Mission Command: Tell the King That After the Battle My Head Belongs to Him. During the Battle I Still Need It to Serve Him

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The title of this commentary is the response of the Prussian cavalry general Frederick William von Seydlitz when he was corrected by King Frederick II on the way he performed in battle. His answer became the origin of the concept of Auftragstaktik or ‘Mission Command’, as is commonly known.

It is a concept of conducting operations whereby the chief in command designs a mission, but leaves the method and process at the criteria and decision of the officers on the battleground. When in my previous essay I referred to the process of transformation of the Prussian Army, I underlined that one of the elements that turned that army into a formidable adversary was the creation of the military Staffs, an innovation that came to soften the aggression and independence shown by Prussian unit commanders in their actions. It was a formula - intellect and aggression - which represented a turning point for Prussian Armed Forces.

The implementation of ‘Mission Command’ represents a real change of philosophy that not only represents the highest form of military efficiency, but also a true transformation in the way Armed Forces were organized. Nowadays it is still a concept in many cases unclear, meaning so many things that it may ultimately end up being a meaningless concept.

It should not be understood as a doctrinal approach to the leadership of organizations, nor as a kind of command and control, nor as an approach to the management of the technological revolution that society is facing, nor as a carte blanche to act freely. It should rather be a cultural philosophy of the organization as a whole, and applicable to all its related activities. The organizational culture is, indeed, much more relevant to successfully carry out a process of transformation, than the people involved in its development.

Nevertheless, and despite the years since this concept was articulated, it has only been partially implemented in other armies, possibly because of the difficulty to manage such a deep and wide-ranging cultural change.

The German success regarding its application was also based on the selection of its leaders at all levels of the organization. Leaders who enjoyed three common characteristics: a solid doctrinal knowledge, an independent character, and a tendency to assume responsibility in decision-making. An organizational culture executed by men of action who encouraged the making of good and timely decisions rather than better, but untimely decisions.

However, and despite the appeal of the concept, its implementation is not all that easy. The US historian Robert M. Citino declared that the Wehrmacht put an end to the old style of command because it had ceased to correspond with up-to-date realities. A group of armies is a national asset which is too valuable to be entrusted to the whims of just one person.

Therefore, he continued, it becomes very difficult for a modern army to claim the concept of ‘Mission Command’ as the basis for its command system. It is evident that the contemporary configuration of Western armies, with their interaction of weapon systems and extremely complex communications technologies, offers little opportunity for independence from the commanders. ‘How much conceptual space for a truly independent command can there be in the, ever more frequent, joint operations?’ asks himself the above-mentioned author.

War is an art and there are no exclusive ways to face it. Each specific situation requires a specific strategic approach, which includes the understanding of the political-strategic environment, and the changing dynamics between the different actors concerned, away from encapsulated or aprioristic opinions.

The concept of ‘Mission Command’ has been praised by many armies after World War II and represents a way of planning and conducting operations that permits adaptation to the changing environment. However, its implementation has been incomplete. Perhaps the main reason is the risk assumed by commanders if their organizations fail to achieve an assigned mission.

Leadership, at military level, has been identified many times with the pride of military officers when they say that the leaders are responsible for everything that happens - or does not happen - in their unit. However, this responsibility has a decisive effect on the application of this concept which should nevertheless be recognized.

To effectively implement it, three requirements are required by the commanders: first, it should be fully understood that the courage, tenacity and belligerence required in combat can be easily transformed into recklessness; on the other hand, lack of control can create the perception of chaos; and, finally, it is necessary to assume that submitting the initiative to subordinate commands is always a risk.

Furthermore, when comparing the degree of its application in different countries and units, one can see that this implementation is influenced by aspects such as national values, traditions and culture; nuclear elements in the culture of organizations.

This difficulty, which involves changes in the culture of organizations, provides an argument that would explain why such a revolutionary concept has been more commented than applied. This consideration reminds us of the need to adapt certain concepts, which have been successful in other countries with different national cultures, to one's own cultural identity.

Samuel Morales is Lieutenant Colonel of the Spanish Marine Corps