Recently I mentioned that I had just finished Heinz Guderian's book "Achtung, Panzer!". Well the next book on my reading list happened to be "The Rommel Papers", a book about Erwin Rommel's actions during the second world war, made up of a combination of Rommel's own narrative and notes that he recorded, letters he wrote home to his wife, and commentary from Basil Liddell-Hart who edited the book (as well as contributions from Rommel's son Manfred and one of his general's, whose name escapes me right now). In that spirit today I'd like to look at an interesting and much debated concept with relation to military matters; mission command.
More commonly you'll hear people refer to it by the German name "Auftragstatik" (roughly "Mission type tactics"). It's been the subject of a hell of a lot of books, articles and debate, and at times almost seems wrapped in mystery, not least because the British army (so the story goes) attempted to introduce this process in the late 1980's, yet is still struggling to implement it in practice.
Well often I tend to find that if you want to understand something like this properly then really you need to go back to the source, the origin of the theory. Supposedly the German army during world war 2 was the embodiment of the mission command approach, so having got most of the way through 'The Rommel Papers' it's been interesting comparing Rommel's comments and observations about the war with the generally accepted theories.
His previous book about his time during the first world war, 'Infantry Attacks', is also an interesting read in this regard as he often found himself as a subordinate leader at the sharp end of the action having to take on a command role above his rank. When compared to his role as a division commander during the invasion of France and as an army commander in North Africa, Rommel was one of the few to have plenty of active combat experience at both ends of the command chain.
Now the two words that seem to be most associated with the mission command approach are 'decentralisation' and 'intent'. In other words the underpinning ideal of mission command is to decentralise command to the lowest level possible, where junior commanders then use their superiors overall intent to guide their decision making. This is seen as the ideal and is the opposite of rigid command systems where junior officers must adhere strictly to their formal orders, orders which can run into several pages depending on the nature of operations.
In theory it sounds great. The problem of course is that military operations, especially more modern combined arms operations, require a certain degree of coordination. Artillery, air support, logistics, armour, infantry, engineers etcetera all need to work together to achieve the desired objectives. If commanders at a junior level were given absolute freedom of operation then this level of coordination would clearly not be possible. In practice then there has to be certain finite limits on the amount of autonomy in decision making that can actually be granted.
It's at this point that the waters begin to become muddy. Rommel for example enjoyed considerable freedom of operation as a young officer in the first war, particularly on the eastern front in Romania and later in Italy. His commanding officer was routinely inclined to push units forward and leave Rommel to command, organise and deploy them as he saw fit. You'd think then that on this basis Rommel would go on to become the very model of a modern Major-General. Yet as commander of the 7th Panzer Division in 1940 he appears to have become the very model of the modern meddling general.
Far from sitting back and allowing his subordinates to get on with the job as per the underlying principle of mission type command, Rommel instead preferred to be at or near the front, directing his battalion commanders in person. On many occasions he openly admits to taking personal control of company level formations and directing them to where he specifically desired.
In North Africa he was frequently absent from his command post during the action, preferring to take to the skies or the road to track his various formations and hurry them along. In at least once instance this, as it happens, prompted one of his staff officers to make an important operational level decision in his absence. When he returned to his HQ and found out about this decision he was livid, only later (grudgingly) accepting that this was the correct move.
There is little doubt, even among his detractors, that Rommel was a superb leader and tactician. The results he achieved on the battlefield despite trying circumstances would bear this out. But he was very much a fiddler, a micro manager who revelled in the minutiae of his profession. In Romania he was at times placed in command of multiple companies, effectively becoming the de facto equivalent of a modern battalion commander (despite being ranked as a mere senior lieutenant), yet persisted in personally emplacing machine guns ahead of attacks, and then guiding said attacks from the front.
While often complimentary of many his subordinates, both in the first and second wars, Rommel also routinely bemoaned that lack of opportunities to exercise with his forces and how this affected the subsequent smoothness of operations, to the extent that as mentioned previously he would often get involved in matters that were significantly below his command level.
And herein lies one of the core problems with mission command/type tactics; the quality of the subordinate officers and their understanding of their commanders mindset is critical to making the whole thing work.
The theory behind the approach is that subordinate commanders should be free to make their own choices within a certain framework. In reality for mission command to work properly then the subordinate commander has to effectively make the same decision that their superior would have made if he was in that position. A junior officer might make a move that seems perfectly rationale and reasonable when explained in a certain manner, but unless this move meshes with the thinking of his senior then often such moves can crumble an entire over arching plan.
The subordinates also need to be good officers in general. Poor quality officers, left to their own devices, are apt to make appalling decisions. The success of someone like Rommel in the first world war was not so much down to the command system in place as it was his personal traits as an officer. A different officer, one less capable, would likely have crumbled under the same circumstances. At the very least a less active, daring and offensive minded officer would not have pulled off many of the same superb coups that Rommel achieved.
And his point regarding exercises seems to be the absolutely most critical aspect of implementing a system of devolved command such as this.
If you're expecting someone at a lower level of responsibility to take action independent of orders, or to take a brief order and convert this into a fully formed plan of action, then they need to have a clear idea of what is expected of them. They need to be clear for example about whether aggressive action is favoured. or whether cautious action is favoured. The only way to develop this kind of understanding is through repeated and thorough instruction.
An example of the mission command/tactics approach that always seems to surface is that of Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar. We're constantly reminded of how Nelson planned to engage the enemy in a general battle, one which would favour the side whose Captain's could act with the most initiative. But really the Royal Navy Captains weren't acting quite as independently as some people like to think (or represent).
Yes, they had the freedom to engage whichever enemy ships were deemed most convenient to them at the time. But fundamentally they were acting on orders and a plan that had been generated well in advance. Nelson - as we understand it - had taken the opportunity presented to him by prior meetings and dinners with his Captains to explain in detail what he expected. Effectively a nautical exercise without troops (or ships). The British Captains were not so much seizing the initiative as executing a pre-defined strategy.
Far from being the action in the moment that's key to effectively operating a mission command approach, it's the exercises and the discussions that take place before any contact with the enemy is made that are so important to making it all work.
A second key feature would also appear to be the manner in which mistakes are treated. As mentioned previously while Rommel was upset to find that his operations officer had made a major decision without his permission (one which prompted a general withdrawal) the extent of his displeasure went no further than to have a bit of a huff and then a lie down. Once he'd had the opportunity to calm down and assess the decision in a less emotional and more objective light he ultimately seemed to agree that it was the right choice, albeit a frustrating one for him.
On the other hand if the punishment for decisions that displease a senior commander are harsh then this will only serve to stifle creativity and initiative. This was (thankfully) one of the lingering problems - among many - that affected the Iraqi forces during the 1991 and 2003 campaigns. The consequences for taking action without prior authorisation, especially if it ended poorly, were grim. Thus the desire among subordinates to act independently was suppressed.
To reference back to the Royal Navy of old for a moment, the execution of Admiral John Byng in 1757 is often seen as a watershed moment in the services history, one that spurred the remaining captains, commodores and admirals into action, almost literally in some cases. But it should be noted that one of the things that had caused Byng to approach the battle of Minorca so tentatively in the first place was the fate of Admiral Thomas Mathews a decade before him.
Mathews had left his line at the battle of Toulon and tried to engage the rear of an enemy fleet that was slipping away. He was subsequently criticised and ultimately cashiered from the service, partly for; "having brought the fleet into action in a disorganised manner". At Minorca, Byng refused to take a similar action when the opportunity presented itself, mainly because he believed the admiralty would disapprove and he would be cashiered himself. A somewhat ironic belief in the end.
The man who became an example of what would happen to officers who failed to take the initiative and to deviate from the fighting instructions when required had only become so because one of his predecessors had been punished for doing precisely that. It is also routinely glossed over that while the aggressive spirit that was fostered generated many victories, it also led to a number of defeats such as Grenada (1779) and Grand Port (1810).
So not only can the threat of serious punishment create a culture of inaction that hampers independent thinking and operation, it can in some cases do the reverse and create a culture of untempered aggression at all costs.
This then is what I feel are the two core elements of making any kind of devolved/mission command approach work properly; unified understanding through prior training and a sympathetic approach to mistakes. This to be underpinned by solid professional training.