Regarding #Leadership: The Death of Command and Control

I commend Kurt Degerlund for writing a terrific essay and having the courage to share his views.  He has contributed to professional military discourse in a positive manner, but allow me to say, “Yes…AND.”

Degerlund is describing what the U.S. Army is calling the philosophy of mission command in its purest form.  Given what we all try to understand as the ever-changing conditions of 21st century warfare, especially at the tactical level, mission command is the leadership option of choice.  I hasten to add for me the tactical level extends from fire team to division.  I would include the corps in the tactical realm, but evidently our Army can no longer conceive of land warfare requiring multiple corps engaged under the direction of a field army or Joint Task Force.  This, however, is a subject for another missive.

General David Perkins outlined the main idea underpinning the absolute requirement for mission command, saying:

“In mission command, we balance command and control—not to ensure compliance, but to empower the initiative...Mission command is all about leadership because if you don’t have leadership, you cannot execute mission command. If you can’t conduct mission command, you can’t do unified land operations, and if you can’t do unified land operations, you probably are not going to win in a complex world.” 

Command and control are distinct components of mission command.  The need for both does not evaporate in the 21st century.  The theme though, as Degerlund correctly identifies and as Perkins highlights, is leadership.

The military now faces and will continue to face what we will call a complex world.  Responding to this complex world demands expeditionary forces.  We must train and prepare forces to task organize and deploy on short notice to austere locations.  They must be capable of conducting operations immediately upon arrival. U.S. Army forces, specifically, will conduct expeditionary maneuver as a part of a joint task force to win against capable and elusive enemies.  We describe such maneuver as the capability to “employ joint combined arms, air-ground forces quickly across multiple domains and extended distances. Expeditionary maneuver will combine military, inter-organizational, and multinational capabilities delivered from global, theater, and local resources.”  So, near the edge of chaos, what Degerlund describes as mission command becomes an absolute requirement, as military forces must completely integrate multiple partners and all elements of power they can bring to bear.

As the main U.S. service that embraces mission command, the Army defines mission command as “the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.”  Expanding the definition, the Army articulated six principles of mission command:

      Build cohesive teams through mutual trust.

      Create shared understanding.

      Provide a clear commander’s intent.

      Exercise disciplined initiative.

      Use mission orders.

      Accept prudent risk.

Degerlund calls for empowered subordinate leaders who can take decisions at the point of action.  Clearly, the U.S. Army agrees, as this concept has been a part of its doctrine since at least 2010.  The challenge, as always, remains finding the path between inaction and rash, unthinking action.  Embracing the principles of mission command and living them put the Army on this path.  Doctrine defines all the principles.  Putting them into action is the rub.  Building the required trust to act in accord with this doctrine is easy to describe, but it cannot wait until just before crossing the line of departure.  As Perkins highlights, it is all about leadership.  Leadership requires command AND control.

Many are enamored with empowering subordinate leaders to take decisions in the heat of the moment and seize opportunity by the throat.  As professionals we also must realize, as Degerlund wrote, even “at the edge of chaos” the purpose of higher-echelon leaders also requires sequencing and sustaining battles and engagements, envisioning where in time and space the next battle might take place, ensuring empowered subordinate units arrive at this place at the correct time with the correct equipment, and linking this tactical success to policy objectives.  This is no mean feat.  Even MacArthur and Eisenhower (or in honor of Degerlund’s U.S. Air Force link, Eaker and Kenney) had difficulties doing this during World War II.

So, the essentials of “control” really must be included in the practice of the art and science of mission command.

Great start friend Degerlund - and Write On, Write On.

Kevin Benson is a 30 year veteran of the US Army.  He now has the privilege of teaching at Fort Leavenworth, KS.  The author would like readers to know that the Mission Command Center of Excellence has a range of resources for unit commanders looking to enhance their abilities in the art of mission command. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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