A ‘notice to move’, or as it is known by its military acronym ‘NTM’, serves as a useful planning tool to manage expectations for both force elements and commanders. But in dynamic, unpredictable circumstances, a notice to move can sometimes be the source of confusion and friction between various levels of command. This needn’t be so. If expectations are managed, and people are educated about what a notice to move really means, then all levels of command can use the concept of notice to move as an effective operational planning tool.
A notice to move is a tactical term used to describe the readiness posture of a particular force element. It is the expected time from when a force receives direction to conduct a specified task to the time it actually moves. The Australian Defence Force, quite rightly, protects specific details regarding notices to move for key units and capabilities. The purpose of this article is not to disclose any sensitive information, but rather to discuss the concept of ‘notice to move’, explain its utility, and highlight some of the misconceptions that surround it.
A notice to move serves two purposes. First it provides those under the notice to move with an indication of the expected time that they will be provided to prepare for an operation. This informs orders and policy such as leave boundaries and restrictions, recall procedures, equipment readiness, and dress. Second, a notice to move provides decision-makers with an understanding of how ready a particular force is, which also indicates how much risk the commander needs to accept if the force is employed inside of the specified time. A notice to move is not a firm line in the sand. It is not a limitation. A commander can simply order the force to move within the notice, and accept the risk of employing an underprepared force.
The recent bushfire crisis in Australia required thousands of full-time and reserve forces to be deployed at incredibly short notice. Most of the people who deployed were not part of a unit on a specified notice to move. Soldiers were recalled from leave, and were required to deploy immediately to assist their fellow Australians in a time of crisis. They deployed with whatever equipment, and whatever information, was available. Commanders accepted considerable risk and decided to employ people and capabilities immediately in order to provide desperately needed emergency support. The risk of deploying at short notice was assessed and understood—it was a risk worth taking. To the Australian Defence Force’s credit, its people worked exceptionally well to get the job done in difficult circumstances.
At the strategic level, readiness and preparedness are core business for the military. But that is not to suggest that all of the military is ready all of the time. Capabilities, including people, need to be managed to ensure that there is an appropriate balance between rest, maintenance, and high tempo periods. Former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld once quipped: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time”.Commanders at both the strategic and tactical level are expected to assimilate risk, and then use their judgement to exploit opportunities, seize the initiative, and act in the best interests of the mission. This means that while things are ‘business as usual’, notices to move usually hold true. But in the event of an emergency situation, notices to move are rarely adhered to if the risk of inaction is greater than the risk of deploying with potentially underprepared forces.
At the tactical level, notices to move provide time for individuals to prepare their equipment, for small teams to issue and receive orders, and for last-minute coordination to be completed. The shorter the notice to move, the more prepared individuals need to be. For example, a tactical quick reaction forces is usually on an extremely small notice to move, which requires soldiers to remain completely ready to spring into action. An infantry platoon on five minutes notice to move would be fully prepared in their combat equipment, and would be sitting in or at least next to their vehicles. Their commander would be in a position to rapidly receive and distribute orders. The platoon would have a number of well-rehearsed standard operating procedures in order to reduce, as much as possible, time required to coordinate unforeseen issues. Employing the force within its specified notice to move carries the risk of incomplete or rushed orders and confusion when completing the task.
Larger capabilities such as ships and aircraft also maintain specific notices to move. This allows maintenance teams to carry out certain levels of servicing, with an expectation that the equipment can be reassembled and employed as required within certain time frames. Employing a ship or an aircraft within its notice to move carries the risk of jeopardising the mission due to faulty or under-prepared equipment. Disregarding a notice to move usually exposes the crew to heightened levels of risk and contravenes well-established safety guidelines. The risks associated with the rapid employment of large capabilities are usually more well-defined than the risks associated with the rapid employment of people; yet both can lead to catastrophe. A soldier without a serviceable weapon is like an aircraft without a serviceable wing. A soldier without sleep is like a ship without fuel.
Staff officers and planners often fail to appropriately articulate risks and mitigations to commanders. Notices to move are often presented as a limitation; either a constraint or a restriction. Constraints are actions imposed by a commander or another authority, which must be undertaken. Restrictions are prohibitions on activities that a commander or another authority might impose. Notices to move are neither. Instead, notices to move, and the associated risk of shortening them need to be presented to commanders to best inform their decision. Things that might influence a commander’s decision include environmental conditions, mission-specific circumstances, the enemy situation, and considerations regarding the individual unit or asset being employed. In the same way that tactical purists will claim that a reserve should never be tasked, some planners claim that it is a cardinal sin to commit a force within its specified notice to move. This is wrong. Rigidity of thinking and inflexibility leads to poor advice to commanders and missed opportunities.
History is rich with examples when risk was accepted at the strategic and tactical level and commanders rapidly employed their forces to achieve success. If Lysander had paused to let his fleet fully prepare in 404BC, he would perhaps have never bought an end to the Peloponnesian War. If Alexander the Great hadn’t seized the opportunity to attack with an underprepared force at Gaugamela in 331 BC, his army would perhaps have never ventured east of the Euphrates into India. A more recent example of commanders accepting risk in favour of action is the Doolittle Raid of 1942. The US was steadily generating military power after Pearl Harbour but was years from being prepared to launch a full-scale attack on mainland Japan. Sixteen B-25B Mitchell medium bombers were rapidly modified and launched from an aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific Ocean, each with only enough fuel to bomb Japan, and then land in China. Had the US waited until their military and industrial base was ready, they would have missed a strategic opportunity to attack Japan. The risk of inaction was greater than the risk of employing underprepared forces. Notices to move were simply set aside and commanders seized opportunities.
Almost all risk can be accepted as some level, depending on the situation. But regardless of how much a commander is willing to tolerate risk, forces are often bound by physical limitations. These irreducible minimums are outside of the commander’s control and, although frustrating, are very difficult to mitigate against in dynamic situations. Dismounted infantry require time to get from A to B. They can run, but only so fast. An aircraft is limited by the amount of fuel it has available. It can fly to its limits, but the resolve of the commander can’t make it fly any further. A ship’s access to a harbour is limited by the rise and fall of the tide—and the tide doesn’t care about the mission. Good planning can forecast for, and mitigate against, environmental and physical limitations, but the resulting irreducible minimums need to be articulated to the commander.
Indicators and warnings provide the force with appropriate notice to reduce readiness and anticipate the likely requirement to move. Where possible, commanders will reduce a unit’s notice to move to reflect the situation. This means the unit can prepare appropriately. But over-preparing is costly and inefficient. Considerable strain is placed on people and resources due to the need to rotate, reassign, and train for responsibilities. In a dynamic situation, for example during the high-risk weather season, indicators and warnings might simply rely on weather predictions. Instead of reducing everyone’s notice to move, a commander might accept the risk of allowing units to remain on leave, and then understand that at very short notice some units will have to be employed. Anyone who has remained on a short notice to move for a prolonged period of time will understand the difficulties and discomfort associated with such an activity. It is costs money, burns time, and can be very, very boring.
People often vent their frustrations when they are required to move within a specified notice. When an order to move at short notice is given, the response ought not be “don’t they realise that’s within the specified notice to move?”, because they (the commander) do understand the situation perfectly well. Rather, those receiving the order should understand that the situation is serious enough that the commander has accepted the risk yet still wants the force to move.
A notice to move is a useful planning tool and should be considered as such. It is not a limitation for a commander. Planners need to remember its relationship with risk and provide recommendations to inform the commander’s decision. At the tactical level, we need to be less rigid and more flexible. We need to be ready to spring out of the box at any moment and do whatever is asked of us to the best of our ability. We always need to be prepared for the order: “move now-out”.
About the Author
 The New York Times, 08 Dec 2004. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/08/international/middleeast/iraqbound-troops-confront-rumsfeld-over-lack-of.html
Australian Defence Doctrine Publication (ADDP) 5.0—Joint Planning, https://www.defence.gov.au/adfwc/Documents/DoctrineLibrary/ADDP/ADDP_5_0.pdf