Leadership: January 8, 2004


Micromanagement, first seen during the Vietnam war when advances in communications allowed someone in the Washington to communicate directly with commanders in combat, is about to reach new heights. The U.S. Department of Defense is considering providing the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) with a real time combat command  capability. This would mean that the JCS, led by its chairman, would have a combat command center in the Pentagon where they would use current satellite communications to directly control combat forces anywhere on the planet. 

It was only in the past century that a government could exercise any control at all over armed forces far from the capital. This was first done with the introduction of overland and  undersea telegraph lines in the 19th century, and world wide radio broadcasting equipment early in the 20th century. Before that, an admiral or general was sent off with orders to accomplish a mission, and pretty much allowed to do it as they saw fit. The generals and admirals rather liked this approach, as their job was hard enough without a bunch of politicians looking over their shoulder and second guessing their every decision. Even with the radio messages from back home, the combat commanders were still left to sort things out on their own. The radio was used mainly to report progress, or lack of it.

But by the 1960s, it was possible to patch through a telephone call from the White House to an infantry battalion commander deep in the Vietnamese bush. And it wasn't just the dreaded phone call from the president you had to worry about. The beleaguered battalion commander might have brigade, division and corps commanders circling overhead in helicopters, all of them observing and offering advice, or giving orders. This "micromanagement" was much disliked by the guys on the ground, trying to run a battle they were right in the middle of. 

After Vietnam, the Department of Defense tried to deal with this problem by establishing regional commands to cover the entire planet, and then appoint four star generals or admirals to command all American forces in that region if there were a war (the rest of the time, they would keep an eye on things and get ready for any possible war.) These commanders in chief (or CINCs, as they are still called, unofficially) were sometimes guilty of micromanagement, although all experienced combat commanders recognized that it was best to leave the commanders of the fighting units alone. This was the lesson of history. Micromanagement was bad, but it persisted. Why?

Blame it on the media. Just as military communications had improved, so had the ability of the media to get the story back to their audience (of voters, pundits and unfriendly politicians.) In the past, the commander on the spot might do things that did not look good in the media, but it took so long to get the story back that the operation was over by the time it did. If the battle was won, many sins would be forgiven. That no longer works. Communications now allow reporters to deliver color commentary while a battle is going on. The president, the ultimate (by law and in fact) commander in chief, is held responsible for whatever the troops do. It is not possible, politically, to wait for the combat commanders to finish their job before the president issues new orders. 

Examples of micromanagement were abundant in the recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Washington often had to be consulted before sensitive attacks were made (like having a predator UAV launch a Hellfire missile at some guy on the ground who might be Osama bin Laden, or some tall Afghan with a beard, a new SUV and a commanding manner.) The proposed "JCS Command Post" is actually an attempt to deal with this problem. The JCS and the Secretary of Defense are the presidents senior, and most frequent, military advisors. Ultimately, the buck stops with the JCS. So by plugging the JCS into a world wide command system, politically sensitive decisions could be resolved quickly (in minutes, or at least in less than an hour.) The more frequent contact between the president, the Secretary of Defense and the JSC with combat commanders might build up a degree of trust that would enable sensitive decisions to be made more quickly. This would happen, in a best case situation, because the JCS Command Post had developed confidence in the judgment of the commanders out there. 

But the JCS Command Post might just become another layer of management that slows down decision making without improving the ability of the troops to get the job done. To solve this problem, it's proposed that the CINC be reduced to the status of a staff officer. The CINC and his people (several hundred staff officers and support troops) would be the repository of knowledge about the local situation and would take care of all those logistical and support details that enable the combat operations to happen. 

Speaking of staff work, one thing combat staffs are increasingly concerned with is how to deal with politically delicate situations that the media could run with (often in uncomfortable directions.) Recent example abound. When sandstorms seemed to have "stalled" the American advance on Baghdad last Spring, the president, or at least the Secretary of Defense, had to be in touch with the commanders inside the sand storm, and then say something to the press that would defuse the story, and wouldn't blow up later if it proved to be false. For those who didnt catch the follow up on the stand storm, the troops were delayed by the need to resupply (especially fuel for they very thirsty M-1 tanks) and the storm actually helped because the Iraqis thought they could safely move Republican Guard divisions under cover of it. They couldn't, as there were American satellites, UAVs and sensors on the ground that could see right through it. Iraqi tanks and troops got shot up on a massive scale before they realized that the sand blinded them more than the Americans. 

The ability to quickly communicate between the battlefield and the Pentagon came in handy after Baghdad fell and the Baath party diehards continued to resist with ambushes. But all of this communication was improvised. That experience naturally led to the idea that better preparation for that situation would have improved communications and decision making. The Pentagon and White House already expect to see real time UAV video coverage of critical events. But there are often dozens of video feeds running through Department of Defense satellites, and a JCS Command Post would be in a better position to sort it all out and have the most important videos marked for the attention of the president, Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the JCS, or for release to the media. 

Micromanagement originally appeared because the technology was there to make it possible. New technology keeps showing up, making more mischief, or benefits, possible. As always, it's up to the people using the technology to make things happen, or screw things up.




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