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The Long and Winding Road: The US Army Managerial Approach to Command and the Adoption of Auftragstaktik (Mission Comamnd)

EITAN SHAMIR

Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, Israel


ABSTRACT The purpose of the current paper is to examine the adoption and adaptation process of mission command (Auftragstaktik) in the US Army. This concept denotes a decentralize command approach wherein superiors dictate their intent and allow subordinates to formulate their operational plans independently and change it according to the emerging situation. The paper first traces the approach origins in the historic Prussian-German army. Then it examines the US command approach prior to mission command which is influenced by corporate management practices which inherently contradict mission command approach. It continues and investigates how the US Army endeavored to emulate the approach in its doctrine and in major operations.

While it has officially incorporated mission command into its doctrine, it has been less successful in utilizing it in operational situations. It was found that the gap was due partially to the cultural legacy of the managerial approach to command that still persist. Despite the partial success, the US Army has recently reaffirmed its commitment to this approach.
Key Words: Mission Command, Auftragtsaktik ,US Army, Adoption and Adaptation, Managerial Approach,

The German concept Auftragstaktik often translated as mission command1 denotes decentralized leadership; it is a philosophy of command that requires and facilitates initiative in all levels of command directly involved with events on the battlefield. It allows and encourages subordinates to exploit opportunities by empowering them to demonstrate initiative and exercise personal judgment in pursuance of their mission while maintaining alignment through the concept of the commander’s intent. The approach presupposes the existence of trust in the individual's ability to act wisely and creatively when faced with unexpected situations, independently from higher authority.

The primary objective of this article is to explore the process of adoption, adaptation, and praxis of mission command in the US, army, since its 'rediscovery' in the 1980s. The paper main argument is that while committing itself to the mission command approach through doctrine, in reality the US Army encounters difficulties in its implementation due to an existing legacy of a managerial approach to command which often clashes with the new imported approach. The managerial approach is characterizes by centralization, standardization, detailed planning quantitative analysis and aspires for maximum efficiency and certainty. In contrast mission commands' approach is based on the realization that 'no plan survives the first contact with the enemy' and therefore a good plan represents a central idea that allows maximum freedom to decide and act according to the emerging situation and changing circumstance. This approach aspires for maximum efficiency.

While a number of works have investigated the adoption of mission command, it has usually been discussed within the context of more general doctrines, such as maneuver warfare or the operational level of war. In addition, they have focused on either the Americans reforms instituted during the post-Vietnam era or on the Bagnall reforms in Britain.2 However, as an approach, mission command transcends specific doctrines or historical periods and is regarded as such by modern militaries. Indeed, it is considered relevant regardless of the sweeping changes that have transpired over the past two decades in the character of warfare.

An investigation of mission command is bound to encounter serious challenges as the concept is quite elusive. Indeed, the meaning accorded to Auftragstaktik in nineteenth and early twentieth century Prussian-German writings was different than that accorded to it today.3 In a manner similar to Blitzkrieg, while mission command was practiced, the term itself was absent from official doctrinal publications. The principles of mission command were incorporated into German military doctrine during the nineteenth century. Many historians believe that mission command had reached its highest form when practiced by the Prussian-German Army. Indeed, according to many, the Wehrmacht owed its effectiveness and achievements to its reliance on Auftragstaktik.4 This concept was largely neglected by mainstream Western militaries until the second half of the Cold War. At that time the West began to seek means to counterbalance the Red Army’s quantitative superiority. The search led the Anglo-Americans to re-examine the fighting qualities of the Wehrmacht; they discovered the pivotal role played by mission command in securing Germany an edge over its rivals.

On a more practical level, the Anglo-Americans considered mission command crucial for the practice of manoeuvre warfare. The latter had been developed by the Americans and the British and later adopted by NATO as a doctrinal response to the Soviet threat.5 Though the Cold War has receded into the pages of history, and despite the shifting focus of military operations, mission command has demonstrated significant staying power. Some argue that it is the method of command best suited for coping with unconventional warfare scenarios such as Low Intensity Conflicts (LIC), peacekeeping operations and counterinsurgency.6 Mission command is also believed to have retained its validity in spite of the new digital command and control (C2) technologies which have increased micromanagement.7 According to a different, somewhat more cynical outlook, mission command in the US Army has become another managerial fad,8 similar to a score of others examined and discarded, such as Management by Objectives (MBO), Total Quality Management (TQM), Reengineering or 'Just in Time' (JIT) produced primarily by corporate America.9

However, mission command is firmly rooted in military theory. This foundation may account for its enduring popularity and near mythical canonization among officers. These accolades notwithstanding, the degree to which it has been implemented and practiced by modern militaries is unclear.


The Origins of Mission Command

Mission command origins are usually traced to the reforms instituted in Prussia following the humiliating defeat at Jena (1806). The reformists concluded that the rigid, mechanistic army of the Ancien Régime was incapable of facing the challenges posed by Napoleonic warfare. The size, composition and tactics of modern armies had rendered obsolete the traditions of old. New technologies introduced by the mid-nineteenth century Industrial Revolution (primarily the rail, telegraph and breech loading gun) also called for new agile and flexible military organization and command systems.

Though decentralized command was practiced by many commanders throughout history, it had been more a reflection of an individual style. In contrast the Prussian-German army systematically developed it into a comprehensive body, and integrated it into doctrine and practice. Auftragstaktik was the German response to both the genius of Napoleon and the unavoidable friction and fog inherent to the phenomena of war. By successfully adapting these ideas into their military culture, the Germans were able to transcend personal style, units and time.10 The fact it emerged in Prussia was due to a specific Prussian and German historical circumstances and forces that produced a unique strategic mind-set and military culture. It has developed top down by the German Genral Staff as well as bottom up through tactical innovation. It was also cultivated in the famous military academy the Kriegsakademie.Daniel Hughes was probably correct in stating that ‘Auftragstaktik was more than a system of command; it was part of a particular life style typical of Prussian officers for more than a century’.11 This latter point is crucial to understanding the difficulties faced by contemporary modern Western militaries, possessing different traditions of command and historical experiences, attempting to revive and adopt this style of command.

It was Helmuth von Moltke the Elder who recognized the need to revolutionize command in a time of great technological and social changes. During his tenure as the Prussian Chief of Staff Moltke has done more than anyone else to embed mission command in the Prussian military culture and to articulate its essence. According to Moltke, subordinates should be told what to do and for what purpose, not how to do it. Superiors specify the mission objectives and constraints and allocate resources leaving the rest to their subordinates. The latter's skills, creativity, and commitment, or lack there off, will ultimately determine the battle plan and its execution. Auftragstaktik is therefore not merely a technique for issuing orders, but a type of leadership.12 Subordinates were not relegated to the status of simply following orders, but rather regarded as individuals capable of making independent judgments. Within its unique historical, strategic and social context the Prussian-German army, combined military theory and praxis that enabled it to practice Auftragstaktik.

However, when other militaries came to emulate this practice they have discovered that as it involves delegation of authority and decision it requires also a change of organizational culture.13. A number of authors have listed cultural and organizational elements necessary for mission command. The most common element is trust, respect between commanders and subordinates as well as acceptance of responsibility and acceptance of risk. Trust is acquired through professional development aiming at developing confident leaders who would not hesitate to exercise initiative.14 Indeed Auftragstaktik was enabled by a German military culture which strongly emphasized ‘initiative, aggressiveness, and subordinate freedom of action’; it valued personal initiative even at the cost of disobedience – calling instead for adhering to a higher intent. Subordinates were expected to demonstrate sound judgment grounded in military professionalism, inculcated through training and education.15
The Rise of the Managerial School in the US Army

Though it fought well, by the end of the War of Independence, the Continental Army had been reduced to some 600 men.16 A professional army was rejected because the Founding Fathers believed it would pose a threat to liberal ideals and since they abhorred the central (federal) authority it served.17 Indeed, until the end of the nineteenth century Americans considered the military profession as a necessary evil. The militia system was believed to embody the American ideals.18

The few military professionals of the nation were trained at West Point. Established in 1802, West Point was primarily an engineering school modeled after the French École Polytechnique.19 A small enclave representing the closest thing to military professionalism. The most popular and influential military theorist in the academy was the Swiss officer Antoine Jomini. West Point emphasized character building and such virtues as loyalty, honor and courage. However, ‘there was no intellectual questioning, no real curiosity…. or curiosity to seek out new fields of knowledge’. Mathematics was by far the most important subject; other topics were studies through memorization.20 Following the American Spanish War (1898) The Doge Committee established to investigate the failings of the army during that war, recommended a number of reforms, including the formation of a general staff system. 21 Influenced by Emory Upton's survey of the Prussian general staff, Secretary of War Elihu Root accepted these recommendations.22 With the support of President Theodor (Teddy) Roosevelt he introduced the 1903 General Staff Act which: ‘strengthened executive control over the army and promoted greater professionalism’.23 However, effectiveness of the general staff was further reduced by the 1916 National Defence Act which restricted its activities to war planning.24 Thus, the new act served to widen the gap between the American general staff system and its Prussian equivalent.

The Root reforms also introduced a new combined arms education system for officers and reorganized the Fort Leavenworth General Service and Staff College. In contrast to the Kriegsakademie, American higher military education institutions did not require entrance exams and selection to the Staff College, was based on recommendation and efficiency reports rather than an examination system. It was intended that the college would prepare officers for divisional and higher staff positions. But attendance was considered only important rather than crucial for one's career. Despite efforts, the college failed to reach the Prussian level of training and its graduating Captains were considered ‘pale copies of the lieutenant colonels produced by the Kriegsakademie’.25 The American colleges were also encouraging contemporary industrial management ideas emphasizing efficiency through centralized control processes. Similarly, they did not become a screening tool for promotion and failed to attain the high status required for attracting the best candidates.26

Another expression of the managerial approach was the American adoption of the five-section French general staff system (G1 - G5). The section chiefs were directly subordinate to the Chief of Staff.27 The Chief of Staff in the French system was 'first and foremost was a manager whose function was to coordinate and supervise the functioning of the assistant chief of staff.' 28 In contrast, the German organizational structure subordinates all activities to operational planning. The status of the operations officer (Ia), is first among equals, reflects the German emphasis on operational planning and combat activity relegating other staff responsibilities to the status of support.

Interwar American military academies devoted little time to the study of large unit leadership. Rather, they concentrated on managerial tasks such as mobilization, organization and supply. Consequently, graduates understood the science of management rather than the art of war. 29

World War Two also strengthened American reliance on business oriented techniques. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall patterned army organization on the ideas of American business.30 The managerial focus allowed the Americans to excel at such aspects of war as large scale mobilization, logistics and deployment; it was less helpful in the realm of combat command.

By 1941 the Americans had recognized the advantage of the German practice of command and based the new Field Service Regulations on the 1933/4 Leadership of Troops. Nevertheless, the Americans failed to capture the essence of the German approach that was based on friction and chance and considered war as a free creative activity. Instead they sought to control war through efficient planning and execution processes. Thus for example, the US Army regulations emphasized loyalty as opposed to independent action.31

The American regulations reflected a society assured of its material superiority and an understanding that success depended upon the ability to bring it to bear against an enemy. A German commentator stated after the war that these regulations reflected a ‘tendency to underestimate the importance of surprise, maneuver and improvisation’.32 Though ostensibly aspiring to mission command, the overly detailed regulations attempted to ‘foresee many different situations’.33

The managerial orientation was evident also in army practices such as the mechanized, centralized and mathematical nature of American personnel management. The preferred solution for most problems came in the form of improved managerial control based on reports or statistics.34 Processes such as selection were conducted as an assembly line operation. Training was conducted en masse, disregarding the needs of parent units. It was based on engineering principles, breaking each task into smaller components and emphasizing automatic drills. The replacement system was also based on mathematical optimization models. A higher priority was given to administrative requirements than to the psychological dimension of war.35 Essentially, the American approach attempted to streamline core processes through industrial principles striving for efficiency while sacrificing the human-moral dimension. War was not regarded as a clash of wills but as a contest of machines and resources. The impact of individual judgment was set aside.36 Accordingly, the Americans constructed a centralized organization requiring vast amounts of information in the form of statistical reports. Reliance on superior resources and firepower often resulted in mediocre tactical performance.37

Some forces, such as the Ranger and the airborne units, demonstrated superior combat command capabilities. Similar to the Stosstruppen of the Great War, these units could boast of higher individual motivation and training and greater reliance on initiative. However, most Americans units were plagued by mediocre tactical command, and merely ordinary operational level command.38 The Germans often exposed their flanks and took risks knowing that the Americans lacked the skill to exploit such opportunities. On the whole, the American Army proved neither aggressive nor flexible enough to exploit several opportunities to destroy the Wehrmacht. The famous operations of General George C. Patton were the exception that proved the rule.39 In a sense, Patton had more in common with Guderian and Rommel than with Allied generals.40 In France he refused to halt his advance, constantly pushing forward, exploiting opportunities and lamenting the cautiousness of the planners.41

The Impact of the Vietnam War

By and large, the American approach to command during the Cold War was influenced by the experience of the decade-long Vietnam War. In that war, the managerial approach to war became ever so dominant. Its extreme application in that period became an absurdity.42 The driving force behind the shift was Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara, a former Corporate America executive. He believed that the army had to adopt corporate procedures in order to succeed in the modern world. McNamara embraced statistical and quantitative measures for better control.43 Consequently, the officer corps adopted a managerial ethos, at the expense of the unique military experience. One indication of this trend was the number of officers who took business degrees during that period. American officers adopted corporate jargon, attitudes and values substituting the ethos of shared responsibility and self-sacrifice for the greater good with self serving practices designed to promote individual careers. This trend was shared by most of NATO but the Americans embraced it most enthusiastically. War was viewed through the prism of balance sheets and accounting principles; quantitative methods and models were used to assess unit effectiveness. For example, daily statistics were submitted concerning the ratio of enemy killed and captured daily against number of enemy units operating in a given area.44

This approach also dominated tactical and operational command and leadership. Centralized control was practiced and decisions were made on the basis of quantitative information gathered through the new communication and information technologies.45 At the same time the signal and communications units grew exponentially. Satisfying system requirements for analysis necessitated vast amounts of information. The result was at times absurd:

A helpless company commander engaged in a fire fight on the ground was subjected to direct observation by the battalion commander circling above, who was in turn supervised by the brigade commander circling a thousand or so feet higher up, who in turn was monitored by the division commander in the next higher chopper… watched by the Field Force (Corps) Commander. With each of these commanders asking the man on the ground to tune in his frequency and explain the situation.46

The hunger for information at the top produced an information overload resulting in long lead times needed in order to prepare and launch operations. Hence, the Americans’ ability to respond quickly to the fast paced Guerrilla warfare was severely curtailed. The obsession for quantitative data across the chain of command resulted in indiscriminate loads of information being transmitted between hierarchal levels and an eventual paralysis caused by information overloads.47

Centralization and managerial command were also fostered by an increasing dependency on firepower. The availability of artillery and air power support made it standard practice to call for fire support at the beginning of an engagement. During the inevitable tactical pause, commanders focused on coordinating fire support and answering to superiors instead of directing troops and consequently losing the initiative.48 Also, commanders came to prefer rearward positions which facilitated communications with superiors rather than forward positions which afforded a better sense of the unfolding situation.49 The following anecdote illustrates this point. While visiting troops in Vietnam, Moshe Dayan joined a patrol of the famous 1st Cavalry. The patrol was soon pinned down under hostile fire and the Captain was horrified to learn that his guest had disappeared. He located him atop a grassy hill and asked him what he was doing. ‘What are you doing? Was Dayan's answer, get you’re a** up here, and see what this battle is all about’.50 According to Dayan, B-52 bombers were often called upon when soldiers met resistance, not for lack of courage but due to faulty doctrine and command. As a result of micromanagement, officers were less inclined to exhibit initiative and originality.51 This situation was compounded by other issues. A six-month tour of duty as opposed to the thirteen-month tour of enlisted men and NCOs did not increase officer popularity and hindered the creation of organizational memory and lessons learned. Administrative policies impeded officers’ attempts to develop esprit de corps and trust within their units. As the popularity of the war declined so did the quality of the officers and the number of assaults against officers (fragging) increased. Between 1969 and 1971 the army reported 730 instances of confirmed assaults, 83 of which were fatal.52

The experiences of Vietnam served to strengthen American inclination toward business management methods rather than the Moltkean style of command. One historian summarized the 'American Way of War'53 as a:

Grinding strategy of attrition: the strategy employed by Ulysses S. Grant to destroy Robert E. Lee's army in 1864-65, by John J. Pershing to wear down the German army in 1918, and by the U.S. Army Air Force to pulverize all the major cities of Germany and Japan in 1944-45. In this view, the Civil War, World War I, and World War II were won not by tactical or strategic brilliance but by the sheer weight of numbers -- the awesome destructive power that only a fully mobilized and highly industrialized democracy can bring to bear. In all these conflicts, U.S. armies composed of citizen-soldiers suffered and inflicted massive casualties.54

On the tactical level it meant using superior firepower to suppress the enemy.55 The command approach derived from this way of war sought efficient ways to manage American resources in order to bring them to bear and exhaust its opponent. Colin Gray has summed up the American way of war as one that has always emphasized firepower, large scale operations and logistically focused.56 These traits call primarily for efficiencies, and who knows more about efficiencies other than the corporate sector?
The Adoption of Mission Command

Adoption of mission command by the American army was carried out as part of the reforms of the 1970s and 1980s. The epicenter of these reforms was the development of a new doctrine designed to combat Soviet quantitative superiority. The 1976 Field Manual (FM) 100-5 Operations, though still espousing the principles of Active Defence, was the first such attempt. Its successor, the 1982 FM Operations, advocated the principles of Manoeuvre Warfare and the new AirLand Battle doctrine. Inspired by the Germans, Israelis as well the Red Army, the new doctrine substituted mobility for attrition. It also marked the introduction of mission command into the American army command doctrine.57 Indeed, mission command was a central tenant of AirLand Battle and a prerequisite for its execution.

The AirLand Battle was an intellectual reaction to the 1976 field manual, which many believed to be inadequate. When the former was first introduced by commander of Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) General Starry, it was described as merely evolutionary in order to minimize resistance to it.58 Today, however, many agree that the doctrine posed a greater break than hitherto assumed.59 According to Richard Lock-Pullan, the new doctrine emphasized ‘out-thinking instead of out slugging…. [The reforms] were aimed to develop a culture of a highly skilled sophisticated and capable army’.60 The 1976, 1982 and 1986 editions of field manual 100-5 Operations were tailored to unique characteristics of the European battlefield and the Soviet adversary. The experience of Vietnam proved irrelevant in the face of Warsaw Pact numerical superiority.61 Recognizing their numerical inferiority, planners sought a qualitative advantage. Consequently, the army began instituting a series of reforms one of which was the establishment of a joint body for training and doctrine (1971). The new body, TRADOC, was created in order to facilitate integration of doctrinal developments, training, force structure, and weaponry.

The first commander of TRADOC, General William E. DePuy, understood that the army might be forced to fight a short decisive war while outnumbered and outgunned. His primary objective was to re-establish fundamental tactical skills which required highly trained soldiers capable of forming manoeuvre-oriented combined armed teams.62 Reinforced by the experience of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, DePuy implemented these ideas in his 1976 manual.63 The challenge, according to DePuy, would be ‘to destroy many targets in a short period of time’.64

Some observers criticized its basic tenets. They argued against the emphasis on the defensive and the first battle; the preference of firepower over manoeuvre, and physical over the psychological aspect of war; oversimplification of Soviet doctrine; lack of tactical reserve; and the feasibility of DePuy’s 'concentration tactics’.65 The most vocal opposition was voiced by civilian experts such as William S. Lind, Edward N. Luttwak, Steven L. Canby, Paul Bracken and Jeffrey Record.66 They argued that the manual reintroduced the traditional American preference for head-on collisions and reliance on superior resources. They considered army officers: ‘hidebound bureaucrats cultivating managerial skills over leadership, being wedded to archaic methods, ignoring the study of military history and theory, and turning to safer technology instead of innovative military art’. They concluded that the ‘Army compensated for lack of imagination with high technology and a tendency to treat military challenges as if they were simple engineering problems’.67 Lind, who developed a theory of maneuver warfare on the basis of Air Force Colonel John Boyd’s ideas, was probably the most influential of the group. He emphasized the psychological benefits of ‘creating an unexpected and unfavorable operational strategic condition, not to kill enemy troops or destroy their equipment’.68 Lind advocated ‘Boyd cycling the enemy… until he can no longer fight as an effective organized force’,69 explaining that:

Conflict can best be understood as time competitive cycles of observing, orienting, deciding, and acting … whoever can go through the this 'Boyd Cycle' or 'OODA Loop' consistently faster gains a tremendous advantage primarily because by the time his opponent acts his action has already changed the situation as to make the opponent's action irrelevant.70

According to Lind, effective fighting within the chaos of battle requires combatants to be consistently faster than their adversaries and their ability to strike directly at the enemy centre of gravity… [which] if shattered will bring him down’.71 Achieving the necessary tempo of operations requires decentralization of command and not only accepting but rather generating chaos.72 Central to his theory are the following interdependent concepts: Auftragstaktik (Mission Command), Schwerpunkt (Main Effort), and Lucken und Flachen (Surfaces and Gaps).73 The use of German terminology reveals Lind’s intellectual inspiration and signifies his recognition of the origins of these concepts.

Lind described a dynamic environment wherein enemy strong and weak points cannot be predetermined as they are temporary and changing. Authority must therefore be delegated ‘down to the lowest level, so that small unit commanders can find gaps and immediately exploit them without delay’.74 Once the main effort is conveyed through the commander’s ‘intent’, reconnaissance forces locate and create gaps between enemy surfaces. Once identified, the main force is pulled through these gaps. Crucial to this process are subordinate initiative, boldness, and quick decisions.75 Exploitation of gaps and maintenance of primary effort depends on effective execution of mission command, rapid decisions and quick actions. In Lind's theory, mission command is a:

Series of contracts between superior and subordinates. The superior, in his contract, pledges to make the result he desires crystal clear to his subordinates… to leave the subordinate maximum latitude in determining how to get the result, and perhaps the greatest change - to back him up when he makes mistakes.76

According to Lind, the subordinate ensures that his actions serve the commander's intent; self discipline is substituted for imposed discipline and initiative is constantly rewarded. The focus is on the situation, the enemy and the final outcome rather than on processes and procedures. Missions are defined in terms of the desired effect on the enemy. When changed circumstances preclude the realization of the commander’s intent through the original mission, subordinates are expected to revise their plans accordingly.77

Lind was inspired primarily by the historic Prussian-Germans and the British military intellectuals Liddell-Hart and Fuller.78 Indeed, twelve of the twenty books he recommended for further reading were written either by German generals or about the German military.79. These radical ideas were first adopted by the Marines Corps which was then undergoing their own transformation.80

The transition from tactical to operational doctrine is credited to TRADOC commander General Don A. Starry.81 Starry, who replaced DePuy, adopted the aforementioned criticism and revised the doctrine.82 According to General Huba Wass de Czega, one of the developers of the new doctrine, ‘army commanders became convinced as a result from their field training and war games that they would be unable to defeat the Soviets using the doctrine of 1976’.83

Starry revisited the lessons of the 1973 Yom Kippur War through the prism of the operational art. He was particular impressed by Musah Peled’s counterattack deep behind the Syrian lines, on the third day of the war, which had thrown the Syrian and Iraqi forces completely off balance.84 The war ‘reaffirmed his operational idea that without initiative the outnumbered forces are doomed to lose’.85 Starry's ideas were inspired by his experience in World War Two and Korea. From retired Wehrmacht generals he garnered a more comprehensive understanding of mission command, manoeuvre and the operational art. For example, he held a four day conference (1980) exploring Wehrmacht experience in Russia with generals Balck and von Mellenthin.86 The purpose was to derive lessons for a modern defence of Europe against a Soviet invasion.87 The Germans told him that they had emphasized the human element and expounded on mission type orders and the culture prevailing in the Wehrmacht that had enabled reliance on them. They explained that German superior battlefield performance derived from ‘the individuality of the German fighting man, his freedom to take initiatives and the system which engendered these policies and attitudes’.88 According to Balck ‘independent action along the line of the general concept was praised and accepted’.89 Mission command, he explained, depended on shared experiences, doctrine and training. Mellenthin remarked that:

Commanders and subordinates start to understand each other during war. The better they know each other, the shorter and less detailed the orders can be. To follow a commander or an order requires that it is also thought through on the level from which the order was given.90
The new mode of fighting was centred on seizing and maintaining initiative rather than the traditional attrition strategy. The new doctrine four basic tenets were ‘initiative, depth, agility, and synchronization’.91 Fighting depended on maintenance of tempo and aggressive execution relying on superior command and training rather than on resources or technology. The new doctrine developed, AirLand Battle, required skilled and adaptive forces and leaders capable of recognizing ‘critical events as they occur and act to avoid enemy strengths and attack enemy vulnerabilities’.92

A revised edition of the manual appeared in 1986 wherein the technical ‘operational level’ was replaced by the dynamic 'operational art'. It instructed practitioners to identify an opponent’s operational centre of gravity and concentrate combat power against it.93 Thus, the Clausewitzian centre of gravity became the focal point of maneuver theory, commanders were instructed to ensure ‘a unified, aggressive quick, precise, agile and synchronized effort throughout the force’.94

Maneuver warfare advocates believed that the necessary characteristics were embedded in the American national character and had to only be rediscovered.95 This style of command emphasized high-quality, flexible and fluid command, in contrast to the traditional top down approach. The theory advocated rapid completion of OODA loops as a means of disrupting the enemy’s decision making capabilities. Central to the new 1986 manual were the mission command principles of clear intent, brief communications across the chain of command and synchronization.96 The latter denoted ‘the unity of effort of all forces towards single aim via a clear intent’.97 It depended on implicit rather than explicit coordination achieved if ‘all forces involved fully understand the intent of the commander’.98 However despite these doctrinal innovations some still remained unconvinced and stated that: :

The developers of AirLand Battle flirted with maneuver but have been unable to shake American military traditions of the past. While AirLand Battle represents an attempt to break with doctrinal problems of the Vietnam era, the irresistible song of technology, fire and mass destruction continue to lure American thought back to battle calculus of attrition.99



Debates and Interpretations

The decision to adopt mission command led to debates concerning three major issues. One issue debated in the years following the adoption was the morality of adopting a technique employed by the Nazis. The second concerned the feasibility of adapting a foreign concept developed within a specific historical context.100 It devolved from the broader issue of whether German military performance warranted emulation. The third debate concerned the translation and interpretation of the concept as well as identification of its various comprising elements and their relation to a broader theory.

The debate concerning German military excellence, in which both officers and academics partook, raged over the pages of practitioner journals such as Military Review, Infantry or Armour. The issue transcended the mere historic; it had a direct impact on the practice of their profession. For instance, writing on the German mystic, Roger Beaumont challenged the American and British fascination with Wehrmacht performance. He argued that not only had the German army been greatly influenced by Nazi ideology but even its early victories were ‘more image than substance’.101 Moreover, he asked, if they were so good, how come they lost? Similarly, Daniel Hughes cautioned against borrowing German concepts of warfare, as ‘not all professionals share this respect for the Wehrmacht’.102 In contrast, Martin van Creveld held that the Wehrmacht was more than a bunch of fanatics hence, though Nazi influence existed, its degree should not be overstated. He argued also that victory is neither the only nor even the most important yardstick for combat prowess. Indeed, an analysis of battlefield performance reveals that German tactical and operational performance was indeed exceptional though not perfect.103 Some have argued that imitative was always the hallmark of American soldier:

Maneuverists act as if they are unaware of the American military heritage particularly in the area of leadership initiative…they prefer to use the German term Auftragstaktik, and act like they have found another piece of the True (Iron) Cross…. [while it actually] typified the American military since 1775… Put a lieutenant in the jungle with a radio and he will ask forgiveness not permission. Try to micromanage him and he will find the off switch… from the revolution to the gulf that has been the American method.104


In contrast some felt that mission command could not transcend the cultural and historic context in which it was developed. There was little agreement concerning its comprising elements or their precise meaning.105 Hence, it was unclear if Auftragstaktik should be translated as mission type orders, directive control or mission command. Indeed, despite many efforts, the Americans have yet to reach universally accepted definitions of the various elements of mission command. Others drew attention to the fact that the in the updated 1993 FM advocates employing mission command primarily if direct communications fail.106 To them, the overriding importance accorded to synchronization suggested that explicit coordination was required of commanders..107

The authors of the revised 2001 FM edition attempted to improve and clarify mission command related terminology and other German concepts.108 Nevertheless, confusion abounded as indicated by the issuance of a field manual devoted to command in general and mission command in particular, merely two years later.109 It was issued ‘because US Army doctrine has been relatively sparse in its higher doctrinal literature’ which led to ‘multiple versions of C2 doctrine’.110 The new publication also failed to achieve uniformity and additional literature has continued to appear. One such essay was written by Marine General (Ret.) Paul van Riper. Riper attempted to clarify the concept of 'intent' – designating the higher purpose rather than the desired effect - the why of the mission. Commenting on prevailing confusion Riper remarked that 'The paragraph [of intent] often becomes an unfocused discussion of many unrelated items…'111

The difficulties in the comprehension and application of Auftragstaktik that arose led critiques to question its usefulness. Indeed, some even raised the concern that it had mutated from doctrine to dogma: ‘It is a religion…. Detailed control is unmanly, sinful, and blasphemous' said one. 112 . Others, like historian Robert Citino, argue that the historic concept is simply incompatible with the social realities and technological complexities of the modern battlefield.113 On the opposite side, scholars such as van Creveld opined, its adoption and adaptation was feasible:

Thus, although it is certainly true that the method of Auftrag and Weisung has deep roots in German military history, it is not necessarily true that a non German armed force has to traverse that history in its entirety, to understand and apply that method.114

Most scholars and practitioners continue to believe in its utility, disagreeing primarily about the best means of implementing it. They argued that popularization of the German concept and insufficient attention to its organizational and historic context had rendered it impotent.115. One such critic, Daniel Hughes remarked that adoption was hindered by ‘a careless and superficial application of German terms and concepts to current practices… [and] a general failure to place individual German methods and experiences in their proper historical context’.116 A full decade later he was still convinced that:

... As long as Western armies regard Auftragstaktik simply as a policy of short general orders, rather than a fundamental principle governing all requiring decisions and judgment, their officers will not understand what the principle entails, let alone implement it on the battlefield.117


Another soldier-scholar voiced his concerns:

Auftragstaktik… reflected a deep tradition of encouraging initiative and allowing freedom of action to subordinate leaders. It was the tradition that came first.… to accomplish this, Army training manuals and publications must be congruent with the spirit of FM 100-5, and the use of the school or approved solution must be avoided.118

Despite these debates mission command has prevailed as a doctrinal concept during the turmoil that followed the Cold War and the transformations of the American army. Considered well suited for the 21st century, it reflects democratic and individualistic values.119 Maybe not less important, it is congruent with contemporary management theory that emphasis empowerment, flat organizations and the complexities of modern battlefields.120

The US Army Application of Mission Command

Following the official adoption of mission command into doctrine (1982) discussed in the previous section, the following section will examine whether the US Army employed mission command. The case-studies include two major operations in which US ground forces were heavily involved since the adoption of the doctrine; Dessert Storm (1991) and Iraqi Freedom (2003) both invasion and occupation.

Operation Desert Storm

Many, who followed the American army’s conduct in Desert Storm, believed that it had executed a nearly perfect AirLand Battle operation. Though confronting merely the Iraqi army rather than the feared Soviets, the Americans had successfully adapted to the new theatre of operations. The swift one-hundred-hour Blitzkrieg-like campaign demonstrated their adherence to the tenets of the AirLand Battle doctrine, including mission command. The deep thrust into the desert, rapid envelopment of Iraqi forces and relatively few casualties suggested excellent doctrine and execution. The Americans had demonstrated what the doctrine advocated: initiative, depth, agility, synchronization, and combined Arms.121 According to Shimon Naveh, Desert Storm exemplified this doctrine, marking it as the first battle in modern history where maneuver substituted the Western predisposition toward attrition.122 He opined that the operation was a superb application of offensive maneuver relying on 'depth, simultaneous operations and synergy, disruption and intellectual tension between tactical and operational poles of command, and synchronization'.123

These elements combined with the large scale rapid maneuvers, led some to conclude that mission command had been practiced to its fullest potential, just as the Germans had done against France in 1941. Indeed, some accounts of the war have it that the large double envelopment had been accomplished through short orders issued on the move: mission type orders.124 Tacticians were described as having had the 'remarkable ability to maneuver and to respond to changing situations'.125 The Americans had greatly improved their technical and tactical skills, and their ability to exploit what Lind termed 'surfaces and gaps'. Lind, a long time critique of the US Army and a devout proponent of mission command, agreed: ‘In Desert Storm, the American ground forces, Army and Marine Corps, on the whole practiced maneuver warfare. 126 The operational planning was done by the 'Jedi Knights', a group of officers, graduates of the new Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) modeled after the idea of the German General Staff academy.127

However, after the dust had settled, analysts began to question the actual extent to which maneuver and mission command had been applied in this conflict. Robert Leonhard opined overall the campaign reflected the same old practices:

Operation Desert Storm was strictly controlled from the top down. There was no room for initiative, or even significant maneuver options, below corps level. Commanders at all level were instructed where and when to move and were not permitted to find their own way to their objectives. In essence the coalition forces simply lined up and swept forward, careful to maintain contact with the friendly forces on their flanks, like rigidly disciplined Macedonian Phalanx, divisions and brigades had to march and stay dressed to the flanks throughout the advance, crashing through both strong and weak points in the enemy defenses.128

Leonhard, agrees that the coalition forces maneuvered, but argues that mission command is not a prerequisite for maneuver warfare. In fact, he explains, as the Soviets had demonstrated during World War Two: maneuver on the operational level is possible without using mission command.129 That said, the curtailment of the freedoms afforded by mission command posed two primary problems: “One is our own perception of ourselves as a democratic and free society…. But even more dangerous is that if the US is engaged with a better rival… that is capable of showing initiative in every echelon of command, this might prove disastrous”.130

Harsher criticism was offered by Steven Canby and Martin van Creveld who argued that while US forces were well trained and cohesive, Desert Storm had been:

More a movement than maneuver… given the Iraqi passivity the notion of entering into the enemy's OODA loop never came into play…. At a critical junction VII corps was apparently more interested in synchronizing the moves of its own forces than vigorously exploiting battlefield success by sending spearheads forward.131

In practice, they argued, the system of command remained essentially centralized.132 Robert Citino opined that the complex communication and weapons systems actually increased dependency of action on all levels of command. He contended that centralized control of the American maneuver during Desert Storm allowed commanders no deviation from the plan.133 . Unnecessary caution and risk-aversion on the operational level hampered the ground offensive. Command centers functioned as information depots rather than as distribution points.134

Rupert Smith, who commanded the British 1st Armored division, likened the differences between the British and American headquarters to those between football and rugby. While the Americans fight set-piece, highly organized, well rehearsed and centralized wars, the British conduct a more dynamic and fluid operation wherein anyone can pick up the ball and lead.135 These characteristics are reflected also in the headquarters’ structure: the American headquarters is substantially larger than its British counterpart. The additional manpower in the American headquarters is used to plan and rehearse for every possible scenario, leaving little room for improvisation later on.136 Smith noted that headquarters are often a reflection of two different models:

In the first model a small staff, headed by a chief of staff, is charged with developing and disseminating the course of action decided upon by the commander. They often issue short mission type orders dictating the desired end-result rather than the means of accomplishing it while subordinates are required to work out the details. This type of system requires a unifying doctrine.137 In the second method, staffs prepare a number of alternate courses of action from which the commander will later choose. The process is more formal and the planning detailed. During the 1990s a single operational order emanating from division headquarters could run to 1,000 pages; supplementary plans of subordinate units totaled thousands more.138 During Desert Storm British headquarters was designed along the lines of the first model. It was smaller than its American counterpart who was a:

Function of national preference and philosophy. It took us some time to learn that the many plans emanating from the superior US Corps HQ were but contingencies…. I had one staff officer to deal with all this paper work where an equivalent US HQ had a branch of about five officers…. as a general rule responsibility and authority were found lower in the British HQ.139

Friction, which mission command is designed to overcome, then prevented the destruction of the Republican Guard, the designated centre of gravity.140 A gap in the situational understanding began to develop between the actual tactical situation and the operational understanding at Schwarzkopf's HQ. This gap was widened through imprecise reports.141 There followed a physical gap compounded by adverse weather conditions and the unanticipated Iraqi preference for flight over fight. Consequently, the Republican Guard escaped nearly unscathed.142 As one analyst concluded: 'once again, the US did not know how to conduct a deep thrust into its enemy's rear'.143 The misguided attempt to control friction demonstrated a misunderstanding of both the concept and the utility of mission command. Thus, the First Gulf War experience revealed little of the Americans’ decentralization capabilities.144 The failure to destroy the Republican Guard secured Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and led to an American incursion in 1998 and a second full invasion in 2003.145

Operation Iraqi Freedom

The execution of Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) satisfied some of the criticisms raised previously by proponents of maneuver warfare.146 A clear preference for speed over mass was revealed when the ground and air campaigns were begun simultaneously and directed toward the Republican Guard and the city of Baghdad. In addition, the number of Allied divisions employed was half that deployed during the previous campaign.147 Undoubtedly, the march to Baghdad, which constituted the first phase of the campaign, validated the doctrine of speed and maneuver. According to historian John Keegan, the disintegration of the Iraqi Army should not diminish the American success.148 The finest examples of mission command-based maneuvers were the two 'thunder runs' (swift and unexpected massive armored deep penetrations designed to unbalance the enemy) directed toward Baghdad.149 As one analyst has it, these were 'the most important and decisive actions of the war'.150 The army had taken a tactical risk which had ‘paid off handsomely’.151 These penetrations constituted a change in the battle plan introduced as a result of battlefield developments.152 3rd Division recognized the Iraqi inability to deal with attacks from unexpected directions and directed ‘thunder runs’ toward the Iraqi rear. Consequently, Baghdad was taken earlier than anticipated and with less casualties.153 David Zucchino’s account of the ‘thunder runs’ indicates a successful adoption of maneuver warfare and mission command during the decade following the First Gulf War.154 To him, the evidence demonstrated a marked improvement in tactical command as well. Criticism was raised, however, regarding operational and strategic performance as well as the counterinsurgency phase that followed.

The old habit of the Army’s zest for over planning was has remerged when following the fall of Baghdad General Franks estimated it would take ten days to transfer an armoured Brigade to the vicinity of Tikrit. When Marine Task Force Tripoli received this assignment it began rolling less than twelve hours later. Similarly, the first Battle of Fallujah (April 2004), initiated following the killing of the American Blackwater employees, was a slow, set-piece battle, which had allowed the enemy to escape. The battle was described as 'deliberate, even incidental, almost unwanted, and conducted against the advice of the local commander General Mattis'.155

An additional source of disappointment was the new digital system designed to increase tactical unit ‘situational awareness’ by providing accurate real-time intelligence concerning the location of friendly and enemy forces. Digital systems are designed to reflect organizational priorities in terms of information flow. In the American case, the system reflects a cultural bias towards centralization. . The hope was that the army would be able to ‘retain mission focused command and control with its inherent decentralization while moulding the Army’s digital technology and tactical design to form a solid framework to support how we fight’.156 However a study of the development of US army digitization found a discrepancy between the original intentions and the current product. Thus, the Army promised to create a ‘vertically integrated digital information system’ for which it 'would reform its doctrine and force structure to emphasize decentralized high-tempo manoeuvre and precision firepower'.157 Yet, the final product transfers information primarily to the higher echelons rather than to tactical commanders, thereby created what some called the 'digital divide'. The shift in the system objectives was reflected also in the name chosen for it. The original Army Battle Command System (ABCS) was replaced in 1999 by Blue Force Tracker (BFT). As the new name suggests, the system no longer provides tactical tools but rather means by which senior command can track tactical units. The ‘Blue Force Tracker’, both its designation and actual application, provided senior command with an additional micromanagement tool.158 Many complained that the system intelligence was significant only for senior command. Frustration soon ignited a controversy, transforming the digital divide into one of the primary criticisms of Army performance during the invasion.159

The most serious flaws were uncovered in aftermath of the invasion. While the new RMA doctrines of Effect Base Operation (EBO), Network Centric Warfare (NCW) and Shock and Awe, had proved somewhat effective in the regular phase of the war, they proved rather unsatisfactory in the counterinsurgency phase that followed. The Army had been unprepared for either the lengthy counterinsurgency campaign or the nation building measures.160 Indeed, a report published in 2008 concluded that the Army had relied on faulty planning assumptions; units were inadequately trained; headquarters were unprepared; and planners had failed to account for some fundamental contingencies.161

British Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, attached to US forces in Iraq, observed that:

Whilst the US army may espouse mission command, in Iraq it did not practice it…. Commanders… rarely if ever questioned authority and were reluctant to deviate from precise instructions…. Each commander had his own style, but if there were a common trend it was for micromanagement… Planning tended to be staff driven and focused on process rather than end effect. The net effect was highly centralized decision making... [which] tended to discourage lower level initiative and adaptability.162

Aylwin-Foster also remarked that the Americans’ strong 'can do' ethos occasionally resulted in inaccurate reports calculated to ease pressure from above and satisfy superiors.163 This tendency undermines the principle of trust critical to armies in general and to mission command in particular. Responding to Aylwin-Foster, one US officer stated that 'his assessment is off target’.164 Based on the testimonies of officers from the 1st Cavalry division, he argued that mission command had indeed been practiced.165 Though, he added:

One might argue that I only spoke with excep­tional officers, and while this might be true, what is also true is that commanders will deal with sub­ordinates according to their estimate of the subor­dinates’ abilities.166

TRADOC commander General William Wallace stated that while he disagreed with some of the Aylwin-Foster‘s criticism, they were indeed 'of concern'. Nevertheless: ‘From my experience this is not indicative of the U.S. Army. To the contrary, I have seen the remarkable ability of leaders and organizations to adapt and decentralize’.167 Another commentator, a long time red team analyst, found Aylwin-Foster’s assessment 'enlightening, if somewhat painful, critique of U.S Army in Iraq'. And further:

It is much easier to dismiss Aylwin-Foster’s assessment as limited or altogether wrong than it is to make changes in response to it. From an American perspective, it is difficult to see how our optimistic, action-oriented, technologically advanced, and com­mand-centric military culture could have downsides. But Aylwin-Foster demonstrates that in a counterinsur­gency, these attributes do not neces­sarily contribute to success.168

Retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor, whose Breaking the Phalanx is said to have inspired Rumsfeld’s concept of deploying small forces in Iraq, blames the military rather than civilian leadership, for the debacles in Iraq. According to him Senior command was: 'overly bureaucratic, risk averse, professionally inadequate and, hence, unsuited to the complex military tasks entrusted to them’. What’s more, Macgregor argued, little had changed over the decade following the First Gulf War, as headquarters remained improvised uncoordinated single-service organizations.169

In conclusion, despite a doctrinal revolution and major reforms, mission command has only been partially implemented. Twelve years that had elapsed since the First Iraq War and three successive field manuals espousing mission command, had failed to bring about the desired result. A lack of trust and clear objectives coupled with a type of war the US army was unprepared for had come at the expense of mission command.

The Impact of Officers Development Practices

Some of the failure to exercise mission command could be explained through examination of the education, training and personal policies during the decade after mission command was adopted. A study conducted almost a decade after mission command was formally adopted demonstrated the difficulties inherent to the adoption process. Examining tactical level mission orders doctrine, the study revealed great diversity as to the understanding of the term ‘mission’, the comprising elements of ‘mission command’ and experience in its application. It concluded that while the doctrine exists ‘it was not commonly known nor, by inference, understood by those officers surveyed'.170 Evidence indicates that it is still plagued by personnel, education and training deficiencies hindering efforts to practice mission command. Donald Vandergriff maintained that while the Germans encouraged inventive solutions, American officers even toady, are confronted with check lists and scripted scenarios that have evolved little since the advent of Active Defence. Adherence to detailed processes is favored over the achievement of results. Indeed, though Army education has come a long way since the 1960s, officers are still not taught to think holistically, or to make decisions and pursue them in the face of adversary.171 According to Vandergriff: ‘rather than encourage free thought the focus in the programs is on the confined use of template processes, pre-determined phases, matrixes, laundry lists and pages of commander's guidance’.172

In terms of training, Vandergriff argued that due to the zero-defect mentality and the Army blue on red exercises was limited to scripted duels from the 1980s through the 1990s. Thus, the Blue (guest) force was assigned a large maneuvering zone of operations allowing it to flank the Red Team. And even then, most commanders failed to exploit this opportunity and many who did were better equipped to synchronize their forces than to make rapid decisions. They issued detailed plans, in the spirit of the ‘mission training plan’ (MTP) checklist, which was deemed more important than accomplishing the mission. Success is measured against the question 'did we follow doctrine and execute the process?'173 Reports from the NTC and the Joint Readiness Centre reveal that battalion and brigade commanders continue to exhibit a safe course including a slow advance, erection of a hasty defense and a prayer that the enemy falls into the obvious trap.174

Training is intimately linked with personnel policies such as selection and promotion. McGregor identifies three major problems with the selection and promotion process. First, the process is overseen by select individuals; the lack of diversity ensures that similar thinking officers are chosen. Second, selection for promotion is decided upon within the various branches, consequently narrowing the fields of necessary experience, third, to a large extent selection is dependent upon 'who you know'; this system encourages nepotism and personal relationships rather than merit.175 According to him: The system rewards 'efficiency and control in an artificial centralized decision making environment’ rather than professional competence.176 Thus: 'we talk about initiative and agility but we reward officers who follow a rigidly prescribed path to success… we don't reward risk takers… officers are often told to do what they are told and not ask questions'.177 A recent RAND study confirmed these observations: individuals are promoted on the basis of position availability rather than on their ability to perform the necessary duties. The authors of the report also concluded that the Army’s efforts to prepare future senior commanders have met with mixed results.178

Thus, despite reforms, the personnel system continues to present challenges to the institution of mission command. The managerial cultural legacy inspired by corporate practices persists in spite of the new doctrine and the post-Cold War reforms. The army's fundamental organization policies and training methods have not sufficiently changed and the army continues to promote micromanagement and a zero defects mentality that are reflected in these policies.




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