Category Archives: Staffwork

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.