THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY GENERAL: FROM INDIVIDUAL TO COLLECTIVE COMMAND

PROF ANTHONY KING

Professor Anthony King specialises in the study of the war and the armed forces and is particularly interested in the question of small unit cohesion. His most recent publications include The Combat Soldier: infantry tactics and cohesion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Oxford, 2013) and (ed.) Frontline: combat and cohesion in the twenty-first century(Oxford, 2015). He is currently working on a new book on divisional command, supported by a research grant from the ESRC. This project also involves an international and interdisciplinary scholarly-practitioner conference, ‘Command in the 21st Century’ to be held at Warwick in September 2017. He has worked closely with the armed forces as an adviser and mentor. Having worked at the University of Exeter for almost two decades, he is excited about taking up the Chair in War Studies at Warwick and building on PAIS’s traditional strengths in the security studies area.

Military command is currently a focus of deep public scrutiny; it might even be said to be in crisis. Following the disappointments and difficulties of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, public concerns about the failures of military command have been frequent and strident. These interventions have been significant. However, many  critics have often failed to appreciate a perhaps more important fact.

In the early twenty-first century, generals have confronted distinctively challenging operational and organizational conditions. Warfare and the armed forces themselves have evolved drastically. Generals are no longer fighting the mass wars of the twentieth century; they command smaller, professional, increasingly integrated, networked and globalized forces. Consequently, in the face of these dramatic changes, command itself has been undergoing a significant transformation. Generals have had to change the way they make and execute their decisions and they have had to alter the way they have managed military operations. In the twentieth century, commanders monopolized decision-making; they commanded individualistically, even heroically, with the help of a few aides and a small staff. Today, commanders are confronted with a different challenge. Command in the twenty-first century has become a problem of scope not scale. Consequently, commanders now share decision-making authority with deputies, subordinates and staff to form highly professional command collectives. In order to criticize contemporary command failings, it is first necessary to understand how the practice of command has evolved.

A new regime of command is emerging in the early 21stcentury, then, which is displacing and superseding the individualized, ‘heroic’ practices of the twentieth century. Changing operation and organizational conditions have been the principal drivers of transformation. As the armed forces and the kind of operations which conduct, have changed, so command itself has been forced to evolve.

The character of war has undergone a profound transformation in the last three decades. In twentieth century until the very end of the Cold War, military operations were large but mechanically simple operations. Although intense and bloody, battles were fought on lineal fronts with and against a similar force. The basic unit of warfare at that time was a division of about 20,000 soldiers. In the First World War, a divisional front on the western front did not exceed 3000 metres and most were much less, under 2000. Even by the end of the Cold War, a divisional front had expanded to about 15 kilometres. In addition, there was little integration of the air force in the close divisional battle and no consideration was given to informational, cyber or political activities. Speed and decisiveness – not subtly or complex orchestration- were paramount. Consequently, individual commanders, supported by a very small staff, were invested with sole decision-making authority to define and manage missions; command was broadly individualist. These historical conditions produced a series of famously heroic generals who not only monopolized command but sometimes led personally from the front: Erwin Rommel, Matt Ridgway, James Gavin and Bernard Montgomery.

Conditions are very different now. The character of war has changed. This is very evident at divisional level. Divisions no longer fight on small contiguous fronts. As the invasion of Iraq showed – and subsequent stabilization operations even more so – divisions are now dispersed over a large operating area. They fight across the depth and breadth of the battlefield. In Iraq in 2003, for instance, 1stMarine Division was engaged by the enemy along its 90-mile length as it advanced on Baghdad. Most of the fighting took place in urban areas. Operations have become increasingly heterogeneous, involving the deep integration of diverse joint and multinational elements. The geographic, temporal and functional span of command has expanded prodigiously. Informational, cyber and electronic activities all have to be orchestrated with maneouvre. Military missions have become deeply politicised and, even at a low level military force, has to be applied with precision and proportion.

20th Century Operations 21st Century Operations
Scale Scope
Conventional Hybrid
Homogeneous Heterogeneous
Fronts Battlespace
Field Urban
Mass Precision
Single service Joint
National Multinational
Alliance Coalition
Citizen Professional
Operations Campaigns
Military Inter-agency
Intelligence Understanding
News Information

Table: 20thand 21stCenturies Operating Environments

Consequently, in order to address increased coordination problems, generals have been forced to distribute their decision-making authority to empowered subordinates, forming command teams, closely united around a common understanding. While generalship has always necessarily involved a co-operative element, in the 21stcentury, military command has become collective to a degree which has rarely, if ever, been seen before; decision-making has now become a truly ensemble, collaborative practice. Because commanders have to make many more decisions about a diversity of assets over a greater range of time and space, they need the help of staff and subordinates to assist them. As command points have proliferated, it has been necessary increase the capacity for decision-making in a military formation and integrate commanders ever more closely across echelons. Because they involve so many elements, decisions at every level have to be aligned, coordinated and synchronised. Local initiative remains vital, of course, but, in contrast to the twentieth century, it must be planned, anticipated and orchestrated. Highly professionalized command collectives have emerged, displacing a formerly more individualist, instinctual system of command. Command collectives, involving dense confederations of commanders, deputies, surbordinates and staff, have begun to manage complex, heterogeneous contemporary operations.

There are evident concerns about the emergence of collective command. Some argue that it has reduced the authority and responsibility of the commander, reducing decision-making to bureaucratic consensus. Others claim that the new systems of command have become too cumbersome and slow. Yet, the new regime of collective command has been proven in Iraq and Afghanistan and is being tested rigorously in current army exercises. It certainly has its weaknesses but there does not seem to be any other way of coordinating the heterogeneous suite of military and non-military, kinetic and non-kinetic activities which have become a necessary part of current operations. For better or worse, the west will fight the next war not so much with heroic generals but with highly professional command teams.

Image: HOHENFELS, Germany – Tucked away in a corner of the Hohenfels Training Area woods next to Camp Albertshof, the 16th Sustainment Brigade’s, or “Knight’s Brigade,” 18th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion field headquarters lies behind rows of razor wire and sand bag bunkers, via army.mil.

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