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The foundations of Mission Command

Written by on 18 October 2010

Although there are many examples of military leaders taking the initiative, the key theories that lie behind Mission Command, began to emerge with some clarity during the 1800s.

Two very different armies

On the 14th October 1806, two very different forces faced each other at the battle of Jena and Auerstedt. The contrast between the highly professional, organised and well-drilled Prussian army and the relatively unprofessional French Republican citizens army of Napoleon Bonaparte, was stark. Yet, the outcome was a crushing defeat of the Prussian army.

Competitive advantage through decentralisation

The victory at Jena and Auerstedt came as a result of the organisation of the French army. Napoleon pioneered the “Core” configuration, where sub groups of military capability, containing infantry, cavalry, artillery etc, operated with the Emperor’s intention, but had the freedom of action. This freedom allowed Napoleon’s core commanders the ability to take advantage of the emerging situation within the ensuing battle.

Success through modification

As the battle raged, unforeseen events began to emerge. The plans of the two Generals began to unfold and cause an unpredictable war. Napoleon’s Generals were empowered to adapt their plans in real time, in-order to take full advantage of the opportunities. In contrast, the Prussian Generals were bound to a slavish adherence to their original orders.

Learning from failure

A young staff officer, Carl von Clausewitz, was present and observed the battle. He began a study of war that would span his entire life. His wife later published his now famous study of conflict, which was simply entitled, “On War”. The observations made by Clausewitz were further developed by a succession of military officers including Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who is best known for his famous acumen, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”.

Uncontrollable nature of conflict

Moltke’s observation recognizes the uncontrollable, unpredictable nature of conflict and advocated that trying to control the context through careful and predictive planning was useless.

He opened the conceptual door to the development of Mission Command.

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