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I saw active service in conventional, clandestine and covert units of the South African Defence Force. I was the founder of the Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes in 1989 and its chairman until I left in 1997. Until its closure in 1998, EO operated primarily in Africa helping African governments that had been abandoned by the West and were facing threats from insurgencies, terrorism and organised crime. EO also operated in South America and the Far East. I believe that only Africans (Black and White) can truly solve Africa’s problems. I was appointed Chairman of STTEP International in 2009 and also lecture at military colleges and universities in Africa on defence, intelligence and security issues. Prior to the STTEP International appointment, I served as an independent politico-military advisor to several African governments. Until recently, I was a contributing editor to The Counter Terrorist magazine. All comments in line with the topics on this blog are welcome. As I consider this to be a serious look at military and security matters, foul language and political or religious debates will not be entertained on this blog.

Thursday, March 30, 2017


As a young officer, I had little to no clue what our doctrine was or indeed even what ‘doctrine’ really entailed. I viewed it as one of those grey areas. I know it was taught but obviously, my mind was elsewhere at that time. Instead, I hid my ignorance by saying stupid things like “Doctrine can be really boring…”

Later on in my career, I finally understood that doctrine is merely a guide to activity and action. It sets out a way for us how to do things in certain situations but does not prescribe what we must do. I would later discover that ‘guide’ is the operative word.

However, I often found that many of my colleagues believed that our doctrine was written in stone…”Because ‘the book’ says so…” No deviation from the doctrine was allowed or, at times, even tolerated.

I had no compunction in deviating from ‘the book’ if I thought my actions and orders would save lives and result in success. I could always face the music later—and I often did. But, I fear we have become so caught up by what ‘the book’ says, that we set ourselves up for failure time and again. This strict adherence to ‘the book’ gives us a very blinkered and rigid approach to conflict and war.

Guided by ‘the book’, we consistently repeat the same mistakes until they become ‘muscle memory’—and simply the way we do things. In the process, we have become dogmatic, and predictable, thus denying ourselves agility, balance, flexibility, initiative, surprise, and speed of action/reaction when we need it most. Yet, despite the casualties, we seem determined to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory.

For decades now, African armies have been using outdated Western and Eastern doctrines and this is marked by a record of very little success on the continent.

Whereas these doctrines were, at a time relevant, I fear they no longer are.

The doctrines ascribed to by many Africa armies are unaligned, and have become stagnant and in many instances, irrelevant. Of course, certain elements may retain relevance but the time has come for African armed forces to revisit their doctrines and, with a very sharp knife, cut out what is no longer applicable or relevant—and replace it with doctrine that is applicable, realistic, and relevant. We need to shake off the outdated doctrinal shackles of World War II, some of it unconnected with todays’ high tempo, technology-driven warfare that is shrouded in uncertainty. Yet, these antiquated doctrines remain in use and remain unrevised despite many important lessons having being learned. And so, we continue to fail the National Security Strategy and ultimately, the National Strategy.

When assessing the inability of many African armies to perform effectively in the field, it becomes clear that there are numerous doctrinal failures and mismatches. There is nothing wrong with the quality of manpower, as long as they are trained, equipped and well led. Despite a measure of training, victory remains elusive as tactical successes are seldom, if ever, translated into operational or strategic successes.

Currently, the doctrines in use by many African armies are not aligned with the National Security Strategy, nor with the National Military Strategy and the subsequent campaign strategies make no allowance for complex AOs, have little regard for the environmental impact on operations, incorrectly assume all troops are trained to a high level, do not make allowances for a lack of equipment, take no cognisance of the threat or enemy, and so forth.

Being fortunate to be given latitude by some African armies, I have come to realise that doctrine needs to be simplified, made relevant and realistic, and then imprinted on the minds of soldiers as soon as possible.

Simplifying doctrine and teaching it to troops at a very early stage of their training has numerous advantages. Most importantly, it teaches them how planned combat operations will unfold, and how forces are integrated into a unified units and sub-units, and how and why their actions will support the combat operations to achieve the commander’s intent, and so forth.

Understanding a simplified doctrine that is devoid of ‘management’ terms, outdated and unconnected approaches, cumbersome, and irrelevant information has, in my experience, had a marked difference in how troops approach their missions and how they fight. I have witnessed that when doctrine is explained to them, a visible understanding occurs—and it then shows in how they approach combat operations.

But, we remain self-deluded with our doctrine, believing it is written in stone and therefore not subject to adaption, discussion or change.

As long as we do what the outdated ‘book’ says, we will remain victims of our doctrine as we will become what we want the enemy to become—confused and predictive.


Mac23 said...

Well Eben unfortunately it isn't just a African phenomenon in the use of irrelevant doctrine,u would find many 1st world/Tier 1 army's also suffer from out dated doctrine and a huge lack of out the box in the field problem solving wich all mounts down to a lack of flexibility usually from higher its if after the rank of captain the field Marshall Haig syndrome kicks in and the the cold war manual gets thrown in over drive.
Flexibility is key to all ranks not just the lower ranks.
Micro management doesn't work !Senior commanders should let their lower sub units and junior commanders deal with there operations in there AO's according to the situation and atmospheric's they in counter on the ground again insuring maximum flexibility wich will lead to greater operational efficiency and success.
If the saying goes train like u fight and no plan survives first contact why do whe train according to a scripted training programme,how does that develop good commanders for the field ?
(Not relevant to soldiers personal skills and drills development only to doctrine inflicted by command)
Look forward to hear about your thoughts on this.


Herbert said...


I've always felt the first sentence of any doctrinal statement should be something like "This doctrine is intended as guidance only, not as binding, religious regulation from on high. You are allowed to think." Of course I understand that such statements are best made to well-trained, intelligent people who will not take the guidance as license to ignore all doctrine, TTPs, etc. Therein lies the rub. It depends on who you are trying to guide. Leadership is the answer.

If you will allow me a story: As they say, "A long time ago in a faraway place" (late 1960s, Vietnam) the US Marine Corps had a habit of helo-inserting recon teams on mountain tops. The team would typically stay put, and of course come under attack by a larger force, sometimes within minutes of insertion. These 'elite' troops would scream for help, causing a young infantry company commander such as myself to be ordered to mount up his tired troops and fly into a hot LZ occupied by enemy who knew we were coming. The second time I had the honor of rescuing these 'heros', I counted up my dead and wounded and decided to visit the recon battalion. I suggested they try walking in, or perhaps hit multiple LZs, drop away from the objective and walk the rest of the way, anything other than what was currently not working. The recon battalion commander told me I obviously knew nothing about recon doctrine. I lost my temper and foolishly said, "What is doctrinal about stupidity"? I was lucky to avoid court martial. Several years later the recon battalion commander became my regimental commander. He remembered me.

Leadership, training, communication from top to bottom, flexibility. You have addressed all of these in your last book and in previous blog postings. All are more important than 'the book.'


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Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks for your insightful comment Herbert.
I do like the sentence to preface doctrine "This doctrine is intended as guidance only, not as binding, religious regulation from on high. You are allowed to think." I suspect that some people use doctrine to avoid thinking and then blame doctrine when they don't succeed. Your anecdote re an insertion into hostile country serves to illustrate this.
Maybe we will one day realise that it is merely a guide and we are allowed to think!

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

A good comment/question Mac23.
Micro management goes against the grain of operational flexibility and initiative. But it also stymies doctrinal adjustments and hampers lessons learned.
I have always held the belief that soldiers can only do what they are trained and equipped to do. Of course, leadership is critical but that leadership ought to provide operational guidance.
Trying to fight according to a ‘script’ makes us predictable and places the enemy at an advantage as he will very quickly discover that we approach conflict/war with a dogmatic mindset.
Our operational commanders are sometimes forced into situations where higher command removes all operational initiative from them. This does hamper their development for command as they are not allowed to think. And I think this is partly to blame for what I consider to be a crisis in command.
Failure to rigidly adhere to doctrine has a negative career impact and they also want to safeguard their careers. The end result is they merely follow the script as there won’t be negative personal implications on them.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thank you for the honour Anju!
I will certainly add it to my blog.

Lourens said...

Very well put. Doctrine is a double edged sword carrying the advantage of consistent and duplicated predetermined actions, but in doing so taking away the innovative thought processes and actions required in most situations that require action.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Well said Lourens. A dogmatic and blinkered approach to doctrine has resulted in the downfall of many!

Willow said...

I would have to agree 100% with this article. It pulls the scab off of a wider wound - training of officers that have little to no combat experience; but are expected to support or work with operational forces from other arms.
On Junior Command and Staff course in SA we (Ops/Int community) had an argument with the directing staff (predominantly Logistics and Admin officers) at the Air Force College. They insisted that the manuals written were written in stone while we insisted it was for guidance.
Perhaps the manuals for Personnel, Finance and to a lesser degree Logistics can be carved in stone due to the nature their functions. However, the Operations and Intelligence ones cannot. Ops and Int deal with human beings and they are fundamentally the greatest variable that you can deal with. It is easy to understand what armament a weapon system can carry, or how fast a specific ordinance will travel; but how the person utilises it can be very random, and counter intuitive to what you believe, or have been taught.
My personal view is that doctrine is important as it give the direction to the people on the ground. However, as I think you were alluding, it needs to be broken down into bite sized logical and clear chunks. By making it bite sized it will allow the soldiers to adjust and modify scenarios on the run.

PS I have Composite Warfare on back order and am looking forward to reading it.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks for ordering Composite Warfare Willow. I appreciate your support.
I agree totally with your comment. But, I will go a step further and state that it is not only influenced by humans but by terrain as well. Too often the DS at colleges merely want to 'teach the book' but the book can also be wrong - as it has been proven many times over.
Following a doctrine blindly can lead one to disaster.
Good luck and rgds,