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How the Germans Defined Auftragstaktik: What Mission Command is - AND - is Not

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How the Germans Defined Auftragstaktik[i]: What Mission Command is - AND - is Not

Donald E. Vandergriff

In general, one does well to order no more than is absolutely necessary and to avoid planning beyond the situation one can foresee. These change very rapidly in war. Seldom will orders that anticipate far in advance and in detail succeed completely to execution.

The higher the authority, the shorter and more general will the orders be. The next lower command adds what further precision appears necessary. The detail of execution is left to the verbal order, to the command. Each thereby retains freedom of action and decision within his authority.

-- Helmut Karl Bernhard von Moltke, Instructions for Large Unit Commanders (1869)[ii]

Auftragstaktik or Mission Command,

Is not a Command and Control doctrine.

It is not a Command and Control system.

It is not a technology.

It is not a ticket to a “free for all.”

It is not a way to write short or no orders or to rely on verbal orders.

Auftragstaktik is a cultural philosophy. It is the highest form of military professionalism. The overall commander’s intent is for the member to strive for professionalism, in return, the individual will be given latitude in the accomplishment of their given missions.  Strenuous, but proven and defensible standards will be used to identify those few capable of serving in the profession of arms.  Once an individual has been accepted into the profession, a special bond forms with their comrades, which enables team work and the solving of complex tasks. This kind of command culture cannot be comprehensively conveyed in a sole block of official instruction. Instead, Mission Command must be integrated into all education and training from the very beginning of basic training. Even more importantly, it must be integrated into all aspects of so-called “garrison” life, in everything the military does.

Yet the ultimate command culture—because it empowers by trust the individual to best solve problems after extensive professional development—did not come into official being until the publication of the German 1888 Drill Regulations.[iii] The reform process that led to the first formal adoption of Mission Command by an armed force began with Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst, (1755—1813) in the early 1800s and was taken up by August von Gneisenau (1760–1831) after his mentor’s untimely death in 1813, and later Leopold Hermann Ludwig von Boyen (1771–1848).[iv] This continued after decades of professional debate, implementation in officer development, and real-world application in three wars: the Danish-Prussian War of 1864, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.[v]

In parallel, the U.S. Army has some great examples of similar command climates and approaches. As an institution, the U.S. Army has yet to see Mission Command as what it really is - a culture of professionalism.  All too often, we have sought tangible metrics at the expense of holistic understanding. As a great practitioner, LTC Chad R. Foster says,

The intent behind changing the terminology was to get away from viewing the application of command merely in terms of technical systems and tasks. As usual, we seem to be missing the mark—Mission Command as we SAY we want it to be is a cultural concept, and one that can't be quantified in an easy metric. It also can't be standardized, at least not in the sense of specific step-by-step processes (our institutional favorite, of course).[vi]

Since the 1870s, when General Philip Sheridan and Lieutenant Colonel Emory Upton were sent by the U.S. Army to study the Prussian military system and other international militaries, we have failed to understand and apply the meaning of Auftragstaktik to our own organizational cultures.  The U.S. Army like many other nations, copied the verbiage of Auftragstaktik verbatim, but failed to operationalize the concept. The same holds true today. The U.S. Army has always conflated Mission Command with bureaucratic efficiency, stemming from a time when the theories of Max Weber were emerging in Europe and the United States. As Muth writes,

Auftragstaktik. The word sounds cool even when mangled by an American tongue. What it means, however, has always been elusive to Americans. The problematic translation of that core German military word into 'mission type orders' completely distorts its meaning. Auftragstaktik does not denote a certain style of giving orders or a certain way of phrasing them; it is a whole command philosophy.[vii]

German officers who served in U.S. Army schools and observed the U.S. at war, sometimes tried to explain their command culture to their American counterparts. Captain Adolf von Schell, an exchange officer to the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia in the 1930s, translated Auftragstaktik into mission tactics:

In the German Army we use what we term “mission tactics”; orders are not written out in the minutest detail, a mission is merely given to a commander. How it shall be carried out is his problem. This is done because the commander on the ground is the only one who can correctly judge existing conditions and take proper action if a change occurs in the situation.[viii]

Although it has been translated into English in several different ways, it is difficult to understand unless one strenuously researches the origins of the concept. That research shows that the Prussian/German concept is interesting for two reasons.

First, it explains how the Germans believed they could operate mentally faster than their enemies. The Germans mean “faster” not just in terms of raw, physical speed, but “faster” in terms of making better decisions. Timely and better decisions results in better physical speed relative to the enemy. The German armed forces accomplished this with a progressive and innovative approach to leader development. Technology was only viewed in terms of enhancing their leader’s abilities make more effective decisions.[ix]

Secondly and more importantly, it defines what kind of officers and soldiers a military needs in order to operate successfully under this concept. This is key to understanding what kind of culture a military force must cultivate in order to be successful.

U.S. historians have long explained away German victories in the early years of World War II with tales of superior German equipment and numbers. Nothing could be further from the truth. As prominent historian Dr. James Corum explains in the introduction of Condell and Zabecki’s book On the German Art of War: Truppenführung:

For years after the 1940 campaign the German victory was explained by Germany’s employment of masses of tanks, motorized forces and aircraft against an enemy bound to the Maginot Line and a defensive strategy. However, we know now that in terms of numbers of troops and weapons, the Wehrmacht in 1940 held few advantages. Indeed, it was often at a disadvantage against the Allied forces.[x]

Dr. James Corum dismissed the Western or Industrial-age tactical principle that an attacking force must have a force ratio advantage of 3:1 to defeat an enemy in a prepared defensive position. He explains the German success in terms of the intangibles of leadership and good ideas, rather than raw numbers of men and material. What counted more was how the Germans developed and nurtured leadership. It was not the content of their training courses, but the environment in which leadership was taught and developed. This is a foreign concept to the U.S. Military, which prefers to focus on content, time, and inputs, rather than outcomes or results. To effectively practice Auftragstaktik a military force must incorporate these ideas every day in everything they do, in war and in peace.[xi]

Auftragstaktik is a, broad concept...embracing aspects of...a theory of the nature of war, character and leadership traits, tactics, command and control, senior subordinate relationships, and training and education. It...[is] a comprehensive approach to warfighting.

The common translation of Auftragstaktik as “mission-type orders” or as “mission command” can be misleading. This focuses attention on the mission statement of the U.S. Operations Order. A true understanding of Auftragstaktik would focus attention on Paragraphs 3a (Concept of the Operation) and 3b (Coordinating Instructions).[xii]

Auftragstaktik emphasizes commander’s intent, which provides subordinates a framework for making their own decisions in harmony with the overall plan: “The German Army used mission statements...in the form of the commander’s intent...The commander then assigned tasks (Aufträge) to subordinate units to carry out his superior’s intent. The subordinate commander decided upon a specific course of action which became his resolution (Entschluss).”[xiii]

Auftragstaktik “explains basic principles of giving orders for operations.”

Fostering this kind of individual initiative was the guiding principle of German military education. In short, officers were taught how to think, not what to think. Generals Hermann Balck, and von Mellenthin, during discussions with Col. John Boyd and Pierre Sprey in 1979, said they “considered the individuality of the German fighting man—his freedom to take initiative and the system which engendered these policies and attributes—to be the key to superlative German performance.”[xiv]

In the German Army culture, a commander rarely, if ever, reproached a subordinate for showing initiative. This is where the term Selbständichkeit (to change an order) is important. According to military historian and author Dr. Rob Citino, this was the term that the Germans used, while Auftragstaktik was hardly discussed, if at all. The culture of Auftragstaktik created the conditions for adaptability, while with Selbständichkeit a leader could change their order based on the circumstances of the moment guided by the higher commander’s intent. They believed it was better to make a good decision immediately than to wait and make a better decision later, possibly missing a fleeting battlefield opportunity.[xv] An unforgivable mistake in such a culture is one of inaction. Waiting for perfect information before making any decision was not tolerated. This attitude extended down through the ranks, to the individual soldier. As Dr. Bruce I. Gudmundsson has written, the German Army was, since the days of Frederick the Great, one of “the most decentralized ones in Europe.”[xvi]

In situations where contact with the higher commander was lost, subordinates could be trusted to take the action he thought appropriate, rather than stopping and waiting until contact could be re-established. This aggressive attitude allowed units to take advantage of fleeting opportunities and local successes. In short, “... nothing laid down from above in advance is sacrosanct. A subordinate commander ... is justified ... in modifying or even changing the task assigned him” as long as his action supports the higher commander’s intent.[xvii]

The core of the success of Auftragstaktik was the strenuous selection and development of German leaders. There were three personal qualities the Germans clearly valued in their officers: knowledge, independence, and the joy of taking responsibility. Knowledge served at least two purposes. First of all, knowledge was what made the officer know what to do, a foundation for making a decision.  At the same time, it generated trust among your subordinates. Independence was related to decision making. Independence matters as an officer may be the only one present with the authority to make a decision at a given time. One cannot always wait for others to tell you what to do and when to do it. The last and the most important personal quality was the joy of taking responsibility. The joy of taking responsibility was what kept you on the battlefield. “It was what forced you to stay despite the horrors you were experiencing. It was what made you endure.”[xviii]

The best way to separate the great from the average is to hold everyone—from the top commander down to each individual soldier—responsible for their actions. Not only are you responsible for their own units but for “service to the people.” This leads to the introduction of the term Verantwortungsfreudigkeit.[xix] The 1921 manual of Führung und Gefecht der Verbundenen Waffen in 1921-23, says that “the most distinguished leaders’ quality is the joy of taking responsibility.” German doctrine used this term as early as World War I, but it is emphasized in the 1933 Truppenführung.

Truppenführung delves thoroughly into the concept by stating that “all leaders must in all situations without fearing responsibility exert his whole personality. The joy of taking responsibility is the most distinguished leadership quality.” This clearly states how important the Germans viewed responsibility. They strove to cultivate officers who not only accepted responsibility, but actually thrived and excelled in situations where great responsibility was suddenly thrust upon them.[xx]

Why is it important for an officer to enjoy responsibility? Independence equips an officer to handle uncertainty and make good decisions in the absence of direction. When faced with the horrors of the battlefield, an officer needs more than just independence to reach his or her potential. When everything is difficult and everyone around him seems to have given up, that is when the feeling of responsibility kicks in. It is the feeling that no one else can determine the outcome of the engagement, when one must face the “emptiness of the battlefield.”[xxi] This is why “Verantwortungsfreudigkeit” is what makes the officer “endure the situation” on the battlefield and is the most important quality for a leader.[xxii]

One may note that there is no discussion of a single individual in this examination of Mission Command. I do not write about leadership with discussions of a George Patton or Ulysses Grant. Individual personalities do not play a major role in Auftragstaktik. The Germans were able to teach it to a great many officers and NCOs. They discovered a way to make it stick as their culture. The culture matters more than the individual personalities involved.

End Notes

[i] Thanks to my wife Lorraine Vandergriff for assisting me with the translation of German documents.

[ii] Helmut Karl Bernhard von Moltke, “Aus den Verordnungen fur die hoheren Truppenfuhrer vom 24. Juni 1869,” in Moltkes Militarische Werke, Zweiter Theil, Die Tatigkeit als Chef des Generalstabs im Frieden, Preubischer Generalstab, (Berlin, Germany: Ernst Siegfried Mittler und Sohn, 1900), 178.

[iii] Preubisches Kriegsministerium, Exerzir-Regelement fur die Infanterie (signed 1888), (Berlin, Germany: Ernst Siegfried Mittler und Sohn, 1889), 109.

[iv] Gordon A. Craig, The Politics of the Prussian Army 1640-1945, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), chapters 2-4.

[v] Robert M. Citino, The German Way of War, From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich, (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005), 116-117.

[vi] Lieutenant Colonel Chad Foster USA, e-mail message to author, April 27, 2015.

[vii] Jörg Muth, “An elusive command philosophy and a different command culture,” Foreign Policy, September 9, 2011.

[viii]Adolf Von Schell, Battle Leadership, (Quantico, VA: The Marine Corps Association, 1988), 17.

[ix] Ola, Kjoerstad, German Officer Education in the Interwar Years, (Glasgow, Scotland: University of Glasgow, 2010), 2-5. (Hereinafter Germen Officer Education)

[x]James S. Corum, Condell, Zabecki (eds), On the German Art of War, Truppenführung, (Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001), ix.

[xi] Several books on the subject, as well as even US Doctrine allude to this fact, but very few seem to grasp the significance of it, because so few practice it in times of “peace”.

[xii] Richard E. Simpkin, Race to the Swift: Thoughts on Twenty-First Century Warfare, (London: Brassey’s Defense Publishers, 1985), 18.

[xiii] John T. Nelson II, “Auftragstaktik: A Case for Decentralized Battle,” Parameters, Carlisle, PA: US War College, September 1987, p. 21.

[xiv] Pierre Sprey and Franklin C. Spinney, personnel communication with author, December 4, 2007.

[xv] Dr. Rob Citino, lecture, "Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942" The USAHEC. ... The German Army in 1943" by Dr. Robert Citino. Assessed 13 DEC 16. Also based on many discussions with Palle Rasmussen, Danish teacher, also assessed on 17 DEC 17 at http://vikingekamp.blogspot.com/. This is from a lecture that Palle gives on Auftragstaktik.

[xvi] Bruce I. Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army 1914-1918, Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995, p. 18

[xvii] Richard E. Simpkin, “Command from the Bottom,” Infantry, (Vol. 75, No. 2, March-April 1985), 34.

[xviii] H. Dv. 487 Führung und Gefecht der verbundenen Waffen (F.u.G.), Neudruck der Ausgabe 1921-1924 in 3 teilen, Osnabrück, Biblio Verlag, 1994.

[xix] H.Dv. 300/1 Truppenführung, p. 3.

[xx] Quote is from Ola Kjoerstad, “German Officer Education”, and p. 67. Also see, Oberleutnant Hauck, “Wissen und Können”, MW 1927, no 38, column 1395.

[xxi] German Officer Education, pp. 64-69.

[xxii] Major General von Haeften,”Heerführung im Weltkriege” MW 1920, no 18, column 389.

Categories: mission command

About the Author(s)

Donald E. Vandergriff, United States Army (Ret.), is a teacher, writer and lecturer who specializes in military leadership education and training. Vandergriff served with the United States Marine Corps and United States Army. He retired after 24 years of service. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Tennessee and a Master’s degree in military history from American Military University. He was the first major from the Army to lecture at the Naval War College. He is a frequently published authority on the U.S. Army personnel system, Army culture, leadership development, soldier training, and the emergence of Fourth Generation Warfare.  He has authored many articles and briefings, as well as four books.