Mission command is a tricky concept that has been confusing western militaries for decades. At its best, it enables rapid decisive action through decentralised decision making conducted by competent and free thinking subordinate commanders. At its worst, it is exploited as an excuse for a lack of planning by the higher headquarters or to justify stubbornness by those being commanded.
Mission Command in the Israel Defence Forces by Brigadier General Gideon Avidor, is an in-depth analysis of how the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has wrestled with the concept of mission command throughout its existence. This is presented largely as a collection of short essays by various IDF commanders reflecting on their experiences applying mission command.
These experiences cover all of the major conflicts Israel has been involved in since its founding in 1948. This includes the Six Day War, the Yom Kipur War, the First Lebanon War and the Second Lebanon War (note these names are those used in the book and represent the names used by the IDF to describe these conflicts). The commanders also reflect on how the application of mission command differs between conflicts of differing character. The two main examples used to highlight this contrast are the IDF’s various conventional conflicts compared to its ongoing confrontations with various terrorist organisations.
Central to the discussion of mission command is a parallel discussion of its perceived opposite, detailed command. The IDF view of detailed command is best described as command arrangements where the higher headquarters tightly synchronises and dictates how the mission is to be achieved, leaving little to no freedom of action for the subordinate headquarters. A consistent theme among the contributors is that while mission command is the preferred style and is enshrined in IDF doctrine, there are genuine situations where detailed command is required. These situations usually amounted to situations where small errors in judgement could easily escalate into global political fallout. Situations where the idea of the strategic corporal can make or break the success of the operation (in achieving the political aims) regardless of the broader tactical picture.
Another common thread throughout the book is that mission command is a live, evolving concept that is affected by the contemporary character of war. The main way in which this manifests itself is in the effect of technology, especially with regard to Command and Control (C2) systems.
The contributing commanders are consistent in their view that modern C2 systems create a paradox of command philosophy. On one hand, subordinate commanders have never had access to such an accurate picture of the broader tactical situation, a development that should more easily enable mission command to be practised with confidence. While on the other hand, the improvement in situational awareness as to the whereabouts of the smallest force elements (and in some cases individual armoured vehicles) coupled with decreased appetite for political risk (in the global news cycle), heavily incentivise commanders to micromanage tactical actions.
The contributing commanders felt that overall this pushes the force toward detailed command resulting in a more risk averse culture, that is slower to respond to tactical developments due to a need to receive permission from higher.
The commanders also noted that these developments create a further paradox for the commander as to where to best position themselves on the battlefield. This is because situational awareness is maximised by remaining in the headquarters commanding from the rear while the commander’s ability to affect the outcome of the operation is maximised by placing themselves close to the decisive point – effectively requiring the commander to be in two places at once.
It was noted that this sometimes results in one of two undesired effects. The first being something the IDF calls “plasma generals” where the commander remains to the rear commanding solely through the C2 system and its data feeds (named for the plasma screens they watch the battle on). The other is a subtle but important abdication of command from the commander to their headquarters staff. This occurs if the commander spends too much time touring the battlefield, leaving the headquarters to get on with controlling the battle without sufficient command oversight.
The book ends with a chapter addressing how mission command is likely to fit into future operations. This chapter focuses heavily on the implications of information warfare and describes a situation where the battlespace can be characterised by two dimensions (domains) rather than today’s multiple dimensions. The two dimensions of concern are simply the physical and information spaces.
Why should you read this book? Simple, the key themes of the book are issues that every military is grappling with due to the rapid technological and sociological changes currently underway. Every commander and their headquarters need to work out how much risk they are willing to accept and then grant their subordinate elements a corresponding level of freedom of action. Subordinate commanders need to understand the tactical, operational and strategic circumstances in which they find themselves to better appreciate when to pursue the initiative and when to pause to await permission.
Additionally, advanced C2 systems are a fixture of modern military operations and will only get more sophisticated and data driven as machine learning and artificial intelligence improve and proliferate further. All militaries need to understand how this will impact their particular command philosophies and doctrines.
Due to the range of command appointments represented by the contributors, this is a book that most military leaders can learn something from.
About the author: Chris is an Associate Editor at Grounded Curiosity and a currently serving Australian Army officer. Building on a multi-discipline engineering background, his passion is technological development and PME. Chris’ work has previously appeared on Grounded Curiosity, Strategy Bridge and The Cove. Find him on Twitter.