Orders, Planning, and Resources

Planning processes change rapidly during combat operations: if they don’t alter to reflect the context, the needs, and the pace of the campaign – rather than the abstract theories of peacetime exercises – people die, battles are lost, and campaigns forfeit.

In Ukraine over the past six months, the entirety of the command and control structure (process included) has adapted. In Ukraine’s case the most recent changes were to adapt the process and system for offense rather than defence, as it was optimised for at the start of Russia’s 2023 invasion – a task that rapidly adapted to the fight of the moment. It has since morphed into a system capable of operating in a contested (and at times denied) electromagnetic spectrum; when orders cannot be passed, situational awareness is absent, and the commander’s intent is more important than detailed orchestration.

As a case study in how C2 adapts, Ukraine is a useful guide to operating against a peer or near-peer adversary. But some of the observations are valid against any adversary. Not only is it essential to minimise electronic signatures on the contemporary battlefield (plus ca change?), but it is also important to be able to move on from the legacy of sequential planning instead becoming adept parallel planning and execution.

Old School

In preparing a deliberate military operation, there is a theory that one third of the available time (until execution) is allocated to a higher headquarters staff to do their planning and issue the orders to subordinate commands. Those commands themselves apply that same guide in issuing their own orders to sub units. And so it continues down the chain until the people executing the mission get their own time to prepare and plan, bomb up, co-ordinate and collaborate with assigned units, and deploy to the start line.

Given that some land units can have as many as 13 levels of command above them, headquarters often provide guidance of up-coming missions to units known as ‘Warning Orders’. This allows some early planning, deconfliction, and liaison to be conducted before the formal orders arrive. There are other options too – FRAGOs allow HQs to send shorter notice missions and orders to units with much of the less important detail removed, thus shortening the timeframe for orders to reach units.

Yet the experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya, as well as in Ukraine, indicate that even this shortened process is not sufficiently pacey to allow units to prepare, let alone to reflect the rapidly changing geometry of military operations on modern battlefields.

Today’s Orders

A requirement reflecting the demands of a revised orders process that is optimised for parallel planning rather than a traditionally sequential process should now be the default setting for all military formations. This maximises the time available before H hour, and enables a more dynamic appreciation to the challenges of upcoming missions. A collaborative approach has been available for some time given the advances in data sharing possible with COTS and MOTS C2 systems, but these systems are not yet being exploited across the force.

The hurdle to delivering the changes needed (which are neither radical nor heresy against current doctrine in the Western military community), is the distraction caused by the demands for a common operating picture (COP) by commanders and headquarters staff. The focus on maintaining an up-to-date situational awareness map for commanders at all levels has been the focus of C2 tools for too long. The task, and resources needed, to deliver of this single requirement are considerable

It is not an unfamiliar issue for militaries: the size of headquarters designed to deliver orders and maintain situational awareness for the commander has ballooned in recent years, while the reduction to the size of the teeth/arm elements has been remarkable (see John McGrath, “The Other End of the Spear: The Tooth-To-Tail Ratio in Modern Military Operations”, CSPI, 2007).

There are presentations in which the number of signals and/or orders coming from commanders are illustrated – Nelson’s single command before Trafalgar in 1805 to Schwarzkopf’s 10,000s a day during the 1991 operation to liberate Kuwait. Today’s potential dependency on chat functionality from commanders downwards is in danger of building an expectation of that connectivity for commanders, their subordinates, political leaders, and headquarters staffs.

It might be more helpful to transition away from an obsession with the Common Operating Picture to a philosophy that venerates a clear understanding of the commander’s intent instead. A clear focus on a common tactical mindset will provide a resilience to a force through its C2, but also focus lethality, survivability, readiness and prioritisation. That shift in approach would do much to enable the move from linear orders to parallel planning and execution. If pace on the battlefield is considered the prerequisite for success in the future, this must become a priority.

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