Failure in Command

There is a very useful and, I hope, thought provoking article (written under a nom de plume by a serving British officer) published in the Wavell Room website.* It is entitled “Mission Command; The Fall of the Strategic Corporal; the Rise of the Tactical Minister,” and in it the author laments the fact ~ and it is a fact in Canada, too, I assert ~ that “British Mission Command and performance has regressed, largely as a result of our headquarters incorporating American military information technology as well as replicating American headquarters structures and manning.  During recent counterinsurgency operations we have employed increased quantities of manpower, technology and process to try and make sense of the exponentially increasing volumes of information piped into an increasingly static headquarters.  These bloated headquarters have bred a culture of over planning and control.  The information technology revolution has allowed Ministers and UK based senior officers to directly reach down to the tactical level in distant operational theatres.” As a British general said in a recent speech  titled ““In command and out of control” [the] creep at the National Level to from Mission Command to Mission Control. Prolonged campaigning in Iraq and Afghanistan has created an expanded bureaucracy with a function of identifying and mitigating risk that has not receded. The advent of “lawfare” and a hysterical media has reduced our Civil Service’s threshold for presentational and reputational risk.  This has led to an ever increasing legal and policy oversight and scrutiny of operations.  The lack of domestic appetite for wars of choice rather than of national survival has led to a dramatically reduced appetite for risk to life on operations.” I am 99.99% certain that several serving Canadian generals and senior officers (post ship/regiment-battalion and squadron command level) could have and wish they had written the same words.

First, the very term “Mission Command” is rubbish. I know there is a whole body of literature about it, but it’s still rubbish ~ just well very documented rubbish. There is, very simply, command which is supported by control. The notion of “Mission Command” came about in the USA when it became clear that too many US senior Figure_Breckenridgeofficers were unable to exercise effective combat command because they were “nervous nellies” (or overzealous careerist) who would not or could not trust their subordinates to get on with the job. The image of a helicopter belonging to the division commander hovering over a helicopter belonging to the brigade commander hovering over the battalion commander’s helicopter that is hovering over the company of men on the ground comes to mind. Then a few other US military leaders 51xzIk7hGPL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_decided that a new “concept” and a few PowerPoint presentations featuring gothic lettering and pictures of German generals would put things right … instead things went from bad to worse, but not just in the US military.

Second, command and control (C2) is, actually, a quite simple thing to understand … it is 140328-jennie-carignanthe whole process by which a commander receives and analyzes his (or her) orders, does his (or her ~ always presumed from here on in) reconnaissance, makes his appreciation (estimate) of the situation and his plan and then issues the orders that commit his troops to battle. There it is in under 40 words … that’s not too hard to grasp, is it? But it can be bloody hard to do!

Whether command is done well or poorly is, in the main, a function of the individual commander ~ guided, of course, by the “system” within which (s)he serves. Some are good people and they, even when faced with a flawed system,  can bend it and the enemy to their will; others may be less able but if they work within a good C² system they will be able to give their very best. It’s not magic and it’s not even complicated … but in battle it can be damned difficult because one cannot do it alone, one has to give orders (and resources, including time and information) to subordinates and trust that they will be able to execute them.

Third, battle is an uncertain and messy business which is conducted in a fog ~ occasionally physical but always, without fail, in a mental fog of too little useful, accurate, timely information and too much fear and uncertainty. The only way to win battles is to delegate as much as possible to the lowest level possible ~ where people might, actually, understand what is going on within their area of interest. The British used to be very, very good at this ~ it was the mainstay of British naval operations for 150 years and many a 19th and early 20th century British colonel found himself at nearly the end of the world with little guidance except, one hoped, a decent comprehension of the British national interest and aims.

It’s easy to lay blame at the feet of the Americans … in World War II, especially, they had 51deck6s88lto mobilize and command and control the largest fighting force the world has ever seen ~ deployed over the entire globe. They looked at what the great German General Staff had done and at their old friends the French and they drew lessons from both ~ good and bad lessons. The system they created, out of practical necessity, was overly centralized and relied upon large staffs because they had too few seasoned, competent combat commanders. It wasn’t a really bad system for a HUGE, essentially amateur military force, but it wasn’t a good model for smaller, professional forces, either.

071025-F-5646S-008It’s also too easy to blame information technology (IT) and communications, often the most visible part of the C³ (command, control and communications) system … it’s easy but it’s wrong. Computers and communication systems and remote sensors and, and, and ad infinitum are all just tools, and the fault, if there is some, is with the workman (commanders and staff officers) not the tools. When there, for example, information overload exists it is because staff officers are too weak or timid to do their jobs and filter out the wheat and discard the chaff.

It is even easier to blame the Vietnam war for the rise of both “lawfare” and of extreme ar8153-apolitical sensitivity to public opinion about 1101691205_400military operations. But both arose from very human command and control choices and decisions. Lieutenant William Calley was a symptom of a bigger disease within the US military involving command and ethics and so on … there were political, bureaucratic, social and military problems that made Vietnam into a strategic quagmire and a military nightmare.

The “exponentially increasing volumes of information piped into an increasingly static headquarters” is a real problem because too many commanders and senior staff officers seem unable or unwilling to insist upon “lean and mean” HQs where information filtering becomes, very very quickly, second nature. It isn’t the fancy electronic sensors or the high speed communications links or the super-computers that are to “blame” for “these bloated headquarters [that] have bred a culture of over planning and control.” The blame for that rests squarely on individual officers who are unwilling to take the risk of trusting their subordinates and equally unwilling to tell higher, even political HQs, to “butt out” until the actual battle has been fought. It goes all the way back to the issue that I discussed a few days ago ~ the military and ethical training of the young officers who will, eventually, lead our sailors, soldiers and air force personnel in battle.

Nothing is really new here, almost 40 years ago two Americans, Richard Gabriel and  Paul Savage, both former military officer and both later professors, tackled the central issue in a book entitled Crisis in Command. While the reviews, rightfully, faulted them for trying to oversimplify a complex issue they got the key elements right: military ethics and sound military management both failed in America in the 1950s and ’60s. The US military addressed some of the issues but one of the central ones, a robust, clear, simple command and control system, eluded them. Instead they stuck with a bloated, bureaucratic C² superstructure that they then foisted upon alliances and force fed to clients. The blame is not only on the Americans for getting their own system wrong … the blame also lies with senior Australian, British, Canadian and other allied naval and military officers who, uncritically, adopted it just because “big brother” said it was good.


* The Wavell Room describes itself as a site devoted to contemporary British military thought.

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