The Principles of War Podcast

What is Mission Command?

James Eling

This page brings together the range of PME material on Mission Command, discussing what is Mission Command along with the Principles of Mission Command and Examples of Mission Command.

This PME should help officers and SNCOs understand what Mission Command is, where it came from, why it is important today (today, now more than ever!) and most importantly how to practice it in your unit or sub-unit.  The list here will be evolving as we develop more resources, including those specifically around Mission Command and other resources that help highlight the context for MIssion Command.

Mission Command

Mission Command isn’t new, indeed elements of it can be traced back thousands of years when Sun Tzu said, “If orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame.” However, many authors look at the twin disasters of Jena-Auerstadt for the Prussians at the hands of Napoleon’s French Army as being the birthplace of MC, but it is clear that the benefits of MC were clear to many before the development of the Prussian Military developments.

The Battle of Jena-Auerstadt - the birth of Mission Command
The failure of the Prussian Army at Jena and Auerstedt lead to a defeat so humbling that the Prussians were prepared to throw out all of the current thinking about war fighting in an effort to ensure that this never happened again.  With doctrine that dated back to Frederick the Great, the Prussian Army did not communicate well and the staff system was dysfunctional.
French dragoon with a captured Prussian standard at the Battle of Jena
The defeat at Jena was bought about by poor command and control and planning, and the standard of training of the Prussian forces was inferior to that of the French.
Birth of Mission Command?
Nothing says failure like enemy troops in the Capital.

Mission Command Examples and the Nelson Touch

Nelson embodied Mission Command before the Battles of Jena-Auerstadt that led to the thinking that formed into the German concept of Mission Command.

“To say that an officer is never, for any object, to alter his orders, is what I cannot comprehend. The circumstances of this war so often vary, that an officer has almost every moment to consider, what would my superiors direct, did they know what was passing under my nose?” “But, sir,” said he writing to the Duke of Clarence, “I find few think as I do. To obey orders is all perfection. To serve my king, and to destroy the French, I consider as the great order of all, from which little ones spring; and if one of these militate against it (for who can tell exactly at a distance?) I go back and obey the great order and object, to down—down with the damned French villains!—my blood boils at the name of Frenchmen!”

We’ve done 3 episodes on Horatio Lord Nelson with a few more to come.  Plans are to discuss the Battles of the Nile and Copenhagan to further draw out the MC PME lessons.

Lord Horatio Nelson and Mission Command | The Principles of War Podcast

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52 – Lord Nelson and the Battle of Cape St Vincent | The Principles of War Podcast

This is Part II of our look at Lord Horatio Nelson and the practice of Mission Command. Check out episode 1 of our Nelson and Mission Command series. Check out the Part III of our Nelson and Mission Command series for the battle maps that illustrate just how he manoeuvred HMS Captain.

53 – Royal Navy MC at the Battle of Cape St Vincent | The Principles of War Podcast

We continue to look at the genesis of Royal Navy Mission Command with Lord Horatio Nelson. The Battle of Cape St Vincent is his first famous disobediences, using his understanding of the situation, specific the view he has of how the battle is unfolding at the rear of the line and disobeys orders in order to meet the intent of his Commander, Admiral Sir John Jervis.

Here is a list of Nelson mission Command PME resources:

Joe Byerly – Small Wars Jounal.  “How to lead with the Strength of Nelson

Ryan Mewett – War on the Rocks.  “The Emergence of Horatio Nelson: Lessons for Leaders”  A great discussion of some of the lessons from the Battle of Cape St Vincent.

Steve Orbon.  The Field Grade Leader.  The Nelson Touch:  “Leader Development and Its Link to Realizing Mission Command

LCDR Ronald Parker USN.  USMC Command and Staff College.  “Mahan for the Twenty First Century:  His Principles Still Apply to National Power.

LCDR graham Scarbro, USNI.  “Go straight at ‘Em:  Training and Operating with Mission Command

Brian Dive.  Mission Mastery:  Revealing a 100 Year Old Leadership Secret.”

Andrew Lambert “Nelson: Britannia’s God of War”

A. T. Mahan.  “The Life of Nelson, Volume 1

A. T. Mahan.  “The Life of Nelson, Volume 2

Robert Southey, “The Life of Horatio Lord Nelson

Examples of Mission Command

BRIG Ulf Henricsson and Mission Command with NORDBAT 2.

The excellent article by Tony Ingesson on Strategy Bridge, Trigger-Happy, Autonomous and Disobedient: Nordabat 2 and Mission Command in Bosnia, highlighted the benefits of MC.  His story is really interesting and I was lucky enough to be able to interview BRIG Henricsson to get a better understanding of how he structured Nordbat 2 and his Command Philosophy as the Battle Group was put into a complex socio-political situation.

I interviewed BRIG Henricsson in 2019 as a part of a wider discussion about Mission Command.  Have a listen to the interview to get an understanding of the implementation of MC in the Swedish military.

Read the article, and or listen to the podcasts.

Podcast – 1  and Podcast 2

You can listen to the podcasts through the links or on your favourite podcast player on your phone.

Nordbat 2 Bosnia Mission Command
We look at Mission Command was integral to Mission Success for Nordbat 2.
Mission Command and Army
We look at the doctrine around Mission Command.

What are the Principles of Mission Command?

The following is an extract of ADP 6-0 which lists 7 Principles of Mission Command.  Competence was added in the last update to the Doctrine.

  • Competence.
  • Mutual trust.
  • Shared understanding.
  • Commander’s intent.
  •  Mission orders.
  • Disciplined initiative.
  • Risk acceptance.

COMPETENCE

Tactically and technically competent commanders, subordinates, and teams are the basis of effective mission command. An organization’s ability to operate using mission command relates directly to the competence of its Soldiers. Commanders and subordinates achieve the level of competence to perform assigned tasks to standard through training, education, assignment experience, and professional development.  Commanders continually assess the competence of their subordinates and their organizations. This assessment informs the degree of trust commanders have in their subordinates’ ability to execute mission orders in a decentralized fashion at acceptable levels of risk.

Training and education that occurs in both schools and units provides commanders and subordinates with the experiences that allow them to achieve professional competence. Repetitive, realistic, and challenging training creates common experiences that develop the teamwork, trust, and shared understanding that commanders need to exercise mission command and forces need to achieve unity of effort. Leaders supplement institutional and organizational training and education with continuous self-development. Self-development is particularly important for the skills that rely on the art of command, which is further developed by reading  and studying the art of war. These skills can also be developed through coursework, simulations and experience.

MUTUAL TRUST

Mutual trust is shared confidence between commanders, subordinates, and partners that they can be relied on and are competent in performing their assigned tasks. There are few shortcuts to gaining the trust of others. Trust is given by leaders and subordinates and built over time based on common shared experiences. It is the result of upholding the Army values, exercising leadership consistent with Army leadership principles, and most effectively instilled by the leader’s personal example.  Mutual trust is essential to successful mission command, and it must flow throughout the chain of command. Subordinates are more willing to exercise initiative when they believe their commander trusts them. They will also be more willing to exercise initiative if they believe their commander will accept and support the outcome of their decisions. Likewise,  commanders delegate greater authority to subordinates who have demonstrated tactical and technical competency and whose judgment they trust.

At the lowest tactical levels the ability to trust subordinate formations to execute their collective tasks and battle drills is essential. Building that trust is critical to rapid decision making in high-pressure situations; commanders should be focused more on the problem to be solved when giving guidance than the methods that their subordinates might use. Subordinates must trust that commanders will employ mission orders to the maximum extent possible once they have demonstrated the attributes and competencies expected.  Commanders must also trust their colleagues who are commanding adjacent and supporting forces, and they must earn their trust as well. When a commander exercises initiative, trust gives other commanders the same level of confidence to synchronize their actions with those of that commander. Such actions synchronize operations without requiring detailed instructions from higher echelons. Once established and sustained, trust allows each echelon to focus on operations as a whole instead of on the actions of individual subordinates.

SHARED UNDERSTANDING

A critical challenge for commanders, staffs, and unified action partners is creating shared understanding of an operational environment, an operation’s purpose, problems, and approaches to solving problems. Shared understanding of the situation, along with the flow of information to the lowest possible level, forms the basis for unity of effort and subordinates’ initiative.  Effective decentralized execution is not possible without shared understanding.

COMMANDER’S INTENT

I suppose dozens of operation orders have gone out in my name, but I never, throughout the war, actually wrote one myself. I always had someone who could do that better than I could. One part of the order I did, however, draft myself—the intention. It is usually the shortest of all paragraphs, but it is always the most important, because it states—or it should—just what the commander intends to achieve. It is the one overriding expression of will by which everything in the order and every action by every commander and soldier in the army must be dominated. It should, therefore, be worded by the commander, himself. 
Field Marshall William Joseph Slim

The commander’s intent is a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired military end state that supports mission command, provides focus to the staff, and helps subordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commander’s desired results without further orders, even when the operation does not unfold as planned. The higher echelon commander’s intent provides the basis for unity of effort throughout the force. Each commander’s intent nests within the commander’s intent two levels up. During planning, the initial commander’s intent drives course of action development. During execution, the commander’s intent establishes the limits within which a subordinate may exercise initiative.

MISSION ORDERS

An order should not trespass upon the province of a subordinate. It should contain everything that the subordinate must know to carry out his mission, but nothing more… An order must be simple and understandable, being framed to suit the intelligence and understanding of the recipient. Above all, it must be adapted to the circumstances under which it will be received and executed.
FM 100-5, Tentative Field Service Regulations, Operations (1939)

An order is a communication—verbal, written, or signaled—that conveys instructions from superiors to subordinates. The five-paragraph format (situation, mission, execution, sustainment, and command and signal) is the standard for issuing Army orders. Army commanders issue orders to give guidance, assign tasks, allocate resources, and delegate authority. Mission command requires commanders to issue mission orders. Mission orders are directives that emphasize to subordinates the results to be attained, not how they are to achieve them. Mission orders enable subordinates to understand the situation, their commander’s mission and intent, and their own tasks. Subordinate commanders decide how to accomplish their own mission. The commander’s intent and concept of operations set guidelines that provide unity of effort while allowing subordinate commanders to exercise initiative in planning, preparing, and executing their operations.

DISCIPLINED INITIATIVE

Every individual from the highest commander to the lowest private must always remember that inaction and neglect of opportunities will warrant more severe censure than an error of judgment in the action taken. The criterion by which a commander judges the soundness of his own decision is whether it will further the intentions of the higher commander.
FM 100-5, Tentative Field Service Regulations, Operations (1941)

Disciplined initiative refers to the duty individual subordinates have to exercise initiative within the constraints of the commander’s intent to achieve the desired end state. Simply put, disciplined initiative is when subordinates have the discipline to follow their orders and adhere to the plan until they realize their orders and the plan are no longer suitable for the situation in which they find themselves. This may occur because the enemy does something unforeseen, there is a new or more serious threat, or a golden opportunity emerges that offers a greater chance of success than the original course of action. The subordinate leader then takes action on their own initiative to adjust to the new situation and achieve their commander’s intent, reporting to the commander about the new situation when able to do so.

RISK ACCEPTANCE

Given the same amount of intelligence, timidity will do a thousand times more damage in war than audacity.
Carl von Clausewitz

In general terms, risk is the exposure of someone or something valued to danger, harm, or loss. Because risk is part of every operation, it cannot be avoided. Commanders analyze risk in collaboration with subordinates to help determine what level of risk exists and how to mitigate it. When considering how much risk to accept with a course of action, commanders consider risk to the force and risk to the mission against the perceived benefit. They apply judgment with regard to the importance of an objective, time available, and anticipated cost. Commanders need to balance the tension between protecting the force and accepting and managing risks that must be taken to accomplish their mission.

Discussion questions.

These are a list of questions to stimulate discussion around the practice of Mission Command.

  • Why do we use MC?
  • How effective is MC today?
  • Does tight legislative and regulatory requirements, together with resource constraints, compound to work against MC? Do these constraints breed conservatism and indecisiveness, potentially creating a tendency towards risk aversion in a wider operational environment?
  • What is the relationship between risk and MC?  Is MC easier to practice in conflict than in a peacetime military?
  • How would BRIG Henricsson’s leadership mesh within a current military context?
  • Is there a requirement for the political leadership to have an understanding of MC for it to be effective in a Western Democracy?

Other PME Resources:

Donald Wright, US Army Combined Arms Center.  “16 Cases of Mission Command.

Department of the Army.  “ADP 6-0 Mission Command.  Command and Control of Army Forces.”