Select Committee on Defence Fifth Report

5 Command Issues

Mission command

92. The practice in the UK's Armed Forces of devolving responsibility down to low levels of command is known as mission command. The commander's intent is shared with subordinates, who are told what to achieve and why, but are then left to decide how to achieve it. Subordinates are encouraged to use their judgement, initiative and intelligence in pursuit of the commander's goal.

93. Network-enabled capability could offer the opportunity to capitalise on the potential of new technologies to decentralise tactical command whilst centralising strategic command. As Air Vice Marshal McNicoll told us last year:

We are looking at how mission command in the information age can work. We are agreed that mission command encapsulates one of the best aspects out of the British approach to the use of military force, the ability for a commander to articulate his intent and for the people beneath him to decide on the best way of carrying that out. The information age should allow a much greater dissemination, a much clearer exposition, of the commander's intent. The question that we are looking at at the moment…is whether we need in some way to decouple more than we do at the moment the command and control functions.[89]

94. Thus, mission command could be enhanced by the full exploitation of the benefits of network-enabled capability, with shared situational awareness and shared understanding of commanders' intent.. But it could also be undermined by it, both at the operational level and the grand strategic level of the political-military interface. There is a danger that mission command itself can encourage a preoccupation with goals (the commander's intent) rather than effects, which in the new operational environment could be undermined by the actions of those at the tactical level. Junior ranks become in effect strategic in their significance. It also raises the problem of the high level command looking down:

…if, for example, there was a small operation going on somewhere and something was happening in that operation that might have a strategic impact, it may be possible in future (and it is to some extent possible now) for people at the strategic or grand strategic level to reach across the operational and tactical levels of command and make a decision and alter what is occurring there…We do not see that that means that we get rid of the tactical and operational layers of command. There are still functions that these levels will have to carry out and the larger the operation the larger the burden on them because of the ability of somebody at the top of the tree to be able to see everything that is going on will obviously not be there regardless of how big the network is. This is one of the potential downsides of network-enabled capability, that it might allow what has been described as "long screwdrivers" to reach forward.[90]

95. Effects-based operations are essentially a way of thinking, not a methodology. As Major General John McColl who commanded the ISAF Force in Afghanistan, recently put it:

The armed forces must fight hard to ensure that the traditional and well-proven methods of command and war-fighting are not undermined by NEC. This will take doctrine, training, self-discipline and determination to see it through…unhindered by process, technology, or stagnant thinking.[91]

Traditional and well-proven methods of command will however have to prove themselves relevant to the future as effects-based thinking takes hold.

96. Even if effects-based thinking offers strategic clarity, it also remains based on premises which are difficult to measure—the link between cause and effect and the mechanisms that tie tactical results to strategic effects. This requires unprecedented interaction between operational level commanders and other "stake-holders" in the campaign, who in an effects-based operation may include, as Air Vice Marshal Mike Heath explained, the whole of government.[92]

97. Dangers could develop at both ends of the spectrum. Politicians will lack the capacity to exploit, or indeed, properly understand the network of sensors and shooters, which are operating on such tight time lines (in many cases in real time) and may be tempted to delegate authority downwards. Meanwhile, at the other end of the operational spectrum, ever more junior ranks will be called upon not only to understand the concept of effects-based operations, but to act with the full pressure of the strategic implications of their actions on the effects sought. This raises the prospect of the "long screwdriver" pushing decision-making up the chain of command and thereby undermining junior ranks' confidence in their own decision-making powers. Decisions then become increasingly remote from the actual employment of force on the ground, with consequent dangers.[93] It remains questionable whether these are reasonable demands to place on the people at the operational/tactical end of the spectrum, but we believe that this is a major implication of embracing effects-based operations. We are not convinced that these challenges have been properly grasped or addressed by the Defence White Paper.

Higher command

98. British Defence Doctrine talks of the strategic, operational and tactical levels of war, in which instructions and objectives are passed down the chain of command from top to bottom, with each level given time to achieve certain goals. But in high tempo full spectrum effects-based operations, tactical activity can often have strategic effects, many of which may be occurring without an appreciation of what has been achieved before it is too late. The logic is that far flatter organisational structures, at least for operations, may have to be embraced. This may also see the levels of war begin to fold into one another, a trend identified and accepted in British Defence Doctrine:

At times, the levels of war may appear to be almost an irrelevance. While the strategic/tactical overlap may be inevitable, given the nature of some operations, it does threaten the essential command and control structure and can undermine the principles of mission command…

…pragmatism applied to the prevailing politico-military circumstances will be the key, although political and military leaders at the strategic level should be discouraged from attempting directly to influence tactical activity.[94]

99. The challenge facing the UK military is that effects-based operations combined with network-enabled capability may not permit such pragmatism in the future because there simply may not be the time. Effects-based operations will not be linear or sequential and control of their environment will become more complex and difficult. The Secretary of State told an audience at RUSI that:

…everyone, from the section leader on the ground, to the pilots above him, to his commanders in the field, headquarters in the UK and sometimes even myself and the Prime Minister need to be able to assimilate and act on information together, rather than one after the other.[95]

This also has important implications for command structures. As the Secretary of State indicated "the old decision-making structures …will be too cumbersome and too slow in the years ahead".[96]

100. Additionally, the technology of network-enabling capabilities may encourage political leaders to believe that they have a better understanding of the battlespace than is actually the case. Civilian and even top level military control may become less, not more, effective. The results could be overwhelming and deeply confusing, as Major General McColl has pointed out:

The modern battlefield is already an information-rich environment …How can this impending exponential rise in data be managed without obscuring or degrading a Commander's strategic, operational and tactical appreciation of the batttespace? Will it become just another "friction of conflict?"[97]

101. The network-enabled invasion forces that prevailed in the high intensity phase of operations in Iraq have subsequently appeared too small for rapid enough reconfiguration for the task of post-conflict stabilisation and occupation. Furthermore, a number of the coalition troops appeared unprepared for urban operations, counter insurgency or indeed the military responsibilities of an occupying power.

102. Public perception of how our fighting forces behave during operations will be an increasingly important factor in the successful pursuit of effects-based operations. For example, the argument that human rights abuses by coalition forces in Iraq were perpetrated by a few bad apples may be true, but is irrelevant. The broad effect of this relatively low-level mistreatment has been to undermine the good work of the many. The command chain needs to address the implications of the actions of the few more comprehensively than it has done to date—to show that every possible step has been taken to ensure that similar incidents do not occur in future and such "effects" are not repeated. The fact that similar incidents occurred amongst coalition forces in Afghanistan before Iraq and in Somalia before that, should have warned senior military and civilian leaders as to the dangers. In effects-based operations, the Armed Forces need to rigorously enforce observance of acceptable standards of behaviour towards civilians, detainees and prisoners by their personnel.

103. The SDR New Chapter noted that network-enabled capability was leading to greater precision in the control of operations and that this might have significant implications for the British way of warfare rooted as it is in the manoeuvrist approach and mission command. The British approach, with its emphasis on independence of mind and speed of judgement, places a high premium on individual initiative and the ability to exploit changes in circumstances (exactly what the White Paper says effects-based operations will do). It encourages the delegation of decision-making, with a consequent requirement for trust throughout the chain of command. Micro-management sits very badly with this approach, but will it be possible to avoid in effects-based operations? In strategic level effects-based operations, which include interaction between politicians, military commanders, diplomats, economists and all the cross-department activity that is required to achieve effect, who arbitrates the division of labour?

104. According to the MoD, the delivery of "military effect" now requires revised planning assumptions, to support high operational activity at all times—that is, not only has the military begun to move towards a permanent expeditionary posture, it also must expect to be used continuously. During the Cold War, when the Armed Forces prepared to fight a war that everyone hoped would never come, defence and politics were in some ways artificially separated. The shift to high levels of expeditionary activity around the world in support of "effects" can be seen as evidence of the re-politicisation of defence policy. No longer can defence been seen as supporting ends somewhat detached from other aspects of foreign and domestic policy. Rather it will now have to operate as an integral part of that political process, with consequent changes in the position of the Armed Forces within the political process.

105. The scrutiny of how the military identifies and achieves the "required" effects on individual operations is likely to increase beyond the professional experience of most of the UK Armed Forces commanders and their troops. The military perceived as being engaged in operations of choice rather than requirement are likely increasingly to be called upon to justify how and why they acted in certain situations, by distant commentators, with little or no background in, or knowledge of, military matters. Furthermore, the constant and intrusive attention of the media, along with the implications of international, as well as national, public opinion scrutinising every tactical action by individual service men and women is likely to place even greater strain on the political-military interface. It may also threaten the bond of trust that is required for mission command, as mistakes and errors become increasingly unacceptable when the media are all too ready to assign blame/responsibility. The challenges to commanders and their troops are likely to be significant.

106. We remain concerned that the demands of effects-based operations on higher command have not been fully appreciated by the MoD. We recommend that in their reply to this report the Government set out its understanding of these developments and their doctrinal implications.

Coalition operations

107. The White Paper has moved on significantly from the SDR and the New Chapter in its consideration of coalition operation. It notes that:

The most demanding expeditionary operations, involving intervention against state adversaries, can only plausibly be conducted if US forces are engaged.[98]

This has prompted some to question why the UK is limiting itself in this way. CDS acknowledged that the assumption was that the UK would not engage in inter-state conflict on its own again.[99] Coalitions will be essential since the UK will no longer prepare to carry out any large scale operations alone, according to the Secretary of State, who told us:

we do not envisage needing to generate large-scale capabilities across the same spectrum, given that in the most demanding operations it is inconceivable that the United States will not be involved…[100]

The language was very forceful and indicated a change in emphasis—in November 2003 the Secretary of State only referred to the possibility of the UK engaging in large-scale combat operations without the US as being "highly unlikely". [101]

108. But as well as maintaining its connection with the US, the UK must also consider other allies. In embracing the new technology MoD says it is attempting to ensure that it leaves gateways available for allies to connect to later, when they acquire the capabilities to join the UK network. The Secretary of State denied that the UK was finding it hard to keep up with the US,[102] but this was not the picture received from other contributors to our inquiry. In dealing with the US lead in areas of NEC, the defence chiefs told us that the UK would never be able to replicate the US capability, but attempts were being made to ensure that the UK could plug into the US network as required.[103] CAS told us that:

We are not actually trying to catch up because if one chased them then I think…one would never overhaul them. What we are trying to do is point ahead and get to the same capability at the same time…That does not mean …we will buying the same things, but it does mean…that we will be working out protocols, processes and procedures to ensure that as these things come into service…we will be inter-operable.[104]

CGS put it as follows: "we must be able to fight with the Americans. That does not equal we must fight as the Americans".[105] We remain to be convinced that in an era of effects-based operations and network-enabled capability this aim (to be able to plug into the US network as required) will be achievable, and we will watch this with interest.

109. The biggest problem could be that the UK will not know in advance which countries will be able to bring which capability to operations of "coalitions of the willing". A further complication is that different countries have different requirements and equipment, often with differing bandwidth capabilities. The UK is seeking to keep up with the US in order to share their picture, not copy their network. We conclude that the implications of effects-based operations, utilising network-enabled capability, on coalition operations have not been properly addressed in the Defence White Paper.

110. Difficulties could also arise over rules of engagement (ROE). Even today NATO ROE is open to different interpretations by separate national contingents on the same operations. When visiting British troops on a variety of operations in the past few years, we have regularly had raised with us the problem of national red-cards—that is caveats by national governments on what their troops can and cannot do—which is claimed to be a significant obstacle to making multinational coalition operations work effectively. This is especially so where there are small composite units from a number of countries, rather than organic independent national contingents capable of decisive action. CGS told us that such situations had to be carefully handled:

The degree to which you get cohesion in a multi-national force is to some extent at least a function of the degree of commitment of the national contingents to the task in hand…the whole question of a national red card…there is no easy answer…It goes back to… the level to which it is sensible to have a multinational force. If you are going to fight a war-fighting operation you need to be very careful as to how far down these routes you allow a multinational force…[106]

111. We are concerned that as the pressure grows towards the UK sending smaller and smaller force packages on coalition operations as articulated in the White Paper, the danger of the resultant force's effectiveness being dependent on the caveats of some of the smallest contributors will increase. We have repeatedly seen that while British forces often contribute the most effective capability to coalition operations, the limited size of our contributions can mean that we are dependent on forces from countries that do not share our doctrinal, or indeed political approach. The ambition of successful effects-based operations in a coalition context is we believe well beyond the current political and military capabilities of our alliance structures. We have identified some of the reasons why we believe that effects-based operations are going to be a huge challenge for the UK Armed Forces. Unless the question of national red-cards and caveats is urgently reviewed by NATO and the European Union, the potential for ineffectual coalition deployments is significant. The UK should beware of planning for operations in which small UK force packages operating as part of a coalition are assumed to be capable of achieving "effect". If they must rely on coalition partners, there must be robust agreement on the "effects" sought. This problem has the potential to undermine the UK's approach to composite coalition operations.

89   HC 93-I (2002-03), para 94 Back

90   Ibid. Back

91   McColl, John, 'Adapting Command Hierarchies: Does NEC Pose a Threat or an Opportunity?', RUSI Journal (February 2004) p 55. Back

92   Lessons of Iraq, HC 57-I (2003-04), para 443. Back

93   For a discussion of the question of micro-management dangers see Paul Cornish, 'Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Managers of War--The Strategic, Military and Moral Hazards of Micro-Managed Warfare', NATO/EAPC Research Fellowship Paper, NATO Website, (October 2002).  Back

94   MoD, JWP 0-01, British Defence Doctrine 2nd Edition (2001), p 1.4. Back

95   Speech to Royal United Services Institute (30 July 2002), Back

96   Ibid. Back

97   'Does NEC Pose a Threat or an Opportunity?', RUSI JournalBack

98   DWP 1, para 3.5. Back

99   Qq 214-215 Back

100   Q 80  Back

101   HC Deb, 3 November 2003, col 518 Back

102   Q 174 Back

103   Q 257 Back

104   Q 257 Back

105   Q 257 Back

106   Q 258 Back

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