By Tom Flounders
The purpose of an operation has far ranging effects. It is a critical element of Commander’s Intent, a cornerstone of Mission Command, and a key enabler of shared understanding. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, eloquently describes Mission Command and its elements as, “the opportunity to gain advantageous operational tempo over adversaries.” An understanding of the purpose aids the joint force in exercising disciplined initiative to facilitate the commander’s visualized end state. Moreover, the purpose itself not only drives why tasks must happen, but also how subordinate commanders choose to execute their assigned mission(s).
Purposes must be carefully crafted, nested, and organized not only to achieve unity of effort, but also the intended outcomes (selected tasks to execute, method of execution, and/or desired effects). They also must give subordinates the latitude to find better, innovative solutions to tactical and operational problems. Finally, the operational purpose must ultimately nest back to the strategic national interest in order to affect change in the human domain. Purposes for the subordinate operations must be well thought out, nested within the desired operational objectives, and be the correct purpose in order to achieve the desired operational end state. Therefore, it is incumbent upon commanders to develop purposes for subordinate operations first and subsequently build the tasks. The “why” trumps the “how” both in importance and in priority. While this idea is generally in line with current doctrinal concepts in JP 3-0 and ADRPs 3-0 and 5-0, commanders can become fixated on tasks at the expense of well-crafted purposes.
But this is not to say that purpose-driven operations are a replacement for any means by which -commanders currently execute operations. Effects-based operations are still a valid means by which commanders array intended effects in time and space: in essence, it is the “how.” Purpose-driven operations are instead why each of those effects must occur, and therefore enables subordinates to take advantage of emergent opportunities that arise by enabling shared understanding of the commander’s purpose and end state.
The First World War’s Western Front is an excellent of example of the ramifications of operational purposes on the conduct of operations. The first phase of the war in 1914 in France began with the German’s initiation of a modified Schlieffen Plan seeking to outflank the French armies in a grand turning movement. Once stymied, the theater settled into its middle phase, and the most widely understood, of trench warfare, which lasted from 1915 to 1917. Finally, the Western Front opened back into maneuver operations, though in a different form, in 1918.
The first phase of the war was a true maneuver war. The Germans’ overarching expanded purpose was to seize Paris, forcing capitulation by the French in the most traditional means possible (note: the expanded purpose addresses the broader purpose of the operations and its relationship to the force as a whole; it is not the simple “why” of the mission statement). This purpose gave meaning to the entirety of the Schlieffen Plan. The weakness on the German left flank intended to draw in more French attackers, thus weakening the French’s west, facilitating the overall turning movement and ending in a quick envelopment of the French Armies. All German efforts focused on enabling the decisive operation focused on the schwerpunkt of the theater. In the traditional sense of European warfare, seizing the enemy’s capital was the point at which the adversary must admit loss.
In this spirit, while the Germans made their bold maneuver through Belgium, the French bluntly counterattacked into Lorraine. Despite the evidence that wars fought with modern technology tend to devolve into trench warfare (Russo-Japanese War, Russo-Turkish War, American Civil War), Europeans focused on the 1870 Franco-Prussian War – where inept French leadership allowed for a quick, decisive German victory – as a model for their respective war plans. This underestimation of the complexities of modern war and firepower allowed for an under-preparedness amongst European powers for the realities of early 20th century combat.
The second phase saw a radical departure from the commanders’ and planners’ intents for the war. The massive size of Continental European armies changed the battlefield dynamic and allowed little to no room for traditional flanking maneuvers, as the armies were so large, well-entrenched, and capable of massing incredible volumes of fire that finding an assailable flank was nearly impossible. Therefore, the purposes of operations changed to meet the reformed perception of the war and a radical alteration occurred, which ultimately created a misinformed purpose. Instead of attacking to seize cities, key terrain, or enemy forces, every land operation intended to destroy fielded enemy forces. Thus, commanders were attacking to destroy the enemy battalions (or the appropriate echelon) in order to attrit the enemies’ armies. This purpose easily lent itself to the all-out frontal assaults that became the modus operandi on the Western Front and meshed easily with the “cult of the offensive” prevalent in early 20th century European military theory. In order to destroy an enemy that is below ground level, it actually makes sense to use large volumes of indirect fire to disrupt defensive positions and masses of infantry to enter, clear, and secure trenches, which in turn are the only protection from retaliatory assaults. Accurate indirect fire, machine guns, and other technological advances made these tactics murderous, but logically, there were very few options available to achieve the purpose of the mission.
Erich von Falkenhayn, de facto Chief of the German General Staff, wrote post-war that he intended to bleed the French Army to death at Verdun. This changed the purpose of the overall operations from destroying French forces in order to seize key terrain to destroying French forces to destroy French forces. By attacking in the vicinity of Verdun, von Falkenhayn hoped the French would commit to holding the area, town, fort, and historical symbols of French resistance, allowing German forces to kill as many French as possible. However, this was a massive miscalculation by the Germans. First, successful conventional attrition strategies required the initiator to be vastly superior in numbers, and the two armies were on relative par (note: unconventional attrition strategies favor the weaker actor, as an asymmetric approach such as insurgency seeks to exhaust the will to fight rather than seek decisive battles). Second, simply killing the French did not achieve a position of relative advantage over an adversary to allow for significant gains. Third, the battle took longer than anticipated and the Russians attacked in the meantime, diverting German forces. As a result, the entirety of the purpose of the operation was misaligned with the outcomes the Germans wished to achieve.
Later in the War, in 1917, the British achieved a breakthrough of the Hindenburg line at Cambrai. While largely attributable to the attack en masse by British tanks, a change in the purpose of the attack played a critical role. Instead of attacking solely to destroy German infantry, the focus was to create a penetration along a narrow front and to exploit it by attacking into the German rear areas, seeking to create maneuver space. This worked marvelously; however, the Allies could not maintain the momentum they needed to exploit the penetration due to small numbers and low mechanical reliability of the tanks of the day.
At the same time, the Germans were using Stosstruppen to infiltrate Allied lines and quickly exploit weaknesses in the defensive positions. However, the communications architecture and technology of the era made it nigh impossible to coordinate the action of the army when leveraging the advantages of extreme decentralization. Stosstruppen tactics took the concept of auftragstaktik (mission tactics; essentially the principle of using brief, broad orders and expecting subordinates to determine the best means by which to achieve the mission, similar to the concept pf Mission Command) to the extreme, going so far as to make the squad an independent unit. But once again, the purpose of these tactics influenced their development. By targeting command and control nodes with artillery, using reserves to reinforce success instead of preventing failure, and decentralizing decision making, the Germans were able to develop a means to penetrate Allied defenses and attack into the rear areas. Both sides of the conflict found it increasingly difficult to command and control immense armies and to effectively exploit the opportunities that presented themselves due to communications, mass, or maintenance. Despite these difficulties, the Germans’ development of an operational approach by assigning missions to units that supported each echelon’s purpose allowed for a more successful method to attack an entrenched enemy rather than simply attacking to destroy them in position.
In both cases, innovative solutions sprang from a change in the operational approach status quo. As leaders settled into what appeared to be a long, unwinnable conflict in Western Europe, the purpose of trench warfare lent itself to an approach of an attrition strategy. While the introduction of the tank allowed for an Allied success, the Germans had no such technological savior. Instead, a careful examination of the operational environment and a solution developed by the application of human capital yielded a tactic that saw great success, relative to the previous operational approach, by focusing on infiltration and penetration while artillery disrupted the adversary’s command and control apparatuses. And despite its overall strategic and operational failure, the German Army proved that by reorganizing existing units and capabilities around a different purpose, an entirely different form of maneuver emerged as possible. Ultimately, this new form of maneuver altered the stalemate of the Western Front.
In the same way, today’s joint force requires purpose-driven operations to achieve unity of effort across domains. Clear, well-defined purposes for all components, partners, and agencies are critical to the success of nearly every type of organization (as a quick cross section, the following non-military sources also address this principle: Start with Why, Good to Great, and The Starfish and the Spider). While purposes are always included as a critical part of any mission order, they oftentimes are rote repetitions of higher purposes, too simple to truly frame the operation, or tangential to the overall higher commander’s intent.
Mission-type orders focus on the purpose of the operation rather than details of how to perform assigned tasks. – Joint Publication 3-0
Note that it says “focus.” The purpose of an operation outweighs any tasks or methods that may be assigned to subordinates. Purposes must be built first and then commanders, components, and subordinates must collaborate and construct the details of their mission in a bottom-up refinement process that enables shared understanding at every echelon (this also easily lends itself to a description of the supported-supporting relationships amongst components at decisive points). Components cannot have priorities that either trump or detract from the overall joint operational approach lest it become disjointed and the joint force commander loses the ability to achieve unity of effort. The First World War is a case study that demonstrates the catastrophes possible when armed forces are sent forward with a misguided, poorly crated, and ultimately incorrect purpose.
Tom Flounders is an armor officer in the United States Army. He is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the Air Force Command and Staff College and a Senior Editor of Over the Horizon.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.