Rethinking Planning and Improving Survivability
By Des FitzGerald
On the evening of the 10th June 1944 in the chateau at La Caine, 18km Southwest of Caen, the officers of the Headquarters Panzer Group West had their evening meal disturbed by an air raid warning. They rushed into the gardens to watch what was happening, coincidentally just as their commander Panzer General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg drew up in his staff car. Too late they realised that they were the target of a focussed strike by RAF rocket firing Typhoons, backed up by B-24 medium bombers.
The location of HQ Panzer Group West had been indicated from ULTRA decrypts at Bletchley Park, but it was SIGINT that confirmed the location at La Cain when it picked up increased HF radio traffic on 8th June. A reconnaissance sortie was conducted to confirm the location but this was as much to conceal the involvement of ULTRA as it was to confirm the target. With no anti-aircraft fire and with, for the time, impressive accuracy the strike killed 18 staff officers, destroyed seven vehicles parked in the orchard and wounded von Schweppenburg. Of more significance, this decapitation of the Panzer HQ postponed and then delayed indefinitely the armoured counter-attack that the Germans had been planning against the British beachhead. Following the strike, the Germans issued orders to ensure that HQs were not sited in obvious buildings and stricter counter surveillance control measures were applied.
This vignette (albeit possibly an outlier) neatly encapsulates the threat to all headquarters and why they appear high up on most targeting lists. For headquarters to be effective they must bring together staff officers to plan and then command, which requires emissions on the electro-magnetic spectrum leaving them vulnerable to detection. The current challenge is how we mesh together the opportunities of the seemingly inexhaustible digital technology, with the associated growth in the size of headquarters as a plethora of essential experts and advisors are added to the planning process, whilst keeping our headquarters size as small as practicable to balance against the very real threat of detection and then destruction, probably by long range fires.
This article will consider a Battlegroup headquarters operating in a high intensity conflict against a peer threat. Its focus is on the survivability of the large, single point of failure headquarters that we feel we need to plan and command operations. It is not a complete or wide-ranging review of the subject, but aims to stimulate thought and discussion.
Consider the Threat
Without naming names, imagine an enemy that has a recce-fires complex that uses electronic warfare and Unmanned Air Systems (UAS or drones) to detect, recognise, identify and locate our Headquarters, this is then linked to long range fires with which to strike them. From open source information, the process might be as follows. Electronic warfare units will scan the electro-magnetic spectrum looking for targets of interest, these might be prioritised by either type of emissions or just volume of activity (or both).
Depending on availability of resources, accuracy of information and number of other similar targets, these might then be struck by long range fires. If resources are tight and time permits, a UAS may be cued to refine the target before it is struck. The other advantage of having a UAS on station is that Battlefield Damage Assessment can also be conducted. The initial detection could be measured in a few minutes, the refinement might be a short as 20 to 30 minutes. At absolute worst case you might be struck immediately, but more likely after some further assessment and refinement.
Consider the Planning
The Battlegroup Headquarters planning process involves a considerable number of ‘players’. First a suitable location needs to be established, which could be an impressively large tent (a BFT or Big Flapping Tent) and/or a suitable building (such as a barn, industrial site, chateau, etc). The staff involved in the planning are the Commanding Officer (CO) or BattleGroup Commander (BG Comd), he will have a Chief of Staff (COS), his artillery advisor (Battery Commander or BC), engineer advisor (BGE), Operations Officer (Ops Offr), Intelligence Officer (IO), Adjutant (responsible for road movements), Logistics Officer (BGLO), Signals Officer (RSO) plus specialists such as the ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting and Reconnaissance) Commander, Anti-Tank Platoon Commander, and perhaps other attachments such as an Air Defence Commander.
All are experts in their field and have a part to contribute to the planning process. Surrounding them are the signallers who enable communications, drivers for the vehicles, plus the clerical staff who ensure maps, stationery and brews are provided. By my conservative reckoning this is more than 25 people, plus at least eight vehicles. It is not small. For survivability it makes sense that whilst the planning is conducted the Battlegroup Command Post element, which is commanding the Battlegroup and therefore emitting on the electro-magnetic spectrum, should be located away from the planners. The planners do not actually need to transmit so in theory should not standout on the electro-magnetic spectrum.
BGHQ Planning: 3 RIFLES BG staff stacking ready to fight through the planning process
This group of at least 8 vehicles and 25 plus staff is a high value target and is vulnerable throughout the planning process. Should the Battlegroup Headquarters Command Post be nearby and spark the interest of the enemy then a grouping of these vehicles, plus BFT (or suitable building) are likely to be vulnerable to a focussed UAS search.
I will not do a comparison with the growth of headquarters since the First World War (spoiler alert – they just get bigger), but if we look at the planning process at Battlegroup level we have started to turn them into mini-formation headquarters. Whether this is the pushing down of capabilities, driven by our last 20 years of Counter-Insurgency, or just technology becoming more prevalent, I am unsure. It might be instructive to look at the two echelons below Battlegroup Headquarters level to see how they conduct planning.
Planning Comparison Indicative Experience v Size of Command
Above is a simple diagrammatic representation of the years of service and the professional course training that the various levels of command have. The size of command is in approximate platoon size blocks, the example shown is for Infantry. The detail of the courses is not important, but as the officer progresses through their career, they cumulatively build both experience and are also given injections of professional career development. It will be noted that at Platoon and Company level the commanders have no staff and are expected to develop their plans on their own. Of course, a Platoon Commander will bounce ideas off their Platoon Sergeant and a Company Commander may do likewise to the Company Sergeant Major or perhaps the attached Forward Observation Officer.
We should perhaps question why the Battlegroup Commander, with more experience and a commensurate, but arguably modest, increase in responsibility suddenly needs a whole load of staff to do stuff. The nature of the problems that the Battlegroup Commander deals with are just an aggregation of the problems that the Company Commanders will deal with. When an Armoured or Armoured Infantry Battlegroup Commander is conducting a quick attack (under pressure of time and possibly the enemy) they rely on their training, advice from the Battery Commander and some assessment and feeds from their ISTAR. The plan is their own and does not need a full Battlegroup staff involvement. Could they do without some of their staff?
Similarly, we should look at what the staff actually contribute to the planning process. For example, take the terrain brief that the BGE presents. I have nothing against BGEs but often it is a verbal brief of graphical information already on display and what could be gleaned from map study. Or it is statements drawn from the Staff Officers Handbook, which either most already know or, if they did not, could find out themselves. Across the staff, a great deal of time is also spent in the choreography of briefing. First the staff brief to all the members of the planning team so that the team can start planning, then they back-brief what they have found out to the other planning teams. It is very inclusive but perhaps not particularly efficient…
Often an outsider provides the best insight. When conducting some consultancy work that looked at the Strike Concept the ex-RAF chinook pilot I worked with couldn’t understand why the Battlegroup Commander suddenly left the planning process (after Question 3) and then reappeared later to see what his minions had produced. “Where is he going. Surely it’s his plan?” was his puzzled question. If you believe Montgomery and numerous Second World War commanders, commanders historically conducted the planning themselves and then the staff worked out the details.
The danger of a process where the staff are doing the thinking and plan development is that it is a staff derived plan; probably entirely workable and every cell will have contributed, but also likely to be safe and therefore be the Most Likely Course of Action from the enemy’s perspective. Battles are generally not won by committee. If the commander makes the plan, then their expertise, insight, hopefully battle-winning idea should be the significant factors that will deliver victory. Also, by being intimately involved in the planning the Battlegroup Commander will be better able to react to the changes which will inevitably happen during the execution. I also have a hunch that a smaller planning team will also produce a plan in a shorter period of time…
A Possible Four-HQ solution
Considering that we are operating in the peer-threat environment, against a very capable recce-fires complex, dispersal and redundancy must be part of the solution. The four-headquarters solution below would obviously benefit from a detailed consideration against the Defence Lines of Development but it is based on the assumption that it must exist within existing headroom and equipment scaling.
Having four headquarters provides resilience and redundancy but requires the available talent to be shared as equitably as possible. Warrant Officers and NCOs who are experts in their area should be prepared to contribute to planning and commanding as deeply as their officer counterparts.
A potential breakdown is given below:
There are five points to take into account with this Four-HQ solution:
- The planning headquarters – whichever of the four it is – must consist of sufficient expertise and experience to produce a viable Battlegroup plan.
- Should the Battlegroup Commander deploy a Tactical Headquarters ideally the personnel used should not break the other headquarters. Even better if the Tactical Headquarters is simply one of the four HQs
- We should be comfortable with headquarters not actually doing anything. HQ B might have planned and be commanding the operation whilst HQ A is resting. This actually starts to develop genuine resilience and perhaps a 24-hour capability.
- The controlling headquarters must be small enough and move frequently enough to prevent being located. It should never be co-located with the planning headquarters. If armoured vehicles are available this headquarters should command under armour and be able to move within 5 minutes.
- If armoured vehicles are available then planning should be conducted inside the protection of the vehicles. With the suggested small groups this should be possible.
Of course, there will be plenty who will resist this change, citing all manner of good reasons why it will not work. There will be challenges with vehicles, personnel and training levels but they are not insurmountable. To the naysayers, I would ask them to consider who is going to do the planning and commanding when a Battlegroup HQ in a Big Flappy Tent has been hit by enemy artillery. Although it will be uncomfortable at first, this solution provides a resilient and survivable HQ construct that can function effectively even if one HQ element is destroyed.
If you find yourself to be one of those naysayers, I hope I have prompted some reflection, thought and discussion. This is a debate which leaders at every level have part to play and should actively participate. Change can only happen when there is constructive engagement and to continue as we currently do will be to inflict the very real risk of a ‘HQ Panzer Group West’ decapitation upon a Battlegroup, rendering it useless.
If you want to read more of Des Fitzgerald’s thoughts on command, control and planning at Battlegroup level, read more of his articles here.