Clarifying Command: Keeping Up with the (John Paul) Joneses

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Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series on command philosophies and command technologies.


During the American Revolution, rebel commissioners granted John Paul Jones the ability to operate “in the manner you shall judge best for distressing the enemies of the United States.” With the order, Jones had everything he needed to act. He eventually decided on a specific target, approach, and method: conducting a small-boat raid against Whitehaven harbor on April 23, 1778. His amphibious raid against the coast of England, during which his crew spiked enemy cannons and set fire to ships, provoked chaos behind British lines, causing mass panic and forcing the British to commit troops to defend their coastline over the following months.

B.J. Armstrong’s Small Boats and Daring Men details the mission and its effects on the British: misinformation, quadrupled insurance rates, impressments to conduct coastal defense, false alarms, and the lore of “Pirate Paul Jones” as a political threat. The American commissioners did not have the situational awareness to plan John Paul Jones’ raid, let alone carry it out. They left it to Jones, with his proximity, understanding, resources, and ability, to execute. Though the harassment was successful in the end, Jones still encountered the enduring friction of warfare: His crew’s candles, which were supposed to provide the spark for the ship fires, extinguished. Fortunately, Jones had the flexibility and authority to overcome and embrace uncertainty — the crew foraged for fire, found tar (an accelerant), and accomplished the mission.



Two-hundred forty-two years later, the U.S. military is rightly seeking to exploit modern technology to assist commanders and staff in command and control. It is also, again rightly, seeking to institutionalize mission command, ostensibly the U.S. military’s command and control philosophy since 2012. Mission command can be thought of as a command philosophy that empowers subordinates to act based on local initiative. Yet, there remains conflicting conceptions of what command and control means and what mission command even is. The U.S. military needs to reestablish a shared understanding of command and control.

Conceptual Confusion Reigns

Command is what commanders do. Command and control is how they do it. Communications are the means by which they do it. These are simple facts about the nature of military leadership, but the fact that they are almost always used in conjunction leads to confusion about the difference between them. In fact, command, command and control, and communications are frequently conflated, sometimes ignored, and oftentimes torturously confined alongside a menagerie of unrelated concepts. This results in broad confusion about what the necessary elements of command and control are, and leads to people mistaking those same elements for the means of command and control (such as communications and computers).

Communications, including digital processing systems, are only the means through which command and control can be accomplished. They are not command and control itself. That is a human activity. Being clear about the precise meanings of command terms is more than just an appeal to pedantry. The Department of Defense needs a better understanding of the types and limits of command, as well as an appreciation for what kind of command the U.S. military is actually practicing, before it can expect to further modernize the force.

However, runaway acronyms highlight how the concept of command has been hijacked to justify other concepts. Consider how C2 (command and control) becomes C2I (command, control, and intelligence) becomes C4I2 (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, and interoperability) becomes C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), and then multiple types of C5ISR where the fifth “c” stands for, perhaps, cyber, combat systems, or cryptology. Into this ever-expanding conceptual sea, might we suggest future additions like critical infrastructure, circuits, clouds, computational resources, and cooling systems?

Less facetiously, the only “c” we need at the moment is clarity.

Command and control is a way of describing how commanders exercise authority over the military forces they lead. It can achieve a few things: First, it can mitigate, but never eliminate, the inherent uncertainty of war. Second, it is a way to manage friction, another timeless characteristic of war. Third, it allows commanders to make decisions based on an evolving situation. Fourth, effective command and control prevents surprise while enabling commanders to seize opportunities as they unfold. The degree to which command and control performs any of these functions depends on how it is exercised.

Martin van Creveld identified three genres of command philosophies: 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 philosophy combining aspects of each of these genres: providing just enough direction, ceding just enough control, and building flexibility into plans.

The U.S. military defines command and control in several different ways. To take one example, the Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 6 defines command, like Joint Publication 1, as “the exercise of authority,” but stipulates dynamics inherent in control as “feedback about the effects of the action taken.” Excepting limited cases like command and control of nuclear weapons, command and control for the majority of the U.S. military should be thought of as “command and feedback.” This definition is particularly useful for the U.S. 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 philosophy 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. The order given to John Paul Jones in 1778 had both: the intent, to “distress the enemies of the United States,” and the mission-type order, the tactical task to harass.

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 candles 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.

Since the publication of the 2012 Mission Command White Paper, the U.S. military has been pursuing the institutionalization of this philosophy across the services. In that document, retired Gen. Martin Dempsey 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 epistemology — a theory of knowledge. Dempsey explains that “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 [that] is 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 epistemology: 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 the Prussian Auftragstaktik, mission tactics, although similar approaches predate the Prussian version. The principles can be found in Prussian military theory as far back as Clausewitz’s “Guide to Tactics, or the Theory of the Combat.” Mission command 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 ossified control measures typified by formulaic report formats, and constant requests for updates from subordinate commanders.

Properly executed, mission command is thus 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 — a quixotic attempt given that warfare is complex, suffused with friction, and encumbered by disorder. Instead, it seeks to reduce the need for certainty. As a human phenomenon of violent competition, warfare is a matter of probabilities and subjectivity rather than hard facts and figures, making it inherently uncertain. Framed this way, we can see why Anders Engberg-Pedersen, who wrote the best book about Clausewitz that is not about Clausewitz, considers “war as a problem of knowledge.”

Different Situations Call for Different Command Philosophies

Each type of command requires a different kind of knowledge. Command by direction is thus beholden to the commander’s coup d’oeil and genius, which is great if you are Napoleon in 1806 and bad if you are Napoleon in 1812. Command by planning — as Helmuth von Moltke the Younger learned advocating Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen’s 1905 plan in July 1914 — 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. Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s “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, like John Paul Jones’ unit did, is best thought of as operating under mission command and thereby mostly command by influence. Yet, Jones still employed the other kinds of command. For instance, Jones was raiding his former hometown and leveraged detailed personal knowledge, which he used during command by direction. Upon deciding to capture a local nobleman, Lord Selkirk, as leverage for a prisoner exchange, he “took personal command of the cutter and piloted it up the narrow and winding channel that led to the estate.” This direct command and control, especially of a machine like a ship, harks to the need for coup d’oeil found in the 18th century, while foretelling future challenges for command and control with human and machine interaction.

The raid on Whitehaven and the thwarted one to capture Selkirk (who was out of town) were both part of a larger plan. With his mission-type orders, Jones set out to conduct a vast array of missions: commerce raiding, direct engagement with enemy ships, and amphibious raiding. All of these necessitated “anticipatory decision-making,” a key element of command by planning. Importantly, Jones’ command by direction and by planning were situated within the larger rubric 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 suffuse the 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. A corps should focus its attention even further 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 extremis; 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 education that will foster it, especially as the military introduces more technology to manage — though not eliminate — uncertainty and mitigate friction. As Helmuth von Moltke the Elder said: “The advantage which a commander thinks he can attain through continued personal intervention is largely illusory. By engaging in it he assumes a task which really belongs to others, whose effectiveness he thus destroys. He 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, especially Russia and China, view U.S. command and control as a critical vulnerability and intend to attack it should hostilities commence. Given the rampant confusion about command and control across the U.S. military, it is difficult to disagree with their 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 philosophy employed. Though sufficient technological capability is required, it is only half the equation. The other half is the type of command exercised, the command philosophy.

The U.S. military 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. The U.S. military needs a logical combination of the three to mitigate uncertainty, manage friction, foster effective and timely decision-making, and enable commanders to prevent surprise, generate tempo, and seize opportunities. Mission command is that philosophy. However, as Dempsey wrote, “Technology cannot replace the human ability to create and make intuitive judgment.” It should, however, augment it. We will explore the intersection of technology and command in Part II.



B. A. Friedman is a Marine reserve officer, associate editor at The Strategy Bridge, and the author of On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle and 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy.

Olivia A. Garard is a Marine unmanned aircraft systems officer currently serving at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. She is also an associate editor at The Strategy Bridge. She tweets at @teaandtactics.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the positions or opinions of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: Official U.S. Navy Photograph (Painting by Edward Moran)



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