Become the Hydra: Setting Leadership Expectations for Degraded Environments

By Peter A. Garretson & Jonathan D. Sawtelle

The Joint Force faces an operational environment where adversaries are developing advanced electronic warfare (EW), offensive cyber, anti-satellite (ASAT), anti-High Value Airborne Asset (A-HVAA), counter space, and precision strike capabilities all designed to negate US airpower. These efforts are specifically designed to take vital command, control and communication networks offline. Investing in protective measures is not enough. Military leaders must anticipate conducting operations in a context of adversaries seeking to slow or paralyze operational tempo by disrupting information and logistical supply chains. Accordingly, the military must create a culture of leadership that provides an antidote to such disruption.

In a comprehensive analysis of warfighting vulnerabilities, military leadership culture must be considered. Organizing and conducting warfare must steer a course between competing goods and competing evils. No shortage of thinkers have helped erect a cultural edifice that underpins an ever more disciplined and optimized force capable of executing higher level intent within ever tighter bounds. However, the pendulum is now changing direction and the Joint Force has cultural blind spots vulnerable to paralysis. Adversaries sense these vulnerabilities making them lucrative and therefore likely targets.

To succeed in this emerging environment, leaders at each level must be cultivated to value and exercise resilience and rapid adaptation. This is particularly critical during increasingly likely operations in isolation from higher guidance. Why such a broad “must”?

While there has been an elementary level of thought given to continuity of operations through back-up Operations Centers (OCs) and “comm-out” procedures, a high degree of uncertainty remains regarding where or at what level an attack may occur. Commanders cannot know precisely how an adversary may cleave apart their Command and Control (C2). Commanders will not know with certainty which of their capabilities will remain capable of executing the mission. While it is imperative to create specific plans for areas that can expect such attacks (such as the loss of an OC or satellite connectivity), the Joint Force needs a broader enabling set of expectations for individual leaders at every echelon. Expectations that drive leaders to cultivate resilience and rapid adaptation in every organization—long before they commit forces to combat. Resilience and rapid adaptation can be hindered by practices unique to many military leaders and can be traced to three deeply-rooted cultural traits that create vulnerabilities for adversary exploitation.

The first of three significant cultural vulnerabilities in this environment is any leader’s myopic quest for certainty. A leader’s obsession for certainty in the fog of conflict can produce risk-averse decision makers at subordinate echelons. Ordered effects are not always quickly ascertained in the battlespace, thus subordinate leaders may delay decision making or downgrade acceptable risk while attempting to communicate certainty to their leaders. Leaders obsessed with certainty tax subordinate leaders to endlessly report information. This disrupts their battle rhythm, slows the collective observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop, and precludes subordinate leaders from executing their primary task: leading.

The second vulnerability is subordinate dependence on higher level direction. This dependence slows decision-making cycles because subordinates await higher direction while adversaries accelerate aggression to seize or maintain the initiative. This is especially true in complex operating environments. Adversaries can create confusion and exploit a lagging pace, attempting to destroy US forces in detail or sail through a complacent defense.

The third vulnerability is an over-habituation to ways of doing business and communication within stove-piped organizations—assuming that these practices will survive contact with the enemy. Organizational cocoons can slow adaptation and make combat power especially fragile. Functionally cocooned leaders may not have put in-place the authorities, relationships, habits, and agreements to reach across units and agencies to establish contact, much less achieve decision superiority in a highly collaborative environment. Military organizations used to playing within their comfort zones, and dependent upon top-down planning directives, may find themselves a dismembered collection of capabilities. Further, it would take too long to knit together new fighting entities in a distributed environment capable of pursuing national intent.

dempsey-mc-captionThis article is of course hardly the first warning of such dangers or proscribed solutions. The recent emphasis on Mission Command by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, and Resilient Command and Control by former Commander of Air Combat Command General Gilmary Hostage is a step forward, but not enough. Both of these address the concept of empowering subordinate leaders with authority and autonomy to achieve commander’s intent through mission-type orders, rather than execute strict adherence to a process that results in merely generating battlefield effects. Remedies to the above situation cannot just be mandated in a policy, they must also be cultured, trained, and exercised.

One way to create that culture is by developing numerous exercises and wargames where leaders get a chance to observe how their teammates think and function in the absence of command links. The ability to perform as a force in an environment of anemic or absent command and control depends greatly on a specific kind of trust: do we know what our fellow commanders and warriors are going to do? Do we know their playbook? Have we observed how they work? This is what the late Col John Boyd called intrinsic knowledge, something he felt was critical to developing ability to use harmony and initiative to counter the uncertainty and menace of war.

Another remedy is to promulgate a set of force-wide expectations that apply at all levels, providing a moral compass individuals should prepare for and act when in prosecuting commander’s intent during adversary-induced isolation. The existing Code of Conduct provides a useful template, and the following should be as useful a guide to individuals on the battlefield as it is to task force commanders or interagency partners.

A Code of Conduct for Rapidly Adaptive Warfighting

I am a unit of Joint Capability designed to prosecute national intent. I will never allow an interruption in connectivity to impact that capability or slow my progress.

I will cultivate innovative leaders who accurately discern, manage and assume risk at every echelon, all of whom I trust. At any moment they may each become isolated and still capable of prosecuting some aspect of the mission.

I will train my unit to anticipate the loss of command guidance, to minimize surprise, and to operate and prevail in the face of lost connectivity. I will evolve my training, because the risk of failure in combat is greater than the risk of not training to the threat.

I will not wait until I become isolated to build linkages. At every opportunity, I will cultivate relationships, learn about other capabilities, and explain my unit’s capabilities.

I will create internal capabilities to plan in the absence of top-down directives. I will create ready-to-execute plans in the event I were to lose the capabilities most dear.

If I become isolated from higher direction, I will not allow this to paralyze me. I know interruptions may signal an adversary offensive, and I will execute the adaptive plans to ensure protection of what is vital. I will find those other elements of US or allied capability and link our capabilities to prosecute the mission and communicate with all US and allied forces. I will share C2, resources, and intelligence to enable mutual success.

If no higher command relationship can be determined, we will plan synergistically, de-conflicting our missions and providing mutual support to provide C2 for our subordinate elements.

If I am senior, I will knit together the elements of subordinate capability wherever I can find them, prosecute the mission without delay, and provide my C2 capabilities to enable their missions. If I am junior, until communication is established, I will pursue my last known intent, seek direction, and provide all needed support to the senior increment of C2.

I will apply the intent of my higher headquarters and my nation, pursuing the last received intent within the boundaries of our national values to enable the victory and security of the United States. I will continue to seek connectivity with my higher headquarters, but not at the cost of mission success.

I understand my nation and commanders are depending on my initiative to pursue their intent, and to act upon the values of our nation. I will not allow my isolation from higher direction to sever that capability to the nation. I will not give the enemy any advantage by waiting for direction. I will become the epitome of resilience and rapid adaptation.


Autonomous swarms are built upon simple rules of cooperation that enable very complex action based upon local knowledge. So is this creed. When an adversary tries to break the C2 system at any level—rather than paralysis, it just creates increased complexity and multiplies the burden on their intelligence.

If every Sailor, Soldier, Marine and Airman, foreign service officer or intelligence professional was taught and embodied such a creed, the resulting highly diverse networks would not only lay the foundation for continuity and resilience of intent at every level of national defense, it might also serve as a strong deterrent to aggression.

Peter Garretson is an Instructor of Joint Warfare at Air University’s Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), and leads the Air University Center for Space Innovation (AU/CSI) Space Horizons Initiative. He was previously the lead strategy and policy advisor to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force on Space and Great Power conflict in Asia. 

Jonathan Sawtelle is serving as the Executive Officer to the HQ Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (A3) and is a Blue Horizons graduate of ACSC. His first book, Resilient Effective Adaptable Leadership, is now available through Air University Press.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


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2 thoughts on “Become the Hydra: Setting Leadership Expectations for Degraded Environments

  • February 2, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    What goes around, comes around, right? If I understand my history correctly, in WWII we sent submarines on patrol with no comms with higher HQ, just mission-type orders, and didn’t know what they had done until they got back and filed their reports. Ditto long range bomber attacks by the likes of 8th and 9th Air Forces in the European theater. What you advocate sounds like the CONOPS we took for granted before information technology netted us all together.

  • February 22, 2017 at 10:53 am

    This is article is timely and perfectly suited to the emergent EMS-contested environment the US and other high-end militaries should be preparing for.


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