I’m out for Dead Prussians to represent me…

That is some serious bling, yo.

What is it with Dead Prussians?

Just a few days after we discovered that everyone’s favorite Prussian provacateur wasn’t really named “Messerschmidt”, scores of milbloggers rushed to fill the void with a slew of posts on the Teutonic tactical command philisophy known as auftragstaktik.  Among them were former Army officers Jason Fritz and “Gulliver” of Ink Spots; Mark Collins of the Canadian Defence Institute; Col. Paul Yingling of the Marshall Institute; and Maj. Niel Smith, currently serving as the operations officer for a Stryker brigade in Afghanistan.

The stereotypical German way of war–what we might now call “decentralized operations”–has long been studied, mulled, and romanticized.  But while the Prussian armies might have trounced the French during the Franco-Prussian War, they were hopelessly mired in the trenches during the First World War, and ultimately defeated during the Second.  That vaunted Prussian “initiative” occasionally led to disastrous blunders like “Von Kluck’s Wheel”, which gave the French Army the opportunity to halt the German offensive at the Marne in August 1914.

We often forget that military doctrine is a product of specific cultural, technological, political, and geographic phenomena.  Prussia is a long way from America, and as we’ve seen, it wasn’t as great as we often make it out to be.

The German model differed from the American model in a few important realms.

Complexity of Armies

Col. Yingling and Maj. Smith both address the growing complexity of the battlefield in successive essays at The Best Defense.

Both are right, though from different points of view.

Few people would recognize the sheer amount of complex equipment fielded to a brigade today that requires sync. There is much, much more to integrate…none of this can be employed haphazardly or we lose the effect of the system, or worse, the systems “fratricide” each other unless someone is looking holistically at the employment. So mission command has its limits.

–Major Neil Smith

Claims that today’s wars are somehow more complex than previous conflicts will draw belly laughs from historians. Is sectarian conflict in Iraq somehow more politically complex than Rome’s civil wars? Does the rate of technological change in the last ten years in Afghanistan exceed that of the last two years of World War I?

–Colonel  Paul Yingling

From a strategic standpoint, Col. Yingling is right, of course.  Strategy is no more complex than it was in Sun Tzu’s era of warring states.  Yet, Maj. Smith is also correct, albeit from a tactical standpoint:  armies themselves are more complex than ever before.  A single battalion’s worth of soldiers might contain over ninety separate military occupational specialties, and ever-growing amounts of government property.  And, in the era of Army Transformation, assets which had traditionally been managed by corps and division staffs–such as aviation and artillery–have been pushed down to brigades and battalions (hence, their ever-growing staffs).

Why does that lead to micromanagement, rather than mission command?  Well, a few reasons.

The All-Volunteer Force and Safety

We all groan at the inherent risk-aversion and nanny state-isms which permeate military culture.  But have we ever questioned why we’re so cautious?

During the era of the draft, the Armed Forces were blessed with a nearly unlimited supply of new recruits:  if a few died in accidents, there were always more ready to take their place.  But while conscript armies rely on sheer manpower, volunteer armies rely on smaller numbers of highly-trained recruits, equipped with the latest technology.

Maintaining such an army isn’t easy.  The All-Volunteer Force was plagued with scores of problems during its first few years.  A quality volunteer force needs higher pay and quality of life incentives than a conscript army in order to retain highly-skilled workers.

Volunteer armies also rely on high-technology weapons systems, rather than sheer numbers.  Indeed, since the inception of the All-Volunteer Force, US forces have fielded smaller numbers of tanks and airplanes, albeit far higher quality models.

What does this have to do with anything?

That means there’s an emphasis on safety, what we might call the “zero-defect” solution.  And, oddly enough, the genesis of this mindset dates back to the earliest days of the Cold War, when the Strategic Air Command (SAC) instituted a vigorous safety and standardization program across the nuclear bomber fleet.  In turn, this program eventually migrated to the Tactical Air Command’s (TAC’s) fighter fleet.  The results were little short of extraordinary:  after implementing Tactical Evaluations (“TACEVALs”), and Operational Readiness Inspections (ORI), Class A accidents in TAC declined by nearly 40 percent in six years, even as TAC grew in size.

In an era of dwindling fighter fleets and smaller armies, every accidental loss hurts that much more.   And as the US Armed Forces continue to shrink, there’s an even greater emphasis on safety.  For example, DoD sources reported that, in 1980, for every 100,000 service members, 77 died of non-combat related accidents.  Twenty years later, the rate was halved to thirty in every hundred thousand.

The emphasis on safety, of course, spills over into the American way of war.  There may have been a lot less centralized control during the Second World War, but there were a lot more mistakes.  Few of us could even fathom the death of over one hundred paratroopers, after over twenty American C-47s were mistakenly shot down during the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

Control measures like ROZs, IFF, and coordinating altitudes are just a minor nuisance compared to, well, fratricide.

(Though the jury is still out on reflector belts)

There’s a reason these guys lost, you know.


Some might suspect that a decade of combat has loosened the reins, but anecdotally, the reverse might be true.  During the 1990s, mission command enthusiasts advocated allowing subordinates the freedom to make mistakes, thereby giving them the opportunity to grow. 

So long as no one got killed, of course.

But in wartime, those lovable lieutenant mistakes–absent-mindedism, or the occasional shirking of duties–can actually get people killed.  And worse yet (from a commander’s point of view), it can land one in hot water, as nearly every combat fatality is followed up with a formal investigation.

Micro-management has its place.  At times…

It should come as no surprise that the “Zero-Defect” mentality came into being with the advent of the Strategic Air Command, an organization responsible for unleashing nuclear war.

As one Air Force officer wrote at Tom Ricks’ blog, there are certain things we must take a zero-defect approach to.  Giving subordinates the ability to exercise initiative and make those lovable lieutenant mistakes just won’t fly when dealing with weapons which could potentially wipe out human civilization as we know it.

Not to mention, auftragstaktik only works so long as subordinates work within the commander’s intent.  Sadly, however, there’s nothing more infuriating to military commanders than circumventing the chain of command.  Initiative is great, until soldiers start adding things to your property book without permission, or until you start flying VIPs around without informing the G3 Aviation about it.

Uh, not that I’ve witnessed any of these, of course.

Information Technology

I often bring up the Burger King FRAGO to prove a point about information technology and the art of command.  Just because we have the technology to track, process, and disseminate far more information than ever before doesn’t mean that we necessarily should.

But we do.  The sheer volume of routine Fragmentary Orders (FRAGOs) is mind-boggling: as a former battalion S-3, I would process weekly FRAGOs numbering in the hundreds of pages.

In garrison.

No kidding.

Modern computer systems give us the ability to micromanage to an unprecedented degree.  But this comes with a few unfortunate side effects.  We’ve become so reliant on computers that many people are completely unable to function without them; and “Internet Addiction” is under serious consideration for the 2013 edition of the DSM-V.

But what happens when we don’t have instantaneous access to the Internet?  We take it for granted, holed up in massive Forward Operating Bases in Afghanistan, which have been completely wired over the last decade.  But what if our networks are attacked?  Mistakenly shut down?  Or what if we deploy somewhere new, where we can’t take large FOBs for granted?

The Army has experimented with just that scenario in a series of recent exercises involving airborne infantry brigades, many of which were forced to fight battles with little more than map boards and radios.

According to many Observer-Controllers, the solution was–surprise–to issue mission-type orders, and allow subordinates free reign to accomplish the mission.

Perhaps our reliance on information technology really is what drives our emphasis on control rather than command.

If you’re a micromanager, just pray your BlackBerry still works.

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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