The Way To Fix The Military Decision-Making Process Is To Fix Your Own Self With More Tough Training

The Long March
Day two of the 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment’s Best Mortar Competition challenges mortar teams with land navigation, an 8.1 mile foot march, direct lay with 81 and 120mm mortars, obstacle courses and a mystery event on June 1, 2017
DoD photo

Jamie Schwandt suggests that it is the structured nature of MDMP which prevents the modern US military from exploiting the ambiguity that can be found on the battlefield. He feels that the rigidity of the process, and the detailed orders that it produces, limit the ability of commanders to make quick decisions and maintain the initiative. He compares it unfavourably with the OODA loop process, and uses several historical examples to defend his position.


We should look, he suggests, to be more like Rommel and Stirling, and less like the unnamed protagonists of the British Army in World War II, ponderous and rigid of mind.

As both an OPFOR tank Squadron leader in BATUS (the British equivalent of NTC in Canada) and an exercising troops Cavalry Regimental Second in Command at the NTC, I have seen examples of what he means.

The British Battlegroups in Canada at times struggled to maintain a rapid operational tempo, especially when compared with the pared down planning techniques used by the OPFOR. The Armored Brigade Combat team I served in had to work hard to ensure that it could rapidly synchronise Effects, which offered 11 ACR windows of opportunity to regain the initiative.

Again, it could be argued that the adherence to the planning tools slowed the process, especially when compared with 11 ACR.

Thus far Maj. Schwandt seems to be on firm ground. But if one is looking to improve the MDMP (or 7 Questions in the British case) it is probably worth examining what makes the OPFOR in both cases slicker than the exercising troops.

And here the case for Maj Schwandt weakens.

Because as the OPFOR in Canada I used the 7 Questions. And I’d be surprised if the Blackhorse did not use some variant of MDMP. The difference is that because they and we were practised in it, and had spent multiple rotations using it, it had become second nature to us.

The speed of the decision-making process — and arguably the quality of the decisions made, were vastly improved precisely because of the drill like nature of the process used.

War is both a competitive activity, and immensely challenging. The nature of this challenge is pretty simple. The brain has more inputs than it can process successfully and as a result it often shuts down completely. This can happen at any level, from Army Group Commander to Section Commander.

Traditionally as military professionals we have sought to limit the damage caused by this challenge by developing drills; these drills form muscle memory and allow us to operate under conditions of great stress. Training, in other words.

I’d argue that it was training and drills that enabled rapid decision making and action on both sides in World War II — and it is the superior training enjoyed by OPFORs at BATUS and NTC that enables them to regularly best their opponents.

For example, when the Germans crossed the Meuse in 1940, they did so having conducted multiple Kriegsspiels in which they anticipated likely French reactions and their own counteractions. The close air support had been rehearsed multiple times. Troops at every level understood their higher commanders’ intent and their roles in meeting that intent.

This was not ad hoc planning, of the type recommended by Maj Schwandt, but detailed and thorough planning, which resulted in clear orders.

The Germans did operate in the way recommended by Major Schwandt on occasion. During Barbarossa the Panzer Groups used the sort planning he proposes to seize fleeting opportunities and drive rapidly into the rear of Soviet formations. The results were frequently impressive, but they were also extremely high risk and often saw the Panzer Groups immobilised for lack of fuel, ammunition or infantry support. As David Stahel  puts it, such a technique might work against the French, but not the Soviet Union.

What the MDMP does is provide an easily accessible and logical tool which can be used by staff officers when they are tired, to ensure that they do not leave the soldiers on the ground confused, hungry, or short of ammunition.

As such it is mechanistic and drill like — but that is the point. Whether we like it or not (and it certainly does not suit the self-image of most officers I have met) the modern Anglo-American way of war is mechanistic and stylised. We fight, whether we like it or not, an updated version of the type of warfare perfected in the Hundred Days offensives of 100 years ago — well planned, well resourced, well-rehearsed and theoretically well drilled battles, which bring together all arms as part of a coherent whole, which ensures we obtain and maintain the initiative.

So why do people like Major Schwandt have such an issue with MDMP?

The answer is because we aren’t very good at it. I return to BATUS and the NTC — the OPFOR are better at soldiering because they spend more time doing it.

Just as the Germans were better at the Meuse than the French because they had spent more time soldiering and preparing. Just as 3rd Division of the BEF was the best division during the retreat to Dunkirk because it’s commander had insisted on relentless training. Just as the Indian Army always does brilliantly at the British Army Patrols competition — because they have trained ruthlessly for the task.

So, if you are looking for a way to improve decision making, don’t look to change MDMP. Look instead to change the way that you train.

Train using competitive Kriegsspiels. Train using free thinking enemy at every level, to ensure that individuals are used to the idea of war as a competitive activity. Train early, so that officers are used to using the process by the time they get to CGSC and Regimental staffs.

This might seem obvious. But given the sheer range of tasks that occupy any military’s time, the sheer number of mandatory activities, the amount of time available to train is limited. Invest in basic skills training — and that is what MDMP is for an officer at senior Captain and above — at the expense of other tasks.

One final point: When Rommel was successful in the Western Desert, he was largely enabled by the poor staff work of Eric Dorman-Smith, [British Field Marshal] Auchinleck’s Chief of Staff/evil genius.

Like most geniuses, there was significantly less to Dorman-Smith than met the eye. He was a fan of ad hoc formations, rapid planning to seize fleeting opportunities, and opposed to dour staff work. One of the results of this was, in the words of Field Marshal Carver (then a Brigade Chief of Staff), that nobody knew what was happening.

This command team was not notably successful, and was replaced with the rather more traditional pairing of Montgomery and de Guingand. They believed in rigorous training, comprehensive and clear staff work and orders, and a methodical approach which imposed certainty in the minds of those they commanded.

They missed several opportunities during Rommel’s retreat from El Alamein, and a number more during the victorious advances in North West Europe from 6 June to 1 September 1944.

But they were, overall, very successful.

Only when, in seeking to “Get themselves into a position of opportunity, improvise their way around obstacles, and move faster than the people who try to stop you” did they fail.  In high intensity war fighting, boiling difficult problems down to a simple and easily digestible solution generally works best.

Tom Mcilwaine is a British cavalry officer who is a 2012 CGSC and 2013 SAMS graduate and has served on operations in command and staff roles in Afghanistan and Iraq alongside US forces. He is currently Chief of Staff of 51st Infantry Brigade, part of 1st United Kingdom Division.

(Associated Press photo)

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