Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Australian Brig. Ryan: Russ Glenn gets our mission command right — but we still have lots of work to do, especially in professional military education

Tom challenged me to reflect on Russ Glenn’s recent article in Parameters, about the theory and application of mission command in the Australian Army.



By Brig. Mick Ryan, Australian Army
Best Defense guest respondent

Tom challenged me to reflect on Russ Glenn’s recent article in Parameters, about the theory and application of mission command in the Australian Army. It is worth noting up front that Glenn has a deep understanding of our army. Based on a long professional association with our army, and personal links with many of us, Glenn is perfectly placed to examine and critique our approach to mission command.

I was a co-author in 2014 of our capstone Army doctrinal publication quoted by Glenn (The Fundamentals of Land Power 2014). I am also former battalion and brigade commander, and the current director general of training and doctrine. So it would be fair to state that I have developed a reasonably rounded appreciation of our strengths and weaknesses in mission command. And the bottom line up front is, Glenn pretty much has hit the nail on the head with his observations and criticisms of us in his article.

Early in the piece, Russ notes that

[T]he Australian Army seems satisfied with avoiding verbiage that obscures rather than illuminates the philosophy. Offered in the spirit of multinational cooperation (and simplicity), we will use its definition from here on: Mission command is the practice of assigning a subordinate commander a mission without specifying how the mission is to be achieved.

It would be easy to overlook this but it is critical to how we see mission command. Simplicity in explaining how we think about mission command was very deliberate in developing this capstone publication. The cliché stating that, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it” is important. We must ensure that simple, plain speaking is used in our doctrine. This ensures it is easier for more of our people to understand, but allows those we work with outside the Army to also have a better chance to appreciate how we think.

Later in the article, Russ notes that:

[T]he application of mission command should be conditional rather than absolute. One size does not fit all. We have noted even familiar, completely trusted, and very experienced subordinates require more command guidance under some circumstances.

Once again, the article hits the right note with this statement. Mission command requires the building of trust and confidence between echelons of command, and between commanders. This demands a training approach where multi-echelon training reinforces the need for leaders to understand the context in which they are working. It demands that leaders in this training environment provide opportunities for their subordinates to take risks, make mistakes, fail, and learn. This area — the inability of some commanders to take the risk of subordinate failure — is a constant over several years in the observations of our Australian Army Combat Training Centre. My observation however is that a risk-averse approach is not universal — we have many fine leaders who do take risks and allow subordinates to “crack on” with their missions.

But our army aspires to be an adaptive, learning organization. We must therefore continue to focus on where we have failed in implementing mission command. This will ensure our training and education continuum teaches and nurtures the underlying good practices (trust building, tactical cunning, strategic awareness, and good communications skills among them) that lead to effective mission command. This is captured well by Glenn where he states that:

Understanding what mission command requires from senior and subordinate alike continues to challenge Australia’s professional army no less than America’s primary ground force. The definitions might seem clear. Yet too many leaders find the courage to exercise the full spectrum of mission command responsibilities overly daunting. Too many subordinates also cease listening upon hearing mission command encourages decentralization of decision-making; they choose to ignore the responsibility to check that decisions and behaviors are in keeping with the commander’s guidance.

Mission Command and Professional Military Education

There is one area, not examined in the article, that may provide additional context to Glenn’s critique of mission command in the Australian Army. This is the area of professional military education (PME) and its institutional emphasis. Let me explain. Mission command is about understanding both elements of a mission (task and purpose). Preparing for tasks is about good training. But understanding (and communicating) purpose is about intellectual capacity, which should be honed through PME.

I would propose this is a traditional weak link for our army (as my review last year found). As our capstone document, The Fundamentals of Land Power (2014), also notes, one key element of army culture is its focus on training:

This training culture has focused on achieving excellence in three areas: individual and small team skills, leadership at all levels of command, and combined arms operations.

So, we have not always advocated for, or implemented, PME programs effectively across all ranks. It could be argued that when the Australian Army has focused on PME, it has been officer centric. So we must not be surprised by people who don’t always understand context, one of the critical enablers of effective mission command. We should not be surprised that many of our people may not appreciate the need to backbrief higher and have higher headquarters check alignment of subordinate organizations with higher intent. Glenn’s observations in his article in this area are entirely accurate.

We are, however, working on this. Senior leader advocacy and resourcing has increased over the last two years. With a small, dedicated team in our new PME Directorate, we have launched online PME resources such as The Cove, which have become fertile ground for discussion, articles, and other PME resources on topics such as mission command. And we will shortly release our Army PME strategy, focused on evolving the intellectual edge on which concepts like mission command rely.

But back to the article. It is a reasonable and very well-informed critique of how we think about, and practice, mission command in our army. Glenn possesses knowledge in significant depth and breadth about the Australian Army. As someone who is dedicated to fostering excellence in the profession of arms, I find the observations contained in the article accurate and highly useful. It is well worth adding to the summer PME reading list of military professionals, and those who wish to learn more about the art of mission command.

Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer. He has deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and East Timor. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University SAIS and the U.S. Marine Corps Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning.

Photo 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