Concerning command during combat operations, the military claims it operates under mission-type orders; that is, the senior commander says my intent is to do so-and-so, and leaves execution to the junior commanders on the battlefield. In theory, the staffs at higher headquarters provide instantaneous information and firepower support to dispersed small units at sea, in the air or on the ground. The junior commanders of these small units then make the critical decisions at the point of the engagements.
Indeed, the U.S. military is keenly aware that many future battles must be conducted without electronic emissions; that is, forward-based units will receive data, but not expose their locations by communicating back to home base. This means allowing junior commanders to make strategic decisions, as Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance did at the decisive Battle of Midway seven decades ago. After mulling his decision for less than one minute, Spruance ordered every plane available in his task force—many with half-empty fuel tanks—to take off, search for and attack the Japanese fleet. One 40 year-old lieutenant commander ordered his squadron to continue across the red line beyond which there was not enough fuel to return.
That was 75 years ago. Would any rear admiral or squadron commander have that authority today? The answer is no. In practice, our military has been doing the opposite. Those at the very top—meaning the commander-in-chief and his trusted political staff in the White House—make the critical war-fighting decisions. Even rules of engagement are decided inside the White House, causing two successive Secretaries of Defense—Gates and Panetta—to voice their frustration.
Return of another Vietnam syndrome
Von Moltke said that no plan survives contact with the enemy. This is as true for disaster response as for a military campaign. Von Moltke's solution was to create an army whose officers could improvise when faced with the unexpected. But improvisation is career suicide when the media is second guessing every step of the process.
Responding to the Monday morning quarterbacks sucks up time, attention, and critical resources. At the tip of the spear, all of these are scarce.