Mission Command

We’ve touched a couple times in the Army’s latest capstone doctrine publication, ADP 3.0.  Mostly we’ve discussed the Army’s vision of a future hybrid battlefield that simultaneously encompasses high intensity force on force mechanized warfare, security operations in the vein of COIN, and stability operations providing assistance to host nation security forces and civic institutions.

The other half of ADP 3.0 describes HOW the Army intends to cope with that difficult environment- Mission Orders.

Mission Orders aren’t a new concept to the Army. They’ve been the doctrinal standard since long before I joined up back in the 80s. Basically, Mission Orders is the concept of telling a subordinate what to do and why, without telling him how to do it.  For instance, a battalion commander may assign one of his subordinate companies the mission to seize a hilltop to deny the enemy the chance to attack the main body of the battalion as it passes through a valley. Other than broad constraints as to timing and boundaries, the exact scheme of maneuver and plan of attack are up to the subordinate company commander.

To be honest, to a goodly extent, the concept of mission orders has also been honored more in the breach, especially in this age of high bandwidth for information. It’s extremely tempting for a commander to use that bandwidth to micromanage. That’s hardly a new problem. How many times have we read about company commanders on the ground in Vietnam being directed by the battalion commander overhead in a Huey? But as the Chairman of the JCS notes in his guidance below, the illusion of perfect clarity is just that, an illusion. Further, in a perfect world, that same battalion commander would be focusing his energies on achieving the mission his higher commander has assigned him, and endeavoring to “see the battlefield,” synchronize all his units, ensure the whole of his available combat power is being utilized,  and begin to envision the next phase of operations.

The Chairman, under the rubric of Joint Force 2020, which is the current template under which the JCS sees operations conducted in the near term future, talks in more depth about what Mission Orders are, and how to implement them across the force. I’ll say this, it’s an easy sale to the Army and the Marines, for whom this type of operating environment has long been the norm, even if imperfectly implemented. The Navy and especially the Air Force seem to have a fascination with centralized control. In the Navy’s case, that centralized control is at a fairly low level.

But the Air Force,  having some valid reasons for their centralization, is loathe to embrace the concept of allowing subordinates a whole lot of latitude. In a theater of operations, all Air Force missions are controlled by the Air Tasking Order, which is centrally planned every 24 hours  by the Air Component Commander of a theater command (typically a two or three star Air Force General). I’m not even sure it’s technically possible to break that paradigm. On the other hand, that central level of control allows the Air Force to shift emphasis from one area to another very rapidly (well, in 24 to 48 hours in a theater wide sense). For instance, in Desert Storm, when the issue of Iraqi Scuds raining down on Saudi Arabia and Israel became troublesome, the Air Force was able to mount a large number of sorties dedicated to the Great Scud Hunt (the effectiveness of that was another matter, but the point is, they reacted quickly).

Lastly, I want to examine the concept of a commander’s intent briefly. In popular culture, it’s routinely portrayed that soldiers in the Army are treated as automatons that cannot question their orders. And at certain levels, that’s somewhat true. In the squad and platoon level, in the middle of a firefight, there’s not a whole lot of spare time to devote to the philosophical questions about combat drills. But before leaving the wire, it’s expected that soldiers question orders. Not as skeptics or cynics, but to ensure they know what it is they’re striving to achieve. And a commander has an obligation to pass on his intent in the clearest possible matter. Like I said above, the commander has to tell you clearly what it is he wants you to do, and more importantly, why he needs that done.  In my hypothetical above about a company commander seizing a hilltop, let’s suppose he attacks that hilltop, and finds it unoccupied by the enemy. Technically, he’s achieved his mission. But if he notices that the enemy is on the next hilltop over, and in a position to attack the battalion in he flank, he certainly hasn’t achieved his commander’s intent, now has he? If both levels of leadership have properly embraced the philosophy of Mission Order, our intrepid company commander will at a minimum alert his superior, and ideally he would  mount a hasty attack against that second hilltop, to free up the valley for the battalion movement. That latitude to exercise the initiative to fulfill the commander’s intent is at the heart of the Mission Order concept.



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1 thought on “Mission Command”

  1. In my opinion, the primary cause of micro-management is that we rarely conduct operations in which all forces are simultaneously committed, leaving commanders the “opportunity” to battle-field circulate with/over those subordinates that are in contact to the exclusion of those that are not in contact. We do expect leaders to be “with the main effort” but must leave latitude for subordinates to fight their fight, as well as keeping their brains attuned to the entirety of the battlefield. If there is not a rest-of-the-battlefield, well the commander may do too much, and get comfortable with it. As an instructor (which my last day was FRI), I talked to the students about providing information to commanders. It is becoming more and more difficult for staffs to distill / analyze the sheer volume of information available into useful analysis, and it is also, trend-wise, becoming more difficult for commanders to make decisions rapidly from locations such as their combat vehicle because they are only receiving limited info from their eyes and radio instead of by the ton from a variety of (what are now called) mission-command systems.
    The primary point in “mission command” as opposed to “command and control” is that leaders are supposed to be more involved in leading the process, and giving key guidance beforehand and throughout the planning process, and is particularly charged with leading the Understand, Visualize, Describe, Direct, and Lead portions of the process. Theoretically, last year a commander could do nothing and still be a trained unit, while now he must be more engaged with the staff and planning as well as getting out on the battlefield. In my opinion, this has come about because of the lesser experience of today’s field grade officers, which necessitates greater command input (which ironically can lead to micromanagement of the staff planning process, otherwise known as “My Decision, My Plan” as opposed to Military Decision Making Process. Okay, i have to pack for my move now.

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