Command for the Mission: Understanding Mission Command
If there are two words guaranteed to generate an emotional response in professional Army officers – young and old, junior and senior – it is ‘Mission Command’. Who has not heard these statements?
- We – subordinate commands – don’t have enough of it;
- They – the higher headquarters – don’t give it;
- We – Army – don’t practice it; and
- why won’t they – commanders – just let us – hard working subordinate – get on with it – what ever the task is the subordinate is sure they can do better with less interference.
I have had times when I did not believe mission command was applied effectively, and in hindsight, there have been times when I should have practiced it better myself. However, quite often the complaints concerning a lack of mission command stem from a failure to understand what mission command should be, as opposed to what we think it is. Mission Command is exactly as the phrase implies – command for the mission at hand. To understand this, let’s step away from our doctrine and understand the concept’s context, by tracing where the term came from: Auftragstaktik.
Since William Lind’s book Maneuver Warfare Handbook, Auftragstaktik – translated as ‘mission-type orders’ – has been one of the great pillars of manoeuvre warfare. As the argument goes, the only way to achieve faster decision-making is to exploit opportunities. Therefore, says Lind, “…in order to exploit opportunities and the initiative of subordinates, the commander should confine …[himself] to explaining the mission and his intent regarding the enemy”. Obvious! So, to provide the greatest freedom of action to subordinates, we should limit our orders to be intent based only – none of this detailed orders stuff. That’s what the Germans did it in the Second World War, and they were tactically better than the Allies. Right?
Those who advocate mission command as being purely where a superior assigns ‘…a subordinate commander a mission without specifying how the mission is to be achieved’, often cite the Germans as the quintessential ‘mission commanders’- Germans like Colonel-General Heinz Guderian and Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rommel, but is this how he employed Auftragstaktik?
Our modern definition narrows the focus and limits understanding of the true philosophy of Auftragstaktik. Rommel often positioned himself forward with his main-effort. He did this to influence, and if needed take direct command of, the action. Why? Well to quote Rommel; “…it is a mistake to assume that every unit officer will make all that there is to be made out of his situation”. Doesn’t sound very ‘free’ for the Unit Commander! Guderian spent significant time at the front. In fact, during the first four days of Operation Barbarossa, he remained with the commander of his leading division. Was this micro-management? or just ensuring re-direction could be given when needed? Guderian suggests the later.
So, what do these examples tell us on the real concept that is Auftragstaktik? It was a philosophy underpinned by education, trust, mentoring and varying one’s leadership style “…based on group maturity, …telling immature subordinates and delegating to more mature individuals and groups.” Therefore, a deeper consideration of the meaning and historical application of Auftragstaktik highlights what our doctrine does not: it is about subordinate maturity, the education provided by the superior prior to operations, and the criticality of the task to the superior’s plan – or in the case of our current context: the political aspect of war. In effect, the philosophy
…did not lessen the need for commanders to control their subordinates. …[Commanders] would intervene when subordinates were doing something clearly unsound. They would add or delete assigned tasks, or change their intent, as they saw fit. In short, they supervised and controlled …Subordinates, on the other hand, made every effort to maintain contact with their commander and to keep him fully informed of the situation. [author’s bold]
Therefore, under Auftragstaktik, it was sometimes necessary for superiors to give detailed orders or take direct command. Other times it was not. In effect the mission’s criticality, and subordinate’s maturity and education dictated the type of command applied. Remember, the German commanders we often cite had been working with their subordinates for months, if not years, before and during the War. They had been educated together, trained together and fought together. Compare Rommel’s style at the start and end of the African Campaign with his key subordinates. These people knew each other, and yet Rommel would still direct and overrule a subordinate if he believed it necessary.
There are times when all of us – commanders at all levels – could give more guidance and intent to subordinates rather than direction. However, let’s not have our doctrine confuse mission command with a thin slice of romanticised German history. Mission command is ‘command relevant to the mission’. That means using both directive and directed control. More importantly, it means that the superior should educate and explain to the subordinate Who, What, Where, When and – more importantly – Why they have issued the orders in the manner they have.
 Quote from: G.F. Kerr, 'An Evaluation of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel,' Yolla June(2002). 101 – no electronic reference
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.