Origins of this Mission Command Book

Origins of “Mission Command: The Who, What, Where, When, and Why”

By Don Vandergriff

Origins of Mission Command: 5Ws
Origins of Mission Command: 5Ws

Origins of this book began with an array of volunteers who are members of the Facebook page “Developing for Mission Command: The Missing Link”. Why write another group of essays on Mission Command? The simple reason is that our countries are at war. Many of us have lost friends in places most of our countrymen have never heard of in places like Nangahar and Tikrit. Many of us will continue to deploy to these places, are there now or have recently returned. We care, very deeply, about our respective countries and our armies and other services, as well as our law enforcement agencies. We believe we can be better, and we have bought into the argument that “decentralized execution” and “mission orders” will “enable initiative” and “empower agile and adaptive leaders.” Lastly, we are greatly frustrated by the apparent lack of interest in our institution to publish articles that are critical of current efforts related to Mission Command. We firmly believe that the institution is going in the wrong direction and wish to offer practitioners alternatives to the official white-washed line, theoreticians a glimpse into why we think the Army continues to struggle with implementing its official leadership philosophy, and the institution a chance to consider a mirror image of itself with no painted-on clothes.

Apart for some style and writing format, my guidance to the authors, all serving personnel in our military, allied military, a DA civilian and even a policeman—who has implemented Mission Command in his department and development business—was to “tell it like it is.” The goal of the book was to present a series of essays that do not redefine or try to explain the US Army’s current lawyer-centric language, or its redefine its principles of Mission Command, or further elaborate the doctrine spelled out in Army’s ADP 6-0, Mission Command.

This body of work is an explicit response to the U.S. Army’s latest official position on the state of Mission Command, “Mission Command in the 21st Century.” Prior to the Army Press publishing the collection, the Combined Arms Center (CAC) asked Donald E. Vandergriff and Dr. Jorg K. Muth to contribute submissions for the publication. Sending them a stock rejection response to their submissions, the two could only conclude what they had already suspected: that the institution was not interested in anything critical of the Army with respect to Mission Command.

The two authors’ ideas were subjects long debated throughout the military through informal channels and mostly through non-military publications. These were: that the Army does not conduct Mission Command as a normal way of doing business, that there are systemic obstacles to the conduct of Mission Command, and that the problem has become so pervasive that the Army’s culture has become corrupted. This implies that change will be difficult and take some time. Without, however, an admission as to the scope of the problem, we have no hope that the Army will become “better” over time. If anything, things will get worse.

What can we do, then? We offer three main themes for those in the business of leading efforts in times of perceived fundamental change using the US military reporting format of Who and What for the first section; then Where and When for the 2nd Section, and finally, Why (how-to) for the 3rd or final section.


Part 1 What is Mission Command? The authors define what Mission Command is or is not from a variety of organizations and experiences.

Part 2 “Where (history) of Mission Command?” The authors use historical examples of the implementation of Mission Command.

Part 3. The How To of Mission Command? The authors of this section provide real world examples of how they have successfully implemented Mission Command or provide recommendations on how to establish it in today’s culture.

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We hope, first and foremost, that practitioners find this to be more useful than the stale, “everything is going great, but we just need to keep on getting better” mantra that seems to be the current official stances of most of the Army’s publications. Second, we intend this to be a call for radical reform of the Army, starting with the Army’s per- sonnel system. It is our assertion that the majority of the Army’s issues with respect to Mission Command can be traced to the negative unin- tended consequence of the personnel system: a system based on cen- tralized bureaucratic control, prediction, and efficiency. This personnel system arguably supported the nation during the Cold War. It is effectively undermining our efforts since at least 1989 and, more presciently, with respect to the current fight against violent extremist organizations. Lastly, we tie a training and educational construct that largely follows Mission Command’s philosophy to that which is needed to support the concept.

It is our fervent belief that more technology, a fixation on command and control relationships (OPCON, TACON, etc.), and the current per- sonnel system will not advance the use of Mission Command. With respect to technology, it is quite the opposite: more communications capability, “battlefield awareness” in terms of remote cameras and battle-tracking technology, and larger staffs processing ever more amounts of infor- mation simply paralyzes headquarters. Perhaps counterintuitively, effective Mission Command requires less technology and staff, not more. True shared understanding and valid intent empowers subordinates to the point that more staff, information, and connectivity are not needed.

Finally, we hope to emphasize that we do not hold these positions lightly, nor do we wish ill towards our respective services and organiza- tions. We truly care about improving the lot of the soldier that grunt on the ground who has to live with the consequences of our mistakes. For one day it will be our children or grand-children involved in these oper- ations. If we are still attempting at that time to “out-Mission Command” our enemies with technology, less-than-honest assessments of ourselves, and an outdated personnel system, then we will have failed.

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[1] Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mission Command White Paper (April 3, 2012), 1.

1 thought on “Origins of this Mission Command Book”

  1. I have not yet read the book, but I will. 12+ years ago, I was part of the OFT team that was introducing network-centric operations to both US and NATO Commands. Working with the German Airforce, we were introduced to Auftragstaktik. It was clear that this form of Mission Command could be facilitated very easily by the kinds of networks we were developing. We saw it as more of a cultural effort than a doctrinal one – indeed, to me, turning it into a doctrine defeated the purpose of the flexibility and agility provided by the technology. Back in 1995, we had worked with NSWG1 on a new vision and strategic plan. In it, we helped them develop a Mission Command approach that resulted in a 40% reduction of “mother may I?” messages back to the Strand. An unambiguous Commander’s Intent that left the SEALs free to conduct the missions as they chose, was enormously effective. But among other forces 10 years later, the critical problem became that of the technology providing any Commander with a 7,000 mile screwdriver. To me, that defeated the whole purpose of the cultural approach to Mission Command.

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