About staff quickness: This should settle the issue for good and all

Again and again I am flabbergasted that staff officers (who are used to NATO staffs) consider staff procedure speeds fine that I consider to be pretty much suicidal.

I assume that this post will settle this issue once and for all at least for my private communications. From now on I will simply give the link to this when someone has suicidal ideas about proper staff speeds.

- - - - -

Back in 1940, on May 13, there was a battle that basically meant the destruction of the French army and the (temporary) loss of French sovereignty was ensured.
I have no doubt that emulating the French in this battle is unacceptable to EVERYONE, and thus should make the modern staff craziness obvious.

The action - crossing the Meuse river at Sedan after a few days of surprise advance through the Belgian Ardennes - was planned in detail as early as March, and rehearsed in a wargame on May 1st. The plan worked reasonably to spectacularly (reasonable in details, spectacular in effect) and was executed very close to original planning.
Yes, planning well in advance has at times benefits. That's what enticed NATO armies to create huge and ponderous staffs, after all. Hint: The French had planned much and wargamed themselves as well. The planning was done while there was no mobile warfare happening.

The surprise river crossing began with major air attacks.

1200: Major air attacks give away the site for the river crossing
1600: Infantry crosses the river.
2240: Dominating heights 8 km behind the crossing site taken by German infantry.

Now the French side:
1600: French General Grandsard (Corps commander) orders the corps reserves forward.
1730: Order arrives (apparently by motorcycle courier) at infantry regiment 213.
1800: Order arrives at Armour battalion 7.
1830: Infantry regiment 213 commander LtCol Labarthe orders to commence the march at 2000 (happens with delay).
2000: French division commander General Lafontaine orders counterattack after some confusion
2130:  Armour battalion 7 begins its march.
0730: Begin of counter-attack

(The French side had a corps staff delay of 0-4 hrs depending on where to start the count, and a division staff delay of up to 4 hours. The total delay from revealing the location of the attack and counteratttack was 19.5 hrs.)

Now again the German side:
The German top officer on the scene of the counterattack, LtGen Kirchner, took ten (10 !) minutes to think up and issue orders for the German reaction to the counterattack.

Keep in mind: Most of the German Sedan attack was an infantry attack with foot mobility. The first German tanks crossed the Meuse on 0720 on the 14th. These tanks still won the speed competition against the French tanks which began their counterattack apparently at 0730 and had a shorter route to the critical point.

This is the battle that laid the foundation for the notion that the French lost the campaign of 1940 decisively within days because their command system was too slow to cope with the German command system's agility.

Yes, they were slow - in relation to the Germans of May 1940.

On the other hand, the French were extremely fast - in another relation.
Under some in-NATO national doctrines, staff procedures wouldn't have allowed for a counterattack order within four hours. Instead, staff procedures would have required a multi-layer process with info collection, processing, meetings, deliberations ...

Sure, a modern senior officer on the scene could (IF he was on the scene) issue reaction orders in ten minutes as well. 

The problem is that this is not what doctrine and training emphasize.
Western forces train for slowness (a.k.a. thoroughness) more than for quickness.
- - - - -

Another problem for the '12 hrs staff procedures are quick enough' school of thought:

An attack of part of the 7th Panzerdivision (Rommel) began on 16th May at 1800.
1800 Attack begins.
2400 30 km advance already, French 5th motorised Division is being overrun in its resting area along a road and is being obliterated by parts of the 7. PD.
0600 7. PD forces cross the river Sambre.
0630 Regiment-equivalent advance guard reaches Le Cateau at 50 km depth.

That's about 12 hours. By now the '12 hrs  staff procedures are quick enough' school would have prepared an order to react to the initial beginning of the attack.

Keep in mind that the tanks of this time reached only up to 40 km/h and were unable to shoot on the move accurately. Today's mounted combat and attacks can be much, much quicker.

- - - - -

Well, if ANYBODY does EVER again attempt to convince me for example that a 12 hrs planning cycle (or even something with up to 48 hrs !) is fine ... I'll simply tell him to read this.
Maybe I'll also tell him to forget everything he ever learned about staff procedures.


Military history offers  an incredible quantity of examples that smash slow staff proponents. I was lazy and took both examples and their details from Frieser's book.

edit: Another broad hint - the 2005 study "Trading the Saber for Stealth [...]" (I mentioned this nice study earlier) says:

For example, during the typical "high-intensity" rotation at the NTC, battalion and brigade commanders are required to solve a new tactical problem approximately every 48 hours. During the offensive maneuver portion of Operation Iraqi Freedom, commanders found themselves dealing with new and complex tactical problems on the order of every eight to 12 hours.


  1. Thank you. This needs to be enshrined and widely distributed.

  2. A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

  3. I think two different issues are confused here, the strategic picture, and the tactical battle.

    Two days to update a grand strategy isnt a great deal, but its a catastrophic delay in the tactical battle.

    If people "on the ground" are denied freedom to act as the situation on the ground dictates, of course they're going to be crushed.

  4. @TrT: Read the final quote of the text; it's not about grand strategists. It's about small formation or large unit commanders.

  5. "Read the final quote of the text; it's not about grand strategists. It's about small formation or large unit commanders."

    But thats my point.
    German small ubnit cammanders were allowed to use their initiative when without orders, and many ignored orders and did as they pleased, Rommel being the most obvious example, but Loezer is more pertinant here.

    The same cannot be said of the French army, which followed procedure, and orders, and did not move unless ordered.

    I agree that the officer in command *on the ground* should be expected to react quickly.
    But thats the officer on the ground, thats not high command.

    The French were so badly beaten *because* they were micromanaged by "fast" command staffs.

    At 12:00 Lt Col Labarthe should have positioned his forces to defend the now obvious crossing point, and request reinforcement from his division commander, who would request further reinforcement from his Corps commander General Grandsard. I'm assuming there was a divion commander between them. In my understanding he lacked the authority, he had to report it to up the chain, where the general staff decided what to do, and he then implemented the orders, my which point they had ceased to make any sense.

    I can only repeat, staff officers are never going to be quick enough to react to the actions of field officers.
    They just cant.

    Attempts to speed them up lead to such rigidity that the army ends up paralysed.

  6. Altho modern procedures seem to produce the worst of both worlds, a tremendously slow staff piled on top of a system designed to minimise actual initiative and maximise butt-covering

  7. @TrT:
    The question is why exist elaborate staffs with lots of personnel (they approached 1,000 in some NATO member field divisions) if they're too ponderous, too slow for mobile warfare anyway? They couldn't even keep up with 1940's mobile warfare - today's could be much quicker!

    Why spend much attention on "operational design", staff organisation and else if it takes a level as high as SHAPE to have at least sometimes enough time for elaborate staff procedures?
    The modern staff organisations from battalion to corps look suited only for administrative purposes; utterly irrelevant in mobile warfare.

    Doctrine appears to pay an exaggerated amount of attention on this administrative arrangement, and not enough at all at actual leadership in mobile warfare or other quick-developing combat actions.
    The three-star general who watches a satellite feed of a platoon in a skirmish is hardly a suitable model for efficient high-level leadership in combat.

    Let's not forget there are indeed people (thousands of 'em) who think that 12+ hour staff processes are important in war.

    They're probably mislead by small wars, but that's no good excuse. Moths stare at the light and forget about the real world. Officers should not be mislead that easily.

  8. SO
    I think we're on basicaly the same page, just coming at it from different angles.
    12 hours isnt great on the battlefield, but its perfectly acceptable for deciding which reserve force will react to which of the enemies 6 armoured thrusts.

    I'm not sure I'd agree staff corps are "slow", for sensible roles, they are quick, the problem is when you try and have a Field Marshall Command a company over the radio, its just not possible, they are steramrollered before he can be brought up to speed. To stand any chance of working, you have to strip all companies of their initiative, and the enemy adapts.

  9. "12 hours isnt great on the battlefield, but its perfectly acceptable for deciding which reserve force will react to which of the enemies 6 armoured thrusts."

    Did you read the text at all? 12 hrs is not acceptable even for that.
    12 hrs for decision-making + hours for orders being transmitted and abbreviated for lower level units + hours for march + up to an hour for switching from march to battle formation + hours till the attack pays dividends.

    By that time you've probably already lost some air force bases, several bridges, several depots or logistical hubs, a brigade or two and your corps HQ.

  10. Sven
    Paris is 1100km from Berlin.
    Even assuming an impossible to maintain speed of 80kmh, its going to take 12 hours for French Forces to reach even staging areas for a battle in Poland.
    In reality, its going to take them 12 hours to ready their equipment and set off, and they arent going to make 80kmh.

    I'm not saying do nothing for 12 hours, recall leave, mobilise everyone and unleash your field commanders.
    The last Soviet War Game was Seven Days to the River Rhine, "losing" 12 hours isnt exactly losing the war.
    And I repeat, I'm not saying do nothing for 12 hours, the forces on the ground should act as they deem approriate and as standing orders dictate, airforces should be attacking targets of opportunity and pre planned targets.
    And 12 hoursm after the war starts, the general staff should have refined the war plan and be issueing new guidance.

  11. Strange, I typed a Warsaw example as well before I deleted it. I looked at the distance between Warsaw and the Eastern NATO frontier, though - six hours worth of road march.
    Talking about strategic surprise; most Western officers still don't understand the state of readiness of WP forces in East Germany during the 80's. They were able to leave their barracks with most combat gear and to launch all aircraft in a matter of minutes. This kind of super-quick reaction to a strategic alert is alien to the West.

    Strategic level lags are off-topic, though. I criticised the slowness of battalion to corps staff doctrine and training. SHAPE may have multi-hour processes and it won't hurt.

  12. Hello

    Could you define what you mean by 'planning circle'?
    How does its varying length relate to the thrust of your article, especially the examples you cited?


  13. I did not write "planning circle".

  14. "Well, if ANYBODY does EVER again attempt to convince me for example that a 12 hrs planning cycle (or even something with up to 48 hrs !) is fine ..."


  15. circle ≠ cycle

    The planning cycle is a process of requesting/receiving info, junior officers looking at it, then briefing a senior officer (for example the S5 - planning officer), then briefing the chief of staff and commanding officer, possible feedback and renewed info upwards, talk with officers from other specialties... it all takes a lot of time (especially if staffs grow real big).

    A quicker alternative is to only use such a system as permanent background noise that feeds info about rather general topics to the CO, and the CO goes to the Schwerpunkt of his formation and decides on the scene together with his very small cell of accompanying personnel (they usually fit into a single car + driver) and possibly the subordinate CO there. Meanwhile, other subordinate COs decide on the scene for their respective commands (such as a battalion CO who's not at the Schwerpunkt with his Bn).

    The whole idea that a tactical engagement should be planned hours in advance is nonsense unless you have a very stable situation (such as an established front line or a water obstacle separating the opposing forces).

    Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, was a case where you could plan weeks ahead. Operation Bagration was another such example.
    Mobile warfare on the other hand has quick and decisive actions that simply do not allow for hours and hours of command lag.

    Sadly, doctrine tend to overemphasize the planning aspect over the 'leading from the Schwerpunkt' aspect.

  16. I think it also shows the faith you have in the man at command on the front line. More so now than even in the past we have the ability to talk to the guy in the fox hole. To many commanders try to micro manage their commands. I think it would be good in training to shrink over the training period the time you have to make decisions. Let the commanders learn how to manage the shorter time frames needed while in training rather than on the battlefield.

  17. Whilst doing a bit of research for another piece, I found an interesting tid bit.

    It took *NINE* days for a force of Royal Marine Commandos and Paratroopers to march 25 miles, from theior landing site at San Carlos, to a staging area at Teal inlet, during the 1982 Falklands War.