Small Wars Journal

Transforming Command

Tue, 07/26/2011 - 3:42pm
Transforming Command

Book Review by Frank G. Hoffman

Download the Full Review: Transforming Command

In the Foreword of this well executed book, Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, USA warns that American thinking about defense transformation and Revolutions in Military Affairs up until Iraq and Afghanistan had begun to eclipse the doctrine or command philosophy called "mission command." "The orthodoxy of defense transformation," he notes, "considered war as mainly a targeting exercise and divorced war from its political, human, psychological and cultural dimensions." He goes on to associate the neglect of mission command with negative impacts on U.S. and coalition efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as Israeli efforts in Southern Lebanon in 2006.

Thus, Transforming Command is certainly timely. Partly in response to the effects of the transformation agenda promoted by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and partly in recognition of the leadership challenges posed by operations against today's adaptive adversaries, the requirement for empowered and decentralized leadership is once again being recognized in the United States. The U.S. Army's latest capstone concept, developed by General McMaster stressed "Future operations...must remain grounded in the Army's long-standing concept of Mission Command defined as the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based upon mission orders for effective mission accomplishment." The Army goes on to emphasize disciplined initiative and prudent risk taking based on commander's intent as key elements of mission command.

Likewise the U.S. Marine Corps has updated its Marine Operating Concepts with a chapter on Mission Command. It defines it as "A cultivated leadership ethos that empowers decentralized leaders with decision authority and guides character development of Marines in garrison and combat." For the Marines, Mission Command "promotes an entrepreneurial mindset and enables the strong relationships of trust and mutual understanding necessary for decentralized decision making and the tempo of operations required to seize the initiative..."

Download the Full Review: Transforming Command

Frank G. Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies. He is a retired Marine Reservist and frequent contributor to Small Wars Journal.

About the Author(s)

Frank Hoffman is a retired Marine infantryman and veteran Pentagon policy and program analyst. The comments in his articles reflect his own positions and not those of the Department of Defense.



Thu, 08/04/2011 - 10:34am

The last statement by Mr. Sevcik is the core of our problem. It's all about the commanders, and that human dynamic involved probably isn't going to bring about much change.

Jim Harris (not verified)

Sat, 07/30/2011 - 10:07pm

How is any of the above different than any other organization? Somebody is always in charge, and you upset them at your peril. Not saying that we shouldn't try to improve, but some human social dynamics will always be.


Sat, 07/30/2011 - 9:19pm

There is no reason to believe the command structure or mentality for leadership is going to change within the Army. It will (and does) occur at the individual level, with small absolute numbers. Institutionally - it's broke.

They are now going to revamp the OER system and it's all window dressing. 360 evals that don't go anywhere - commanders just have to verify they've been done. What a joke. That'll be a wink wink system like everything else. Your stud company commander gets crushed on the 360 - ignore it, after all he just helped your BN shine during that deployment or training exercise. Morale sucks in his company, but to hell with that, he helped make your OER shine so you have to protect him.

I think people are simply afraid to fail. They are afraid to not be the be the best at PT, so they only come around for events they excel at. They are afraid to see a plan go bust so they apply doctrine at the expense of critical thinking and intuitive leadership; they stress the quantitative like the results on the upcoming inspection so they ride people for training certifications but neglect their combat training. As an institution the Army is just not willing to tell commanders to go out there and develop, train, and lead a lethal organization to kill the enemies of the United States. Very few have the balls to stand up and say, "they aint pretty but they damn sure execute". We want to look military, not act military.

We preach integrity and we deal with humans, so we end up with mistakes because people make mistakes - but if you're liked by your rater/senior rater, breaches in integrity or lapses that jeopardize your rock star status (or the reputation of that rater/senior rater) get swept under the rug in order to preserve our zero-defect, 'look at us, we're officers and leaders and in an esteemed profession so we must never look bad' facade, but heaven forbid another person makes a mistake, as they'll be crucified.

It's all about pleasing your rater and senior rater and that's not going to change. Rock the boat, pay the price. Be cooperative and you'll move along up the ladder just fine.

The Army needs a leadership transplant but in typical Army fashion they will apply a bandaid and say the system is "healed".

G Martin

Fri, 07/29/2011 - 3:26pm

I recently sat through a presentation on "plywood leadership" given by GEN (ret) McChrystal. I thought the concept was great, but that it could have been summed up in four words: "empower and trust subordinates". I came away wondering why he hadn't run ISAF like that- most of the examples seemed to be JSOC and/or combat unit-oriented. The HQs in Afghanistan were sure not decentralized organizations.

Reading Chris' post on the bi-polar army: one being admin and the other being field-oriented makes some sense to me. We definitely brought the admin-oriented "army" to most of the FOBs I was on and ALL of the upper-tier HQs. So, maybe it is possible to push mission command practices in combat units- especially at the lower levels, but next to impossible to do so back in garrison (GEN Dempsey's oft-stated worry as we withdraw) and on garrison-like locations overseas.

I would imagine that back in garrison (read: admin army) it is very difficult to show initiative and a long-term focus. It is much easier to discriminate between "performers" by distinguishing between those who have something bad happen to their unit and those who don't. Between those who meet "today's" mission and those who don't. Those who focus on the long-term or take initiative to try new things or take risk to push authority down make it harder for the institution to figure out if they have "performed". Thus, outside of those in Chris' "field" army, mission command may be a pipe dream.

I think the key is to articulate to the powers that be why "mission command" should apply at all levels and in all environments. And then to figure out how to punish those who don't do it and reward those who do.

Oh, yes now I see! I of course meant mission command COE (Ft Leavenworth)! :)

Eric (not verified)

Wed, 07/27/2011 - 8:40pm

To Chris:

Sorry w/the brief mention of the USMC's MOC in the article when you typed MCCOE I initially mistook you for referring to the Marine Corps's Centers of Excellence.


Note my skepticism was directed to the Army. I have long admired MCDP 6 (published in the 90s!) as an artifact of the USMC that I believe reflects institutional values and probably does not need updating to achieve what you suggest. The Army is another matter.

On Gian's comments:

I have long proposed that there are two institutions in the Army. One is the administration side of the house (the Department and its "ADCON") and the other is the Army in the field (units operating). The rules and values of these institutions are remarkably different, yet we often homogenize them into one (which I think is less accurate).

The Departmental institution is quite rigid in its rule-following and values oriented on control and standardization. When units return to more and more ADCON (and less autonomy "in the box") I know there is a lot of frustration on the part of deployed civilians and soldiers.

The problem with "mission command" is that the administrative institution (particularly the behemoth, "big-brother-is-watching" TRADOC)is charged with implementing it while not practicing it. All kinds of paradox ensue -- leading to cynicism and a rightful accusation of institutional hypocrisy. Is the Army schizoid (reminiscent of Steve Martin's role in The Man with Two Brains) as I suggest?

Back to Eric -- the USMC has much less of an ADCON-control-freak* issue...perhaps as a result of the "low overhead" history of the Corps and its relation to the DON.

*Let's call the Army bi-polar syndrome "ACF" as short hand. Sounds so scientific. "Yes doctor, what we have here is a classic case of ACF. The Marines (and the SOF) seem immune."

gian p gentile (not verified)

Wed, 07/27/2011 - 6:45am

I am with Chris on this.

What has become hardened into concrete is the idea that the army doesnt do "decentralization" yet the marines do, so did the wermacht, bla bla bla.

Yet I can remember from my earliest days as a LT at the basic course through pl time in a tank battalion in Germany and on and on understanding the importance of decentralization, initiative, mission command (or whatever we called it at the time).

If we were not an army premised on these things then how does one explain instances like Abizaid's rangers in Grenada commandeering the bulldozer, or HR McMaster's Eagle Troop at 73 Easting? These are admittedly only two snapshots of combat initiative, but for sure they didnt just spring out of thin air.

Since the Vietnam war everything that is bad in a military has been thrust upon the American Army: to much firepower, to much micromanagement, too much centralization, too much of the spider instead of the starfish.

Gosh if we have been so screwed up it is amazing that we have done anything.

Lets face it, anytime anybody wants to make an argument about military change, innovation, adaptation, transformation, etc the American Army is the target of choice, whether it deserves to be or not.


Eric (not verified)

Wed, 07/27/2011 - 1:43am

To Chris:
The purpose isn't to Decentralize itself as much as it is to foster the mentality of decentralized decision making in all its leaders Squad/Fire Team on up. Also to instill the ability to, when advantageous, move in & out of decentralized formations.

Despite your skepticism this is nothing new for the USMC. From the Fire Team driven Company Ops of the Banana Wars, to the Squad based CAP teams which not just patrolled but developed there own Intel, assets, targets, Hum/Civ Aid projs, all while also training a local militia & partnering w/a 50man Pop. Forces Plt.

Also developed the concept of the Strategic Cpl. Today we say Big Deal.. all you hear about is "The Warfighter"... 20yrs ago Nobody outside the USMC talked like that all there was was the 'Dumb Grunt'. The idea of developing the Intelligent/Aware Grunt has changed the game.

Skepticism is fine until you do your research on the Decentralized history of the USMC. What the MOC & the Center try to do is "INSTITUTIONALIZE" it.

I am quite skeptical of an institution that forms a center to decentralize itself (i.e. the MCCOE).

This is like the Army announcing it is too programmatic and then developing a program to become less programmatic.

This "movement" is akin to popular management books in business. There is widespread excitement and rushes to get on board with the "fad"...then the realization hits -- institutions and organizations are much too complex.