"Auftragstaktik," or Directive Control, in Joint and Combined Operations

David M. Keithly, Stephen P. Ferris
1999 Parameters  
Joint Publication 3-56, Command and Control for Joint Operations, seeks to provide a fresh vision of command and control in operations involving more than one branch of the armed services. At the same time, several of the principles articulated in this keystone doctrinal publication are timeless. Instrumental to command and control for modern joint operations is the concept of Auftragstaktik, which is expressed in English by two closely related terms, "directive control" and "mission-type
more » ... ," with both suggesting general guidance as opposed to prescriptive oversight. In an analysis appearing more than a decade ago in Parameters, John Nelsen identified significant problems with usual interpretations of the concept.[1] Above all, he suggested, Auftragstaktik means more than the terms usually employed in English, "mission orders" or "mission-oriented tactics." Assuredly, it does. Auftragstaktik subsumes all the following concepts: individual initiative, independent decisionmaking, and thinking leaders reaching tactical decisions on their own accord. In short, a commander would specify to subordinates what to do, not how to do it. The result of an evolutionary process in German doctrine, Auftragstaktik--for our purposes here used interchangeably with "directive control"--can be characterized more fully as follows: Command is based on task (Auftrag) and situation. The task lays down the aims to be achieved, which the commander charged with achieving it must keep in the forefront of his mind. Task and situation give rise to the mission . . . . The mission must be a clearly-defined aim to be pursued with all one's powers . . . . The commander must leave his subordinates freedom of action, to the extent that doing so does not imperil his intention.[2] Past as Prologue Why Auftragstaktik? Useful insights about current operations can be gleaned through inquiry into the employment of directive control of forces in conflicts past. Auftragstaktik represents a capstone command and control doctrine in the German armed forces dating back to the early 19th century. Its origins can be found in the Prussian military reforms beginning in 1808, following Prussia's disastrous defeats by Napoleon.[3] Doctrinal evidence of acknowledgment in Prussia of the need for fresh thinking about the nature of war can be found as far back as 1806: Long-winded orders on dispositions must not be given before a battle. [The commander] looks at as much of the ground as he can, . . . gives his divisional commanders the general idea in a few words, and shows them the general layout of the ground on which the army is to form up. The manner of deployment is left to them; fastest is best. The commander cannot be everywhere. He must always keep the picture as a whole in his mind's eye and shape it, mainly by sound handling of the reserves. [4] Eventually, it would become a key feature in the warfighting philosophy of several nations.[5] Auftragstaktik incorporated facets of leadership, battle tactics, command and control, senior-subordinate relationships, and even war conceptualization. The approach was comprehensive, and it presupposed intuition, initiative, flexibility, and decisive action. Notably, a similar development took place in the early 19th-century British navy. There it would become widely know as the "Nelson touch," serving the British well at sea. In the present century, Auftragstaktik was crucial in many German land campaigns, particularly on the Western Front and in North Africa during the Second World War, often allowing German units to fight outnumbered and win. British and German experiences with directive control bear out Carl von Clausewitz's observation that no hard and fast rules governing the conduct of war ever present themselves; rather, the actions of the commander, for better or worse, decisively influence the course of events in the battlespace. [6] This notion was articulated in Germany's 1933 Field Service Regulations: "Leadership in war is an art, a free creative activity based on a foundation of knowledge. The greatest demands are made on the personality." [7] Directive control became a leading catchword in the US military in the 1980s. This is not to suggest that the adoption of the concept was trendy or faddish. On the contrary, since adoption, the concept has shown considerable staying power. In preparation for 21st-century operations, what is now needed is more extensive doctrinal anchoring and attendant discussion of directive control in the secondary doctrinal literature. These steps will, in turn, foster more instruction of this command and control philosophy at various levels of command. Skillful commanders, guided by doctrine, should be able to develop and exercise suitable tactical moves in an operation on their own initiative, achieving mission objectives in accordance with theater operational and strategic goals.[8] Directive control allows commanders to adapt to changing circumstances, exercise flexibility, demonstrate initiative, anticipate events, and thereby gain tactical and operational advantage. More than a decade ago, the US Army wrestled with the question of whether or not to formally adopt the concept of Auftragstaktik. Field Manual 100-5, Operations (1986), alluded to directive control as a warfighting philosophy without actually according it doctrinal sanction. With the end of the Cold War there has been a transformation of the threat, and with it questions about the utility of power itself in dealing with regional powers, rogue states, and ethnic or extremist forces opposed to US interests. The new contours of 21st-century warfare will effect yet more, presumably profound, changes. Politically delicate situations complicate the fundamentally complex nature of conflict. Uncertain environments pose challenges to all forces, especially to those that are joint or operating in coalition. The United States must be adequately prepared for developing circumstances, for new missions, for evolving threats.
doi:10.55540/0031-1723.1942 fatcat:dk64xb26xvcrhecbnqvmud4b2i