21 July 2016

Thoughts on Mission Command

Officer and leader in the United States Army. Father, athlete, student, and amateur beer taster. Committed to education and expanding the Profession of Arms.

The ability to employ Mission Command is essential as our Army shifts towards future operating environments, yet it remains a highly debated topic within the profession. Individuals provide interpretations of the philosophy rooted in training and combat experiences. Younger officers understand mission command in the context of decentralized operations and latitude for initiative. They have scar tissue from micromanagement as some Brigade and Division level leaders believed their perspective through the lens of a UAV was better than the view from the ground. More seasoned (older) officers appreciate initiative, but also understand the complexity of combined-arms maneuver and inherent requirement for control. To further complicate the matter a new generation of Soldiers, the millenials, provide further diversity in interpretation. Exploiting the initiative is essential to success in any future model; tactical victory requires an understanding of the art of mission command and its relationship to the science of control. This article, based on my experience as a company grade officer in combat and a field grade officer in training, focuses on applied principles of mission command. These universal principles are the essence of an agile force proceeding into the unknown and unknowable of future conflict.

Defining Mission Command. Here is a short overview of mission command directly from Army Doctrine (ADRP 6–0) for any reader unfamiliar with the philosophy:
“The mission command philosophy helps commanders counter the uncertainty of operations by reducing the amount of certainty needed to act. Commanders understand that some decisions must be made quickly and are better made at the point of action. Mission command is based on mutual trust and a shared understanding and purpose between commanders, subordinates, staffs, and unified action partners. It requires every Soldier to be prepared to assume responsibility, maintain unity of effort, take prudent action, and act resourcefully within the commander’s intent.”

Mission Command in Counterinsurgency. When I first grasped Mission Command as a doctrinal principle, I perceived the shift from command and control as one out of necessity. Like many of my peers, I spent the majority of my company grade years in Iraq and Afghanistan. This experience culminated as the commander of Angel Company, 3–187 Infantry in eastern Afghanistan. We were a pre-surge brigade, responsible for an expansive area of operations. My Company, operating out of three combat outposts, was responsible for security in six Afghan districts. Our assigned tasks were simply daunting. Security was our focus, but we also spent significant energy expanding the professionalism of partnered Afghan Army and Police Forces. No one in the company had expertise in governance, yet we advised district level government leaders and managed funding for projects to improve infrastructure. At times, our focus shifted completely to destruction of enemy forces through maneuver. In retrospect, our actions truly maximized the agility of junior leaders. As a company commander I learned an interesting paradox of mission command — when my Soldiers lives were on the line, I felt the urge to provide more control in an attempt to reduce the threat of injury or death. In reality, more control would likely have lead to lethargic and unresponsive forces, hindered by the requirement to “ask dad” before seizing the initiative.

Applied Principles

Build Cohesive Teams Through Mutual Trust: I didn’t do many things well as a company commander, but I truly trusted my subordinates. Trust is a relationship between subordinates, leaders, and peers. We established this relationship during a tough training cycle and expanded it over months in combat. Given the distributed nature of the force, my leaders conducted numerous daily partnered patrols at the squad level. The leaders of our organization trusted Staff Sergeants with representing America and making critical decisions in support of our objectives. Though mistakes happened, these leaders never let us down. One further note on trust — this was absolutely not a blanket relationship across the company. The trust we shared was based on demonstrated performance (subordinate and leader). There were some squads and platoons I trusted more, and others who required more oversight and control.

Accept Prudent Risk: In Afghanistan, my battalion commander assumed a lot of risk by leaving me, the Leroy Jenkins of the peer group, alone and unafraid on the battlefield. To gain initiative he provided clear intent, used mission orders, and underwrote the risk associated with our operations. Without his support, I would have spent a significant amount more time over-analyzing and second guessing myself rather than weighing the options and acting. My commander’s acceptance of risk paved the way for action within his intent.

Mission Command in Decisive Action. Fast forward a few years. My next major lesson in mission command occurred at the National Training Center where I served as the brigade operations officer for 2–2 SBCT. The enemy I was accustom to had been replaced by a complex web of military, criminal, and insurgent forces. The operations were fast, but In essence still resembled the fighting I was accustomed to in Iraq and Afghanistan. The brigade commander trusted the battalion commanders, but there was a significant amount more coordination required to achieve effects in this environment. To mass, we had to bring two battalions together at the decisive point. The enemy’s tempo was relentless; we build flexibility into our plan with basic mission orders and enough common graphic control measures to rapidly shift the plan. Though the battles were inherently different than what I’d experienced in COIN, the doctrinal principles of mission command still applied.

Applied Principles

Create Shared Understanding: At the National Training Center there was no substitute for the shared understanding battalion commanders provided the formation. Our climate revolved around effective crosstalk and systems were build around commander’s dialogue. By the end of training, we immediately understood necessity or severity through the inflection of a commander’s voice on the radio.

Exercise Disciplined Initiative: A common fallacy among junior officers is that Decisive Action stifles the ability for initiative. Though some operations require more control, there are significantly more opportunities to gain and maintain the initiative, often with little to go on outside of commander’s intent. Though my Brigade Commander’s Intent shifted dependent on mission set, it always included one imperative — seize the next piece of key terrain. When in doubt, get yourself into complex terrain and own it.

The Millenials. I won’t belabor the discussion of millenials, especially given an exceptionally awesome article provided by Drew @themilitaryleader (here)

Applied Principle

Use Mission Orders: Experience with millenials proves their performance is maximized when they understand the “why,” not a prescribed “what” to govern action. Maximize freedom of action through intent based orders. The “why” expressed in commander’s intent is the most essential component to mission command. Subordinates can only exploit the initiative when they understand the purpose. Articulate purpose in the context of synchronizing effects to reach the end state.

Mission command is certainly not a new idea, however it can be interpreted through the lens of infinitely diverse leaders. The guiding principles of mission command are universal for success in combat. These principles can be applied in varied terrain, against any threat, with simple adjustments based on the variables described in this article.

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