Mission Command and Multi-Domain Battle Don’t Mix


When I came into the Army in 1974, we understood that one of our biggest advantages against the oncoming Soviet hordes was a command system that encouraged initiative. While we could predict Soviet actions based on templates and checklists, they would ultimately be bedeviled by our independent responses appropriate to our unique situation. Sometimes we would have to respond in a carefully choreographed way as well, depending on the nature of the mission and the threat. We had no unique name for all of this. It was just understood to be good leadership. The emerging doctrine of AirLand Battle would stress agility and initiative as key operational concepts, but also included synchronization, the requirement to carefully coordinate all activities on the battlefield and achieve “unity of effort throughout the force.”

During this time, Army leaders were developing new doctrine under the guidance of Gen. William DePuy, commander of the new Army Training and Doctrine Command. World War II as well as the wars in Korea and Vietnam, taught him that that the battlefield was “a terrifying place,” and soldiers worked best with very specific orders. He garnered many insights from fighting against the Germans, but was most impressed not with their supposed reliance on the flexibility and initiative of Auftragstaktik, “mission-type tactics” allowing much subordinate flexibility, but instead with their constant communication during combat and active leadership on the battlefield. In a 1986 interview in the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center archives, he acknowledged that if something goes wrong with the plan and communication breaks down while the enemy is responding in an unexpected way then initiative is key, but overall he believed there was “absolute non-stop rubbish on the street” about the amount of freedom of action that should always be given to subordinates.

A recognized expert on German military history, Robert Citino, agrees in his seminal work The German Way of War that much of what is most often espoused about Auftragstaktik is myth. What the Germans in World War II really exercised was Bewegungskrieg, a form of warfare that involved taking increased risk at the operational level of a war, because Germany could not afford to engage in a long conflict. Once Hitler and the chief of staff of the Wehrmacht, Gen. Franz Halder, realized that was the dilemma they faced after failing to take Moscow in December 1941, and Hitler became overly confident in his own abilities, they withdrew permission for such subordinate initiative to better preserve their forces. Halder explained,

The duty of soldierly obedience leaves no room for the sensibilities of lower headquarters. On the contrary it demands the best and most rapid execution of orders in the sense that the one issuing them intended.

In fact, the army that most consistently exercised what we would call “mission command” in World War II was not the Germans but the Japanese. The practice worked very well in Malaya in 1942 when the British could never keep pace with Yamashita Tomoyuki’s advancing forces, but proved disastrous in the Kohima-Imphal campaign of 1944 when Mutaguchi Renya’s ambitious drive into India was decimated by William Slim’s adroit defense.

In late 2009, TRADOC commander Gen. Martin Dempsey directed the service to change the name of the warfighting function of “command and control” to “mission command,” thereby making it a part of Army dogma.  If one asks students at the Army War College, where I teach, what the term means, they usually come up with a somewhat contradictory definition that basically allows them to do whatever they wish within loose guidelines from their superiors, while their subordinates do exactly what they are supposed to do.  The current concept has six principles: build cohesive teams through mutual trust, create shared understanding, provide a clear commander’s intent, exercise disciplined initiative, use mission orders, and accept prudent risk. The biggest problem with the concept is that the definitions of “disciplined” and “prudent” are very much in the eye of the beholder, and usually depend upon the result.

German corps commander Heinz Guderian receives great praise for loosely interpreting his orders to conduct a “reconnaissance in force” in May 1940 as his panzers drove the British Expeditionary Force to the sea at Dunkirk, while Mutaguchi, a division commander in the Singapore campaign who became the Japanese commander in Burma, and his subordinates are condemned for taking similar initiatives for Kohima-Imphal.  Which of Gen. Douglas MacArthurs’ risks was more prudent: his decision in the Korean War to invade at Inchon against the advice of countless critics, or his virtually uncontested ensuing divided drive to the Yalu when his air force commander promised he could keep any significant numbers of Chinese from intervening in Manchuria? In the first instance, his action destroyed the invading North Korean army while his actions in the second instance led to a sound defeat of U.N. forces and the longest retreat in American military history.

There have been a number of good recent articles pointing out the flaws in the existing cult of mission command. In the most recent Joint Forces Quarterly, Andrew Hill and Heath Niemi argue that mission command is “in fact just one of many possible answers to the question of control, and not always the right one.” Another insightful recent analysis in the same vein by Major Amos Fox in Military Review with the great title of “Cutting Our Feet to Fit the Shoes” points out that there are many factors affecting the amount of control that is necessary on the battlefield, and defaulting to a decentralized ideal that is “messy, inefficient, and ambiguous” does not fit the realities of modern combat. Instead leadership must adjust to a continuum of control shaped by the situation, the same point emphasized by Hill and Niemi.

The ambiguity of the term was clear to me at a recent conference about mission command at the Army War College in February. The Army now has a concept, a doctrine, and a warfighting function called mission command, with differing definitions. Developers of the concept from Ft. Leavenworth discussed revising it to encourage even more boldness and decentralization while doctrine writers from the same institution asserted that it could be tightly centralized if necessary. One speaker argued for the advantages of applying it when working with the joint and interagency communities, two groups who are ignorant of the term at best and resistant at worst. And the Marine Corps representative could not understand why a special concept was needed at all, since what was being discussed was just good leadership.

The willingness to apply a different leadership style that Hill, Niemi, and Fox demand will be especially important to conduct what is now conceived as “Multi-Domain Battle.” There is a growing realization that America’s future adversaries will have the capabilities to pursue strategies denying our access to the various warfighting domains. Mines and sea-skimming missiles will obstruct sea lanes. Sophisticated air defenses will require complex suppression campaigns to allow the bombers to get through. Anti-satellite weapons and electronic warfare will interfere with space systems and other forms of communication. Hacking, spoofing, and system disruptions will cripple the cyber realm. The commander of the joint force engaged on such a complex battlefield will have to open and exploit “temporary windows of superiority” in the various domains in a carefully choreographed sequence of events.

Recently War on the Rocks featured an insightful article by Gen. Robert Brown and Gen. David Perkins describing what Multi-Doman Battle would be like and how it will impact the Army. They stressed the need to adjust doctrine to create multi-domain task forces integrating “organic and joint capabilities to ensure the U.S. military’s freedom of action.” Future commanders will have to have “a profound breadth and depth of information and access to capabilities providing cross-domain effects, maneuver and fires.” This “federated package of solutions” must be integrated across all the services. The generals proclaim that “we must disinvest in the present to invest in the future.”  That process should include a hard look at mission command. On the future integrated and choreographed multi-domain battlefield, the concept of “disciplined disobedience” touted by the Army chief of staff could be disastrous, producing a worse debacle than Kohima-Imphal with much more serious implications for a more fragile force.

The German experience in World War II may indeed provide a leadership model worth emulating in this sort of warfare, but it is not one based on the mythology of Auftragstaktik. Instead it would be worthwhile to consider the active leadership that DePuy observed. Commanders and their staffs are going to have to be constantly engaged in synchronizing and managing a complex series of events. There will still be times when enemy actions force subordinate units to exercise independent initiative, but that can no longer be the automatic default solution, nor perhaps even the desired one.

The requirements for Multi-Domain Battle should force the Army and all the services to look very hard at their doctrine concerning command and control as part of the process Gen. Brown and Gen. Perkins recommend. The concept of mission command not only accepts increased risk for a force that is less able to accept significant casualties, it also appears to be impractical for the synchronization required against a competent and capable near-peer. It should indeed be recognized as just one possible course of action, not the only one. The 1941 edition of FM 100-5 stated the following about how battles should be orchestrated:

The commander’s decision for his unit as a whole, and the missions to subordinate units in support of the decision, are communicated to subordinates by clear and concise orders, which gives them freedom of action appropriate to their professional knowledge, to the situation, to their dependability, and to the teamplay desired.

Such guidance is still as relevant today as it was then. And it does not require a special name. It is just good leadership.


Dr. Conrad Crane is Chief of Historical Services for the US Army Heritage and Education Center. His most recent book is Cassandra in Oz: Counterinsurgency and Future War, published by Naval Institute Press.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Jasmine Ballard