The Chain of Command Problem in Central and Eastern Europe

August 11, 2017

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For years, Russia’s armed forces have conducted offensive exercises directed at Europe, such as the recent Zapad field exercise series. The exercises, aimed at reminding the West of Russia’s ability to defend its western flank, raise a troubling question: If Russia were actually to challenge the territorial integrity of a new NATO member in Eastern or Central Europe, how well could these countries respond to the crisis? Setting aside their all but meager military capabilities, often overlooked is that these countries have incoherent national chains of command that undermine democratic governance by confusingly entrusting leaders with authorities not in keeping with their political responsibilities (Slovenia, Estonia, and Latvia arguably are notable exceptions). I argued recently in another forum that by using the lens of organizational sociology, one can see that these governments wittingly or unwittingly impede the effective development of “commanders.” Here, I posit a related question: Can the newest NATO states exercise national-level command effectively and in a predictable fashion in crisis and war?

Western nations have standing chains of command, with authorities assigned to appropriate officials that change according to law and constitution. In times of crisis or war, history demonstrates, there is little room for mistakes at this level. Conversely, countries in Central and Eastern Europe continue to use legacy concepts of command in which authority and responsibility are not aligned with political responsibilities as dictated by democratic defense governance concepts. These principles ensure continuity of civilian control of armed forces by democratically elected governments. Following the wave of democratization in the early 1990s, newly elected leaders in Central and Eastern Europe were reluctant to entrust command of armed forces to governments (Slovenia being a rare exception). Rather, most countries designated heads of state (presidents) as “commanders-in-chief,” as opposed to heads of government (prime ministers), and even excluding ministers of defense. It was assumed that heads of state would be above politics and act as benevolent benefactors of the nation. Presidents were expected to act as a counterbalance to political intrigue and to ensure that the armed forces were never used to suppress the public. History, alas, has demonstrated that these constitutional arrangements have not succeeded as originally envisaged.

Today, these legacy command concepts remain tacitly the norm. Command is routinely assigned to the wrong officials (presidents or other heads of state), or it is “collectivized” or convoluted, making timely decisions problematic. Even where clear chains of command exist, the instruments necessary to animate command structures (i.e. command authorities) still need to be developed individually for each country and validated through simulations and exercises. Some countries, such as Georgia, have sought in recent years to address these weaknesses by initiating reforms of their constitutions and laws. Still, the region as a whole struggles on five levels with creating predictable and viable chains of command that can withstand the stress of a crisis or conduct a war.

First, assigning national command to presidents means ministers are either excluded from chains of command or their authorities are ambiguous or simply undefined. This is antithetical to democratic defense governance concepts, since ministers of defense are specifically tasked with developing and managing the armed forces. For instance, in the United States, the secretary of defense and the president share command authority over the armed forces, serving collectively as the National Command Authority. Yet in most countries in Central and Eastern Europe, these relevant officials are not clearly within chains of command. Presidential commanders-in-chief undermine civilian control of the military by removing command from the elected government. In extreme cases, presidents have assumed a military mantle and may even wear a uniform (such as President Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine). Political responsibility and accountability are further compromised when presidents approve the appointment of senior officers, including the chief of defense, often with no more than a passing understanding of these officials and their qualifications. This is particularly acute in small countries like the Baltic states and Bulgaria, where appointments can result in moral debts and the personalization of loyalty. The perverse effect is precisely what these 1990s-era arrangements were intended to avoid: politicizing the military by incentivizing the officer corps to engage actively in partisan politics. In Bulgaria, two former chiefs of defense went on to become advisers to the president and in one case, his chief of staff.

Second, presidential commanders-in-chief create conflicts when the president and the government are from opposing parties, as has happened in Romania and Macedonia. Absent a clearly defined chain of command, these divided governments are unlikely to function effectively during times of tension, let alone war. In some cases, command is exercised via ad hoc (but untested) chains of command that are created depending on the situation, such as in Bulgaria. Such concepts violate the time-tested Western principle of unity and continuity of command. There should be one standing and constantly trained and tested national chain of command, and the structure should not change during escalation. Rather, authorities of commanders should be modified in accordance with law and policy.

Third, in Central and Eastern Europe, “command” is often only vaguely defined, but at its heart is a legacy assumption: maintaining absolute control. In such a post-dictatorship environment where command is not defined, even the most menial of decisions must be referred to the highest authority for approval (e.g., deputy ministers approving travel vouchers). Even in cases where there are clear chains of command, the failure to differentiate specific command authorities (e.g., assign missions or task organize units) is worrying. This allocation of responsibility is essential to ensuring that commanders possess the appropriate authorities needed to prepare and lead their forces.

Fourth, politicians in both the West and the East are generally unaware of this problem. Officials in Central and Eastern Europe do not realize that their chains of command are still based on legacy concepts that, when used in crisis by a democratic government, will produce confusion. The fact that these arrangements failed in Georgia in 2008 and continue to fail in Ukraine does not register with governments in the region. This is a testament to the tenacity of legacy concepts and the fact that few governments have faced a significant crisis that has stressed the existing chain of command to demonstrate its weaknesses. (Georgia in recent years has been a notable exception, and has moved to change its command structure accordingly.)

Fifth, the failure to develop robust headquarters to exercise operational-level command (e.g., Joint Operation Commands) raises a delicate question: Where would NATO forces of operational size deploying under Article 5 plug seamlessly into Central and Eastern European national command structures? The inability to transfer authority effectively in a time of crisis could blunt the ability of NATO forces to come to the aid of an allied nation, compromising the continuity of national command on a country’s sovereign territory, notwithstanding the alliance’s best intentions.

Officials across NATO need to appreciate the fact that most new alliance members still rely on communist-legacy concepts of command. The continued unquestioned use of these concepts will produce confusion in escalation, and all NATO members will be affected if the alliance is unable to respond in an effective and timely manner. This is foremost a political problem that can only be solved by leaders in Central and Eastern Europe, and likely only with strong and consistent encouragement from older NATO members. These changes must be made before a provocation from an increasingly belligerent Russia forces the issue by highlighting just how unprepared these structures are to handle a crisis. Until these problematic chains of command are reformed, they will pose a danger to these nations, as well as to the alliance as a whole.


Thomas-Durell Young is Program Manger Europe, Center for Civil-Military Relations, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.  He is the author of Anatomy of Post-Communist European Defense Institutions: Mirage of Military Modernity (Bloomsbury, 2017).  The views expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the policy or views of the Naval Postgraduate School, Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Justin Geiger

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