Dragging American Military Culture into the 21st Century

Summary:  Our soldiers fight using 21st century weapons but ancient methods.  Under the stress of a decade-long and running long war against adaptive but poorly equipped enemies, our military slowly evolves from its WWI doctrines (massed firepower, 2GW), towards methods used by the Wehrmacht in WWII ( maneuver war, 3GW).  The origin of these doctrines lies in the century following Prussia’s defeat in the Napoleonic Wars.  Here Donald Vandergriff describes what’s happening and why it is necessary.

We’ll start with a look at the goal, described in this excerpt from “The Historical Linkage –  How German Captain Willy Rohr changed infantry tactics, weapons and doctrine within the World War One German Army“, by Dave Shunk (Colonel, USAF, retired), Small Wars Journal, 3 August 2010:

{This} is a remarkable story. He succeeded in his task as a result of the German Army’s ideas of operational adaptability, mission command and decentralized authority. This paper presents by historical example the basic ideas and inherent power in the Army Capstone Concept based on the German model. But first, a few Capstone Concept definitions as a baseline reference.

So what are mission command, decentralized operations and operational adaptability? According to Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Pamphlet 525-3-0, the Capstone Concept (dated 21 December 2009; Word document here):

Mission command is the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based on mission orders. Successful mission command demands that subordinate leaders at all echelons exercise disciplined initiative, acting aggressively and independently to accomplish the mission within the commander’s intent.”  {From Operations (FM 3-0, PDF here)}

… Decentralized operations place a premium on disciplined, confident small units that can integrate joint capabilities and fight together as combined arms teams. Leaders must prepare their units to fight and adapt under conditions of uncertainty and, during the conduct of operations, must also ensure moral conduct and make critical time-sensitive decisions under pressure. Conducting effective decentralized operations will require a high degree of unit cohesion developed through tough, realistic training and shared operational experience. The Army must refine its capability to adapt training to the mission, threat, or operational environment changes while ensuring that individual and collective training fosters adaptability, initiative, and confidence.

… Operational adaptability requires a mindset based on flexibility of thought calling for leaders at all levels who are comfortable with collaborative planning and decentralized execution, have a tolerance for ambiguity, and possess the ability and willingness to make rapid adjustments according to the situation.  {It} is essential to developing situational understanding and seizing, retaining, and exploiting the initiative under a broad range of conditions. Operational adaptability is also critical to developing the coercive and persuasive skills the Army will need to assist friends, reassure and protect populations, and to identify, isolate, and defeat enemies.

So how did the Germany Army of World War One use decentralization, mission command, and operational adaptability to create infiltration tactics and revolutionize infantry tactics in World War I? The story revolves around a Captain Willy Rohr.

Vandergriff’s Analysis

Here is and has been my take about US Army application of Mission Command recently adapted by the US Army through the issuing of its Capstone Concept in December 2009, and attempted before in the 1980s through the publication of FM 100-5 (here) in 1982.

Is mission command yet another buzzword to be spread liberally on power point presentations?  Who really knows what it is going to take, to change, Army institutions to fully implement the true meaning of 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.”
— attributed to Raimondo Montecuccoli (Italian general, 1608 – 1680; see Wikipedia)

We must understand what causes us to comply, even today to the Anglo-American method of central, hierarchical planning and tight control cycles (“red tape”) that causes mistrust, while maintaining a centralized personnel system that causes undue competition between officers and NCOs, when trust is needed. This of course also influenced the manner in which strategic planning developed in our 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.

The Prussians, then Germans began their cultural reform toward Auftragstaktik after the October 1806 battle of Jena when Napoleon achieved an incredible victory over the Prussians-he destroyed their Army and overran their country in six weeks. By 1809, the great Prussian reformer Gerhard Scharnhorst came 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 actually the subordinate commanders and officers in the field (Please read the book The Enlightened Soldier: Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin 1801-1805 by Dr. Chuck White, Military Historian for U.S. Army Forces Command)

As a battle is always plagued by uncertainties and is characterized by unforeseen situations, the Prussians tried to find a concept of planning – and a system 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 and without first consulting higher command to exploit an unexpected favorable situation or respond immediately to an unfavorable development. The result of this requirement was the Auftragstaktik or what we call Mission Command. The Prussians institutionalized it in 1870, on the verge of the Franco-Prussian War, after years of experimentation.

The Auftragstaktik is not only about delegating decisions to subordinate commanders; it implies a whole set of measures that had to be developed during the implementation of this concept. In fact it required the whole German Army to be reorganized, a process comparable to re-engineering the Army today if we are to truly 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 and that he gave a relatively large amount of latitude in the manner the desired goals were to be achieved. In other words: the goals were known, what had to be achieved was known (the outcome), but how they should be achieved was left to the subordinate commanders.

This system of command and its closely related doctrine was a far cry from the rigid, hierarchical and bureaucratic “Befehlstaktik” or centralized/top down command of that time. This new form of planning and its command doctrine was perfected by von Moltke the Elder, who in the nineteenth century embedded it deeply into the organization of the German Army.  The best book that describes this evolution is Stormtroop Tactics innovation in the German Army 1914-1918  by Dr. Bruce I Gudmundsson (1995).

Von Moltke the elder devised a system in which General Staff officers – steeped in a common philosophy – would be able to coordinate the actions of their units almost instinctively, without the need for specific orders from high commanders. The core idea behind this reorganization was decentralization of command structure in order to achieve greater centralization of forces on the battlefield by tactical manoeuvre (flexibility). By exploiting modern innovations such as railroads and the telegraph, Moltke hoped to increase this effect and bring even greater numbers of troops to bear at crucial junctures.  As Moltke put it:

“It must be laid down as a general rule that orders should never contain a word by the omission of which their meaning would not be at once affected.” 
— From General Paul Bronsart von Schellendoroff’s 1876 text Duties of the General Staff.  Earliest mention by Moltke is in a letter to his brother Adolf in July 1859 (cited here on p120). 

To implement this concept the Germans understood that first officers and men should be trained before they could carry it out successfully. This took years to implement because the idea has to cascade down to the lowest subaltern, the sergeant. The form of the learning model they used was called the Applicatory Method. The highest attainment of conducting Mission Command and taught through the applicatory method was what Frederick the Great called the coup d’oiel  – the ability to size up a tactical situation at a glance and, within seconds, begin to give the necessary orders.  

Coup d’oiel  is, in the blinking of an eye, being able to determine the general tactical situation.  Warfare against Hybrid opponents is creating circumstances never seen before.  As a result, innovation cannot be a step or series of steps that leader to a static outcome, but rather as a continuous ceaseless process of change and adaptation impelled not merely by technology, but also by the nature of the battlefield and of the enemy. Today’s combat offers fleeting opportunities that disappear quickly if leaders—from general to rifleman—fail to grasp them

Generally associated with the late 19th century Prussian general Julius von Verdy du Vernois, the applicatory method sought to teach tactics by means of problems.  Some of the problems were simple – the tactical decision game (Planspiel or Planübung) was based on a  sketch map and a one or two page scenario .  Others were more complicated – the rigid wargame contained enough charts and tables to gladden the heart of any present day board wargamer and the staff ride could last for days.  Whatever particular techniques were used – in most cases there was a mixture of many – the applicatory method was based on a solid consensus about the teaching of tactics.  Tactics was not a science to be taught be means of theory, or a simple task to be explained by lists of rule or acronyms.  Rather, it was an art to be learned by doing.

The characteristic of the Auftragstaktik, therefore, was the great amount of attention given, during the training of officers and men, to quickly assess and judge developments during the battle and how to grasp the initiative.  Mission Command demands that when necessary, all arms — combat or maneuver support — as well as civilians, should coordinate and act together even without direction from above.  The result will be an evolving command style that forces leaders and commanders to focus their attention downward and outward onto the battlefield.  The limited information flow of information up the chain of command will compel them to see for themselves, to lead from the front.

Today’s learning approach, as well as our culture follows an entirely highly centralized model—control from the top downward, from Army to battalion, company/team and platoon levels, even at the Soldier level, are touched by the technological ability to see all through information technology laid over an Industrial age force structure both in the operating and generating forces.  This “schematism” forces commanders at every level in our centralized system to inevitably focus not on what is happening on the battlefield but rather on providing information to those above them in the chain of command. It is a culture that is focused inward, vice outward.

We need to teach tomorrow’s Soldiers and leaders to devolve creative freedom and authority upon their juniors — an unprecedented and largely counterintuitive step. And those juniors — who include non-commissioned officers and civilians — require relentless schooling, training and encouragement in preparing to use that freedom under Mission Command wisely. The uncompromising goal of this Learning concept is to make each individual member of the Army a person who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self confident, dedicated and joyful in taking responsibility as a person and a leader.

A result of this system of overall or mission oriented planning was that tactical decisions for the greater part could be left to the operational level and so the desired flexibility was achieved. Furthermore, battle orders could be short with a remorseless concentration on essentials because the more detailed planning of actions could be left to the commanders in the field.

Mission Command is a policy concept that assumes the willingness to delegate. This concept, however, places high demands on the organization. It can only be successfully implemented when the Army can meet the following conditions:

  1. Be able to formulate its goals clearly and keep to the essentials;
  2. Have well-trained officers and subordinates (officer and NCO), able to understand the intention of the high command;
  3. Have well-trained officers and subordinates (officer and NCO), able to judge the situation quickly and opt to take the initiative;
  4. A willingness to cooperate;
  5. Have a transparent and flattened organizational structure-less overhead;
  6. Have a good parallel communication structure;
  7. Possess a shared standardized system by which “frontline” situations are evaluated;
  8. Strenuous accessions system;
  9. Flexible, decentralized personal system;
  10. Principle-based doctrine.

In present the development of junior and mid-level officers and NCOs in these ideas, and giving them the freedom to act accordingly, is quite often neglected. The common practice is that taking the initiative is permitted as long as it is successful. If it’s not successful, then, at the very least, demotion can be expected. By contrast, in the German Army taking the initiative – whatever the result – was appreciated but not taking the initiative was punished!

This attitude of higher command ensured that officers and men dared to take the initiative in any situation and, as was shown, to the benefit of the German Army’s goals. A German author wrote the following words in 1906, and they are still valid today:

“We have no use for soldiers without a will of their own who will obey their leaders unconditionally. We need self-confident men [and women] who use their whole intelligence and personality on behalf of the senior commander’s intent.”
— Colonel Ernst van den Bergh (1873-1968), as quoted in “Battle Command: Auftragstaktik and Innere Fuhrung: Trademarks of German Leadership”, Werner Widder (Major General, German Army), Military Review, Sept/Oct 2002

Another example of this attitude is the following, one of Hitler’s Ten Commandments to the Fallschirmjägers (paratroopers; see Wikipedia}:

“You must grasp the full meaning of an operation so that, should your leader fall by the way, you can carry it out with coolness and caution.”

The above illustrates that:

  1. The Germans even instructed lower ranks completely about the objective of an operation.
  2. They expect that even the lower ranks are able to lead.
  3. They have trained their men to do that.

The conclusion is that over the years the Germans forged and implemented a successful and distinctive combat concept. Because they lost the war (poor strategy resulted in them making enemies faster than they could kill them), interest in this German concept was also lost

What are Capstone Documents, the source of capstone concepts?

  • General, over-arching “Washington-level” documents
  • Convey fundamental beliefs about the application of US military power
  • Intended to inform subordinate commands documents
  • Have the involvement and signature of senior officers

— {Source, slides 21-23}

Other posts about military theory

  1. The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24, 19 March 2008
  2. A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual, 20 March 2008
  3. Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24, 23 March 2008
  4. Insights about modern war from the NIC’s 2020 Project, 11 April 2008
  5. How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 28 May 2008
  6. COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks, 10 June 2008
  7. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008
  8. The War Nerd shows how simple 4GW theory can be, 22 January 2009
  9. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009
  10. Important reading for every American who wishes to understand our foreign wars, 7 April 2009
  11. A joust between two schools of American military theory, 19 May 2009
  12. COIN as future generations will see it (and as we should see it today), 1 July 2010

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