These systems are robust, rugged, and relatively simple, requiring only minimal operator training. Radios remain the backbone of tactical communications though they are relatively slower and prone to net congestion.
The Battalion-sized Opposing Force (OPFOR) habitually defeats formations four to six times larger. Units consistently fail to manage transitions, often completely losing control of subordinate units as they struggle to maintain both analog and digital systems, often while moving.
In operations where Design of Digital Systems has not been executed well, Digital MCS exacerbate the challenge. Because they are promoted as being so convenient, units fail to back up the digital COP with an analog system, losing all sense of the battlefield while moving.
Moreover, poorly designed Digital systems incentivize bad habits by playing to our biases, telling us that we have "situational awareness" when in fact we only have a small picture of our own forces and virtually none of the enemy Icons convey authority, allowing CPs to declare "Situational Awareness" when we only know the positions of our own forces (and then only platforms, not people). As a result, “units may not report critical information such as friendly locations and enemy actions via the radio. Consequently, the digital COP gives a false sense of security when clearing ground for fire Digital MCS used outside after a tent collapse at JRTC.
Even if achievable, Information Dominance was always a misleading goal because merely possessing information “is not actually an indication of superiority over an adversary; information is not so much an end in itself as one means among others.” Developing a battlefield picture is fundamentally inductive: we see only bits of the enemy. We must synthesize the enemy’s intentions from composite pieces or actions, working out the details. Digital MCS, on the contrary, shows a deductive world, with a simple picture. This framing restricts our conceptual ability to understand the enemy’s capacity and intentions.
When aggregated, small frustrations and faulty processes mean Digital MCS inhibit the Art of Mission Command. Simpler is better. A well-constructed mission order, developed to echo the commander's intent, remains the best method to coordinate unit actions. A CPOF briefing is hardly better than a PowerPoint slide deck; it is often worse.
Counter-intuitively, simpler systems and processes are not necessarily easier. It takes substantial effort and training to write concise orders with clear guidance and graphics. Poorly designed Digital systems confound this effort by introducing extra friction; units become focused on the system and not the problem.
JRTC Observer/Controller-Trailers report that “mission briefs take several hours to build… The focus becomes updating slides instead of developing executable plans that consider contingencies and include rehearsals. ”Rather than the mission at hand; we end up fighting our systems rather than the problem or enemy, “cutting our feet to fit the shoes” of mandatory systems.
The real discipline required in Mission Command is for leaders to resist the urge to reach down and, instead, focus on making good decisions when the next event is encountered. Without substantial patience and discipline, Digital MCS can foster a culture of micromanagement. It falls to training, teamwork, and leadership to create resilient organizations ready for battlefield stress.
Continuing to force units to use systems at odds with Mission Command principles without Solid Design of Digital Systems can be problematic. Well-trained units discipline their use of systems to protect the initiative of soldiers closest to the problem to avoid the temptation of unnecessarily applying increase control of ‘reaching down’ just because they have the tools to do so.
How do we respond to a battlefield where human error and uncertainty combine with non-linear, complex systems to create chaos? the answer lies in the principles of Mission Command, particularly “building teams through mutual trust” and “creating shared understanding.”
Mission Command relies on acceptance of an imperfect, unclear world and trust between and within units Computers cannot replicate this implicit trust — and may often destroy it.
We must acknowledge the reality of chaotic battlefields. Training must require leaders to build teams and give clear guidance to enable subordinate action. In designing solid future Digital Systems, we must continually “rematch our behavioral/physical orientation with the changing world so that we can continue to thrive and grow in it.”
It’s important for leaders examine a “problem in depth, from multiple points of view,” Without using a valid decision-making process, you will likely fall into the trap of deciding on first answer that comes to mind.
“If you take good people and good ideas and match them with bad processes, the bad processes will win 9 out of 10 times.”
Training must include complex environments which will force leaders to make choices with imperfect information and vague instructions, a common result unless the Digital Systems Design has demonstrated capability to improve Mission Command.
Practically, units cannot expect to use one system in garrison and another in the field. The daily methods, routines, and norms of communication and staff work should not change drastically when during field training.
Creating this “Digital System” of standardized actions and communication must be the primary focus on commanders and staffs. Commanders create and sustain shared understanding through collaboration and dialogue within their organizations to facilitate good decision-making and unity of effort.
Sometimes it a good idea to use digital systems to augment, not replace this process.
Historically units developed situational awareness through effective staff work (collecting information and projecting requirements), battlefield reports (to see things first-hand, convey guidance, and receive feedback from subordinates), and high-quality liaison officers.
By embracing Mission Command Principles, and not relying only on Digital Systems, the Services can relearn this method of command, enabling units to better see themselves and the enemy.
Different views on command doctrine include command by direction, command by planning, and command by influence. Command by direction entails a commander present on the battlefield directing action. The downside is the commander must make all decisions personally. Command by planning, conversely, requires diligent foresight in preparation and rigorous discipline in execution, as command is mostly exercised through written orders.
The downside here is that plans can frequently be inflexible — and none will survive the first shot. Command by influence occurs where a commander sets a command climate and then trains and selects subordinates, whom the commander trusts to act on their own. This leaves the commander to determine priorities and establish intent, delineating the context within which subordinates are empowered to act.
The drawback to command by influence is that subordinates may or may not live up to expectations, either through negligence or accident, and the commander cedes direct or predetermined control. Mission command, however, is a construct combining aspects of each of these types: providing just enough direction, ceding just enough control, and building flexibility into plans.
The military defines command and control in several different ways. To take one example, a directive defines command as “the exercise of authority,” but stipulates dynamics inherent in control as “feedback about the effects of the action taken.” Excepting limited cases, command and control for majority of the military should be thought of as “command and feedback.” This definition is particularly useful for the military as it adopts mission command since it reflects the preexisting mission command tradition within the force.
Mission Command, Command and Control, and Command and Feedback
Mission command is not command and control. Mission command is a construct about how command and control should be accomplished. It was developed over centuries to enable the commander to command his or her forces while preserving the ability of subordinate commanders to react to unforeseen circumstances induced by the chaos of war, all while gaining and maintaining tempo. It rests on two pillars: mission-type orders and commander’s intent. Mission-type orders tell a subordinate what to do but allow the subordinate space to decide how to do it. Commander’s intent informs the subordinate about the desired end state so that, when decisions are made about how to accomplish the mission, the subordinate can align his or her actions within or with the bigger picture.
Mission command’s flexibility of action during execution accounts for complexity and uncertainty while preventing the commander from being overloaded with constant decision-making. Subordinate commanders react to immediate opportunities or threats — such as fires being extinguished — without having to wait for decisions from on high. Lastly, it is more resilient: If communications are disrupted or key personnel are unavailable, commanders have enough information to act without the need to wait for reestablished communications.
Military has been pursuing the institutionalization of this construct across the services. This construct explains that the purpose of adopting mission command is to generate advantageous speed relative to opposing forces, which is tempo. But the execution of effective mission command also rests on problems of knowledge.
The commander must understand the problem … constantly assess the process … [and] understand the intent of the mission given to him.” That understanding must be communicated to subordinates to create a “shared context and understanding implicit and intuitive between hierarchical and lateral echelons of command, enabling decentralized and distributed formations to perform as if they were centrally coordinated.”
While the purpose is to generate a higher operational tempo than the opponent, the core of the problem is organizational: How does the military understand the situation and share that understanding across time, space, and its forces? This is the “feedback” portion of command and control.
Mission command is a derivative of mission tactics, but is not a kind of “disciplined disobedience,” complete unbounded freedom of action, nor another name for centralized planning and decentralized execution, though it may be a component thereof. The commander’s intent establishes the context, delimiting what is and is not within the bounds of possible actions, therefore acting as both a limitation and an enabler. Mission command fosters the “command and feedback” of the definition above, as opposed to control measures typified by formulaic report formats, and constant requests for updates from subordinate commanders.
Properly executed, mission command is a combination of both command by direction and command by influence, with command by planning reserved for preparation. It does not seek to eliminate uncertainty — an attempt given that warfare is complex, with adequate friction, and encumbered by disorder. Instead, it seeks to reduce the need for certainty. As a behaviour of violent competition, warfare is a matter of probabilities and subjectivity rather than hard facts and figures, making it inherently uncertain.
Different Situations Call for Different Command Constructs
Each type of command requires a different kind of knowledge. Command by planning suffers from the fallibility of predictions, bureaucratic limits to revision, and the fragility of systematic and operational design in the face of necessarily unforeseen circumstances. Command by influence, however, embraces uncertainty. Rather than seeking to direct within or plan beyond what is unknown and unknowable, mission command, as a “more explicit narrative of the virtues and value of command by influence,” is a decision to thrive within uncertainty. “Shared consciousness and empowered execution” is nothing more than mission command: Mission-type orders empower execution; commander’s intent is a way to generate shared consciousness.
Commanders, policymakers, technologists, and staffers of the Defense Department should know under which type of command they or the forces they support predominately operate — and where, and to what degree. A small close-combat unit operating in a distributed fashion is best thought of as operating under mission command and thereby mostly command by influence..
Conducting a vast array of missions: commerce raiding, direct engagement with enemy ships, and amphibious raiding all necessitated “anticipatory decision-making,” a key element of command by planning. Importantly, ’command by direction and by planning were situated within the larger context of command by influence.
A mixture of command types at different levels and scales harnesses the value of each type while mitigating their drawbacks. Mission command is the most resilient to uncertain shocks and disrupted communications, exploiting the inherent flexibility of command by influence, without dismissing the value of explicit direction or detailed plans necessary to orchestrate the overall mission.
For department-wide implementation of mission command to be successful, mission command must be adequate for day-to-day operations of every unit at every level. It must be matched by an understanding of a unit’s time horizon, which may vary depending on level and circumstance. A unit’s time horizon refers to where the attention of the commander and staff is focused in time. A division should focus its attention beyond the current operations of its subordinate units — for instance, a week out.
. Only the battalion and company levels should be operating within a current, likely 24-hour, time horizon unless they need to reach upward for support. Mission command depends on such an understanding of time and space to focus activities. Higher-level commanders may have to violate their unit’s typical time horizon in extreme circumstances; in such cases, commanders would dictate subordinate actions in closer temporal proximity than what their level typically focuses on, but these occasions should be exceedingly rare.
Leaders must train to the mission command standard and receive training to foster it, especially as the military introduces more technology-driven Digital Systems to manage — though not eliminate — uncertainty and mitigate friction. “The advantage which a commander thinks he can attain through continued personal intervention can be largely false. By engaging in it he assumes a task which really belongs to others, whose effectiveness can be destroyed. The commander also multiplies his own tasks to a point where he can no longer fulfill the whole of them.”
Why Clarity Matters
Clarifying command is more than just nitpicking. Clarity about what kind of command is in use — or should be used — can inform better decisions about force modernization, training, what kind of technology to acquire, personnel management, and what changes are needed to implement mission command. Additionally, potential adversaries, view command and control as a critical vulnerability and intend to attack if hostilities should commence.
Given the rampant confusion about command and control across the military, it is difficult to disagree with this assessment. To protect against such attacks requires more than a technical capacity. Command and control resiliency can also take the form of the command and control construct employed. Though sufficient technological capability is required, it is only half the equation. The other half is the type of command exercised, the command construct.
The Services should be more comfortable with mission command, rather than leaning too far into any one type of command. It should also preserve its ability to function should adversary action affect communications and reduce or eliminate other forms of command and control. That said, command by direction and command by planning still have their place and uses.
Decision Makers need a logical combination of these constructs to mitigate uncertainty, manage friction, foster effective and timely decision-making, and enable commanders to prevent surprise, generate tempo, and seize opportunities.
- Complexity and competition make all war plans provisional
- Effective adaptation is required.
- Decision-speed requirements of modern warfare make both the quality and the speed of decisions crucial to successful adaptation.
- Situational Awareness is inevitably reduced from the tactical to the strategic level, and prevents sufficient local understanding at higher levels.
- Mission command is necessary to focus and delegate commander thinking and guidance.
- Fidelity of communications refers to the accuracy with which a given fact is represented to the receiver of a message. A message that says “yes” when the sender said “no” has low fidelity.
- Granularity of communications refers to the amount of relevant and necessary detail captured in a message. A radio broadcast has less granularity than a video broadcast.
- Timeliness of communications refers to their composition and delivery within a timeframe that affects the outcome.
- Cost of the communications environment clearly affects the optimal level of control for commanders.
- What are implications of the decision cycle and strategic failure?