It was the famous German, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800 -1891), that first coined the phrase 'no plan survives contact with the enemy', and since his time, this quote has been used many times to indicate the unpredictable nature of events.
A background to the phrase and the inception of Mission Command
Von Moltke was the 'Chief of Staff for the Prussian Army' for thirty years and as such, had enormous influence over the intellectual development of the Prussian Army, which later become the German Army. His classic comment was part of an evolving process of intellectual analysis that had begun after the crushing defeated of the Prussian Army, at the hand of Napoleon’s Army at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806.
The Battle of Jena-Auerstedt: A pivotal event
The battle saw two well-trained and highly professional Prussian Armies defeated by a smaller, comparatively poorly-trained, French Army. Although the brilliance of Napoleon's generalship and strategic decision-making played an enormous part in the victory, a deeper analysis demonstrated the power of decentralised command and utilisation of initiative amongst junior levels, allowed the French to take advantage of fleeting opportunities as they emerged.
Critical deductions and analysis
The Prussians were shocked at the events of Jena-Auerstedt, yet they were determined to learn from their mistakes. Carl von Clausewitz was a staff officer at the battle, and he subsequently produced the comprehensive analysis of the nature of conflict in his publication of 'On War'. A number of other highly influential officers were also present at the battle, including Gebhand von Blucher, August Neidhardt von Gneisenau and Gerhard von Scharnhorst. These figures sparked a debate that would rage within the German Staff for almost 100 years.
Control or acceptance
The key to the debate was simple. Through meticulous planning and organisation, the Germans discussed whether you could control the unpredictable nature of conflict or whether it was better to develop a process and procedure which could operate effectively within this complex and volatile environment.
Development of Mission Command
Helmuth von Moltke's statement, 'no plan services contact with the enemy', draws a definitive line under the debate. Moltke signals an acceptance that the environment is volatile and cannot be controlled through the planning process. The German army developed a methodology we know as 'Mission Command', which would become central to the German philosophy of warfare throughout the later stages of the First and Second World War. Although the outcomes of both wars resulted in overwhelming defeat for Germany, it is worth noting that at the tactical level, the German Army outperformed all military forces of the day ,even in the face of overwhelming unfavourable odds.
Adoption of Mission Command thinking by the Western Armies of today
It was the performance of the German Army throughout the Second World War, which sparked a resurgent interest in Mission Command. During the 1980s, the Western forces faced significant financial pressures to reduce numbers and expenditure. In order to provide more with less and achieve higher levels of performance, they formally adopted a Mission Command methodology as a critical component in maintaining a competitive advantage over their Soviet adversaries.