Wait, Whose Intent? The Role of Commander’s Intent in Army Order Writing

So we’ve all written – or read, or heard – a plethora of operations orders, so much so that we can probably recite them in our sleep. This short post isn’t meant to be an operational primer but rather to help redirect order writers back to the single most important part of the order – which is incidentally the part that is so often made into a throwaway: the commander’s intent.

Now, where most people end up spending most of their time is in the execution paragraph, trying to delineate task and purpose for every piece of the operation and trying to be as precise as possible. Let’s be honest, though: all that stuff is good for ensuring that there is a plan, but once you make first contact, terrain and the enemy usually derail the plan. So you get some planners that try to overcome that by literally planning out every single thing that could go wrong. The results in too much time on the planning side, which removes time that could be used for rehearsals, load-outs, etc.

As Joshua “Bayonets” Chamberlain once wrote, “We know not of the future and cannot plan for it much.” Josh was on to something there, since his Medal of Honor came from executing his commander’s intent. While Chamberlain gets the lion’s share of credit for holding Little Round Top, he was merely executing his brigade commander’s intent: “hold the ground at all hazards.” If Chamberlain knew literally nothing else about what he was supposed to do or how he was to do it, he knew that he had to hold the position.

This is the essence of mission command. We truly cannot plan for all contingencies, nor can we train for them all. Warfare is an ever-changing and shifting process, with new technologies, tactics, and techniques being tried at all times. Human nature itself is fickle, and can play a major role in how battles develop. The will of each side to make sacrifices is something that cannot be simply delineated in an order. Therefore, the commander must clearly state her or his intent for the operation, no matter what may happen to the plan upon execution.

Commanders absolutely cannot shirk their duty when it comes to providing clear and direct intent with a precise endstate. As a planner, I used to play the game of “guess the commander’s intent” because he was rarely around to provide it. This should never happen.  Using the operational framework, commanders must provide their vision for the operation’s overall intent and where subordinates should direct their energy. It should not tell subordinates how to execute, but merely what their goals need to be.

This way, subordinate commanders or leaders can use mission command to navigate the shifting sands of the modern battlefield to take advantage of opportunities as they appear or make changes to the plan on the fly rather than waiting for new orders. Clear commander’s intent enables disciplined initiative, which is all the more crucial on a battlefield where we may be limited in communications abilities.

Clear commander’s intent means the difference between an Imperial surprise attack on Hoth or arriving into the Rebel force field. It is the difference between a battle won and a battle lost. It empowers subordinates to lead and make decisions. It is the single most important part of a mission order and should be treated as such.

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare. Support this blog’s Patreon here.

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