Asynchronous, Decentralized Command and Control

By Ghosh, Sumit; Lee, Tony | Military Review, November/December 2000 | Go to article overview

Asynchronous, Decentralized Command and Control


Ghosh, Sumit, Lee, Tony, Military Review


Command and control (C2) issues are central to warfare. Command refers to intelligent and usually human decision making. Control refers to actually executing the decisions. Just as decision making may be centralized or distributed, execution may be organized through either centralized or distributed mechanisms. Thus, the principal variations are centralized command with centralized control, centralized command coupled with decentralized control and decentralized command with decentralized control. Decentralized command with centralized control is logically inconsistent and meaningless.

The battles of the Greeks, Macedonians, Phoenicians, Trojans, Romans and other nations may be classified under centralized command with centralized control. Support for this approach may have stemmed from the general belief that the commander was the most intuitive, insightful, intelligent and able decisionmaker.1 In contrast, soldiers were expected to be brave, courageous, skilled and loyal, but they did not have the necessary facilities to determine and execute autonomous decisions. The kings, generals and commanders usually planned the battles centrally and executed them under centralized supervision. The commander observed the battle's progress continually from a hilltop or a safe distance away from the main battlefield. Messengers carried vital information from the battlefield back to the commander, who might reassess the battle, devise a new strategy and issue new orders. The battles were usually slow and the weapons' scope of destruction limited, thereby giving commanders longer reaction times.

Still, entrusting every C2 aspect to a single entity was inefficient and could lead to inevitable catastrophe should the centralized decision maker be crippled or killed. As warfare evolved, the speed of new vehicles, the coverage of sophisticated weapons and the widening theater of war rendered centralized execution impractical and unrealistic. Warfare also witnessed formal training gradually expanding to exploit increased intelligence and sophistication within the lower ranks. Decentralized control increasingly replaced centralized control, wherein the local combat units made minor decisions on executing the centrally planned command. The central decision maker did not need to authorize every minor decision.

World War II witnessed the overwhelming superiority of centralized decision making, decentralized control and General George S. Patton's and Major General Wood's spectacular drive from Normandy into the German heartland during the German blitzkriegs.2 Patton believed that the harder his forces attacked and the faster they advanced the fewer casualties they would suffer.3 Both Patton and Wood believed that a combat unit's actions should be limited only by the enemy's actions, not by their own higher headquarters' restraints. However, the basic military entities, such as soldiers or tanks, still lacked the sophisticated intelligence-acquisition facilities and decision-making aids that were available only to the centralized commander.

The Asynchronous, Decentralized Algorithm

The motivations for developing a decentralized command, control and communications (C3) algorithm are many. Military history shows that a decentralized C3 approach can produce an effective fighting force. Patton and Wood's drive, the German blitzkrieg drives and reported successes in Operation Just Cause are superb examples. Today's soldiers are intelligent, sophisticated, highly trained and have a host of high-tech systems to help them gather, assimilate, and analyze data and make good decisions. Consequently, it is timely to augment the traditional, centralized approach with decentralized decision making and decentralized execution. The era of exclusive synchronized war at every level is behind us and is being superseded by rapid technological changes and a renewed emphasis on the value of combat soldiers' and unarmed civilians' lives. …

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