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Book excerpt: Why the U.S. Army can’t do mission command, even when it tries to

The most troubling aspect of the Army’s bureaucratic mindset is the relegation of commanders from the role of leader to manager/administrator-in-chief


The most troubling aspect of the Army’s bureaucratic mindset is the relegation of commanders from the role of leader to manager and administrator-in-chief. The cause of this is multifold, not the least of which is the Army’s latent assumption that administrative exactitude is the penultimate expression of military virtue. It is also the result of “scientific” management methods, planning processes, and the over-sized staffs that support them.

Commanders have primary responsibility for operational planning, not the staff. While delegating detailed staff  planning and supervision in specific functional areas, they must assume hands-on involvement in planning and refinement of the scheme of maneuver. Simply tossing “guidance” to the staff then picking and choosing a course of action based on their analysis and conclusions is not the proper exercise of leadership or command and is anathema to the concept of mission command.

This approach not only marginalizes the participation of commanders in the planning process, it encourages micro-analysis, micro-planning, and micro-management by the staff, thus suppressing the exercise of genius at all echelons. It should be noted that by genius we are not referring to an individual possessing extraordinary abilities, but the capacity for every soldier to apply creative and inspirational solutions to battlefield problems.

While the Army acknowledges the advantages of operating within the decision cycle of our opponents, its current staff-centric doctrine inhibits rapid decision-making by following check-the-block procedural planning methodologies. Regardless of its concession that intuitive decision-making and abbreviated military decision-making processes are acceptable alternatives to the full-blown process — albeit on a limited basis — the fact remains that the Army’s staff training, exercises, and evaluations are based on the ability to adhere to process and doctrine rather than attain rapid and decisive results.

This has led to oversized staff sizes at battalion level and above, a situation exacerbated by the acquisition of CPOF (Command Post of the Future) and the massive infrastructure and plethora of technicians required to support the system. Aside from the unsustainable expense this adds to the Army’s budget, there is no evidence to indicate that larger staffs or technological infrastructure adds to efficiency, their size and complexity actually impeding the planning and decision-making process. “There can be no doubt that there exists a point beyond which the expansion of headquarters no longer contributes to efficiency and may indeed reduce it” wrote Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld.

This is illustrated by contrasting current U.S. Army staff sizes with those of the German Army during World War II. For example, a panzer division’s command staff contained seven officers (3 majors and 4 captains) 21 with the staff company as a whole totaling only 19 officers, 12 warrant officers, 29 NCOs (non-commissioned officers), and 67 enlisted personnel. This was reflected at lower echelons as well. Panzer regiment command staffs operated with 5 officers, panzer battalions functioned with 4. Even if we accept the notion that modern conflict is so much more sophisticated that it requires considerably larger staffs (we don’t), it is doubtful whether it justifies the massive expansion represented by current U.S. Army headquarters. It is notable that, according to van Creveld, “German staffs at all levels were operational and tactical organs above all…devoting the minimum effort possible to all other tasks.” This emphasis on operations is reinforced by the manner in which the army as a whole viewed administration.

The U.S. Army’s failure to institute comprehensive reform, specifically in the area of mission command, can be attributed to its bureaucratic, managerial culture. This culture, addicted to check-the-box procedural methodology and processes, fosters a pathological fear of uncertainty and a squeamish aversion to risk, each of which is anathema to a true mission command philosophy. It has also failed to introduce streamlined, cohesive tables of organization and equipment that facilitate mission command and has offered little substantive support for the cultivation of adaptive, flexible leaders. Only by a massive reorientation away from its preference for scientific management and bureaucratic routine will it achieve its proclaimed goal of creating an expeditionary force led by adaptive, flexible leaders employing mission command to execute decisive action.

Adapted, with permission, from a chapter by Thomas Rebuck in Mission Command: The Who, What, Where, When and Why, edited by Donald Vandergriff and Stephen Webber.

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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