Mission Command in Barracks.

Almost two years ago, I started my MA dissertation in Military History at the University of Birmingham, the ability to critically analyse sources was perhaps the most important skill I picked up from the excellent academic staff who taught me, I hope I did them justice in my analysis of primary sources relating to ‘Aerial Re-Supply in the First World War 1916-18’.  This week, as regular readers of this Blog may know, I attended an Armed Forces University Short Course at Exeter on ‘Strategic Communications in an era of Persistent Conflict’; the healthy scepticism imbued by Drs Boff, Whittingham, and Pugh was, I must admit, on high alert!  Strategic Communications is a relatively new discipline for Defence, with much of it imported from Madison Avenue; given Defence’s proclivity for the novel and fashionable, and having read ADP ‘Land Operations’ 2017 with its concentration on ‘Integrated Action’, it would be fair to say I required some convincing.  The course was delivered by a former Royal Naval officer who had wide-ranging experience and considerable expertise in the area; whilst the theory seemed compelling, the outputs seemed very variable, what may work in one context, may not work in another.  Strategic Communications is very definitely an art, rather than a science.

I have also been researching military adaptability for my Joint Concept Note for the MoD’s Developments, Concepts and Doctrine Centre at Shrivenham.  I wrote in my last Blog that we had a good deal to learn from the reforms of Colonel General Hans von Seeckt, the German Chief of Staff from 1921-27.  I was reminded on Twitter by the aforementioned Dr Jonathan Boff ,that there are considerable differences between the Reichsheer of the 1920s and the British Army of 2018; what may work in one context, may not in another.  One of the best books I have read this week was Eitan Shamir’s ‘Transforming Command: The Pursuit of Mission Command in the US, British, and Israeli Armies’, in it Shamir examines the problems experienced by all three militaries in taking the organisational culture of the German Army, extant from the time of Scharnhorst until the fall of Berlin in 1945, and implanting it within their own cultures.  By far the most successful of the three has been the British Army, although less so latterly as they become more interoperable with the Americans and pick up bad planning habits!

The point that not every solution works in every context is well founded, however, the principle of Mission Command, when adapted to British military culture, seems both effective and efficient.  It cannot, however, be simply superimposed on the prevalent culture, Mission Command requires high levels of expensive professional military education at all levels, a high degree of risk tolerance from commanders, good communication and trust.  Like adaptability, it is not a cheap option, it is not a way of ‘doing more with less’, to do it properly is expensive in financial and cultural terms, but is critical to future success in war on the battlefield and amongst the people.  Mission Command in Barracks is not a straightforward proposition, von Seeckt did not have to deal with a litigious public, a risk averse government, or a constant demand for quantitative evidence from Higher Formations.  Trust is a rare commodity in twenty-first century Britain.

What could improve trust and encourage commanders to risk their reputations and careers?  The answer is professional military education, both formal and informal; only by educating our subordinates to a level where we trust their capacity and capabilities can we take the calculated risks inherent in Mission Command.  We are, then, both the problem and the solution, we must trust and educate if we are to reap the benefits of doing things smarter.  To that end, the peerless Dr Jonathan Boff will be speaking in the next in the War Talks at PCL Talk Series, the subject is his excellent new book, ‘Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front’. Jonathan will speak from 1800 hrs on Tuesday 8th May 2018. See you there!

Best wishes,


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