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Posted on Jun 13, 2008 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101: 027. Commander’s Intent

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

There was a time when subordinate units and their commanders could fight successfully armed with nothing more than the order of march and their place on the line. The battlefield was compact enough that the commander could oversee the fight and, through couriers, could direct his subordinate movements. Frederick the Great was probably the last great commander who could pull this off. With the arrival of Napoleonic warfare, the battlefield grew much larger as did the armies that fought on them. Combat became dispersed and direct control was no longer possible.

Commanders need additional tools to augment the faithful duo of task and purpose. Why? The expanding battlefield where commanders can’t see each other and may periodically lose radio contact implies that there will be times when subordinates will need guidance, but will be unable to get it. The task may not be do-able and the purpose may have become irrelevant in the course of events. How is the commander to proceed without instructions from the boss?


Commander’s intent fills the occasional void caused by dispersion. It tells subordinates how to act if the plan falls apart, the boss is out of communications, or the situation has taken an unexpected turn and you have to decide how to respond (now). Intent answers the question; what would the commander do if he were here? Intent is not a mini order. It isn’t complex, long winded, or all encompassing. The commanders who have mastered Warfighting as an art deliver a concise, memorable, and illustrative statement that can be remembered by everyone from the commander on down to the private. I’ll offer a modern example of effective intent then we’ll delve into what doctrine says about it.

The example is of a Bradley Infantry battalion task force making its first trip to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. None of the commanders or staff officers had ever been there before. One of their first missions was a night attack against a defending enemy force dug in on a ridgeline overlooking a wide, flat valley. The battalion had to move up the valley, at night, and get the enemy off the ridge.

An attack is hard enough to coordinate in daylight, but it is doubly difficult to execute in pitch black, even when armed with night vision. During the approach march subordinate units got intermingled and sporadic breaks in contact occurred. Leaders and staff were disoriented and control was chaotic. The terrain at night didn’t look like it did in daylight and lead elements were groping for an accurate orientation on the looming ridgeline ahead.

A scout sergeant with little more than five years experience was sitting on the ridge. He could see the battalion making its way north towards him and he could hear the confusion on the radio. He could also see the enemy arrayed in the defense to his west. He also could see that the ridgeline to the east was unoccupied. As he watched his unit advance, he realized that it was drifting to the west, headed right for the enemy’s engagement area. He tried to call the command post, but couldn’t break through all the traffic; the staff was frantically trying to help the commanders’ sort out the night march. He couldn’t reach the battalion commander, so he set his radio on the lead company commander’s frequency and called him directly. He told him that he had a friendly scout element on the east side of the ridge and that he would use an IR strobe light to get his attention. If he could bring his unit to the signal and then turn west, he’d envelop the enemy.

The lead commander agreed and executed knowing the others would follow. The lead Bradley got to the top of the ridge where he saw a soldier on the ground who, like a traffic cop, was using a chemlight to ‘direct’ the left turn into the enemy flank. In a matter of a few hours the enemy was cleared from the ridge and a mission that seemed to be developing into a fiasco was a resounding success.

The observer controllers (OC’s) who watch each battle and each unit conducted an after action review (AAR) of the fight the following morning. The commanders, senior non-commissioned officers, and staff attend. For this AAR, the scout sergeant was also invited since the OC’s recognized his pivotal role in the success of the mission. Once everyone was seated, the sergeant was called forward and asked how he knew he was at the decisive point. The sergeant replied that he had read the operations order and that he specifically recalled the commanders intent which said; “I want to grab hold of the enemies shoulder and from there, peel him off of that ridge like an orange.” It was short, sweet, and memorable. That sentence and the sergeant’s perception of its’ meaning was the catalyst that pulled victory from what was turning into a potential defeat. That is the power of INTENT.

[continued on next page]

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  1. The first bullet point in the intent should be eliminated, as what forces are in our path is of “special interests” not ours.

    Last thing we need is to grabbing ourselves because we are up against the Republican or Special Republican Guard.

    Great article otherwise!

  2. Re commander’s intent: nice to see that this surprisingly modern management concept, which is over a hundred years old, is getting the wide acceptance it deserves.
    I have a couple of questions, though!

    First question: How is ‘commander’s intent’ different from ‘mission’? Cannot /shouldn’t it be integrated?

    Second question: if in your example on page 2 there had been two instead of one scout sergeant, positioned on the opposite flanks of the battalion’s advance and they had both assessed the situation and radioed in to remedy the advance but towards their own (respective) positions, how would that situation be resolved? Company commander who receives the radio call decides, battalion decides?

    • Mission: toss bad guys out of zone

      -and not get lost while doing this
      -and conserve force
      -and do this in 24 hours.

      You could integrate these concepts – but reasons are given to make a more complete, personal statement.

      Re: 2 courses of action available to subordinate commander.
      The man on the spot ( Company commander ) decides – given that Battalion Commander had already stated his intent, and that at least one of the 2 scouts was out of contact with TF command anyway.

      The idea here is that you and your Command can keep going even if Comms are inoperative. Sherman and Grant would not necessarily be able to communicate with each other anyway.

  3. Hello. I want to ask concerning one of MDMP step- WARAMING. How to create Decision Support template and Decision Support Matrix?

    Best regards.