Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture, by Donald E. Vandergriff
Reviewed by Dave Bickers
Mission Command has featured in United States Army doctrine since the advent of AirLand Battle in 1982. After more than three decades has the organisation fully adapted to a culture of decentralised command? No, says Donald E. Vandergriff in his extensive treatment of United States Army leadership in Adopting Mission Command.[i] The United States Army, he argues, retains an out-dated centralised structure which over-prioritises process and synchronisation at the expense of creativity, adaptability, innovation and speed of decision-making. For the British Army, which frequently trains and operates with the United States Army, Vandergriff’s claims are worthy of consideration.
A former enlisted United States Marine and Army officer, Vandergriff has taught and written extensively on mission command. In Adopting Mission Command he traces an institutional tendency to centralise command back to the application of efficiency and management theories during War Department reforms in 1899. This foundation, Vandergriff argues, was exacerbated by the production line approach to training leaders adopted through two world wars and institutionalised by the United States Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) since its formation in 1973. More recently, he claims resource shortages have caused training to become increasingly centralised and innovation to stall.
Regulations and bureaucracy
Adopting Mission Command argues that United States Army leaders are more focussed on the effective management of training resources than training itself. Training, Vandergriff states, is not regarded as a leader competency but something delivered to them by outsiders. On the eve of 9/11, Vandergriff argues the United States Army found itself able to execute tasks to defined standards under set conditions but not able to fight, think and win in conditions which did not conform to officially approved standards.
Vandergriff’s call to arms is to convert the United States Army to a Prussian-style Auftragstaktik culture and his book attempts to set out both the why and the how for doing so. The book opens by establishing the premise that Auftragstaktik is a superior command culture and explores in some detail how Germany trained its leaders to practice it. It sets out the inhibitors against mission command before advocating in some detail for an Outcomes-Based Training and Education methodology. The book’s second half focuses on the how, laying out education, training, and personnel policies by which Auftragstaktik can be better delivered.
Vandergriff is certainly not the only voice suggesting that the United States Army has not fully adapted to mission command. Indeed, even senior United States Army leaders have concluded recently that their army needs to reinvigorate its approach to mission command. Over three articles[ii] General Stephen Townsend (previously Commander TRADOC now Commander United States Africa Command) shares a similar diagnosis. Townsend believes many in the United States Army find the idea of mission command confusing or insincere. He cites the regulated conditions driven by counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, a bureaucratic focus on readiness, a centralised training approach as the Army transitioned to large-scale ground combat operations, and a lack of doctrinal clarity as the driving factors.
This doctrinal confusion followed a United States Army decision in 2012 to replace ‘Command and Control’ in its doctrinal lexicon with ‘Mission Command’. As a practical synonym for command and control, mission command became a warfighting function in addition to a command philosophy. While the worthy intent was to emphasise mission command as the central philosophy behind command and control, it served instead to create confusion and the decision has recently been reversed. Conceptual clarity matters. Indeed, in Transforming Command, [ii] Eitan Shamir cites misunderstanding or misinterpretation of mission command (what he refers to as the cognitive gap) as being a common reason for armies failing to adapt to its requirements.
The argument Vanderiff makes for Auftragstaktik as a superior command culture is based conceptually on John Boyd’s theory of decision-making and empirically on the operational success it brought the Germans. Vand
rergriff lays out clearly how Germany developed leaders able to exercise low-level initiative to realise higher-level intent and diminish friction, thereby gaining both quickness and security. Germany’s ultimate aim was to create leaders with the Fingerspitzengefuhl (that almost-magical ability to feel and influence the flow of battle) to achieve all this instinctively.
But Vandergriff believes the Unites States Army is far from this point, producing instead leaders focussed on process, templated solutions, and matrix-centric command. He also believes there is an obsession with synchronisation at the expense of agility. Rather than a current United States Army approach to education focussed on process and checklists, Vandergriff advocates the traditional German approach of throwing students into tactical problems to develop the ability to solve and communicate solutions as concisely and quickly as possible. The developmental tools Vandergriff recommends are those traditionally favoured by the Germans: tactical decision games, wargames, and force-on-force exercises.
Why and how?
While Adopting Mission Command is extensive in its treatment of its subject it does have its weaknesses. The first is that Vandergriff does not make the case for mission command as convincingly as he could. Martin Van Creveld’s study Command in War,[iii] for instance, makes a more thorough and compelling case that armies optimised for decentralised operation have been more successful than those that have sought to centralise control.
But even a more thorough historical investigation would not counter one possible argument: that mission command may no longer be the superior command philosophy for today’s character of conflict. Vandergriff does not attempt to counter such a charge. Some could argue that the focus on process and synchronisation that Vandergriff criticises is actually a legitimate reaction to such a phenomenon. Anthony King, for instance, describes ‘new forms of bureaucratic expertise’ such as the synchronisation matrix and decision point as a reaction to the increasing scope and complexity of modern operations.[iv] This is by no means to say that mission command is no longer valid, but its pre-eminence must be continually verified in the face of a changing character of conflict. It should not be assumed as received wisdom.
The book’s second weakness is in its explanation of how to enact Aufragstaktik. It is here that Vandergriff could make the most valuable and novel contribution to the existing literature. Overlaying modern decision-making theory against the benefits of tactical decision games, wargames, and force-on-force exercises would add to the empirical evidence that such an approach worked for the Germans. But this level of analysis is bypassed and we reach down instead to case studies which are so detailed they will lack broad application for many.
The book’s penultimate chapter on the 4th (United States) Armored Division during the Battle of Normandy brings things back to life. The Division’s philosophy of audacity, an indirect approach, and direct oral orders, based on its inspiring and free-thinking commander Major General John S. Wood, serve as an excellent summary and reminder that rapid manoeuvre is best served by mission command. Part of the Division’s success was its adoption of a more flexible task organisation than was standard at the time, with tank and infantry units not permanently assigned to any combat command. Instead, Wood wrote that his Division was,
“a reservoir of force to be applied in different combinations as circumstances indicated, and which could be changed as needed in the course of combat by a commander in close contact with the situation at the front. There is not the time or place for detailed orders, limiting lines or zones, phase lines, limited objectives or other restraints.”
Decentralised execution through empowered decision-making
The main strength of Adopting Mission Command is that Vandergriff makes clear just how comprehensively mission command needs to be applied for it to work. It cannot be expected to simply occur in an army at war if it is not clearly understood, institutionally ingrained and manifest in the execution of all day-to-day activities in an army at peace.
Within the British Army there is a considerable focus on empowerment for reasons ranging from financial efficiency to improving retention. These are all desirable side benefits and it is not unhelpful that empowerment has considerable attraction to a modern workforce. But the primarily driver for empowerment in the British Army should always be its centrality to winning wars. A system comprising decentralised execution through empowered subordinate decision-making is the only one which has proven able to cope with the complexity and friction of war.
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[i] Townsend, Stephen et al, “Reinvigorating the Army’s Approach to Mission Command It’s Okay to Run with Scissors (Part 1),” Military Review Online Exclusive, (April 2019); Townsend, Stephen et al, “Reinvigorating the Army’s Approach to Command and Control Leading by Mission Command (Part 2),” Military Review Online Exclusive, (May 2019); Townsend, Stephen et al, “Reinvigorating the Army’s Approach to Command and Control Training for Mission Command (Part 3) ,”Military Review Online Exclusive, (July 2019).