Mission Command: The Once and Future King?

Exercise Citadel Guibert 18 in France.

Pictured are British soldiers from 8 Engineer Brigade during the planning phase in the operations room during Exercise Citadel Guibert 18. British and French troops deploy together on EX CITADEL GUIBERT 18, a combined arms staff exercise designed to test the interoperability of both nations. As well as learning about and testing the viability of French and British communications systems, 12 Armoured Infantry Brigade HQ worked alongside French Dutch and American officers exercising a scenario designed to practice the command and control of joint operation to stabilise a region troubled by terrorism and humanitarian issues.

Thank you all for supporting last week’s blog, it was really gratifying to witness your interest and engagement both with the blog itself and the wider subject of manoeuvrism. As promised, I will attempt to give ‘Mission Command’ the same treatment this week, in what will be the third in this occasional series. If you are arriving fresh to the blog it may help you to contextualise this week’s offering by reading the last two posts first. What can you expect from this article? It will aim to give a concise and simple explanation of ‘Mission Command’, discuss why it is so important to manoeuvre warfare, and outline where the concept might develop in future. First, what is ‘Mission Command’? In simple terms, ‘Mission Command’ is a method of commanding men which directs what is to be achieved, leaving how that achievement is to be reached to subordinate expertise; its antithesis is ‘Directive Command’ which dictates both what is to be achieved and how that achievement is to be reached.

So why is command so important? Warfare is perhaps the most complex and chaotic environment in which human beings operate. Since time immemorial, leaders of fighting entities have recognised the need to maintain control of their followers in battle, whilst simultaneously attempting to dominate their opponents. In 1918, the Commander of the Australian Corps in France, General Sir John Monash, described the character of contemporary warfare in these terms: ‘A perfected modern battle plan is like nothing so much as a score for an orchestral composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments, and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases. Every individual unit must make its entry precisely at the proper moment and play its phrase in the general harmony‘. By inference, Monash characterised the role of the commander as that of a conductor: providing the musicians with a score, directing their actions, and ensuring that the parts worked together in harmony. Command, Control, and Communication (C3) are thus intimately connected, representing the means by which decisions are made, directions diffused, and the enemy defeated.

It is often said that there is no such thing as bad weather, merely poor clothing choices, similarly, there is no right or wrong method of command. Command is best situated where information is optimal within a paradigm of warfare and is exercised along a spectrum, with some commanders preferring to direct every activity in minute detail, while others give greater latitude to their subordinates. In the Second World War, Britain’s two most successful commanders, Montgomery and Slim, operated at different ends of this spectrum: Montgomery, the consummate staff officer, directed his campaigns intimately, in a style Monash would have immediately recognised, on the other hand Slim, the regimental officer, tended to state his intent and leave his subordinate commanders to decide how to deliver the results. Both men were highly successful, operating very different concepts of command; ultimately, successful command is defined only by victory on the field of battle.

So why is ‘Mission Command’ so intimately connected to manoeuvrism? Manoeuvrism is predicated on the rapid exploitation of the results of pre-emption, dislocation and disruption; in these circumstances, the commander best positioned to take decisive action is situated at the tip of the spear. Although perhaps a little too simplistic, let’s use a hypothetical example in conjunction with the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) construct to illustrate the advantage of ‘Mission Command’ over ‘Directive Command’ in manoeuvre warfare: two commanders, A and B, see the enemy withdrawing, both use their knowledge, skills, and experience to assess the situation, whereas manoeuvrist A, empowered to act, takes advantage of the situation and strikes his opponent turning retreat into rout, B communicates his observation and assessment to a superior headquarters and awaits instruction, by the time he receives instruction the enemy has been reinforced and advantage lost. ‘Mission Command’ thus has an advantage over ‘Directive Command’ in the context of manoeuvrism because freedom of decision and action are devolved to the point where information is optimised.

So is that it? ‘Mission Command 1, Directive Command 0? Well no, and for three reasons:

First, context is everything; what might be an appropriate style of command in a conventional warfighting environment may not be appropriate in another type of operating environment. In lower-intensity operations, particularly counter-insurgency operations, the complex and delicate interplay of political and cultural factors at the operational and strategic levels demand a more directive command model – The ‘Tactical Minister’ has greater situational awareness than the ‘Strategic Corporal’.

Second, as technology develops, robotics, human-machine teaming, improved communications and sensors, and the application of artificial intelligence will transform command and control, perhaps removing the human from command at the tactical level. Temptingly, if technology could provide dependable situational awareness solutions such that command could be exercised just as effectively from a bunker in the UK as on the battlefield, we might find ‘Mission Command’ redundant.

Finally, as virtual aspects emerge, we must ask whether ‘Mission Command’ is appropriate in a non-physical environment? Are we sufficiently situationally aware in the virtual world to permit ‘Mission Command’ or is the use of cyber weapons and disinformation so strategic, even when used at a tactical level, that their use must be directed? I have no solution to offer in this respect, although it is an interesting question. To counter-balance this discussion it is perhaps important to remember that virtual operations are but analogue operations enhanced by the computer chip.

‘Mission Command’ is in effect the connective tissue of manoeuvrism. In a conventional warfighting environment, it allows those at the tactical level, operating where information is optimal, to make decisions with one eye on the operational and strategic intent of their commander. An invention of the nineteenth century Prussian General Staff, it is neither a universal panacea nor an eternal truth, it may have been King in Von Moltke the Elder’s paradigm of war, but its reign may be rapidly coming to an end at the hands of technology and the changing character of warfare.

Speak to you all soon,

Barney

 

 

 

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