Strategy, Tactics and Doctrine

The terms "strategy", "tactics" and "doctrine" express three related, but distinct, concepts. The distinctions are important to note if we are to understand the concepts.



Strategy describes a broad perspective on how resources are to be used to achieve some goal.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed., 2000): "1a. The science and art of using all the forces of a nation to execute approved plans as effectively as possible during peace or war. b. The science and art of military command as applied to the overall planning and conduct of large-scale combat operations."

The Department of Defense definition is: "The art and science of developing and using political, economic, psychological, and military forces as necessary during peace and war, to afford the maximum support to policies, in order to increase the probabilities and favorable consequences of victory and to lessen the chances of defeat." (

In Foundations of Leninism, Stalin writes: "Strategy is the determination of the direction of the main blow of the proletariat at a given stage of the revolution, the elaboration of a corresponding plan for the disposition of the revolutionary forces (main and secondary reserves), the fight to carry out this plan throughout the given stage of the revolution."

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) provides this historical definition: "The art of a commander-in-chief; the art of projecting and directing the larger military movements and operations of a campaign. Usually distinguished from tactics, which is the art of handling forces in battle or in the immediate presence of the enemy."



As the OED definition indicates, "strategy" is usually opposed to "tactics", where tactics is the deployment of forces in some specific instance of applying strategy.

For example, The American Heritage® Dictionary states: "1a. The military science that deals with securing objectives set by strategy, especially the technique of deploying and directing troops, ships, and aircraft in effective maneuvers against an enemy"


The Department of Defense defines tactics: "1. The employment of units in combat. 2. The ordered arrangement and maneuver of units in relation to each other and/or to the enemy in order to use their full potentialities."

Stalin states: "Tactics are the determination of the line of conduct of the proletariat in the comparatively short period of the flow or ebb of the movement, of the rise or decline of the revolution, the fight to carry out this line by means of replacing old forms of struggle and organization by new ones, old slogans by new ones, by combining these forms, etc." And later in the same paragraph: "Tactics are a part of strategy, subordinate to it and serving it."

The OED, in its definition of strategy, includes this quote from A. T. Mahan's Sea Power: [Strategy applies] "[b]efore hostile armies or fleets are brought into contact (a word which perhaps better than any other indicates the dividing line between tactics and strategy)."



Doctrine is an overall statement of principles as to how forces are used at any stage.

The Department of Defense defines doctrine as: "Fundamental principles by which the military forces or elements thereof guide their actions in support of national objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgment in application."

How does this relate to and differ from strategy and tactics? Doctrine describes how a force operates, or how an army fights. Strategy describes the overall approach to achieving the goal; tactics describes the specifics, e.g., when an army is in contact with the enemy. Doctrine describes in both cases the principles as to how the fight will be waged.

The DoD describes this relationship between doctrine, strategy and tactics: "The levels of war are doctrinal perspectives that clarify the links between strategic objectives and tactical actions. Although there are no finite limits or boundaries between them, the three levels are strategic, operational, and tactical." That is, doctrine is applied at both the strategic level, and at the tactical level. Doctrine is an abstract, general (and practical) statement. Doctrine is applied via strategy and tactics (the "strategic level", and at the "tactical level." A U.S. Marine Corps document on urban warfare suggests the distinction between doctrine and tactics: the document"provides doctrinal guidance and detailed information on tactics, techniques, and procedures to be employed in [Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain] within the operating forces."

Examples may help to distinguish between strategy. tactics and doctrine.


Example: Desert Storm

Through the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. military had developed a doctrine of "AirLand Battle":

"In practical terms, the [AirLand Battle] doctrine required commanders to supervise three types of operations simultaneously. In close operations, large tactical formations such as corps and divisions fought battles through maneuver, close combat, and indirect fire support. Deep operations helped to win the close battle by engaging enemy formations not in contact, chiefly through deception, deep surveillance, and ground and air interdiction of enemy reserves. Objectives of deep operations were to isolate the battlefield and influence when, where, and against whom later battles would be fought. Rear operations proceeded simultaneously with the other two and focused on assembling and moving reserves, redeploying fire support, continuing logistical efforts to sustain the battle, and providing continuity of command and control. Security operations, traffic control, and maintenance of lines of communications were critical to rear operations."

(The Whirlwind War The United States Army in Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM

"The Army of Desert Storm"

The strategy of Desert Storm was to destroy the command and control of the Iraqi military through a sustained bombing campaign followed by a knockout ground assault. The ground assault sent one column from the South, another, general blow towards the center -- both expected approaches, and a flanking armor column to the west of the Iraqi forces in a classic turning movement, to envelope and crush the Iraqi army. Tactics expressed doctrine in specific engagements with Iraqi troops.


Example: Current foreign policy

Here is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld articulating a new doctrine for U.S. foreign/military policy:

"[A]ll the high-tech weapons in the world will not defend the country unless the Pentagon and the armed forces change the way they train, fight, and think. Americans and their military must accept changing coalitions, understand the need for preemptive offense, and prepare for a new kind of war that may increasingly be waged with nonmilitary means." (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2002)

And from a column by Robert Schlesinger in the Boston Globe:

"The new strategic doctrine to guide US foreign policy will call for unilateral preemptive action against perceived threats and enemies and will not, as in the Cold War, rely almost exclusively on multilateral cooperation and massive retaliation for deterrence and containment.

"New threats also require new thinking," Bush said, when first articulating the emerging policy earlier this month at graduation ceremonies at the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long." (6/30/02)

The doctrine may be summarized as "unilateral preemptive action". U.S. strategy might be described in the Middle East as controlling oil through the installation of cooperative regimes and preventing the formation of any center of opposition. That is, doctrine describes how the U.S. will fight in a given situation, but doesn't indicate what the situations will be.

Doctrine is a general statement of how we fight; strategy a broad description of how we are going to fulfill our mission; tactics the specific actions to implement strategy.


Further reading:

"Doctrine" ISSS discussion paper, 2001,

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