Befehl-staktik (IV): Here is why you should always keep a FRAGO and a captain between you and the problem
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have a lot of respect for Col. Paul Yingling, who I know from Iraq, and whose thinking about today’s military has had a lot of influence on me. He actually is the first person quoted in the book I am writing right now, as the manuscript currently stands. So I was pleased to get this from him.
There is lots of memorable stuff in this short essay. I was especially struck by his third sentence: "Mission command takes intelligent and courageous senior officers accountable for battlefield results." I also liked this one: "Great leaders do not rely on favorable conditions; they create them." And this one: "When a small unit gets in trouble, senior commanders find cover in SOPs thick enough to stop an OER bullet." And his bottom line: "Far from prohibiting mission command, the conditions of modern combat demand it."
So it is a real pleasure to recommend this to you. I think it is one of the best columns this blog has ever had:
By Paul Yingling
Best Defense chief correspondent of lost causes
MAJ Niel Smith is a good friend and a superb officer, but he’s wrong about mission command. Auftragstaktik doesn’t require highly trained junior officers, reforms in personnel management or professional military education, or time to integrate the latest technology. Mission command takes intelligent and courageous senior officers accountable for battlefield results. If we identify and promote such officers, the rest will fall into place. If we don’t, the best trained captains in the Army’s history won’t save us from failure.
There is plenty of historical evidence to contradict MAJ Smith’s claim that "mission command requires stable, highly trained staffs and company/troop commanders, proficient in their specialty and job." Scipio’s centurions didn’t have 3.5 years of brigade staff time to learn their trade before fighting Hannibal. Sherman’s cavalry troops were not made audacious by rigorous PME. Guderian’s race to the English Channel was not preceded by a year of stability in ARFORGEN. Patton’s tank companies were not the product of enlightened personnel policies. These officers succeed because they had the intelligence to see the battlefield clearly, and the courage to act on their convictions. In any war worthy of the name, the delicate conditions MAJ Smith requires to implement mission command have never existed. Great leaders do not rely on favorable conditions; they create them.
Claims that today’s wars are somehow more complex than previous conflicts will draw belly laughs from historians. Is sectarian conflict in Iraq somehow more politically complex than Rome’s civil wars? Does the rate of technological change in the last ten years in Afghanistan exceed that of the last two years of World War I? Even if we accept the dubious proposition that today’s wars are unparalleled in complexity, successful brigade commanders have demonstrated that mission command works. Colonel Sean McFarland helped turn the tide in Anbar Province thanks in large part to the autonomy he granted to Captain Travis Patriquin. Colonel H.R. McMaster’s success in Tall Afar was attributable to a command climate in which thinking was required and PowerPoint was not. Have new and unparalleled complexities transformed warfare since 2006?
MAJ Smith’s defense of detailed planning doesn’t stand up to empirical scrutiny. Thick orders and elaborate SOPs haven’t eliminated costly, stupid mistakes. Consider two of the most heavily regulated activities on the modern battlefield — air strikes and detainee operations. Air strikes have killed civilians and ground troops have abused detainees, even when the SOPs regulating these activities ran to several hundred pages. Each crime and blunder adds another chapter to the tome, but none of it seems to matter. Leaders prone to crimes and blunders are not dissuaded by elaborate checklists or sternly worded prose.
Yet the production of highly prescriptive orders and SOPs, what Germans call Befehlstaktik, continues unabated; why? The primary purpose of detailed orders is not battlefield success, but rather the protection of field-grade and flag officer careers. In ten years of war, no Army general has relieved a fellow flag officer for battlefield failure. Why so many failures and so little accountability? When a small unit gets in trouble, senior commanders find cover in SOPs thick enough to stop an OER bullet. (I told the troops not to beat detainees; it’s right here on page 11.) Rather than preventing battlefield failure, detailed planning often enables it. Senior officers can survive almost any debacle so long as there’s a FRAGO and a captain between them and the problem.
Detailed planning can be useful in understanding problems, anticipating opportunities and risks and synchronizing activities. Prescriptive orders and SOPs have their place in performing routine mechanical tasks. However, these techniques are often counterproductive in the fog and friction of combat. Modern combat requires junior leaders capable of exercising judgment and initiative, and senior officers capable of fostering these qualities. It requires junior leaders capable of acting on commander’s intent, and senior officers capable of clearly expressing their intent. It requires junior leaders capable of taking prudent risks, and senior officers willing to underwrite and reward risk-taking. Far from prohibiting mission command, the conditions of modern combat demand it.
Most importantly of all, Auftragstaktik demands accountability for results rather than adherence to procedures. Some will succeed and advance, while others will fail and find employment elsewhere. These outcomes have little to do with time in grade, PME or the complexities of the modern battlefield. Senior officers who wish to exercise mission command shouldn’t wait for favorable conditions; they should create them.
Paul L. Yingling is a colonel in the U.S. Army and a professor of security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government or St. Jude.