Best Defense

Mission command is not a software!

Mission command is not a software and anyone who wants to implement it needs to understand that.



By Jörg Muth
Best Defense officer of mission command analysis

Tom posed the important general question of what to do when a subordinate commander fails to execute the commander’s clear intent under mission command orders. As an example, he used the attacks on the Union line on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg and quoted a rebel officer who said: “Our failure to a great extent can be laid to General Lee’s one fault — he left too much to his subordinate officers.”

This very good question requires a little discussion and a two-tiered answer.

In the discussion, the question has to be raised: “Was the commander’s intent really clear?”

In the case of General Robert E. Lee and the Battle of Gettysburg, the answer is “not, really.” Several times Lee had a problem getting his wishes and orders across and obeyed flawlessly. Another example of the same battle for this is Major General J.E.B. Stuart and his mission. Lee commanded most of the time with the aura of a good uncle, which does not always get the best results. Thus, in the specific situation cited as an example, the eyewitness was obviously correct and the situation was Lee’s fault because his commands and intentions were not as clear as they should have been.

If his intentions had been clear and the commanders disobeyed him — without good reason — the correct course of action would be to reprimand or relieve them. Mission command works in this case as any other command philosophy. It requires even more discipline because real disobedience is not easy.

The main problem, though, is that mission command is still seen as a form of software that is uploaded in the brains of commanders and after that, everything works fine. Nothing can be further from the truth.

For mission command to be successful, it requires an army to be restructured. It also requires a small officer corps that values frontline command over staff command. However, the current U.S. Army has the exact opposite structure and values.

Officers have to be educated by instructors who have studied and understood mission command and are selected for that capability. Officers in turn have to be selected and promoted by their ability to use mission command. Mission command is not a software or a gadget, it is a command philosophy.

To go back to our example: Lee was not qualified to use mission command, nor were his subordinate commanders because they were not educated and selected for it. Mission command means much more than just giving a subordinate a free hand in executing his orders.

Therefore, the often erroneously cited example of General Ulysses S. Grant giving Major General William T. Sherman a free hand on how to conduct his march to the sea does not qualify at all as an example for mission command. It requires more than one friend trusting the other to exemplify a whole command philosophy.

While critics are afraid that under mission command now everyone can do what they want, mission command indeed requires structure which goes from selection to education to promotion of officers in a certain way. Trust in a specific individual is by far not enough. The trust has to run deep in the whole officer corps and extend to the NCOs and the enlisted men.

Indeed mission command even requires its own language. Five years before Gettysburg, on the other side of the Atlantic, one of the foremost proponents and creators of mission command — Auftragstaktik in German — had laid one of the cornerstones of this most superior of all command philosophies. When observing the great amount of paperwork created by detailed orders for every unit that was pushed around during the fall maneuvers, General Helmuth von Moltke, then acting chief of staff of the Prussian Army, remarked in disgust: “As a rule an order should contain only what the subordinate for the achievement of his goals cannot determine on his own.”

It took von Moltke 30 more years of hard work, selecting and educating officers, until Auftragstaktik was finally codified in writing in a German Army Field Regulation Manual.

Mission command is not a software and anyone who wants to implement it needs to understand that.

Jörg Muth, PhD, is an expert on the U.S. Armed Forces and has researched the history of mission command from its beginnings. He the author of Command Culture: Officer Education in the U.S. Army and the German Armed Forces, 1901-1940, and the Consequences for World War II. Command Culture has received several honors and awards and was on the professional reading lists of the U.S. Army Chief of Staff and of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence. Three successive commandants of the Marine Corps have made it required reading for all intermediate officers and all senior enlisted marines.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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

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