The Future of Command and Control: Four Models to Provoke Thought
By Will Meddings
In 2019’s second Agile Warrior Quarterly an article considered the idea of the Conceptual Force (Land) 35, the ‘CF(L)35’. This capstone concept proposes new capabilities, a new way of operating, and a new force design for the period 2030-2035. The same edition of Agile Warrior Quarterly also looked at future command and control (C2), which it described as “a range of C2 approaches from fully autonomous decision-making at speed to directive C2 that can better ensure C2 survivability, flexibility and efficiency in the context of mission accomplishment”. It described a transformation of C2. I recommend it to anyone considering how we, the British Army, might lead in the future.
Yet command and control is – at least for the moment – a human endeavour. Technology may change, but as the commanders of today move towards 2035 they will remain products of their training and experience. It is almost certain their move towards CF(L)35 will be an iterative one rather than a transformative one.
In March 2020 the British Army’s Agile Warrior symposium also considered the future of C2. This time, instead of looking to 2035 it looked at the bridge between 2020 and 2035. The presentations at the symposium compared the CF(L)35 command model with the NATO Edge C2 model and with the experiences of a contemporary Battlegroup commander. This article shares the discussion held at the symposium: what is Edge C2? Which command and control approaches are best suited to which situations? How might commanders and staff better collaborate? And how can we build the trust needed to give us genuine Edge C2?
In asking these questions, it uses four models: the Edge C2 model; The Cynefin Model; A Staff-Commander adaption of the OODA loop; and the Trust Equation. Although they do not answer the questions, it is hoped that they help readers think about how they command and control their teams.
Joint Concept Note 2/17, The Future of Command and Control, is DCDC’s high level concept note that describes the UK MOD’s likely C2 model. It includes a model for Agile C2 taken from a NATO report on C2 agility.
This model, shown below, describes five different approaches to C2, each offering different advantages and disadvantages. Each is characterised by the extent to which it exhibits three features: how broadly it makes information available; how little it constrains collaboration; and how broadly it decentralises decision-making. An Agile C2 approach, it argues, can move between a tightly deconflicted command approach, a coordinated approach, through collaborative C2 and all the way to what it describes as Edge C2: a network of C2 nodes with easy access to shared information, continuously interacting and with distributed decision-making.
Model 1: The NATO command and control approach model
JCN 2/17 makes clear that, while one approach is not necessarily ‘better’ than another, being able to use all of the approaches gives an organisation the best chance for success.
The situations that Edge C2 is best suited to are those described by the Cynefin model as ‘Complex’ and ‘Chaotic’. This model, shown below and developed in 1999 by David Snowden, describes situations according to their cause and effect relationships. Each situation, Obvious, Complicated, Complex or Chaotic, have their own correct response manner. In Complex and Chaotic situations, the best response is to act or probe before responding – leading them to solutions and C2 approaches that privilege tempo of action over centralised analysis and decision-making.
Model 2: The Cynefin Framework
Thus, a headquarters exhibits Agile C2 when it can switch between Deconflicted or Coordinated C2, to more difficult Collaborative C2, to the most challenging Edge C2. In this way an Agile C2 headquarters is able to choose from the widest number of C2 approaches to allow it to deal best with Obvious, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic situations.
Model 1 shows that, in order to be able to use Edge C2, an organisation must share information, increase collaboration and distribute its decision-making as broadly as possible. Of these, distributing decision-making is the area where our current C2 is least ready. Based on the author’s recent experiences of Battlegroup command, the British Army is not ready for truly distributed decision-making. Nevertheless, striving to achieve Edge C2 – by sharing information, collaborating between teams and distributing as much decision-making power as possible to trusted commanders – remains the best way to deal with Chaotic and Complex situations.
During Exercise Wessex Storm 20/1, a multi-unit collective training exercise on Salisbury Plain, the author considered the issues surrounding future C2. He found two models helpful in understanding some of the factors that prevent British Army tactical units from getting closer to the Edge C2 approach. Of course, when considering a model, one should not forget the advice of statistician George Box, to “remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful”. The author hopes that, although not right, these models are sufficiently right to be useful to other commanders.
Commanding, Controlling and Collaborating
Using a Collaborative C2 approach, and getting close to Edge C2, requires decision-making to be as collaborative as possible. The British Army, similarly to most western armies, vests the authority to makes decisions in the commander. The two are in obvious conflict.
Less conflicting, however, is the idea using the staff as a collaborative group to plan and recommend courses of action during a battle. When a commander is deployed in their tactical headquarters, they still have the ability to tap back into their staff headquarters and collaboratively use their staff’s analytical power. The staff’s wide-but-shallow situational awareness is augmented by the commander’s own narrow-but-deep situational awareness of the battle
Developing conplans, drawing up conditions checks and defining Decision Points during planning are ways of ‘forward-loading the thinking’ so that less needs to be done during the execution of the mission. In the same way, when a commander reaches back into their staff during the execution of the mission they are ‘back-loading the thinking’. They are passing it to a team that is better placed to recommend courses of action.
The model that best describes this approach to command is an adaption of John Boyd’s OODA loop.
Model 3: A Staff-Commander Adaption of the OODA Loop
In the normal OODA loop a commander observes, orientates, decides and acts. In a more collaborative C2 model, the commander additionally reaches back to their staff (and, through them, to other C2 nodes). As the commander observes a problem or situation, they also pass the problem or situation back to their staff, who can use their broader situational awareness to observe more widely. Using their greater processing power, better awareness, access to other C2 nodes and (hopefully) less-overwhelmed thinking-power, the staff can analyse, synthesise and recommend an action to the commander. This allows the commander to decide, direct action, pass control of that action to the headquarters, allowing the commander to (and staff) to observe again.
This C2 model, by no means perfect, illustrates a way in which a commander can use their staff as a collaborative tool, a node in a network that enables them to leverage greater processing power and situational awareness.
This model leads to a series of questions that an organisation must ask before it relies upon the model. First, how does it ensure the staff are best placed to exploit their better/wider information, reach and analysis capacity? Second, given one cannot collaborate without comms, does reliance on this method of C2 change the importance we place on comms? And finally, how do the commander and staff build up an understanding of how each other think, such that the staff can provide useful and tailored recommendations to the commander. This last question is, perhaps, a function of how well they trust each other.
Distributed Functions and Trust
Mission command, a philosophy of centralised decision-making and decentralised execution, relies on trust been commanders and subordinates. It only functions effectively when high-trust relationships allow the commander to release the reins of directive command. Edge C2, with its decentralised decision-making, relies on trust even more.
In fact, Edge C2 relies on negotiated command – a step beyond delegated command, where commanders decide amongst themselves who will be authorised to make decisions. To a contemporary commander, taught that command is a legal authority vested in them to make decisions, the idea of negotiating decision-making authority is an anathema. For anything even close to Edge C2 to be used there must be an extremely high level of trust been commanders at every level.
In the British Army we take trust for granted. We do not often think about the structures we have in place that build trust, nor what it means when those structures break down.
There are several models that explore trust between individuals. Of these, the author has found Covey and Merrill’s model to be the most useful:
Model 4: The Trust Equation. Adapted from The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything
The level of trust a person gives in another is broadly made up of two elements: will the person do what is right by the trustor (integrity and intent); and can the person do what is right by the trustor (capability and results).
They define a person’s integrity as being made of three elements: congruency, being true to their values; humility, being more interested in what is right rather than being right; and courage, having the moral courage to do the right thing. Intent is about whether the person will act in line with what is best for the team: do they have a motive and agenda that supports the trustor? Capability is about whether the person has the knowledge, skills and experience required (and exhibits the behaviours that convey those skills). It is proven not by action but by their qualifications or their selection for their role. Finally, results are defined as a proven track record of focussing on successful results. Covey and Merrill do not mention one other factor that is common in trust research: the consistency of those results.
Building trust becomes more difficult when C2 nodes are dispersed, especially when the organisation is made up of sub-organisations from different organisations, nations or specialisms.
By way of example, a specific Battlegroup on Exercise Wessex Storm in 2020 was made up of two rifle companies from the parent unit, one rifle company from a different unit in the same regiment, an engineer squadron, an a EOD team from a different engineer regiment, a Royal Horse Artillery Tac Battery, a Military Working Dogs section, a Light Electronic Warfare Team and a Prehospital Treatment Team from a medical regiment.
Of these, the officers and NCOs from the attached infantry unit were well-known to the commander (results). They had passed the same courses as the parent unit’s commanders (capability), had been selected using the same pan-infantry criteria (which included their integrity) and, as members of the same Regiment, were invested in its reputation (intent). The artillery and engineers had worked alongside the headquarters during previous training (demonstrating proven results) and made it clear their reputation was dependent on how well they supported the Battlegroup, assuring their intent. By contrast, other sub-units arrived on the day of the final exercise (limiting knowledge of their results and the ability to gauge their capability). Some had commanders selected for their technical skills rather than decision-making skills (limiting confidence in their capability to work under Edge C2). Some were moved between battlegroups during the exercise, and may have been less invested in the unit’s success (intent).
The lesson? If an organisation wishes to move towards Edge C2 it must understand which parts of its organisation are likely to be low-trust and work on specific actions that will build trust in the gaps. Covey and Merrill provide a model that does just that.
To maximise trust, and thus to move towards Edge C2, it is worth asking the following questions. If you are forming a battlegroup or mission-focussed task group, how can you maximise each element of the trust equation? If you are designing a military structure, either physically or organisationally, how do you design-in elements that maximise the elements of the trust equation and naturally build trust? And when you join a new organisation, how do you accentuate different parts of the trust equation to engender your trustworthiness within your new team?
In conclusion, for an organisation’s C2 to give it the best chance of success, it must have Agile C2, switching between the C2 approach best suited to the situation it faces. For Chaotic and Complex situations, the best approach is Collaborative or, better still, Edge C2. Edge C2 is futuristic – it may even be an unachievable nirvana with our current systems. This does not mean moving towards it does not offer advantages.
In order to reap the benefits of Edge C2 an organisation must share its information broadly, collaborate across its C2 nodes and be willing to negotiate who commands and makes decisions. Some of these characteristics are alien to our current C2 approach or beyond or current C2 technology. Even so, command and control are human activities. Human beings are complex and our interactions are often difficult to understand but, with the help of some simple models, it is possible to identify areas where we can improve our C2. Specifically, by how we collaborate between commanders and their staff and how we build the trust required for rapid delegation and negotiated command. By doing so we can begin to move towards a more effective future command and control approach.
A version of this article also appears in the April 2020 edition of Agile Warrior Quarterly which can be found on the Army Knowledge Exchange via the Defence Gateway. If you’d like to know more about the importance of trust in leadership then check out The Army Leader’s archive of trust articles.