Officers Undertaking Formation Level Planning Training

Future Deployable Headquarters – Small, Distributed & Dislocated.

Contributor: Mike has more than a decade of military experience, including deployment on operations, training and planning.

Years of campaigning in Afghanistan allowed British military HQs deployed into theatre to increase in size.  This increase was both in terms of number of staff in HQs as well as the physical space each HQ occupied.  This was a necessary step; counter insurgencies are complex, particularly as they develop.  Targeting becomes driven by legal issues.  Politicians become more involved and the military finds itself nation building, whilst simultaneously conducting military operations.

Over the course of the Afghan campaign, the British Army re-oriented to face the character of this new conflict.  With the British Army’s commitment to combat operations now drawn to a close in Afghanistan, the Army needs to quickly adapt to face the next conflict.  It’s not possible to truly predict the characteristics of future conflict, but the Army must be prepared for what it will most likely to face.

Our HQs, at Battle Group, Brigade and Divisional level are too big and cumbersome to be effective in contemporary environment against a peer or near peer adversary.  Our future enemies may well be able to coordinate mass fires against us, in a short timeframe.  Informed by observations on operations in the Ukraine, lecturers at staff college are suggesting that these timelines could be as short as 8-15 minutes, from sensor acquisition to impact from mass fires.  Currently most Field Army HQs are still centered on a packet of vehicles grouped together by tents.  Experience would suggest, that even with modern drash-tentage, the quickest these can be established or dismantled is 20 minutes.  The implication of this is obvious and exacerbated by the reality that most Step-up HQs constitute only a skeleton of the Main variant.  Having a fully equipped Alternate HQ seems to have become a thing of the past.

Concealment of the HQ will be progressively difficult.  With an increasing ubiquity and ease of use of modern sensor technologies we must expect to be acquired rapidly on the battlefield; the spectrum of capabilities on offer to an adversary is now baffling.  Once found, the HQ can expect to be targeted; with C2 high on the adversary’s priority target list.  The solution to this must be to move quickly and to enhance the deception of our adversaries.  HQ locations must be indistinguishable from other units, making it difficult for the adversary to distinguish between them and subsequently target.  We must obfuscate across all domains and consider the threats not just in the physical, but across the Cyber and Electromagnetic spectrum.  This will require novel solutions, such as the employment of unmanned vehicles to rebroadcast redundant communications, dummy HQ vehicles and greater mobility of HQ groupings.  But most importantly, it’s time to ditch the tents.

HQs in the armoured role must be able to operate solely from within their vehicles.  Our planning processes and the means that support them must adapt.  Our HQs could be shrunk and simplified.  Time at one location will need to be brief.  Commanders’ intent and direction should be distributed quickly, before elements of the HQ disperse to continue planning.  This could be achieved through  low power wireless networks, visible light communications or other discreet communication channels, allowing information to be quickly synced, before HQs then disperse to plan, and return together at a scheduled synchronisation point.  Orders could be issued across the network by VOIP over data burst communications in a similar manner to how radio orders were once the status quo.  The same approach could be used for light role, airborne or commando forces.  Equally a quick set up, short-range wireless or LiFi network could link buildings together, so that forward HQs are less easy to target and ‘distributed by design’.  Reachback to a large ‘think tank’ of staff in a safer or better protected area is also a potential option.  But for all this to be viable, we must possess a robust and rapidly deployable communications network, capable of operating securely in a congested and contested electromagnetic environment, where we cannot expect superiority.

Development of these concepts require significant resourcing, but will also require experimentation and exploitation.  Resourcing development costs money, but experimentation can come cheap.  Simulating distributed and dispersed command in the training environment can be easily achieved and may cognitively prepare our Commanders for the future.  HQs can develop efficient & simplified processes and train in separate rooms.  Forced to only exchanging information at set times, with minimal direction, Commanders will need to trust their staff to supply them with the information they need, with minimal interaction from above.  Speed of decision making is key.  Information needs to be succinct, simple and packaged so it can be easily transferred in short bursts.  HQs must become less dependent on bandwidth hungry approaches, such as VTC, and pass information over voice supported by simple schematics over data.  It will take progressive training to encourage HQ staff away from traditional planning at the map table, to distributed planning between small dislocated staff cells. The exercise of formed HQs should involve training for environments with simulated denied communications, and the use of reversionary methods of planning and executing operations. The first change in all of this however, must be our mindset. Through simple training techniques and faith in the principle of Mission Command, HQs can become smaller, more distributed and dislocated.  This will increase their survivability against future threats, and allow them to more effectively support their units.

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Officers Undertaking Formation Level Planning Training
Officers Undertaking Formation Level Planning Training on ICSC(L)
Image courtesy of Copyright Wavell Room 2017

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10 Comments on "Future Deployable Headquarters – Small, Distributed & Dislocated."

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“Reachback to a large ‘think tank’ of staff in a safer or better protected area is also a potential option” isn’t this exactly what 3xx are working on now? Having seen the 3xx HQ deployed on Ex IRON RESOLVE, the two week build and one week collapse version clearly is way off the mark.

My understanding is the new HQ can plan in the UK push detail forward to theatre, although this may not be the full planning capability, that seems like progress nonetheless.

I think the Army has got this right in principle (in A2020R). HQ TF Helmand was huge by the end because we did not deploy a UK divisional HQ and so made them responsible for a range of activity and a planning horizon that was well outside the norm for a brigade, even in COIN/Stability. The introduction of RC(S) and then RC(SW), and the NCC in Kabul, helped but did not fully address the heart of the issue – clear chains of command where a commander and staff could focus on their core role. As Mike and commentators have pointed… Read more »
Grounded Curiosity

Great read, thanks Wavell Room! Grappling with the same HQ issues in Australia – “A feature of recent operations is that formation headquarters have been relatively static, they have also been established for prolonged periods of time, and with a high number of specialist staff. This post seeks to explore the challenges of the brigade headquarters, in particular, the Enabled Combat Brigade Headquarters against Army’s mission to be a force capable of exerting land power.”

Really enjoyed reading this, thank you. I can’t help bus feel that this all sounds so glaringly obvious. However as long as there is a continued political ‘long screw-driver’ approach to operations then there will be a corresponding requirement for a large staff. The key is where that staff is. Tactical resources have been routinely coordinated, when appropriate, at strategic level in our recent campaigns often defensively and resulting in saving lives. Disaggregation of the staff also lends to a smaller, albeit still notable, electronic signature. The targeting of such a large c2 hub is so easy that this alone… Read more »
‘However as long as there is a continued political ‘long screw-driver’ approach to operations then there will be a corresponding requirement for a large staff.’ I think that so long as we have an army of, let’s face it, only one division; and so long as that division contains all our credibility (using the term advisedly) as a serious, major combat-capable army, then the intense oversight of operations by our civil leadership will continue. Ironically, the idea that war is too important to be left to the generals is only given more heft when the army is so small that… Read more »
Ben E

Headquarters function is one thing, but training in a dispersed way and increased trust in subordinates – earned, not automatic – will be what drives this forwards. It needs to be a review of the whole process, not just the physical size. OSW needs to shrink as the HQ shrinks, in order to be more efficient with data transfer and reduce the strain on communications systems – getting the commander to be comfortable without VTC or full motion video on demand.

Logistics In War
As an Australian site like Grounded Curiosity, I can certainly vouch that this is a common theme across armies. There are many similarities with this issue and the argument that theatre logistics footprints must be light; we’re used to a type of warfare and some habits have to be broken. Understanding what is essential versus what is preferred when it comes to what we want out command and control is at the centre of this debate, as it is in logistics. In addition, there are process-related issues worth examining further – you might like to read a different perspective of… Read more »
A very good article and I thank you for it. I think that this kind of change needs to be pushed at all levels and the stock response of ‘that’s not how we do things here’ needs to go. The biggest issue is definitely the multi-national side of larger HQs. The only solution I can think of is to have any size of HQ larger than BG to be based at PHQ, with the only physical footprint on the ground being a JFLOGC type location. Cloud computing is here to stay and could very easily be implemented into the concept… Read more »
David Hume
There are three primary drivers to the size of a headquarters: 1) The role (span of command in units, time and space); 2) The processes used by the staff to fulfill their functions; 3) The technology used to support staff and processes. The focus in the debate tends to be on #1 and #3, but they have to be considered holistically; #2 is often neglected. The 7 Questions (Combat Estimate) was developed as an intuitive model to helps frame thinking for rapid decision making. It has developed since then. We are overdue looking at our processes as part of our… Read more »

Excellent article. Thank you. Resonates very well with the observations of Lions in the brilliant “Donkeys Led by Lions” article which was in the British Army Review a few years ago: