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Mission Command and Detailed Command – It’s Not a Zero-Sum Game


By Alan Hastings

Recent debate among military professionals on the subjects of mission command and detailed command has highlighted a common misunderstanding about each’s role in tactical operations. While we cannot expect to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative without embracing the philosophy of mission command, it is not a panacea to every tactical problem leaders are likely to face. Operations often require detailed command and control in order to achieve the overwhelming effects on the enemy necessary to accomplish the mission. Thus, both mission command and detailed command provide value to the tactical leader during operations.

The use of mission orders enables disciplined initiative by the tactical leader to pursue realization of the commander’s desired end state. The tactical leader conducts operations in accordance with his commander’s intent. When he encounters an enemy, he executes a decision cycle and acts in the manner that he believes will result in the most favorable outcome.

Against those enemies within his formation’s capabilities to defeat, he executes those maneuvers or battle drills that he and his formation have trained for just such a circumstance, defeats the enemy, and resumes the attack in accordance with the commander’s intent (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – The tactical leader executes a decision cycle (here, represented by actions on contact) and acts by conducting a well-rehearsed battle drill.

Against those enemies beyond his formation’s capabilities to defeat, he requests support from or provides recommendations to his higher commander for the employment of additional combat power (Figure 2).


Figure 2 – The tactical leader executes a decision cycle (again, represented by actions on contact) and acts by requesting support and making recommendations to the higher commander.

Up to this point, the higher commander’s mission orders and leadership via mission command have been adequate to solve all tactical problems that his subordinate leaders might face (Figure 3). The higher commander is able to conduct operations through decentralized execution based on mission orders. His subordinate leaders need little additional guidance beyond the commander’s intent.


Figure 3 – The higher commander conducts operations based on mission orders and decentralized execution.

However, once faced with a threat that his subordinate formations cannot defeat with their own organic capabilities, he must synchronize the maneuver of two or more of his subordinate formations and bring additional assets to bear in order to solve a more complex tactical problem. He too executes a decision cycle, observing (by receiving his subordinate’s report), orienting, deciding, and acting in the manner that he believes will result in the most favorable outcome. However, the synchronization of two or more assets requires detailed command, necessitating the use of common graphic control measures, well-defined triggers, and synchronized execution. Through detailed command and control, he defeats the enemy along his path of attack and resumes his mission (Figure 4). Similarly, if he finds that the enemy is beyond his combined capability to defeat, he may request support or provide recommendations to the next higher commander.


Figure 4 – The higher commander conducts operations, employing detailed control and synchronization of execution to achieve an overwhelming effect against the enemy.

Once this situation is resolved, he can then revert back to leading through mission orders and commander’s intent. By doing so, he allows subordinate leaders to act or make recommendations to seize emerging, yet fleeting opportunities on the battlefield, increasing the overall tempo of his operation.

In planning operations, commanders can predict those instances that will require synchronization of combat power and integration of multiple formations and assets. Often, this will prove to be either the main effort in a given phase of the operation or decisive point of the operation itself. In shaping operations and supporting efforts, we may accept risk and forgo detailed planning, confident in our subordinate formations’ abilities to accomplish the mission with their organic capabilities.

We should not approach mission command and detailed command with an either/ or mindset. Mission command and adherence to its principles allows the formation to retain its tempo through the identification of opportunities by and disciplined initiative of subordinate leaders. Without it, we stall out and become reactive, waiting on the commands of higher headquarters or the need to react to enemy actions. Yet detailed control allows us to overcome those complex tactical problems that require the full weight of combat power that we can bring to bear, synchronizing effects across all warfighting functions.

CPT Alan Hastings currently serves as a Senior Tactical Analyst at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California. He holds a B.S from the United States Military Academy. An armor officer, he has served as a Cavalry Troop OC/T, Troop Commander, and Tank Platoon Leader.


9 thoughts on “Mission Command and Detailed Command – It’s Not a Zero-Sum Game”

  1. Every echelon down to a squad has maneuver elements. If detailed orders are required to synch them, then detailed orders and mission orders always coexist, just at different echelons. So is the real distinction here that synchronizing requires detailed orders so that when a maneuver commander loses the capacity to manage the fight at his level, he loses HIS autonomy?

    I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but it does create the following option: a mission set can be constructed where no element ever maneuvers without higher assets engaged (e.g. ISR, fires, etc). Higher assets are, by definition, not controlled assets, even if they are dedicated. In such a plan, mission orders would be nonexistent, all maneuver would be through detailed orders, and we are essentially back at Command and Control (C2). So, how does one construct an argument for mission orders/mission command, that doesn’t create such a scenario? I think that is necessary if we are ever to break out of C2, or we need to just concede that it is what it is and mission orders are simply impractical above platoon level.

    • I’d push back on this a bit. Where a mutual trust between subordinate higher leaders exists, many of the principles of mission command should be present in every operation. Regardless of his use of detailed orders, the commander still issues a Commander’s Intent and expects his subordinates to fight in accordance with it. Subordinates still aggressively exercise disciplined initiative, thrusting and probing for gaps in the enemy plan and recognizing opportunities to achieve the desired end state in less time or at a lesser cost. Where successful, they continue to push the attack. Even up against a formidable enemy we cannot ourselves defeat, we, adopting a maneuver mindset, may recognize that the threat force may not need to be defeated, but can be fixed and bypassed. But when the tactical problem must be solved and can only be solved by the support from an echelon above, we need to consider detailed command and control to integrate and synchronize sufficient combat power to defeat the threat.
      Nor are we likely to be arrayed man-on-man against our enemy in a future fight. Gaps in the enemy plan and opportunities will exist at every level for subordinate leaders to identify and offer recommendations to exploit. Hopefully, we can reduce the number of instances wherein we must use detailed command to synchronize combat power to create gaps. We don’t want fair fights and we must always be on the lookout to avoid them. However, we may often be asked to create a gap where none exists and we have to be able to do it, even if that means telling a commander exactly where and when we need his formation to achieve a certain effect.
      The movement to contact, exploitation, and pursuit strike me as operations in which mission command is especially powerful to recognizing opportunities through decentralized execution. But mission command provides the foundation for all operations to enable flexibility and agility to the formation if things do not occur according to plan. The use of detailed command doesn’t mean we are abandoning mission command. We’re simply bringing combat power together to eliminate obstacles and provide opportunities for increased tempo in the future.

      • I don’t disagree with any single point. In a unit of decently trained officers and men, who have built a fair bit of mutual trust, where the commander(s) have bought lock stock and barrel into the idea of mission orders and as much delegation as they can stomach, this can all hold true. My point is about application. By suggesting that mission orders and detailed orders always coexist I fear we are creating opportunity to default to detailed orders. As soon as a unit isn’t all those things I listed above and you covered in your post, the temptation to resort to detailed orders will be overwhelming for all but the most committed commanders. After all, one can ALWAYS find a reason to add detail or coordinating instructions.

        I think this whole discussion points clearly as to why we struggle so much with making Mission Orders/Mission Command as real and common as we want. The way we think about planning and managing operations means detailed orders and C2 are always in the room, ready to decrease risk and increase control. The article is right that we can’t think of them as either or. I would go a step further and add that mission orders as a concept needs to be thorough enough to not need the concept of detailed orders at all. Having graphic control measures, timelines, etc. isn’t death to mission orders unless they prevent tactical decision making by the subordinate elements. Sometimes timing a tactical sequence of events tightly makes sense (e.g. ambush, breach, etc.). But, if the detailed orders are so detailed that the change in the tactical situation can’t be adapted to without re-writing all those details, then they have become too constricting. That, I think, is the core of the difference between Mission Orders and not-Mission Orders. When not-mission orders fail to adapt they lead to frantic “winging it”.

        Therefore mission orders need to be detailed enough to concentrate firepower/resources, but flexible enough to allow redirection without needing brilliant tacticians to prevent traffic jams, friendly fire, gaps in the line, and cut off elements…and that requires detailed orders/detailed command to die as a concept. It’s simply too different, conceptually, too easy to fall back on, and clashes too hard with the ethos behind mission command. We can have more or less detailed mission orders, so long as the ethos of parsimony in detail and tactical delegation is preserved. “Seize OBJ X NLT 1200, fires and scouts are yours to use between 0800 and 1200” is just too different from “seize OBJ X NLT 1200, SP at 0800, LU at 1000, RP 1130, TRP00001 at 1145, TRP0002 at 1147 etc etc etc.”

        It’s worth pointing out that if our resource management can’t support that kind of flexibility then perhaps we need to rethink how our MTOEs do or do not support mission command. Maybe we are hard-wired for detailed command organizationally.

  2. I appreciate the insight. I see this in terms of risk, as risk increases above a subordinate commander’s/leader’s level, higher level leaders need to assume greater control.

    Commander’s should lay the ground work for increasing and decreasing command and control during the unit’s train up (building trust), SOP development (established expectation on how the unit will share awareness and understanding during a mission) and during the mission’s planning phase (ie employing a method of graphic control measures that allow units to communicate and adapt off of, such as TIRS (terrain index reference system)).

    As you lay out here, mission command is a two way street. Subordinate leaders need to know when to inform the higher leader that the risk level is too great. Commander’s need to know their unit to know the capabilities of their subordinates. Commanders also need to develop the trust in their organization (up and down) that their subordinate leaders will know when they are overmatched (risk is too great).

    Experience is important here as well as type of mission. Many companies may be able to execute the Attack in Figure 4 with limited detailed control if they posses considerable experience together, just executing SOPs, battle drills and fire plans. A BCT Combined Arms Breach, though, pretty much demands a least detailed control and if not, detailed command every time.

    Just some thoughts. Again, thanks for the post.

    • Mark,

      Could not state it better myself. Units that spend the time to develop a shared understanding of how they fight (SOPs) and building mutual trust between leaders in one another’s competence allows for more instances in which subordinate formations can coordinate and tackle tactical problems IAW the Commander’s Intent without detailed command and control by higher headquarters. Shared understanding, mutual trust, disciplined initiative, Commander’s Intent – it’s all there. Mission command cultures are built in training and fighting in combat together and takes time.

      Some nuts though, like a breach or air assault, are too tough to crack by ourselves and require synchronization of combat power to achieve an overwhelming effect.

      • Thanks tl, I appreciate both your comments as well. Trust across a formation is central to mission command and it takes time and energy to build.

  3. Mission command is more than a method for controlling forces in combat. It is a philosophy that promotes a culture, with deep historical roots. All of this discussion on the use of methods ‘MC vs detailed’, use of mission orders, etc, means that our understanding of Mission Command is doctrine deep. Our profession is more than doctrine. We need to read a few more books. The objective is building a culture of Mission Command. Hastings’ argument is built on a fallacy, an appeal to moderation.

  4. The article’s premise is valid regarding specific situational applications of so-called “detailed command.” The danger, however, is conflating this with the larger (and far more important) discussion of Mission Command as organizational culture. Within that context, Mission Command is an all or nothing proposition. An organization’s culture either supports Mission Command or it does not. If Mission Command defines the culture, specific application of detailed command is easily possible. The opposite, however, is not. A culture of “detailed command” does not easily allow situation-specific application of Mission Command. The conflation of these two topics, one of situation-specific application and the other of overarching organizational culture, is like conflating tactics with strategy, with equally damaging potential consequences.

    • An option that is left out in this scenario is the lateral self-organization and coordination that can be conducted by subordinates while the higher commander does the same with his peers. In the scenario in this article, the platoon leaders and the mortar section leader can self-synchronize their actions within the company commanders intent on the company net while the company commander is spending his mental energy on the battalion net doing the same with his fellow company commanders, the mortar platoon leader, and the battalion FSO.


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