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In his recent article “Ten Years Observing Command And Control”, (Military Operations, Volume 3, Issue No. 1, Spring 2015) Jim Storr offered a series of observations and recommendations concerning the malaise that currently affects formatiovn level HQs in some Western countries. Reflecting on his decade of first-hand experience in the world of higher C2, Jim presented a commentary which I found amazingly close to my own views on the subject.
Much like Jim, I’ve spent the last ten years or so involved in the training of headquarters and staff officers at the brigade, division and equivalent levels. I’ve been part of the training effort for headquarters on their way to fight in Afghanistan; for others that were preparing to conduct large deliberate internal security operations in Canada; and for still others preparing for any contingency which might arise. I’ve served in Canadian, US and NATO headquarters, and I’ve experienced how other countries train their headquarters. Most recently, I’ve been involved in the NATO C2 training process. Perhaps most valuable and satisfying of all, I’ve been able to visit headquarters I’ve helped to train, when they were in the midst of conducting operations. Along the way, I’ve watched headquarters become bigger and bigger.
My experiences have led me to opinions very close to those expressed by Jim, and to reflect on the curative (or perhaps palliative) value of training in addressing some of these problems. I have become a zealot for the old Teutonic idea of a small hard-working staff being the most effective. Clearly, our headquarters have become much too big for any good they might do. This unhealthy bloat has aggravated three pre-existing conditions which are, I think, inherent in headquarters. These conditions are: the need to train a headquarters as a unit; the struggle to manage information effectively; and the persistent tendency for headquarters staff branches to function in splendid isolation.
In this piece, I’ll examine each of these conditions. Based on my own experience and observations, I’ll offer some suggestions on how beleaguered Chiefs of Staff might overcome them, and make these big headquarters at least somewhat better.
A Headquarters Is A Unit
This seemingly redundant statement is here because many people just don’t “get it” when it comes to the subject of training a headquarters. Some assume that because every officer in the staff must be a graduate of a service or joint staff college, the organization is inherently ready to function. Still others believe that because a headquarters sits in garrison for months (or years) doing force generation and administrative tasks, it somehow becomes operationally capable through osmosis. Finally, we have those who think that throwing the headquarters out in the field in charge of a manoeuvre exercise every now and then is quite good enough.
In my experience, these comfortable assumptions are wrong. First of all, (as Jim noted) not all the officers in a headquarters are graduates of any staff college. Of those who are graduates, not all arrive at their staff jobs with any relevant experience. We should remember that staff colleges are responsible for individual training and education: a headquarters is a unit that needs collective training. It’s a team, not a collection of individuals.
It is mostly nonsense to think that a large headquarters somehow becomes fit to run operations through carrying out the endless drudgery of force generation tasks. Some basic staff skills are indeed applied on a day to day basis in garrison, but at nothing like the level required to produce an operationally effective headquarters.
Obviously, the ultimate purpose of a headquarters is to command and control units in the field, so at some point it’s probably necessary to put the headquarters into a field environment to ensure it can do that, but only as a final confirmation. Soldiers are not training aids for staff officers. Placing real units and soldiers in the field under a headquarters that doesn’t yet know what it’s doing is an inexcusable waste of time and of good will. Before a headquarters inflicts itself on cold, tired and possibly bored soldiers, it needs to have its own act sorted out. That’s why it has to be trained as a unit.
The bigger and more complex we make our headquarters, and the more they are forced to rely on inadequately trained officers or short-term augmentees to fill their giant structures, the more difficult this problem becomes. The more difficult the problem becomes, in my opinion, the more likely it is that it will be wished away or addressed in half-measures.
What to do? What I have to recommend here is not new at all: rather it is common sense far too often glossed over or neglected, usually because of a perceived lack of time. I am convinced that the answer begins with a rigorous and progressive training process for a headquarters, as opposed to a perfunctory “check in the box” or “there…we’ve done that, let’s get on with it”. Regardless of the size or mission of the headquarters in question, this training process must have three basic components.
First, it must begin at the level of the individual branch or cell, and start at a perhaps embarrassing fundamental level. What are our SOPs in this branch? If “x” happens, what do we do? Who amongst us does it, and why? This must appear maddeningly self-evident, but you might be surprised how often it is swept aside.
Second, training must progress in a measured way, from individual branch/cell up to, eventually, the entire headquarters, at a steady walking pace, moving through a problem. There must be time for meaningful “after action reviews” and for “do-overs”. I’ve observed that it’s best if (at least initially…) this training is “unplugged”: stay off the workstations and away from banging out huge slide decks. Get the process right first, so that staff understand what they’re supposed to be doing. Then, once the branch heads and Chief of Staff are confident, turn to and switch everything on, ultimately arriving at the gold standard of a demanding, realistic readiness exercise which sees all people and all systems running flat out over several planning and execution cycles.
Finally, just like any good unit training program, the leaders really must do it. I’ve run a number of headquarters training teams over the years, and while various headquarters benefitted at the start from our help as “outsiders”, the most effective headquarters were always those in which the Chief of Staff and his branch heads “owned” the training of their own people.
Where’s My Yellow Sticky?-Struggling with Information Management
Big headquarters both generate and consume bales of information of all sorts. We’re generally led to believe that this is not only good, but somehow necessary. It’s also very easy to fall into the trap laid for us by digitization-mongers, who would like us to think that if we only had more big screens and chat systems and shared drives in our headquarters, we would automatically be more effective. This is one of the biggest falsehoods I’ve noted in the process of headquarters training.
Now, I’m not a digital Luddite: far from it. But my observations tell me that all of these systems are just tools-nothing more. Tools in the hands of skilled users produce great results: the same tools in the hands of unskilled users will probably produce garbage. Worse, they may be lethal. Before any headquarters can use digitization tools to their full value, it must understand its own internal processes. Staff must know what information they need in order to support their commander; why they need it; whom they must share it with, how and when. Yet far more important than any of those things, they must understand what information means. What is important, and what’s rubbish?
This degree of understanding is, in my experience, very uneven in most headquarters at the beginning of their training process, even if they have been together for a while. In many situations, digitization on its own doesn’t really help: in fact, it often becomes the efficient agent for the rapid spread of disinformation and confusion. It may also lead to an obsession with rather shallow but “shiny” products, as opposed to sound intellectual processes. In a big, ponderous and innately incoherent headquarters, this problem becomes immeasurably worse. “Drowning in information” or “information constipation” are two sadly familiar symptoms of this condition.
How can this wicked problem be tackled? Certainly not by giving the job of headquarters information management officer (IMO) to the last junior officer to get off the bus, who is not even a staff college graduate, and who still doesn’t know where to find the headquarters orderly room. Perhaps readers scoff at my “exaggeration”, but sadly I’ve seen this hapless approach all too often. Somehow a short, generic “IMO course” makes this poor young officer into an expert on how the headquarters functions. The results are all too predictable.
In my view, the “Chief IMO” is the Chief of Staff. He must begin with his own complete understanding of how the headquarters will function, in broad terms. (If he hasn’t got that in his head, I don’t think he can do his job anyway.) Most importantly, the Chief of Staff must answer the question “how do we support the Commander’s decision process?” If a headquarters can’t perform that task, it is really just a worthless resource consumer. Once the Chief of Staff has that concept clear in his own head, he must get together with his branch heads and work out a concept of how information will move in the headquarters under different situations, and why. Then, and only then, should the Chief of Staff bring in the IMO and give that experienced, staff-trained officer his marching orders. Finally, things will work best if the IMO is an “operator” (i.e.: working directly for the Chief of Staff or the Chief of Operations) rather than a “technician”. Nothing against signal officers, but their job is really to enable information management, not to take responsibility for it.
Cylinders of Excellence – It’s All About Us
A headquarters is organized into a number of separate structures of varying complexity. The nature and role of these structures (or branches and cells) may also vary. A mechanized brigade group headquarters focused on short term tactical planning and the control of manoeuvre forces will look quite different from a “brigade-plus” task force headquarters such as Canada deployed in Kandahar. Neither of these will exactly resemble a “division-plus” joint task force headquarters deployed to a world crisis spot.
Regardless of how they may be structured, at the outset, all the headquarters I’ve helped to train suffered from a condition known as “staff silos”, or “cylinders of excellence”. Simply put, this is the tendency for staff branches and cells to have relatively little knowledge of, (or concern for) what is going on in the rest of the headquarters. Typically, given proper training and good leadership, a staff branch can become competent in its own discipline in a reasonably short time. The bigger challenge is to create a pan-headquarters environment in which staff officers both understand that they need to interact regularly with other parts of the headquarters, and then truly act on that understanding. This problem can be extended beyond the walls of the headquarters to include a generally weak appreciation of the value of good working relationships with higher, lower and flanking headquarters. The attitude of “it’s all about us” is sometimes quite prevalent. In the very big and complex headquarters common today, this condition can be endemic. It will manifest itself in ways such as supporting annexes which have clearly been developed either in isolation from the main plan, or from other staff branches.
Overcoming this third condition can be a happy by-product of dealing with the first two issues, but it won’t happen magically. Every headquarters whose training I have been involved with has struggled with this problem. Some have overcome it fairly early in the training cycle, while others have still been wrestling with it on their final operational readiness exercise. None overcame it without human effort and leadership. Only an effective regime of training, led by the Chief of Staff and his branch heads, can break the cylinders and smash the silos.
The fundamental and progressive training I recommended as the solution to the first condition above is the most important remedy here. If the time is taken to do that training properly-and by “properly” I mean making sure that people are actually learning useful things, not just checking off boxes and making slides-I believe the staff’s awareness and understanding of what goes on outside their own little “bazaar” will grow exponentially. A well-thought out information management plan, driven by the Chief of Staff and understood by the staff team, will only make things better.
Making Them Better
I’ve highlighted three well known problems inherent in our formation headquarters; all of them, in my view, badly aggravated by the tendency in Western countries towards headquarters’ structures which are too big, too complicated, often over-ranked and too ponderously sclerotic to be really useful. We don’t train them very well, they can’t really manage information properly, and they are internally fragmented.
Ideally (in my mind) we could “solve” it all by taking a draconian approach to the size and complexity of headquarters, and just slash them down to size. Alas, I fear that measure will require levels of determination and focus which often seem to escape some military institutions these days. There always seems to be another just one more “functionality” or another brand new “capability coordination centre” which simply has to be added to the structure. That, I think, is a separate fight for each nation’s military to resolve. A smaller, productively hard-working team who know each other well is the goal, but I’m not sure we will get there.
So, if we can’t immediately make these monstrous headquarters smaller, can we at least try to make them better? I believe we can. I’ve tried to put forth the idea that making these headquarters “better” relies on the same thing that most important aspects of military success have always relied upon: determined human beings effectively applying common sense and experience. Training which accounts for human factors and which follows well-known military principles will go far toward mitigating all three of these problems. I’ve also illuminated the sad but all too common tendency to minimize or skip over these simple solutions, based on false premises.
At this point, doubtless some readers will say “really…is that it? I knew that already!” I would have to agree, but I would have to add that to know something is not quite the same thing as putting it into practice, and sticking with it until you achieve the result you need, which in this case would be headquarters contributing to operational success against increasingly agile and flexible enemies.