Rethinking Warfare in a Changing World: The Case For Expanding Doctrinal Warfare Principles

By Todd Moulton
Estimated Time to Read: 15 minutes

Due to the myriad of opponents the joint force will soon compete against, the United States (US) military needs to update its joint warfare principles to include strategic anchoring, knowledge, collaboration, rapid decision-making and synchronization, decentralized command and control, and stability. The combined effects of dynamic, multi-domain, and emerging adversaries–in addition to the inherent nature of doctrine focused on past conflicts–has failed to prepare the US military for future non-traditional conflicts. Joint doctrine should better emphasize warfare principles positioned to address and combat potential enemies and future fields of operations the US military may encounter. Moreover, constantly changing global diplomatic, military, economic, and societal factors necessitate the evolution of the “American way of war,” which focuses on attrition warfare and the creation of new joint warfare principles. Prosecuting actions strictly in the military realm is increasingly ebbing and the US military’s warfare principles should reflect the 2021 expansive warfare spectrum versus the 1941 battlefield.       

The transforming strategic geopolitical environment dictates the US military must construct flexible contemporary warfare principles to meet the extensive array of morphing threats and adhere to principles oriented toward both large-scale and irregular conflicts. US civilian and military officials must employ these principles to arrange limited US military forces and material efficiently against threats across the conflict continuum from hostile nation-states, hybrid warfare participants, terrorist organizations, and transnational criminal organization. The various warfare concepts and principles named in seminal works such as Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and codified in military doctrine remain vital to the US’s conduct of modern warfare. However, the US military should add the aforementioned six new principles to Joint Publication (JP) 3-0, Joint Operations, to augment and refine the methods US armed forces employ to conduct warfare.

Strategic Anchoring

The US should focus the country’s scarce military and national security resources by introducing strategic anchoring as a new warfare principle. Strategic anchoring needs to be forefront as the country’s explicit decision to use specific national security assets to fulfill strategic aims laid out in the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and National Military Strategy. Applying strategic anchoring at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of warfare and is necessary to tie each action or operation back to strategic objectives.  

While it is not new to link operational-level force movements back to strategic objectives, tactical operations and force movements also have operational and strategic implications. The increasing flow of information across the internet and throughout social and mass media outlets enables the US military to frame tactical operations performed by any military unit as a strategic action. The US’s ability to characterize operational and tactical operations within a strategic context helps concentrate stretched military and national security resources toward fulfilling national goals. Strategic anchoring will also aid the US in communicating its reasons for war (jus ad bellum) and establish the expectations and parameters for its conduct during the conflict (jus in bello) by citing and emphasizing the country’s strategic objectives in national-level documents.

Strategic anchoring should consolidate strategic direction, unified action, and the Unified Command Plan (UCP) elements into a single definition. Although JP 3-0 discusses these elements in military operations, doctrine does not succinctly weave the aforementioned three concepts together and elaborate how they should reinforce each other to achieve US strategic aims. Such an all-encompassing warfare principle would offer individuals a single doctrinal “stop” to quickly comprehend how various strategic elements and documents work together, thus enabling leaders at each echelon to tether their objectives to strategic goals. The US military will require intimate knowledge of potential US adversaries to operationalize strategic anchoring effectively.              


OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations

Future US military operations will demand an ever-increasing level of situational and cultural knowledge to successfully execute combat and support maneuvers. Clausewitz highlights the necessity for senior policymakers and military officers to have the most complete understanding and knowledge of a military situation to enable operations. He named two distinct elements which generated the basis for knowledge and discussed that a country’s leadership should understand the nation’s military capabilities to effectively use these forces during warfare. Clausewitz also determined that knowledge of the enemy is essential for warfare. Yet, he stated that faulty intelligence negated meaningful assessments of the enemy’s strength, composition, and intents. While Clausewitz’s perspective on intelligence may have been accurate during the early 19th Century, knowledge and the resulting intelligence will drive military operations in the 21st Century. The growing amount of knowledge and data available to the US and its adversaries and each countries’ aptitude to harness, analyze, and exploit this information likely will determine the course of conventional, hybrid, and irregular conflicts.

The Vietnam War, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) demonstrated a misalignment of ends (war termination), ways (tactics), and means (resources) due to the senior civilian and military leaders’ miscalculation of the strategic environment and cultural dynamics between US forces and the native population. Washington’s misjudgment on these  factors and not understanding the regional human terrain led policymakers to misallocate US military capacity to conduct a conventional and irregular war simultaneously and win the ensuing peace. These miscues portend that US civilian and military leaders will require a more in-depth knowledge and comprehension of US military capabilities to align forces against current and future national objectives adequately. Though the services’ intelligence directorates prepare joint intelligence preparation of the environment (JIPOE) documents, these publications typically focus on potential adversary capabilities across the diplomatic, information, military, and economic (DIME) spectrum. The JIPOE’s focus on DIME often fails to analyze country or regional human terrain or history sufficiently. These omissions, precious few cultural and history subject matter experts, and a disregard to understand the global and regional environments leave future military operations at a higher risk of failure.

Knowledge will remain a key component in the US’s prospection of counterinsurgency and stabilization activities. The US will need a more expansive cultural understanding of countries’ populations that the US could potentially occupy to mitigate many of the mistakes the US military committed during the Vietnam War, OEF, and OIF. The lack of knowledge regarding national, regional, local, and tribal relationships in the aforementioned campaigns undermined the US’ ability to capitalize on conventional military gains. The cultural diversity of numerous places throughout the world–which will likely request or demand US assistance to establish or reinforce stability–will require the US to have a vast knowledge of these cultures to avoid repeating previous mistakes. For the US to maximize and operationalize knowledge, collaboration amongst the services and US government agencies is vital.


Collaboration is a precursor to unity of effort, which JP 3-0 cites as a principle of joint operations. United States military and interagency collaboration on national security issues must occur years prior to any potential conflict to ensure that US decision makers have the most up-to-date knowledge when they make the choice to go to war and decide on the war termination criteria. While JP 3-0 points to military and interagency integration and support during the shaping phase leading up to and throughout a conflict, the publication mostly speaks to the military’s need for coordination with the interagency prior to hint of conflict. Coordination lacks much of the potency inherent in collaboration. Collaboration is a forcing function to push the services and interagency to better congeal and generate whole-of-government assessments and plans on potential and emerging global areas of instability or hostilities. Formal and informal relationships forged within the US Government leading up to a war tend to carry over into a conflict, thus enabling a commander to leverage the multiple facets of US power to achieve objective(s). Furthermore, US wars over the last half century show that US Government collaboration is crucial to affect a conflict’s outcome positively. Various efforts during the Vietnam War, OEF, and OIF displayed that collaboration between US military and civilian organizations was key in making progress towards meeting the wars’ objectives. The Vietnam War, OEF, and OIF, the Civil Operations and Rural Develop Support (CORDS) Program, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), and Village Stability Operations (VSO), respectively, all used collaborative military/civilian command structures to establish and expand stability throughout Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Moreover, the US interagency collaborative process refined itself during these wars to bring a whole-of-government approach to solving issues which arose during combat and post-conflict operations.

The US will require a collaborative whole-of-government methodology in forthcoming large-scale engagements or insurgencies. The military realm of future traditional conflicts will remain paramount; however, other factors (economic, informational, and diplomatic) that affect war are continuing to grow in importance as the world becomes more integrated. US peer competitors will use their combined tools of national power to prepare the operational environment to aid their militaries in defeating US military power. The US will need to follow suit to mitigate its adversaries’ endeavors. Likewise, the Afghan and Iraq wars demonstrated that the US could not achieve the country’s aims through the elimination of insurgents alone. Rather, the US enacted a strategy to eradicate terrorists and simultaneously win the local population’s hearts and minds through non-military means. This interagency strategy will hold true going into any future counterinsurgencies. Situational knowledge and collaboration will allow for US leaders to make rapid decisions and then synchronize these choices within the US Government.

Rapid Decision-Making and Synchronization

Rapid decision-making and synchronization of efforts are essential in war to enable the US’ leadership to get into and disrupt the adversary’s decision-making cycle. JP 3-0 mentions the speed of decision-making in relation to surprise but does not elaborate on how quickly decision-making must occur to impact operations. Furthermore, JP 3-0 chapter 2 highlights various elements inherent to effective command, yet there is little discussion regarding a commander’s need to make decisions rapidly and quickly promulgate these determinations throughout the joint force. JP 3-0 does not delineate the potential ramifications which may occur if commanders do not make well-informed decisions. A new warfare principle could expand upon the material in JP 3-0 chapter 2 and highlight the importance of rapid decision-making and synchronization, especially in environments likely to experience communications degradation. Doctrine should also provide an example from history to demonstrate what could happen if commanders become encumbered by decision paralysis or react too slowly to making decisions and getting decisions to the force.

When the US can swiftly upset an enemy’s choices, this allows the US military and interagency to exploit and take advantage of an opponent’s mistakes. The coalition’s rapid decision-making and synchronization of efforts in the first 24 hours of Operation Desert Storm virtually deprived Saddam Hussain of his integrated air defense system and severely limited his battlespace situational awareness. Without an understanding of what was happening around him, the coalition restricted Saddam’s decision-making capacity, and his forces became unwilling to move without direction from above. Saddam’s inability to direct his forces enabled the allied forces to move virtually unhindered in the air and on the ground.

In future conflicts, rapid decision-making and synchronization of efforts will increase in importance. China and Russia are more advanced than the adversaries the US fought over the last 20 years. Beijing and Moscow’s capacity to kinetically or non-kinetically affect US military and civilian targets instantaneously will force US leaders to make decisions within seconds prior to and during warfare. Furthermore, China or Russia will likely inhibit US communication systems through cyber or other non-kinetic means, thus inhibiting US synchronization throughout the command structure. The US military will need to train and cultivate leaders who are apt and willing to digest vast amounts of knowledge and intelligence to make decisions in seconds or minutes, where previously these individuals had minutes or hours to ruminate on their choices. These leaders will need to understand how to utilize artificial intelligence (AI), since AI will likely support and enable many of their decisions. Moreover, the threat from China or Russia will require that synchronization processes become more streamlined and resilient to disruption. To overcome the likely denial or degradation of US communications networks, the US military will require a decentralized command and control (C2) structure to execute operations.  

Decentralized Command and Control

Potential conflicts will be fought with decentralized C2 due to the advancements in counter-space and cyber technologies and the likelihood that US adversaries will use these capabilities against US communications. However, since 2001 robust communication networks and permissive combat environments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria allowed US strategic leaders to issue orders, synchronize, and control tactical-level forces. JP 3-0 emphasizes commander-centric leadership but does not cement the idea into the joint warfare principles. Doctrine should bring this idea to the forefront and emphasize how important the decentralized command and control concept is for any conflicts with future adversaries. General officers directing localized operations and unfettered communications created a generation of subordinate officers and enlisted personnel who are often averse to making decisions and will likely find working in a communications degraded environment difficult. Furthermore, a general officer’s ability to reach down directly to tactical forces at times culminated in muddling JP 3-0’s simplicity principle by degrading the mission command of subordinate commanders. Superior officers’ strategic perspective and unfamiliarity with the tactical situation resulted in complex and contradicting orders, which delayed rapid decision making at the local level and led to missed battlefield opportunities.

The robust US communications capacity the country enjoyed in the Middle Eastern wars will not carry over to a conflict in the Pacific or Europe. The US almost certainly will face an enemy who will target US military communications within the first minutes or hours of a war. Strategic level leaders will need to articulate their guidance in mission type orders, which describe the commander’s desired end state but do not dictate how the lower-level commanders should attain campaign’s objectives. The lack of secure communications will force US military and civilian organizations to delegate decision-making down to the operational and tactical levels. The decentralized C2 framework will empower those commanders at the lower levels, who are most familiar with his/her force capabilities and the local circumstances, to assess the situation, rapidly make a decision, and synchronize his/her forces to execute a course of action.


Even though the US military will continue to favor planning for combat operations as the country engages China and Russia, US senior leaders must plan for stability operations. The US military devotes an entire publication and two joint operations model phases to stability operations, yet the military relegates stability operations to a tertiary or forgotten task. The Vietnam War, OEF, and OIF underscore the US’ requirement to prepare for stabilization activities early in the joint planning process (JPP). In each of these campaigns there was little to no planning done to prepare the US military and interagency for stabilization actions after major combat operations concluded. US forces were ill-prepared once combat operations concluded and service members had to convert to nation-building.

The probability of a US-China or US-Russia war are less than the prospect that the US will perform some form of stability operations in a politically and economically fragile country. History demonstrates the US military requires an additional impetus to plan and prepare for future stability operations. The elevation of stability as a new warfare principle would likely force planners to take stability into consideration when devising desired strategic end states and examining necessary force allocation for a potential conflict.

The US military’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan drove the US military to codify tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) for stability operations in JP 3-07, Stability. However, the US Department of Defense recently relegated stability operations to a tertiary task. Without the elevation of stability operations to a main principle of warfare in such fundamental documents as JP 3-0, the hard-fought lessons learned over the past 18 years will atrophy and US forces will have to relearn these lessons again. The introduction of this and the previously mentioned principles is the first step in refining JP 3-0.


The foundational elements of warfare remain the same even as the world order shifted over the last 200 years. Numerous militaries still hold Clausewitz’s ideas as a primary component of how they conduct warfare and have embedded his philosophies into their doctrine and TTPs. Although influential works such as On War are central to the way militaries and government think about warfare, the principles that operationalize these theories are malleable and expandable. The persistently shifting dynamics of world politics necessitate additional principles of warfare. Strategic anchoring, knowledge, collaboration, rapid decision-making and synchronization, decentralized command and control, and stability are derivatives of standing JP 3-0 principles or are unique. The principles in this article help refine the “American way of war” to encompass several aspects that will increase the US’ probability of achieving the country’s national interests.    

Lieutenant Commander Todd Moulton is the lead intelligence planner at US Second Fleet. He is an Information Warfare (IW) Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI). He is also a graduate of Air University and the National Intelligence University. Todd can be reached at

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image Source: National Defense Magazine

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply