Is Mission Control the Weakness of Maneuver Warfare?

by Maj Eric M. Walters

Marine Corps doctrinal and instructional publications, such as FMFM 1, Warfighting; FMFM 1-3, Tactics; and the excellent MCI 7400 Warfighting course, emphasize that the primary means to gain tempo in military action is through a “mission control” command philosophy-i.e., the reliance on mission-type orders that allow subordinates considerable latitude for guided initiative. Yet this idea has come increasingly under attack by a number of military thinkers since the 1991 Gulf War. The recent synchronization debate in the pages of the Gazette is but one example, and many within the Department of Defense (DoD) command and control (C^sup 2^) field, as well as the information warfare business, echo this same theme.* Even a generally recognized “maneuverist” author, Maj Robert R. Leonhard, USA, has opined that the impact of modern information technology is contributing to “The Death of Mission Tactics” (the title of his July 1994 Army magazine article).

Why are so many people bent on reducing the importance of mission control? Why is it so controversial? Is there a rational argument against mission control? If so, what is it, and what is its impact upon maneuver warfare? Most important, if there are seemingly insurmountable problems with mission control, are the alternatives any better?

Superficial Criticisms of Mission Control

Unfortunately, a number of the negative judgments seem to be based on a misunderstanding of the nature of maneuver warfare in general and mission control in particular. Perhaps the oldest misperception is the idea that mission control is simply “winging it.” There is no acknowledgment that the commander guides initiative and improvisation through his intent. Fortunately, there aren’t many Marines who actually see mission control as a license to do anything they want, unmindful of the results the commander desires.

Despite this, a misunderstanding still exists about the relationship between mission control and initiative. Mission control does rely heavily on subordinate initiative, but that is not all there is to the concept. Initiative standing alone is not mission control. Equally important are the commander’s intent and the designation of a main effort that focuses it. Even maneuverists can lose sight of this and narrowly focus on initiative, as Maj Leonhard does in “The Death of Mission Tactics.” It is an easy mistake to make and can result in skewed conclusions.

Maj Kenneth F. McKenzie betrays this incomplete understanding in his “Guderian: The Master Synchronizer,” (MCG, Jul94), when he maintains Guderian was exercising centralized control in redirecting his divisions to the French coastline in 1940. If one sees mission control solely in terms of initiative, it’s a small step to equate any attempt by a commander to run his fight-even if only issuing a new intent and mission orders to subordinate units-as leaning towards centralization. Such is not the case; these actions are part and parcel of mission control.

If the commander discovers that the unfolding situation requires him to issue a new intent and mission orders, this is still mission control. It is not detailed or centralized because the commander is not trying to control all the individual actions of all his units. He is setting the stage for them to correctly act on their own initiative. Some will argue with this, pointing to Rommel’s and Patton’s command style of being up front, directing tactical actions, often commandeering forces to get a job done. Isn’t that detailed control? After all, these two leaders were well versed in maneuver warfare.

The answer lies in looking at what they actually did when up front. They still did not try to direct the whole army in minute detail. They placed themselves at the critical point and did whatever was necessary to make things happen fast. Sometimes it involved siting individual weapons and taking over tactical formations. But how often did this happen? In those rare instances, doing this was quicker than formulating and issuing a mission-type order to a perhaps poorly oriented weapon or unit leader. More often, these leaders did this to correct a troublesome situation before the enemy could take advantage of it. But this was the exception; normally, leading from up front still involved issuing mission orders. They got better results that way.

What is striking about this command style is that it wasn’t designed to optimize, it was designed to speed up friendly actions at the critical point. It wasn’t done using any sort of preplanned matrix but instead through direct command influence. Commanders such as Patton and Rommel were not managing the battle, they were leading it. They were focused outward on getting results vis-a-vis the enemy, not inward on fulfilling the plan.

Last, there remains a misperception that maneuver warfare advocates reject centralized command and control completely. This is untrue. While mission control is favored, there is no iconoclastic dogma that says you should never use anything else. Othenvise, how does one explain another master of maneuver, von Manstein, earning his Marshal’s baton through his painstakingly methodical reduction of Sevastopol in 1942? Maneuver warfare only demands that one act faster relative to the enemy. When the enemy immobilizes himself through any means, detailed control will provide better unity of effort and yet still may outpace enemy reactions. This is what happened in Operation DESERT STORM. It all depends on the specific scenario.

The problem “maneuverists” have with detailed control is that we Marines seem to spend so much time and effort working on it. Mission control always seems to get short shrift. While some will claim that the culture of maneuver warfare will prevent it, use of the synchronization tool will certainly result in misuse if Marines are not trained to work with anything else. They will reach for the one and only tool they know how to wield, regardless of the situation. Far better that our primary training setting is in a mission-control mode, practicing the detailed control techniques as little as we can safely get away with-right? Well, not so fast folks. . . .

Substantive Criticisms of Mission Control

Maj Leonhard remarked in his Army article that “mission control fails at least as much as it succeeds.” This is a serious charge, although his one illustration, Guderian at Yelnia in 1941, does not support his claim. He may very well be right, but we don’t know for sure because we have not yet seen a scholarly, comprehensive inquiry specifically addressing that issue. The “maneuverists” have long claimed the superiority of their style of warfighting. They have quite naturally pointed to the historical success stories of mission control: von Muffling’s unilateral diversion of Bulow’s Corps at Waterloo, Rommel in Italy in World War I, Guderian’s exploitation of the Meuse bridgehead, and so on. But failures? Have we really looked at that? Command and Staff College, the School of Advanced Warfighting, and postgraduate students take note-this would make an extremely profitable research topic.

What appears to be the biggest fear concerning mission control, reflected in Maj Leonhard’s article and a number of pieces by Maj McKenzie, is the prospect of a fight lost because of uncoordinated and inappropriate initiative. This is interesting, because there’s little talk about what happens when there’s a bad intent or a wrong focus of effort (presumably the commander always knows what he’s talking about). But even with the necessary guidance from the commander, initiative may still be uncoordinated and inappropriate. This is going to happen at least sometimes. Why does it happen? How often? And what must one do to correct it when it does?

Before we address this issue, let’s briefly consider the problems of a bad estimate, a carelessly formulated intent, or a wrongly designated focus of effort. Might these factors contribute to the probability of uncoordinated and inappropriate action? Certainly they would. But again, that hasn’t been the complaint, possibly because if the commander can’t provide adequate guidance, then it just doesn’t matter what command and control philosophy he is using. He stands a terrific chance of being beaten regardless.

So maybe it’s not a fruitful line of inquiry to look at the failure of mission control from the standpoint of how well a commander perceives what is important or how well he tells folks what he wants. The crux of the matter is what the subordinates are doing (or not doing, as the case may be). Detractors of mission control must defeat the maneuverist argument that-on balance-mission control has enhanced the chances for victory in warfare in the past and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The beginning point of research into possible failures of mission control may well lie with the idea that, even given adequate, mission-oriented guidance, subordinate initiative contributes at least as much-if not more-to defeat as it does to victory in a number of historical examples.

If this happens in certain situations, why does it happen? If the guidance is sufficient, then the use of initiative ought to be self-correcting. Leaders who find that what they’re doing isn’t bringing success ought to charge off someplace where they will find it, or at least help someone who already has. If this is not happening, what might be the cause?

My gut feeling is that the answer to this question must necessarily focus on training and unit cohesion. Units unfamiliar with mission control are bound to have major problems when they first try it. They hesitate or they won’t follow the guidance. And they pay for it. But continuous practice brings with it mistakes and learning. After a few successes, the unit grows confident and is encouraged to try more. After this, success comes more frequently, and the effect snowballs. Of course, this doesn’t happen if the same people aren’t kept on the team. Only through unit cohesion can there be the long-sought-after “Nelson’s touch”-implicit communications. But what is to be done with a unit that hasn’t practiced and/or is victimized by constant personnel turnover? Can it really perform using mission control?

Mission Control: We Can’t Get There From Here?

The hardcore maneuverist requirements for better training and stable units haven’t brought much comfort for most Marines, especially those who have to deal with an already loaded training and deployment schedule; constant personnel turnover; unevenly trained seniors, peers, and subordinates; and the “zero defect” attitude that is so prevalent. Critics point to the burdens that mission control imposes: developing tactical judgment in all ranks; the need for leaders to articulate commander’s intent well, the radical overhauling of training, education, and personnel management practices; etc. All of these measures tend to fly in the face of pertinent DoD policies.

So, successfully practicing mission control in maneuver warfare is not something where a couple of classes and field problems are sufficient to “check the box.” Mission control, like maneuver warfare, is a philosophy that must permeate everything the unit does. And creating conditions to execute it well means running against the grain of most everything we are now doing or are encouraged by the system to do. But we’re supposed to implement it anyway. After all, it is official doctrine. But can we? Many Marines will lament in hushed tones that we cannot.

This, then, is the fulcrum of the whole argument-mission control is simply too hard for the Marine Corps to do, given current operational realities. It could be true that without the necessary institutional changes to support it, mission control cannot be expected to work well enough in combat to bring success.

Assessing the Argument

Those advocating more detailed control in our C^sup 2^ philosophy, such as the synchronization school, are acutely aware of this possibility. There is certainly the lure of pragmatism in what they are attempting to do. With great sincerity, they are hard at work to sidestep the problem, to solve it in another way. That is a laudable goal, since implementing mission control in today’s military seems akin to banging one’s head against a wall. If the argument is true that mission control cannot work without the training and cohesion it demands, it’s hard to condemn what they are doing. They want to adapt their methodology to the other, more easily attainable, features of maneuver warfare. They aim to bind up this Achilles’ heel with the synchronization tape and get on with tackling other issues.

Unlike mission control, tools necessary for detailed control can be learned to a basic degree of competency after a few classes and field problems. Actually doing it also comes more naturally. Commanders and staffs feel more accomplishment after mastering it. In exercises, such C^sup 2^ techniques appear much easier to implement, more practical, and seem more realistic. But never mind whether detailed control methods feel easier, practical, and realistic in peacetime. The real question is: Are they going to actually work in combat? Is this philosophy an alternative that materially contributes to victory in the chaos of war, not just in exercises?

To the dismay of the maneuverists, sometimes it will. Witness the triumph of the U.S. Army’s centrally controlled attack on the relatively inert Iraqis in the Gulf War. Despite this one example, there is real doubt as to whether it often will work. We suffered no major surprises in the Gulf War. Is a tendency for detailed control (especially in its latest incarnation-synchronization) a hindrance for a force trying to cope with a major surprise? Maneuverists such as Maj John F. Schmitt make a good case in saying that it is; it simply takes too long to get positive control when initial assumptions turn out to be grossly mistaken. And, as he points out, the history of warfare is replete with examples of forces finding out that their initial assumptions were grossly mistaken.

While the forms and character of war change, the nature of warfare does not. Success in synchronization is absolutely dependent on the ability to anticipate accurately a range of enemy actions. Synchronization offers us nothing better than the forlorn hope of finding an enemy with a preference for acting in ways we can predict. But we may not be able to choose our enemies, nor adequately foresee how they will wage war against us. That has been the trend of history.

While they have labored mightily to fix what they see as the biggest problem with maneuver warfare-reliability-the synchronizers ironically end up in much the same situation. Synchronization is not a reliable enough means of command and control either, albeit for a different reason. Let’s assume that research confirms our worst supposition that mission control can’t optimally work because of the nature of our institutions. It still does not negate the fact that synchronization won’t work either because of the nature of warfare. And trying to buck the nature of war is, I would argue, a more futile endeavor than bucking one’s own military culture.

At least mission control offers hope of success against unpredictable foes if we would only muster the will to change ourselves. That is not completely inconceivable (though it seems so at times). The Prussians found the will after being humiliated by Napoleon in 1806. Maybe it takes such an unambiguous defeat to create such a will. Perhaps we cannot change ourselves so radically, so necessarily, until we ourselves are massively defeated. But rather than end on such a pessimistic note, it is worth remembering that although mission control is hard to do successfully, this does not justify abandoning it. Marines have never been known for shrinking away from the difficult.

The controversy over mission control boils down to this: Are we willing to give up the hard road to combat success for something easier that might only work occasionally? Do we struggle to adapt our institutions to fit a superior warfighring philosophy, or do we settle for a sometimes successful methodology so we don’t have to change our military culture?


* For other recent examples, see letter by Capt Robert W. Jones, MCG, Mar95, p. 13 and the article by LtCol G. Stephen Lauer that follows in this issue.