Decentralized Leadership

Paul Fahrenheidt

Paul Fahrenheidt

Many a man thought himself wise, but what he wanted he did not know.

The field of military theory is among the interests we have yet to dive into, and given the change of recent circumstances it seems now is as good a time as any. Military Theory, though often referenced or appealed to within the discourse of our sphere, is rarely directly addressed as a topic of discussion beyond mentioning the various generations of warfare in re a geopolitical or historical topic. I hope this to be the first of many stabs at changing this circumstance.

We have recently been suggested Niall Fergusson’s excellent theoretical history work, The Square and the Tower, and would highly recommend all within the audience to give a glance at  the contents of Mr. Fergusson’s unabashed mimicking of several decades of MIT research. Suffice it to say, Mr. Fergusson makes an excellent case that the most successful hierarchies are those that do not exist externally. I.e., the more unofficial (or dare we say, Decentralized) the leadership is, the more successful an organization tends to perform. When a hierarchy becomes de jure, this marks a death knell within the organization which is near impossible to come back from.

Reading Mr. Fergusson’s thesis has reminded us of a similar theory within Military strategy, one first adopted by the Prussian-led German state in the wake of the humiliation inflicted at Jena in 1806. This theory has proven to be the finest theory of Military Command and Control yet developed (as proven by its battlefield results,) and has recently shown that a “World Power” military without such a model can be held back and defeated by a much smaller force that uses the model, even in the 21st century.

This model is called Auftragstaktik, or “Mission-type tactics” and is the primary mode of organization within all NATO (and affiliate) militaries. Its German name sources from its national origin within the Prussian state, post reforms made by Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and von Moltke (the elder) which turned a small backwater into the finest land power on the continent. The history of such reforms are greatly outlined by Dr. Walter Goerlitz in his, History of the German General Staff, 1657-1945.

Mission-type tactics involve a Commander, at any level, giving to his subordinates a “Mission,” or a task to complete, and an “Intent,” or outcome he desires from the completion of such a task. To give the dear reader an example: 

Colonel Kurtz has ordered Captain Willard in command of Charlie Company (a formation of about 100 men,) to take Hill 62 by 1200 on March 5th (It is currently 0800 on March 5th.) Colonel Kurtz’s Commander’s Intent is that Hill 62 be taken by 1200 on March 5th. In order to achieve this intent, Colonel Kurtz orders Captain Willard to perform a Company Attack on Hill 62. Colonel Kurtz has given Captain Willard the Mission of a Company Attack. Good so far?

A Company Attack is a rehearsed doctrinal tool which every soldier in Charlie Company knows, has practiced, and can perform if ordered. Colonel Kurtz steps out of the picture upon giving Captain Willard the Commander’s Intent and Mission, that Hill 62 be taken by 1200 on March 5th, vis a vis a Company Attack. 

Now, Captain Willard meets with his subordinates, Lieutenants Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and gives them the same briefing including the Commander’s Intent and Mission. Lt.’s Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John then go to their Platoons (a formation of about 30 men,) and give the same briefing of Commander’s Intent and Mission to their subordinates (Platoon Sergeants, Squad Leaders,) who then give the same briefing to their subordinates all the way down to the lowliest trigger-pulling Private.

The Platoons then undergo various checks of supplies, status of soldiers, weapons maintenance, etc. while Captain Willard and Lt.’s Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John formulate a plan to perform the Mission and to achieve the Commander’s Intent. Upon completing the plan, performing reconnaissance, modifying the plan, performing rehearsals, and finishing all checks of supplies, the Company then executes the Mission in order to carry out the Commander’s Intent. Charlie Company performs the Mission of a Company Attack successfully, and takes possession of Hill 62 at 1145 on March 5th, thus fulfilling the Commander’s Intent.

We ask the dear reader to take a moment to ensure they understand how the system of Mission tactics works, and to re-read our example if they find themselves confused. If no such confusion exists, we will continue.

What makes this system so successful in terms of Command-and-Control, is that it’s a relatively hands-off system. Once Colonel Kurtz gave Captain Willard the briefing of Commander’s Intent and Mission, Colonel Kurtz’s role in the Mission (outside of monitoring progress and communicating to his own higher command) has come to an end. The same logic applies to Captain Willard. Once his Platoon Commanders understood what was going on, including the Commander’s Intent and Mission, all Captain Willard needed to do was formulate a plan of attack and then execute said plan. And so on and so forth.

This method of hands-off command-and-control leads to far faster outcomes and generally far better achieved outcomes, as the subordinate element (Charlie Company) has been given a task to complete, a means to complete said task, and a deadline that said task needs to be completed by. This saves all sorts of brainpower for Colonel Kurtz to concern himself with other affairs, like whipping the Cambodian Hill Tribes into a frenzy. It also gives Captain Willard space to perform, as Colonel Kurtz isn’t breathing down his neck to get the task done. Colonel Kurtz only has to personally intervene if the task isn’t completed by the deadline.

The strength of this system can only be understood by its contrast to the opposite system: Befehlstaktik or Order-type tactics. This system is also known as the “Direct Control” model, and as can be surmised from its name, revolves around direct control from the High Command. If Colonel Kurtz was using the direct control model, he would have planned out every action for Charlie Company, and then given an extremely long set of orders outlining the actions they were to take down to each individual Platoon’s movement. 

Believe it or not, this system has been prevalent for most of the history of organized professional armies. Up until the First World War, aspects of it were still used by nearly every western military (including the German one.) The First World War demonstrated its effectiveness in the landscape of Third Generation Warfare, where wars had become so big they were small. The Direct Control model makes a lot more sense when battles still resembled the games of Chess that characterized First and Second Generation warfare, where the primary goal of military theory was the means of destroying your enemy’s army in a set-piece battle. This type of war is a thing of the past.

The other primary strength of Mission tactics is its adaptability. If Captain Willard, upon performing reconnaissance of Hill 62, decided that a Company Raid (a different doctrinal tool than a Company Attack) would better serve the Commander’s Intent than the already given Mission of a Company Attack, he could either contact Colonel Kurtz to voice his reasoning, or make the call himself and risk the consequences afterwards. Either way, the model gives subordinates the means to take their own initiative, and find ways of performing a mission that the Commander may not have been capable of envisioning.

Alternatively, say Captain Willard was hit by a sniper during the mission’s execution. Lieutenant Matthew, upon learning that such has occurred, can seamlessly take company command and continue the mission as he knows the plan coordinated amongst all four Platoons. Should Lieutenant Matthew get hit, Lieutenant Mark can take command, and so on all the way down to the lowest trigger-pulling Private, as they’ve all been briefed on the mission. If Colonel Kurtz had been using the Direct Control model, and that same sniper capped his chrome dome, the whole mission falls to pieces as the coordinating brain has been removed.

This concept is called “Points of Failure.” Within the Mission tactics model, there is no single point of failure, and command can pass up and down along the chain of command with very little interruption. The Direct Control model, on the other hand, has a single point of failure in the single commander micro-managing every aspect of the mission. While that single commander has the advantage of making decisions more rapidly and adjusting his own plans with a lesser risk of miscommunication, you’d better hope a sniper doesn’t get a shot at him.

The key to success in the Mission tactics model is having competent (or at the very least, trustworthy) subordinates. It requires a much higher caliber of soldier than the Direct Control model, which is why the latter model is favored in most Oriental armies (where individual soldier quality is dubious at best.) This lends the logical consequence of the Mission tactics model being, in a strange way, more Democratic than the Direct Control model, which can be described as Monarchical and Authoritarian.

Therefore, the Mission tactics model has the downside of high demands. If one does not have a capable element with well-trained and competent commanders, Mission tactics simply will not be effective. Hence why for most of history (when armies were largely conscripted of illiterate and untrained peasants [with a few exceptions of course,]) the primary model of command-and-control was the Direct Control model.

This brings us to our final point, and not even in an article on Military Theory can the dear reader escape the long arm of Americana. The Mission tactics system (though long unnamed) has a long precedent within the American military for the entirety of its existence, long before the Prussians formulated it as an explicit concept. Major Robert Rogers, commander of the famous Roger’s Rangers during the French and Indian war, utilized the ways of Indian fighting (one of the primary sources of study for mission based tactics) as a counter to the irregular raids of the Huron on New England settlements. Francis Marion used similar tactics against Cornwallis and Tarleton during the Southern Campaign of the War for Independence. During the Civil War, Confederate Cavalry commanders, notably Forrest and Mosby, utilized such tactics, whose campaigns informed von Manstein and Guderian to formulate the idea of Blitzkrieg.

Yet none of these precedents speak of the character of a people who utilize such a system. Following the victory at Saratoga in 1777, General Washington retired the much battered and under equipped Continental Army to their winter camp at Valley Forge. Unbeknownst to the Army, General Washington had been working with Congress to hire a European Drillmaster to make a professional army of the still largely Militia based Continental Army. The individual who was up for employ due to his own unfortunate life circumstances, was the Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Von Steuben was a Prussian noble, who had been aide-de-camp to the legendary King Frederick the Great of Prussia during his stint in the Prussian Army. He was no stranger to training troops, though upon his arrival to the winter camp at Valley Forge, von Steuben (who did not speak a word of English and had to chastise the Continental Army vis a vis interpreters,) ran into a series of difficulties in bringing European discipline to American soldiers. Unlike the German-speaking peasants he was used to training (who had spent half of their lives being whipped for slight infractions,) the Americans would ask difficult questions like, “Why should I follow this order?” That is, if they didn’t get bored, lose interest, and walk back to their quarters where they weren’t dying of frostbite (at the same rates, at least.)

The Americans in the Continental army were of an entirely different caliber, and they didn’t rebel against the King of Britain just to have some Prussian bark at them for having their muskets slung. So von Steuben appealed to their reason. He took great pains to explain the “Whys” of every single facet of military life, from ordering the tents in rows and by rank, digging latrines away from the camps, and how the bayonet was an effective tool in the world of Second Generation Warfare. 

He trained up the most capable soldiers he could find in the army, and then gave them a Mission to train the rest of the army in order to achieve the Commander’s Intent of creating a professional army. The pains von Steuben took would later make up his work, Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, which is still issued (in highly edited form) to every Army enlistee as “The Blue Book.” The difference greatly materialized in the battles the following spring, particularly at Barren Hill and Monmouth, and were a large contribution to the eventual strategic victory over Lord Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown.

For their entire history, the American people have been a people so individually competent, so trustworthy and trusting of each other, that they’ve utilized this method of command-and-control (though they called it Democracy) since their ethnogenesis. That an 18th century Prussian officer had to adjust his command style to make way for that fact, speaks volumes of the potentialities of such a people.

Potentialities that never ceased existing.