Auftragstaktik

By: Capt M.M. O’Leary, The RCR

"The concept of Auftragstaktik or "mission tactics" … made it the responsibility of each German officer and NCO … to do without question or doubt whatever the situation required, as he personally saw it. Omission and inactivity were considered worse than a wrong choice of expedient. Even disobedience of orders was not inconsistent with this philosophy." (1)

 "Auftragstaktik" – an obscure German word related to an approach to warfare, nearly untranslatable into English, difficult to explain, probably even more difficult to comprehend.

We must endeavour to train the mind, as well as the body, of each and every rank level. In this manner battle drills can become what they should be, a common start point from which to develop a plan, rather than a solution in itself.

But is Auftragstaktik a truly foreign concept to the Canadian military mind? I would contend that its basic principle isn’t – at least not to the soldiers in our Army. Yet I also believe that Auftragstaktik is a completely unfathomable concept to the mind of the bureaucratic careerist who, it would seem, continues to be held in favour by the system.

Auftragstaktik won the day at Vimy Ridge. Auftragstaktik led to Canadian successes in Normandy. Auftragstaktik held the line in Korea. It did these things because, in each case, the goal – "the Commander’s Intent" – was clearly defined to every officer, NCO and soldier. Each knew his job, and each knew the jobs of those around him and was prepared to fulfill the unit’s mission with reduced strength, even following the loss of their own superior. An important aspect of Auftragstaktik is initiative, the expectation that subordinates will apply it and the requirement for all rank levels to have the confidence to do so.

"…initiative is a desirable characteristic in a soldier only when its effort is concentric rather than eccentric: the rifleman who plunges ahead and seizes a point of high ground which common sense says cannot be held can bring greater jeopardy to a company than any mere malingerer." (2)

For a simplistic approach, think of one aspect of Auftragstaktik in terms of S.L.A. Marshall’s ‘concentricity of initiative.’ Initiative applied toward a defined end-state will contribute to success, as much as does the initiative to not execute an assigned task which no longer supports the attainment of that goal. The NCOs and soldiers of Canada’s Army are prepared and capable of understanding and implementing this. Shortfalls in the Army’s preparedness to adopt Auftragstaktik as a tactical concept lies not with our troops, but with our officers.

Auftragstaktik requires a fundamental shift from careerist self-protectionism, which we have impressed upon our officers, rewarded them for exhibiting and punished them for not following. The officers of the Army must understand and live within the precepts of Auftragstaktik. They must also be prepared to explain the expectations of Auftragstaktik to their NCOs and soldiers, how to coach them on its application and, perhaps most importantly, how to accept partial success in training as success – not failure. Even when that partial success is only the courage of a subordinate to apply what he or she perceives as concentric initiative.

The Canadian Army suffers from classic symptomology of hierarchism. Have we been so blind to our failings that we need Dr. Jack Granatstein (3) and Desmond Morton (4) to describe them to us before we are able to recognize them? Laurence Peter (5) could have a field day rewriting The Peter Principle based on a study of our current career structure. The foci on conformity, measurable standards of behaviour and performance, stagnation of the incompetent rather than their removal, and the sidelining of the "supercompentent" are all classic indicators of this disease. The super-competent are those personnel who can execute any assigned task, but fail to conform to the hierarchical expectations of normalcy. They are tolerated (within limits) but not promoted by the hierarchy, and they get the ‘dirty’ jobs, the ones with associated risk to a career, because (a) they’ll get it done, (b) they are considered expendable by their conformist superior. Our career structure is based on promoting conformity, not competence. In fact, we have even achieved that state in which " ... super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence. Ordinary incompetence … is no cause for dismissal: it is simply a bar to promotion. Super-competence often leads to dismissal, because it disrupts the hierarchy, and thereby violates the first commandment of hierarchical life: the hierarchy must be preserved. (6)

Auftragstaktik cannot thrive within such absolute hierarchism. Auftragstaktik requires a front rank of the bold, the daring, and the intelligent. Hierarchies fear these same characteristics; their proponents disrupt the stability of the hierarchy. Do not confuse the stability of ‘the hierarchy’ with the stability of the Army as an institution. Army structures and mindsets are designed to meet and survive crises, but the inherent resilience that allows this: its esprit, the regimental system, its balance of duty and the well being of personnel, cannot be allowed to atrophy to stagnation in times of peace through bureaucratization.

An army survives and grows, physically, intellectually and spiritually through its risk-takers. I do not here support the breaking of regulations, or the placing of soldiers in training under unnecessary, or unjustifiable, risk. We have, however, lost our capacity to seek the edge of the allowed envelope. Take, for example, the infantry. I have met over the years many of my own peers who avoid anything to do with field firing, the live fire training of soldiers in tactical scenarios. They achieve this by allowing their own skills to degrade and permitting the willing and capable few to always step in. Field firing ‘by the book’ is not dangerous; it can be the best training a soldier will experience. These officers avoid the challenge not because of the risk to the soldiers, but because of the perceived risk to their own careers if something goes wrong. Risk-takers challenge the comfortable warmth of the status quo; they are willing to trade their potential within the hierarchy for accepting a degree of responsibility the bureaucracy has decided to find distasteful. Even legitimate risk-takers disturb the hierarchy because they refuse to "stay in the box." And there’s no risk-taking, or Auftragstaktik, in the box.

Bureaucracies maintain hierarchies by cutting away or restricting the growth of the unfamiliar, the new, and the original until, like topiary, they may be pleasing to the outside observer but bear no resemblance to their naturally evolved state. And, in this case, that shape is maintained from year to year without regard for the damage being caused to the component parts of the underlying organism – our soldiers, NCOs and young officers. Auftragstaktik will require such a fundamental change to the Army that only by carefully preparing the ground for change can we approach it with any hope of success. We must consider that Canadian Army as a single dynamic organism, not unlike Churchill’s description of the turn-of-the-century British Regiment:

"Regiments are not like houses. They cannot be pulled down and altered structurally to suit the convenience of the occupier or the caprice of the owner. They are more like plants; they grow slowly if they are to grow strong … and if they are blighted or transplanted they are apt to wither." (7)

The Army must be tended with care; we cannot suddenly change the shape or growing conditions of only one part without affecting others by withholding similar or compensatory treatment. Auftragstaktik is such a change, teaching our officers is not enough, we must be prepared to provide the entire tree with this fertilizer. And the change must be tended with care, lest the entire structure be irreparably damaged.

But how can we expect Auftragstaktik, or concentric initiative, to begin to survive in a structured hierarchy like our current career system? We should not expect it because it cannot. Our career system remains dependent on task allocation and the perceived requirement for ‘measurable performance indicators,’ i.e.; the completion of assigned tasks by the book. That and giving greater credit to subjective potential for future rank than we do for objective performance in current rank continues to defeat the purpose of a shift to Auftragstaktik. Until these undesirable characteristics are addressed, Auftragstaktik is being seeded on barren ground. It is well and good that we have started to teach our officers about the concepts of Auftragstaktik, but that is only scratching the surface. Until the expectations of the system change, officers will volubly speak of Auftragstaktik while on course, then swiftly withdraw to the less daring expectations of the status quo on return to their duties. We must select our next lines of advance carefully.

The Army must change its fundamental focus on performance and expectations if we expect a shift in command methodology encompassing Auftragstaktik to be successful. Our officers must be taught – or re-taught – that initiative is as strong a personal and professional characteristic as loyalty, and that concentric initiative can be a stronger display of loyalty to one’s superior, and to the Army, than blind obedience.

Our soldiers even before they are trained for, and promoted to, supervisory rank, must be imbued with the spirit of Auftragstaktik. We must teach them the concept of concentric initiative, and reward them for any reasonable attempt to apply it. The tendency to begin criticism with the phrase "good initiative, but…" can no longer be considered acceptable. Find fault with the logic used to select the approach and correct it through training, but never blame the soldier’s willingness to try. We must endeavour to train the mind, as well as the body, of each and every rank level. In this manner battle drills can become what they should be, a common start point from which to develop a plan, rather than a solution in itself.

"Fetishism for battle drills has been largely responsible for sanitizing imagination, creativity and mental mobility in infantry ranks. Battle drills are … a set of reactions … Conversely, tactics are a thought out plan to overcome the threat, the two are therefore dissimilar." (8)

Those of our personnel who have not become slaves to the system offer fertile ground to the concepts of Auftragstaktik. Auftragstaktik fits the Canadian mind. Our young soldiers, NCOs and officers should thrive under it. But we must shift the established hierarchy away from its current trends. The existing merit system and our embedded means of assessing performance are poisonous to Auftragstaktik – and if we don’t tend the soil, the plant will die.

The effective application of Auftragstaktik is dependent on individual willingness and capability to apply non-conformist and unique solutions when crisis arises. The readiness of all ranks to depart from "the plan" once it no longer supports the Commander’s desired end-state is essential and must be assumable by each level of command. The Army must accept that continued teaching of its officers and NCOs that unthinking obedience to issued tasks is no longer acceptable because it does not support an evolution to Auftragstaktik.

As a final note, I would like to mention that the titles of various works that illuminate our current malaise have been around for some time. Even as a young subaltern I was advised that I should be familiar with Crisis in Command (9), and only a few years later I discovered On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (10), afterward finding it more well known than I might have expected. These works offer diagnostic guidance, if we are willing to take them to heart.

Consider Gabriel and Savage’s (11) attributes of a good combat officer, these are the same characteristics that must become acceptable and desirable if we can adjust to Auftragstaktik. These are:

"Unobtrusive indicators of the "good [combat] officer"

Distrust any officer with a perfect or near perfect record of efficiency reports. He is conforming to the existing value system and will have no interest in changing it.

Look carefully at a man who gets low marks on "tact" and who "deviates from accepted doctrine." He may be creative.

An officer who gets low marks on loyalty is especially valuable, for he is unwilling to acquiesce to his superior's policies without debate. He is likely to have an independent mind.

Be suspicious of any officer who has accumulated awards for valour without having sustained physical injury. Trust a Purple Heart wearer.

Distrust any officer who has had "all his tickets punched" and who sports an array of staff awards on his chest. He is likely to be a manager playing the system.

Distrust all officers who use "buzz words" and have a poor vocabulary. They tend to be managers of the most obsequious type. True leadership is likely to be foreign to them.

Trust a man who heads for the sound of the guns and has repeated tours of combat and command duty at all unit levels; it is preferable that he have only minimal exposure to staff work.

Trust an officer who was seen by his men in combat and whose command performed well and showed low rates of drug use, fragging, body counting, etc.

Search for the officer whose readiness reports indicate a high percentage of equipment which is deficient. He is a man addicted to the truth." (12)

"Only he can command who has the courage and initiative to disobey." (13) As well, only those officers and NCOs with the same courage can make Auftragstaktik work in the Canadian Army. The questions remains – does the system have the courage to let them try?


(1) John A. English, A Perspective on Infantry, 1981
(2) S.L.A. Marshall, MEN against FIRE, 1947
(3) Dr. Jack Granatstein, The Granatstein Report, 1997
(4) Desmond Morton, Morton Report: WHAT TO TELL THE MINISTER, 1997
(5) Laurence J. Peter & Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle, 1969
(6) ibid.
(7) Winston Churchill, 1904
(8) Col Arjun Ray, quoted in the RUSI Journal, Autumn 1989
(9) Gabriel, Richard A. and Savage, Paul A., Crisis in Command, Mismanagement in the Army, 1978
(10) Norman F. Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, 1976
(11) Gabriel, Richard A. and Savage, Paul A., Crisis in Command, Mismanagement in the Army, 1978
(12) ibid.
(13) William McDougall (1871-1938) British psychologist


This paper was selected as the $500 prize winner of an essay contest sponsored by the Canadian Infantry Association in 2000.

Follow The Regimental Rogue on facebook.

QUICK LINKS