Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Until the 1980s, it was just command. Neither Clausewitz, Jomini, Sun Tzu, nor Basil Liddel Hart talked about Command and Control. Indeed, until the 1980s, no one outside the Warsaw Pact talked about ‘control’ at all – at least as it related to command. The origins are fascinating (and covered a bit later), but the key remains that C2 is supposed to be about Command and Control: perhaps as interdependent facets, perhaps as supplements, perhaps – even – as parasitic necessities. We don’t really know because no one has explained or articulated it. Not in a way we could understand – free from gobbledygook, spin, and neophilic language. And if no one has bothered telling us why we want command and control or what they think it achieves (aside from being a more complex way of delivering leaders’ decisions), then we are undoubtedly facing danger.
“From Plato to NATO, the history of command in war consists essentially of an endless quest for certainty . . .” Martin Van Creveld, Command in War (1985).
“Describing C2 is like trying to describe pornography,” you might claim; that you cannot truly define it, but you would know it when you see it. Having read, listened and interviewed experts from across the world, it seems there is less than compelling evidence for this presumption. Command itself is dependent on culture and context. Nations, forces, and people develop different command styles for many reasons – and there seems to be little that links so many different styles. It is built as much on experience, strategic culture, and the company you keep as it is developed from formal education (although that clearly plays a part). Both Sir Lawrence Freedman and pub landlord Al Murray have released books about it recently, and they have their merits. Neither author addresses C2, however. But compared to a shared understanding of what command is, understanding the control element is almost impossible. Too many definitions bear little resemblance to the lived reality of those in the profession of arms.
Given the proliferation and mainstreaming of control systems inside our headquarters at all levels over the past decade, it is peculiar that we have not had an honest discussion about it since the term was introduced into NATO states back in the 1980s. Our conceptual teams have been distracted by comprehension, offsets, fusion, innovation, integration and other entries to the buzzword bingo sheet. Yet we need to return to the basics of C2: technology – and our relationship with it – is changing C2 as previous generations understood and used it. They thought about it a lot; they built staffs and headquarters based on their deliberations, their debates, and their own experiences. They were not afraid of change, but neither did they discard hard-won lessons through some sense of self-obsession. Eisenhower’s (the bones of which survived through the campaign in Italy, France and Germany) was not simply a duplication of subordinate formation functions, but instead built as a new concept to deliver what others could not (and should not) have been doing. Spearheaded by Walter Bedell Smith, Ike’s HQ started as a group of maverick specialist reservists to become a genuinely operational level staff. As an endeavour, it was remarkably successful in delivering governance, policing, civil law and order, transportation, infrastructure, education and healthcare to liberated states, region by region. There was no focus or requirement for detailed management of battlespace deconfliction and orchestration – something possible today in greater orders of magnitude than ever.
The proliferation of C2 systems in staffs continues unabated. The promise of more data, more machine learning, better intelligence, and the offer of AI-determined Courses of Action (COAs) has arrived and is being mainstreamed. One might wonder why commanders want this: Is it the need for speed in decision-making that overrides all else? In his first book, Command in War, military historian and theorist Martin Van Creveld considered this. To him, commanders were on a “quest for certainty” that would reduce the risk of their decisions. Yet there is a fallacy in seeking certainty on any battlefield, whether the Battle of Mediggo in 1469 BC or in Ukraine in 2023. The fog of war remains a primal concern, as does the adversary’s unpredictability, the ground’s geometry, and the context of the fight, all of which makes certainty a fleeting moment at best. There is nothing wrong with using more data to fix some of the imponderables of decisions in war. Still, there must also be pushback against any belief in perfection, eliminating risk, and deferring decisions to wait for the final piece of the puzzle. In the battle for the soul of Western militaries, there must be a pragmatism about systems being employed, what they can produce, and why they are adopted.
We should return to the origins of command and control. The concept was developed by Russian and Soviet Army Marshalls Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Aleksandr Svechin as a core part of the Russian Deep Battle doctrine, itself the precursor to US ideas of Operational Art in AirLand Battle and arriving in NATO in the 1980s. In those origins, one can determine a distinct role and purpose for the control element of C2, which has perhaps disappeared from military discourse since. We have wandered a few miles from there before, inadvertently.
As we continue to grow the numbers, size and capabilities of C2 HQs, and adopt ever more complex C2 systems that can benefit staff and commanders, we need to be more deliberate in how we think about command and control.
For those too lazy or busy to undertake such discussions, the answer
– according to Mick Ryan –
You can find the latest episode of ‘Command and Control’ on all the major Podcast outlets. And at this link.
Professor Peter Roberts is a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI, where he was Director of Military Sciences from January 2014 to November 2021.
He is also the host of some fantastic Podcasts - This means war, the Western Way of War, Command and Control. You should listen to his stuff.
He was in the Royal Navy for a bit too.