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Mission-type tactics (German: Auftragstaktik, from Auftrag and Taktik; also known as mission command in the US and UK), is a form of military tactics where the emphasis is on the outcome of a mission rather than the specific means of achieving it. Mission-type tactics have been a central component of the military tactics of German armed forces since the 19th century. The term Auftragstaktik was coined by opponents of the development of mission-type tactics. Opponents of the implementation of mission-type tactics were called Normaltaktiker. In today's German army, the Bundeswehr, the term Auftragstaktik is considered an incorrect characterization of the concept; instead, Führen mit Auftrag ("leading by mission") is officially used, but the older, unofficial term is more widespread.
In mission-type tactics, the military commander gives subordinate leaders a clearly defined goal (the objective), the forces needed to accomplish that goal and a time frame within which the goal must be reached. The subordinate leaders then implement the order independently. The subordinate leader is given, to a large extent, the planning initiative and a freedom in execution which allows a high degree of flexibility at the operational and tactical levels of command. Mission-type orders free the higher leadership from tactical details.
For the success of the mission-type tactics it is especially important that the subordinate leaders understand the intent of the orders and are given proper guidance and that they are trained so they can act independently. The success of the doctrine rests upon the recipient of orders understanding the intent of the issuer and acting to achieve the goal even if their actions violate other guidance or orders they have received. Taking the risks of violating other previously expressed limitations as a routine step to achieving a mission is a behaviour most easily sustained in a particular type of innovative culture. That culture is today often associated with elite units and not a whole army.
Mission-type tactics are advocated, but not always used, by the chain of command in the United States, Canadian, Dutch and British armies. Mission command is compatible with modern military net-centric concepts, and less centralized approaches to command and control (C2) in general. A review and analysis of mission-type tactics in a variety of military establishments is provided by Shamir.
In translation to English, the German word (which is not, nor ever has been, part of the official German military lexicon) loses some of its impact. It does not describe a set of tactics per se; it is certainly not limited to the tactical level of operations, nor is it a method of leadership, but it does encapsulate a style of command: Tactics focused on accomplishing the task/mission as opposed to Befehlstaktik, i.e. Tactics focused on executing a set of orders. Direct orders are an exception in the German armed forces, while "tasks" are the standard instrument of leadership from high command down to squad level.
Many other terms were used to denote concepts of mission-type tactics in Germany between 1891 and 1914, including Freies Verfahren (free method), Freie Taktik (free tactics), Auftragsverfahren (mission method), Individualverfahren (individual method), Initiativverfahren (initiative method), to name a few. An excellent discussion of the evolution of the terminology is given by Leistenschneider.
For a mission-focused command to succeed, it is crucial that subordinate leaders:
- understand the intent of their orders
- are given proper guidance and
- are trained to act independently.
The obverse of this, is the implicit requirement imposed on superior commanders:
- to give their subordinates no more orders than are essential (every order given is regarded as an additional constraint upon its recipient), and:
- to be extremely rigorous, absolutely clear, and very succinct in the expression of their commands.
The success of the doctrine rests upon the recipient of orders understanding the intent of whoever issues the orders and acting to achieve the goal even if their actions violate other guidance or orders they have received. Mission-type tactics assume the possibility of violating other, previously expressed limitations as a step to achieving a mission and are a concept most easily sustained in a decentralised command culture. This is quite alien to any organisation in which, at every level, a subordinate commander is only expected (and, therefore, trained) to follow detailed orders.
This has significant implications for any army considering the adoption of Auftragstaktik. To clarify, the classic German approach called for every commander to be trained to function effectively at two levels of command above his appointment; a platoon commander—an appointment that was, and is, an NCO one in the German Army—would be expected to control battalion actions, if need be.
Some[who?] would say that today, such a culture is associated only with elite units and not a whole army. Few armies seem to have mastered the approach. The Wehrmacht are perhaps the premier example—a degree of competence achieved only after rigorous training under Hans von Seeckt between 1919 and 1935. Since World War II, only the Israeli Defence Force seem to have come close to matching the Wehrmacht of World War II in the exercise of command in this style-partly due to a conscious decision on the part of Moshe Dayan, who fought under British command in World War II, and who attended a British Army Staff training course which—according to his memoirs—greatly disappointed him.
This style of command originates in a state (Prussia) which saw itself as small, surrounded by enemies, and in imminent danger of destruction. The same may be said of Israel. This may offer a clue to the failure of other equally developed armies to adopt this way of exercising command; for example, the British Army in 1987 announced an intention to adopt 'Mission Command', yet an internal 2004 British Army review of command and control in the Iraq War in 2003 clearly shows that they had achieved the reverse: British orders were substantially more detailed, and subordinates generally more constrained than twenty years earlier, indicating that there is more to Auftragstaktik than process.
After the severe defeat of the Prussians by Napoleon in 1806 in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, the Prussian military rethought their military approach and aimed to build a college of military capability, the General Staff, as a systemic counter to the individual genius that had so soundly beaten them. Napoleon fought a continual battle of movement. Throughout his career (at least until the Peninsular war) he demonstrated his ability to defeat any enemy by the greater flexibility of his units and through better deployment. The fact that his troops were mainly composed of conscripts showed that it was his organisation of them and not their professional training that must have been superior. The institutionalization of excellence within the Prussian Army was to build this same flexibility as well as the other role of the General Staff Officer, which was to make sure each military unit understood and executed its mission.
One of the earliest alleged uses of Auftragstaktik was at the Battle of Königgrätz in the Austro-Prussian War. Auftragstaktik is one of the tools often claimed to have given the Prussians their decisive victory. This claim is difficult to accept, since no appreciation of Auftragstaktik had been accepted officially. The Bohemian Campaign could only have been an example of its use if having subordinate commanders that ignore directives from superiors, who march southward when ordered to march east, and treat their senior commanders with barely concealed contempt, can truly be described as a form of "flexible command". Most of the Prussian commanders, particularly Frederick Charles of the 1st Prussian Army, had no understanding of Moltke the Elder's strategy. He did not much like those parts he did understand. He was uncooperative when under Moltke's orders and disobeyed them several times. During the battle and without authorisation, he acted on his own initiative and launched a premature attack on the Austrian Army, which nearly ended in disaster. If the Crown Prince Frederick William had arrived only an hour later, the battle might have been decisively lost.
After the First World War, this monitoring, coaching and training role built a level of trust, competency and understanding across the whole 4,000-strong German post-war officer corps which made a new level of excellence possible.
Excellence in this case is derived in part from the tradition of Gerhard von Scharnhorst, Carl von Clausewitz and Helmuth von Moltke and was based upon the premise that hard-and-fast rules had no place in the environment of war, which was the realm of human emotion, friction, chance and uncertainty. Moltke is considered one of the principal advocates of independent thinking and acting among his subordinates:
Diverse are the situations under which an officer has to act on the basis of his own view of the situation. It would be wrong if he had to wait for orders at times when no orders can be given. But most productive are his actions when he acts within the framework of his senior commander's intent.
Under the Auftragstaktik system the selection of combat formations, as well as their route and rate of advance, was based upon a unit's mission, the terrain and the enemy's disposition, something Napoleon was renowned for doing. Building a high level of trust, competency and understanding is crucial for the success of such a doctrine. The freedoms this might imply have challenged many armies' views of military discipline, including the Prussian army's.
The force flexibility that underlies this command style poses particular challenges once this new, task-oriented formation is created. The creation of combined-arms forces poses particular challenges to command, especially if they are attached during a battle. To this end (in and before WW2) the German General Staff cross-posted officers and NCOs between the different branches of the Army. It was therefore not unusual to find an armor commander with experience of artillery and infantry command. Similarly, NCOs with cross-branch tactical experience ensured that these combined-arms teams did operate in an integrated fashion. The German High Command (OKH) ran multiple exercises, or war games, in the 1930s, starting with small operations and in later years involving very large formations and major movements to ensure doctrinal coherence and the opportunity to revise and learn. The General Staff played a vital role in assuring the quality of these exercises and in ensuring lessons were learnt and much of the philosophy was incorporated in their 1933 Field Manual Truppenführung.
Doctrine is the conceptual underpinning of how to think and operate effectively; teaching leaders what to think is dogma; doctrine is thus a framework to ensure common understanding and is the basis of training in armies.
A couple of statements may be in order to underline the general motivation of Auftragstaktik:
- "Everything in war is very simple but the simplest thing is difficult". (Carl von Clausewitz)
- "No operational plan can, with any degree of safety, go further than the first encounter with the enemy's main force". (FM von Moltke) (or the slightly more colloquial paraphrase, "No plan survives first contact with the enemy").
- "Nothing is enduring, except the change of situation". (common adage of German soldiers)
Thus, Auftragstaktik can be seen as a doctrine within which formal rules can be selectively suspended in order to overcome "friction". Problems will occur with misplaced communications, troops going to the wrong location, delays caused by weather etc., and, in case of a battle, by successes of the enemy; it is the duty of the commander to do his best to overcome them. Auftragstaktik encourages commanders to exhibit initiative, flexibility and improvisation while in command. Auftragstaktik does not, of course, allow a commander to actually disobey orders, but it does allow (what may be seen as surprising by some) - and even demand - that he considers an order no longer binding if it wouldn't be given in the changed situation (according to his own judgment); only the intent of the higher commander must be maintained.
This demands, of course, that junior officers and NCOs - rarely private ranks - both have the skill and also the self-confidence to treat the order accordingly. A sub-leader whose first fear is to be lectured by his superior, and hence cannot bring himself to do anything else with orders than execute them to the letter, is not capable of Auftragstaktik. Also, it means that the so-called leader on site (German: "Führer vor Ort"; it has to be determined who that is — say, if soldiers from different units without uniting command structure fight together in one place) becomes rather more important than the vertical chain of command. This is because the leader on site must be obeyed unconditionally (that is, within the bounds of international law, penal law and human dignity); as for higher but absent leaders, it is ultimately in the leader on site's responsibility to determine whether the situation has changed (though of course if he deviates from an order he will have to explain his actions afterward).
There are cases cited where in combat the operational orders were a copy of orders that had been issued for an earlier operation or training exercise. It is claimed that almost the only thing that was changed were unit names and locations. This strongly suggests that long experience of operations had allowed senior commanders to be quite abstract in their orders, issued without great fear of being misunderstood. It also suggests that sequences of moves on quite a large scale were already familiar to the forces involved which probably made their execution better.
The Information Age
This section contains too many or overly lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (August 2013)
"The paradox of war in the Information Age is one of managing massive amounts of information and resisting the temptation to overcontrol it. The competitive advantage is nullified when you try to run decisions up and down the chain of command. All platoons and tank crews have real-time information on what is going on around them, the location of the enemy, and the nature and targeting of the enemy's weapons system. Once the commander's intent is understood, decisions must be devolved to the lowest possible level to allow these front line soldiers to exploit the opportunities that develop". —General Gordon R. Sullivan, quoted in Delivering Results by David Ulrich.
Analysis by the US Army of the 1939 German campaign in Poland found that "The emphasis which the Germans placed on the development of leadership and initiative in commanders during years of preparatory training brought its rewards in the Polish campaign. With confidence that these principles had been properly inculcated, all commanders, from the highest to the lowest echelons, felt free to carry out their missions or meet changes in situations with a minimum of interference by higher commanders." They recognized that "initiative, flexibility and mobility" were the essential aspects of German tactics.
A key aspect of mission-type tactics is forward control. In order to understand what is happening at the point of action and to be able to take decisions quickly, the operational commander needs to be able to observe results. The decision to deviate from original plans in pursuit of the mission must be made here for 'friction' to be overcome and momentum to be sustained. The impact of the application of personal influence was thought to be critical and only possible because of the bench-strength provided by general staff officers managing in the formations' rear. This aspect is also responsible for the high casualty rate amongst commanders even in successful operations (5% of all dead). Heinz Guderian ensured that all German tanks had radio receivers in order to make his command effective.
The domination of the battlefield, combined with the difficulty of discerning the pattern of the attacker's assault which uses integrated command of combined arms teams, means that conventional force strategies are rendered ineffective as the "Front seemed to disappear".
If the principles of mission command are maintained but applied in a different (facilitated) manner they are equally applicable and effective in business. This has been demonstrated by authors such as Stephen Bungay (The Art of Action, 2011), and Jeremy Tozer (Leading Initiatives, 1995 and Leading Through Leaders, 2012).
- Blitzkrieg, lightning warfare of World War II
- Infiltration tactics, precursor to blitzkrieg in World War I
- War of manoeuvre, the doctrine behind blitzkrieg, also known as Bewegungskrieg.
- Command and obedience in the Bundeswehr
- Distributed operations
- Intent (military)
- Command by negation
- Stewart, Keith (2009). "Command Approach: Problem Solving in Mission Command." Proc. 14th International Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium, Washington, D.C.
- United States Army (2003). Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces. Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, United States Department of the Army, Field Manual No. 6-0.
- United States Marine Corps (1996). Command and Control. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, Doctrine Publication MCDP 6.
- Canada Department of National Defence (1996). Conduct of Land Operations – Operational Level Doctrine for the Canadian Army. Publication B-GL-300-001/FP- 000. Ottawa, Ontario: Queen's Printer.
- Army of the United Kingdom (2005). Land Operations. Shrivenham, UK: United Kingdom Ministry of Defence, Director General, Development, Concepts, & Doctrine, Publication AC 71819.
- Alberts, David S. (2002). Information Age Transformation: Getting to a 21st Century Military. Washington, D.C.: CCRP Press
- Vassiliou, Marius (2010). The Evolution Towards Decentralized C2. Proc. 15th International Command and Control Research and Technology Symposium, Santa Monica, CA.
- Vassiliou, Marius, David S. Alberts, and Jonathan R. Agre (2015). C2 Re-Envisioned: the Future of the Enterprise. New York: CRC Press.
- Shamir, Eitan (2011). Transforming Command: The Pursuit of Mission Command in the U.S., British, and Israeli Armies. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Vassiliou, Marius, David S. Alberts, and Jonathan R. Agre (2015). C2 Re-Envisioned: the Future of the Enterprise. New York: CRC Press.
- Leistenschneider, Stephan (2002). Auftragstaktik im preußisch-deutschen Heer 1871 bis 1914. Hamburg: E.S. Mittler and Sohn.
- Citino, Robert Michael (2005). The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years' War to the Third Reich. Modern war studies. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. p. 170. ISBN 978-0-7006-1410-3.
- Citino 2005, p. 171.
- Citino 2005, p. 172.
- Digests and Lessons of Recent Military Operations: The German Campaign in Poland, September 1 to October 5, 1939. (1942). United States: U.S. Government Printing Office. p 34
- Generals Balck And Von Mellenthin On Tactics: Implications For NATO Military Doctrine a 1980 paper where the concept of the Auftragstaktik is explained and demonstrated.
- Auftragstaktik article by Major General Widder (German Army) which gives overview and latest views.
- Manuel de Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, 1991.
- von Luck, Hans. Panzer Commander. Cassell Military, 1991. Available online, accessed 4 October 2005.
- "Auftragstaktik, or Directive Control, in Joint and Combined Operations." Parameters, US Army War College Quarterly. Autumn 1999, Vol. XXIX, No. 3. David M. Keithly and Stephen P. Ferris. Available online, accessed 11 November 2005.
- Gerhard Muhm: German Tactics in the Italian Campaign.
- Gerhard Muhm, "La tattica tedesca nella campagna d'Italia," in Linea gotica avamposto dei Balcani, a cura di Amedeo Montemaggi – Edizioni Civitas, Roma 1993.
- Condell, Bruce; Zabecki, David T., eds. (2001). On the German Art of War: Truppenführung. Foreword by James S. Corum. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers. ISBN 9781555879969. LCCN 2001019798. OCLC 46704038. Originally published in German as Heeresdienstvorschrift 300: Part 1 (1933) and Part 2 (1934)..
- Jeremy Tozer, Leading Through Leaders, 2012, Kogan Page, London.
- Stephen Bungay, The Art of Action, 2011, Nicholas Brealey, London.