Misinterpretation and Confusion: What is Mission Command and Can the U.S. Army Make it Work?

February 1, 2013

The emphasis of Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-0, The Army Capstone Concept: Operational Adaptability—Operating Under Conditions of Uncertainty and Complexity in an Era of Persistent Conflict1 discusses evolving toward the practice and culture of Mission Command. The essence of this approach is to ensure that the Army leads through Auftragstaktik, a German word that implies that once everyone understands the commanders’ intent (two levels up), then people are free to and indeed duty-bound to use their creativity and initiative to accomplish their missions within the intent, adapting to changing circumstances

Emerging at the same time at an accelerated pace are command and control networks, which already have placed up-to-date tactical information in the hands of squad leaders, while several layers of higher command maintain overwatch. At any level the urge will always remain for the senior officer to micro-manage his subordinate, particularly given the legacies of the Army’s culture. Contemporary force structures (hardware and organizations), as well as operational doctrines (ideas, style of war and traditions) are largely legacies of events over the entire 20th century, although one can discern influences reaching back to the Civil War and the Napoleonic era. The assumptions underpinning the Army’s force structure, the personnel system and how the Army recruits and develops its enlisted Soldiers and accesses commissioned officers, on the other hand, extend back to the late 18th century, beginning with the widespread fear of a standing army held by the framers of the Constitution.

The question arises: Can the Army integrate the latest 21st century information technologies adhering to the philosophy of Mission Command while its personnel system and force structure remain in the 20th century? An analysis of the how the German army instituted the doctrine of Auftragstaktik through their professional military education (PME), as well as through widespread practice in their culture during peace and war, provides insights for the U.S. Army as it takes on this incredibly complex problem. The Germans aligned their leader development with Auftragstaktik; thus, future applications of technology to their system only enhanced Auftragstaktik. The review of history will find that the U.S. Army cannot successfully integrate the latest command and control technology with the philosophy of Mission Command without seriously examining changes to its force structure, education and personnel system.

A solution to how to implement Mission Command—Outcomes-Based Training and Education (OBT&E)—is already occurring. OBT&E is being implemented at several Centers of Excellence across the Army. As Army G3 Lieutenant General Daniel P. Bolger stated in August 2011, “OBT&E best supports Mission Command.” Implementing OBT&E now will allow the Army to take the time it needs to reform its personnel system and force structure to better support Mission Command while developing the next generation of Soldiers and leaders to operate in Mission Command.

It is impossible to calculate all the factors in advance; some things one must leave to chance. He who is worried about everything will achieve nothing; however, he who is worried about nothing deludes himself

Is Mission Command yet another buzzword to be spread liberally on PowerPoint® presentations? Who really knows what it is going to take to change Army institutions to fully implement the true meaning of Mission Command?

We must understand what causes us to comply, even today, with the Anglo-American method of central, hierarchical planning and tight control cycles (“red tape”) that cause mistrust, while maintaining a centralized personnel system that causes undue competition between officers and noncommissioned officers, when trust is needed. This, of course, also influenced the manner in which strategic planning developed in U.S. corporations and the Allied armies over a hundred years ago in the Industrial Age, but still lays the foundation for our culture today. This kind of planning can be applied in a stable environment. But war is turbulent and this form of bureaucratic, strategic long-term planning is inadequate to counter the often fast and unpredictable changes in the environment.

First the Prussian and then the German military began their cultural movement toward what we know as Mission Command, which they eventually called Auftragstaktik. At the Battle of Jena in October 1806, Napoleon achieved an incredible victory over the Prussians, destroying their army and overrunning their country in six weeks. By 1809, the great Prussian reformer Gerhard von Scharnhorst had come to the conclusion that the commanders behind the battlefield, due to the “fog of war,” were unable to obtain an accurate view of what was really happening at the front and in the chaos of combat. Those who knew what was actually happening were the subordinate commanders and officers in the field.

As a battle is always plagued by uncertainties and characterized by unforeseen situations, the Prussians tried to find a concept of planning—a culture of command—that would ensure flexibility. This system should ensure that commanders in the field would react quickly to the situation at hand and take the initiative independently, without first consulting higher command to exploit an unexpected favorable situation or respond immediately to an unfavorable development. The result of this requirement was Auftragstaktik, what we call Mission Command.

The Prussians institutionalized it in 1870, on the verge of the Franco–Prussian War, after years of experimentation; while the word itself did not appear until the manual of 1888, the practice of Auftragstaktik had evolved almost a hundred years earlier. Auftragstaktik is not only about delegating decisions to subordinate commanders; it implies a whole set of measures that have to have been developed during the implementation of this concept. In fact, it required the whole German army to be reorganized, a process comparable to reengineering the U.S. Army today if we were truly to practice Mission Command. Applying Auftragstaktik meant that the overall commander would formulate the broad goals that had to be achieved by the officers in the field, 3 who would be given a relatively large amount of latitude for the manner in which the desired goals were to be achieved. In other words, the goals were known, what had to be achieved (the outcome) was known, but how they should be achieved was left to the subordinate commanders.

This system of command and its closely related doctrine are a far cry from the rigid, hierarchical and bureaucratic Befehlstaktik, the centralized/top-down command of today. This new form of planning and its command doctrine were perfected by von Moltke the Elder, who in the 19th century embedded it deeply into the organization of the German army. Integrating technological advances (such as the telegraph and, during World War II, the radio) along with their instillment of Auftragstaktik, the Germans were able to strengthen their military effectiveness.

Two questions are addressed here: First, can the U.S. Army integrate the latest in command and control technology with the recurring concept of Mission Command while freeing itself from its legacy of over-control? Second, how can the U.S. Army revolutionize its leader development in order for its leaders to grasp and perform under a culture that embodies Mission Command? Answering the second question through a revolution in professional military education will also provide an answer to the first question.