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Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 2022]

WO Jerry Kean / DND photo

(Then) Brigadier-General David Neasmith, Commander of Land Force Atlantic Area, talks to the soldiers of 36 and 37 Combat Brigade Groups in the training area of Fort Pickett, Virginia, USA, 5 March 2009.

Dr. Luc Pigeon received an International Joint PhD in Electrical Engineering (with High Honours) from the École nationale supérieure des télécommunications de Bretagne in Brest, France, and Geomatics Sciences, from Laval University, Quebec City, Canada, in 2001. For 20 years, he has been Defence Scientist at Defence Research and Development Canada. Over the years, he has provided advice in command, control (C2) and intelligence to develop capabilities for the conduct of urban operations, counter-insurgencies, CBRN and continental defence. He currently conducts research on the C2 aspects of the Pan-Domain Force Employment Concept.

Following his retirement from the military, Dr. Russell W. Glenn joined the think tank community for 16 years before accepting a position on the faculty of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He co-authored this article while serving with G2, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. Dr. Glenn is author-editor of the recently published “Trust and Leadership: The Australian Army Approach to Mission Command” and author of the forthcoming “Come Hell or High Water: Readying the World’s Megacities for Disaster.”

Using the analogy of a Formula One racing team highlights the risk of over-focusing on the individual parts of an initiative at the expense of recognizing and meeting the objectives of the whole. A piecemeal vision deprives managers at every echelon of the perspective that is essential to making correct decisions in the interest of national security and to those who serve in the field. The Second World War demonstrated the importance of balancing battlefield demands with those that are fundamental to winning that conflict. In so doing, it not only leveraged the skills and commitment of all the Allies’ governments—a whole of government approach—but enabled a broader participation that we can term ‘whole of nation’ or, broader yet, ‘a whole of alliance or comprehensive approach’ that crossed international boundaries and the seams between government and civilian enterprises. The current security threats to our nations are both similar to and very different from those in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Then as now, the threats are plain to see but sometimes too uncomfortable to confront. If one focuses only on military threats, they are even less obvious, for maneuver by those with ill intentions is at present a devil’s brew of economic, diplomatic, informational, and cyber interference in our countries’ internal affairs with military activities being but one of many tools potentially employed. The West stands ready with the most formidable military capability in the world, but in future wars it might be deliberately marginalized by our countries’ foes. A telling similarity was when France’s soldiers stood ready between the world wars, manning their country’s Maginot Line against the growing threat of the Wehrmacht. France fell when Germany flanked the defences on which it had staked the security of its people, much as those in the West now find their military superiority being out-maneuvered in other arenas. More so than at any time since the Second World War, military preparedness alone is no longer sufficient. Canada, the United States, and their multinational partners need defence capabilities that exceed what departments (or ministries) of defence alone provide.

Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo

Maginot Line, on the French-German border, December 1939. British troops march over bridge into the French underground fortress.

None of this argues for casting aside military preparedness. It remains a fundamental component among the elements of our national power. Military forces must stand ready to meet their responsibilities as one of the tools political leaders can use to defend against those maneuvering in the multiple domains identified above. While our armed forces are arguably the most proficient in the world, the capabilities development processes supporting them suffer from a fragmented approach that results in focus being placed on optimizing components at the expense of the comprehensive whole. The pages below consider the implications of this shortfall and how we might address it. Though the focus will be on military preparedness, the approaches proposed apply to those whose sphere of responsibilities are less armed forces-based than economic or otherwise circumscribed. Further, we will draw on the challenges associated with what is arguably the most difficult of combat environments for the soldiers—the urban areas—as we contemplate how to improve capabilities development. It is an appropriate choice given the demonstrated intractability in meeting urban operations challenges. Despite millions spent on improving technologies of use in those undertakings, today’s soldiers and marines clear rooms and buildings much as they did during the Second World War. Solutions demand a wide range of approaches that must consistently complement each other if we are to succeed.

Whatever the quality and complexity of its component efforts, a racing team cannot expect to win by discretely considering its fuel, tires, communication systems, on- and outboard computers, pit crew, driver, and the myriad other pieces that must work together if its car is to be the first across the finish line. It is equally impossible for one person alone to manage all of the details essential to victory. Clear mission and intent statements that provide consistent guidance to all team members are essential in orchestrating the actions of the racing team as a whole. Constant exchanges between team managers and the rest of the team facilitate informed resource allocation from the top, advised by effective feedback from below. This communication must be continuous and balanced if all parts are to be as effective as possible in acting as one entity. Insight provided by the drivers and those most intimately involved in their vehicle’s daily performance cannot be allowed to detract from the bigger picture, namely the complete system serving the goal of victory. Nor can those higher up afford to ignore the insights, for that system will misfire should individual components fail. Further, successfully meeting racing’s present demands is a necessary but not sufficient accomplishment. The team must also simultaneously look forward in time to ensure both the individual parts and the collective whole anticipate, adapt, and respond to the constantly evolving demands of Formula One racing. Achieving this symphonic end during military capability development requires orchestrating each military service’s requirements (army, navy, air force, and marine…and, increasingly, other relevant parties such as those focused on space and cyber) that together comprise the totality of our racing team’s components. Capabilities development must not only maintain balance between the demands of the whole and component effectiveness, but also those of the present and others yet to come. In practice, achieving the desired synergy implies that we consider all relevant participants’ inputs throughout the capability development process.

Exemplar: Urban Operations

Operation Just Cause in 1989-1990 Panama hinted at the evolution. The loss of two helicopters and 18 US soldiers in the dust-choked streets of Mogadishu in 1993 and many more Russians along Grozny’s rubble-strewn avenues several years later made it impossible not to recognize the dangers—urban areas had become an environment, or perhaps the environment, of choice for those competing with the world’s more sophisticated militaries. Baghdad, Mosul, Fallujah, and many subsequent urban battles have confirmed the trend. It is within and all around cities’ buildings, and among their populations, that the less well-equipped and trained seek to deal more sophisticated armed forces a tactical defeat, one that could translate into strategic embarrassment and perhaps withdrawal. With cities’ limited lines of sight; many routes of approach and egress; non-combatant populations providing concealment, support, and witting and unwitting human shields; ubiquitous means of communication; and concentrations of media only too willing to report an underdog’s successes; they provide plentiful material for deliberately or inadvertently misrepresenting Western forces’ intentions, material readily accessible to information consumers worldwide. No less troubling is that urban areas are just as attractive for terrorists as for enemy combatants.

Everett Collection Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Flames engulf buildings in Panama City during urban combat between the Panamanian Defense Force and US forces during the invasion of Panama, 21 December 1989.

History has shown that a city’s government can be overwhelmed by but a few insurgents, terrorists, or others with malfeasance at heart. (Recall the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai perpetrated by only 10 individuals.) Recent events in Boston, Paris, London, and elsewhere demonstrate that even the world’s better trained, led, and equipped security forces can be challenged by those with limited resources and dubious moral foundations. Notwithstanding instances of impressive intelligence coups that have interdicted terrorist intentions, urban theatres’ complexity ensures that complete prevention will prove impossible. The presence of multiple layers of government—city, county, state, and national—aggravates the challenges of orchestrating the resources that are essential to preparing for these attacks and later coordinating responses in service of the victims. Obvious in its necessity, this cooperation is no less apparent in its frequent absence.

Urban operations require orchestration of all relevant resources at hand: civilian and military, government and otherwise, just as does our racing team. This is true across potential mission types that range from disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in benign environments to counterinsurgency and full-scale, peer-on-peer armed engagements (and, at times, all of these simultaneously). Urban areas’ complexity makes disproportionate demands on decision-making processes that are essential to bringing these disparate assets together. The many interactions between urban areas’ social and physical infrastructures—difficult to comprehensively identify and much less fully understand—can result in delayed responses or actions taken in the absence of key information that run counter to strategic objectives. It is a catch 22 for leaders, particularly in the case of megacities whose extraordinary system of global interconnections means a decision’s consequences can reverberate throughout that urban area’s country, broader international region, and the world at large. The challenges to understanding the situation and, by extension, maintaining readiness, are significant obstacles in bringing necessary resources to bear. The nature of these deficiencies, and efforts to mitigate them are, therefore, a significant concern for the political master, policymaker, military strategist, capability development stakeholder, and operational- and tactical-level leader.

One such challenge involves the aforementioned intricacy of interrelationships in large urban areas. This complexity can make the results of even first-order interactions difficult to forecast. Gauging the nature of second- and third-order effects—and the consequences of security decisions on them—is a quantum level harder yet. This makes it difficult to 1) anticipate, 2) adapt, and 3) respond effectively. The last is a consequence of the previous two. If a coalition cannot anticipate what lies ahead, its ability to adapt is handicapped. This in turn can imply overly slow, inadequate, or inappropriate responses. The events of 3-4 October 1993 in Mogadishu provide an example of these three deficiencies occurring simultaneously. American leaders in the Somali capital failed to anticipate that their adversaries would adapt their responses to US raids. Insurgent and criminal forces (often one and the same) had observed US tactics and put early-warning procedures in place. American planning assumptions were, therefore, invalidated. Previous successes had fogged the lens through which leaders saw ongoing activities. They were thus less able to perceive their foes’ adjustments and adapt accordingly. The same can be said of Russian operations in Chechnya where early successes during the approach to Grozny blinded leaders to the conditions they would face in the capital itself. Mumbai’s 2008 terrorist attack provides another case of failing to anticipate and, therefore, adapt and respond effectively. Despite it being the fourth most populous urban area in the world, local reaction forces were underprepared. Those more qualified were too distant. The responses of both were poorly coordinated.

ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Remains of a downed US Apache helicopter in back street of Mogadishu, Somalia, 30 November 1993.

Just as winning on the Formula One circuit requires an overarching understanding of how every aspect of racing supports the ultimate goal of victory, urban environments require an understanding of their very complex whole. Senior leaders face a conundrum when they grasp the possible implications of decisions made at lower levels. The difficulty of maintaining communications and awareness of conditions is especially challenging given line of sight obstructions, the multiplicity of users competing for bandwidth and frequencies, and rapid situation changes.

The dynamic nature of these environments makes it even more difficult to anticipate inevitable but unpredictable changes, meaning that demands on timely and well-judged adaptation are hard to replicate during training. The result is extraordinary demands on every part of a military or broader coalition’s capabilities. The close physical proximity often experienced during urban operations can tax inter-partner trust as actions by one coalition member can undermine the objectives of some or all of the others. Frictions are more likely; nuanced differences in operational objectives and the number of parties involved makes it tough to achieve and maintain coalition cohesion (parties that include enemy, criminal, economic, local political, or other elements with objectives that might be in direct conflict with those of the coalition). The intertwined character of tactical, operational, and strategic considerations additionally compounds urban operations challenges. Understanding the implications of this extreme complexity is part of seeing the big picture and, therefore, fundamental to better meeting operator needs now and in the future.

Addressing the Gap Between What Capabilities Development Provides and What the Operator Needs Now and in the Future

It is always a good time to improve the effectiveness of our capabilities development process. The present is particularly auspicious as we continue to move forward with concept development for the Pan-Domain Force Employment Concept (in Canada) and Multi-Domain Operations/Joint All-Domain Operations (in the United States) with a look to transitioning those concepts to doctrine. This is in addition to the far broader spectrum of security requirements that include CBRN, missile defence, and the full scope of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief considerations.

Currently, the nature of both Canadian and US capabilities development too often focuses on the individual components of our racing team without giving sufficient attention to the whole of which those pieces are a part. A key, perhaps the key, to addressing current and future shortfalls in this regard is an improved, more responsive, and better balanced relationship between representatives in the development community and operators in the field, including those assuming positions in fields that emerge in our short-, medium-, and long-term futures. Fundamental to establishing and maintaining this relationship is effective employment of mission command: “the practice of assigning a subordinate commander a mission without specifying how the mission is to be achieved.”Footnote 1 As we address how capabilities development can better improve its value to both operators in the field and national security in general, open channels of communication between all parties are essential to maintaining the balance that avoids any one element dominating and thereby compromising the accomplishment of the primary objective.

MCpl Ken Galbraith / DND photo

Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, India Company, support provincial government and municipal authorities in preparation efforts during Operation LENTUS, in Maugerville, NB, 20 April 2019. Operation LENTUS is the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) response to natural disasters in Canada.

Doing so will require an open and all-but-constant line of communication that keeps operators appraised of developers’ state of play. In turn, developers must be aware of field requirements, both current and as forecasted by those tasked to meet them, in the operational environment. The resulting balanced awareness should not only include the echelon(s) that directly employ developer outputs in the field but also the perspectives of leaders and operators at intermediate levels as, there too, requirements will evolve. Stated differently, capability developers, having received guidance from their seniors and political masters, communicate to operators what those in development understand are the requirements of end users. Operators in turn provide feedback regarding their perception of how accurate developer understanding is in terms of both current and evolving requirements.

Mission Command: Key to Operational Consistency

This dynamic relationship is inherent in the effective application of mission command. We suggest it is a culture that developers and operators need to adopt not only on the battlefield but during all aspects of capabilities development, training, and operations. (Use of the mission command concept in this manner would by no means be revolutionary. Though not necessarily associated with the moniker “mission command,” police in New York City and firefighters in California are among the many non-military organizations employing the approach in some form.) As in our racing metaphor, each service is a team of many parts, just as a country’s armed forces should collectively be a joint team of its component services. The top priority in service and joint capabilities development should be determining current and future needs with awareness of but not be limited by considerations of what resources are already on hand. Success in this regard requires clearly articulated mission and intent statements for both the services individually and the joint force of which they are a part.

Mission command permits us to maintain consistency of purpose and approach even when it involves many parts and related considerations. Senior leaders clearly articulate what the mission subordinates are to accomplish along with an intent regarding how that mission supports a broader desired end state, that is, how the mission fits in the larger context of operations. (In our example, the intent would clearly describe what the ultimate objective of the racing team is in terms of their collective actions). Decision-makers at each echelon need to understand command guidance as provided by leaders at least two levels above their own if they are to grasp the context for their organizations’ actions. Properly executed, this provides subordinates and cooperating partners with the information they need to adapt their activities to serve higher-level objectives should mission guidance no longer suffice. Such adaptation will frequently be essential, particularly at lower tactical levels where conditions are most dynamic. The leader closest to the action will be best able to comprehend the imminent challenges.

Successful adaptation rests in their ability to discern how senior leader intents apply to situations in light of mission guidance. Properly practiced, the decentralized nature of mission command provides lower echelon leaders with the authority they need to take appropriate action in the face of evolving challenges. It further provides them with the flexibility that is fundamental to adapting orders to situations and provides senior leaders with an extent of operational reach otherwise impossible. The mission command philosophy provides a tool that supports maintaining strategic consistency (the goal of the racing team as a whole) even as capabilities (its components) act with sufficient autonomy to dynamically serve that purpose as effectively as possible.

Technologies increasingly help tactical leaders to see beyond or into the next building during urban operations, thereby decreasing the risk of surprise short-range contacts or facilitating finding victims in need of assistance after disaster strikes. Our armed services already possess unmanned aerial and ground vehicles (UAVs and UGVs, respectively) that provide “eyes,” “ears,” and other sensors without exposing soldiers. These systems proved themselves in Mosul, Raqqa, and elsewhere during recent urban operations. Combining UAV/UGV technologies with those of cloud or fog computing—whether via a single cloud or several cloudlets—further promises users better access to the data these sensors provide, access to a wider range of information, and improved resilience of communication networks. Eventually, individual person-to-person transmissions may become less necessary as leaders at any echelon are able to “reach” into a cloud and obtain what they need when they need it in a way that is meaningful to their respective contexts.

Corporal David Veldman / Canadian Armed Forces photo

A member of the Canadian Fleet Atlantic Headquarters prepares a Puma Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) for flight aboard HMCS Harry DeWolf during a proficiency sail, 4 November 2020.

Both the geographic spread and populations of many of the world’s largest urban areas continue to increase. This means more people, structures, and infrastructure are dispersed over a wider area (or, more accurately, over a more extensive volume given how much of these cities is well above or below ground). There are thus not only more civilians to avoid harming but these civilians, and other features of urban areas, are scattered over vaster terrain. A force traveling through or fighting in these highly complex environments may, therefore, find itself having to do so for greater distances and extended periods of time. We need to remember that if the urban area is a megacity,Footnote 2 its greater influence in terms of economics, politics, and other arenas means interrelationships between coalition actions will have second- and higher-order effects well beyond the urban area itself. These effects will be difficult to gauge. That such operations involve more than military forces alone adds to decision-makers’ challenges. There is little wonder that urban complexity continues to overwhelm organizational and technological progress. The result is that capability development is always in catch-up mode. Mission command provides a means of maintaining developer currency within the context of defence objectives.

As noted above, too little has changed in our manner of approaching urban operations despite history’s recent lessons and major investments in technology. Yes, we have access to data as never before, but that data is in so many forms, spread across so many organizations and databases, and reliant on so many (often incompatible) types of hardware and software that we often cannot determine what is of relevance and integrate it into decision-making processes in a timely and usable manner. The complexity of urban areas presents enough challenges without the continued self-inflicted wound of purchasing and developing incompatible software and hardware within our defence communities, much less more widely throughout government. The challenge is further complicated by the fact that relevant data must be put into context prior to exploitation. The loss of soldiers’ lives in the examples above had many underlying causes. It behooves us to do all we can to avoid them in the future. Have we sufficiently addressed the information and communications challenges that plagued commanders during operations in Mogadishu in 1993 and again in Iraq and Afghanistan? Unfortunately, we have not.

The end result of introducing mission command’s two-way exchanges of information between developers and operators would be improved relevance of capabilities development to those in the field and national security more broadly. Achieving this highly desirable end result requires a shared understanding of a common end state (as articulated in an intent) with the mission(s) clarifying what steps are essential to achieving that desired end result. Properly designed, both intent and mission will address not only requirements as they currently exist but adaptations needed to address evolving demands and those yet to be identified, adaptations that ideally occur consecutively rather than sequentially.

For a successful example in this regard we turn to Paul Kennedy’s excellent description of the P-51 Mustang’s development in the midst of the bombing campaign in Second World War Europe.Footnote 3 14 October 1943 saw 291 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and their crews depart England and turn toward targets in Regensburg and the city of Schweinfurt. Only after their limited-range P-47 Thunderbolt turned back did the Luftwaffe send repeated waves amongst the bombers. Sixty Flying Fortresses and 600 aircrew did not return, all this in a single day. British aircraft and crew losses were similarly brutal against other targets on other days.

Shawshots / Alamy Stock Photo

Second World War 1940’s Bombing Raid by a B-17 Flying Fortress of the American 8th Air Force on a Focke Wulf aircraft manufacturing plant at Marienburg, Germany, 1943.

Akin to our racing team, producing a winning fighter aircraft requires all parts to come together in an effective form-fitting manner, both physically and ergonomically. That is also true in terms of the larger combat systems of which the fighter is a part, namely those conducting bombing raids, seeking to seize and maintain air superiority, or interdicting enemy ground forces trying to blunt Allied attacks, or any of the many means necessary to winning not merely a race but a war. The P-51 Mustang seemed to have potential as part of the various teams conducting these missions but it was somewhat limited when first introduced. The aircraft underperformed as initially designed and equipped, coming of age only after Royal Air Force test pilot Ronnie Harker flew a P-51 in the spring of 1942. Harker realized that not only would the Rolls Royce Merlin 61 engine dramatically increase performance but it would fit perfectly in the engine compartment of the American fighter, the specifications of which were very similar to those of the Spitfire featuring the Merlin 61 at the time.

Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo

North American Aviation’s P-51 Mustang Fighter, 1942.

Mission: As Quickly as Possible

Allied engineers developed an escort fighter capable of protecting bombers throughout their missions over Germany. Their intent was to provide Allied air forces with enough aircrafts to accompany its bombers to targets, defeat enemy fighters at any point during those flights, have a reasonable chance of surviving damage inflicted in battle by air or ground fire, and be sufficiently reliable without undue maintenance requirements.Footnote 4 Early WWII’s horrendous losses over Germany and feedback from surviving pilots made clear what was necessary. British and American air force leaders, spurred on by the likes of Winston Churchill, made clear what they needed from their engineers. Those engineers, and test pilots like Harker, reached beyond the dictates of their missions, applying insights and understanding only they possessed to create an aircraft that met both the demands of mission and the intent. Just as the Merlin 61 fit perfectly into the P-51 engine compartment, so did the aircraft’s armament, fuel, ammunition load, cockpit design, pilot training, and myriad other parts of the whole come together in a single, hyper-effective system thanks to what was effectively the exercise of mission command in a time of great hardship. What should not be lost in this focus on the P-51 is that its development was itself one part of a much greater race, a race to win the war. As developers moved fighter performance forward, they did the same for the bombers supported by the fighters through the introduction of chaff, bombsight development, and revisions in tactics and targeting. They likewise did so in the service of anti-submarine warfare, convoy survival, and the package that was ground combat and air support as the Allies invaded Northwest Europe and broke out from bocage country in northern France. Leaders and those being led continuously navigated the ever-changing currents that buffeted military forces as adversaries, and the changing theatres influenced the competition environment. Throughout, missions guided by an understanding of the grander objectives sought guided these developments. Developers—aided by insights from the field—were thus able to meet not only the demands of the day but to look forward and address those of the future. What would years later come to be known as mission command ensured all never lost sight of where they were going: the ultimate end result sought. One might ask whether such clarity exists in our capability development efforts today.

Returning to Urban Operations: Capabilities Development and the Way Ahead for Operations in the World’s Largest Urban Areas

Earlier paragraphs address the importance of a military being able to anticipate, adapt, and respond to changing conditions and do so in a timely manner. Future large-scale encounters in world megacities will be a new experience for our militaries. Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in these environments will confront very different conditions from megacity to megacity, making related challenges all the harder. Fortunately, we have much in the way of experience when it comes to operations in smaller urban areas…if we listen to its lessons. Mosul, Iraq, for example, may have had a population of less than two million, and Baghdad not even six, during recent operations in each, but such examples nonetheless provide a firm basis for developing tactical- and operational-level understanding of contingencies-to-come even should populations be larger and geographic spread greater. The importance of learning from these recent undertakings is all the more notable when we consider that those involving the larger urban struggles of the Second World War and the Korean War—Manila in 1945 and Seoul in 1950, for example—dealt with cities whose populations at the time were far smaller than our largest cities today. (Manila’s population was only approximately 1 million and that of Seoul 1.1 million. Today, they are respectively 23.1 million and 21.8 million.)Footnote 5

Urban operations’ complexity is not lessening. Military forces need to adapt. Megacities are not simply more populous than other urban areas. The systems of which they are a part are more complex. Megacities interdependency relationships do not connect them only to their immediate rural and other nearby urban surroundings as is the case with smaller cities. Their interconnectedness throughout the country of which they are a part, with countries in their vicinity, and often with the wider world is one that bestows inordinate influence by means of these economic, political, social, and other ties. The international outrage following the inadvertent bombing of the Chinese embassy in 1999 Belgrade more than hints at what the consequences of striking a particularly interconnected target might be. Urban operations—and those involving megacities in particular—thus demand a multidisciplinary, cooperative, and well-orchestrated approach to activities at all levels. Success implies an understanding of the interrelationships between components of the urban area and the parties involved in executing operations, and then ensuring that all those with operational roles integrate this knowledge when undertaking their responsibilities. Reorienting our approach to capabilities development by putting mission command at its core offers a new paradigm that returns technology to its appropriate supporting role as a critical enabler in achieving desired end states.

Op IMPACT / DND photo

A Canadian Armed Forces soldier guards his arcs of fire on board a CH-146 Griffon helicopter during an air mobility mission in Northern Iraq during Operation IMPACT, 4 November 2016.

Knowledge of mission critical information and understanding its importance in light of ongoing action creates a bridge between the current situation and a future of readiness we hope to maintain. Without it, execution in the complex megacity environment falls prey to stale and outdated guidance due to breaks in communications, an inability to address logistical shortcomings, and many other difficulties enhanced by urban environments’ inherent interdependencies. Megacity complexity and broad interconnectedness strain both the ability of a unit to adapt and its headquarters’ capability to control and support. Knowledge under such conditions is more than power. It is a necessary condition to successfully execute mission command, which in turn underlies the ultimate attainment of strategic objectives.

Summary and Recommendations: Making Mission Command Work on a Capabilities Development – Mission Execution Continuum

Military forces do not exist in a vacuum. Beyond defence and security, the requirement for the adoption of an integrated-systems perspective is already considered sine qua non to enable the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (also known as Industry 4.0, in which industrial practices incorporate advances such as the Internet of Things)Footnote 6 and its derivatives such as manufacturing for the next generation and smart cities paradigms. These initiatives are taking place in all domains and are motivated by similar requirements regardless of organizational type.

Solutions to the challenge of improving defence (and more general) capabilities development will have several components, including:

  • Improved application of a systems perspective.
  • Constant awareness not only of how parts support a system as a whole, but also how the components might need to be adapted to meet future requirements.
  • Modularity in project management in lieu of a single massive prime contract or acquisitions process, modularity not only with respect to end products, but also in the sub-organizations (e.g., the components of a racing team), all guided by a unifying end as articulated in mission and intent statements. Some of these sub-organizations will be working to get a product out based on currently specified requirements (e.g., the P-51 airframe). Others are looking at how to improve some other component during ongoing product development (e.g., fitting the Merlin 61 engine into the Mustang). Finally, there should be those who are looking well into the future and contemplating the next race car or the next fighter, namely those who are looking to bridge the now with the then. Anyone involved, such as primary management, sub-organization leadership, drivers/pilots, mechanics and others have the potential as a source of revolution during evolution.

Both continuous exchanges between developers and operators, and allocation of resources to look into future requirements, will be critical when dealing with the Pan-Domain/Multi-Domain Operations’ competition component. Just as the West has been surprised by threat misinformation and disinformation attacks attempting to influence elections and Russia’s use of surrogates to remain below NATO’s commitment threshold in Ukraine, so will some future foe decide not to fight us on urban streets but instead successfully convince sufficient members of the population that they should turn against us, thus removing us without having to fight. Whether the environment is urban or otherwise, there will always be the need to surge and develop a hyper-critical solution akin to the hedgerow buster in Normandy, counter-mine plows/rollers in 1991 Iraq, or the P-51 in Second World War Europe. Similar needs in the disinformation and cyber security arenas are arguably on the table currently just as they are for countering sub-threshold maneuver more generally.

Cpl Blaine Sewell / DND photo

The Royal Canadian Navy’s Enhanced Naval Boarding Party from Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Charlottetown transits in a in rigid hull inflatable boat to a cooperative boarding of motor vessel Smit Yare as the ship’s CH-124 Sea King helicopter provides cover during Exercise JOINT WARRIOR in the Atlantic Ocean, 12 October 2016.

Megacities and other urban areas are and shall remain complex environments for the aid provider, soldier at war, and public authority. Central as they are to nations’ cultures, economies, governments, civil institutions, and other infrastructures, tactical level military actions in these environments have a greater potential to impact operational and strategic outcomes than during operations elsewhere. The military’s unavoidable overlap with other organizations’ spheres of responsibilities and objectives further complicates urban operations. Urban environments’ interrelated networks are part of this complexity, which is further exacerbated by the ever-present potential for disruption of communications and impeded mobility, as well as the challenge of simply comprehending the potential effects of a force’s decisions and actions on systems internal to and extending beyond the city in question.

These challenges highlight the need to be able to adapt to changing conditions while operating autonomously for extended periods of time (re-emphasizing the criticality of clear missions and intents). Those missions and intents will in turn benefit from a well-articulated strategic end state, one that includes overt specification of constraints as it clearly defines conditions reflecting how the many actions serving that end must complement each other. Given the multi-agency, multi-echelon, pan-domain/multi-domain, and military-civil character of undertakings in urban areas, an overarching authority—sometimes articulated in terms of a “supremo”—is highly desirable to oversee definition of this end state and these constraints. While mission command requires some extent of decentralization of decision-making and action, cross-organizational consistency in specifying strategic guidance will go far toward encouraging an orchestrated rather than fragmented operation. Put differently, there must be consistency in leaders’ missions and intents laterally as well as vertically between organizations.

Effectively integrating disparate capabilities on urban and other battlefields is far easier if capability developers take a systems approach from the start of any initiative. Only with such an approach can those responsible for making our armed forces as effective as possible ensure the weaker links of the chain are identified and strengthened in lieu of unnecessarily augmenting the capabilities of those stronger, as too often occurs at present.

Just as mission command is essential to successful operations in urban areas, its principles should guide the development of the capabilities our armed forces will bring to bear during operations of all types and in any environment. Just as it is the man or woman on urban streets who knows best how to apply the assets at hand in the service of mission and commander’s intent, the widely dispersed efforts to equip and staff our forces demand clear guidance from above with a freedom to adapt within that guidance to meet the requirements of individual services and branches within those services. Just as the senior leader has the responsibility to check on his or her subordinates to ensure mission and intent are being followed, our senior military and civilian defence officials have the responsibility to ensure that capability developers and subordinate service and branch leaders do not ignore their guidance in the service of narrower interests.

In this light, the authors recommend the following to drive consistent capability development along the PRICIE (Canada) and DOTMLPF-I/P (NATO, US) lines:Footnote 7

  • Apply a mission command approach to the design, acquisition, and fielding of capabilities. These processes must be driven by a common integrating vision rather than one based on the branch, the service, or another traditional bureaucratic stovepipe. Capabilities-based planning and mission command should work together by employing compatible, if not identical, end goals to provide an overarching understanding of what each component of the racing team should aim to accomplish and how this serves to meet the end goal(s), and to include requirements needed today and in the future.
  • Design or acquire decision-making aids, balancing the requirements of strategic/senior leader guidance and soldier requirements to the extent possible. Access to massive amounts of data/information is not synonymous with helping leaders make decisions.
  • Ubiquitous awareness only exists in utopia. Urban operations—all operations—require timely and savvy adaptation to ever-changing conditions. Train leaders to lead via the application of mission command. Train subordinates to provide the feedback their leaders need to make informed decisions best serving the needs of those in the field.

Master Corporal Roy MacLellan / DND photo

Two CF-18 Hornets from 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron in Bagotville, Quebec fly over the mountains of Iceland after departing Keflavik, Iceland in support of NATO reassurance measures, 1 May 2014.

Success on the battlefield requires armed forces to be committed to orchestrating their many capabilities no less than premier racing teams. While we have used urban operations challenges as our primary vehicle to demonstrate the importance of maintaining an overarching perspective during the capabilities development process, the above consideration applies equally to such development regardless of the field, be it the aforementioned chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) defence; strategic missile defence; or others such as shipbuilding, designing an aircraft, or developing a bombing campaign.

We need leaders as capable at managing teams as those who win Formula One races. We also need capability developers as attuned to operational requirements as those equipping these teams. It is people, not machines, who design, refine, and operate the technologies that are successful. It is people, not technology, who will continue to manage the application of wartime violence for decades to come. Well-defined strategic end states, clear mission and intent statements, and information technologies purpose-built for and able to adapt to the demands of mission command decision-making are keys to success in wartime environments. They are no less so for capabilities development. We acknowledge that the Second World War is an exceptional case during which military and civilian, technologist and soldier, and politician and general officer came together as never before experienced in modern democracies. We also recognize that this accomplishment was necessitated by reaction to an existential threat, a threat too many leaders in North America and Europe were slow to acknowledge. One might ask whether that lethargy is again demonstrating itself in a world where threats are waging war via information operations, cyberattack, use of surrogates, and ways that potentially relegate armed conflict to a minor if any role. The Second World War’s Greatest Generation won a war at great sacrifice. How great might a generation be if it were to recognize the nature of emerging threats and shield their countries from the worst consequences of new forms of warfare? The parts are there but the car misfires. The Greatest Generation warns us that perfecting the vehicle before the race costs far less than doing so once the race begins.

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