Mission Command and the Army’s Capstone Concept

August 13th, 2010 in Current Events by Frank Chadwick

With the official adoption of the Capstone Concept in December of last year, the U.S. Army embraced Mission Command, another phrase for mission-oriented orders. The notion is hardly new, but for those of you a little rusty on the idea, here’s how the U.S. Army’s TRADOC (Training and Doctrine Command) Pamphlet 525-3-0 The Capstone Concept describes it:

Mission command is the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based on mission orders. Successful mission command demands that subordinate leaders at all echelons exercise disciplined initiative, acting aggressively and independently to accomplish the mission within the commander’s intent (FM 3-0).

Stripped of the buzz words, what does it mean? More to the point, what distinguishes Mission-oriented orders from other command styles? In a nutshell, mission-oriented orders inform subordinates what objectives are to be taken, not how to take them. That second part is up to the subordinate leaders to work out.

There is a recent article addressing the theory of Mission-oriented orders, as well as some of the historical background on their development, in Small Wars Journal, by retired USAF Colonel Dave Shunk.. Just the other day retired Army Major Don Vandergriff wrote a commentary and elaboration on the original article, and both of these pieces are worth reading. I love thought pieces like this which try to get to grips with the theory and practice of battlefield command. This is a subject theoreticians and practitioners have struggled whit for over two thousand years – that we have written records of.

Here’s what struck me about the two commentaries: the intellectual sources both authors choose to draw on for the roots of Mission Command are the German Army of world wars one and two, as well as a few references back to Clausewitz and Moltke. There are the usual references to Auftragstaktic, as well as dismissive references to the traditional Anglo-American top-down command styles.

People do love to go on and on about how cool the German Army was, don’t they? I wonder why. It’s not because of their record: two world wars, two silver medals. Sometimes I think it’s just because Auftragstaktic, Schwerpunkt and Falschirmjaeger sound so sexy in German.

There is an old, old story in the Army, even older than your author, if you can believe that. A Captain examines three freshly-minted lieutenants to see how good their training is. He assembles them on the parade ground along with a flagpole, a collection of pioneer tools, a sergeant, and a squad of privates. He asks the three lieutenants to compose the best order for erecting the flagpole, given the resources at their disposal, and gives them a minute to think about it. He then asks each of them in turn and tells them their orders are all incorrect. There is only one correct order: “Sergeant, put up that flag pole.”

This story is told to illustrate any one of a number of military truisms, depending on who is doing the telling, but for me the core of the story is the recognition of the obvious logic of mission-oriented orders – and the fact that obvious logic has been recognized by the U.S. Army for a very long time indeed.

If I have a bone to pick with contemporary fans of the German system of command it is that they know a lot more German military history than they do American military history, and most damningly, are inclined to fill in the gaps in their knowledge with “logical” suppositions which are usually wrong. For example, one of the above cited authors compares the “German” system of mission-oriented command with the “Anglo-American” system of rigid top-down command. That’s a pretty good description of the British command style in World War II, but it has nothing to do with the U.S. style.

The British relied on very long, detailed operational orders. Without an army-wide common tactical doctrine they were almost forced to, but that’s a different story. The point is, their field orders ran to tens of pages sometimes and it was almost impossible, until fairly late in the war, for the British to successfully improvise a battalion-size attack in less than 48 hours. When they tried, it usually ended in a fiasco.

The Americans and Germans, in almost identical terms, comment on the length and needless detail of British field orders. U.S. orders, by contrast, were brief and mission-oriented, very similar to German field orders, so lumping the British and Americans into some imagined “Anglo-American” command style makes no sense.

Did we somehow forget all that after World War II? No. The level of command flexibility and low-level initiative demonstrated in the First Gulf War was pretty remarkable. While I cannot testify to the practice of every unit in deployed to Kuwait, at least two of the returning division commanders (Paul Funk of 3rd Armored Division and Ronald Griffith of 1st Armored Division) within weeks of the end of the fighting commented on the fact that at the division level and below the entire war was fought with “frag” orders. Frag orders are short amendments to an existing order, often given orally. The fact that the war was fought with frag order means the original orders were flexible enough that the changing situations – including a change of pivot point and terminal phase line passed down from CENTCOM to VII Corps in the middle of the campaign – could be met with a few minor corrections. That’s only possible when you are fighting under mission-oriented orders.

Another problem with the worshipers of the Wehrmacht’s expertise is that they tend to think that everything the Germans say they did, they did. The U.S. Army, on the other hand, can say “mission-oriented orders” all it wants to but there remains the suspicion that it is just a slogan or talking point, not really understood and practiced.

Here’s an example. In the discussion of the current changes Vandergriff wonders if the talk of Mission Command will just end up a bullet point on a meaningless Powerpoint presentation. By contrast, he points to the German Army which practiced what it preached. He wrote:

Another example of this attitude are the instructions for German

“You must grasp the full meaning of an operation so that, should your leader
fall by the way, you can carry it out with coolness and caution.”

The above illustrates that:

1. The Germans even instructed lower ranks completely about the objective of
an operation.
2. They expect that even the lower ranks are able to lead.
3. They have trained their men to do that.

With respect, it does not prove that at all. The document in question was captured in the pocket of a German paratrooper in Greece and translated by U.S. Army intelligence, which is largely responsible for its wide dissemination. One document in one guy’s pocket proves all these things?

If the Germans had captured an American soldier with a similar document in his pocket, what would that prove? That the American had a print-out of the bullet points and buzz words from a Powerpoint presentation?

The German Army’s record in World War II was not exactly stellar in that regard, either. They talked a good game, but a lot of their leaders got punished pretty severely for departing from the letter of their orders. The U.S. Army, by comparison, was a model of command initiative and excellent leadership. General George S. Patton said that a commander should issue order one echelon down and know the location and situation of his units two echelons down. That, in a nut shell, is an excellent description of the detail level and mind set of the mission-oriented commander.

And it was not, in my opinion, something we “learned” from the Wehrmacht. It’s been a theme in American command styles virtually from the start. Washington’s orders before the battle of Monmouth to his advanced guard are clearly mission-oriented and depend on the commander exercising initiative. The orders of General Ulysses S. Grant, available in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, are models of clarity and simplicity.

That is not to say we’ve never had problems with command suffocation of subordinate initiative. Our problems came after the World War II and I think they had less to do with not understanding the logic of mission-oriented orders and more to do with the nature of small wars and counterinsurgencies – the business we got into in the 1960s.

Stories of battalion, brigade, and division commanders orbiting in helicopters over a single company in a firefight in Vietnam are undoubtedly true. What is also true is that the nature of a small war is that at that particular time that was probably the only element of the battalion, brigade, and division actually engaged with the enemy. In the past, we counted it a virtue for a commander to know where the most critical point was in the battle and to physically place himself there so as to better control the fight. With helicopters and radio links, it’s actually gotten to be distracting and annoying.

Similar stories from Iraq, including the comment during the Battle of Fallujah about the Pentagon trying to fine-tune the battle with a 7,000-mile-long screw driver, have a similar resonance. The battlefield changes. Commanders will want to get their “hands dirty” helping out whatever elements of their command are under fire. They have to learn a different sort of discipline to keep their hands off their subordinates’ decision-making.

I just don’t think they need to read German to figure that out.

About the Author: The major landmarks in Frank's historical interests range from ancient Persia through the Crimean War, World War II, and the modern U.S. Armed Forces, with a lot of stops in between. Frank is fascinated by the unusual, the overlooked, and the surprising. He is the New York Times number one best-selling author of the Desert Shield Fact Book (1991) and he is currently writing an historical novel on Alexander's conquest of Persia – from the Persian point of view.

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4 Responses to “Mission Command and the Army’s Capstone Concept”

  1. [...] the original post here:  Mission Command and the Army's Capstone Concept : Great History By pivot | category: pivot, pivot point | tags: flexible-enough, means-the-original, [...]

  2. Robert A Mosher said:

    Frank -
    As big a fan as I am of Clausewitz and the elder von Moltke (in translation unfortunately since German is not among my small collection of languages), you make some good points here. I’m actually right in the midst of the Tom Clancy-Franks book about the first Gulf War and much of it is a text book supporting your main theme here. I work Mission Readiness Exercises for units preparing to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan and you can even there see the temptation of that big screwdriver though you can also see those commanders who recognize that in these wars the soldier at the schwerpunkt is going to probably be a sergeant at most and he will need to understand the overall mission because he won’t have time to ask for orders or clarification. What we need to be especially attentive to is what the Army chooses to bring away from these conflicts as the lessons learned on the art of command.

    BTW – re the attraction of the German language, there’s a great moment in “The Prince and the Showgirl” when showgirl Marilyn Monroe asks Prince Lawrence Olivier “Why do you always swear in German?” and he responds, “Because German has the best curses!”

  3. Robert A Mosher said:

    The Tom Clancy/Franks book “Into the Storm: A Study in Command” covers some of this very ground with reasonable success, including discussion of the issues between Schwarzkopf at the top and Franks in command of VII Corps. It also shows that at least in VII Corps there was an understanding in Desert Storm of mission orders. This may have subsequently been lost as cutbacks and reductions forced the military services towards the zero defect officer corps as mistakes were no longer learning moments but instead became an easy way for them to decide who had to get out. I think that the Prussians also lost some of their grasp on the mission orders concept with the expansion of the Army for the First World War, regained it between the wars and then lost it again to the “Fuhrer principle” command system of the Second World War.

  4. Robert, thanks for joining the discussion. Always glad to welcome a philosopher.
    I am very grateful to Tom Clancy for writing that book with Franks. At the time Franks was catching flak from some of Schwazkopf’s partisans and was too much of a gentleman to answer them directly, absurd as some of the charges were. One that I remember was Franks had on the first day of the operation said, “Slow today, fast tomorrow,” which the writer presented as proof that Franks had no understanding of the urgency of mobile warfare. The writer (a USAF officer) knew so little about the subject himself that he did not realize Franks was quoting Heinz Guderian — a guy who I think we can all agree knew something about mobile warfare.
    The Clancy/Franks book was not an apologia or defense, it was just a clear statement of what happened from VII Corps’ point of view — mobile warfare told from the perspective of the armor branch. I’m sure Tom won a lot of fans at Fort Knox with that book.

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