Fighting the Hydra: Flexibility, Mission Command and the Australian Amphibious Force

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For the last two years I have written ‘Letters from HAMEL’ for Grounded Curiosity.  The idea was always to take my own immediate experiences of Army’s capstone training exercise, and  rapidly get them out to the ADF audience.  I realised the idea was working when one of the exercising troops quoted one of the ‘letters’ back to an Observer Trainer (OT) during the exercise!  Parking the fact that he shouldn’t have been reading it on his phone while in the box, it reinforced that this quick loop could be effective.

Well, it’s HAMEL season again … but this year things have changed.  At the start of the year I upped sticks, put on my joint warfighting jacket, and became the Chief of Staff Operations for the ADF’s Amphibious Task Group (ATG).  No armoured manoeuvre for me this year.  Instead for the last six weeks I have been manoeuvring in the littoral with the Australian Amphibious Force (AAF).  What is this, I hear you ask?  I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it.  It’s remarkably impressive.  This year it consisted of two L-Class amphibious ships (HMAS Canberra and Choules), a frigate (HMAS Newcastle), a specialised joint amphibious reconnaissance unit (the ‘Joint Pre-Landing Force’), an aviation battlegroup, a ground combat element, and a logistics combat element and watercraft squadron.  At its peak it was 1700 troops strong.  No shrinking violet, and it isn’t crawling.  The certification exercise included full Joint Force Entry Operations (JFEO), battlegroup-level surface and vertical assaults over the horizon in zero illumination, semi-permissive Non Combatant Evacuation (NEO), amphibious raiding, and more.  Quite the rollercoaster.

So this year I’ve decided that instead of sending a ‘letter from HAMEL’, I am going to send a ‘message in a bottle’.  It might be the first of a few from the Amphibious Headquarters staff.  This one is about flexibility, mission command, and what I’ve learned from the last six weeks of high tempo amphibious operations.

Mission Command and the Amphibious Lodgement

The concept of ‘mission command’ is often seen as a veritable panacea in most Western armies.  It is defined in Australian doctrine as ‘the practice of assigning a subordinate commander a mission and allocating appropriate resources to achieve that mission, without specifying how the mission is to be achieved’.[1]  The rules are simple: the commander articulates the effect he wants to have, and then lets his subordinates use their creativity, fighting spirit and verve to execute a solution.  At its best, mission command is supposed to allow decentralised and high tempo action across the battlespace; overwhelming the Observe Orient Decide Act (OODA) loop of a numerically-superior enemy and defeating him or her in detail.  The idea goes back a long way, but it became central to western militaries during the Cold War, where such innovations were needed by the smaller allied forces to defeat the vast but cumbersome Soviet hordes.  Constraints, restrictions, dictatorial command and detailed control measures are all anathema to the idea of mission command – suffocating innovation and tempo where it is needed most.  Today at the working level these are seen as a commander’s greatest crime against his or her subordinates.

But over the last few years I’ve noticed that mission command is one of those ideas that seem easy to talk about but ever more difficult to grasp.  It’s a bit like the philosophical idea of manoeuvre.  We often complain that we don’t get enough of it, but then we struggle to tie down how to get more of it, when we need it, and why sometimes it doesn’t work!  Well, the last six weeks of amphibious operations has taught me something.  In the same way that attrition is sometimes the only solution, there are times when greater directed control is needed.  In fact there are times when too much mission command can be fatal.  The secret is to know when you need one or the other, how you need to balance them, and then to be flexible enough to adapt.

Let me give you an example.  One of the certification activities we conducted as the AAF was a night-time amphibious lodgement as part of a full Joint Force Entry Operation.  This is a complex task that involves inserting specialist reconnaissance and divers to prove a beach, and then launching two Combat Teams simultaneously by helicopters and watercraft to overwhelm the enemy.  It is almost entirely slave to the weather conditions.  The tide has to be just right to allow the shallow drafts of the watercraft to get to the sand without drowning the occupants, and the ship has to be pointing in the right wind direction to let the helicopters take off.  All has to be synchronised with Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconaissance and fires to protect the force.  Is this the place for mission command?  Absolutely not.  It would be catastrophic.  With only around a three hour window of the right weather conditions we had to direct almost every moment.  The closest we came to mission command was that the Combat Teams could choose which soldiers went on which boat … but that was it.   Choreography and rehearsal was the only way; creativity and innovation were limited.  The aviation battlegroup commander described it well when he said it was basically a huge obstacle crossing.  But it worked.  In a remarkably short time we placed nearly 450 soldiers and 60 vehicles ashore.  A bridgehead was in: at that stage the creativity could start.

Did that mean that mission command was out for the rest of the operation?  Not at all.  Like a hydra, I found the AAF had many faces.  Once the lodgement was established we had to rapidly switch roles to support the advance of a Combat Brigade through Shoalwater Bay.  Our mission could not have been more simply expressed: ‘enable 7 Combat Brigade manoeuvre’.  Within 96 hours we had inserted specialised reconnaissance more than 50 nautical miles behind enemy lines using small boats, and then operationally manoeuvred the AAF through the littoral (defeating enemy fast inshore attack craft on the way) to conduct an amphibious raid and demonstration.  Mission command was once again the order of the day.  The creativity of the staff and units of the AAF was critical and, with little time for detailed rehearsal, we relied on hasty orders and Rehearsal of Concept (ROC) drills to get us off the line of march.  Planning was everything, because there was little time to confirm the plan.  What was the hardest part of this?  For me it was shifting the mindset.  Very rapidly we had to go from directed control to mission command, and this was uncomfortable.  After the lodgement everyone was expecting to be deluged with detail.  When it didn’t come there were some nervous looks.  But we got there in the end.

Conclusion: Fanatacism and Flexibility

History tells us that, in modern warfare, mission command is one of the greatest enablers of victory against a numerically superior enemy … especially when combined with the magic that is manoeuvre.  But someone once said to me, ‘never follow a fanatic’.  There are times when manoeuvre is a crutch, attrition is the only way, and you have to methodically destroy an enemy piece by piece.  In the same vein mission command is not a silver bullet for tactical and operational success.  Sometimes the devil is in the excruciating detail, and as a commander you have to direct.  In the amphibious world this need is recognised in doctrine, which presents a set of ‘basic amphibious decisions’ that forces the commander to fix as early as possible vital factors like landing beach locations, H-hr times and tidal windows.  The key, as ever, is balance and flexibility.  The best forces are able to do both, to flick from excruciating detail to mission command on the receipt of a Fragmentary Order (FRAGO) and the turn of a die.  The hardest part is recognising when you need to change.  So if you want to practise something as a commander, practise that.  It will pay off, no matter where you are.

Tom McDermott is an Australian Army officer. This is the first in a series of ‘Messages in a Bottle’ written by the Amphibious Task Group staff based on their experiences from the SEA SERIES 2018.  Keep an eye out for more in Australian blogs for the profession of arms.

[1]  See Australian Defence Doctrine Publication 00.1: Command and Control, which outlines the philosophical and functional aspects of joint command and control in the ADF.  Available on DRN only.