Command and Control is Alive and Well

#Response to The Death of Command and Control by Kurt Degerlund

Kurt Degerlund’s thought-provoking article points to the forces at play as military leaders seek to direct and influence others to achieve objectives. He hits upon a key fact - words have meaning and power.[1] But rather than words and concepts being used or re-used in a manner that constrains us, we could instead embrace a world where words remain useful if we decide to change their meaning.

Kurt and others rightly point out that the term ‘command and control’ can bring about notions of power, centralization, and an over-focus on a supreme commander. If those notions are not useful, then they should be dropped. That does not mean command and control is not a useful term or construct.

What do we mean by command? I would suggest it is what a person in a position of authority and responsibility does to create focus - getting all the parts of an organisation to come together in an effective manner to achieve a goal or to achieve an effect. Control, on the other hand, is about convergence - keeping the activity of myriad of moving parts aligned. These are pretty timeless, if ripe for more expert descriptions than mine.

What McChrystal and Boyd offer, as the two examples Kurt uses, are approaches to command and control, not a refutation of it. There have been many approaches and there will be many more. They will be shaped by the thoughts of commanders and thinkers as they react to and ever-changing operational environment: a mixture of location, tasks and constraints, resources, and the enemy. On top of this, a commander will need to adapt their approach to their own forces. Boyd reacted to the abilities of highly skilled pilots facing a new aircraft threat; McChrystal to using highly skilled SOF and intelligence operatives against networks of covert militants. A highly directive and centralised approach to either might be valid if like the Soviets you commanded a large but conscript-based force. Such a chosen approach might well become valid again in the future if the context requires it.

So how do we assess if an approach is valid? Surely all that matters is that the approach used is successful. General Bill Slim is said to have asserted that the only true test of generalship is success.[2] Success is not the same as victory. Rather, success is meeting your objectives within the parameters of time, space, resources and constraints placed upon you. The latter part might become increasingly important. General McChrystal would not have been successful if he had led a disruption of terrorist networks that took 20 years, with high US and Iraqi civilian casualties and which used methods that were politically and legally unacceptable. A different view is that a successful general is someone who can weld all three components of fighting power together.[3] Some German commanders in World War II might be assessed as successful, despite the fact that they spend three years on the Eastern Front steadily retreating.

So I would offer that command and control is alive and well, but to remain so it must meet the need to be successful and at least effective. However, the approach used to the command and control of military forces really matters, and we must not be afraid to junk what does not work just because that is what we grew up with. Words always have history but they only have power if we let them.

Steve Cornell is an officer in the British Army.  The personal views expressed here are not representative of any other person or organisation.

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[1] Degerlund, Kurt, ‘#Leadership: The Death of Command and Control’, The Strategy Bridge, 30 March 2016

[2] Lyman, Robert. The Generals: From Defeat to Victory, Leadership in Asian 1941-45. London: Constable, 2008, 334.

[3] Sheffield, G. D. and Geoffrey Till. The Challenges of High Command: The British Experience. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003., 108.