Best Defense

Can an Army of checklists really handle implementing mission command?

By Richard Buchanan Best Defense office of mission command Earlier this year, Col. Tom Guthrie asked, " Do we really have the stomach for implementing mission command, or is this concept a passing fancy, the Army’s current bright shiny object?" He continued: "If we intend to truly embrace mission command, then we should do it ...


By Richard Buchanan

Best Defense office of mission command

Earlier this year, Col. Tom Guthrie asked, " Do we really have the stomach for implementing mission command, or is this concept a passing fancy, the Army’s current bright shiny object?" He continued: "If we intend to truly embrace mission command, then we should do it to the fullest, and that will require commitment to changing a culture from one of control and process to one of decentralization and trust… Mission command philosophies, however, go much deeper than that. Words like agility, initiative, intent, empowerment, mission orders and adaptability all point to the condition of decentralization under a most important umbrella: trust. Without trust, mission command — as a routine practice and warfighting function, in garrison and in combat — has little hope. With trust, all of the desired effects within mission command’s definition are possible."

Right now there is a serious relook at design by the Army, based on the fact that after training of design at ILE, and training of design via various Defense Contracting MTTs, we are not "seeing" results of design in the field at the tactical level. Many officers will tell you that design is a great thing at the strategic and operational levels, but has nothing to do with the tactical level. The same thing could be argued with mission command. Mission command, as well as design, are currently both failing to gain traction. Mention the term mission command to officers and the first thing that comes to mind is mission command systems (or the science of control), not the far more critical piece — the art of command. After the initial doctrinal release of mission command (MC), especially after ADP 6.0 and ADRP 6.0, one would expect to see a slow but steady take up of mc, especially after General Dempsey released his whitepaper concerning MC/trust in April 2012. I have had multiple engagements with various levels of unit staffs since 2006 and what I have seen in the last several years is something that I did not ever think I would be seeing — lack of trust. 

Lack of trust is deep between officers and officers, officers and NCOs, staff and commanders — design and mission command cannot move forward until the institutional culture is rebuilt on trust, open and critical communication/thinking built on dialogue. Commanders must understand that they are responsible for building and mentoring agile adaptive staff teams. The rebuilding of the Army after ISAF is doomed. This lack of trust has led to a strong increase in micromanagement at all staff and officer levels. The flip side of this is that the Army has not recognized that while it spends large amounts of money training individuals and units, it spend virtually nothing on staff training — it assumes that since you are an officer you can lead and work within a staff.

Now there appears (and it is strange to see it building) — a management class struggle occurring in the Army — the lowest management group are the Captains through to some LTCs, followed by a middle management group of LTC/COLs through two stars, and then the upper management group of three and four stars. What is really interesting is that the basic management group is in synch with the thinking of the upper management group about the cultural resistance to both mission command and design. Successful implementation of both are being inhibited by the middle management group that has a stake in delaying the cultural change as it would impact their promotions (or they are in lockstep with the culture that produced their promotions).

For the last six years we have become an Army of checklists — checklists to be used for deploying and recovery, checklists for leaving the FOB, checklists for patrol and convoys, checklists for a CONOP vs doing a standard OPORD, and the ultimate checklist, the OER. but does a checklist build trust, does a checklist lead to team building and open critical thinking or staff dialogue? We can take this checklist mentality a step further and say that even the use and misuse of PowerPoint is in fact a checklist.

If we look at, say, a typical maneuver BN Staff, it might be comprised of six or so LTs, several CPT,s one of which might be the S2, with the S3 and XO being MAJs. Based on current military education paths, the LTs will not have had intensive military decision-making (MDMP) training — yes, they have deployed and worked within a MDMP process, but they don’t necessarily understand the why and how’s of the process. Captains, if they have not been to the Captain’s Career Course, will have had little to no formal MDMP training even though they likely have deployment experience. MAJs, depending on when they went through ILE, may or may not be fully experienced in MDMP, even with deployment experience. So how does the staff then bridge the lack of true MDMP understanding? To date, through checklists, WGs driven by PowerPoint presentations, PowerPoint driven CUBs, and PowerPoint driven CONOPs vs OPORDs.

If the BN does not have a dynamic LTC who understands how to build teams, build an environment of open critical dialogue without fear, and foster trust, then the XO or the S3 becomes the defacto commander. If it is a multifunctional BN then the situation is more dire as they tend to only exercise the staff once a year.

If this is the current situation at the BN level, does it also occur at higher levels? Unfortunately, yes it does. Does the current process of reseting the Brigades aggravate the issue? Many of the maneuver units reset a large percentage (in excess of 60 percent) of their staffs either just prior to or after a deployment. This constant churn of staff officers does not allow the building of teams, much less building trust, and reinforces the misuse of PowerPoint.

Take a complete staff of either a BN or a BCT and then ask the following questions: have you sat through PowerPoint (PPT) presentations of 100 plus slides (the answer is always yes), did you ever question the presenter (the answer is usually no), did you ever raise a question during the presentation only to be shut down by the presenter (the answer is usually yes), if you were shut down what was the response to being shut down (frustration), did you all just sit there and nod north and south (yes), were the slides depicting data or information (much of the time data), were decisions in the WGs always reached as part of the WG input and output product process (the answer is only sometimes).

When you ask why we continue doing it if we all see the same problems, the answer is silence.

After digging deeper in the dialogue with the staffs the issues of mistrust between officers and officers, mistrust between officers and NCO and mistrust between staff and the commander, frustration, and lack of team building become points of conversation. If one digs even deeper one discovers that micromanagement is rampant, following the motto it is easier for me to do the work and complete it faster as needed than to mentor another officer/NCO. Or the commander mistrusts his staff and out of fear of failures impacting the OER he micromanages.

In this environment why do we think design will ever work? Design requires a staff to openly communicate in a critical discourse without fear and in full trust that their experience will be listened to. Why do we expect mission command to be successful if trust is missing?

So I agree with COL Guthrie’s premise — "Even in these times of diminishing dollars, spending billions will be easy compared to changing the climate and the culture." That will take stomach.

I am worried though that the Army does not have the stomach to change the current culture and is in the process of slowly backing away from mission command and design, as it will take a solid generational change of officers in order to successfully implement both.

Richard Buchanan is mission command training facilitator with the JMTC/JMSC Grafenwoehr, Germany training staffs in the areas of mission command, MDMP/NATO Planning Processes, MDMP/Design, and Command Post Operations. From 2006 to 2008, he rebuilt as HUMINT SME together with the Commander Operations Group (COG) National Training Center (NTC) the CTC training scenario to reflect Diyala Province. From 2008 to 2009, he introduced as a Forensics SME into the NTC training scenario the first ever battlefield forensics initially for multifunctional teams and then BCTs. From 2010 to 2012, he trained staffs in the targeting process as tied to the ISR planning process as they are integrated in the MDMP process. The opinions here are his own and not those of U.S. Army Europe, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, the U.S. government, nor even the shattered remains of the once-proud Red Sox.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola