June 21, 2024

But is updating the doctrine sufficient to answer its critics? Persistent execution challenges may go beyond what any doctrine can address.

It is no secret that the U.S. Army has struggled to implement mission command in garrison or non-tactical environments since the rollout of the 2012 Army Doctrinal Publication (ADP) and Army Doctrinal Reference Publication (ADRP) 6-0, Mission Command. The authors confirmed this by analyzing 52 U.S. Army War College Strategy Research Projects related to mission command. Students identified overly bureaucratic garrison processes as one of the trends that inhibited mission command. In April 2019, General Stephen Townsend, Major General Douglas Crissman, and Major Kelly McCoy wrote, “Reinvigorating the Army Approach to Mission Command: It’s OK to ‘Run with Scissors,’” which highlighted the underlying and persistent issue of “garrison bureaucracy often [being] at odds with our Army’s mission command doctrine.” Their July 2019 follow-up, subtitled “Leading with Mission Command” with Major General Gary Brito, addressed the need to practice mission command daily, “whether in garrison, during training, or while deployed for operations around the world.” The recent publication in July 2019 of the updated ADP 6-0 Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces, shows the Army is moving forward in a new direction to address this problem.

But is updating the doctrine sufficient to answer its critics? Persistent execution challenges may go beyond what any doctrine can address. These challenges include a lack of trust and risk aversion engendered by bureaucracy, which hinder the application of mission command principles by Army leaders in garrison environments. Resolving these issues could allow the Army to make mission command something substantially valued by the force.

According to ADP 6-0, “Mission command is the Army’s approach to command and control that empowers subordinate decision making and decentralized execution appropriate to the situation. Mission command supports the Army’s operational concept of unified land operations and its emphasis on seizing, retaining, and exploiting the initiative.” Compare this to the previous definition from the 2012 version: “Mission command is 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 in the conduct of unified land operations.”  This new definition has removed the term “commander” from its original definition, yet the heart of mission command is still command-centric. The new definition retains the term “unified land operations,” which unfortunately undermines the acceptance of mission command in a garrison environment.  Too many leaders, both soldiers and civilians, interpret mission command as principally applicable in combat, with little relevance to garrison environments.


The updated language of ADP 6-0 still focuses the philosophy of mission command on the commander, who exercises formal leadership over his or her organization as expressed in Army Command Policy. The commander gives guidance, orders, and directs the staff. Yet, leaders in non-command positions, such as other officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) do the same. The Army’s leader development process for officers and NCOs prepares them to assume leadership positions in troop and staff assignments alike, including leading and directing subordinates to execute missions. The principles of mission command from ADP 6-0 (e.g., Competence; Mutual Trust; Shared Understanding; Commander’s Intent; Mission Orders; Disciplined Initiative; and Risk Acceptance) prescribe the ways commanders can most effectively accomplish the mission at all echelons from company/battery levels, to the enterprise level. Yet, these same principles also prescribe ways leaders who are not commanders can lead effectively.

Unified Land Operations

The Army’s raison d’être is to conduct prompt and sustained land combat as part of the joint force. Accordingly, the priorities of mission command are accomplishing a tactical and operational mission while deployed and preparing for missions during home station training or during maneuver Combat Training Center rotations. Each environment is critical to developing and honing the application of mission command principles, yet leaders tends to ignore or not use the seven principles in garrison environments. Using mission command in the operational environment rather than in garrison is not an either-or scenario; rather, it is required in both. Embedding the principles of mission command within the garrison environment will yield dividends, as soldiers learn to expect mission command as part of the Army culture — as they operate in the tactical through strategic/enterprise levels. Why, therefore, is it so difficult for the Army to implement the principles of mission command in a garrison environment?

Lack of Trust and Risk Aversion

The Army does not fully embrace mission command in garrison (or elsewhere) because leaders are risk averse and lack trust in their subordinates, and these pathologies only increase in garrison environments. A leader’s tolerance for risk decreases in a non-tactical environment. Why is this? Risk tolerance is related to control and judgement. In their article, “Trust: Implications for the Army Profession,” Charles D. Allen and William G. “Trey” Braun, III assert that the Army’s culture is heavily reliant on, and influenced by, control or the use of “…organizational procedures (policies and regulations) … for the common and greater good.” Typically, this interpretation of the greater good leans on the side of centralization and rigidity, and it lowers a leader’s risk.

Tom Guthrie’s article, “Mission Command: Do We Have the Stomach For What Is Really Required?” asks a hypothetical question: “When ‘bad’ things happen under mission command, will we feel the need to control the outcomes better by increasing the approval level on a particular issue?” The answer is unequivocally yes. When things go wrong, the Army’s instinct is to exert control, create a checklist, and make the entire chain of command approve similar issues. When opportunities to empower subordinates exist, leaders often prefer, or default to, retaining more control, creating systems and policies to address risk or leadership failures. Unfortunately, those systems and policies often limit or impede initiative and foment risk aversion, as leaders become more concerned with the negative consequences of noncompliance. The updated ADP 6-0 addresses this issue: “Employing the mission command approach during all garrison activities and training events is essential to creating the cultural foundation for its employment in high-risk environments.”  Yet, how are we to fix this problem?

Too many leaders, both soldiers and civilians, interpret mission command as principally applicable in combat, with little relevance to garrison environments.

Negative perceptions about subordinates’ competence can further erode trust between leaders and subordinates. Allen and Braun argue that lack of interpersonal trust is one of two major threats to the Army. Focus group interviews with commanders at the lieutenant colonel and colonel levels, as well as with senior noncommissioned officers (command sergeants major), revealed a perceived lack of trust and confidence in subordinate leaders’ expertise (knowledge, skills, and abilities) for garrison (home station) operations. These leaders cited a lack of experience among midgrade officers (captains and majors) and noncommissioned officers (staff sergeants through sergeants first class) required for competence in home station training. ADP 6-0 addresses the need for the commander to “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.”  These perceptions combined with rigid and bureaucratic policies and regulations cause many senior leaders to micromanage routine garrison tasks, as opposed to enabling disciplined initiative and empowering subordinates. The root cause may be attributed to the ever present but often unspoken risk to career.

For mission command to be successful, leaders must be comfortable letting go. In the field, this may be relatively simple, as leaders find it difficult to micromanage formations spread out across kilometers of battlespace. In garrison, however, where missions and people are more centralized, the tendency to over control is significant. If a leader is concerned that their subordinates’ failure will reflect badly on them, they may fall prey to this pattern. Leaders must fight this urge. Guthrie calls this “consciously abdicating the responsibility of the outcome to subordinates.” Things will always go wrong. It was the impetus behind the Elder Moltke’s often quoted “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” If we are serious about implementing mission command, senior leaders must not crush subordinates when bad things happen. Of course, leaders must do the right thing, and negligence should neither be accepted nor overlooked. But the garrison environment should enable leaders at all levels to practice and encourage mission command.

The difference between the Army’s application of mission command in the field and in garrison is striking, and it is a problem. In the field, leaders are given wide latitude to make decisions, while in garrison, leaders rely on bureaucracy and managing systems. Consider the constraints on leaders to run a weapons range at home station, or even to travel for leisure, given the mandate that they complete a Travel Risk Planning System (TRiPS) worksheet before going. They must also verify mandatory training whenever they request mileage passes. (Of note, the U.S. Army is far from alone in its overzealous regulation in garrison. A British soldier, “Nick” writes about the “Erosion of Mission Command in Barracks” and describes the British military bureaucracy’s overregulation of government vehicles in garrison operations. Anyone who has ever signed out a U.S. government vehicle for official travel can relate.)

The Mission Command Mindset

Mission command must become a 24-hour, 365-day mindset in the Army. Every leader must commit to executing mission command in the field, in training, and in garrison, and whether they are in command or not. Leaders must not “put on” mission command only when signing their weapon out of the arms room or snapping on a helmet’s chinstrap. Using a mission command philosophy must be second nature. As stated in Townsend et al’s article, “[g]ood leaders practice mission command daily, continuously applying its principles during everything their units do in order to maximize the repetitions essential for making the principles second nature to everyone on the team.”

While leaders apply mission command across the Army in different units and formations, the amount of control shifts, based on the level of training, experience, and competence of leaders, soldiers, and civilians. Imagine two infantry companies. Both company commanders rely on mission command, but one commander encourages autonomy among his subordinate leaders and their platoons due to their experience and competence. The second company commander maintains greater control because her subordinate leaders lack experience and she has some doubts about their competence due to the complexity of the mission. This difference is OK. It wouldn’t be mission command if every situation demanded the same judgement. Each leader, however, must communicate with their subordinates on the “why” to create shared understanding and to build trust.

In any environment, senior leaders must empower their subordinates and model the principles of mission command. They must ruthlessly eliminate over-control or micro-management from their behavior. And if centralization is required, they must explain why. In Todd South’s recent article, “How changes to mission command will mean soldiers taking risks and taking charge on complex battlefields,” he quotes General Townsend as saying, “[t]here’s too much top down direction, too much philosophy of compliance in mission command.” Just as important as shared understanding and empowerment is trust.

Trust is the basis of all cohesion in the Army. The new ADP 6-0 states. “Mutual trust is essential to successful mission command,” and continues “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.” If the goal is to truly to build cohesive teams through mutual trust, all leaders, not just commanders, must actively embrace using the principles of mission command. In “Cutting Our Feet to Fit the Shoes: An Analysis of Mission Command in the U.S. Army,” Army major Amos C. Fox writes, “[r]egardless of the method of command and control stated in doctrine, commanders have always and will always evaluate their units and subordinates based on how much they trust them.” By using the principles of mission command in the garrison environment, leaders will reinforce its use and inculcate it in all the Army does.

Doug Orsi and Bobby Mundell are both retired Army Colonels, currently supporting the Center For Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of U.S Southern Command, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Lt. Gen. Mike Lundy, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and Commandant of CGSC, hosted the address and Q&A session with the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) class of 2018 on Aug. 14, 2017 and the Lewis and Clark Center, Fort Leavenworth, KS.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army Photos. Composite by Buck Haberichter


  1. Stop finding Buzz Words like “Mission Command” and “Unified Land Operations.”

    Just call it “Leadership in the Army,” then have everyone read “Message to Garcia!”

    End of Struggle!

  2. The authors are quite right that “mission command” must become a service wide cultural common response to all challenges exercised at the lowest possible level to be effective – a core competency!!

    Unfortunately that solution is impractical for the following reasons:
    1. In a regionally contested environment, the Combatant Command will be supporting multiple missions simultaneously across the spectrum of conflict. The Theater Strategic, Operational, and Tactical Levels will have to be supervised and de-conflicted in near real time. -Mission Command must also imply “Command by Negation”.

    2. The Army does not have a “Functional Battle Management System” that can function in real time above the tactical level to coordinate and execute distributed engagements across warfare mission areas. The Navy Composite Warfare Commander system does exist in Carrier Strike Groups only in a semi-automated form. It must evolve into a highly automated form retaining human decision responsibility only for engagement authorization with application from all command nodes.

    3. Modern C4ISR supporting IT systems do provide the capability to watch tactical engagements unfold in near real time from every command level. They are an invitation to senior level interference in local tactical and even administrative initiatives – fully enabling “Command by Negation” but blurring local responsibility for actions. Only an agreed upon set of protocols (doctrine) can limit such interference and only an automated system can track and report such interferences two or more command levels above which the interference was initiated.

    4. Policy establishes Objectives. Strategy connects policy to objective achievement. There are three “Strategy Applications” that are interdependent with quite different timelines. War Colleges teach only “Force Employment Strategy”. This application enables commanders to cope with crises using immediately available organic and supporting force capabilities – typically within hours or days. Under Goldwater- Nichols Act, ONLY Combatant Commands employ forces!! Only services administer forces!! War Colleges rarely make this distinction clear. The second Strategy Application is “Force Administration Strategy” – it involves career paths, promotion policy, training, equipment acquisition, and new capability integration into the legacy force -usually on a 10 to 15 year response time – a purely service responsibility. The third “Strategy Application” is “Force Design and Force Planning Strategy” typically exercised over 20 to 50 years – typically a service and service lab responsibility. Note that major pieces of equipment follow this timeline – conception to engineering and manufacturing development initiation ~15 years; engineering and manufacturing development initiation to IOC ~12 years; production life ~10 Years; service life ~ 20-50 years. The implication is that the span from conception to equipment exit from service can be 57 to 87 years. An uncorrected mistake in Administrative Strategy or Force Design and Force Planning Strategy can ensure that a commander in a force employment crisis does not have the necessary tools to ACT STRATEGICALLY. Most can think strategically.

    1. One addition: As we move toward human-robotic forces down to the squad level, the robots will record everything they witness for later reconstruction. This includes all the human actions in their field of view in combat and preparation for combat. The system will allow this data set to be viewed and analyzed from on high- even to the national level in near real time!

    2. there are many good points in your comment, but what evidence do you have that supports your statement that “most [commanders] can think strategically.”?

      i think that Westmoreland and Franks are perfect anti-examples, and things haven’t gotten better. We haven’t actually won a real war in about 70 years, even though logistics have improved, life-saving technologies have improved, and combat power has improved.

  3. Doctrine is much weaker than culture.

    Generals come from a system of micro-managers. They promote officers that are just like them, furiously busy keeping up with every molecule of administrivia. The entire system is designed merely to keep generals and SES’s informed of what the “workers” are actually doing. Generals lose “stock” in the pentagon when they don’t know something about their own organization that another general knows in a meeting, even if it’s relatively trivial. Even with all of this redundant reporting, the Army STILL can’t see itself and STILL can’t plan ahead. General officers and SES’s are fixated on easy metrics (for example, did everyone get their mandatory training/CLPs done) but none of them have won a war in 70 years and none of them actually know how many “repetitions” of a given training event is optimal for readiness.

    It’s a waste of time to write doctrine that conflicts with an organization’s culture..

  4. Mission Command sounds good, but in reality most commander’s cannot come to grips with it. Everyone who works for a Commander, Commanding General etc would love to operate within the contexts of defined mission command. The bitter truth is that most senior leaders are incapable of not micromanaging in order to ensure they get promoted. I think we should really ditch the term “mission command”, and focus on leadership and what being a leader is from the bottom to the top. Eventually, the Army will grow a leader who actually uses mission command for what the term is trying to be defined as, not because it is a buzz word or some mediocre micromanaging General said to use.

  5. It is time for a new command and control philosophy that does not confuse empowered, decentralized ‘mission command’ as all encompassing. It is important, but we submit that mission command is a subordinate, essential element to a new command philosophy that recognizes and embraces technologically enhanced command wherein lies control at the point of situational understanding.


  6. It is time for a new command and control philosophy that does not confuse empowered, decentralized ‘mission command’ as all encompassing. It is important, but we submit that mission command is a subordinate, essential element to a new command philosophy that recognizes and embraces technologically enhanced command wherein lies control at the point of situational understanding.


  7. Agree with the mission command philosophy principles; however, the only ones who really understand and can brief it (from my view) are General Officers and writers of the doctrine because they are trained on it many times over. The lower ranking Warfighters do not get nor are they offered the same level of training and opportunities to learn and grow. So if the boots on the ground don’t understand the 5Ws of where the head is headed–we have confusion, mistrust and no shared mutual undertanding.
    We do mission orders all the time and not many of them are clear and concise. In fact, one mission orders get reproduced by each lower command and by the time it gets to the Warfighter for execution they have been told what to do and how to do it. Just he opposition of what mission command is supposed to achieve. Let’s get a clear understanding from top to bottom, ensure training is trained at every level sufficiently and hold GOs responsible for trusting the team to complete the orders they have issues.

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