The Atrophy of Mission Command | Proceedings | #education | #technology | #training

Today’s joint force is not prepared to win a peer conflict in a communications-denied environment. Centralized decision-making, compounded by advances in global real-time communication, has eliminated the art of mission command from day-to-day practice across most of the force. What was once the strength of the military (unit-level commanders executing commander’s intent with little signal) is becoming a lost skill. A top-down cultural revolution is needed to bring mission command back to the joint force.

The Concept of Mission Command

Mission command is not new to the U.S. military. Although it was not yet codified in doctrine, during the far-flung actions of World War II, mission command enabled subordinate commanders to translate the intent of leaders such as Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Dwight Eisenhower into actions against the enemy. When effectively implemented, it gave subordinate commanders more ownership of their actions, allowed for greater flexibility in complex and rapidly evolving situations, encouraged initiative and creativity, and boosted morale.1 Mission command continued through the Vietnam War, though it remained absent in doctrine. The U.S. Army first published doctrine describing mission command in its 1982 Field Manual.2

Today, mission command appears in numerous U.S. military doctrine and policy statements, but in practice, it has been eroded by the rapid development of satellite, electronic, and digital communications.3 Higher levels of the chain of command now have near real-time access to the same information as the unit executing a mission at the tactical level.

This shift unintentionally increased the appetite for information at the headquarters level. Combined with more and more networked sensors and weapon systems, it has led to a joint force that is able to share information, target adversaries, and deliver lethal fires faster and more precisely than ever. However, it also has taken control from junior commanders and placed it almost exclusively in the hands of flag and general officers and their staffs.

During the war on terror, the rules of engagement and regulations surrounding strike operations were extensive, particularly for offensive strikes. As a result, the United States relied on instantaneous communications for iterative tasking and more centralized control of operations. This allowed missions to be adjusted as required based on operational and strategic risk. Senior-level leaders could weigh in on tactical- and operational-level decisions with potentially strategic impacts.

An overreliance on connectivity, however, has eroded mission command. For example, the common operational picture (COP), while a useful tool, has supplanted the ship’s transit plan and movement report as the means to track ship movements. If a ship drops out of the COP, it will be immediately queried by fleet headquarters and required to provide hourly or half-hourly position, course, and speed reports, which are manually entered into the COP, risking inaccuracies and providing a track that is up to 60 minutes behind. The traditional transit plans and movement reports (which still are required) should suffice, with the only reason to communicate with fleet headquarters being a deviation from the planned movement.

Multiple reporting paths can increase the risk of an adversary intercepting position reports, preventing the reports from reaching fleet headquarters, or “spoofing” reports to provide erroneous position information. The joint force must relearn how to track units in the field or at sea without instantaneous communication, and fleet commanders must trust their commanding officers to execute approved plans without constant oversight.

The submarine force operates for long periods with no communication with higher headquarters. Doctrine and operational orders are designed for stealth, and officers are taught to develop clear commander’s intent. Credit: U.S. Navy (Jonathan Nelson)

Some elements of the joint force still operate with a high level of autonomy. The submarine force, for example, operates for long periods with no communication with higher headquarters. Doctrine and operational orders are designed for stealth, and submarine officers are taught to develop clear commander’s intent while trusting subordinates do their jobs. Prospective commanding and executive officers must pass an intensive tactical command course that specifically tests their ability to develop clear direction to their crews while being able to execute higher commander’s intent under simulated combat scenarios.

These processes are not perfect, but the submarine force culture develops officers with the temperament and decision-making skills to perform in a mission command, decision-rich tactical environment.

In the wars of the future, direct sustained communications could be limited. Distributed operations will enable U.S. forces to remain operationally unpredictable, but subordinate leaders will need clear commander’s intent and the latitude to make difficult decisions to capture and maintain the initiative.

War of the Future – the Gaps

Throughout the counterterrorism years, the United States generally was able to execute operations while satiating higher headquarters’ hunger for information and centralized control. Any future peer-competitor conflict likely will be fought at a larger scale against more capable combatants, which will place greater demands on the command-and-control (C2) system. Imagine target engagement requests multiplied by a factor of a hundred. The sheer volume would overload higher headquarters and cause bottlenecks in the decision-making timeline.

The C2 picture is even worse for time-sensitive raids or clearance operations in a contested environment in which communication may be degraded or denied. In a great power conflict, U.S. adversaries will possess and employ—and proliferate to proxy forces—high-end communication-denial equipment, disrupting an already technologically dependent joint force.4 The Department of Defense’s answer is the cloud-like Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) network, but more technologically dependent decision-making does not address an operating environment in which an enemy could deny U.S. forces the use of communication systems.

The Department of Defense is developing the Joint All Domain Command and Control network to provide access to data and information, but it does not account for an enemy able to deny U.S. forces the use of communication systems. Credit: U.S. Air Force

On a future battlefield, the joint force must be able to execute orders without signal, which means the entire chain of command must be proficient and willing to execute mission command. This will demand a top-to-bottom change in the way the joint force plans, trains for, and executes combat. Mission command also will demand a reexamination of the way the joint force educates, promotes, and develops its people.

Senior military leaders already are signaling the need for a cultural shift toward mission command. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley recently stated that, in the future, “leaders on the battlefield could expect to be out of contact with their own leadership for significant periods of time. Those officers would still need to accomplish their commander’s objectives, even when the conditions on the battlefield change and they are unable to send word up the chain of command.”5 General Milley specifically stated, “We are going to have to empower [and] decentralize leadership to make decisions and achieve battlefield effects in a widely dispersed environment.”6

Technology or JADC2 alone will not mitigate the need for effective mission command. If technology is not the solution, then it must be a human solution. It will take significant leadership from the top and throughout the ranks to change the culture of the services to practice and promote mission command. Commanders must communicate clear intent, trust subordinates to execute their orders, and underwrite the risks associated with powering decisions down to the lowest levels possible. There will be mistakes, but those are mitigated through education, training, repetition, and building trust before U.S. forces ever reach the battlefield.


Predeployment training that challenges both staffs and operational units to execute in communication-denied environments will expose mistakes on both ends of the chain of command. This is necessary work to build trust and sharpen the formulation, communication, and implementation of commander’s intent—but training is not the only area that requires overhaul. Continual education and mentoring of military leaders, organizational design that supports the tactical-level unit commander, and personnel management policies that reward leaders who demonstrate the qualities required to execute mission command all will be required for the military to embrace and reinvigorate mission command.

The transition will be difficult and must target all aspects of force and personnel development. Doctrine, training, assessment and selection, promotion, individual and unit-level training, and professional education must emphasize and reward mission command. Repetition in training will build trust between commanders and lower echelons and teach staffs to produce executable commander’s intent and rules of engagement. Exercises will build unit proficiency in decentralized command.

In addition, the services’ personnel systems need to examine and update their criteria for assigning officers to command, taking a closer look at traits favorable to mission command. In this regard, the submarine force offers a model.

Mission command is vital to mission success in a communication-degraded or -denied environment and must be taught at the beginning of an officer’s career and reinforced at every opportunity—from accession sources to mid-career joint professional military education, to flag and general officer-level Capstone courses. One example of a way to enforce this cultural change is the Army’s new Athena Leadership Self-Development tool. It could be adapted to provide feedback throughout an officer’s career to encourage mission command attributes. The Battalion Commanders Assessment Program and Colonels Command Assessment Program also could be adjusted to select future leaders who promote and galvanize decentralized leadership through clear guidance. These types of changes can begin to institutionalize mission command practices.

In addition to growing and grooming leaders who have a deep understanding of mission command, the military must practice operations in austere communications environments. Any exercise simulating combat with a near-peer adversary that does not include at least a major degradation in connectivity goes against the long-standing notion of train like you fight. Without rigorous, repetitive drilling, commanders will not be able to function without the instantaneous communications they have enjoyed in recent conflicts.

The nature of warfare, with its confusion, friction, and rapidly evolving situations, lends itself to mission command—today just as it has in the past. While the joint force needs advanced C2 systems to counter peer and near-peer adversaries, it also must understand those systems are becoming increasingly vulnerable and anticipate their degradation or outright loss. That challenge can be mitigated by well-trained, competent, and confident subordinates executing commander’s intent based on the situation in front of them. By implementing changes in professional military education, adjusting training practices, continuing to refine talent management and leadership selection, and inculcating a cultural shift toward delegation of authority and mission command, the military can better prepare leaders for future conflicts.

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