Technology-Enabled Mission Command


Editor’s note: This is Part 2 in a series on command philosophies and command technologies. The first article, “Clarifying Command: Keeping Up with the (John Paul) Joneses,” can be found here


On 16 January 1778, American commissioners in Paris issued the following order to Captain John Paul Jones:

After equipping the Ranger in the best manner for the cruise you propose, that you proceed with her in the manner you shall judge best for distressing the enemies of the United States, by sea or otherwise, consistent with the laws of war, and the terms of your commission… We rely on your ability, as well as your zeal to serve the United States, and therefore do not give you particular instructions as to your operations.

The order highlights the longstanding naval tradition of decentralized command, born of necessity as ships at sea were isolated from communicating with civilian leadership on land. It is also an excellent example of what today is called mission command. John Paul Jones had a mission, the means with which to accomplish it, and the leeway to decide how best to pursue it. That freedom was not infinite. It was bounded by “the laws of war” and “the terms of [his] commission.” Jones knew what to do, what not to do, and had space within which to make decisions.

Despite these deep American roots of mission command, it is hard to imagine commanders today — with the exception of some submarine and special operations forces — receiving such an order and being as trusted and enabled to the same extent. Not even a geographic combatant commander would be granted the same latitude. The current and future operating environment demands decentralized command, like that exercised by John Paul Jones; modern technology, prudently applied, makes that possible. However, the U.S. military’s obsession with technology has often conflated technological capacity with command. Though there are important exceptions, like retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s philosophy of “shared consciousness and empowered execution,” the majority of the U.S. force operates restrained, not enabled, by technology. Still, the Department of Defense can set the future force up for success by prioritizing personnel, institutionally embracing mission command, investing in the right technology now, and divesting of industrial-age anachronisms.

There are two main reasons why mission command is so difficult now as opposed to during the American Revolution: the development of information technology and the industrialization of the military. John Paul Jones had to be trusted to perform his duties on his own because there was no way to reliably communicate with captains at sea. Today, information technology connects leaders and subordinates immediately. Second, when the military industrialized in the early 20th century, it adopted the modes of industrial management; Frederick Taylor’s methods were adapted for the U.S. Army through the Root Reforms. The result was strictly formalized procedures of command and control — a not-uncalled for reform as the military became more industrial in nature, but the inflexible processes designed to manage unskilled labor have long since outlasted their usefulness. Industrial warfare required, and fostered, an officer corps with engineering mindsets, more managers than leaders. The advent and incorporation of information technology has only further promoted detailed, procedural, and top-down methods.

An industrial-era military that employs information technology is not the same as an information-age military. In many ways, it is the antithesis. Information technology is now available to crunch numbers, synthesize data, execute deconfliction, and visually display spatial information, and the military is increasingly staffed by people who grew up familiar with these technologies. The detailed direction and centralized decision-making, however, make little sense to them, yet the people, processes, and hardware of the Department of Defense are trending toward ever more centralized command. This centralization occurs even in the face of the attempted institutionalization of mission command. All the while, to succeed in today’s operating environment, the art of command in a decentralized manner — mission command — is required more than ever.

Our premise is simple. The Department of Defense cannot be an industrial-age military, permeated by information-age technology, executing mission command. One component must give. John Paul Jones was part of a pre-industrial-age military, without information technology, and was empowered to execute mission command. The German industrial-era military executed mission command (the roots of which are found in Clausewitz’s under-read “Guide to Tactics, or the Theory of the Combat”) from the Austro-Prussian War until World War II without modern information technology. The Department of Defense may think that just by leveraging information technology it becomes an information-age military, but this is patently untrue. Information technology in an industrial-era military only emboldens the worst procedural trends of centralization, deliberate planning, acquisitions, and personnel management, the holdovers from Frederick Taylor’s scientific management. The exceptions to this general trend within the Department of Defense — like nuclear submarines and special operations forces — indicate that the U.S. military can become an information-age military enabled by technology. However, to do so, the Department of Defense should update its legacy procedures, enable new processes, and prioritize personnel to foster technology-enabled mission command.

John Paul Jones – 2020: How Technology Strangles Mission Command   

The Department of Defense is right to pursue information technology — like mission planning tools, akin to “Waze for war” — but it should be cautious when implementing them in a still legacy industrial-era military. Rather than enabling mission command, a jointly professed value, information technology proliferated in an industrial-era military can stifle subordinates’ freedom of action and undermine trust, especially as the desire for certainty — as a way to mitigate risk — squashes fleeting opportunities. Consider John Paul Jones, today, as Adm. John Paul Jones, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, receiving the same order from 1778. Despite his personal talents, Jones would be set up for failure. He would not have the hardware required, the necessary ideas proliferated and embraced, nor the people under his command trained, educated, trusted, and empowered to flourish with such orders. These vulnerabilities are amplified by the Department of Defense’s current digital acquisitions and communications support structure, concepts, and its antiquated management of personnel.


Digital awareness is synthetic awareness, and remote command and control can never replace personal command. The Department of Defense Digital Modernization Strategy is a plan to modernize information technology, including communications technology. However, it does not mention mission command or how the technology it seeks to acquire interacts with it. The Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) network is a proposed network would link all units in a battlespace with all other sensors and command-and-control nodes. While it is intended to enable decentralized command, it is likely to disable any command and control, and command and feedback, unless it is enabled by the institution and from the commander down to the junior subordinate. A joint all-domain command and control network that emphasizes hardware over processes builds the means for commanders to bypass chains of command entirely, to abuse capabilities, and to create an insatiable need for certainty and immediacy. Since the network is in its nascent stages, it is essential that it does not conflate the doing of command and control with the means for it.


Future concepts retread the same mistakes, centralizing command further. For example, DARPA’s Mosaic Warfare misinterprets command and control, confuses it with planning functions, and proposes to automate the feedback to commanders that normally comes from their subordinate commanders. One idea is for “human command, machine control,” which exacerbates the debate over whether a human is (or should be) “in” or “on” the loop. “Command and feedback” highlights the misunderstanding: subordinate commanders provide commanders with an understanding of their situation, to which the commander responds based on knowledge and trust in that subordinate. These are human interactions that cannot be automated. Multi-domain operations, which is the Army’s concept for joint combined arms, seeks to “dis-integrate” the enemy’s command and control and therefore disable it. This can devastate an opponent arranged to employ centralized command and control, such as Russia or China. However, those enemies in particular intend to do the same thing to U.S. command and control. Mission command ensures that commanders have the necessary context to continue to act in the inevitable event of communications disruptions, preventing the United States from becoming “dis-integrated” in turn.


Mission command is impossible without people trained and educated, trusted and enabled to employ it. However, the U.S. military tends to preach mission command for combat, but practices highly scripted, detailed command in garrison. The habits of mind and the trust necessary for mission command cannot be inculcated when they’re undermined at home. This requires “sustained personnel readiness.” Mission command demands cohesion, especially between commanders and subordinates. Yet the industrial-age, department-wide personnel system drives frequent (and exorbitantly expensive) Permanent Change of Station moves to support promotion systems. The practice depletes the necessary familiarity, trust, and confidence that must be established between leaders and the led by requiring short command tours. The revolving door of command, staff, and operating billets generates unnecessary friction and prevents close working relationships between key personnel.

In addition to the cost, frequent moves are harmful to recruitment and retention. The reasoning behind the frequent moves is more suited to an industrial-age military than an information-age military. Firstly, it assumes that servicemembers of like jobs and grade are interchangeable; any one can be fitted into any open billet without harming the cohesion of the unit. This may have been true for a military based on conscription, but it is patently false for a professionalized, volunteer force in the information age. Second, the practice supports promotion systems more than it supports operational effectiveness. Officer promotions are governed by the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act and enlisted promotions are governed by the services, but largely mirror the practices for officers. Since promotions are tied so heavily to serving in certain billets at certain times, the Department of Defense is obliged to constantly reshuffle its human capital to support their promotions, whatever the harm to operational effectiveness.

John Paul Jones – 2030: Achieving Technology-Enabled Mission Command

Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 6, now 24 years old, was prophetic in warning against the misuse of technological means of command and control: “technology is not without its dangers.” It specifies, however, that not only is this a caution against “the overreliance on equipment,” but also, and importantly, against “the failure to fully exploit the latest capabilities.” In other words, technology can enable command and control as much as it can disable it. The question becomes how to leverage technology to enable mission command and avoid the pitfalls found in current acquisitions, inadequate concepts, and antiquated personnel policies. What needs to change for the Department of Defense, with respect to “people, ideas, hardware—in that order,” to set up Adm. Jones for success?


Mission command requires training and education built on trust. “Trust,” as defined by Oxford University Trust Fellow Rachel Botsman, “is a confident relationship with the unknown.” That unknown can be about the enemy situation or about friendly actions. When commanders trust their subordinates, they have confidence that their subordinates will carry out the mission in the face of uncertainty, in the face of risk. Feedback is the mechanism to build that confidence. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis used what he called a “skip-echelon” technique. Rather than duplicating personnel, for instance lawyers, at every level, Mattis “trusted subordinate commanders and staffs’ ” judgments instead of replicating, in this case, the lower echelon’s judgments and considerations. Critically, a unit commander should understand the commander’s intent two higher levels up the command structure, but should not get too involved more than one level down, to keep from interfering with, and distracting from, active operations.

Of the Department of Defense’s “few and exquisite” assets — the aircraft carriers and F-35s that consume much of the Pentagon’s time and budget — none are more important than the department’s personnel. The department needs a modern human resource system that fosters familiarity, trust, and unit cohesion first and promotion systems second. Or better yet, the system needs to evolve to see that unit cohesion breeds promotable service members. The U.S. Army has begun taking steps towards this through its Battalion Commander Assessment Program. But a full department-wide embrace will require congressional action. Promotion through a succession of Permanent Change of Station moves to gain experience in certain billets should remain, but only as one route to promotion. Other routes could involve regional expertise or billet specialization, beyond the conventional tour length.

Moreover, innovation leveraging agile methodologies within a garrison environment demands mission command. The detailed, stifling leadership so common to garrison culture should be snuffed out. Mission command cannot be turned on and off like a switch. It must be cultivated and fostered from the institutional level all the way down to the individual. Trusting distributed subordinate units to take action in the face of uncertainty is continuous and starts in garrison. Current operations during the COVID-19 crisis further highlight this need.


Much of what we are arguing for is already in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publications, particularly Warfighting and Command and Control. It is a matter of following through with the doctrine. Tactics, techniques, and procedures like fire support coordination measures and attack guidance matrices can be used to enable subordinates just as easily as they can be used to constrain them. Doctrine has options for commanders to reinforce commander’s intent with further guidance, tailoring subordinate initiative for the situation and intent that functions like a rheostat for disciplined initiative. Commanders and subordinates need to be better trained to use the doctrine that already exists.

Paul Birth, Ray Reeves, and Brad Dewees suggest that the joint force needs to be “Building the Command and Control of the Future From the Bottom Up,” but their view relies on a centralized architecture, whose friction is mitigated by speed. Speed is valuable, but only as it contributes to relative tempo and when executed at the right time. What matters more is the type of command and control philosophy used and the people executing that philosophy. Mission command inherently values the “bottom up” perspective and uses that to feed commanders.


There must be the necessary communications architecture to transmit information between elements, as in digital logistics. This is a non-trivial problem and the one onto which the Department of Defense has latched. It is necessary for technology-enabled mission command, but not sufficient. Importantly, these forces need not be constantly connected, but must retain the “resilient potential for connectivity.” The danger that forward commanders will be smothered by too much data is real, but that danger can be mitigated by investing in technology that allows them to pull data when and if they desire instead of just pushing data technology on them in the name of command and control. A “command node” is not a piece of technology; it is a human invested with the authority and responsibility to command, wherever they are located across the battlefield.

The next required technologies are used for sensing, distributing information within the institution, and processing at “edge nodes” to modulate the bandwidth required to transmit data. The goal is to vacuum up outside information and then relay that information, as is feasible, to those whom it will help — mitigating friction and managing, but not eliminating, uncertainty. Once the information is gathered, it must be analyzed and synthesized. However, the type of technology required for analysis and synthesis depends on whether it is for staff planning or for commanders in combat operations. In “Guide to Tactics, Or the Theory of the Combat,” Clausewitz signals the difference “between the character of the determinations which form the plan and those which form the conduct of a battle: the cause of this is, that the circumstances under which the intelligence does its work are different.” This corresponds to two types of technologies useful for technology-enabled mission command: decision aids to help “form the plan” and battle management aids to help “form the conduct of battle.”

Staffs require decision aids to plan, while commanders need battle management tools to fight. These technologies entail different algorithms, computational power, modeling and simulation, data sets, security, and latency, among many other requirements. For staff, applications include route and search optimization (for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets) and weather forecasting as well as organizing, collating, analyzing, and synthesizing data to help during problem-framing and mission analysis. Optimization problems are a way to leverage quantum computing. Mission planning tools help determine how best to use, coordinate, and plan for technology that each element possesses. These are narrow applications where machine speed would help aggregate and analyze faster than planners collectively do. There’s also the development of planning products, most of which are produced in PowerPoint, regardless of whether or not that is the best tool, consuming a great deal of time and energy. Offloading some of this work to computer systems on a local network or, when able, reaching back to teams of expert analysts or larger computational systems, would allow the joint force to produce cogent plans faster, and better inform commanders as they make operational decisions.

Once the plan is made and issued — the first half of mission command — it is up to the subordinate commander to manage the uncertainty by making and executing decisions to best achieve the intended end state. Whereas decision aids used by staffs will likely have larger access to data and time to compile and simulate multiple courses of action, battle management aids need to be “satisficing” during the fight: An 80 percent solution now is better than a 100 percent solution later. To be effective these systems need to be able to operate when sparsely stimulated, without large data sets, and return fast and clear options. A “59 percent likely hostile” return, while helpful, will require further training and education before troops can be expected to act upon that information — particularly, as argued by Daniel Eichler and Ronald Thompson, in understanding cognitive biases, probabilities, and software decisions.

Once the order has been issued and the plan is in execution, staffs require battle management aid (as opposed to the decision aids mentioned above) to follow how the plan progresses, monitor decision points, and remain vigilant for when the plan has deviated from its initiation course such that it requires revision, intervention at the point of friction, or rudder steers. Meanwhile, during the conduct of the battle, commanders require decision aids to filter through the barrage of data, mitigate the input-output problem, and find the information to enable action, in accordance with the commander’s intent, yet consistent and faithful to the events transpiring on the ground.


This is not to say that the Department of Defense should not pursue advanced technology to assist commanders and staffs. Rather, that it should do so prudently. Reckless acquisition of technology can extinguish lower-level initiative and action before mission command is completely institutionalized. Artificial intelligence, automation, machine learning, and other increasingly desired technologies should always be seen as tools. War and warfare will remain a human enterprise no matter how remotely (in both time and space) some technologies operate. Command and control and command and feedback are people processes. Putting people first enables the Department of Defense to leverage the boundless capacity for human creativity to overcome inherent cooperative limitations and find ways to coordinate to accomplish the mission. The best asymmetric advantage in the United States military is, and has always been, its people. America’s democracy is primed to take advantage of the creativity, capacity, and inclusivity, and to harness the chaos and the ingenuity and innovation of the American people. In fact, mission command inherently “leverages the unique nature of the American people,” as the June 2010 Marine Corps Operating Concepts, Third Edition, notes. Now, when mission command is enabled by technology, imagine the possibilities; imagine a force of 21st-century John Paul Joneses.



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 Battleand 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: Wikicommons (Drawing by John Watson Davis)