bench strength

Mission-type tactics

Mission-type tactics (German: Auftragstaktik, from Auftrag and Taktik"; also known as Mission Command in the US), have (arguably) been a central component of the tactics of German armed forces since the 19th century. The term auftragstaktik was coined by opponents of the development of mission-type tactics. Opponents of implementation mission-type tactics were called Normaltaktiker.

In mission-type tactics the military commander gives their subordinate leaders a clearly defined goal (the mission) and the forces needed to accomplish that goal with a time within which the goal must be reached. The subordinate leaders then implement the order independently. The subordinate leader is given, to a large extent, the planning initiative and a freedom in execution which allows flexibility in execution. Mission-type tactics free higher leadership from tactical details. Thus, strictly speaking the German word is something of a misnomer. It is not a tactic per se (and certainly not limited to the tacticals). It is more of a method of leadership. Thus, the proper German designation is Führen durch Auftrag, literally leading by task as opposed to Führen durch Befehl, i.e. leading by orders. Direct orders are an exception in the German armed forces, while "tasks" are the standard instrument of leadership from high command down to squad level.

For the success of the mission-type tactics it is especially important that the subordinate leaders understand the intent of the orders and are given proper guidance and that they are trained so they can act independently. The success of the doctrine rests upon the receiver of orders understanding the intent of the issuer of the orders and acting to achieve their goal even if their actions violated other guidance or orders they had received. Mission type tactics assume the possibility of violating other previously expressed limitations as a step to achieving a mission and is a concept most easily sustained in a decentralised culture. That culture is often one associated today with elite units and not a whole army.


After the heavy defeat of the Prussians at Jena-Auerstadt by Napoleon in 1806, the Prussians rethought their military approach and aimed to build a college of military capability, the General Staff, as a systemic counter to the individual genius that had soundly beaten them. Napoleon fought a continual battle of manoeuvre or movement and throughout his career (at least until Spain) demonstrated his ability to defeat all comers by the greater flexibility of his formations and deployment. The fact that his troops were mainly conscripts showed that it was his organisation of them that must be superior. The institutionalization of excellence within the Prussian Army was to build this same flexibility as well as the other role of the General Staff Officer which was to make sure each unit understood and performed their mission. After the First World War this monitoring, coaching and training role built a level of trust, competency and understanding across the whole German post-war 4000 strong officer corps which made a new level of excellence possible.

Excellence in this case is derived in part from the tradition of Scharnhorst, Carl von Clausewitz and Helmuth von Moltke and was based upon the premise that hard-and-fast rules had no place in the environment of war, which was the realm of human emotion, friction, chance and uncertainty. Moltke is considered one of the principal advocates of independent thinking and acting among his subordinates:

“Diverse are the situations under which an officer has to act on the basis of his own view of the situation. It would be wrong if he had to wait for orders at times when no orders can be given. But most productive are his actions when he acts within the framework of his senior commander’s intent.”

Under the Auftragstaktik system the selection of combat formations, as well as their route and rate of advance, was based upon a unit's mission, the circumstances of the terrain and the enemy's disposition, something Napoleon was renowned for doing. Building a high level of trust, competency and understanding is important to the operation of such a doctrine. The freedoms this might imply have challenged many armies' views of military discipline, including the Prussian army's.


The force flexibility that underlies this command style poses particular challenges once this new task-oriented formation is created. The creation of combined-arms forces poses particular challenges to command, especially if they are attached during a battle. To this end (in and before WW2) the German General Staff cross-posted officers and NCOs between the different branches of the Army. It was therefore not unusual to find an armor commander with experience of artillery and infantry command. Similarly NCOs with cross-branch tactical experience ensured that these combined-arms teams did operate in an integrated fashion. The German High Command (OKH) ran multiple exercises, or war games, in the 1930s starting with small operations and in later years involving very large formations and major movements to ensure doctrinal coherence and the opportunity to revise and learn. The General Staff played a vital role in assuring the quality of these exercises and in ensuring lessons were learnt.


Auftragstaktik can be seen as doctrine within which formal rules can be selectively suspended in order to overcome "Friction". Carl von Clausewitz stated that "Everything in war is very simple but the simplest thing is difficult". Problems will occur with misplaced communications, troops going to the wrong location, delays caused by weather etc and it is the duty of the commander to do his best to overcome them. Auftragstaktik encourages commanders to exhibit initiative, flexibility and improvisation while in command. In what may be seen as surprising to some, Auftragstaktik empowers commanders to disobey orders and revise their effect as long as the intent of the commander is maintained.

Interestingly there are cases cited where in combat the operational orders were a copy of orders that had been issued for an earlier operation or training exercise. It is claimed that almost the only thing that was changed were the names of locations and units. This strongly suggests that long experience of operations had allowed senior commanders to be quite abstract in their orders issued without great fear of being misunderstood, it also suggests that sequences of moves on quite a large scale were already familiar to the forces involved which probably made their execution better.

The Information Age

The paradox of war in the Information Age is one of managing massive amounts of information and resisting the temptation to overcontrol it. The competitive advantage is nullified when you try to run decisions up and down the chain of command. All platoons and tank crews have real-time information on what is going on around them, the location of the enemy, and the nature and targeting of the enemy's weapons system. Once the commander's intent is understood, decisions must be devolved to the lowest possible level to allow these front line soldiers to exploit the opportunities that develop. —General Gordon Sullivan, quoted in 'Delivering Results' by David Ulrich


Analysis by the US Army of the 1939 German campaign in Poland found that "The emphasis which the Germans placed on the development of leadership and initiative in commanders during years of preparatory training brought its rewards in the Polish campaign. With confidence that these principles had been properly inculcated, all commanders, from the highest to the lowest echelons, felt free to carry out their missions or meet changes in situations with a minimum of interference by higher commanders." They recognized that "initiative, flexibility and mobility" were the essential aspects of German tactics.

A key aspect of Mission-type tactics is forward control. In order to understand what is happening at the point of action and to be able to take decisions quickly the operational commander needs to be able to observe results. The decision to deviate from original plans in pursuit of the mission must be made here for 'Friction' to be overcome and momentum to be sustained. The impact of the application of personal influence was thought to be critical and only possible because of the bench-strength provided by General Staff officers managing in the formations' rear. This aspect is also responsible for the high casualty rate amongst commanders even in successful operations (5% of all dead). Guderian ensured that all German tanks had radio receivers in order to make his command effective.

The domination of the battlefield combined with the difficulty of discerning the pattern of the attacker's assault which uses integrated command of combined arms teams means that conventional force strategies are rendered ineffective as the "Front seemed to disappear".

See also

  • Vernichtungsgedanke: "the concept of annihilation", one of blitzkrieg's predecessors
  • Blitzkrieg, lightning war style attributed to the German Army in World War II
  • War of manoeuvre, the doctrine behind Blitzkrieg, also known as Bewegungskrieg.
  • Attrition warfare, the strategic concept that victory can be assured by wearing the enemy down
  • Befehlstaktik, (lit. detailed-order tactics), control by detailed order or command push.
  • Ubiquitous command and control proposes mission agreement, as a generalisation of mission command, to allow for "edge-in" as well as top-down flow of intent.
  • Aufstragtaktik article by Major General Widder (German Army) which gives overview and latest views.


  • Manuel de Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, 1991.
  • von Luck, Hans. Panzer Commander. Cassell Military, 1991. Available online, accessed 4 October 2005.
  • Auftragstaktik, or Directive Control, in Joint and Combined Operations . "Parameters", US Army War College Quarterly. Autumn 1999, Vol. XXIX, No. 3. David M. Keithly and Stephen P. Ferris. Available online, accessed 11 November 2005.
  • Gerhard Muhm: German Tactics in the Italian Campaign,
  • Gerhard Muhm, La tattica tedesca nella campagna d'Italia, in Linea gotica avamposto dei Balcani, a cura di Amedeo Montemaggi - Edizioni Civitas, Roma 1993
  • Condell with Zabecki, Maj. Gen. U.S. Army (Editors): Truppenfuhrung, On the German Art of War. Boulder Co. 2001, translation of WW-2 German army Field Manual.

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