What’s Wrong With FM 3-0? Well, Most People Haven’t Actually Read It

The Long March

The current edition of “FM 3-0 (Operations),” published in October 2017, represents a departure from the U.S. Army’s historical approach to its tactical doctrine for large scale ground combat.


Understanding how different it is requires an understanding of how we addressed operations by large units – armies, corps, divisions, and brigades – in previous versions of FM 3-0 and its 100-5 predecessors. It also requires that one read the entire publication and understand the current strategic and operational environment of contemporary great power competition and conflict. FM 3-0 is written for today, not the Cold War.

Maj. Jamie Schwandt’s recent article on “The Long March” stated the following:

It appears as though we have decided that insurgents are no longer a threat and we would rather fight a near-peer enemy. In the new field manual, FM 3-0 Operations, the U.S. Army has apparently decided to forget past lessons learned. FM 3-0 signals a shift in military strategy and a focus back to large-scale ground combat operations against near-peer threats, where belligerents possess technology and capabilities similar to the U.S. military. Essentially, we no longer want to do the “Vietnam or Iraq thing” again.

What’s odd here is we find similarities when comparing the latest FM 3-0, published in October 2017, to FM 100-5 Operations of Army Forces in the Field, published in September 1968 while Gen. William Westmoreland was the Army chief of staff. FM 3-0 resembles the losing strategy Westmoreland used in Vietnam. He sought victory by winning a head-to-head war by “grinding down” the enemy.

The application of doctrine requires judgment. We say so explicitly in ADP 1-01 (Doctrine Primer). Doctrine and strategy are not synonyms, and conflating the two is a mistake. Doctrine provides the ingredients that operational artists measure and mix into different recipes appropriate for a specific situation. Others have written eloquently about Westmoreland’s failings so I won’t, but I would say he was dealing with three separate problems simultaneously: a conventional threat, an insurgency, and the lack of an effective military-political partner. Focusing on one issue and indicting all doctrine, then or now, is a mistake.

We are not walking away from COIN or any other type of operation just because we published new doctrine for large-scale ground combat operations. We filled a doctrinal gap. We had no tactical doctrine for large units conducting large-scale ground combat since the previous FM 3-0 was rescinded in 2011. Our strategic level leadership, from the Secretary of Defense to the Army Chief of Staff, has repeatedly stated that the possibility (not probability) of large-scale combat against peer threats like Russia, North Korea, China, and Iran is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War. We needed warfighting doctrine to address the most dangerous aspects of the contemporary operational environment, not just those with which we are most personally familiar.

Our COIN, stability, security cooperation, and peacekeeping doctrine remains relevant and in use daily by 180,000+ Soldiers forward positioned in CENTCOM, AFRICOM, EUCOM, SOUTHCOM, and PACOM. We continuously incorporate lessons learned from the forces conducting such activities. Those missions and tasks are simply NOT the primary focus of FM 3-0, although we address many of them in the broad category of stability tasks, a key element of Decisive Action. FM 3-0 discusses them in detail as part of operations to shape and prevent in chapters 2 & 3. FM 3-0 also emphasizes that the tasks we execute while shaping, preventing, and consolidating heavily influence our ability to prevail in large scale ground combat. There is no "either-or" mindset in FM 3-0.

FM 3-0 addresses the range of military operations that encompass both competition and conflict, in accordance with the Army strategic roles. Consolidation of gains, which requires effective execution of offensive, defensive, and stability tasks, is central to the narrative. No previous operational level doctrine linked strategic purpose to operations and the tasks assigned to Army echelons to achieve a desired end state. That’s why we described what winning looks like during operations that support each strategic role.

The Army Chief of Staff has repeatedly said that our benchmark of readiness is not our ability to conduct those types of operations for which we get months or longer to prepare. Rather, it is our ability to conduct large-scale ground combat against peer or near-peer regional threats (Russia, China, Iran, North Korea), which “are come as you are fights” of scale, scope, and lethality that exceed anything done since the Korean War. You have time to adapt down from that level of readiness without accepting a lot of risk to the mission or risk to the force. You cannot adapt an Army “up” to large-scale ground combat in wartime without suffering heavy losses and potential early defeat.

We need professional discourse about doctrine, particularly FM 3-0, across the Army. FM 3-0 is imperfect, and we need people to read it if we are going to have informed conversations about how to make it better. Opinions about opinions will not get us where we need to be. I congratulate Maj. Schwandt for beginning what I hope to be an ongoing and powerful discussion about how FM 3-0 should evolve. Our Army will be better off for it.

Col. Rich Creed is director of the Army’s Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and one of the authors of the new edition of FM 3-0. His team is revising other parts of doctrine to align with FM 3-0 over the next two years. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the United States Army.

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