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The British Army’s Command approach explained

Written by on 06 December 2010

When the British Army was forced to radically rethink its command approach during the cutbacks and subsequent restructuring of the 1980s, they looked to the past to rediscover the lessons of history. During the last days of the First World War, the German Army released a devastating force (called the stormtroopers or shock troops).

FrontlineThese small groups of highly motivated, high-quality troops acted in self-contained small forces. They were supported by all force elements and allowed for co-ordination at the lowest level. Stormtroopers provided shock action that took the allied forces by surprised. Their independent localised action simply overran the allies' ability to react. This new way of fighting almost broke the Western front and would have signalled a surprising German victory in late 1918.

Military thinking - continuous innovation

The German Wehrmacht army learnt the lessons of the First World War and assimilated the devastating effect that the Stormtroopers had achieved. The German army embraced the concept of decentralised command within a combined arms environment and this produced a devastating attack methodology that overwhelmed well-prepared armies. It became known as Blitzkrieg or lightening war.

Understanding the principles of Blitzkrieg

Key to the Blitzkrieg was the duality of decentralised command, later termed “Mission Command” and a manoeuvrist approach that allowed concentration of force against a critical element of the enemy’s capabilities. This was later termed attacking the “centre of gravity”. It was this thinking that was rediscovered in the 1980s and is described below:

Explosion“The Army's philosophy of command is described in BMD (British Military Doctrine) and has three enduring tenets: timely decision-making, the importance of understanding a superior commander's intention, and, by applying this to one's own actions, a clear responsibility to fulfil that intention. The underlying requirement is the fundamental responsibility to act (or, in certain circumstances, to decide not to act) within the framework of the commander's intentions. Together, this requires a style of command which promotes decentralised command, freedom and speed of action, and initiative.

This command philosophy is then further articulated:

Mission Command meets this requirement and is thus a central pillar of the Army's doctrine. It has the following key elements:

  • a. A commander gives his orders in a manner that ensures that his subordinates understand his intentions, their own missions and the context of those missions.
  • b. Subordinates are told what effect they are to achieve and the reason why it needs to be achieved.
  • c. Subordinates are allocated the appropriate resources to carry out their missions.
  • d. A commander uses a minimum of control measures so as not to limit unnecessarily the freedom of action of his subordinates.
  • e. Subordinates then decide within their delegated freedom of action how best to achieve their missions.

Mission Command is designed to promote a robust system of command and to achieve unity of effort at all levels; it is dependent on decentralisation. Historically, this approach has proved to be the most appropriate to contend with the demands, uncertainties, and frictions of command in war. It requires the development of trust and mutual understanding between commanders and subordinates throughout the chain of command, and timely and effective decision-making, together with initiative (a quality of a commander) at all levels: the key is to get inside of the enemy's decision-action cycle.

(Army Doctrine Publication, Volume 2 ‘Command’ Army Code No 71584, April 1995).

Mission Command, an empowerment philosophy

Mission Command is an empowerment philosophy. It requires individuals to interpret the emerging events within context and make decisions based on the overall intentions of the Commander. Mission Command is an engaged, participative, decision-orientated management approach that captures and includes an individual’s cognitive capabilities.

Improving implementation with Mission Command

Mission Command is a powerful implementation methodology because it flattens the decision-making structure ensuring that the implementation teams have the power to alter decisions, to participate in planning and ensure that the organisation is more agile, responsive to potential opportunities as they emerge.

Creating competitive advantage

Mission Command provides a valuable resource for organisations to plan and adapt quicker than the competition. This concept of decision and implementation cycles that are quicker and more robust than the competition was captured in the thinking of John Boyd (1927 – 1997) and the OODA loop theory.

The shadow of history lays the first rays of light of the new dawn

John BoydThe combined pressures of limited finances and enemy numerical advantage forced the British military and the rest of its NATO allies to critically evaluate its military thinking. The answer lay in the lessons of the past, as military force intervention has arguable entered a new error of intervention. What are the implications for mission command? In a world of interconnected technologies that provide true global broadcasting reach, organisations are forced into empowering individuals to act in accordance with intent rather than a literal translation of orders that are based on plans that are no longer relevant due to the rapidly changing context.

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