Reflections on #Leadership: Mission Command in the Information Age

The world is a complex place, and seems to grow more complex by the day. Information travels instantaneously across a cyberspace stalked by a new breed of warrior. The entire global economic system shudders when just one country hints at default or one bank fails. Small armed groups hold entire regions of the world hostage through terror and intimidation. Countries with nominal governments are actually ruled by non-state actors or fatally split by separatists supported from abroad. Historically great powers seek to prove their continued viability in the new era. All this said however, the world is no more complex than it has ever been, aside from the increases in technology and technological understanding and the undeniable benefits and challenges they entail. One leadership philosophy above all others is necessary to cope with this complex, and now more technologically advanced world—mission command. The concept of mission command, and its honest application, is crucial for all leaders, past, present, and future to develop and apply.

United States Army doctrine defines mission command as “the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander's intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders.”[1] In principle, this means leaders at all levels must be comfortable with uncertainty, leaders at the highest levels must accept that some or most events are outside of their control, and all parties involved must understand the mission and trust one another to accomplish it. Mission command is meant to cope with the fog of war, address the complexity of the operating environment, and enable operations to continue in spite of it.

As with most things tied to war however, mission command is difficult to implement in practice. It requires confident commanders, trustworthy subordinates, and clear guidance. On the modern battlefield the concept may even seem impossible given the communication, intelligence collection, and geolocation technology that is available even to the lowest-ranked service member. Why should a commander be prepared to forego control or a subordinate be prepared to accept the risk of independent action when there is a technological tether that enables an unprecedented amount of oversight?

" this information age, the American way of war is permeated by technology to the point that it is hard to imagine a time the military functioned without it."

Simply put, technology works until it does not, or until it works against you. Communications are vulnerable to intercept and jamming. Collection platforms can be duped, and geolocation devices deceived. This problem is compounded when the digital interconnectivity that defines the information age allows for the hacking of these same systems. Once hacked, these systems can be turned against the user in all manner of ways. A hacked system can foil an attack, stymie a defense, or enable enemy action at a decisive point. Equally applicable is when these systems fail to function at all. Something as mundane as a dead battery can make a folly of reliance on technology.

There is no doubt technology has enabled many recent military victories and improved the conduct of operations in general. Yet in this information age, the American way of war is permeated by technology to the point that it is hard to imagine a time the military functioned without it. In the worst cases it has bred a dangerous dependency that will have a negative effect against a determined, but less technologically dependent, enemy...or an enemy trained specifically to exploit an opponent’s reliance on technology. To remedy this, the concept of mission command must be inculcated into every American service member to enable them to accomplish the mission, regardless of whether their technological gadgets are working.

To train to this standard is difficult. The same technology that allows the American military to dominate the battlefield also allows its leaders to micromanage training—to focus on the pedantic and trivial, enforce an undeviating mode of execution, and to all but guarantee outcomes that ostensibly meet standards but in reality were achieved at the cost of valuable learning. In training, commanders become accustomed to always knowing when/where their subordinate elements are in real time. Then, as much as they rail against the notion, subordinate leaders become conditioned to constant oversight, and not being allowed to fail. Yet it is through coping with uncertainty, risking failure, and accepting an outcome as it is that the best learning occurs, and it is better this happen during training, than in actual combat.

Leaders must establish a clear purpose and endstate, make known what information still needs to flow to enable him or her to make decisions, and then consciously allow for periods in training where the tether that allows them so much control and oversight is cut. Operate solely via analog for a set period of time. Intentionally insert a comms blackout at a critical moment. Prohibit the use of GPS devices for certain movements. Enforce the use of codewords and radio transmission discipline. Allow a point where the OPFOR exploits electronic intelligence, a cyber attack, or a kinetic strike that reveals the locations and missions of friendly units or removes portions of the command structure. Within such scenarios, leaders must encourage disciplined initiative, and monitor and analyze the results. They must risk failure, de-emphasizing perfection and “winning” in favor of learning valuable lessons as an organization and allowing other leaders to independently grow and develop.

Furthermore, leaders must be capable of taking action without someone more senior looking over their shoulder, both on and off the battlefield. A young platoon leader should be just as confident in talking to a reporter or local leader after an attack as he or she would be in assaulting an objective as part of a plan even after radio communications fail. Subordinate leaders must be confident their chain of command will support them, within reason. Senior leaders need to trust that their subordinate leaders will conduct themselves with professionalism.. An extra burden is also on senior leaders to possess the fortitude to defend an outcome or decision, even one made at the lowest level, to strategic leaders. The absence of technological oversight should not be an excuse for either the subordinate or the senior to not own the results of their disciplined initiative. The confidence, trust, and fortitude in question cannot, however, be learned in the moment. It must be inculcated over a period of time.

“War is governed by the uncertain and the unknown, and the least known factor of all is the human element.”

Of course, a mission command training regimen will not cut through the fog of war any more than available technology does. After all, “War is governed by the uncertain and the unknown, and the least known factor of all is the human element.”[2] People will always be fallible, especially when it comes to war. At its core, though, a mission command training regimen trains that human element. It accustoms practitioners to operate within the uncertain and unknown, and to adapt to human error, which includes doing damage control after the fact. To also have the technology to mitigate the uncertain and unknown is all well and good. Yet to have technology but no plan to operate in its absence is folly.

Such an overreliance is an exploitable weakness. America’s current and potential enemies have displayed a marked ability to exploit technological systems to their advantage. Their foot soldiers however, in contrast to the American military, constantly operate and train in low-tech environments. It is conceivable that in an armed conflict the enemy will deliberately, or even accidentally knock out communication nodes, power generators, etc., or pinpoint the locations of friendly troops and critical infrastructure for follow on strikes. It is ironic that the sudden lack of technology often compounds the pre-existing uncertainty and unknown of the battlefield. And when the relative advantage offered by technology is negated, the void will be filled by people whether they are trained or not. Exploitation of these circumstances could drastically change the odds in the enemy’s favor, especially when fighting in terrain familiar to that enemy. Leaders and service members at all levels must be prepared at any time to operate without technology and still maintain overmatch even in austere conditions

To its credit, the Army has recognized the danger and plans to reintroduce facets of electronic and cyber warfare into its training center rotations—skills that have atrophied over the past two decades. Soldiers will be trained “to realize they are being jammed or hacked and that a realistic scenario involves partial disruption, with considerable ambiguity about what’s enemy action and what’s ordinary glitches.”[3]

Though this is a valuable step, it is only the first step. Leaders and soldiers must prepare for the training center the same as they would prepare for a war. The first exposure to electronic and cyber warfare must not come in either scenario. The same can be said of mission command—once the leader and/or soldier realizes they are being jammed or hacked, they must decide what to do next. This is where a prior regimen of mission command training will prove just as vital as a regimen that employs whatever technological gadgets are available on the electronic/cyber battlefield.

"Even in the information age, the fog of war remains the same and technology provides only the illusion of control."

Adhering to the tenets of mission command seems an obvious prescription, but it is also one that is all too often only paid lip service. Even in the information age, the fog of war remains the same and technology provides only the illusion of control. In a complex world, the side most accustomed to uncertainty and ambiguity is most likely to survive and thrive. It is exactly in such an environment that the mission command doctrine can and will make a difference. Leaders must accustom themselves to the uncertain and the ambiguous. They must train themselves and their subordinates to fight equally well across the entire spectrum of conflict. They must be prepared to dominate any battlefield through decisive action at the critical point, even without the benefit of technology or constant oversight. Leaders at all levels must honestly and deliberately exercise mission command at all times or they, their units, and the mission will pay the price when it truly counts.

Nathan Wike is an officer in the U.S. Army and a member of the Military Writer’s Guild. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] Army Doctrinal Reference Publication 6-0, Mission Command (Washington DC: Headquarters Department of The Army, March 28, 2014), p. 1-1.

[2] Captain Von Schell, Adolf. Battle Leadership. Edited by Edwin F Major Harding. Fort Benning - Columbus, GA: The Benning Herald, 1933, p 19.

[3] Freedberg Jr., Sydney J. "Maps & Jammers: Army Intensifies Training Vs. Russian-Style Jamming." Breaking Defense. Huntsville, Alabama, March 18, 2016.