NATO C2 – Enough of the Mediocrity

Placing 140 diverse experts, commanders, scientists, technologists, psychologists, scholars and operators in a room for three days to talk about command and control should derive a myriad of useful and practical recommendations and areas for improvement. A week at the NATO C2 Centre of Excellence delivered just that.

From the start it should be stated that the doctrinal definition of command is well understood across the alliance (whether it is well executed is another matter, discussed below); the concept of ‘control’ is not and was largely avoided as a topic. After a series of illuminating discussions, there was a broad consensus that several facets of command are misunderstood, misplaced (as concepts), and insufficiently employed with subordinates and superiors. The broad themes from a wide array of global experts and professionals from very diverse backgrounds, are highlighted below.

People and Culture

The first of these is that command is primarily about people and culture. Whether in terms of selecting commanders, how staffs work (or don’t), whether the C2 process is robust enough, how institutions leverage skills and personalities, or if behaviours match aspirations for diverse thinking, the reality is that most parts of command are related to people within an organisational construct. Treat them badly and the commander, and the plan, will fail. But because it is about people, C2 is also time consuming: something that occasionally escapes commanders in their drive for more pace, more process and less staff contact. These sorts of behaviours are dangerous for any commander, their staff, and the processes they deliver.

If command is underpinned people and culture, the outputs of command centre around decision-making. Here is something military organisations, personnel, institutions, and processes can do much better. It was also clear that improving military decision-making would not be hard, nor would it require a mass injection of technology or money. From the research presented at the conference, it was clear that decision-making is an art form and can be taught and/or learned. To implement successfully, it requires an acknowledgement of the requirement to shift focus towards better decisions, then make the process faster (reversing the approach is likely to be highly detrimental to success). The toolsets for more effective decision-making are not, however, a one size fits all solution: how to do it better consistently requires different behaviours and understanding of different processes depending on the level you operate at.

Better Decision-Making

A significant factor in improving decision-making behaviours requires a delegation of the level of decision to the lowest appropriate level. If commanders do not feel uncomfortable with the levels to which they have delegated responsibilities, they have retained permissions at too high level. In order to get a higher performing decision-maker (commander), there is a clear requirement to push people through intellectually uncomfortable periods: their cognitive ‘discomfort’, sometimes created by imposing ‘disorientating dilemmas’ on them, enables personnel to improve at making decisions, and expands mental capacity and cognitive ability.

Current teaching for decision-makers in military communities focuses on a rational, logical process to achieving the best outcome. Yet given the experiences and environments in which military personnel find themselves in (high risk, high tempo, urgent), there is a requirement to shift emphasis towards achieving the least worst decision instead. Given the number of high impact, high risk decisions made by junior commanders (at every level) on military operations, this approach is a far more realistic requirement and represents a lived experience rather than an aspirational one imported from the commercial world.

Many of the failures in decision-making observed over the past 20 years (both in national militaries and within NATO), highlight how little evidence there is to suggest we are training, selecting or testing our commanders (at the higher tactical and strategic level) well enough. This goes for politicians as well as military personnel. The absence of continuing opportunities for education and self-improvement in the skills required in the profession of arms, particularly for those at increasingly senior levels, should be a cause for concern but is rarely evident given the lack of an objective testing and assessment regime for commanders. There is a critique, validated by research data, that would indicate how we have been too selective in our evidence base for what constitutes ‘good’ in a commander, their staff, HQs, and processes. An attitude that accepts mediocrity of performance at this level has taken hold and will require significant effort, and will, to change. How is teaching, coaching, mentoring and educating our commanders? Perhaps too much emphasis is placed on former commanders to assess the peers they selected to command in succession.

Time well spent? Creativity and Imagination

Whilst militaries have an inbuilt desire to err towards the uniform – in personality, behaviours and performance – it is rather through challenge, debate, leveraging mavericks, non-conformists and our enlisted personnel that can make marked improvements in decision-making, performance and credibility of our C2 functions, staff and commanders. Sadly, in each of these NATO ranks rather poorly.

Time, and how C2 structures occupy their time was also a theme that emerged from the discussions. It also seems that commanders are graded by the number of hours they work, miles they travel, and pace they impose on staff. A more effective use of time in making better decisions (highlighted above), would free command personnel to ask better questions from staff and industry, become more open to challenge, and invest time in thinking rather than doing. The latter is critical if NATO wishes to capture the creativity and imagination that has been a hallmark of successful military operations (and commanders) across history.

There was one other theme that the discussions returned to repeatedly: that context is everything. The observation was as valid for decision-making at different levels of command, as it was for the approach to C2 structures at differing moments of a campaign. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to command, in process, people, training, institutions, staff, structure or policy. Acknowledging this, the key take away was about becoming fluid enough (as opposed to crystalised) to adapt, change, morph, and amend for each battle. For a structure like NATO – largely occupied with discussions over flags-to-post, the cult of personality, and national footprints – this is indeed a considerable challenge.

An absence of control?

Despite all the challenging and useful discussion, the conversations never tried to derive an understanding of control: the conversations over that facet of C2 continue to be confined to the papers of 1982. It seems we need another military intellectual renaissance, and – to our peril – there isn’t any sign of that on the horizon.


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