Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Auftrag-static (V): Mission command without educated officers is just foolish

This fifth column on Auftragstaktik is in fact our third from Germany, which is fitting. I think I disagree with the argument offered below, because I think Moltke codified the theory but that it was entirely possible to have mission command before he did that. I suspect what you need is competent, cohesive units with ...

purpleslog/Flickr
purpleslog/Flickr

This fifth column on Auftragstaktik is in fact our third from Germany, which is fitting.

I think I disagree with the argument offered below, because I think Moltke codified the theory but that it was entirely possible to have mission command before he did that. I suspect what you need is competent, cohesive units with profound trust running both ways in the chain of command. But I still think this column is worth reading, if you are trying to understand this important subject.  

By Stefan Schilling
Best Defense department of Auftragstaktik affairs

This fifth column on Auftragstaktik is in fact our third from Germany, which is fitting.

I think I disagree with the argument offered below, because I think Moltke codified the theory but that it was entirely possible to have mission command before he did that. I suspect what you need is competent, cohesive units with profound trust running both ways in the chain of command. But I still think this column is worth reading, if you are trying to understand this important subject.  

By Stefan Schilling
Best Defense department of Auftragstaktik affairs

I believe both Maj. Smith‘s and Col. Yingling‘s arguments to be both true and false. It becomes apparent when reading both articles that both do debate Auftragstaktik, but do so from different perspectives and lack a common understanding of what is meant by the phrase “mission command.”

Paul Yingling certainly is right in claiming that mission command works better with senior officers who possess traits such as courage and intelligence. Yet, I bet pretty much every organization works better when intelligence is involved.

While his claims that Scipio and Hannibal have applied Auftragstaktik simply because they were courageous and intelligent does neglect the fact that Auftragstaktik is based on a vast and deep understanding of theory. He is also wrong about Guderian’s officers. As Col. Yingling has argued, “these officers succeed because they had the intelligence to see the battlefield clearly, and the courage to act on their convictions.” As Clausewitz has taught us, no officer or leader has the intelligence or the ability to see anything in war clearly, not in our current wars and not in the times of Moltke or Scharnhorst. But what set the officers of Guderian apart from Scipio’s, Patton’s and Hanibal’s was their ability, installed by rigorous education and training, to accept the friction of war and use it to their advantage by exploiting the enemy’s weak points when they became apparent. This is what mission command is about.

Most of the historical figures Paul Yingling cites were undoubtedly great commanders with a deep insight into the friction and intricacies of war, and were certainly not afraid of bureaucracies or higher echelons. Yet they did not necessarily command in a mission command style just because they were courageous and able to exploit weaknesses. Auftragstaktik is not about one great commander, but about ensuring that every commander has the ability to trust in every junior officers to perform in his intent and exploit chances when they present themselves.

As Eitan Shamir has so vividly shown in his book Transforming Command
– The Pursuit of Mission Command in the U.S., British and Israeli Armies
, militaries tend, when confronted with new cultures, to look to their past in an attempt to proof that the “new” is actually a well-known tradition of their respective forces. In the British army this was attempted by identifying the command styles of Oliver Cromwell, Wellington and the Duke of Marlborough as mission command. The narrative in the U.S., according to Shamir, is that commanders such as Sheridan or Patton are identified as having commanded in such a way. In the Israeli case, he argues, the Palmach have been the tradition with which to prove that mission command has been a long-lasting tradition within the IDF. However, in each of the cases we might talk about courageous and intelligent commanders, but they were not backed up by the tenets of mission command. For example, while the early IDF as well as the Palmach
had a great tradition of practicing and exploiting the enemy’s weaknesses, they were utterly opposed to general staffs and leadership education, which subsequently lead to a gradual disappearance of mission command.

Yet, Auftragstaktik‘s major tenet is (and its lack is what I believe Maj. Smith is rightly lamenting) the ability of every junior officer to be able to understand his immediate superior officer’s job and if need be to command in place of that superior. This has the advantage and the consequence that every junior officer understands perfectly – and performs according to – the intent of his superior officers. (Not according to his will but his intent.) This is, I believe, the core of mission command. Moltke, the father and implementer of mission command, has set up the Kriegsakademie to teach and educate junior officers to do exactly this, by consistent war gaming and simulating. War games, as Maj. Smith has remarked, have the ability to put everyone on the same page and assure that no system is left out. However, in order to assure this, officers need experience. This was assured in Prussia by sending the graduates of the Kriegsakademie to spent six months in a branch other than their own, and then on to serve on the general staff for a one-year trial period. Guderian’s officers were not only courageous but were also made aware by having been educated in mission command in the style of Moltke’s Kriegsakademie. As such, they undoubtedly did have their share of education, training and hands on experience in general staffs before assuming command that Col. Yingling claims not to be necessary.

If, however, promotions are made as Maj. Smith has pointed out, in a hurricane of personnel moves, without either the education or the hands-on expertise in staff, this experience is certainly missing from the force and the education process and the trial period assured that every officer has the common knowledge base, and a common language and understanding of issues. Maj. Smith thus is not wrong about Auftragstaktik as Paul Yingling claims, but points out the central tenet of Auftragstaktik as well as the dangers when mission command is applied without the education it necessitates.

However, our discussions seem to show several problems consistent in many militaries and certainly the U.S. Army.

1.      mission command is not universally understood, and many different versions of its meaning seem to be floating around.

2.      The U.S. Army has not implemented mission command as it should be otherwise this discussion would not arise.

3.      Well-meant programs such as ARFORGEN are not well suited to prepare officers for their capabilities on the ground.

4.      Modern battleground tools such as drones, BFT’s and so on are only increasing the ability of senior commanders to micromanage, but not their ability to apply mission command.                          

It is needless to say that suspected disability of junior officers might serve
as an excuse for poor command, these difficulties do force commanders
often enough to rely on “Befehlstaktik,“simply because they cannot trust in their junior officers’ ability to understand and execute in their intent.

To change this, Col. Yingling is certainly right in saying that: “Senior officers who wish to exercise mission command shouldn’t wait for favorable conditions; they should create them.” But this also involves creating the educational system for junior officers to train, practice
and gain experience in order to come up with unique and desirable ideas.

Stefan Schilling is an academic assistant at the Department for International
Relations and Foreign Policy of the University of Heidelberg, Germany. He has earned a M.A. in Political Science from the University of Heidelberg and is currently working on a doctoral thesis on U.S. military organization and innovation.

Thomas 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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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