By the Book Special Forces Doctrine: A Regimental Effort


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice

To some Soldiers, doctrine is a manual that collects dust waiting for the next command inspection and perhaps shows its greatest usefulness in holding open the door of the team room during load-outs. But those Soldiers are unaware of the profound influence doctrine has on all aspects of the day-to-day and long-term efforts of Special Forces units and Soldiers.

For the professional SF Soldier, learning is constant, and doctrinal publications are an effective source of information for establishing, as well as reinforcing, the foundations of operational and tactical knowledge. Doctrine outlines the approach that SF will take to accomplish the planning and execution of its assigned missions. It is an important means of informing other elements in the Department of Defense, as well as SF Soldiers, who we are and what purpose we serve in the larger, joint picture.

For SF, the overarching capstone manual is FM 3-0, Operations, and the keystone manual is FM 3-05.20, Special Forces Operations. These manuals provide the primary guidance and basis for all operations that SF units conduct. All SF manuals must be aligned with these two manuals in order to maintain operational continuity.

SF’s primary missions haven’t changed much over time, but the techniques used to conduct those missions have changed significantly. Mission, collective and individual tasks will continue to change in the extremely fluid environment in which U.S. forces are operating, and doctrine should have input from all levels if it is to serve its purpose.

There are points within the doctrinal review process at which doctrine writers routinely solicit input from the force. By accurately identifying new or evolving mission subsets, doctrine writers document those changes, providing necessary commonality to emerging subsets as well as ensuring that SF retains the ability to conduct these missions in the future.

The doctrine writer’s role is to be a conduit, documenting the information and disseminating it uniformly in a timely manner. That ensures that all SF units have the most complete and current information in order to more efficiently and effectively conduct their operations.

SF doctrine performs several other important functions. The first is providing operational or tactical mission clarification to those elements in pre-mission or pre-exercise training. By definition, SF conducts missions that general-purpose forces are neither trained nor equipped to conduct. A review of doctrinal publications relative to a given mission by junior leaders or by junior detachment members should be part of prudent and responsible pre-event training.

Another function of doctrine is promoting cross-pollination within the area of responsibility. There is a significant amount of communication between personnel in the SF groups, but occasionally the information exchanged is incomplete or inconsistent. The information is often expressed from the perspective of the individual and may come with the associated geographic and cultural biases that accompany their experiences.

Other mission-enhancing issues that doctrine assists in resolving are the needs for mission-specific equipment and schooling. Many of today’s missions can be enhanced through the use of technology. Clearly defined doctrine and associated tactics, techniques and procedures that involve the use of select equipment are instrumental in securing the funding for that equipment. Although equipment can be obtained through other methods, its availability will be temporary unless it has command approval and is supported by doctrine.

The same consideration applies to schools and courses associated with new equipment, as well as other mission-specific training. Equipment and schools are usually high on the list of priorities of most detachment- and company-level SF personnel, primarily because they are the most tangible factors that contribute to the accomplishment of the mission. Doctrine that clearly indicates the need for additional equipment and training assists in the justification for the acquisition of those necessary items.

The process of reviewing and rewriting doctrine is a lengthy one. Even though the Special Warfare Center and School’s Directorate of Doctrine and Training, or DOTD, usually reviews, amends and rewrites doctrine much faster and much more often than the conventional Army, the process is still relatively time-consuming, taking 19 months to develop a doctrine manual.

But once they have been developed, SF doctrine manuals are reviewed frequently. During the review process, the doctrine writer’s goal is to ascertain whether there has been enough change in the doctrine to warrant a rewrite. Normally, at least 25 percent of a manual’s information must have changed in order to justify a rewrite, but occasionally, because of the importance of the information or a change in either the keystone or capstone manual, the manual may require a rewrite with much less change.

The SF Division in DOTD is broken down into doctrine writing teams, and each team is responsible for a given number of training circulars, training manuals and field manuals, or FMs. To ensure that any one team isn’t overwhelmed, the workload is spread evenly throughout the division. That means that at any time, each of the doctrine teams is either in the formal rewrite process or the review process.

Most missions and mission subsets are born of battlefield necessity, not immaculately conceived in doctrine. That fact is not lost on the majority of doctrine writers; they realize that input from the force is absolutely critical to maintaining quality doctrine. Without sufficient input from SF units, doctrine writers are forced to write doctrine using only capstone and keystone manuals, as well as their own experience. The result could be inaccurate doctrine that misrepresents the capabilities of SF and performs a disservice to the regiment.

There are a number of methods available to the doctrine writer for obtaining relevant information during the time allotted, not the least of which is talking to the operational SF Soldier. The review portion of the doctrine cycle is normally the first opportunity the doctrine writer will have to personally contact members of operational units to solicit their input. The value of being able to sit and talk with a Soldier cannot be stressed enough. The interviews are largely informal, and the information gained in that type of setting is invaluable, but just as with every operation that SF conducts, timing is everything.

The doctrine writer should make every effort to obtain current information by meeting with personnel just after they have returned from an operational deployment. That is the most opportune time for the doctrine writer to gain the information required for review and evaluation process, but during that time, returning elements are often conducting inventories, preparing for leave, or either planning for or entering their next pre-mission training cycle. If it is too difficult to arrange a meeting, the doctrine writer may have to rely on the less satisfactory methods of e-mails and phone calls.

Another opportunity for personal interviews comes during the conduct of a doctrine review and assessment group, or DRAG. The DRAG is conducted to determine the validity of current doctrine, but it can also be used to answer specific doctrinal questions that have arisen or to afford those with differing opinions the opportunity to meet and work through those issues. The DRAG is a formal process, and those identified to participate are notified through a tasking. DRAGs for the SF Division are normally conducted at SWCS, where all of the personnel in the chain of approval are able to either attend or have immediate access to the information.

The DRAG is not only more formal than the meetings that doctrine writers often conduct but also gives attendees the opportunity to present their information more completely. The DRAG is an invaluable tool in developing doctrine, as it offers DOTD the ability to bring several personnel with different perspectives and experiences together in one room. The scheduling of the DRAG is crucial — it must make it possible for the right people to attend and must facilitate timely publication of the manual. If the personnel in DOTD feel there is a need, a DRAG may be conducted at any point during the development cycle in order to maintain the integrity of the manual.

After the inclusion of the force’s pertinent comments, but prior to the posting of the initial draft, DOTD subjects the manual to several levels of internal scrutiny, culminating in its review and approval by the SWCS leadership. Once the manual has passed those gates, it is edited into the final electronic file and prepared for publication and distribution to SF operational elements, as well as other authorized administrative and operational commands.

The final input from the force comes in the form of comments made during the posting of the initial and final drafts. The manual is posted on the Web and is accompanied by a comment matrix and instructions. DOTD will task certain organizations to review the manual and submit comments, but the entire force is encouraged to conduct a review. The more information that is received at this point, the better. This is the last opportunity the doctrine writer will have to query the force to ensure that the manual is accurate and complete. After this point, any issues that SF personnel might have with the manual will be put on hold until the manual is in its next review cycle, although doctrine writers will record the comments and suggestions at any time.

Comments received from the matrix are normally brief and to-the-point on most issues, but some of the comments may require clarification and follow-up. Occasionally a comment or suggestion will conflict with FM 3-05.20, Special Forces Operations, or other SF doctrine and will require more correspondence to explain the contradiction.

SF has, since its inception, been our nation’s leader in unconventional warfare and very often in counterinsurgency. On the battlefields of today, we continue to earn our keep, proving that we are the premier force of choice in an unconventional- or irregular-warfare environment. We remain relevant because the force has direct input into our doctrine, ensuring that lessons learned on the battlefield will be documented for the benefit of the entire regiment.

Given the rate of deployments of most SF units, reviewing doctrine is usually low on the list of a group’s, battalion’s or detachment’s priorities. The next time a Soldier from DOTD drops by the team room or sends an e-mail looking for some information, SF members should take time to contribute what information they have. Taking the time to speak to a doctrine writer may seem like an inconvenience, but the effort will benefit the regiment as a whole.

It’s easy to think of doctrine as being written by an enigmatic group of people known as “they,” but it is truly a regimental effort, and eventually, we will all have to operate within the doctrine that we have either helped build or failed to contribute to.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Thomas W. Morris is assigned to the SWCS Directorate of Training and Doctrine. He wrote this article while a student in the SF Warrant Officer Advanced Course.

Even though Army special-operations forces review their doctrine frequently, lessons learned from current operations will not appear in doctrine instantaneously. A good source for interim information and lessons learned is the Center for Army Lessons Learned (

There are links to the CALL Web page on the Web pages of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and the U.S. Special Operations Command.
Doctrine's even more important when you're working in a joint or combined environment. It's too late after the fact to figure out "your" definition of "destroy" is different than "their" definition.