Overkill: Army Mission Command Systems Inhibit Mission Command

Overkill: Army Mission Command Systems Inhibit Mission Command
John Bolton

What I've found over many years, in many different organizations is, if you take good people and good ideas and match them with bad processes, the bad processes will win 9 out of 10 times.[1]

-- Secretary (GEN) James Mattis

The Army has made enormous strides in recent years to facilitate professional dialogue under the auspices of Army University, the Army Press, and improvement of branch journals. The most important of these changes is the doctrinal adoption of Army Mission Command philosophy. While Mission Command in many ways codifies the obvious, including it in doctrine makes the change official. Fully implementing Mission Command, however, requires more than a veneer of leader training and superficial emphasis on decentralization. [2] Mission Command will fail if not fully embraced and understood.[3] Education can only partly address this problem as the systems used by Soldiers implicitly affects their actions. The Army should examine how our Command and Control systems affect Mission Command; do our systems help foster a climate of subordinate initiative and collaboration, or do they encourage top-down micromanagement?

As currently utilized, our digital, data-intensive systems create a seamless, but fictional Common Operational Picture (COP), at the cost of substantial time and resources. The fog and friction of war cannot be eliminated, proposing otherwise is fallacy.[4] Consequently, Army Mission Command Systems (MCS) actually inhibit the practice of Mission Command. These systems present themselves as tools to enhance situational awareness, but often produce the opposite: a false picture that acutely inhibits subordinate initiative as we fixate on systems rather than operations all at the expense of time, effort, and large command posts (CPs). Fixing MCS can enable Mission Command across the force.

This paper identifies issues related to digital MCS using examples from a recent Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) rotation and proposes that legacy (analog) techniques are not only simpler, but more effective while also more supportive to Army efforts to inculcate Mission Command. If the Army seeks to truly implement Mission Command as its bedrock framework of leader development and operations, it must design complementary MCS.

Tactical MCS (brigade and below) fall into two broad categories: Upper and Lower Tactical Internet (UTI/LTI). UTI systems consist of satellite uplinks and servers supporting Command Post of the Future (CPOF), SharePoint Portal, Ventrillo voice communications, and Transverse chat.[5] UTI also facilitates linkages between the Tactical Airspace Integration System (TAIS), Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS), and the Distributed Common Ground System–Army (DCGS-A). Though powerful communication and collaboration tools when functional, integrating and utilizing UTI systems requires substantial user training and back shop support. This support includes server management, power generation, and air conditioning. Absent fixed-infrastructure, these linkages are not necessarily reliable in the field, especially during poor weather.

LTI refers to two primary systems: FM/HF/TACSAT radio networks and the Next-Generation FBCB2 Joint Capability Release (JCR). These systems are robust, ruggedized, and relatively simple. Despite using GPS coordinates and satellite network, JCR requires minimal training due to its simplicity. Radios remain the backbone of tactical communications though they are relatively slower and prone to net congestion.

A Solider utilizes JCR inside a tactical vehicle.[6]

Functionality

MCS have two goals: developing a common operating picture (COP) across echelons and enabling dissemination of information and orders. MCS should also support CP functions such as controlling and assessing operations, knowledge management, and supporting the commander’s decision-making process.[7] While UTI MCS may have some of these particular functions they are often non-functional in practice due to interoperability issues, dearth of training, and the requirements of the UTI network.

CPOF is the best example of problems with UTI systems. CPOF emerged during largely fixed-base operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite over 12 years of refinement, CPOF remains obtuse. To Soldiers accustomed to innately functionality of tablets and phones, CPOF's interface remains largely alien due to its Unix roots. Moreover, its utility is limited; due to incompatibility with other systems like JCR. Orders typed on Microsoft Word cannot be directly disseminated by either CPOF (requires copy and pasting) or JCR (requires a special USB drive); CPOF also does not interact with AFTADS or TAIS. CPOF’s utility as a briefing tool is limited; though it has the “spotlight” tool, latency often negates any detail while the briefing products must remain separate. No matter the scaling, CPOF maps tend to become cluttered when combining graphics. Additionally, unlike a one-page CONOP, CPOF graphics do not easily reduce to a portable or easily transmittable version. The best feature of CPOF is that newer releases utilize Windows, meaning the computer can be used for other applications.

Problems at CTCs:

"I could take these [review] slides and show them to any unit in the Army, only modifying some minor details."

-- JRTC Observer-Controller/Trainer 

A consistent issue faced by units conducting training rotations at the Combat Training Centers (CTCs) is Mission Command transitions.[8] While transitions are inherently difficult, digital MCS exacerbate the challenge. Because they are so convenient, units fail to back up the digital COP with analog system, creating major issues when dislocating. Without the digital system units are routinely unable to conduct Mission Command on the move. This creates intense friction during brigade-level movements when each CP is at a different state of readiness. Moreover, a digital COPs leads us down a dangerous road toward assuming we have complete situational awareness, something unachievable.[9]

During CTC rotations units struggle with prescribed CPOF usage because most do not use CPOF at home-station. But units remain untrained because they prefer using organic systems like email and Microsoft PowerPoint rather than CPOF. Forcing the use particular MCS units dislike—no matter how expensive—is a bit like directing tactics, a practice contrary to Mission Command principles. Like the canceled Future Combat Systems, CPOF over promises and fails to deliver. 

A well-constructed OPORD, augmented by an in-person or verbal commander's intent, remains the best and simplest way to convey Mission Orders. A CPOF briefing is hardly better than sending a PowerPoint slide deck, and often worse. Moreover, PowerPoint, despite its limitations, can generally stand on its own, unlike a CPOF pasteboard. CPOF’s ability to develop graphics may be enhanced by the digital map, but the mission planning tools do not nest effectively enough to create a cohesive product, particularly below the brigade level where operators are limited. Battalions do not have the personnel to build mission graphics and orders in multiple systems while their relatively mobility limits UTI connectivity.

Consequently, communication becomes one-way; battalions cannot offer bottom-up refinement of brigade products because they are merely the end-user, rather than a partner in a collaborative process. At the same time, the brigade—because it talks to a Joint Task Force at the CTC—must bridge the divide in the absence of an intermediary division headquarters.

Digital systems also incentivize bad habits. Because they readily generate blue icons on a map they give the impression of situational awareness. However, JCR generally represents vehicles, something irrelevant during a dismounted offense or defense. Because the digital COP updates automatically, “units may not report critical information such as friendly front line traces and enemy known positions through FM communications.”[10] Consequently, the digital COP gives a false sense of security when clearing ground. We think that because a space lacks a digital blue icon, it must be clear; but the blue icon only represents a system, not individual Soldier.

Complicating the situation, the Army doesn't provide the adjacent systems to support the office-like environment CPOF is more suited for. These systems are not designed for a field environment. It turns out our garrison printers do not have a “field mode.” These pieces of equipment wear quickly and can be ineffective in environments dominated by dust, rain, and wind, not to mention unstable electricity. Not only is CPOF not ruggedized (new systems come in hardened cases, but it is still three monitors and a large laptop), but units generally lack associated field-worthy printers, projectors, and other equipment. 

CPOF in use at JRTC; notice the required wet wipes. Our automations equipment is not meant for field environments.[11]

Establishing UTI in the field requires exactly the kind of larger, fixed (vulnerable) sites warned against in JRTC and National Training Center (NTC) lessons learned papers. These are the opposite of what fast-paced, dynamic fights require. JRTC/CTC lessons learned documents explicitly warn against units using these "mega-TOCs" due to their large signature and inherent vulnerability. A BCT headquarters not only lacks mobility due to UTI requires, it’s “radio emissions are enormous” making it vulnerable to near-peer threat detection and targeting.”[12] Likewise, UTI networks are vulnerable to hacking and exploitation in ways that the more closed-off and ruggedized LTI networks are not. Given expected cyber and other multi-domain threats in the contemporary operating environment, these threats are not easily dismissed.[13]

Likewise, each piece of equipment requires additional power, further contributing to the footprint of the CP. At JRTC our operations center had no less than six generators providing power. With each generator, the CP’s signature increases and its demand for fuel can become insatiable. Given Russian success in targeting using Electronic Warfare, these concerns are more than aesthetic.[14] Larger CPs are not only unwieldy, they are vulnerable to the enemy.

Planning Process

Digital MCS also do not necessarily improve the planning process. At its best, planning remains an in-person collaborative effort; the HMMWV hood example again comes to mind. Even if co-locating is not an option, computer workstations are inherently single-user devices, making them unsuited for planning. Digital planning has advantages, but its utility remains limited, especially when systems are degraded due to movement, weather, or maintenance; analog systems may, in fact, “work better and more efficiently under time-constrained conditions.”[15]

Aviators from 1-1 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion conduct pre-mission planning prior to an exercise in the Aviation Combined Arms Tactical Trainer (AVCATT).[16]

Impact on the Art of Mission Command

The effect of the lack of interoperability and intensive training requirements is to actually inhibit the Art of Mission Command. During a recent JRTC rotation our unit was routinely stressed to input mission graphics and orders into CPOF even though they were built using analog techniques and distributed through JCR. As an airborne unit, we made a conscious decision to utilize analog methods, but all communication with our higher headquarters had to be digital, no matter the content. Consequently, commanders and staffs were stressed to duplicate work for no reason other than to brief a mission to higher headquarters using a prescribed format; in essence, we violated the principles of Mission Command (decentralized execution, disciplined initiative) because our systems are reductive. Our brigade commander was forced to use the awkward click-to-talk interface of Ventrillo and the CPOF “spotlight” when a phone was readily available. Granted, our unit was relatively untrained with CPOF, but a briefing format should not directly involve the Brigade Commander, Executive Officer, and Operations Officer for significant periods. Simpler is better; shared graphics (via PowerPoint, overlay, or drawn from text) and a phone, not to mention an in-person brief over a HMMWV hood, all remain effective methods for collaboration in austere environments.  

Our digital systems often become focal points of self-induced frustration. Ironically, experience at CTC shows units actually have more situational awareness during their first 72 hours of entry operations using analog products than after setting up digital systems.[17] Rather than creating dilemmas for the enemy, we often create them for ourselves instead. Our system promise simplicity but deliver staff-crushing complexity. As any economist can tell you, there is such a thing as too many laborers, past which returns diminish. Reducing our footprints actually may increase productivity and have the ancillary benefit of providing extra security.[18]

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.”

-- Henry David Thoreau

Counter-intuitively, simpler systems and processes are not necessarily easier. The French Mathematician Blaise Pascal remarked, “I would have made it shorter, but I lacked the time.” It takes substantial effort to write an effective, concise Concept of the Operation paragraph and the ability to translate a scheme of maneuver and commander’s intent into mission graphics and orders.[19] Digital systems often confound this effort by introducing friction into the planning and orders process. We become focused on the systems: “mission briefs that take several hours to build must be updated with every change. The focus becomes updating slides instead of developing executable plans that consider contingencies and include rehearsals.”[20] Rather than the mission at hand; we end up fighting our systems rather than the problem or enemy. By simplifying the tools we can free up cognitive power and time to focus on producing effective products.

Rather than embracing the principles of Mission Command (mission-type orders, disciplined initiative within the framework of the commander’s intent, collaborative dialogue among echelons) we are “cutting our feet to fit the shoes.”[21] There is a balance commanders must strike between detailed and directive control; this balance will adjust based on mission, trust between units, and the nature of the environment. However, a constant is the need for subordinate initiative.

The real discipline required in Mission Command is not necessarily that of subordinates but of leaders, who may feel discomfort when not in direct control or angst when chancing their careers on others’ mistakes.[22] It takes substantial personal discipline to watch a subordinate fail at an assigned task. The urge to reach down to a lower unit is often insatiable; how many stories have been passed around about general officers asking to talk to a platoon leader on the ground in order to give advice during an ongoing mission?[23] This is no better than the loathsome practice of Vietnam-era battalion commanders directing patrols from 1,000’ above. Technology has allowed a culture of micromanagement to seep into command.[24] The temptation to become overly detailed is simply too great when systems like CPOF allow higher headquarters the ability to literally see everything.

Conclusion

Our current UTI focus is dangerous; it causes commanders to become focused on systems, rather than planning and people. These systems short-circuit key elements of Mission Command Philosophy: the human nature of warfare, the importance of commanders driving the operations process, and delegation of authority. These systems inhibit with the in-person collaboration and teamwork required for Mission Command. This constrains leaders and commanders to TOCs with stove-piped (rather than collaborative) information processing. 

Our forbearers defeated the Wehrmacht with a combination of acetate, commo wire, and onion paper, all enhanced by effective liaison officers, yet we seem to believe that a digital map provides effective Mission Command.[25]  In reality, these systems play to our biases, telling us that we have "situational awareness" when in fact we only have a small picture of only our own forces. According to GEN Mattis, “not one of the widely touted new technologies and weapons systems helped me [in Iraq and Afghanistan]. But I could have used cultural training [and] language training.”[26] Historically units developed effective situational awareness through effective staff work (collecting information and projecting requirements), battlefield circulations (to see things first-hand, convey guidance, and receive feedback from subordinates), and high-quality liaison officers (exchanged laterally and vertically). 

We often disregard in-person meetings when using Digital MCS. However, commander battlefield circulation and effective staff analysis, to say nothing of proper reporting of friendly positions, logistics and personnel statuses, and intelligence all remain important. Echoing discredited Revolution in Military Affairs predictions from the 1990s, we employ systems rather than intellect, causing us to confuse a digital map with actual situational awareness. This ignores historical (and doctrinal) examples of Mission Command.

Commanders create and sustain shared understanding through collaboration and dialogue within their organizations to facilitate unity of effort. Digital systems can only augment this process; they cannot replace it; “only by accepting and managing these liabilities prudently that we can have leaders capable of serving in the complex and rapidly changing environments in which we fight.”[27] The Army should look to “fix” Digital MCS by eschewing bloated software for traditional, faster, and cheaper analog methods, only augmented by technology where and when there are clear benefits.

End Notes

[1] Mattis quoted in Thomas Ricks, “Revising our armed forces (3),” Foreign Policy Best Defense, accessed August 21, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/02/19/revising-our-armed-forces-3-ok-if-it....

[2] Martin E. Dempsey, GEN, US Army, “Mission Command,” Armor 70, no. 6 (November-December 2011): 6-7.

[3] Tom Guthrie, “Mission Command: Do We Have the Stomach For What Is Really Required?, Army (June, 2012): 28-28.

[4] Michael Pietrucha, “Living With Fog And Friction: The Fallacy Of Information Superiority”, War on the Rocks, January 7, 2016, accessed July 13, 2017, http://warontherocks.com/2016/01/living-with-fog-and-friction-the-fallac....

[5] This is not inclusive but refers to the most utilized systems.

[6] Claire, Heininger, “Next-Generation Blue Force Tracking System to be Featured in Army Exercise,” US Army Acquisition Support Center, accessed July 15, 2017, http://asc.army.mil/web/next-generation-blue-force-tracking-system-to-be....

[7] FM 6-0, Commander and Staff Organization and Operation (Washington, DC: US Army, May 2014), 1-1.

[8] See Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL), Decision Active Training Environment at the JRTC, Volume XII: Joint Forcible Entry and Combined Arms Maneuver (Ft. Leavenworth: CALL, June 2016) and Date At The NTC, VOL. IV (Ft. Leavenworth: CALL, September 2016).

[9] Pietrucha, “Living With Fog And Friction: The Fallacy Of Information Superiority.”

[10] Zach Jones, “Focus on the Fundamentals: Analog Mission Command Systems in the Direct-Action Fight,” CALL, Decision Active Training Environment at the JRTC, 46-53.

[11] Author’s personal files.

[12] Robert White, Charles Lombardo, Ken Selby, “A Smaller Footprint: Multidomain Battle Means Command Posts Must Evolve,” Association of the US Army, May 15, 2017, accessed July 10, 2017, https://www.ausa.org/articles/smaller-footprint-multidomain-battle-means....

[13] David Perkins, “Multi-Domain Battle: Driving Change to Win in the Future,” Military Review 97, no. 7 (July-August 2017):6-12.

[14] Paul Mcleary, “Russia’s Winning the Electronic War,” Foreign Policy, accessed July 13, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/21/russia-winning-the-electronic-war.

[15] Dustin Duncan, “Analog vs. Digital Planning,” in CALL, Date At The NTC, VOL. IV 11-13(Ft. Leavenworth: CALL, September 2016).

[16] Author’s personal files.

[17] Sean C Bernabe, JRTC Ops Group Commander, remarks to 4/25 staff, 28 February, 2017, Ft. Polk, LA..

[18] White, et. al., “A Smaller Footprint: Multidomain Battle Means Command Posts Must Evolve.”

[19] Dempsey, “Mission Command,” 6.

[20] Dustin Duncan, “Analog vs. Digital Planning.”

[21] Amos C. Fox, “Cutting Our Feet to Fit the Shoes: An Analysis of Mission Command in the U.S. Army,” Military Review 97, no. 1 (January-February 2017): 49-57.

[22] L. Burton Brender, “The Problem of Mission Command,” The Strategy Bridge, September 1, 2016, accessed July 13, 2017, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2016/9/1/the-problem-of-mission....

[23] David Caligari, Trusting Imperfection: Getting Mission Command to Succeed, Grounded Curiosity, June 1, 2017, accessed July 3, 2017, http://groundedcuriosity.com/trusting-imperfection-getting-mission-comma...

[24] Ibid.

[25] For a great historical example see Eugene M. Greenberg, “Signals, the Story of Communications in the XIX Tactical Air Command up to V-E Day,” XIX TAC Headquarters, Germany, June 1945, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 62.

[26] GEN Mattis quoted in John R. Guardiano, “Breaking the Warrior Code,” Breaking the Warrior Code,” American Spectator, February 11, 2005, retried July 4, 2017, https://spectator.org/48978_breaking-warrior-code.

[27] L. Burton Brender, “The Problem of Mission Command.”

 

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Comments

Mission Command Systems are nothing more than retitled C2 systems. Mission Command Philosophy is what can succeed when those systems fail.

There is some cognitive dissonance out there (in my experience mostly in senior officer/retired senior officer ranks) which pejoratively confuses Mission Command with subordinates doing whatever they think is best.

Mission Command, in my mind, is simply knowing, understanding, and doing one's best to carry out commander's intent, while being flexible and courageous enough to take advantage of unplanned and fleeting opportunities which support that intent.

"Mission Command" has become a cottage industry of repackaging Command and Control. That won't change until Army culture changes. I don't expect that to happen until the personnel system is revamped, particularly officer assessment/training/education/promotion/command selection processes. Homophily is a strong tendency, especially in closed cultures. That encourages compliant conformity (C2) more than adaptability.