Sub-Tactical General

 By Col. Harsh Vardhan Singh

It was circa 2007, the military intelligentsia was grappling with the aftershocks of Op Iraqi Freedom and Israel-Lebanon War of 2006, and yours truly on return from Singapore was asked to submit a dissertation for an MSc degree from Madras University; the perks of having done Staff College abroad. I set out providing an Indian context to a concept of “Strategic Junior Leader” a construct defined by General Charles Krulak of USMC. The common refrain of peer review on my idea was “OXYMORON”. Well, it has taken 13 years for me to hazard another “OXYMORON” of ‘Sub-tactical General’. The datum line for this piece is the famous freeze-frame of US President Obama viewing live visuals of Op Neptune Spear at White House (Image-1). A mantra thereafter became of beaming back real-time visuals to highest HQ possible. A famous adage which goes around in the military circles to prevent the proliferation of information is ‘information is needed to know and you don’t need to know’, while most of the time this tag line is used in a Top-Down schema but maybe the time has arrived that it may have to be applied the other way round too.

Image-1: President Obama : Operation Neptune Spear

In The Face of Battle, John Keegan writes how “the personal bond between leader and follower lies at the root of all explanations of what does and does not happen in battle.[1] Indian history is replete with leaders leading from the front and fighting as the spearhead of their forces; Maharana Pratap, Chatrapati Shivaji, and Rani Laxmi Bai to name a few. With the rise of each new generation of communication technology, these connections between soldiers in the field and those who give them orders grew distanced. Yet, the very same technologies also pushed a trend “towards centralization of command, and thus towards micromanagement.[2]” For instance, when the telegraph was introduced during the Crimean War (1853–56), generals back in England figured out that they could send daily plans to the front lines in Russia. It has recently happened in India too, with the famous blockbuster movie Uri mixing fact and fiction to serve a similar concoction for the common man.

New technologies, almost science-fiction-like in their capabilities, are being introduced. (The clamor for drone swarms, counter-drone technology, autonomous vehicles) Yet, as in World War I and the ensuing interwar years, the new technologies are not “lifting the fog of war”, as some of the acolytes of network-centric warfare would have it. Rather, in everything from doctrine to the laws of war, they are presenting more questions than we can answer. Issues of leadership offer just one example of the ripple effect now underway. The combination of networked connections and unmanned systems enables modern commanders as never before, shrinking spatial separation and also a temporal lag of decision taken to decision executed and viewed too.

New technologies have certainly enabled a powerful revolution to occur in our capabilities, creating a strange new world where science fiction is fast becoming battlefield reality. But although commanders are empowered as never before, the new technologies have also enabled the old trends of command interference, even taking them to new extremes of micromanagement. Too frequently, generals at a distance use technology to insert themselves into matters formerly handled by those on the scene and at ranks several layers of command below them.

General Charles Krulak described the rise of “strategic corporal”—how technology had put far more destructive power (and thus influence over strategic outcomes) into the hands of younger, more junior leaders. But what I am alluding to is the inverse, what one call the “sub-tactical general.” Technology may have helped move senior leaders off the actual battlefield, but now it allows them to become more involved in the real-time fighting of war. Unfortunately, the thin line between timely intervention and micromanagement is blurring with technology. More and more frequently, generals insert themselves into situations inappropriately and their leadership role mutates to command interference.

The fact that a general now can use a “long screwdriver” doesn’t mean he should.  Besides the frustrations that such micromanagement brings subordinates, there is also the question of the appropriate division of effort in command. Captains, majors, and colonels, whom they cut out of the chain cannot in converse, assume responsibility for the strategic and policy questions that the generals would have wrestled with instead. Generals have spent their entire professional lives preparing for such tactical battles and usually look back on their days of sub-unit and unit command as the best part of their careers and relapse to that level of command is ‘Comfort Zone’. Rather than rely on the judgment of highly trained officers on the ground, generals increasingly want to manage the situation for themselves.

Ultimately, these problems combine to add another new problem. Or, rather, they create a new wrinkle on a venerable truism of war. As Napoléon once said, “One bad general is better than two good ones[3].” A pyramid represents the traditional concept of a military operation, aided by the new technologies, strategic and operational commanders who usurp authority from sub-tactical commanders are erasing this structure from above. Sub-unit and Units get “pulled in many directions because you are trying to match and meet aspirations of commanders at varied levels during operations. The “flattening of the chain of command,” summed up retired lieutenant general William Odom, causes “constipated communication channels” and “diarrhea of the email” that distracts troops from the mission at hand.[4] While a firefight rages or contact is on staff at higher levels would call all the way down because they can get information and oft make suggestions. In the midst of chaos, staff officers seek information that they could use to spice their own briefing, pestering leaders in combat for details that they presume their bosses would want to know and also earn some brownie points.

The worry is what happens with our generation and the next. What happens when the company commander or commanding officer, who becomes a general. He’ll be making the decisions, but not have any experience. Where this trend will end, no one is certain yet. Some worry that the ability to reach into the battlefield has started to even tempt those outside the military. NSA in the future may say ‘Why do we need these links in the chain of command’?” Clearly, twenty-first-century generals need to bring certain skills to increasingly networked wars in order to be successful. New technologies are creating an environment “where the strategic, operational, tactical, and sub-tactical levels of war can at times be so compressed as to appear virtually as a single function[5].”  Leaders who have what Carl von Clausewitz called the coup d’œil[6] “eye of command,” who can find the right balance, of having a sense of what is going on at all levels of war and making the appropriate decisions at the right levels. Developing this skill will not be easy. General Colin Powell had called it ‘Paralysis by Analysis[7]’ twenty-first-century generals fighting with drones will also have to cultivate the ability to manage their inboxes.

Generals have the entire battle at their fingertips; they can watch nearly every action and make every minute decision. But they still do not have an infinite amount of time. At some point, the leader has to turn matters over to subordinates. Generals who can figure out when to intervene, when to delegate, and when to empower junior troops to act with initiative will enjoy much more success than those who don’t trust their force to do anything without them. Striking this balance will become the essence of strategic leadership. Leaders must also focus on developing the mental flexibility needed to guide a “learning organization” that adapts to changing circumstances in something beyond just a top-down manner[8].

Although a general may no longer have to be as fit as a fighter, new technologies do impose certain physical requirements that commanders must cultivate. For one thing, generals should develop skills of using the laptop, or its successor, to be a natural extension of his mind, as familiar as the telephone, map, and binoculars. Stamina and endurance, not strength matters. Command has always been taxing, but it is now becoming a round-the-clock job, no matter the commander’s physical location. Thus, generals now need the physical and psychological endurance of a young doctor on call in the emergency room during the COVID pandemic.


[1] John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Viking Press, 1976), pg 114.

[2] Chris Hables Gray, Postmodern War: The New Politics of Conflict (New York: Guilford Press, 1997), pg 274.

[3] accessed on 05 Apr 2020.

[4] Quoted in Barry Rosenberg, “Technology and Leadership,” Armed Forces Journal, 18 Jul 07, pg 18, accessed on 05 Apr 2020..

[5] Richard A. Chilcoat, “The ‘Fourth’ Army War College: Preparing Strategic Leaders for the Next Century,” Parameters 25, no. 4 (Winter 1995–96), http://www.carlisle accessed on 04 Apr 2020.

[6] Maj DJ Caraccilo and Maj JL Pothin, Coup d’oeil: The Commander’s Intuition in ClausewitzianTerms, accessed on 04 Apr 2020.

[7] accessed on 05 Apr 2020.

[8] Janine Davidson, “Learning to Lift the Fog of Peace: How Americans Learned to Fight Modern War”, University of Michigan Press, 03-Sep-2010 pg 101.