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 in which the emphasis is placed on the outcome of a mission rather than the specific methods.
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 the tactic’s opponents, who preferred Normaltaktiker. In the modern German army, the Bundeswehr, the term Auftragstaktik is considered an incorrect characterisation of the concept; instead, Führen mit Auftrag (“leading by mission”) is used. However, the older unofficial term is more widespread.
In mission-type tactics, the military commander gives subordinate leaders a clearly defined objective, the forces needed to accomplish that objective, and a time frame in which the objective must be accomplished. The subordinate leaders then decide on methods to achieve the objective independently. To a large extent, the subordinate leader is given the planning initiative and a freedom in execution, which allows a high degree of flexibility at the operational and tactical levels of command. Auftragstaktik frees the higher leadership from managing tactical details.
For the success of the mission-type tactics, it is imperative that the subordinate leaders understand the intent of the orders they are given and are trained to act independently. The success of the doctrine rests upon the subordinates’ understanding of the intent of the order’s issuer and their willingness to achieve the goal even when their actions violate other guidance or received orders. Taking the risks of violating previously expressed limitations as a routine step to achieving a mission is a behaviour most easily sustained in a particular type of innovative culture. This culture is today often associated with elite units rather than an entire 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 centralised 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 Eitan 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 effect. 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 commentators 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 (refer to the Napoleonic Wars), 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 French troops were mainly composed of conscripts indicates that it was Napoleon’s organisation of the troops, rather than their professional training, which gave the French an overall advantage. The institutionalisation 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 armour 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 allow a commander to actually disobey orders, but it does allow (what may be seen as surprising by some) – and even demand – that he consider an order no longer binding if it would not be given in the changed situation (according to his own judgement); 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
“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 recognised 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”.
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