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Mission Command in a coalition environment

#1
New York Times said:
The Next Surge: Counter bureaucracy

By Jonathan J. Vaccaro

The Taliban commander was back in the village. Our base roared to life as we prepared to capture him. Two Chinook helicopters spun their blades in anticipation in the dark. Fifty Afghan commandos brooded outside, pacing in the gravel. I was nearby, yelling into a phone: "Who else do we need approvals from? Another colonel? Why?"

A villager had come in that afternoon to tell us that a Taliban commander known for his deployment of suicide bombers was threatening the elders. The villager had come to my unit, a detachment of the United States Army stationed in eastern Afghanistan, for help.

Mindful of orders to protect the civilian population, we developed a plan with the Afghan commandos to arrest the Taliban commander that evening before he moved back into Pakistan. While the troops prepared, I spent hours on the phone trying to convince the 11 separate Afghan, American and international forces authorities who needed to sign off to agree on a plan.

Some couldn't be found. Some liked the idea, others suggested revisions. The plan evolved. Hours passed. The cellphone in the corner rang. "Where are you?" the villager asked urgently. The Taliban commander was drinking tea, he said.

At 5 a.m. the Afghan commandos gave up on us and went home. The helicopters powered down. The sun rose. I was still on the phone trying to arrange approvals. Intelligence arrived indicating that the Taliban commander had moved on. The villagers were incredulous.

This incident is typical of what I saw during my six-month tour in Afghanistan this year. We were paralyzed by red tape, beaten by our own team. Our answer to Afghans seeking help was: "I can't come today or tomorrow, but maybe next week. I have several bosses that I need to ask for permission."

The decision has been made to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander there, is expected to speak to Congress this week about his strategy for the war. Our troops can win the war, but they will be more effective if the bureaucracy is thinned.

In my experience, decisions move through the process of risk mitigation like molasses. When the Taliban arrive in a village, I discovered, it takes 96 hours for an Army commander to obtain necessary approvals to act. In the first half of 2009, the Army Special Forces company I was with repeatedly tried to interdict Taliban. By our informal count, however, we (and the Afghan commandos we worked with) were stopped on 70 percent of our attempts because we could not achieve the requisite 11 approvals in time.

For some units, ground movement to dislodge the Taliban requires a colonel's oversight. In eastern Afghanistan, traveling in anything other than a 20-ton mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle requires a written justification, a risk assessment and approval from a colonel, a lieutenant colonel and sometimes a major. These vehicles are so large that they can drive to fewer than half the villages in Afghanistan. They sink into wet roads, crush dry ones and require wide berth on mountain roads intended for donkeys. The Taliban walk to these villages or drive pickup trucks.

The red tape isn't just on the battlefield. Combat commanders are required to submit reports in PowerPoint with proper fonts, line widths and colors so that the filing system is not derailed. Small aid projects lag because of multimonth authorization procedures. A United States-financed health clinic in Khost Province was built last year, but its opening was delayed for more than eight months while paperwork for erecting its protective fence waited in the approval queue.

Communication with the population also undergoes thorough oversight. When a suicide bomber detonates, the Afghan streets are abuzz with Taliban propaganda about the glories of the war against America. Meanwhile, our messages have to inch through a press release approval pipeline, emerging 24 to 48 hours after the event, like a debutante too late for the ball.

Curbing the bureaucracy is possible. Decision-making authority for operations could be returned to battalions and brigades. Staffs that manage the flow of operations could operate on 24-hour schedules like the forces they regulate. Authority to release information could be delegated to units in contact with Afghans. Formatting requirements could be eased. The culture of risk mitigation could be countered with a culture of initiative.

Mid-level leaders win or lose conflicts. Our forces are better than the Taliban's, but we have leashed them so tightly that they are unable to compete.

Jonathan J. Vaccaro served as an officer with the United States Army in Afghanistan from January 2009 to July 2009.


It seems that little changes - HQ MNF(I) last year were doing exactly the same things. It does seem a particularly US phenomenon: they just don't trust their juniors to make decisions. I suspect that lots of it stems from the Clinton reforms in the mid 90s when they thinned out a massive proportion of their forces and any reason whatsoever was grounds for redundancy: that's where the overt crusading Christian ethos developed (not being seen to be on God's Squad marked you out), the 'dry army' concept came along for the same reasons - if you drink it's grounds to stand out. It's invidious and removes utterly the very ethos of the soldier as I've always understood it.

Allied to this is the shockingly poor level of education which pervades the US military - there are exceptions, Petraus is quite probably a genius and clearly has some study time behind him, on the other hand, I briefed a US C2 bloke early in the year on the evolution of Eagle VCPs, their use and development in NI, only to be asked at the end of a twenty minute brief, which part of Australia I came from. I've heard US company commanders discussing with no hint of irony (well, how could there be given the participants?) that there was no need for cultural awareness training before deploying their troops to (rural) Afghanistan as they knew what it was all about from a tour in urban Baghdad and, 'well it was just across that one border, like how different could it be...?'

The problem is, that as we work more and more under US control, the Mission Command which we're very so keen on crowing about is being subsumed into the coalition (for which read US) desire for 'granularity'. There was a constant push for details required at Corps (Corps!!) which I'd often not have expected my JNCOs to worry me about as a sub-unit commander.

And everything is run by Powerpoint: everything. My personal favourite (!) was 178 details on a single briefing slide - I know UK commanders who've thrown back things with more than 7 points on them as 'obfuscatory'!


I'm not sure that there's anything to add, I just felt the need for a pre-Christmas rant that didn't involve Walts, Chavs or politicians. Job done. Thank you.
 
#2
Not qualified to comment upon US mission command or how it affects the UK in Afg.

I will, however, state that positive political and media effect is now the end-state for all military activity. The result of this is that initiative, risk-taking, and innovation is both discouraged and suppressed, sometimes only pyschologically rather than physically. The effect is the same however - no action, non-optimised action or a missed opportunity.

Sad really. I imagine a Pl Sgt in WW2 had more freedom of manouevre that a current CO.
 
#3
The problem is, that as we work more and more under US control, the Mission Command which we're very so keen on crowing about is being subsumed into the coalition (for which read US) desire for 'granularity'.

That's on the money Fas.

Couple with the "amateurs" referred to this week = problem compounded tenfold.
 
#4
On military aspects I have no knowledge to comment. As an aside though, Powerpoint has its uses, but in civvy meetings if you want your audience's eyes to glaze over, just show the first slide! Powerpoint slide is time for thinking of where you would rather be!

The great advantage of Powerpoint is for self-protecting managers, as you can tell everyone after the meeting that "they were told", and your boss that you "told them", because the info was there on slide 343 line 23!

My view is that a good human presentation, with occasional illustration, allowing emphasis on what is important, is more useful.

I may have missed out, as no doubt Powerpoint has improved since my last edition, but I find it hard to see how information beyond the "self-protection", aspect can be usefully stored or accessed. It would seem to me that there are many project management software packages more appropriate for that purpose.
 
#5
My experience of working with American forces is that they are a lot more agile, more willing to take risks and less caught up in the UK obsession for using repeated planning cycles as a replacement for resources.

You will see a lot more mission command is US units than UK units.

As soon as you hit Bde level then both teams are similarly bound up in nugatory RFIs, R2s, procedure and lack of ground truth. But at least the Americans have the troop numbers to effect change rather than being Fig 11 targets in the same patches of land that we've been sat on for the last 3 years.
 
#6
fas_et_gloria said:
It seems that little changes - HQ MNF(I) last year were doing exactly the same things. It does seem a particularly US phenomenon: they just don't trust their juniors to make decisions. I suspect that lots of it stems from the Clinton reforms in the mid 90s when they thinned out a massive proportion of their forces and any reason whatsoever was grounds for redundancy: that's where the overt crusading Christian ethos developed (not being seen to be on God's Squad marked you out), the 'dry army' concept came along for the same reasons - if you drink it's grounds to stand out. It's invidious and removes utterly the very ethos of the soldier as I've always understood it.
You are absolutely correct that the 90's drawdown had much to do with the rise in micro-management in the US Army, and for the reasons stated. A short anecdote: I had a Bn Cdr explain in 2001 that he had more freedom of action as a company commander ten years earlier. The contributing factor was the explosive spread of information technology that occurred simultaneously. It was now much easier to have higher HQs fingers in many pies that upon reflection, should have been best left well alone. A common theme I heard as Afghanistan and Iraq progressed was "I went to war and a garrison broke out."

Regarding a dry Army, I would argue that after Vietnam and its problems, there was a conscious decision made that if ammunition was issued, booze was not. Yes, there are obvious cultural differences, for example there are dry counties here in the states, and a vocal minority dislike seeing their "boys" acting, well, like Soldiers, so going "dry" on ops was not seen as a huge thing. Back home, drink up, just don't get arrested or let it affect your work. Dinings-in were hugely sodden fun, let alone postings in Egypt or Korea. The infamous porn sale ban was determined by Congress, not the military.

The "crusader mentality" might be less overtly religious and more institutional culture. The Army in particular has never been much into small colonial wars. Changing that mindset has been well documented on this website. While the US is a more religiously oriented country than the UK, had membership of the right congregation been grounds for retention in the 90's, the lawsuits would have been stunning. Certainly I never perceived it as an issue, speaking as someone who goes to churches for weddings only.
 
#7
There are a couple of reasons for perceived distrust of mission command by US forces at the tactical level. The first is that US Army companies are commanded, on the whole, by Captains and quite often fairly junior ones. This is in contrast to the UK system of employing post ICSC majors as Company Commanders, with the age, experience and view of the bigger picture that comes with it. Secondly, the US Army has the technology that allows higher level situational awareness. Finally, as always, the Brits are stretched for resources in terms of manning and equipment meaning that more is expected from less. Such an environment is utterly dependent on trust.
 
#8
Some 10-15 years ago, people began speaking about the "strategic corporal", where, because of the supposed changing nature of conflict, whatever decision low-level commanders made could potentially have strategic (political) impact. Nowadays, again because of the supposed changing nature etc, there's a real risk that higher commanders will have tactical impact ;-)

Rather than politicos in combats we now see warriors in armanis. Why do politicians and 4*s control patrols or the drop of one 500-pounder? Because they can, sometimes it's "the only show in town", you have a mature operation going on and a massive C2 setup (try a 2000 strong HQ) with the ability to monitor every movement and action - and they will use the long screwdriver or it's their ass on the line.
And also, to be fair, there's a strong suspicion that the multinationals 7 rungs down the ladder either don't habla or have some other cultural excuse for having filtered out that particular part of the commander's intent that would keep them from erasing that whole village or those two fuel bowsers with the complement of Talibs and local villagers come out to siphon off some fuel. (4 Sep Kunduz)

Rant over, no particular conclusion.
EOM
 
#9
asr1 said:
My experience of working with American forces is that they are a lot more agile, more willing to take risks and less caught up in the UK obsession for using repeated planning cycles as a replacement for resources.

You will see a lot more mission command is US units than UK units.

As soon as you hit Bde level then both teams are similarly bound up in nugatory RFIs, R2s, procedure and lack of ground truth. But at least the Americans have the troop numbers to effect change rather than being Fig 11 targets in the same patches of land that we've been sat on for the last 3 years.
Second that. And lets not forget that if 16 Bde had been a bit more judicious about risk in 2006 we could have avoided a lot of pointless campaigning.
 
#10
fas_et_gloria said:
Allied to this is the shockingly poor level of education which pervades the US military ....

I've heard US company commanders discussing with no hint of irony (well, how could there be given the participants?) that there was no need for cultural awareness training before deploying their troops to (rural) Afghanistan as they knew what it was all about from a tour in urban Baghdad and, 'well it was just across that one border, like how different could it be...?'
To which can be added a high degree of sloppiness at times. At a FOB near Baghdad they've the usual array of tagged photographs of VIPs hanging on the wall: two of them are of 'President Barrack Obama' and 'Gen Patraeus' (both sic). The frames are covered with a layer of dust that, even in that environment, suggests they've been there for some time without anybody in the US military spotting anything amiss. And I'd love to be able to ask your quoted company commanders about the common border between Iraq and Afghanistan which apparently counts for so little; I know geography has never been an American long suit, but I'd have hoped officers in a combat theatre might know a little better. Never mind juniors, though - the famously odd Gen 'Bill' Crouch, after weeks in charge of SFOR in Bosnia, wanted to know "why there are these three religious groups out here". It apparently had come as something of a surprise to him that medieval history could possibly be a factor in the tiresome spot of bother he was expected to contain; I can only assume that he'd slept through whatever pre-deployment briefings the Pentagon/State Dept etc. had laid on for him.
 
#11
WildGoose said:
asr1 said:
My experience of working with American forces is that they are a lot more agile, more willing to take risks and less caught up in the UK obsession for using repeated planning cycles as a replacement for resources.

You will see a lot more mission command is US units than UK units.

As soon as you hit Bde level then both teams are similarly bound up in nugatory RFIs, R2s, procedure and lack of ground truth. But at least the Americans have the troop numbers to effect change rather than being Fig 11 targets in the same patches of land that we've been sat on for the last 3 years.
Second that. And lets not forget that if 16 Bde had been a bit more judicious about risk in 2006 we could have avoided a lot of pointless campaigning.


Wild Goose,

Not sure about this statement. Whrre did you get it from?

whf
 

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