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By Lieutenant Christopher A. Abel, U.S. Coast Guard
Command autonomy on the battlefield has been weakened by advances in modern communications technology. An on-scene commander’s ability to act with boldness and audacity is undercut by his knowledge that the Commander in Chief can countermand him from 6,000 miles away.
Victory in battle is the raison d’etre of military command and control systems. Historically, those systems have been most successful when they have preserved the autonomy of commanders in the field. One of the enduring strengths of the U.S. armed forces is the latitude afforded operators at the bottom of the chain. Such tactical autonomy is a force-multiplying factor; it facilitates the triumph of brains over brawn. Yet that traditional advantage may be slipping away quickly as we rocket deeper into the information age. The universal availability of reliable, real-time communications imperils tried-and-true concepts of military command; both the officer corps’s integrity and the security of our nation could be threatened.
Communications necessarily play a pivotal role in the exercise of military command. A leader’s capability to communicate with subordinates fixes the boundaries of his control. For millennia, timely direction only could reach warriors situated within sight or sound of their commander’s position; as a consequence, operational autonomy invariably attended traditional notions of subordinate command. Responsibility, accountability, honor, and prestige were similarly bound up in command’s isolation. The chain-of-command concept was also largely shaped by early communications technology. Inevitably, technical advances in communications capability affected the prerogatives of military command; the railroad and the telegraph heralded the beginning of the end of virtually unfettered command independence. That process accelerated at the beginning of this century as wireless telegraphy stepped onto the stage. Even then, the myriad vagaries of radio propagation and the limitations of the hardware in use worked to moderate that technology’s ever-increasing
impact on military operations and command.
Over the course of the past decade and a half, the situa tion radically changed. Dramatic advances in electronic^ miniaturization combined with an explosion in satellite capability. Suddenly, any officer could be in instant communication with the very top of his chain of command. Coincidentally, the Worldwide Military Command and Control System (WWMCCS) was developed to make use of this potential in a crisis. Designed to facilitate civilian control of the nation’s foreign-policy activity, WWMCCS permits the President and Secretary of Defense to personally direct distant military operations. Tactical command and technical direction can and do emanate from the basement of the White House. In this brave new world of modern military communications, anyone with authority can call all of the shots.
The siren song of today’s communications potential has proven too strong to resist. The ability to meddle in a subordinate s command increasingly has become reality. Although the problem permeates the entire chain of command, its most spectacular illustrations come from the top. Time and again the President and Secretary of Defense (collectively the National Command Authorities, or NCA) have taken detailed control of far-flung military operations. Memorable examples abound: President Gerald Ford’s directing warning shots by a circling A-7 at the height of the Mayaguez crisis; President Jimmy Carter’s aborting the Iranian hostage rescue operation when the number of helicopters became insufficient; President Ronald Reagan’s authorizing an airborne A-6 to engage individual targets in the embattled Persian Gulf; Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s breaking off an active naval engagement during another Persian Gulf battle at sea.1 Armed with the power of modem communications technology, the Commander in Chief has returned to “the field.”
The military ramifications of today’s command and control environment are significant, disturbing, and diverse. Perhaps the greatest danger associated with detailed direction from on high relates to basic issues of technical expertise. The power to control the way a task is performed does not ensure that it will be done wisely or well. By arrogating control of minutiae to himself, a com-
Zander ignores the many benefits of subordinate specialiZation. The province of supreme command thus traditionally has been to establish the central “whats” of national strategy and policy. Lower-echelon officers are then left to decide the “hows” of operations, tactics, and technique. Failure to follow this time-honored practice can and will lead to military defeat.
The technical division of command and control labor is essential when civilians are in charge of the scheme, •lames Madison’s attempt to fight the Battle of Fladensburg, for example, led to the sacking of the U.S. i capital. “Military affairs should be left to military men,” lhe defeated Commander in Chief concluded from that episode.2 Lyndon Johnson learned that lesson from a ttuch safer distance during the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign against North Vietnam. The failure of the effort Was largely the result of micromanagement from Washington, D.C. Its Linebacker successors were considerably tnore successful because of much greater White House restraint.3 More recently, the distinction between authority and expertise was driven home with less tragic effect, defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was using a Pentagon microphone to direct the movements of a Navy boat in Beirut. Suddenly, a junior officer who was familiar with . the harbor shouted, “You can’t do that!” from the back of the room. All eyes turned to the speaker, who explained that the course being prescribed would take the boat into shoal water at low tide.4 Once again, the NCA had departed from its realm of competence in the heat of an unfolding crisis. Disaster has attended such overreaching in llle past, and unquestionably could do so again.
The exercise of detailed control by the NCA also bears great potential for foreign-policy mischief. In the past, subordinates’ actions could credibly be dismissed as being unauthorized or simply just wrong. Increasingly, however, the assumption must be that even minor actions are being directed from the top. Gone are the days when a crisis could be resolved by claiming local action undertaken contrary to policy. To be sure, a modern version of the Civil War’s Trent affair would likely lead to hostilities today. So too with Catesby Jones’s erroneous peacetime seizure of Monterey in Mexican California, or our U-2’s accidental incursion into the Soviet Union’s airspace at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Each of those instances could ultimately be dismissed as a mistake made by officers in the field. In fact, President John F. Kennedy shrugged off the last event by claiming, “There is always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word.”5 In today’s world, however, the word does get out, and much of the word comes from the President and his aides. As a consequence, the tendency—especially in a crisis—is to read strategic significance into every action taken. This, in turn, works as an undesirable constraint on the U.S. military and diplomatic flexibility.
Reliance upon centralized command and control systems raises other, more pedestrian concerns, the most fundamental of which is the scheme’s inherent vulnerability to intentional disruption by a foe. Historically, the development of command, control, and communications countermeasures (C3CM) has paralleled improvements in military communications itself. For example, the first use of ship-to-ship radio in a fleet-level exercise was rendered
Lyndon Johnson’s Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in Vietnam was less than successful because of White House micromanagement. The later Linebacker raids worked better because of much greater restraint on the part of Richard Nixon.
ineffective by opposing-force jamming.6 Since then, C CM has played a critical role in any number of major combat operations. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Israelis’ incursion into Lebanon, and the 1985 U.S. air strikes in Libya all provide illustrations of C'CM’s potential to effectively neutralize an enemy’s opposition.7 Today, communications disruption activities form a standard element of virtually all operational planning. At its most exotic, this planning envisions antisatellite weapons knocking out command and control assets in space. When the chips are down, communications will be disrupted to a significant extent. A command system that relies on detailed orders from the top will then grind to a catastrophic halt.
Still another practical concern attending highly centralized command is the system’s susceptibility to informational overload. As it is, today’s scheme tends to work deceptively well in discrete crises of minor complexity and brief duration. Yet the same cannot be expected when major trouble is afoot, requiring key decisions on a number of urgent issues. At such a time, a staggering amount of information directed to decision makers at the top is likely to overburden the system’s assimilative capability. Even a limited military campaign can involve tremendous amounts of data and a virtual blizzard of essential information. During the Falklands Conflict, for example, the British flagship Hermes alone handled an average of 800 hardcopy messages every day.8 A year later, the operational commander of the U.S. invasion of Grenada effectively swamped his supervisory chain of command. A flood of situation reports from Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf Ill’s combat command was used to saturate the U.S. system then in effect. As Admiral Metcalf would explain later, he chose to clog the electronic arteries “to channel [his bosses’] energies into reading my messages, not telling me what to do.”y Whether by design or simply by default, centralized decision makers can be inundated all too quickly.
One inevitable consequence of information saturation is a marked decline in subsequent decision-making quality. At its worst, the overwhelmed system will seize up, unable to react to any stimulus at all. More probably, top- level direction will continue to be forthcoming, but with its effectiveness substantially decreased. One study of the problem has ruefully observed that “communications [may be] the glue that binds, but it is also [the] goo that causes efficiency to get wrapped around the axle.”10 William Shawcross recalled one international crisis: “When all the decisions had to be made in the White House, there was little time for considering fully any of them.”" Of course, a few decisions may be considered fully—but at the expense of others needing timely resolution. In a major crisis scenario, the decisions slighted or ignored are certain to involve vital national-security issues.
The stunning speed and complexity of tomorrow’s combat operations will require decentralized systems for command and control. The notorious “fog of war” will be virtually impenetrable on the high-tech battlefields that will characterize the future. Only the most adaptable brand of military organization will be able to enjoy lasting operational success. Many units effectively will be fending for themselves, waging discrete actions in a fluid situation. For this reason, military analysts now generally agree that command autonomy will be essential to future victory- Tomorrow’s field commanders will need to improvise under pressure if they are to survive and do their job. If they cannot do this, then the American people they serve are certain to be in very serious trouble.
Today’s erosion of command autonomy also threatens serious harm to the officer corps of the U.S. armed forces: centralized control stunts the development of skills essential to success and growth as a potential leader under fire. One such trait at risk is the ability to act decisively and without hesitation in the absence of direction. Great military commanders have always been distinguished by taking bold action when the moment just seemed right. “When you see the correct course, act; do not wait for orders,’Mhe ancient Chinese admonished their military leaders.12 Since then, such audacity has often been rewarded with spectacular triumphs on land, at sea, and in the air. At Copenhagen, for example, Horatio Nelson actually disobeyed orders by closing the enemy’s fleet at the critical juncture in the fight; his commander had not seen the opportunity, and Nelson’s forthright response ultimately carried the day.13 That kind of daring is unlikely in the electronic age.
Officer timidity is more than theoretical musing. It is a melancholy fact of military life. “With the increasing detail of command and control being exercised from the Seat of Government,” wrote a rear admiral in 1974, “military commanders look to Washington for the critical decision.”14 Six years later, in the dust and darkness of Desert One, that observation was given shocking confirmation. Although he possessed the power and the criteria to make the go/no-go decision, the on-scene commander still “felt obligated to . . . obtain permission from ‘higher authority’ ” before he would abort the mission when it could no longer succeed.15 The contemporary command system is breeding a generation of officers who will not act with resolution in a crisis.
The centralization of command further erodes the officer corps’s competence by limiting opportunities to practice the art at a formative stage. Today’s supreme commanders all came up through the ranks at a time when subordinate command retained a strong dose of true auton- °my. Each developed his skills by exercising “real- world” operational control on an ever-expanding developmental stage. Tomorrow’s senior leaders, having been denied this opportunity, will make their beginner’s mistakes when the stakes already are dangerously high. Merely receiving direction will not teach them how to command; that proficiency is developed by solving problems in the field. Today’s command system does very little to produce the experience that permits such flexibility.
Military discipline will also be a casualty of highly centralized command and control. By removing the autonomy from positions of command, its incumbents lose some of their subordinates’ respect. In a world where the “old man” is just another systems operator, obeying his orders becomes a function of rank alone. Gone is the mystique that surrounds the responsibility of command, together with the deference that used to go with it. By reducing the tmit commander to just another worker following orders, the current system plants the seeds of future dissent.
Closely related to discipline is the desirability of seeking command. The aura of responsibility once drew the best and brightest to military careers. However, the special trust and confidence implicit in every officer’s commission has come to mean less and less. Since a career under arms cannot offer comfort, ease, or wealth, it must appeal to much more subtle human needs, and those needs cannot be met for the vast majority of top performers if ihey are denied a meaningful share of responsibility. Unwilling to wait a lifetime for one shot at self-actualization, most qualified Americans avoid or depart the military for some other field.
Fortunately, there is a way out of the minefield produced by today’s instant-communications technology. The key is in bringing communications’ power under intelligent control. We cannot turn the clock back and ignore technology’s potential. Instead, its power must be managed in ways that serve its creators and putative masters. Coping with progress inevitably becomes a conscientious exercise in human restraint.
The first step in regulating modern communications’ Potential is deciding when top-level control is truly necessary. In essence, this process identifies issues so important that their direction cannot be entrusted to the field. The most critical thing will be to keep this list short—the exceptions must not swallow their own rule. Examples of the kind of strategically crucial decision that must be made at the very top of the chain include using weapons of mass destruction, eliminating space-based security assets, and the first use of force against parties with whom we are at Peace. Even then, the NCA must limit the nature of the direction given to the most general guidance possible under the circumstances. Unnecessary control of task performance will only perpetuate the current crisis in command.
Having set aside those few areas where command autonomy can no longer survive, this nation’s leaders must guarantee its existence everywhere else. A five-point approach to be followed at every step of the chain of command would go a long way toward realizing this goal.
- First, positions of subordinate command should only be filled with the very best people. Only then will their bosses feel comfortable enough to permit them to call their own shots. As a former Chief of Naval Operations stated, “We must select them right, train them right, and have total confidence in their judgment and performance” before commanders at the scene can be left alone.16
- Second, subordinate commanders must be given all the tools they need to perform their individual tasks well and on their own. Although physical resources will always be important, intangibles may be more essential to success in this regard. Local commanders should be given all the training and information required to make timely and intelligent decisions. Clear mission statements and comprehensive rules of engagement are vitally important here. Moreover, field commanders should be so confident of support that they do not hesitate to act firmly whenever needed.
- Third, senior commanders must resist the temptation to roll up their sleeves, step in, and run the show. A noninterference policy is essential to success, according to the recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “You just clinch your teeth and stay the hell out of it,” says Navy Admiral William Crowe, Jr.17 This is undoubtedly the hardest challenge in any program promoting autonomy, but it just as obviously is its most important feature.
- Fourth, senior commanders must rigorously follow the venerated chain of command. Bypassing steps does more than threaten autonomy; it strips the bypassed officers of their command altogether. Adhering to the chain is the oldest rule in the book. It is not time to abandon it yet.
- Fifth, senior commanders must accept the idea that mistakes are going to be made farther down the chain. Subordinate commanders have to learn by doing and occasionally will foul up as part of the process. In that way, each can learn the complex business of command and avoid repeating errors when the stakes have gotten high. The most successful organizations in virtually any walk of life are those that tolerate a little failure along the way.
Subordinate commanders also can do much to alleviate the contemporary command and control crisis. Each must be zealous in seeking the responsibility associated with accountable command. All constantly should be pressing to be given the ball, and must willingly shoulder the blame on those occasions when they fumble. At the same time, they must enforce informal codes of competence and professionalism in the ranks of their fellow commanders. Only in this way can special trust and confidence be reclaimed, both for their commissions and for their positions in command. Knowing when not to act and when to seek a senior’s guidance is another key to returning autonomy to the field. The prudent commander has a well-developed sense of the boundaries of his scope of command discretion. By living within those limits, commanders reinforce the trust upon which autonomy ultimately is founded.
Subordinate commanders have a fundamental duty to
Operation Just Cause in Panama was largely successful because on-scene commanders were allowed to conduct a series of carefully planned moves without high-level interference. Here, the commander of Marine forces in country talks to Southern Command headquarters shortly before H-Hour on 19 December 1989.
keep their supervisors especially well informed. Vice Admiral Metcalf believes that keeping his bosses advised prevented “the 6,000-mile screwdriver” from being put to work in Grenada.18 As long as senior commanders can closely follow the situation, the temptation to step in and start calling the shots will be greatly reduced. Yet another obligation borne by commanders in the field is to protest overdirection received from farther up the chain. This obviously is a duty requiring considerable discretion and tact, but one that must not be ignored. Many senior commanders fail to recognize situations when they have simply taken far too much control, and they may not even realize that it matters. In addition, a commander who watches his autonomy erode in silence invites a repetition of the scenario.
The payoff will be a renaissance of autonomous command. From time immemorial, the most successful armies have been those that preserved autonomy for commands all along the chain. The Roman centurions, Napoleon’s marshals, and Israel’s 1967 war commanders all enjoyed great latitude to act as they saw fit, and they won legendary battlefield victories. More recently, that philosophy has led to operational success in Libya, Grenada, and the Falkland Islands. In each of the latter instances a deliberate top-level effort was made to decide only the whats and to ignore the hows.19
In Panama (Operation Just Cause, 20 December 1989), a healthy level of top-level restraint once again produced success, as commanders on the ground were left alone to run their show. The resulting action was a model of tactical efficiency that achieved every goal the NCA had set out for it. Additionally, by keeping the 6,000-mile screwdriver in its drawer, the Bush administration could dismiss those few excesses that took place (e.g., sacking the Nicaraguan ambassador’s residence and bombarding the papal nunciature with recorded music and speeches) as well- intentioned errors committed much farther down the chain.
Whether this favorable outcome was the product of a true sea change in command philosophy or a reflection of the regional commander in chief’s presence on the field of battle remains to be seen. In any case, the episode offers command and control lessons worth recalling next time U.S. forces are committed to combat.
Modern communications undoubtedly hold the power to revolutionize the ancient art of war. Communications technology has always been the driving factor in the evolution of the concept of command, but today that technology threatens to spin out of control. Autonomous command cannot be eroded much further without serious detriment to the security of our nation.
Gerald R. Ford, A Time to Heal (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1979), p. 278; Stephen E. Anno and William Einspahr, “Command, Control and Communications Lessons Learned: Iranian Rescue, Falklands Conflict, Grenada Invasion, Libya Raid” (Maxwell Air Force Base: Air War College Research Report. 1988), p. 12; Ronald O'Rourke, “Gulf Ops,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1989, p. 47.
2Walter Lord, The Dawn’s Early Light (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1972), p. 124. F
Scott Berry, “Presidential Involvement in War at the Operational Level: A Comparison,” unpublished paper, Armed Forces Staff College, May 1988, p. 1. Richard Ned Lebow, Between Peace and War: The Nature of International Crises (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), pp. 286-87.
Graham Allison, Essence of Decision (Boston, MA: Little Brown and Company, 1971), p. 141. V 1
6“Wireless Telegraphy,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, September 1903, p, 786.
7Eberhardt Rechtin, “The Technology of Command,” United States Naval War College Review, March-April 1984, p. 15.
8Anno and Einspahr. pp. 29-30.
’James March and Roger Weissinger-Baylon, Ambiguity and Command (Marshfield, MA: Pitman Publishing, 1986), pp. 284-85.
’’’Anno and Einspahr, p. 35.
"Alvin Toffier, The Third Wave (New York: William Morrow and Company Inc (980), p. 390.
|-Sun Tzu, The Art of War (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 112.
A.B.C. Whipple, Fighting Sail (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1978) pp 103-05.
"Donald T. Poe, “Command and Control: Changeless—Yet Changing,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1974, p. 26.
"Anno and Einspahr, pp. 9-10.
’’March and Wessinger-Baylon, p. 267.
"Geoffrey Parker and Larry Leturmy, “The Libya Raid: A Joint Response to State-Sponsored Terrorism” (Maxwell Air Force Base: Air War College Case Study, Academic Year 1986-87), p. 47.
’’March and Wessinger-Baylon, pp. 278, 285.
’’Anno and Einspahr, pp. 32, 46, 53.
Lieutenant Abel is a law specialist assigned to the staff of the Commander, Maintenance and Logistics Command, Atlantic. His tours of duty have included command of the USCGC Point Warde (WPB-82368) and the USCGC Manitou (WPB-1302). A two-time winner of the Naval Institute s Coast Guard essay contest, Lieutenant Abel currently serves as the Coast Guard contributing editor to Proceedings.