Mission Command in Multi-Domain Operations

By David “Cam” Smith

“They are fracturing our way of war by using other domains.”
                  -–Gen. David Perkins, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s commanding general

Increased complexity in the future security environment will continue to stress how leaders make decisions and the risk associated with those decisions. The philosophy of Mission Command will continue to increase in importance as complexity changes the battlefield through Multi-Domain Operations. Some argue that by executing Mission Command vice Command and Control, an organization will be choosing between empowered subordinates and a synchronized operation. The idea that the two concepts are mutually exclusive must be dispelled in order to operate effectively in current and future conflicts.

The future security environment will be increasingly dynamic and complex. This new environment will consist of problems that arise from the proliferation of cheap and effective technology, growing populations, urbanization, erosion of super-power influence, increased network dependence, and emerging weapons and communication platforms. These factors will lead to a greater potential for conflict as well as a more diverse set of conflict areas. Additionally, the combination of growing populations and a rising movement toward urbanization make megacities a reality of future battlefields. This environment is further complicated by the enemy’s demonstrated ability to exploit Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) signals transmitted by friendly forces to direct lethal fires. This increase in complexity will affect how conflicts will be shaped, fought, and won or lost.

Increased complexity will lead to greater domain interdependence and require commanders and staffs, at echelon, to account for a diverse set of capabilities provided by each domain. Successful Multi-Domain Operations will be dependent on a joint force’s ability to synchronize effects from Land, Air, Space, Maritime, and the EMS domains (including cyber). This complexity and need for synchronization has led to the discussion of a need for Command and Control vs. Mission Command; however, it is the future environment described above that demands Mission Command be executed. The idea that Mission Command leads to a lesser degree of control and synchronization is a misunderstanding of the philosophy. Within Mission Command, the Art of Command and Science of Control both exist, to include the ability of the commander to manipulate the degree of control necessary in any given operation or in particular parts of a given operation. Mission Command does not alleviate the burden of the commander from issuing clear commander’s intent and communicating purpose and endstate to subordinate units. Nor, as suggested by some leaders, does it give subordinate leaders the ability to do what they wish through a loose and favorable interpretation of the commander’s intent. In each operation, the staff is required to conduct a thorough analysis of the environment and develop multiple courses of action for the commander that leads to the development of a synchronized plan to achieve the unit’s purpose through the actions of subordinate units. Multi-Domain Operations and the application of Mission Command does not change this requirement. What does change is the expanded requirement of the commander and staff to leverage the effects in each of the domains to create windows of dominance that allow for a successful maneuver plan to be executed. Together, the commander and the staff must create shared understanding through mission orders. This process will allow for mutual trust between the commander and subordinate leaders that the commander’s intent, the unit’s purpose, and the concept of the operation are understood and that the desired endstate can be achieved. The planning process and subsequent rehearsals will ensure that synchronization is achieved, but as is well known, it is just a plan and the enemy’s ability to influence synchronization will be increased in the future environment.

The ability of our adversaries to generate effects in multiple domains must be accounted for during the planning process as well as execution. Both state and non-state actors will have an increasing ability to contest mission command systems through the manipulation of the EMS. Voice, data, imaging, sensor to shoot relay, and upper tactical internet (TI) will all be vulnerable to degradation, compromise, or outright denial. This reality will be the rule rather than what is currently seen as the exception to the rule. Knowing that execution will most likely be in a contested mission command environment, the commander and staff must ensure that subordinate leaders cross the line of departure with a thorough understanding of terrain, the enemy, the unit’s purpose, planned effects, the commander’s desired endstate, and are able to make decisions without additional guidance as the situation changes. This too is not a change, but what happens when the commander cannot communicate with subordinate leaders and vice versa due to enemy effects? Under Command and Control, the organization risks mission accomplishment as subordinate leaders wait for direction from a higher headquarters, ceding the initiative to the enemy. Mission Command’s mutual trust, shared understanding, and prudent risk-taking allow for subordinate leaders to execute without compromising tempo and retaining the initiative.

Additionally, Mission Command empowers subordinate leaders to seize unforeseen initiative as it is presented on the battlefield unlike detailed command that was often the product of a Command and Control culture .The speed of future operations against a hybrid threat, the prevalence of urbanization, a contested communication environment, and the small windows of achieved domain dominance will continue to limit the time an opportunity exists to seize the initiative in any given operation. If a generation of military leaders continue to hold on to Command and Control and insist that decisions flow through a single point of failure (even when the commander has authorized action through  a statement of intent) while denying that communications will no longer be uncontested, we have already lost the opportunity to advance our leadership to a place of dominance through rapid decision making.

Organizations should strive to implement Mission Command through the development of agile and adaptive leaders, or more precisely, leaders who think critically. While Mission Command allows for subordinate leaders to accept risk, it remains prudent that leaders focus on critical thinking. Critical thinking focuses leaders on the details of the problem on hand and keeps solutions within the commander’s intent. Critical thinking focuses on anticipating how the enemy and terrain will affect the delivery of effects, maneuver, and how best to achieve the unit’s purpose within the commander’s intent and allows for subordinates to recognize that there is an opportunity to seize the initiative. Training must be structured in a way that the opposing forces think freely and where the mission command environment is not always permissive. Subordinate leaders must be presented with the requirement to make decisions without being able to communicate with higher headquarters and thus demonstrate that they understand the concept of the operation, the unit’s purpose, and the ability to operate within the commander’s intent. Through observation, commanders can mitigate the perceived risk of empowered leaders associated with Mission Command by developing an understanding of their subordinate organizations and the degree of control in future operations. Developing leaders of this nature takes time. Developing leaders to think critically and make decisions without a higher headquarter’s guidance in order to seize the initiative takes even more time and cannot wait for a generation of Command and Control leaders to see the constraints of the future security environment.

The Multi-Domain battlefield will dramatically raise the level of complexity and the speed in which decisions must be made. Our military must dispel the notion that Mission Command does not allow for synchronized operations and instead understand how we need to prepare our leaders for an environment in which communication with higher and adjacent units will be contested. The time to make this realization is not when there is no one at the other end of the hand mike.

David “Cam” Smith is a United States Army Armor officer. He is attending Air Command and Staff College with a Multi-Domain Operational Strategist Concentration at Maxwell AFB, Montgomery.

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 “Mission Command in Multi-Domain Operations

  • November 25, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    Excellent brief and very well constructed. The two statements “Organizations should strive to implement Mission Command through the development of agile and adaptive leaders, or more precisely, leaders who think critically” and “Additionally, Mission Command empowers subordinate leaders to seize unforeseen initiative as it is presented on the battlefield unlike detailed command that was often the product of a Command and Control culture concept” are essential for this mindset to have operational effectiveness. This describes how effective municipal law enforcement in high risk areas function successfully.

  • December 15, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    The author’s argument for training to the principles of mission command ahead of the need to fill in the potential gaps in command and control communications is well founded. Military leaders must be prepared to function effectively across a broad spectrum of operational conditions, from contesting chaotic battlespaces to managing security amid diverse civilian populations. The keys to future success will include flexibility and trust, up and down the chain of command.

    Though the author did not include the human domain as an area of potential application of mission command concepts, logic would dictate that the same need for mission clarity, flexibility, and trust up and down the chain of command exists when engaging foreign populations. Where trust is lacking, the human influence process tends to slow down and become less agile, as more levels of approval are established to diffuse responsibility.

    Trust is based on understanding and familiarity. Those who operate in the human domain must become more adept at explaining how human influence works and more active in the training venues top continue building command understanding of, and confidence in, the human influence process.


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