Model Exercises and Mission Command
By Des Fitzgerald
In 2016 I was employed as a contractor on the British Army’s STRIKE concept experiment. The final element of the experiment was a three-week Virtual Environment exercise in the Combined Arms Tactical Trainer (CATT) for a STRIKE Company Group.
There were a whole range of approved tactical tasks to test the STRIKE concept against. I was responsible for planning and designing several of these tests. One of these was a company-level raid. The raid’s mission was to destroy some Air Defence (AD) assets in order to enable friendly air activity.
The intelligence picture was sufficiently accurate to allow some detailed planning. The two AD assets were in a hide and protected by a platoon (+) of infantry. If attacked the AD assets would move to alternate hides several kilometres south but the platoon would stand and fight.
Sat in the control room we waited to see how the operation would unfold. The Company Commander attacked the enemy, the AD assets moved south as predicted but destroyed his cut off. As ever, the enemy gets a vote. Fortuitously the AD vehicles were destroyed by artillery fire. The OC knew this information, the mission was achieved and there was no further requirement to continue attacking; In the control room we anticipated that he would break clean and withdraw – a less practised element of a raid.
What are your orders?
Instead he continued to fight the enemy, in a battle which dragged on causing significant casualties to his company. When I asked him afterwards why he had continued to attack, he replied that he thought this is what his commander wanted him to do.
Why was this? The novelty of attacking had long worn off; he had conducted a wide variety of company attacks prior to this raid. I am still unclear as to why the OC chose to ignore his mission but training must be permissive of mistakes. Nevertheless, his mistake should cause us to reflect on how we would have acted in that pressured environment. How well have we trained our mental muscle-memory to improve our decision making?
Gen. Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff from 1857 until his retirement in 1888, often related a story to junior members of his staff that described the essence of the German system of command. Following a battle, Prince Frederick Karl took a Major aside and proceeded to reprimand the young officer for a tactical mistake. The major responded that he was following an order issued to him from a superior officer, which constituted the word of the king himself. The prince responded in kind, “His Majesty made you a Major because he believed you would know when not to obey his orders.” Major Michael J. Gunther, Auftragstaktik: The Basis For Modern Military Command
Are you clear on what you’re being told?
During a break in the CATT exercise I ran a Model Exercise (MODEX) for a morning. The MODEX was a staple of most courses I did when I was a young officer. The Blenheim Hall manager explained that as the courses there didn’t bother with floor models anymore the model kits had been thrown out. Fortunately, I was able to rustle up some hessian, minetape, cardboard, etc and made an adequate model. I used coloured blocks of wood from my daughter’s early learner play kit to represent units and equipment.
I had all the officers and NCOs from the company group including the various specialist attachments. After conducting some revision and establishing the level of knowledge it appeared that the young officers were not up to speed with Command States (OPCOM, OPCON, TACON, etc). Even the attachments, such as Sappers, were unsure.
We ran into further difficulties understanding SCREEN and GUARD, though the Armoured Corps NCOs were generally clearer on this one. Part of the problem was the imprecise use of terms like ‘anti-tank/Javelin screen’, which served to confuse.
However, by the end of the MODEX all were starting to clarify or correct each other when doctrinal terms were used inappropriately.
Common understanding underpins mission command
The next scenario we considered was the scheme of manoeuvre for a simple company group advance to contact. The relevant doctrinal definitions were projected on a screen as a reference and the OC sat this one out. It allowed him observe. In turn, the platoon and troop commanders were given a chance to describe how they would conduct the operation.
That morning we also conducted a quick attack and, finally, a delay. It was instructive to switch mission verbs (DESTROY – DEFEAT – CLEAR – SEIZE, etc) and see how responses changed. It also threw into relief some elements of the Scheme of Manoeuvre, in particular the Main Effort.
As a final vignette I gave a radio order to a platoon group to SEIZE a river crossing: a terrain-focussed rather than enemy-focussed mission. Between the platoon and the objective was a small enemy force. All the SNCOs had a plan that involved attacking the enemy. I asked if anyone had a significantly different plan. Only a senior-looking Armoured Corps Corporal explained he would bypass the enemy and seize the crossing as that is what was the mission stated. Perhaps I imagined it, but I think I saw a light bulb moment there for many of those in the audience.
There is a direct link between understanding doctrinal terms, being able to conduct the correct Mission Analysis, and being able to effectively use Mission Command. Doctrinal terms aren’t simple, dry semantics. Their nuances drive our shared understanding of what we are being told to do. That common understanding allows us to use mission command.
Running a MODEX
To run a MODEX as an OC (or at any level) is simple. It does not require any more planning than you would conduct for any training event, such as establish your aim, objectives, audience, level of training, time allocated, etc. Best of all, it won’t require reams of paperwork such as EASPs, RASPs and so on.
Initially, I would recommend starting small scale and with limited objectives. This will permit you to develop your technique and style. Identify and prioritise the training objectives to be achieved and do not worry if you don’t achieve them all. There is always next time.
The training audience should be briefed. Give them a Warning Order so that they arrive correctly equipped and in the right frame of mind; this might be as little as having their Tactical Aide Memoire and a notebook and pencil.
It is worth having the correct doctrinal definitions to hand and the useful Army Field Manual checklists pertinent to the operations that you are considering. These will provide a handrail and, more importantly, get people using the correct language and terminology. If what you are referring to is not written in doctrine you should really consider why you are using it.
Do not allow the MODEX turn into some kind of staff college doctrinal point-scoring-fest; no doubt fascinating for the protagonists but painful for everyone else. It is about commanders making decisions and reflecting on their decision-making processes.
Cheap, effective and frequent
The use of a MODEX to think about and train Mission Command is cheap and effective. It does not require much effort to set up and if run correctly can be a most engaging and entertaining activity. It can be scaled to whatever level of command is desired; from recce patrols considering ‘Actions On’ right up to Battle Group level.
A simple MODEX could be run every week. We understand the importance of regular training for fitness. Doctrinal understanding is the same. It will improve familiarity with doctrine, improve the precision of your team’s language and allow you to identify those subordinate commanders that ‘get it’. More importantly, you’ll see those that need a bit of assistance.
The other advantage is it is almost zero cost, apart from a couple of hours of your programme, booking a room in the training wing and a tiny bit of preparation.
However, above all it is a safe environment in which to fail, where commanders can make errors and no one gets hurt. And just in case you think this is the rant of an old soldier, I also made similar (and worse) mistakes in my career. Space precludes describing them here, but I wish I had made many of them on a model rather than in real life!
Get it in your programme
So set aside a morning or couple of hours in your programme. Explain the scenario and get your commanders immersed in the tactical problem. Get them to explain their actions when given various mission verbs, see whether they grasp the higher commander’s intent and how the Main Effort influences them. Challenge them with ‘what ifs’ and actions on; their response should be shaped by the commander’s intent and Main Effort.
I can guarantee that after a MODEX (or two) you will have a better idea of your subordinates’ capabilities. Even better you will all be starting to have a better collective understanding of mission verbs, terminology and doctrine. As a sub-unit commander, you will think more carefully about how you phrase your intent, scheme of manoeuvre and Main Effort.
Your team will all become more effective at Mission Command because you will all be using the same language and doctrinal underpinning. It is cost effective, resource light, high pay-off training. Walking around a hessian and wood model might not feel as professional as you want, but the reality is that only an amateur would reject the opportunity that a good MODEX offers.
If you want more advice for sub-unit commanders then check out the Sub-Unit Command Series. It is a series of articles written by brigade commanders, senior officers and former sub-unit commanders, all aimed to make you the best OC you can be.