker powers vs stronger ones rely on defeating morale rather than attrition, because in a war of attrition, they will almost always lose.

Outdated Doctrines

“Generals are condemned to fight the last war” -Proverb

A war can bring with it enormous innovations and changes as an entire faction gears itself to fight that specific war and learns the lessons of that war. The next war might not be fought the same way, but the faction may find itself caught off-guard by this fact. World Wars I & II both faces this difficulty, with many tactical choices and military weapons outdated before the first shot was fired (especially the use of battleships instead of carriers). A military force might find itself grounded in the past, built around a particular “glory day,” and unable, whether through its culture, its lack of imagination or a lack of needed resources, to bring the right tools to the problem. Instead, it must use outdated techniques and methods to try to defeat a foe, and hopes that the rest of its advantages are sufficient to overwhelm this one problem.


“Blood Will Tell” -Proverb

Some military forces simply expect to win. They assume their opponents are inept savages, or fundamentally inferior, or that whatever advantages they have will assure them of victory, and they become complacent. They use the same tactics over and over again, issue largely ceremonial orders, and then turn their attentions to more “important” matters. Typically, this arrogance is grounded in reality, as an entire military force is rarely delusional, and the military force tends to win engagement after engagement… until they don’t. The sudden defeat will often act as a blueprint to the enemies of the doctrine, and the collapse of power can be sudden as the weakness of the enemy is revealed. The most famous example of this is likely the Russo-Japanese war and the concept of a “paper tiger,” where the “weak” Japanese defeated the “mighty” Russian empire largely in a single knock-out blow that crippled the latter’s ability to wage war in the Pacific and thus left the Japanese able to do what they wanted.

Sometimes this “arrogance” is an intentional facade. A weak force may know that it is weak, but project an air of confidence to dissuade others from attacking. They rely on old stories (the Spartans after Thermopylae, Russians and “Never engage in a land war in Asia”, the Persian “Immortal” and their legends of invincibility) and the perception of invincibility to dissuade the enemy from attacking, knowing full well that if an enemy attacks, the military can do precious little to stop it. This is often a common trait among weaker dictatorships.

It should be noted that fanatical forces often betray a certain arrogance. They believe utterly in their side, and they often assume they cannot lose because God, ideology or the “march of history” is on their side and they have such a fundamental advantage over their “wrong-thinking” rivals that they cannot possibly lose. This creates a very brittle sort of morale, where every victory snowballs into more and more will to fight, but even a single defeat can force people to question their faith, or to turn on one another in search of the “secret traitor,” or the unbeliever, or something else they can use as a scapegoat for their defeat, which often results in good officers being thrown under the bus.

Objective Mismatch

A military force is typically designed for a purpose, and that purpose does not always match the war being fought. In the modern world, we often see dictatorships rapidly collapse under the attack of a Western Power, and we often attribute this to superior weaponry and training, despite the fact that many dictatorships purchase Western weapons and have extensive training. However, the objectives of most Third World dictatorships is to prevent internal conflict, rather than external conflict. They prove extremely adept at killing rebels, often better than Western powers are, but unable to stand up to conventional attack. Similarly, a massive, conventional military may find itself poorly suited for the door-to-door, “winning hearts and minds” sort of conflict necessary to defeat an insurgency. This isn’t necessarily a flaw of the military forces: they may well excel at what they were designed to do, but it may be a problem of circumstances, or of those who shape the policies of war.

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