Misunderstanding Synchronization

by Capt David J. Lemelin, USA

An order is a good basis for discussion.


The current debate in the Marine Corps over the mainly U. S. Army concept of “synchronization” seems to revolve around three fundamental questions:

* Does the means of command and control (C^sup 2^) define maneuver warfare?

* Does synchronizing of an operation fly in the face of FMFM 1 Warfighling?

* Is synchronization “detailed control” in disguise?

The following article will focus on the third question from an Army perspective and discuss the synchronization process as it is intended versus how it is misused and misunderstood in practice.

Clearly, FMFM 1, following B. H. Liddell Hart and Richard E. Simpkin, espouses directive control as the sole means of C^sup 2^ in the Marine Corps view of maneuver warfare. If synchronization as a process is “command by detailed order” in disguise, then it violates the concepts behind FMFM 1 and the second fundamental question is answered. The Army, as the chief practitioner of synchronization, tends to command primarily by detailed order. This practice, however, is not a conscious choice of C^sup 2^ methods, but is the de facto result of misunderstanding the process of synchronization. Army commanders frequently approach synchronization as an end unto itself and not a means to an end. The Army’s personnel system and the resultant incohesiveness of Army units are other contributing factors to the Army’s C^sup 2^ methods.

Synchronization is a tenet of Army operations, something akin to a principle of war. At its simplest, FM 100-5, Operations defines synchronization as “. . . arranging activities in rime and space to mass at the decisive point.” This definition, as even Liddell Hart would agree, is the same as “concentration” as defined by FMFM 1:

. . . the convergence of effort in time and space. It is the means by which we develop superiority at the decisive time and place . . . It applies equally to all available resources.

“Unity of effort” is another term that both the Army and Marine Corps use for this principle. All these terms are focused on the endstate of concentrating superior combat power at the decisive point. The problem, then, is not in the definition of synchronization but in the understanding and practice of synchronization as a process for planning and controlling operations.

Synchronization is an all-inclusive term for the analysis of courses of action as described in the new FM 101-5 and the Ft Leavenworth Student Text 100-9. Through this analysis process, commanders and staffs integrate possible enemy actions and friendly combat multipliers into the proposed course of action. Wargaming and detailed time-space analysis are a part of the overall process. Through this synchronization process the commander and staff visualize the flow of events through end of mission. Results of analysis include task organization for the operation and a basic operations order. Most significantly, the commander identifies within the course of action where alternate plans may be necessary and a concept of those plans. The entire process is designed ultimately for the commander to set the conditions in time, space, and resources to mass at the decisive point.

Maj John F. Schmitt’s, article “Out of Sync with Maneuver Warfare” (MCG, Aug94) equates synchronization with “detailed orders” or “command-push” method of command and control. Maj Schmitt’s obvious distaste for this method of command and control may stem from watching the Army struggle with it for years. Certainly, Maj Schmitt points out the dangers of synchronization when taken to the extreme. Unfortunately, many Army units and commanders do not understand these dangers nor do they understand the relationship, the balancing act, between unity of effort and initiative as described by Maj Kenneth F. McKenzie’s article “They Shoot Synchronizers; Don’t They?” (MCG, Aug94). As Robert R. Leonhard states in his book The Art of Maneuver while discussing both control by detailed order and directive control, “. . . today’s Army praises directive control but practices detailed control.” This is an unquestionably correct assertion. But why is this so? Army doctrine is replete with references to mission orders, directive control, and initiative. Initiative is even a tenet of Army operations:

. . . In battle, initiative requires the decentralization of decision authority to the lowest practical level. At the same time, decentralization risks some loss of synchronization. Commanders constantly balance these compering risks, recognizing that loss of immediate control is preferable to inaction. Decentralization demands well-trained subordinates and superiors who are willing to take risks.

This definition subordinates control to initiative and hints at the balance of unity of effort and initiative. However, the bulk of Army doctrine tells us how to mass effects by synchronizing combat power in rime and space without explaining that this unity of effort is predicated on detailed knowledge of the enemy and especially his weaknesses. In order to find these weaknesses, we must decentralize operations and allow subordinates freedom to operate (and the assets to do so) to find those weaknesses. Army doctrine fails to explain that only then, once we have found LiddellHart’s “gaps,” do we emphasize unity of effort over initiative. So Army leaders are continually faced, if they follow their doctrine, with an apparent dichotomy-how to follow our doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures that focus on detailed operations and still issue mission orders. The synchronization process is the means by which we reconcile these seemingly exclusive C^sup 2^ methods.

As stated, the Army does not have a clear understanding of synchronization as a process. Nowhere, in fact, does Army doctrine define this process precisely. All too often, commanders focus on one synchronized plan often reflected in the “synchronization matrix,” as a product, the endstate itself that now only needs to be executed. Commanders and staffs, working against time, will develop a plan and synchronize it to the nth degree based on an unrealistic assessment of the intelligence picture. The catch phrase is always “an 80-percent solution now is better than a 100-percent solution later.” Often, in fact, they only have a 20-percent solution because they have very little confirmed intelligence. The chief factor in deciding where to be on the detailed/directive sliding scale is the clarity of the enemy situation. The more we know, the greater the emphasis on unity of effort. Conversely, the less we know the more latitude and resources we must grant subordinates until the situation clarifies and we can concentrate combat power and thus become more detailed. A good part of the art of command is knowing when to transition between methods.

The synchronization process, when practiced correctly, does support both methods. In fact, as alluded to earlier, detailed and directive control are not separate methods at all, but rather should be addressed as either end of a sliding scale. Through the synchronization/courses of action analysis process, commanders and staffs should determine where on that sliding scale to begin the operation and when to shift. This analysis assists in visualizing possible enemy actions and our responses to those actions. It helps the commander determine how to organize for battle. Does he put more assets under his control to maximize unity of effort or give more to subordinates until the situation develops? Do we use zones of attack and allow maximum freedom to subordinates or axes and battle positions to mass combat power? Do we need to mass multiple subordinate units? Most importantly, this process helps the commander take his current plan with a greater or lesser degree of control and determine where the gaps are in intelligence and where alternate plans are necessary and, as much as possible, develop those plans.

In its purpose as a process, synchronization/analysis embodies the great Von Moltke’s assertion that, “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.” The problem, then, in the Army is not synchronization as a conceptual process, but rather in the failure of commanders to understand the process. Worse, and all too common, is that this misunderstanding leads commanders to become fixated with one synchronized plan the execution of which is everything regardless of whether or not the enemy cooperates. When this plan, goes awry, commanders have not thought through their possible actions and so, essentially begin guessing.

Army doctrine is relatively muddled when it conies to defining methods of C^sup 2^ let alone when and how to shift up and down the scale between directive and detailed control. Certainly, FM 100-5 does not lay the foundation for maneuver warfare as an overriding doctrine as does FMFM 1. However, Army doctrine is uniform in its emphasis on the preeminence of the commanders intent in all operations. This intent is further broken down into the purpose of the operation, the method, and the endstate. Of these, purpose and endstate are the most critical. Method is deliberately secondary, acknowledging the fact that the planned method will change with the circumstances. Purpose and endstate are related and paramount. Purpose is the “why” of the operation and gives subordinate leaders the reason for the tasks they are to perform. Endstate is the minimum standard that must be achieved if, as one officer put it, “the plan goes all to hell.” Combined, purpose and endstate provide subordinate leaders the framework within which to operate and make decisions when the situation changes or opportunities arise. Even the most detailed order based on complete knowledge of the enemy will contain purpose and endstate to assist subordinates in dealing with the inevitable unpredicted events on the battlefield. This concept of commander’s intent is also misunderstood in practice. Too many Army commanders’ intents are simply “photos” of the end or culmination of one particular plan as it would look if carried out completely. One fully synchronized plan, coupled with a poor commander’s intent leads to the disastrous pitfalls Maj Schniitt depicts in his article. On the other hand, a commander equipped with a well-analyzed plan, synchronized to the level our knowledge of the enemy allows and a well understood endstate and purpose can shift his C^sup 2^ method as appropriate between the need for unity of effort and the need for subordinate initiative as the situation develops. All the while, subordinate leaders have the commander’s intent as a guide and framework within which to make decisions when the situation demands.

The second and possibly most significant reason the Army practices detailed control is the result of its archaic and frequently counterproductive personnel system. This system that replaces soldiers individually, leaves units incohesive and combat teams not solidified. The one facet of directive control that all sources including Army and Marine doctrine agree on and emphasize is the cohesion required at all levels to execute directive control. Well-trained individuals are a prerequisite for directive control, but individual training alone is insufficient. Combat units must train and work together for considerable periods. As Simpkin says in Race to the Swift, “. . . the root of directive control lies in the sharing of ideas and interpretations by minds well attuned to one another.” The Army can rarely achieve this level of cohesion under its current personnel system. Commanders and subordinates are changing so rapidly that real trust, laterally and vertically, does not develop. Hence, commanders fall back on detailed orders to assure themselves that their subordinates will take appropriate actions.

If commanders analyze their situation properly and synchronize to the appropriate degree, then their maneuver-based operations will be enhanced. Further, the commander will be able to adjust the level of control throughout the operation based on a thorough understanding of what he knows and more importantly, what he does not know. As Sun Tzu tells us:

Act always according to the changes in the natural course of things. Nothing stays the same and you must never, therefore, stick to a single course of action. Be aware of how the situation is altering and transform your behavior to conform to the new circumstances.

Conversely, if a commander is fixated on the synchronized plan, he will not be able to adjust to the changing conditions on the battlefield, the domain of the uncertain.

The Army is struggling with the concept of maneuver warfare, the business of achieving both positional and psychological advantage before closing with the enemy. These simple yet essential ideas are working their way into tactical schools and doctrine. Given its existing tactical decisionmaking process and its continuing struggle against its own personnel system, the Army will continue to use the entire directive and detailed control sliding-scale. The challenge will be to analyze each situation properly and understand when to adjust up and down that scale. Maj McKenzie and Robert Leonhard make good cases for both styles of C^sup 2^ in maneuver warfare. Their position is, as is the Army’s tacitly, that operations be defined by the endstate not by the C^sup 2^ methods.

The original issue, however, was whether or not synchronization was compatible with Marine Corps doctrine. As we have shown, if the Army’s style of synchronization is misunderstood by practitioners and by analysts then it is detailed control ad nausea and clearly violates the precepts of FMFM 1, Warfighting. If the synchronization process is practiced correctly, it assists the commander in adjusting his level of control as appropriate. The Army must increase its leaders’ understanding of the range of C^sup 2^ methods and steer away from its continued fixation with detailed orders. The Marines may benefit from a reassessment of their focus on directive control as an absolute. Both Services, however, must continue to train units and leaders together in the application of directive control because that end of the scale requires the most training and teamwork.