Digital Command and Control: Cyber leash or maneuver warfare facilitator?

by Capt Michael D. Skaggs

Since the beginning of mankind, mastery of tools has driven man’s conduct of war. The current explosion of communications technology has propelled contemporary man into the so-called Information Age. This ability to acquire and exchange information rapidly can equip battlefield commanders with the ability to gain immediate situational awareness of their battlespace. Armed with this awareness, commanders will be able to make decisions faster than before. The com mand and control personal computer (C^sup 2^PC), a digital map that offers realtime updates of friendly and enemy locations, offers commanders this enhanced situational awareness. Digital communications, if applied correctly, can finally unleash maneuver warfare in its true form. Unfortunately, with the introduction of the C^sup 2^PC the potential exists to use digital communications to centralize C^sup 2^ over subordinate units. If the Marine Corps is to adapt this new tool to its current maneuver warfare philosophy, this increased awareness should facilitate decentralization.

Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 6 (MCDP 6), Command and Control, suggests “command” as legal authority to direct action and “control” as feedback of the action taken. This feedback tells the commander what adjustments or commands need to be made in order to achieve the desired result.1 The C^sup 2^PC can offer commanders the ability to extend and refine this authority. The Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Staff Training Program C^sup 2^PC Users’ Guide describes C^sup 2^PC as follows:

Command & Control PC is a Windows-based software application designed to facilitate military command and control functions. When connected to a computer network, C^sup 2^PC has the capability of depicting the current locations of the friendly and enemy units that have been inputted into a tactical database, as well as instantly shar[ing] overlays and message traffic. With this electronic connectivity, C^sup 2^PC becomes a powerful tool for the commander by providing a Common Tactical Picture throughout his command.2

This “tactical Internet”3 serves as a self-updating map allowing the commander to be updated continuously on the positions of subordinate units. Digital feedback is the epitome of C^sup 2^ as described in MCDP 6. Instead of focusing inward on the location of subordinate units, the commander can focus his efforts outward on the enemy.

Historically, improved communications has contributed to increased centralization of C^sup 2^. The adoption of the telegraph by 19th century armies caused many “commanders to keep in touch with the rear at the expense of the front.”4 In Europe, Napoleon III, commanding the Crimean War from Paris, demanded constant updates from his generals.5 In 1899 the United States installed wireless radio sets in all major warships and shore headquarters. However, a contemporary military writer warned of:

. . . a fleet commander in a few years directing a battle at sea with his ear attached to a wireless telephone and repeating with [a] megaphone the order buzzed into his ears from some departmental head hundreds of miles away.6

In fact, since commanders at sea feared a loss of autonomy, radio use was not institutionalized until 1917.7 MajGen J.F.C. Fuller noted that generals commanded by telegraph and telephone during World War I, yet this required subordinate commanders in the trenches to be pulled from the line in order to remain responsive to superiors.8 In some cases leaders were prohibited from actually participating in attacks so they could keep higher headquarters informed of progress.9 By World War II (WWII), the field telephone and wireless radio saw service in armies of both belligerents. S.L.A. Marshall noted in Men Against Fire that many U.S. company commanders in the Pacific were under constant pressure from headquarters to report information. Worse yet, they were often ordered to take tactical action based on the headquarters’ estimates of the situation.10 In the west, the French Army’s “methodical battle” demanded complete centralization of authority and resources. Only command elements and vehicles were equipped with radios that allowed higher headquarters to synchronize the conduct of the battle carefully.11 In Vietnam, U.S. commanders used helicopters to manage the battle from above, often overriding decisions made by subordinates on the ground.12 In these historical examples, armies that favored a centralized style of command tended to use new communications technology to manage the battle more closely from echelons increasingly farther removed.

An exception to the centralization trend is the German Army. As early as the 19th century, Prussia’s von Moltke the Elder warned that a commander “with a telegraph wire connected to his back” would be without independence and initiative.13 In WWII the Germans used the wireless radio to enhance their tradition of decentralized mission tactics. The radio was not used to give orders or manage troop movement. Instead, operation orders were given orally at the division level and below. The radio was used by subordinate commanders to provide feedback on progress to higher headquarters.14 The radio gave them further freedom to exploit opportunities while updating the commander whenever possible. The use of the radio as a facilitator instead of a management tool illustrates the German tendency to use technology to enhance, not replace existing tactics, and tradition.

History suggests that military organizations that are naturally inclined toward a centralized C^sup 2^ system will use new technology to “improve” that system, thus moving toward greater centralization. Since the Marine Corps historically has been inclined toward a decentralized decisionmaking system, one should expect digital technology to further extend decentralization. However, there are external pressures to use the emerging technology to centralize. 15 As the Marine Corps approaches the digital crossroads, it must examine doctrine and determine which road to choose.

When Fleet Marine Force Manual 1, Warfighting, was published in 1989, the Marine Corps officially embraced maneuver warfare. Elements of this doctrine are mission orders, establishment of a main effort, and commander’s intent. Mission orders specifically allow for decentralized decisionmaking, and main effort and commander’s intent give all forces involved the necessary focus of effort. The Marine Corps has done an excellent job of giving its leaders the education necessary to conduct this style of warfare. However, many attrition warfare ghosts remain at the tactical level making maneuver warfare difficult to execute. Many operation orders are suspiciously long and in excessive detail. In fact, once the operation begins, subordinates find themselves attached to a virtual “ball and chain” of tactical control measures. These measures, designed to synchronize resources and focus efforts, actually contradict the philosophy of maneuver warfare and allow for little initiative at lower levels. These countless phase lines, checkpoints, coordination lines, and axes limit initiative and creativity.

The reason for these measures is clear. This environment is created in an effort to build situational awareness. Tactical scenarios are often “canned,” and an orderly, synchronized battlefield is preferred. What better way to know where your forces are than to dictate to them beforehand where they will be at all times? This increases certainty of the friendly situation and reduces risk of fratricide, albeit at the expense of initiative. These attempts to bring order to battlefield chaos are natural; however, this focus inward and quest for certainty is counter to maneuver warfare. Maneuver warfare is difficult to execute while using the same pre-1989 attrition warfare control measures. Marine Corps doctrine speaks maneuver, but our tactical execution often demonstrates otherwise.

Digital communications technology provides the chance to break free from the chains of attrition warfare once and for all. Intellectually, the Marine Corps is there already. Marine leaders understand maneuver warfare. The C^sup 2^PC presents a window of opportunity to put doctrine into practice. Situational awareness provided by C^sup 2^PC allows for subordinate units to move without being bound by control measures. The digital technology allows commanders to “see” subordinate locations without tying them to graphics. In order to maximize the digital advantage, changes are recommended beginning with the following fundamentals that allow digital communications to facilitate maneuver warfare, not impede it:

* Reduction of restrictive movement control measures in the attack.

* Clarification of the term “objective.”

– Change operational term objective to “aiming point.”

– Label the enemy unit to be destroyed/defeated as the objective.16

Maneuver control measures could be limited to the direction of attack, unit boundaries, aiming points, and objectives. This would allow subordinates the freedom to determine how to maneuver from the line of departure to their attack on the objective. Measures used previously to “track the battle” did so at the expense of initiative. Now, C^sup 2^PC can track the battle and provide synchronized freedom to maneuver.17

Equally, C^sup 2^ relies on semantic clarity. The term objective18 clouds the thinking of subordinates. Some leaders try to clarify the true purpose by stating, “The objective is hill X, but what we want to do is destroy the enemy. The hill is just an aiming point.” This is fine, and the mission statement should include an “in order to” that clarifies the purpose. However, ask a squad leader what he is supposed to do, and he will most likely tell you, “Take that hill, Sir.” In a picture-oriented society, the pictures formed by his graphics tell him his purpose is to occupy that piece of ground. Instead, imagine the clarity of the following alternative:

At 0645, 1st Battalion attacks to destroy Objective A (motorized infantry company) operating in vicinity of aiming point 1 in order to support the main effort attack on Objective B (motorized infantry battalion).

This may seem simplistic, but these semantic changes allow the junior leader to walk away with an enemy unit circled as his objective, whether it is later sitting atop the aiming point or not.

With C^sup 2^PC an enemy unit once identified, is displayed for all. In the past, the Marine Corps used terrain objectives because they were easily identifiable and facilitated control. With a tool that helps the unit to orient on the enemy, why not make it the objective? It also makes the purpose more clear when the enemy refuses to remain on a piece of ground and absorb its enemies’ supporting arms and wait for their maneuver. With this method, a highly mobile enemy is the objective wherever it goes.

Critics of maneuver warfare exist. Some are even bold enough to contend that “there is no such thing as maneuver warfare below the battalion level.”19 So too, critics of using digital communications as a tool for maneuver warfare will emerge because of the uncertainty it will create.20 According to MCDP 1, War-fighting, maneuver warfare is “trust tactics” and implies individuals are competent to judge the best action given their understanding of commander’s intent.21 Because of C^sup 2^PC, subordinates have access to more and better quality information, creating a truly self-regulating environment. The challenge will be for commanders to exercise the discipline not to interfere or override subordinates’ actions. The only way a functioning digital network can fail is if commanders impose archaic attrition warfare controls. To do so would be micromanaging instead of independent decisionmaking “within the framework of the general plan.”22

Digital communications and C^sup 2^PC are here to stay. They can be used either to push tactical units through control measure “wickets” or to facilitate maneuver. As an organization the Marine Corps has to choose which path to take. To date, discussion about the C^sup 2^PC has been dominated by the technical experts (S-6, communications). As the C^sup 2^PC is introduced to the end user, the relationship between operational and tactical C^sup 2^ must be reassessed. Time and training will be required to ensure that C^sup 2^PC becomes an effective tool for the Operating Forces.23

The Marine Corps must continue the tradition of using technology to enhance the way it fights and harness this new ability to pull the maneuver warfare chariot even faster. The Marine Corps must embrace the technology as a vehicle for its maneuver warfare doctrine; otherwise, it will be enslaved by the technology and impotent without it. The arrival of digital communications is a unique opportunity to add the finishing touches on decentralized mission tactics. Let junior leaders welcome the technology as freedom to maneuver instead of a cyber leash.


1. MCDP 6, Washington, DC, 1966, p. 40.

2. MAGTF Staff Training Program, C^sup 2^PC User’s Guide.

3. Federation of American Scientists, Military Analysis Network. This term is used by the Army to describe “Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade-and-Below,” the Army’s version of C^sup 2^PC.

4. Van Creveld, Martin, Command in War, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1985, p. 108.

5. Beamont, Roger, The Nerves of War, Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association International Press, Fairfax, VA, 1986, p. 9.

6. “Wireless Control of the Fleets,” Army and Navy Journal, 9 May 1908, p. 965 as quoted by CAPT James R. FitzSimonds, USN in “The Cultural Challenge of Information Technology,” Naval War College Review, Volume LI, Number 3, Sequence 363, Summer, 1998, available at <>.

7. Ibid.

8. Fuller, MajGen J.F.C., Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure, Military Service Publishing Company, Harrisburg, PA, 1936, p. 61.

9. Van Creveld, p. 167.

10. Marshall, S.L.A., Men Against Fire, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1947, pp. 93-94.

11. Doughty, Robert Allan, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939, Archon Books, Hamden, CT, 1985, pp. 9-13.

12. Van Creveld, p. 255.

13. Hughes, Daniel J., editor, Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, Presidio Press, Novato, CA, 1993, p. 77.

14. Von Mellenthin, F.W., Armored Warfare in World War II. Conference featuring F.W. Mellenthin, Generalmajor, German Army, Battell Columbus Laboratories Tactical Technology Center, Columbus, OH, 1979, p. 34.

15. Evidenced in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM and the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s Exercise HUNTER WARRIOR.

16. As suggested by Col Michael Wyly, USMC(Ret) in the Maneuver Warfare Handbook, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1985, pp. 123-125. Also see Hans Gotthard Pestke, “German Training and Tactics: An Interview With Col Pestke,” Marine Corps Gazette, October 1983, pp. 63-64.

17. As long as actions support the main effort and operate within the parameters of intent.

18. Field Manual 101-5, Operational Terms and Graphics, United Stales Army, Washington, DC, 1997, states that the objective can be an enemy unit or terrain. However, I have not witnessed a single exercise in 15 years where the objective was not a piece of terrain.

19. Spoken by a battalion commander to his battalion at the beginning of a Combined Arms Exercise (CAX) in 1999.

20. This article has discussed control measures for maneuver only. Fire control measures will have to be considered.

21. MCDP 1, Washington, DC, 1997, p. 88.

22. Liddell-Hart, B.H., editor, The Rommel Papers, De Capo Press, New York, 1953, p. 77.

23. This was evidenced during CAXs 3 and 4, 2002 when MAGTF 6 integrated C^sup 2^PC into its operations. See Maj Laura Little, “The Digital Combat Operations Center,” Marine Corps Gazette, August 2002, pp. 42-43.