In the aftermath of the German U-boat campaign in the First World War, many in Europe and the United States argued that submarines were immoral and should be outlawed. The British Admiralty supported this view, and as Blair has described, even offered to abolish their submarine force if other nations followed suit. While British proposals to ban submarines in 1922 and 1930 were defeated, restrictions on their use where imposed that mandated that submarines could not attack a ship until such ships crews and passengers were placed in safety. This reaction to the development of a new means of war is illustrative of the type of ethical and legal challenges that must be addressed as military organizations adopt greater human-machine integration.
Leaders in the national security community must remedy the incapacitating risk aversion which has permeated both the civilian and military ranks of the defense establishment if they are to successfully respond to the inherent uncertainty of future conflicts. Risk aversion stifles creativity, cedes the initiative to our adversaries, and presents a real, significant, and imminent threat to American national security. However, with the proper application of existing tools and an appropriate organizational comfort with uncertainty, strategic leaders can overcome the challenges posed by an increasingly complex world.
In late 1993, a reinforced Swedish-Danish-Norwegian mechanized battalion (Nordbat 2) deployed to Bosnia as part of an ongoing UN peacekeeping mission. The battalion was under Swedish command, and with the exception of a Danish tank company and a Norwegian helicopter detachment, was comprised of Swedish former conscripts, led by active-duty officers. The former conscripts had volunteered to return from civilian life to serve in a professional capacity. These Swedish troops, coming from a nation that had not experienced war for almost 200 years, faced a rigid UN bureaucracy, an unclear mandate, and the UN-imposed rules of engagement bordered on the absurd. However, the Swedes had one thing the others didn't: a culture of mission command that had grown and developed for decades.
While the rapid advance of artificial intelligence and warbots has the potential to disrupt U.S. military force structures and employment methods, they offer great promise and are worth the risk. This is especially true as the conceptual mechanisms for providing variable autonomy and direct accountability are already in place. Commanders will retain their central role in determining the level of variable autonomy given to subordinates, whether human or warbot, and will continue to be held accountable when things inevitably go wrong for either.
Mission command has some real problems. Of course, the concept sounds great, or at least General Patton seemed to think so: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” As you might expect, the US Army Command and General Staff College supports this belief, devoting hours to discussing the logic of empowering junior leaders. However...the military rarely practices this. This article attempts to answer why... there are serious risks inherent within the philosophy of mission command that cause many people to reject it, if not in word then in deed. Three of these risks are the fear of subordinates making mistakes, the discomfort of superiors feeling out of control, and the angst of leaders chancing their careers on others’ mistakes.
Synonymous with Clausewitz’s military genius, a great captain is that rare leader who stands out as a military mastermind of their time. Arguably, the United States has developed only a few great captains since Matthew Ridgway saved Korea in 1951. It is not that the nation lacks these leaders; rather, the military fails to identify and develop leaders with the virtues great captains possess. The U.S. military can and must do better to attain strategic results in the future. There are junior officers in formations today who need to become the great captains the nation needs in 2040.
While the U.S. military has dedicated acres of terrain and entire units of opposing forces to ensure a realistic experience for training units for combat, such emphasis on realism is not provided for operational command post exercises. For a headquarters that may need to conduct humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, forced entry, or any other crisis response, the prospect of a command post exercise is usually accompanied with complaints of weak scenarios, shallow exercises, and an environment which fails to adapt to the training audience or account for blue force decisions. The military has essentially sent its highest levels of command out to the field to fight pop-up targets on timers when they need to be challenged and tested by a living, thinking opponent within an adaptive environment.
It is time to drag out the old historical concepts and put them into a contemporary framework in a readable fashion. History is unbeatable in teaching lessons. The U.S. Army needs to understand the struggle the Prussian/German Army went through to introduce this superior command culture to avoid the old mistakes and repeat the successes. Only then is there a chance in the future that once American officers will face the enemy not with a superior budget, gadgets, fire power, or electronics but with a superior mind and command culture. The language of mission command is like the command culture itself: brief, uncompromising, focused, and ruthless.
Leaders must accustom themselves to the uncertain and the ambiguous. They must train themselves and their subordinates to fight equally well across the entire spectrum of conflict. They must be prepared to dominate any battlefield through decisive action at the critical point, even without the benefit of technology or constant oversight. Leaders at all levels must honestly and deliberately exercise mission command at all times or they, their units, and the mission will pay the price when it truly counts
Mission command is more than a philosophy of command. It represents a culture where mutual trust and the concomitant willingness to accept prudent risk govern. It comes with an expectation that commanders respect their subordinates’ judgment and issue orders that focus on intent rather than tasks. Mission command relies on a shared understanding (of the environment and expectations) that enables every member of the team to exercise disciplined initiative. When done well, mission command is the result of effective leadership.
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.”
Major General Cantwell’s words articulate the frustration of having to justify actions at the tactical level to those far removed from the area of operations. There are certainly important reasons for having to do this, such as the need to update higher levels of command with the progress of operations, and to explain why certain incidents have occurred. Indeed, accountability for decisions made and actions taken is an enduring feature of civil-military relations in democratic nations.
The Danger of Overconfidence in the #FutureofWar
From Operation Desert Storm to Operation Enduring Freedom, the United States Navy has enjoyed an asymmetric technological advantage over its adversaries. Uncontested command and control dominance allowed American commanders to synchronize efforts across broad theaters and deliver catastrophic effects upon the nation’s enemies. These years of uncontested command and control dominance birthed a generation of commanders who now expect accurate, timely, and actionable information. High levels of situational awareness have become the rule, not the exception. The Navy and its strike groups now stand in danger of becoming victims of their own technological success. An overreliance on highly networked command and control structures has left carrier strike groups unprepared to operate effectively against future near-peer adversaries.
An overreliance on highly networked command and control structures has left carrier strike groups unprepared to operate effectively against future near-peer adversaries.
Data-Links Are Our Achilles’ Heel
The concept of Network Centric Warfare (NCW) was birthed from the realization that integrating many of these systems would “create higher [situational] awareness,” for commanders. Forecasting the looming dependence on NCW, the now defunct Office of Force Transformation claimed, “…Forces that are networked together outfight forces that are not.” Merging vast amounts of information together into one common operating picture is the most challenging element in NCW, and tactical data-links serve as the means for accomplishing this task.
The future of strike group warfare is a concept named Naval Integrated Fire Control (NIFC). Recently NIFC was rebranded NIFC-CA, accounting for additional counter air capabilities. NIFC-CA doubles down on data-links, particularly Link-16. A January 2014 United States Naval Institute News article boasted, “Every unit within the carrier strike group — in the air, on the surface, or under water — would be networked through a series of existing and planned data-links so the carrier strike group commander has as clear a picture as possible of the battle-space.” Read Admiral Manazir, Director of Air Warfare added, “We’ll be able to show a common picture to everybody. And now the decision-maker can be in more places than before.” In spite of his enthusiasm for NIFC-CA, Rear Admiral Manazir reveals a serious problem. “We need to have that link capability that the enemy can’t find and then it can’t jam. The links are our Achilles’ heel, and they always have been. And so protection of links is one of our key attributes” (emphasis added). What Rear Admiral Manazir calls a “key attribute,” most professional military education students would instead call a critical vulnerability.
It is unfair to criticize any commander for wanting more of this informational power. But what happens when this information is threatened, degraded, or denied?
Strike group commanders now rely heavily on information shared across data-links, specifically Link-16, to build their situational awareness. This information sharing enables impressive capabilities: rapid decision-making, massing of force, and very quick after-action assessments. It is unfair to criticize any commander for wanting more of this informational power. But what happens when this information is threatened, degraded, or denied? This question is important, because despite ongoing efforts to harden tactical data-links against attack, eliminating the threat is impossible.
Today we know potential adversaries are developing cyber-space and electronic warfare capabilities to neutralize, disrupt and degrade our communications systems. The challenge is in balancing the benefits and advantages derived from using high-tech communications with the vulnerabilities inherent in becoming overly dependent upon them. — Christine Fox, Former Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense.
The message Ms. Fox delivered is clear: we must not allow a fascination with technology to stand in the way of executing basic war-fighting functions. She went on to state that Cold War-era U.S. naval forces planned to lose communication capabilities against the Soviets, then asked what has changed? Why would the Navy not share that concern about other potential adversaries?
In 2007 China successfully destroyed a satellite in orbit. In January 2014, the commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, General William Shelton, stated, “direct attack weapons, like the Chinese anti-satellite system, can destroy our space systems.” He added that the most critical targets are those satellites providing “survivable communications and missile warning.” Clearly, U.S. forces can no longer remain complacent. An enemy attack on Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites would severely affect a strike group’s ability to accomplish the most basic tasks to the most complex.
Satellite denial is not the only area for concern. Several nations are now producing aircraft, ground, and naval vessels with advanced electronic attack suites capable of contesting coveted regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. In a complex network of data and sensor sharing, each node is a contributor, and some nodes are more critical than others. In some cases, enemy electronic attack need only attack the right nodes to have debilitating effects across the entire network. China is pursuing broadband jamming and partial band interference of the Link-16 network with that objective in mind. According to Richard Fisher, an expert on China’s military with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, “…taking away Link-16 makes our defensive challenge far more difficult and makes it far more expensive in terms of casualties in any future conflict with China.”
Fortunately, past exercises and experiences serve as a guide for the future.
As Deputy Secretary Fox and General Shelton have pointed out, the threat is real. If we accept that strike group commanders have become overly reliant upon networked command and control structures, and that these networks are vulnerable to attack, then commanders must have a clearer understanding of what operational impacts can be expected. Fortunately, past exercises and experiences serve as a guide for the future.
Back to the Future
“It is widely recognized that a carrier task force cannot provide for its air defense under conditions likely to exist in combat in the Mediterranean.” — Admiral John H. Cassady, Commander-in-Chief U.S. Naval Forces, East Atlantic and Mediterranean, 1956 
In 1956, Vice Admiral Cassady recognized that the U.S. Navy’s hope for unchallenged access to operationally significant waters was in jeopardy. A series of exercises, under the name HAYSTACK, demonstrated how effectively Soviet forces could use electronic emissions and direction finding equipment to find and fix American aircraft carriers. As a result, HAYSTACK gave rise to emission control. Initially, strike groups operating under strict emission control conditions struggled to command and control dispersed forces throughout their areas of responsibility.
Faced with greatly diminished electronic command and control capabilities , commanders developed creative and exceedingly “low tech” solutions. American sailors relearned the art of semaphore and visual Morse code. Helicopters developed methods for airdropping buoys containing written messages alongside friendly vessels.
For the remainder of the Cold War, carrier strike groups routinely practiced emission control operations, and commanders took considerable pride in their ability to make an aircraft carrier seemingly disappear. In 1986, the RANGER participated in the multinational RIMPAC exercise. Despite the opposing forces’ best efforts to locate it, RANGER went undetected for nearly fourteen days while in transit from California to Hawaii. Making this all the more impressive was the fact that RANGER continued flight operations during the transit.
The similarities between preemptive emission control and anticipated command and control warfare environments are undeniable.
Emission control training continued through the 20th century, though with less sense of urgency after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, carrier strike groups may practice emission control operations once or twice during a work-up cycle. These events are often heavily scripted and rarely involve night flight operations. Carrier air wings undergoing graduate level training at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center only recently began training in a limited GPS and Link-16 degraded environment. Anecdotal feedback from pilots who have participated in these events alludes to significant challenges.
The similarities between preemptive emission control and anticipated command and control warfare environments are undeniable. With small modifications HAYSTACK provides strike group commanders with a solid starting point if they wish to better prepare their sailors for future wars.
Recommendations and Conclusion
“Confidence is contagious; so is overconfidence….” — Vince Lombardi
We must not assume that future conflicts will be fought against adversaries who are incapable of challenging American technological advantages. China has demonstrated the ability to destroy satellites in orbit, and they are actively pursuing electronic attack capabilities to neutralize Link-16. These facts must be understood and accepted by commanders who have dismissed the concept of command by negation while at the same time failing to demand realistic training.
Effective command by negation demands a lucid expression of commander’s intent. Commander’s intent should focus on macro level issues and answer two questions: What is the desired end state? What will success look like? Commander’s intent should not try to answer specific questions of weapons employment and target selection. Subordinates should be empowered and encouraged to use individual initiative towards achieving the stated objective. If strike group commanders and their staffs can relearn the art of operational design, and focus those efforts towards developing effective statements of intent, their forces stand a greater chance of success in a world without Predator feeds, Link-16, satellite communications, Internet Relay Chat, and e-mail. Failure to pursue this goal will only serve to maintain the status quo, which is to say deploying forces will remain unprepared to counter command and control warfare.
If the U.S. believes it remains the preeminent military force in the world, then why wouldn’t its forces train against realistic command and control warfare capabilities, assuming the implied result would be increased competence?
Additionally, strike group commanders must demand realistic training that mimics a command and control warfare environment. It is not enough to conduct emission control exercises once or twice during pre-deployment training. Afloat training groups should own this training requirement and place greater emphasis on it during strike group training in their Composite Training Unit Exercise and Joint Task Force Exercise. The Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center should consider increasing the frequency and complexity of the degraded environment training it provides to carrier air wings. Individual units must be encouraged to conduct local training sorties without the aid of data-links and secure communications. Focusing on our own capabilities and how we intend to counter command and control warfare will add a layer of complexity, and therefore value, to these training exercises. If the U.S. believes it remains the preeminent military force in the world, then why wouldn’t its forces train against realistic command and control warfare capabilities, assuming the implied result would be increased competence? Ultimately, the units charged with preparing strike groups for deployment will respond to demands from operational commanders. If strike group commanders recognize their unpreparedness and demand a solution, time, money, and resources will be allocated appropriately.
While much of the #FutureOfWar discussion has centered on technological developments and innovation, we should consider whether or not this infatuation has led us down a dangerous path. Have we become so enthralled and dependent upon what is undeniably a critical vulnerability to the extent of rendering us ineffective in its absence? This is an important question to ask because, arguably, the winner of future wars will not simply be the side with the most advanced weapon systems, but likely the side who can deftly shift “back in time.”
Jack Curtis is a graduate of the University of Florida and the Naval War College. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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 “Our technological advantage is a key to America’s military dominance.” President Barack Obama, May 2009.
 Network-Centric Warfare — Its Origins and Future. Cebrowski and Gartska, 1998.
 The Implementation of Network-Centric Warfare Brochure. 2005.
 “Inside the Navy’s Next Air War.” USNI News. Majumdar and LaGrone, January 2014.
 Transcript of speech delivered April 7, 2014.
 “General: Strategic Military Satellites Vulnerable to Attack in Future Space War.” The Washington Free Beacon. Bill Gertz. 2014.
 Chinese Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation publication, quoted in Gertz.
 Fisher, quoted in Gertz, “Chinese Military Capable of Jamming U.S. Communications System.” The Washington Free Bacon. 2013.
 Quoted in Hiding in Plain Sight, The U.S. Navy and Dispersed Operations Under EMCON, 1956–1972. Angevine. 2011.
 These diminished C2 capabilities mimic what should be expected during modern command and control warfare.
 Angevine, p. 11.
 How to Make an Aircraft Carrier Vanish. Associated Press. Norman Black. 1986.
 An F/A-18 pilot described the effects as “crushing” during an interview with this author.
 “Manage Uncertainty With Commander’s Intent.” Harvard Business Review. Chad Storlie. 2010.
 Composite Training Unit Exercise and Joint Task Force Exercise are the final two training events for a strike group.
 The United States Air Force is ahead of the Navy in this pursuit. See “Pilot Shuts Off GPS, Other Tools to Train for Future Wars.” Air Force Times. Brian Everstine. 2013.
As Mission Command becomes truly institutionalized, other problems such as recruiting and training will also be aligned with it. The personnel system will also have to finally evolve to support a culture that embodies Mission Command. The culture will become one that rewards leaders and soldiers who act, and penalizes those who do not. Today’s culture needs to evolve so that the greater burden rests on all superior officers, who have to nurture—teach, trust, support and correct—the student who now enters the force with the ability to adapt from the day they are accessed until they leave the service. Otherwise, Mission Command will only remain a pipe dream, a hope from the past and meaningless words plastered all over power point presentations and one page in doctrine manuals.
To create decisiveness in leaders—and to increase tempo—the Army should decrease leaders’ reliance on thick doctrinal manual, reinforced by top-down demands for every detail, through training that remains out of touch with the latest progression in learning. It cannot rely on checklists or computer-generated orders to put in place the mind and voice of an experienced, imaginative commander. The importance of a calm commander talking to his subordinates cannot be stressed enough. A mutual understanding will come from well-written yet brief doctrinal manuals, enhanced with the use of radios and other digital technology. So-called secure radios with inexperienced officers at both ends resemble talk radio shows. The computer cannot replace essential voice communications, while technology cannot replace the well developed and prepared mind.
The U.S. Army currently tries to introduce the German command philosophy of Auftragstaktik — Mission Command — but still fails to understand the essentials of that system. One of them is empowered subordinates whose opinion is valued and who do not have to fear repercussions if they voice criticism against their superiors. The Prussian/German army struggled for 30 years with the introduction of this superior command philosophy and the U.S. Army seems to be determined to make every single mistake the Prussian army made and add some of their own.