Transforming Command: The Pursuit of Mission Command in the U.S., British, and Israeli Armies


On today's complex, fragmented, fast-moving battlefield, where combatants adapt constantly to exploit one-another's weaknesses, there is a demonstrable requirement for military commanders to devolve a high level of autonomy of decision-making and action to leaders on the ground. An effective model for doing this has existed for some time in the form of mission command and has been utilized by the U.S., Israeli, and British Armies—but with mixed success.

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Transforming Command: The Pursuit of Mission Command in the U.S., British, and Israeli Armies

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On today's complex, fragmented, fast-moving battlefield, where combatants adapt constantly to exploit one-another's weaknesses, there is a demonstrable requirement for military commanders to devolve a high level of autonomy of decision-making and action to leaders on the ground. An effective model for doing this has existed for some time in the form of mission command and has been utilized by the U.S., Israeli, and British Armies—but with mixed success.

This book examines in depth the experiences of the armed forces of each of these countries in implementing mission command, and reveals the key factors that have determined the success or failure of the implementation—factors such as the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), the spread of low-intensity conflicts and operations other than war, and differences in how military cultures interpret, articulate, and exercise the command function. It has significant implications for both the development of military doctrine and the training and education of tomorrow's military leaders.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Shamir's historical analysis of mission command's conceptual underpinnings provides excellent context for practitioners seeking to understand the complexities and efforts required to adopt, adapt and practice mission command."—Brigadier Chris Field, Australian Army Journal

"Transforming Command is a worthy addition to the military professional's library, especially with mission command being the subject of much attention in the Army . . . In the complex environment that U.S. soldiers face today and in the future, a more decentralized organization with empowered leadership at all levels will be necessary. Reading Transforming Command is a good place to begin making this a reality."—Major Dan Leaf, Military Review

"Eitan Shamir has created an important book that skillfully dismantles popular mythology in favor of cold, hard facts about the resistance in the West's military establishments to badly needed change in the way they develop and cultivate leadership. This authoritative study should be required reading for all NATO officers."—Colonel (ret) Douglas Macgregor, author of Transformation Under Fire: Revolutionizing How America Fights

"This book clearly illustrates the important role that Mission Command plays in effective military operations. [The] comparison of the United States, British, and Israeli Armies in adopting Mission Command and [the] observations on their cultural differences were compelling."—Martin E. Dempsey, General, United States Army

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804772020
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 1/26/2011
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Eitan Shamir is a Research Fellow at the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, Israeli Defense Forces, and teaches in the Security Studies program at Tel Aviv University. His military experience includes service in the IDF's paratroops brigade and as a reserve officer in the IDF's Organizational Psychology Unit.

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Read an Excerpt

Transforming Command

By Eitan Shamir

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2011 the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7203-7

Chapter One


THE GERMAN CONCEPT of Auftragstaktik, translated here as "mission command," denotes decentralized leadership; it is a philosophy that requires and facilitates initiative on all levels of command directly involved with events on the battlefield. It encourages subordinates to exploit opportunities by empowering them to take the initiative and exercise judgment in pursuit of their mission; alignment is maintained through adherence to the commander's intent. The doctrine, firmly rooted in Prussian-German military culture and experience, presupposes the existence of trust in the subordinate's ability to act wisely and creatively without supervision when faced with unexpected situations. Essentially, it is a contract between commander and subordinate, wherein the latter is granted the freedom to choose unanticipated courses of action in order to accomplish the mission.

The primary objective of the current study is to explore the process through which mission command was adopted, adapted, and practiced in the U.S., British, and Israeli armies, since the concept's "rediscovery" in the 1980s. By so doing, the research also examines the broader issue of adoption and adaptation of foreign concepts into doctrine and practice.

While a number of works have investigated the adoption of mission command, this examination has usually been secondary to the study of broader themes, such as maneuver warfare or the operational level of war. In addition, earlier studies have focused on specific cases, such as the American reforms of the post-Vietnam era or the Bagnall reforms in Britain. However, the relevance of mission command is not restricted to any one doctrine or historical period. Indeed, modern militaries endeavor to apply it regardless of continuous and significant changes in the nature and character of war. A study of mission command, pursued independently from an examination of other general doctrines, can provide a comprehensive understanding of this approach. It may also reveal the process through which new ideas and approaches are developed, introduced, manipulated, and finally implemented. Consequently, the current study will focus on the tension between the introduction and implementation of new ideas through the prism of mission command.

An investigation of mission command poses a serious challenge, as the concept is quite elusive. The meaning accorded to Auftragstaktik in nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century Prussian-German writings was different than that accorded to it today. In a manner similar to Blitzkrieg, although mission command was practiced, the term itself was absent from official doctrinal publications. Nevertheless, its principles were incorporated into German military doctrine during the nineteenth century. Many historians believe that mission command had reached its highest form when practiced by the Prussian- German Army. Some have gone so far as to assert that the Wehrmacht owed its effectiveness and achievements to its reliance on Auftragstaktik. This concept was largely neglected by mainstream Western militaries until the second half of the Cold War. At that time the West began to seek means of offsetting the Red Army's quantitative superiority. The search led the Anglo-Americans to reexamine the fighting qualities of the Wehrmacht; they discovered the pivotal role played by mission command in securing Germany an edge over its rivals.

On a more practical level, the Anglo-Americans considered mission command crucial for the practice of maneuver warfare. Developed by Americans and the British and later adopted, maneuver warfare was the doctrinal response to the Soviet threat. Though the Cold War has receded into the pages of history, and despite a shift in the focus of military operations, mission command has demonstrated significant staying power. Some argue that it is the method of command best suited for unconventional warfare scenarios, such as low-intensity conflicts (LICs), peacekeeping operations, and counterinsurgency. Mission command is also believed to have retained its validity in the face of the new digital command and control (C2) technologies, which ostensibly increase micromanagement.

A somewhat more cynical outlook views mission command as just another technical or managerial concept, similar to a score of others examined and discarded, such as Management by Objectives (MBO), Total Quality Management (TQM), Reengineering, or Just in Time (JIT), all produced primarily by corporate America. However, in contrast to these business-oriented concepts, mission command is firmly rooted in military theory. This foundation may account for its enduring popularity and near mythical canonization. These accolades notwithstanding, evidence suggests that modern militaries have encountered difficulties in the implementation and practice of mission command. The gap between theory and practice may stem from internal organizational factors as well as from external factors. This disparity, too, will be explored in the current research.


Using the Prussian-German historical experience as a point of reference, this study examines three modern armies that adopted mission command in the 1980s and 1990s: the American Army, the British Army, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In each of these cases, the analysis revolves around three primary concepts: adoption, adaptation, and praxis. The first, adoption, represents an organizational decision to embrace a foreign concept; the second, adaptation, covers the process of integrating this concept into the organization; and the third, praxis, focuses on the factors that affect the organization's ability to implement the foreign concept in combat. This book therefore aims to answer the following questions:

• What were the American, British, and Israeli traditions of command prior to the adoption of mission command?

• How did these traditions of command influence the adoption of mission command, and what other factors may have had an impact?

• How did these forces adapt mission command in theory and in practice? • How similar are the American, British, and Israeli variants of mission command?

• Was the adoption of mission command successful from the perspective of doctrine and practice? Why or why not?

The main argument in this study is that a borrowed concept such as mission command, chosen for its promise to enhance operational effectiveness, will be interpreted and practiced differently by the adopting party due to the impact of particular strategic settings and organizational cultures. Consequently, the impact of the adopted concept on the organization and its effectiveness may be different than expected or intended.


The model presented in Figure 1, which demonstrates the process of adoption through adaptation and praxis, illustrates the main argument of this book. The process begins with the development of an approach to command within the framework of Organization A's particular cultural, strategic, and organizational circumstances. In the case of mission command, Organization A represents the Prussian-German Army. This approach is then adopted by Organization B, which represents the American, British, and Israeli Armies, each of which operates within a unique cultural context. Mission command is studied by each of these armies as a paradigm of and for excellence. It is then adapted and incorporated into official doctrine. The first gap, interpretation, develops at this stage, influencing doctrinal output, due to different cultural settings and diverse interpretations accorded to the concept within each army. The accumulated affect is a de facto differentiation between the original idea and its adapted doctrinal form.

The second gap, praxis, develops during the implementation of the adapted doctrine. It occurs as a result of an interplay between external and internal factors governing the organizational culture of each army and their unique modus operandi. External factors include the changes in the nature of warfare and in civil-military relations, particularly from the end of the Cold War until the first decade of the twenty-first century. Internal factors include education, training, and personnel policies. Consequently, the main argument is that mission command, developed by one organization and adopted by others, has undergone at least two phases of transformation. These changes have breached an ever widening gap between the original concept and its application in combat operations, its raison d'être. Indeed, due to these gaps, mission command has mutated, a process resulting in the creation of variants more in congruence with local organization cultures.

The structure of this book is based on the theoretical model discussed above. It begins with an investigation of the Prussian army and the particular cultural context that bore mission command. This discussion will be followed by an exploration of the approach to, and culture of, command in each of the three armies. The interpretation gap in each of the case studies will then be explored through an analysis of the adoption process each army underwent; the praxis gap will be analyzed through recent operations and organizational practices. The discussion of these gaps will demonstrate the extent to which mission command has influenced local command cultures.

Chapter Two


THE FOLLOWING CHAPTER discusses in depth both the concept of command and of mission command. The chapter will also make the link between these concepts and military culture and organizational theory. It expounds on the unique challenges posed by battlefield friction and on the manner through which mission command can mitigate it. The concept of mission command denotes decentralization of decision-making authority and empowerment of subordinates; therefore this chapter also discusses the rationale and the organizational theory at the root of both concepts. It then explores the cultural transformation required from, and the inherent difficulties faced by, military organizations endeavoring to practice mission command. The theories of organizational culture and empowerment are then examined in order to explain varied approaches to command and practices of command before and following the adoption of mission command. The concepts and methods discussed in this chapter will serve as the foundation for the discussion of the process of adoption and adaptation of mission command in the following chapters. The chapter concludes with an exploration of the basic cultural elements necessary for a successful implementation of mission command. The chapter thus demonstrates the significance of cultural elements to the process of adoption and adaptation of new ideas.


What is command and how is it different from leadership? Command in battle is considered of such significance that it is widely assumed that if performed well, regardless of other shortcomings, it can ensure victory. Individuals have led, directed, and made critical decisions on battlefields throughout the history of war. When civilization first began to exploit the power of organized violence through the military organization, the positions of leadership were regulated. The position of command came to represent a function transcending any individual occupying it. The function of command and the existence of a chain of command differentiate between military organizations and tribal warriors. Modern British doctrine defines command as the "authority vested in an individual for the direction, coordination, and control of military forces" and states that leadership, command, and management are "closely related." Management and command functions involve the "allocation and control of resources to achieve objectives," only the latter of which is "fully tested under the extraordinary stresses of war fighting." In this extreme context, command is comprised of leadership, decision making, and control.

According to U.S. Army doctrine, leadership entails "influencing people by providing purpose, direction and motivation," while decision making signifies "selecting a course of action as the one most favorable to accomplish the mission." In addition to leadership, command also includes authority, which is the "delegated power to judge, act, or command, it includes responsibility, accountability and delegation of authority." However, it is important to note that delegation of authority does not absolve commanders of their responsibilities or accountability; indeed, responsibilities cannot be delegated. The element of control, crucial for the practice of command, is defined by the Americans as the "regulation of forces and battlefield operating systems to accomplish the mission according to the commander's intent." These definitions emphasize control of structures and processes over "creativity and will." According to an alternate definition, commanders "invent novel solutions to mission problems ... and [are] the source of diligent purposefulness." Command is thus a combination of art and science, a "creative expression of human will." Control is comprised primarily of the structures and processes enabling command and risk management.

Military organizations have been hierarchical for centuries in that authority, responsibility, and accountability devolve on one individual. Lower ranking individuals are both subordinates and commanders; they are required to interpret the orders they are given and issue orders to their subordinates. The difficulties inherent in this system were greatly compounded by the onset of the French Revolution and the consequent expansion in both the size and spread of armies. Technology has mitigated these difficulties but has also added an additional dimension of complexity.

The research devoted to command is still in its infancy. Despite technological advances and the importance of the subject, little has changed since Martin van Creveld lamented the rarity of works on command two decades ago. The broader discipline of warfare, too, is rather neglected, leading Jim Storr to characterize it as "poorly developed." The literature devoted to command falls under three categories. The works comprising the first category focus on the personalities and behavioral patterns of great commanders. These include biographies and autobiographies as well as more systematic studies analyzing the actions and decisions of great captains in an attempt to unveil the secrets of their success or failure. The second category includes social sciences-oriented studies, in which command is regarded as a subcategory of leadership and management, as it includes elements of both. Leadership is concerned with motivation, influence, and inspiration, whereas management focuses on the effective and efficient allocation and process of resources. Accordingly, much of the literature devoted to leadership and management is applied to the study of command. The third category includes technically oriented studies devoted primarily to command and control procedures and processes, such as information gathering, analysis, and dissemination. Recently, this field has centered around the impact of digital technology on command and control. Few have endeavored to integrate the tools afforded by these disciplines for a comprehensive study of command. This deficiency may account for the primary stage of development of the theory of command.

In this study, command is identified as a collaborative, rather than individual, endeavor involving an entire system. It assumes that command is an organizational activity exercised under the chaotic conditions of battle and that it both reflects and creates military and organizational cultures.


Excerpted from Transforming Command by Eitan Shamir Copyright © 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Foreword H. R. McMaster xi

Part I The Theory and History of Mission Command

1 Setting the Stage 3

2 Command and Military Culture 8

3 The Origins of Mission Command (Auftragstaktik) 29

Part II Alternative Traditions of Command

4 Inspired by Corporate Practices: American Army Command Traditions 57

5 Caught Between Extremes: British Army Command Traditions 67

6 Molded by Necessity: Command in the IDF 82

7 Comparison 95

Part III Transforming Command

8 Adopting and Adapting Mission Command 101

9 Testing: Mission Command in Operations 131

10 The Praxis Gap 157

Part IV Conclusions and Implications

11 Summary Remarks and Wider Implications 193

12 Final Verdict: Has Mission Command Been Adopted Successfully? 201

Notes 207

Index 263

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