Category Archives: Staffwork

Lessons From the Staff

Some weeks ago I had a series of interviews by RAND about my recent operational deployments. I used to joke while deployed that I looked forward to testifying to Congress, so I suppose I should have expected a follow up of some kind.

The interviews were focused on two areas: fact finding on what we had done, and identifying lessons learnt with the idea of producing a protocol for next time. It was immediately apparent from the questions, that we had failed dismally in operational record keeping. Despite trips to Theatre and to the units concerned, there was no coherent record of the first 18 months of the campaign. This was a blow as in my deployments I had put in place a system of record keeping and had maintained a War Diary. The War Diary kept a record of key events, decisions and rationales and was designed to give coherence to what otherwise would be a confusing morass of PowerPoint presentations and email chains. I had devoted considerable effort to this particular project, partly because it answered 90% of the queries we received from Higher on a daily and weekly basis, but also because several historian friends had pleaded with me to do so, recognising the difficulties that the sheer amount of data being dumped into digital archives was going to give future historians. If we found it difficult enough to understand the enterprise we were undertaking (and we did), what hope for the future? It was therefore disappointing to see that it had disappeared into some digital burn pit.

The interviews did however give me a chance to go through my notebook archive, glass of beer in hand and wise in hindsight. There was one fundamental problem that we managed, but never reconciled fully, and one question that stopped me in my tracks. Then there some interview notes as well.

  • Timeline Synchronisation. My biggest problem during the campaign where my HQ operated at the operational level, was acting as the flex between the Pol/Mil strategic level and the tactical level. My particular problem set was synchronizing operational timelines with political and logistic timelines, complex at the best of times, but more so when working by, with and through. we never did manage to solve that particular problem, although we sufficed in a way in which I supect all military camapigns have ‘sufficed’. The constant was never the same, but logistic timelines lengthened as the campaign progressed, as did planning and force generation timelines.
  • Why Not More? At the conclusion of the last interview, the interviewer asked a question that gave me pause for thought. “Why didn’t the UK do more?” The context of the question was very specific, and focused on logistic support. My answer highlighted two factors:
    • As we have seen recently with the COVID-19 pandemic and supplies of PPE, industrial capacity and stockpiles matter in war, no less than in pandemics.
    • Systemically, the UK was not comparable in any way to the US in this particular regard. We were divided by more than just a common language, and US thinking that we were simply a smaller version of themselves was far off the mark.

Going through my notebooks brought to light the briefing notes that I used for new arrivals in my team. They were developed over a number of months as I realised that most new arrivals were struggling to orientating themselves to both the complexities of the campaign and the complexities of the headquarters. Most had never served in a large joint headquarters, let alone a multinational one. Neither had most worked at the operational level before. Of the two, cognitive dissonance was by far the greatest in regards to the latter. My initial interview aimed to try and minimise the ‘shock of capture’ most experienced on arrival.

  • The HQ works on a network of generals. They are informed by very efficient vertical staff stovepipes. The General Officer (GO) network acts as the centrifugal centre of the HQ, it spins fast and works efficiently. Understand that you are unlikely to have greater situational awareness than the GO, but you may have more depth of knowledge on a particular facet. Understand too, that the GO lateral network is usually more efficient that the staff lateral network.
  • As staff we serve two bosses. We support our subordinate HQs, and we feed our chain of command. The two roles are not in competition, it is not a zero-sum game.
  • Be comfortable speaking truth to power. Never let anyone leave a room or a meeting with a misleading impression of an issue, especially generals.
  • We deal with large complex operational problems. There may be a simple and elegant solution, but often it is simply a case of eating the elephant one bite at a time. Don’t think you will win the war overnight. The work you do now will make a difference in 12-18 months.
  • Large complex operational problems are difficult to visualise. Think of how you are going to present the facts. Focus on effective communication.
  • It’s a large headquarters, often staffing seems to happen through a process of attrition. Don’t let yourself become part of the friction, and don’t let yourself be ground down by it.
  • There are those who can and there are those who will. Develop a network of both. It is not what you know, but who you know that often matters most. Network laterally.
  • You are three clicks from National Command Authority. Think about that every time you put a briefing slide together. This closeness also means that you will be buffeted by the winds of passing politics. Pay attention to the headlines – they matter.
  • At this level it is all about Authorities and Permissions. Understand both, use both to advantage, don’t be shy about highlighting constraints and restraints – both can be changed if needs be.
Shortlink http://q.gs/FAmSV

The Battle of J115405

Fort Knocks Keepstar

The genesis of this is a comment by the British Army’s Assistant Head of Media and Communications, Colonel Chris MacGregor. In a thread talking about the newly released British Army recruitment campaign, Colonel MacGregor said the following:

This reminded me of another recent online episode, but on a much grander scale.

EVE Online is a space-based, persistent world Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) with hundreds of thousands of active subscriptions and often tens of thousands playing online simultaneously. This thing is HUGE, and over a week in December 2018 a battle took place that should make us all think, the battle of wormhole system J115405, better known as ‘Rage’.

In the EVE universe wormhole systems are the most inhospitable space that there is, creating immense logistical and communications difficulties. The destruction of a Keepstar deep in a wormhole was regarded as impossible – until it happened. Over the course of a year a team on EVE prepared and executed just such an operation, the details of which can be found at Kotaku.com. In doing so this team achieved the following:

  • Executed an effective mission planning cycle that correctly identified how to conduct offensive operations in an environment previously thought to overwhelmingly favour the defender.
  • Set the Theatre
    • Over contested LOCs
    • Allowing for combat attrition and the requirement to offset culmination.
  • Maintained realtime OPSEC over a period of months
  • Exercised Mission Command
  • Practiced PSYOPS
  • Conducted both preliminary operations to isolate the Theatre of operations and subsequent operations to consolidate gains.

Let’s think about this for a little bit. I have been involved in more than a dozen Combined Arms Staff Trainer (CAST) at Battalion and Brigade level, and close to half a dozen divisional Command Post Exercises and the same number of US ‘Warfighter’ exercises. In none of these did we have to set the theatre, conduct preliminary moves over contested LOCs and move from Phase III Dominate (Major Combat Operations) to the subsequent detailed exploitation and consolidation. There are a number of reasons why we don’t achieve all this in training which verge from ‘G3 snobbery’ (combat is sexy and logistics isn’t) to the prosaic: to practice logistics realistically takes time. Team ‘The Initiative’ achieved all this in a dynamic and highly competitive environment and using a distributed command and control network. The Initiative demonstrated professionalism, commitment and operational competence.

There are two key takeaways I want to draw from this.

  • Is there scope to use a MMORPG construct for our operational level staff training? Would staff benefit from participating in such an environment?
  • In recruiting how effective are we at talent spotting those with a proven track record of operational and strategic level planning? Perhaps more so than we realise, we need to move away from a focus on Physical Realm competences, to look closer at those with a Virtual Realm pedigree.

The following are recommended readings to dispel some preconceptions about MMORPG gamers, and highlight some of the benefits (and no, I am not yet a gamer!):

Gamers by Age: Strategy as Motivation (blog)

Making Science Fiction Real (academic paper)

Positive Traits of Hardcore MMORPGs Gamer Identity (academic paper)


Shortlink http://q.gs/Eh1M4

Insubordinate Commands

On the next day, 12 May, there was from time to time a complete breakdown of march movement traffic on the right wing. A hopeless mess developed because vehicle convoys of the infantry divisions again and again forced their way out of the right-hand neighbor’s combat sector into the wider roads that were set aside for the Panzer divisions. The infantry units dacted like rivals of the Panzer units and did not want them to have all the glory. That resulted in jumbled confusion on the Ardennes trails that turned out to be worse than the disaster scenario that Reinhardt had painted earlier in his war games as a devil’s advocate. Instead of immediately being able to start the race to the Meuse River with Guderian’s Panzers, his units were senselessly caught in a traffic jam for two days on German soil. The first vehicle of Reinhardt’s 6th Panzer Division crossed the Luxembourg boundary only on the third day, at 0600 on 12 May.”
Karl-Heinz Frieser “The Blitzkrieg Legend” Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, p116.

Unity of Command is a well known principle of effective military operations, and while professional military education devotes time to explaining the nuances of effective command and control design it rarely touches on the thorny issue of insubordinate commands. There is an assumption that subordinate commands will be just that – subordinate. That is not always the case. Not all subordinate commands play nice in the sandpit. Sometimes commands do what they have been told not to, more often (in my experience) they do not do what they have been told to do. The British Army has a distinguished tradition of “consent and evade” to unpopular orders.

I have been deployed on operations where subordinate commands have been anything but subordinate: where subordinate commanders have avoided higher commanders, and staff have been frozen out, where orders have been acknowledged but not actioned, and where the passage of information needed for the effective running of operations has slowed to a trickle. I have been been barred from HQs and have seen entire campaign Lines of Effort sidelined; when it has happened it has been a brutal, demoralising and quite unnecessary experience, but as the quote above shows, it is nothing new.

The problem of insubordinate commands in my experience is inevitably driven from the top. It takes its lead from the commanders and senior staff of the subordinate command. Sometimes there may be a personal animus between the commanders but in my experience it is more often a professional disagreement as to the conduct of operations. Subordinate commands will always be more narrowly focused in time, space and concept than the higher headquarters, and this narrow focus can lead to tensions as to priorities and resourcing. The other common factor is a confused C2 structure and this is most often found at the early stages of a campaign when the architecture is developing quickly and where the subordinate HQ may have arrived in theatre before the higher HQ and is accustomed to operating somewhat independently.

Often however the single largest exacerbating factor is geography. One would intuitively think that collocating HQs would be of mutual benefit, but there are dangers. If HQs are collocated then there is insufficient distance to allow the subordinate HQ to gather, assess and then transmit information to the higher HQ. The effect of this is that the higher commander can have as good a situational picture as the subordinate commander which puts the subordinate in the invidious situation of being at best level with his commander in terms of situational awareness and possibly even behind. A subordinate with his narrower focus should have more detail and quicker than his ‘higher’, the pressure mounts if (s)he does not. Staff can add to the problem. It is easy to pop one’s head round to one’s opposite number for the detail needed for the brief, but when the brief is briefed and the subordinate is unaware the issue can escalate quickly.  Too often well meaning staff can come across as simply ‘marking the homework’ of the subordinate staff.

So what is to be done if you find yourself on the staff and dealing with an insubordinate command?

1) Understand how the situation has arose. Understand the cause and you will understand the cure.

2) Be transparent, use the laid down C2 architecture and SOPs scrupulously. Always remember that the Higher HQ supports the lower and adds value through its input; support the subordinate.

3) Raise the issue to your Chief of Staff through the correct channels, never assume they know everything – especially in a large HQ. Lay down the operational implications.

4) Understand that it is likely not a personal thing and that the staff are in an invidious position. Be professional and remain courteous.

It should not happen, but it does, and it certainly isn’t not covered on any staff college curriculum that I am aware of.  At the end of the day C2 diagrams reflect doctrine and practice, but do not represent personality and perspective.

Shortlink http://q.gs/ESi8T