* COL Gregory Fontenot, U.S. Army retired, has presented in his closely reasoned and convincing article "Mission Command: An Old Idea for the 21st Century" (March) the history of decentralization as the Army's preferred command philosophy and its defining influence in mission command. He cites its prescriptive direction predating our entry into World War II and suggests its preeminence in combat operations since. Unfortunately, the Army's practice of the elements of decentralized control - initiative, empowerment, trust - has been intermittent, at best.
Though practiced by our tactical commanders in combat with the enemy, it was absent from most other aspects of the Great War and from the postwar occupation, where the duties of military government, population control, police and security required firm priorities, rules and centralized direction. With the added, increasing confrontation in connection with the Warsaw Pact, the need for enhanced combat training was added to the already full occupation plate.
How deeply embedded was the centralized control mind-set? LTG Anthony C. McAu) if fe, commander of Seventh Army in the mid-1950s, sent a letter to his subordinate commanders describing "a pronounced and undesirable tendency towards ever greater centralization." Noting a reluctance on the part of young captains to take command of a company or battery, he directed a number of fixes involving proper delegation, trust and de-emphasis of statistical reports, cautioning, "We must not preach decentralization and at the same time punish the commander for practicing it."
A few years later, recognizing that LTG McAuliffe's efforts had not taken root, LTG Garrison H. Davidson, a later commander of Seventh Army, wrote in the December 1961 Army Information Digest: "The process of centralization started during World War ? with mobilization. The training of a widespread, rapidly expanding citizen army required a centralized, tightly controlled organization in order to get the job done [on] time." In his judgment, "these emergency measures have never been relaxed nor adjusted to differing postwar conditions. On the contrary, the process of centralization has grown alarmingly since World War LI." Again, fixes were directed, but didn't last.
Since then, including during the Korean War, the conflicts in Panama, Kosovo and Vietnam, and our more recent wars in the Middle East, centralized and decentralized proponents have disagreed about which methods predominated when, and at what levels. It seems apparent, however, that a fairly consistent thread through all our wars has been decentralized battlefield initiative at the edge, with centralized control more apparent at higher decision levels. Complicating most academic leadership discussions is the fact that they tend to focus on warfighting when, in fact, many of our soldiers spend more time in noncombat positions: teacher, student, trainee, staff officer, researcher and other necessary support roles in the institutional Army. Furthermore, the success of most of these jobs depends on strong individual performance and detailed planning, and too often commanders resort to centralized direction. When faced with budget and resource problems and deadlines, it is difficult - but all the more important - to provide a healthy leadership environment that enables subordinates to exercise their initiative with as much freedom as possible and to make their inevitable mistakes without fear.
To get to the heart of the conundrum posed by COL Fontenot in his challenging article, the Army has touted the value of increased battlefield information, knowledge and control enabled by technology at all levels. These increased capabilities permit commanders to see the battlefield in increasingly accurate and timely detail. The same technologies, however, enable the media, policymakers, the folks at home, and even the enemy to have increased, timely information and thereby make critical judgments. "Every tactical decision for which there is a bill to pay" will, as COL Fontenot predicted, be subject to analysis and to litigation. Senior commanders possessing the same information used by their subordinates for tactical decisions and actions will inevitably, by not intervening, share the risk. How, then, will it be possible for a commander to permit a subordinate to make a tactical blunder? Where is the learning that GEN Martin E. Dempsey is seeking if mistakes are not allowed? The unknowable factor, of course, that will always be there regardless of technology is the "fog of war" - the factor that has always made decentralized control at the edge essential for success on the battlefield.
The success of GEN Dempsey's vision for implementing mission command hangs on several central issues, all of which are directly involved in making institutional Army-wide the policies, procedures and climate that foster the growth of trust, empowerment and collaboration between junior and senior leaders. First and foremost is the need to attack head-on the antiquated personnel-management policies and procedures that are driving out young officers who are capable of leading through innovation, empowering their subordinates, mentoring, and training their own replacements. Pay is not the problem. Virtually all studies and polls point to the archaic personnel-management system based on vertical evaluation reports; central command, promotion and key position assignment selection; and time-in-grade and up-or-out policies.
Our boards are made up of officers who are carefully chosen, experienced and conscientiously motivated to fulfill their mission. They do not consciously select people in their own image, as some critics have charged. They axe, however, limited by their own experience and by the weaknesses of the evaluation system that provides the files they must evaluate. I served on the first colonel command selection board. Our charter from the deputy chief of staff for personnel was to select the officers whose records revealed the background and motivation to be the most successful commanders. It was obvious to us even at that early period (1972) that "ticket punching" was more deeply rooted than we had anticipated and that the goal of too many talented officers was to collect ratings on as many highprofile jobs as possible. Those whose files were in the top half or so - whose records made them strong candidates - were virtually indistinguishable.
No officer evaluation report form has yet been devised that successfully resists inflation and identifies the true leadership qualities that mission command will require. A new form is reportedly in the mill. Some form of peer /subordinate input or some technological assistance that helps measure success in the objective indicators of unit capability and command climate, or both, must be added to the changes currently being considered by our personnel experts. The Army has flirted with various "360-degree" systems for years, but even provision of the results of such input to the rated officer as a means of self -improvement has failed to gain traction to date.
Another specific area that needs careful study involves the way officer careers are managed. From what I have read, I conclude that officers are increasingly expected to get deeply involved in their successive assignments. When the broadening goals being contemplated by Training and Doctrine Command involving professional military education, advanced civilian education, broadening experiences outside the Army, joint or comparable service, two-year key and developmental assignments, and identified gates prior to battalion and brigade command are added together - -with no consideration of time lost through travel and leave - ticket punching will become a virtual necessity, with its baggage of competition, cronyism and self-interest ahead of Army/unit interest. Two years will be the maximum time permitted in any job, and most assignments will probably be shorter.
Finally, the Army intellectual community should revisit centralized versus decentralized control. Both are required in their time and place, but both have inherent problems, some of which I have mentioned here and were discussed in COL Fontenot's article. Service on the Army staff is perhaps the quintessential example of where the issues should be studied. The young action officer is always under pressures of overload, frequent guidance, deadlines and coordination requirements for completed staff work. He is sometimes required to develop support for an action he considas wrong, even having stated his concerns (if he is lucky enough to have a boss who listens). Control tends to be centralized in the hands of section and division chiefs supported by long-serving civilian professionals who have seen everything before. There is no time to build an action from concept forward. There are only deadlines and long hours. How to meet the deadlines while mamtaining an environment that supports initiative, trust and honest opinion is the crux of the senior staff officer's problem, for this is an environment, not unlike combat, in which mistakes have unacceptable consequences.
I fully support the Army's yearlong study of itself as a profession and GEN Dempsey's implementation of his vision to make mission command institutional in the Army's operational forces. Tm sure there is a lot of interest among our young, combat-experienced captains and majors who, of necessity, have borne huge decisionmaking and operational responsibilities during repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
I am sure, too, that they are exchanging valuable insights via the Internet (as seen in ARMY's "CompanyCommand" series). They are looking for decentralization to be the norm in every possible environment: operations, training and staff. If the Army hopes to retain these young battle-developed professionals, its senior leaders will have to make the necessary changes in its personnel policies more quickly than they have at any time in the past.
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MG JOHN C. FAITH, USA RET.