'I believe success is preparation, because opportunity is going to knock on your door sooner or later but are you prepared to answer that?' 
Initiative in battle starts well before you identify the advantage: are you prepared to take it? Initiative, when used in relation to the enemy in battle, is a term that is thrown around in the military, but how well is it understood? Many people will argue that 'you have the initiative or you don’t' or regurgitate a dictionary definition of initiative in conversation. But as professionals don’t we owe the discussion of initiative and a true understanding of its importance more than that? Initiative appears in our capstone doctrine Land Warfare Doctrine 1 – The Fundamentals of Land Power and many other doctrine and military publications. It is always referred to as something to be valued and coveted, but little discussion or direction is given on what initiative actually is or how to practically obtain it. It is assumed that commanders will just recognise initiative when they hold it. But how does one take the initiative, then maintain it or even know if you do or do not have it? This is a professional discussion that needs to be had within command teams and professionals who seek to hold the initiative on the battle field.
This post proposes that to take the initiative on the battle field requires preparation well in advance of any opportunity presenting itself. Being able to seize the initiative is born out of several ideas:
- Prior to battle the commander must train their force to be able to achieve superior tempo which allows it to re-orientate smoothly and capitalise on opportunity.
- A commander’s understanding of his organisation, and his ability to regulate its rhythm to be decisive.
- The commander’s ability to influence the sequence of actions between two opposing forces to his advantage and create opportunities within this through surprise.
Once one has grasped these concepts, taking the initiative in battle will seem less like luck. That is not to say the initiative can be assumed, but the commander will be better prepared when the opportunity arises; moreover they engineer the opportunity.
This post will look to define ‘the initiative’ and discuss the impact and interplay of the rhythm of operations and tempo. These ideas underpin the importance of the commander’s role in preparation and subsequent decision of the ways and means to impose their will during an operational cycle. Additionally, factors that relate directly to initiative in battle will be discussed; these include designing an advantageous operational sequence, identifying and seizing the initiative and understanding when you have the initiative. The latter discussion aims to explore practical ways a commander can create and seize opportunity and then maintain his advantage. Finally, a perspective will be offered on how a company commander can both train and fight to seize and maintain the initiative in battle.
'Initiative in a chess position belongs to the player who can make threats that cannot be ignored thus putting the opponent in the position of having to spend turns responding to threats rather than creating new threats.'
Initiative in a military context is whether or not you have the choice to take the offensive (i.e. make threats that cannot be ignored), forcing your opponent to respond before they are prepared. Ideally, your enemy will waste effort and resources on responding to your threat rather than getting closer to reaching their objective, either physically or metaphorically. Seeking to have the initiative in battle is seeking to have an advantage. Every commander in battle seeks advantage over their adversary.
How is initiative sought by commanders? It should first be noted that commanders must be able to operate without the initiative. It is not a silver bullet to winning a battle. Commanders must fight-on with or without the initiative and never give up. Having the initiative allows you to create more advantageous situations for your force. As you are prepared you can act to surprise your enemy. That surprise creates another opportunity for your force.
The rhythm of operations
Operations have a cyclic nature based on the planning horizon, specified tasks or significant actions that force a new planning cycle. Each unit will have a rhythm within this cycle. A commander will need to regulate this rhythm to be able to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves and then maintain the initiative. Being able to regulate the rhythm comes down to firstly, understanding when the unit will culminate and planning for this as best as possible with minimal interruptions to continued operations (how quickly a unit can do this is governed by its tempo). Secondly, the ability to understand when to surge or slowdown in an operation in order to surprise the enemy (this may require a transition to the next sequence). Put another way, the commander must constantly choose the least disruptive point in time to resupply, give orders, conduct reconnaissance and reorientate towards the next objective, relative to the enemy situation, to make a threat that cannot be ignored. Balancing all of these things for the best possible outcome is regulating the rhythm.
By understanding both the rhythm and sequencing of an operation - relative to an enemy - a commander can best sense and direct his forces to seize opportunities and to protect them from untenable or wasteful options. It is pointless trying to seize the initiative with forces that are unsupplied and overmatched. A commander in this case will need to shield and husband his troops, shaping the enemy until opportunities present. Effective regulation of the rhythm is about weighing risk when an opportunity is presented and then deciding whether or not to change the sequence or maintain a course. Should I abandon my current course of action and transition to another sequence? Am I prepared enough to take this opportunity?
Tempo and its relation to initiative
Tempo is linked to initiative through preparedness - having greater tempo than the enemy is to prepare for battle quicker than the enemy regardless of where your force is in an operational cycle. When you are prepared you can make a threat that cannot be ignored, when it suits you. The commander’s tool box that supports generating a higher tempo than the enemy also enables faster transitions between each sequence of action. Superior tempo is relative to the enemy’s preparedness, not speed for speed's sake, and provides a force with an advantage when seeking the initiative which is why a force should strive to achieve superior tempo.
Doctrine suggests the ideal command environment for the generation of superior tempo is mission command. The pre-requisites for mission command are listed as doctrine, reliability, trust, understanding and risk. This is only achieved in any organisation through training. Then the commander’s tool box – the tangible actions commanders can take at all levels to ensure superior tempo – is the training of drills, operating procedures, effective personnel management and equipment husbandry.
Effective training as a team addresses the pre-requisites of mission command and allows it to flourish. The tools to get there, drills and standard operating procedures (SOPs), support the building of reliability, understanding between commanders, understanding of doctrine, and the acceptance of risk. Teams that have experienced many different situations, who have trained together, who have well practised drills, and develop an intuitive sense of anticipation of what their teammates are likely to do in a given circumstance. A culture that effectively manages personnel and equipment also contributes to generating tempo as its level of preparedness reduces the friction of transitioning between activities. To be able to generate superior tempo everyone in a team must contribute and understand the importance of their training and preparedness and how this effects tempo.
Influencing the sequence – capitalising on owning the initiative
'In operational art, the value of friendly action that immediately follows another friendly action increases.' 
A team's training and battle procedure will determine its relative tempo; they will only be as strong as their weakest link. It is the commander’s responsibility to influence the sequence and maintain the initiative. Once a commander has gained the initiative they must influence the sequence of actions ahead of them – that is to anticipate future activities and seek to control their order. This requires the commander to have a thorough understanding of their enemy through planning, to be constantly anticipating changes in a situation and anticipating enemy reaction, and to enable a smooth transition between the sequences.
The tools used to influence the sequence are branch and sequel plans and maintaining a reserve. Through thorough and detailed planning, the commander will understand their options before they begin an activity. As the activity unfolds, their understanding from planning and the situational awareness gained through action will inform them on what they believe the next sequence should be. Thinking ahead and planning for branches and sequels will allow them to prepare quicker once they understand the situation. As they already know the next sequence they can commence their enabling activities sooner than the enemy and be prepared. They are able to undertake reconnaissance and convey orders – re-orientating quicker than the enemy and controlling the sequence. Branch and sequel planning should provide the commander options but should not be too detailed - they provide flexibility and increase preparedness.
A commander’s reserve can increase the speed of transition if it remains untouched during an activity as it is already in a high state of preparedness, but has not been expended. It can commence the next sequence whilst the rest of the formation transitions; maintaining constant pressure on the enemy and one foot on the ground for the commander. The commander who can not only shape the sequence, but conduct a speedy transition through contingency plans and a reserve will truly achieve the principle of maintenance of momentum. The ability to transition between sequences will come down to the commander effectively anticipating the transition and regulating the rhythm.
Seizing opportunity serves to maintain the initiative. Seizing opportunity is also easier when one already has the initiative. When a commander has the initiative – i.e. a branch and/or sequel plan, has taken the necessary steps to transition, and their reserve is poised to exploit – it is far easier to capitalise on an opportunity.
Taking the initiative
The factors that help to maintain initiative – rhythm and sequence – have been discussed, but how do we win the initiative to begin with? Generally speaking the two options for taking the initiative are surprise and mass.
Surprising the enemy cannot be undervalued by commanders. Surprise leaves the enemy vulnerable to your actions and amplifies the effect of your action in the enemy’s mind. Surprise is achieved through an intellectual edge as it requires commanders to be cunning and outsmart the enemy. You can achieve surprise through attacking an enemy at an unexpected time (when the enemy is less prepared in time), unexpected direction (a direction that the enemy is less prepared to respond to), or unexpected force (the enemy expects tanks and receives something else). But even then, surprise only serves to create the opportunity to seize the initiative. The commander on the ground must be prepared to recognise that opportunity and then capitalise on it through his preparation.
Superior mass provides a force the initiative as it allows for that force to dictate the time and place of an engagement. A force superior in mass can chose were and when to give battle as its enemy cannot immediately beat it due to its size and firepower. Superior mass gives a force the initiative immediately, but it must then maintain the initiative and control the sequence.
The tools for taking the initiative are those things that allow the commander to create surprise or generate mass. The tools are spoiling attacks, counter reconnaissance, patrolling and the incorporation of deception into planning. Denying the enemy his sensors to shorten the time and space between detection and contact to achieve surprise or create depth between the enemy and your force to prepare.
Understanding when you have the initiative
Commanders must understand when they do or do not have the initiative. This is critical to being in control of their own destiny. Without this understanding it is difficult to weigh risk in taking fleeting opportunity and press harder against the enemy, or to recognise when your force is being dragged along by its nose. Understanding whether you have the initiative is not as clear cut as a methodology or a discernible indicator and warning. It requires commanders at all levels to discuss whether they believe they have the initiative and why they have formed their opinion. Is the enemy imposing friction on me? Are we constantly surprised or pinned down by the enemy? Is the enemy where we think they are? Is our plan working? Does the plan need to change? Is a transition required or approaching? All questions that commanders must constantly ask themselves and their subordinates to understand whether they honestly believe they have the initiative.
What practical things can a company commander do to seize and maintain the initiative?
There are many practical things a company commander can do to ensure their sub-unit can take the initiative when their opportunity arises. Firstly, enabling superior tempo is about battle procedure.
- Training drills and SOPs to reduce friction on the battle field and gain time for decision.
- Understanding systems such as battlefield management system (BMS) and the combat net radio (CNR) intimately to transmit orders faster and more effectively.
- Enforcing a culture of inspections to guarantee reliability.
- Personnel management to ensure readiness.
- Enforcing good equipment husbandry.
- Enhancing situational awareness through conducting rehearsal of concept (ROC) drills, war-gaming, simulation and effectively utilising BMS and reports and returns.
Gaining the initiative on the battle field requires training your subordinates to achieve surprise. They need to outthink the enemy using cunning to affect the enemy at an unexpected time or place. Alternatively, they need to buy time to prepare. To enable this they must understand the importance of lowering the enemy’s ability to detect them, and their intentions, through physical security measures such as patrolling, counter reconnaissance, harbour drills and Engagement Area development. They can also achieve this through the use of deception to misplace or confuse the enemy’s ability to detect, discriminate and analyse their intentions.
To maintain the initiative once it has been gained the commander must be constantly looking ahead – they must:
- Give actions-on in orders (contingencies for the current operation).
- Plan branches and sequels (his next move – come catastrophe or success).
- Constantly conduct reconnaissance with own forces and send requests for information (RFIs) to higher Headquarters.
- Maintain a reserve.
- Orders groups, reverse situation reports, command evaluations: commanders talk to their subordinates about whether they think the sub-unit has the initiative and seek recommendations.
The initiative is not something fleeting that we may snatch at blindly, or something we seek in desperation when our plan has gone wrong. Initiative is coveted on the battlefield and Australian Army doctrine is built to provide commanders with the initiative. Commanders should plan to seize the initiative from the time they take command of an organisation. It is far too late to talk about initiative when you arrive on exercise or when you insert into a theatre. Training subordinates and maintaining readiness to ensure superior tempo should take place every day. Equally important to training is educating personnel why their drills and SOPs are important and how they enable ownership of the initiative.
The commander’s own preparation will become obvious when they cannot control the sequence or understand their organisations rhythm. They must be relentless in driving training, preparation and proactive in planning. Moreover, they must inculcate cunning in their subordinate commanders and foster a culture of reflection that allows the organisation to gauge whether or not they have the initiative. The doctrine, training and tactics – the tools – for seizing and maintaining the initiative are built into our Army’s warfighting philosophy. The realisation of the intrinsic links between the initiative and Australian command philosophy exist. The linkages and their importance just need to be highlighted to enable professional discussion and greater understanding of the advantages of having the initiative.
Good article. Gaining and maintaining the initiative is obviously key to success on the battlefield. To me, there are two words above, which are crucial: surprise and cunning. Neither of these are involved in repetitive tactical drills, such as a defile crossing drill. The enemy capitalised on the repetitive nature of the drills we conducted in Vietnam. For example, anti-personnel mines were spread out, but the main goal was not to inflict a casualty … it was to destroy the casevac helicopter. The enemy knew the LZ requirements and that the ground would be checked; the mine was set in a tree and activated by wind turbulence. The plan worked. Another example was the disturbance to the surface of road. The enemy knew that a mini-team would be sent forward. The 'object' was rigged so that a bayonet used to prod the area would detonate the mine. It worked, a sapper was KIA. I’m sure that there are equivalent examples from Afghanistan… the only difference being the range of sight.
To my mind, the key is to “outthink the enemy”; this ties together the elements of surprise and cunning. Whenever you achieve surprise, you gain the initiative. Thinking dominated by repetitive drills will never achieve surprise.
Unfortunately in my experience during many operational tours, initiative seem like a dirty word. Soldiers and commanders seem adverse to taking initiative and the risk that comes with that.
In training we need to build in opportunity for commanders to develop experience in seizing opportunity. This requires them to be bold and take risk, but most importantly it requires a willingness to FAIL in front of subordinates, peers and seniors and this is where I see the major problem lies. Very rarely have I seen people in command take the risky (initiative) option over the SAFE option. Importantly personnel designing training activities need to build these options in and inculcate a safe environment that encourages the behaviour you discuss. We also need the ability re-run areas of training, if an opportunity for initiative was present and the commander did not take it - during training we should have the ability to rectify this at the time. Doing it in an AAR several hours or days later does not work. If that means pausing the exercise and re-running that portion so the commander can clearly identify the initiative opportunity and take it - that would be worth the effort, after all is that not what training is for?
You discuss commanders transitioning their force in superior tempo, which allows reorientation smoothly, while this is understandable and sounds great - how do we enable training in minor and major exercises to facilitate this on multiple differing levels? Then ensure our commanders learn these valuable lessons and are better prepared for future combat operations.
I assume we are using DATE or other synthetic simulation to expose commanders to these training opportunities, however we need to be careful as simulation can not replicate fear, fatigue, horror, demoralisation, thirst, hunger, irrationality and fog of war - when trying to understand rhythm and instilling mission command into our junior commanders.
Again thanks for the great read, and I agree with you completely that we need to look at this area with more clarity as this is the sort of training that will save lives in combat.
I appreciate your responses to my queries, objective and well considered. With regard to the understanding what the enemy is doing in relation to your SoM and being able to run benches and contingencies or (sequels) as we call them relies heavily on several factors.
1. Having a very good enemy force that understands the scenarios and are just not running around doing their own thing. They need to be linked into the scenario and the exercise controller so the objectives of the training can be met. This also allows the exercise controller to run a branch or contingency if required. Unfortunately it is difficult to maintain a good enemy training group from either internal to a unit of potentially a Brigade asset. We have looked at paid actors but they are expensive but very good. We have had great support from our Reserve community out of 13 BDE, which has had major benefits to our training.
2. Excellent communication with your enemy party and safety appointments allows greater flexibility to add complexity to ensure the commander is in their toes and if they need to change their plan, we as the organisers/controllers are able to facilitate this.
3. We touched on this prior but having the ability to re-run a pivotal part in a scenario that may have gone badly is crucial to experiential learning for all. At times you can let the scenario continue to see if commanders can dig themselves out of trouble but if they are unable this can cause 'training scars' so we always have an option for them to re-run and finish with a positive learning outcome. We can do this up to Sqn level, I agree this would be difficult to manage on a larger scale than that.
We use a Reality Based Training methodology to achieve this.
Just some more thoughts...