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Mission Command; The Fall of the Strategic Corporal & Rise of the Tactical Minister

General Krulak coined the phrase ‘Strategic Corporal’ in 1999 before the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He predicted that in increasingly complex operating environments there would be a need to exploit decision critical information at the lowest levels.  Similarly he predicted that decisions made at the tactical level could have a strategic political impact due to an expanding global media.

His prescription for these changing conditions was that militaries should empower their junior leaders and afford them the freedom to fail.  The response from the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the senior echelons of the Army has instead been to centralise decision making at the very highest levels.  Operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has left many with the impression that Mission Command is simply another doctrinal buzzword which is preached but not practiced.  An objective, frequent and demonstrable example of this can be found in the numerous Tactical Aide Memoires produced by the British Army.  The campaign handbooks developed for the Malayan and Kenyan counterinsurgency campaigns were small and practical books of ideas, generated from pragmatic and local solutions.  The unwieldy doorstops produced for the later iterations of Ops TELIC and HERRICK became too prescriptive and full of verbose policy to considered either tactical or an aid to memory.

Why has this been the case?  Eitan Shamir in his book Transforming Command argues that British Mission Command and performance has regressed, largely as a result of our headquarters incorporating American military information technology as well as replicating American headquarters structures and manning.  During recent counterinsurgency operations we have employed increased quantities of manpower, technology and process to try and make sense of the exponentially increasing volumes of information piped into an increasingly static headquarters.  These bloated headquarters have bred a culture of over planning and control.  The information technology revolution has allowed Ministers and UK based senior officers to directly reach down to the tactical level in distant operational theatres.  General Lamb in his speech “In command and out of control” described a creep at the National Level to from Mission Command to Mission Control.  Prolonged campaigning in Iraq and Afghanistan has created an expanded bureaucracy with a function of identifying and mitigating risk that has not receded.  The advent of “lawfare” and a hysterical media has reduced our Civil Service’s threshold for presentational and reputational risk.  This has led to an ever increasing legal and policy oversight and scrutiny of operations.  The lack of domestic appetite for wars of choice rather than of national survival has led to a dramatically reduced appetite for risk to life on operations.

As result the British Army remains structured as a rigid vertical hierarchy.  Real decision making authority is limited to Ministers and senior officers of the rank of 2* and above.  The danger is that if this is the way we operate in comparative peacetime, this will be the way that we try to fight the next peer on peer conventional war.  The recent change to the British doctrine of Mission Command is a step in the wrong direction.  The new guiding principle that it is the subordinate’s absolute responsibility to act to achieve the superior Commander’s intent puts the emphasis in the wrong place.  It is the Commanders who are responsible for Mission Command.  Responsible for delegating decision making and properly empowering subordinates.  Responsible for practicing the doctrine as it is preached.


The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to the wavellroom through the contact form

British Army

Tom is a British Army Officer with more than a decade of Command, Intelligence and Operational experience on Operations TELIC and HERRICK and continues to serve on the Staff.

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Frosty
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Frosty

Interesting article.

Dettingen
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Dettingen

A good article, many thanks for an interesting read. I found myself nodding throughout reading it – Lambo’s thoughts certainly chimes. I’m not sure I agree entirely with your thought on the change to mission command doctrine – I think the intent was to get people to understand that mission command is not a free licence, rather a duty to instead act with ‘disciplined initiative’ (to borrow the US phrase). Maybe they threw the baby out with the bathwater in the attempt? Jim Storr is another who I think would agree with you and Shamir. I think one of our… Read more »

Major Tom
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Major Tom

I’m glad you enjoyed the article; many thanks for the comment. I’ve also read Jim Storr’s ‘Human Face of War’ and this no doubt had an influence. You’ve no doubt already read it, but Christopher Elliott’s ‘High Command’ profoundly resonated with my own more junior experiences of the MoD’s bureaucracy. I take your point on the intent behind the introduction of the guiding principle of Mission Command. My own view is that this was already covered by the previous 5 principles along with the British Army’s culture of discipline and following orders. Perhaps the need for commanders to operate on… Read more »

JH
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JH

Valid point, but new in 2007: it hasn’t improved. Having said that, I can’t disagree with the bulk of his commentary. However, the mission command point is inaccurate, as Dettingen says. Read a page further down in ADP Land Ops and you’ll find it means “…a responsibility to act as they see fit to achieve the commander’s intent.” Not new: Army took it from Joint Doctrine, and it was a key point of the old Mission Command. So basically do something aligned to the proposed outcome rather than cut your own detail. However, I suspect I am coming at this… Read more »

Ross McLeod
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Ross McLeod

The Strategic and Combat Studies Institute, with the British Army Review, documented this back in 2002, in a well-written and interesting publication called The Big Issue: Command and Combat in the Information Age. The authors were primarily SO2s and SO1s from the then Directorate General Development and Doctrine (DGS&D) at Upavon, before that was subsumed into DCDC at Shrivenham some years later. The US DOD have helpfully archived the publication here (and inserted some pages to reflect their ‘acquisition’ of it): http://www.dodccrp.org/files/Potts_Big_Issue.pdf See Chapter 6 – here’s an excerpt: “This is the domain of the ‘long handled screwdriver’; the ability… Read more »

T J
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T J

So why have things changed? If we believe they have changed that is. I support Tony R with the understanding that the strategic Cpl was alive and well operating on the street of NI back in the day. Why has this now moved its way across to the conventional warfare arena? Although I do ponder what is conventional warfare these days, arguably COIN is the new convention where the enemy isn’t lined up on one side with us on the other in a fairs fair battle with two up and bags of smoke. Isn’t Mission Command there as a guide… Read more »

Alex
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Alex

Isn’t the tactical minister the inevitable counterpart of the strategic corporal? Precisely because the SC can ruin everything at any moment with a single bad call in front of the cameras, politicians feel obliged to try to control him (or her).

Also, in day to day politics, the media *is* the operating enviroment/kriegerisches Element that politicians work in, and the SC phenomenon inserts the battlefield into it.

Doc
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Doc

Two thoughts – a self confident institution which believes it’s in pre-eminence will have no concern about internal debate and divergent opinion. It can only act as a strengthening function for Mission Command. If you stifle debate you effectively stifle individuals thinking for themselves – and that will never be successful in an environment that requires rapid adaptation to new realities. You end with Groupthink – which is already a danger in a profession which despite recent efforts is as WASPish as ours. I’d also add that this process is vital in adding to the body of professional knowledge –… Read more »

Rob R
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Rob R

This is a very interesting and relevant piece. I wonder how much people really analyse what it all means. Certainly you can make the case from the strategic corporal to the tactical minister, but that reflects the reality of warfare in the Information Age where perception and media (and possible manipulation) dominate. Given Ministerial, Parliamentary and political accountability, social media etc. they have little alternative. It’s a compression of decision-making and a control thing, which, we know a lot about following the recent referendum and what has happened since – don’t expect it to go away soon. Working for a… Read more »

J Wilson
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J Wilson

“The advent of “lawfare” and a hysterical media has reduced our Civil Service’s threshold for presentational and reputational risk.  This has led to an ever increasing legal and policy oversight and scrutiny of operations.  The lack of domestic appetite for wars of choice rather than of national survival has led to a dramatically reduced appetite for risk to life on operations.” Herein lies the fundamental problem: These are NOT “Wars of Choice!” Our leadership fails to acknowledge that we ARE involved in wars — A war on many different fronts — of National Survival. Rather, they seem to wish or… Read more »

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