Hypervisibility: Mission Command’s Unseen Adversary
Fred E. Martin Jr. and Ronald D. Walck
In a galaxy much closer to home than we may think…
While observing his dismounted squad’s every action through terminals via their body camera feeds, Lieutenant Gorman, from the safety and security of his infantry-fighting-vehicle-based command post, issues the following orders as his squad executes a mission and encounters the Xenomorphs. “I want a straight ‘V’ deployment, second team on the left flank.” ... “Watch your spacing” … “What is that?” … “Proceed inside” … “Look. We can’t have any firing in there. I, uh, I want you to collect magazines from everybody.” … “Flame units only. I want rifles slung” … “Just do it Sergeant. And no grenades.” Following the order, the Sergeant collects the ammunition for each squad member’s primary weapon due to concern for damaging the facility. “Who’s firing? God dammit, I ordered to hold fire.” Shortly after the Xenomorph attack, the Lieutenant loses control of his squad while trying to command and control the squad, through terminals via body camera feeds, from the safety and security of his infantry-fighting-vehicle-based command post.
The increased proliferation of information collection technologies is becoming a threat to the Army’s Mission Command Philosophy. The use of these technologies threatens the Mission Command Philosophy by giving Soldiers the perception of constant observation. These technologies, and the accompanying perception of persistent observation, lead to degraded trust between Soldiers and their higher headquarters, and cause the conceptual space required for the Philosophy to function to shrink. The development of this perception, or panoptic effect, is likely to result in a climate of degraded mutual trust and shrink the conceptual space required for the Philosophy to function as desired.
Leaders should not overlook the importance of both mutual trust and the conceptual space required for the Mission Command Philosophy to function. Mutual trust is a required bedrock of the Mission Command Philosophy. Likewise, leaders must protect the Philosophy’s supporting conceptual space to facilitate the development of unique solutions. The degradation of either mutual trust or this conceptual space must be taken seriously. Without both the Army’s operational concept, Unified Land Operations, fails Soldiers seeking “to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative to gain and maintain a position of relative advantage.” Ignoring this problem could lead to units incapable of successful performance on a future battlefield.
The purpose of this essay is to start a professional dialog. In the remainder of this paper, and drawing examples from police-body-camera studies and other works, we will explain key terms and concepts, the negative impact of constant observation on behavior and trust, and the conceptual space required by the Mission Command Philosophy. Next, we describe the dependent relationship between trust, the Mission Command Philosophy, and Unified Land Operations. In conclusion, we will suggest options to mitigate the consequences of the panoptic effect, ask questions to further the conversation, and offer suggestions for continued study.
Key Terms & Concepts
There are terms and concepts that are central to our argument: information collection technologies, the Panopticon, and Unified Land Operations. Additionally, it is important to distinguish that we are working with the philosophy of Mission Command, not the Warfighting Function.
By the term “information collection technologies,” we mean any mechanical sensor, asset, or device capable of recording or streaming the actions of an individual or unit. Although not an exhaustive list, examples of this technology include military unmanned aerial systems (a.k.a. drones or UAS), body cameras like those worn increasingly by police officers, and typical security cameras within supermarkets. These technologies are relevant because they contribute to the formation of a panoptic effect, an idea that stems from the concept of the Panopticon.
The concept of the panopticon is the idea that individual behavior can be influenced or directed by not only observation, but by just the chance of observation. Michel Foucault, the French historian, philosopher, and social theorist, discussed the panopticon in his description of the development of methods to influence behavior and create discipline., The concept of the panopticon is based on the theory of Jeremy Bentham. For Foucault, it represented the apex “architectural form of modern disciplinary power.” Architects applied this concept to the design of multiple types of buildings, but its best representation is in the design of prisons., A prison designed in this fashion places inmates within independent cells arranged in a circle around a central observation tower. The bars of the cells are oriented towards the observation tower so that the guard “can look into any cell at any given time.” The guard does not look into all cells at all times, but since the inmates do not know if the guards are looking they must assume that they are and act accordingly.
The Panopticon concept’s “principle of control is not the fact but the possibility of observation” and results in inmates conforming to standards because they assume they are always being watched. For a modern example of this concept, look no further than your neighborhood Wal-Mart. Whether or not all of a store’s security cameras are actually on, customers and potential thieves must assume that they are and act accordingly. Otherwise, they risk a run-in with law enforcement or being the lead in an embarrassing YouTube clip. We are concerned that the Mission Command Philosophy is at risk due to the inadvertent development of a panoptic effect resulting from the proliferation of information collection technologies.
The concept of Mission Command sets the foundation for how Army leaders should approach problems and operations. The Army defines it as “the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.” The concept has two parts: Mission Command as a Philosophy and Mission Command as a Warfighting Function. We are concerned with the Philosophy. The Mission Command philosophy requires Soldiers to deviate from their orders when they no longer fit the situation.  The Army defines this form of initiative as “Disciplined Initiative.”
Due to the Mission Command Philosophy’s emphasis on achieving and maintaining the “initiative,” it is central to the Army’s operational concept; Unified Land Operations. This concept’s ultimate goal is to guide the way in which the Army applies landpower to assist the Nation at winning its wars. Key to Unified Land Operations is the seizure, retention, and exploitation of the initiative. A closer look at the interactions between the terms and concepts above will show that the proliferation of information collection technologies threatens the Army’s Mission Command Philosophy.
Constant Observation, Behavior, and “Trust”
The impression of constant observation can negatively affect behavior in any organization where trust between leadership and subordinates is required to achieve results. One way in which constant observation can negatively affect such organizations is by hindering personal communication between subordinate and superior organizations. Personal communication between echelons suffers when leaders use collected information, such as video footage, instead of the subordinate’s word to make decisions. For example, researchers examining the impact of body cameras worn by police officers state that a potential side effect of body camera use may be the reduced value of a police officer’s word in court. In this case, the researchers explain that a police officer’s word in court has historically held great significance for juries and judges making decisions. Yet, this same word could lose value in the future due to the expectation of video footage corresponding with police action.
This result implies that police officers in the future may be less inclined to take the initiative towards preventing a crime. They may be less inclined to act if they do not have the capability to record footage, or if they are unsure if the context of the moment will translate clearly onto video. In this situation, the impression or expectation of constant observation by a higher echelon, e.g. the courts and juries, may constrain police officer behavior. It may cause police officers to become less willing to take the initiative towards preventing a crime despite their own inclinations. This influence on behavior is how the impression of constant observation, the panoptic effect, can affect people and organizations that rely on trust to achieve results. It does not matter if this behavior’s result is the prevention of a crime or the accomplishment of a military objective. The evaluation of footage resulting from constant observation may also stymie trust and initiative.
The evaluation or analysis of footage from constant observation can negatively affect behavior in trust-and-initiative driven organizations by causing subordinates, such as Soldiers or Police officers, to curtail their actions in fear of retribution. The logic in this situation is clear. A Soldier who is required to make a decision on the battlefield based on their understanding of the situation may fail to take the initiative if they believe someone is recording them. They may fail to exercise disciplined initiative in pursuit of the commander’s intent because they may fear that their decision, although based on the context of the situation, may not translate well on video when evaluated by a higher headquarters. Put simply, the Soldier may fail to take the initiative or execute an audacious action because they fear the judgement or punishment of their higher headquarters if the resulting video footage does not support their decision.
This fear of retribution for action is not without precedence. A study examining the impact of body cameras worn by Phoenix Police Officers found that officers in the study resisted using the devices in part because of fear that the footage would “be used against them.” Similar to our imagined example, fear of retribution can lead to a breakdown in trust between a superior headquarters and its subordinate actors. Even the Army’s leadership manual, ADRP 6-22, explains that resentment can form when leaders administer punishments indiscreetly.
If punishments lead to resentment in an organizational environment, it is logical to believe the result will be an environment built upon compliance rather than commitment. In other words, resentment leads to an organizational culture where individuals do the bare minimum to get by instead of going beyond what is required. If an organization’s success requires subordinate initiative, leaders must ensure that the organization’s environment allows subordinates to take risks without the fear of punishment. These concerns could have a drastic impact on the Army. They threaten the Mission Command Philosophy and subsequently the concept of Unified Land Operations.
Constant Observation, Conceptual Space, and the “Rules”
If information collection technologies are creating the impression of persistent observation among Soldiers, then a panoptic effect is forming. This effect will lead to constrained conceptual space for the Mission Command Philosophy.
As previously explained, the Panopticon is an architectural construct employed to maximize discipline and/or enforce a desired behavior through the mere chance of observation. Our concern is that if this panoptic effect is forming due to information collection technologies, the conceptual space required to execute the Mission Command Philosophy is being constrained (see Figure 1 below). The conceptual space required to execute the Mission Command Philosophy could shrink in this case because people act differently when they know they are being observed. We are concerned because people attempt to act more in accordance with their governing social “rules” when they know they are being observed. In this instance, the “rules” are Army doctrine. Army doctrine is intended as a guide, but it can also be understood as rules for the way the Army operates. We believe that a panoptic effect may cause Soldiers to act in accordance with the Army’s doctrinal rules, rather than develop unique solutions. In other words, rather than develop a unique solution to a problem, Soldiers may try to make the situation fit the doctrine.
If a panoptic effect is forming, and Soldiers feel obliged to act in strict accordance with doctrine as a result, the human element, operational art, and the application of creative imagination are becoming less relevant and leading to the failure of the Mission Command Philosophy.
Figure 1: Persistent Observation’s Impact on the Mission Command Philosophy
We have not conducted a quantitative study to verify the potential of a panoptic effect. However, we have witnessed one recent example that speaks to our concerns. During a recent constructive training exercise involving primarily Army officers acting as a staff, several group members asserted that in reality the information collection technologies available would be well beyond what the exercise provided. Their point was that they would have more information in reality than they did during the exercise. It seems plausible that the staff members were relying on the panoptic effect they are accustomed to in real situations rather than developing a unique solution. Rather than collect the required information with the assets available, staff members assumed the presence of and preferred to rely on persistent observation technology.
The logic of this example is straightforward. It appears that the officers involved shrunk their own conceptual space because they knew (panoptic effect/perception of persistent observation) that more and better information collection technologies would be available in a “real-world” situation. Although not scientific, this example highlights the threat to the Mission Command Philosophy due to the proliferation of information collection technologies.
Trust, the Mission Command Philosophy, and Unified Land Operations
The relationship between trust, the Mission Command Philosophy, and Unified Land Operations is simple. Each of these concepts depend on the former, beginning with trust, in order to be effective. The Army’s manuals on Mission Command, ADRP 6-0, and Operations, ADRP 3-0, explain that a key component of Mission Command is mutual trust, and that Mission Command is a principle of Unified Land Operations., In addition, the concepts are linked by the idea of initiative.
The idea of initiative is a common factor between the previously mentioned concepts. For instance, trust enables initiative, and the Mission Command Philosophy requires disciplined initiative to function. Without the ability to seize the initiative, Unified Land Operations fail. Leaders must foster the proper environment to capitalize on the relationship between these concepts and initiative.
Leaders must establish an environment of trust if they expect subordinates to exercise the disciplined initiative described in Army doctrine. If a subordinate does not believe that their higher headquarters trusts their judgement, it is logical to believe that they will not act on opportunities to seize the initiative. In this case, a subordinate would likely “play it safe” and remain idle rather than make risky or audacious decisions.
On the other hand, if the higher headquarters does not trust its subordinate, it will likely take overt measures to control them, preventing them from seizing the initiative when the opportunity presents itself. If these situations occur, Unified Land Operations will fail to remain relevant as the Army’s operational concept. The Unified Land Operations concept requires the Mission Command Philosophy, which in turn requires trust between higher echelons and subordinate units to remain effective. Information collection technologies create the perception of constant observation in the current operational environment. This perception degrades trust and reduces the conceptual space needed to actualize the Mission Command Philosophy.
The proliferation of information collection technologies threatens the Mission Command Philosophy. These technologies degrade trust and shrink the required conceptual space. Without a functional Mission Command Philosophy, execution of Unified Land Operations are critically degraded.
We do not purport to know the answer to this threat. Instead, we hope to encourage a professional dialog with our suggestions and questions. Initially, we would like to suggest the following ideas to mitigate the panoptic effect that we described. First, we propose that senior leaders acknowledge the potential for a panoptic effect. Further, we suggest command emphasis to ensure that information collection technologies not be used to monitor or observe friendly forces.
Next, to preserve the conceptual space required for the Mission Command Philosophy, senior leaders must prevent the Army from adopting individual monitoring technologies such as body cameras. Instead of using monitoring to control Soldier behavior, leaders must establish the boundaries for acceptable behavior in advance. Once on the battlefield it is too late to correct tactical, operational, or strategic lapses in judgement.
Finally, we suggest initiation of a formal study to determine if the perception of persistent observation is diminishing Army leadership’s ability to develop unique solutions to complex problems. Perhaps an exercise could be developed where some units are observed while others are not. Once complete, researchers could compare results to determine if units perform differently under observation.
In addition to our suggestions, we would like to offer the following questions:
What happens if the panoptic effect we described continues for an extended period? Will it limit our collective ability to construct unique solutions in the future? Does this mean that Army leadership will be less capable on future battlefields? What about situations where the US military does not dominate the space and cyber domains?,
It is clear that the proliferation of information collection technologies threatens the Mission Command Philosophy. These technologies, and their accompanying perception of constant observation, degrade the Philosophy through the destruction of required trust and conceptual space. We believe continuing passive acceptance of the perception of constant observation and its associated panoptic effect will degrade the Army’s future battlefield performance. The Army should take the steps necessary to prevent this. Soldiers should always be afforded the ability to think and develop unique solutions in response to the context they are facing. As the Nation’s proponent for landpower, “the dominant form of military power in the modern world,” the Army must arm its Soldiers with the training, tools, conceptual skills, and trust required to make decisions in accordance with the Mission Command Philosophy on the complex battlefields of today and tomorrow. Otherwise, the outcome of the next great conflict, which will undoubtedly be fought on battlefields defined by contested operational domains, may already be decided.
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Klann, Gene. “The Application of Power and Influence in Organizational Leadership.” Fort Leavenworth, KS: Command and General Staff Officer Course (CGSOC) Common Core (2010, Revised 2016): 1-12.
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 Aliens (Special Edition), directed by James Cameron (1986; Los Angeles, CA: 20th Century Fox 2007), Digital Version, accessed via VUDU.com 11 February 2017.
 Department of the Army, ADRP 6-0, Mission Command (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, March 2014), 2-1-2-2, 2-6.
 Department of the Army, ADRP 3-0, Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, November 2016), 4-1.
 Department of the Army, ADRP 1-02, Terms and Military Symbols (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, February 2015), 1-44.
 Gary Gutting, Foucault: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 82-84.
 Ibid., 84.
 Michel Foucault, Discipline & punish: The birth of the prison (2nd ed.), trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995).
 Gutting, Foucault: A Very Short Introduction, 80-81.
 Ibid., 82.
 Ibid., 82-84.
 Columba Peoples and Nick Vaughan-Williams, Critical Security Studies: An introduction (New York, NY: Routledge, 2010), 66.
 Gutting, Foucault: A Very Short Introduction, 82-84.
 Ibid., 84.
 Ibid., 84.
 Ibid., 84.
 Department of the Army, Mission Command, 1-1.
 Ibid., 1-4.
 Ibid., 1-2, 1-4.
 Ibid., 1-2.
 Department of the Army, Operations, 3-1.
 Ibid., 3-1.
 Barak Ariel, William A. Farrar, and Alex Sutherland, “The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizens’ Complaints Against the Police: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 31, no. 3 (November 2014): 529.
 Charles M. Katz et al., Evaluating the Impact of Officer Worn Body Cameras in the Phoenix Police Department (Phoenix, AZ: Center for Violence Prevention & Community Safety, Arizona State University, 2014), 40.
 Department of the Army, ADRP 6-22, Army Leadership (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, August 2012), 6-4.
 Gene Klann, “The Application of Power and Influence in Organizational Leadership,” (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Command and General Staff Officer Course (CGSOC) Common Core, 2010, Revised 2016): 1-5.
 Gutting, Foucault: A Very Short Introduction, 82-84.
 Arial, The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras, 516.
 Department of the Army, Mission Command, 1-2.
 Department of the Army, Operations, 3-9-3-10.
 United States Department of Defense and United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence, National Security Space Strategy: Unclassified Summary January 2011 (United States Department of Defense and United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2011), 1-3. https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/2011/0111_nsss/docs/NationalSecuritySpaceStrategyUnclassifiedSummary_Jan2011.pdf
United States Army War College, Strategic Cyberspace Operations Guide 1 June 2016 (Center for Strategic Leadership, 2016) 8-10.
 John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: NY, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001, Revised 2014), 83.