Mission Command. Most military personnel in modern armed forces, certainly in the West, understand it. It constitutes a style of military command promoting decentralisation, freedom, speed of action, delegation and initiative. Subordinates, understanding the commander’s intentions, their own missions and the context of those missions, are told what effect they are to achieve and the reason why it needs to be achieved. Indeed, most civilians will recognise it, practisng ‘management by objectives’ or the management concept of empowerment.
Originating in Clausewitz’s 19th century German armed forces, known as auftragstaktik, mission command works ideally in high tempo and complex warfare. Although the ‘thousand-mile screwdriver’ is still commonplace in military operations, and in corporate affairs, high ranking political officials would never dream of attempting to dictate to the soldier on the ground how to achieve his objective – even though, as per Clausewitz, “war is an extension of politics by another means”. It works because of highly specific objectives and a confidence in highly trained and experienced operatives, allowing for a serious degree of delegation.
Today’s warfare, ‘War 2.0’, is a far cry from that of the age of industrial force-on-force struggle. In counter-insurgency, operations other than war, ‘war amongst the people’ and the like, communication, both simple and hi-tech (from the tribal gathering to the Second-Life propaganda) has become a major feature of conduct of warfare, conflict, call it what you want. As is increasingly becoming apparent in docrine, opinion, papers and at conferences, communication – stratcom, influence, public affairs, public diplomacy – is as considerable a factor, or operational capability, as tanks, bullets and bombs. However, whilst the latter are often utilised under the code of Mission Command, the former is not.
The tight, codified, process-driven and hierarchical systems within with military communication stymies any real effectiveness in War 2.0 – a fast and dynamic environment in which the ‘enemy’ may, as well as having the flexibility and responsiveness afforded by decentralisation, freedom, speed of action, delegation and initiative (sounds familiar? – see the first paragraph), have as good, if not better, capabilities than the modern fighting forces. Indeed, modern fighting forces, are hamstrung for may immovable factors – politics, enemy capabilities, inherent communicative advantages afforded to insurgents etc – but there is one area, command style, which is in the gift of modern fighting forces to change. The concept is well practised and widely applied, but can the style of mission command extend to communications?
There is an argument that communication is too strategically potent or politically sensitive – what is said, what is perceived, what is seen on the battlefield may have strategic effect – it may even make a Minister/Senator or a government policy look bad. But today, with the concept of the ‘strategic corporal’ ever present, in which the tactical military actions of very junior personnel have the capacity to bring about huge strategic impact, the same can be applied to any military action. Thus, why should the command and management of military communication (public affairs, info ops etc) be any different to other traditional military function?
Political sensitivity, organisational culture, lack of a professionalism (in the strict sense of the word) – these all contribute to the inertia, the inability of the hierachy to’ let go’. But the signs are there. Without decentralisation, freedom of action, speed, delegation and iniative afforded to professional and highly trained operators, then the command style will continue to restrict progress in strategic communications, regardless of how good the ‘message’ is. Applying mission command to strategic communications is not straightforward, but acknowledging that a lack of it, or certainly its ethos, is a first step. There will be immovable obstacles (some there for good reason), but examining where elements of mission command style could be employed in communications may just break a logjam of our own making.
In response to Daniel Korski’s questions concerning NATO branding, on the excellent Global Dashboard blogsite, CB3 thought it time to scribble a few words.
Op-eds, academic papers, rumours and downright moaning tend to indicate that NATO isn’t winning the information war, certainly in Afghanistan. Now, there’s a lot to be said for taking that point of view, but more often than not such a view is expressed alongside such sentiment as ‘the Taliban are, in fact, winning the information battle’. Well, just hang on a minute.
As Tim Foxley of SIPRI, having spent the last eight years studying the Taliban, elucidated recently, there is little evidence for sustained success of Taliban communications efforts and in fact they still have a weak, poorly planned and inflexible approach to communications, and are vulnerable in this area (but they’re learning fast). So let’s hear less of the Taliban are better than NATO in communications.
And, anyway, NATO have also made great strides in this area over the last few years, with the establishment of a fully functioning Media Operations Centre (MOC) and rapid development of workable procedures. Further, the concept of Strategic Communication is starting to gain traction, featuring more and more in policy and strategy formulation (with details available on the web). A lot of hard work has obviously gone into raising NATO’s game in this regard.
But when the word branding starts being bandied about, CB3 starts to worry a little. Direct experience in Afghanistan has shown that, even after the recent positive developments, there is always a tendency to use communication, especially media operations/public affairs to encourage domestic audiences to support the campaign/war at the expense of using such capabilities to actually support the objectives of the campaign/war.
Serving and retired military one-four stars, senior communicators from IGOs to NGOs and practitioners, all cry out that the circumstances of modern conflict interventions demand that they are conducted with information and communications at their core – and by that they mean using information and communications to win the campaign, not merely make good copy or nice branding for the home audiences (CB3 exaggerates here – a little). The latter is important but without emphasis on the former, what’s the point?
Few would disagree that, in the information age, communication is becoming fundamental to achieving foreign policy goals. But words are cheap, and CB3 suspects that NATO does and/or will face similar problems in achieving its communication aspirations as the US is finding. Recent RAND research has indicated that a lack of leadership buy-in, leading to a lack of resources, vague strategy and obstacles to better coordination, are all posing significant challenges to achieving what the majority of communication practitioners see as vital. Similar vibes were observed when examined communication management of the the European Union’s ESDP missions in 2008.
It’s difficult enough in the real world of 24/7 media, diplomatic realities and genuine propaganda, but even in the more benign and more easily controlled training and exercise environment, NATO regularly fails to take communication seriously. This is symptomatic of large swathes of NATO not really ‘getting it’. For example, during CMX-08, despite valiant efforts of the exercise directors, the MOC was extensively exercised, but in almost total isolation from the rest of the players – the communication bit can be a little bit problematic and upsetting, so outside the MOC we’ll pay lip service to the media and public opinion bit. Problemmatic? – damn right it is! Equally, many NATO exercises consider to have tested communication by conducting little tactical vignettes, thrusting journalists with cameras and microphones into the faces of Public Affairs Officers and their COs, and doing very little else (oh, there will be some good simulated news video stuff). Nice interview, didn’t pick his nose on camera, didn’t give away any secrets, kept to the lines – brilliant. That’s vital stuff, but it’s the tip of the strategic communication iceberg – and its the 90% under the water that is likely to sink any communication contribution to achieving strategic objectives.
In a previous CB3 Blog, it was stated that, ‘the most critical battle for ‘hearts and minds’ will not be fought in the fields of Afghanistan, the mountains of Kosovo or the streets of the DRC, but in the corridors of power of foreign ministries, defence departments and development agencies’. This equally applies to NATO.
The point is, having Coca-Cola executives and TV channels (which is pretty good – although its style is definately staid, some creativity and flair would be welcome), nice branding and interview training is all good and well, and indeed vital. But it is the deeper, complex and sometimes uncomfortable and contentious aspects of communications that will have to be addressed. Budgets, strategy, relationships, analysis, personnel, ROI, private sector involvement, new media – these all have to be on the table … on the ‘boardroom’ table. Making communication mainstream and holistic, such that it is rightly seen by everyone as fundamental (but not exclusive) to achieving strategic objectives, is key to improving the communication capability of the Alliance.
There are those in NATO who are pushing hard to apply pressure in this direction, in the face of massive institutional inertia. CB3 applauds them.