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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

For brevity, we have decided to key on the evolution on intent since 1900. It was at this time, particularly within the German Army, that intent began to come under great debate. Although other armies wrestled with the problem; it was the Germans who truly began to spend a great deal of mental energy on the topic. Let’s briefly look at how the Germans approached the subject.

The first approach and the most common at the outbreak of the Great War was known as Befehlstaktik. In the concept of Befehlstaktik, the commander literally selected where he was going to attack; he focused his reconnaissance forces at that particular location and pushed them through. Maneuver forces would then follow.

A second approach followed which was called Auftragstaktik. In the concept of Auftragstaktik, a commander utilized his recon forces to determine the best location for the upcoming attack. These recon forces would strive to find the gap within the enemy defense. This gap (or discovered weak point) was now the decisive point of the operation (or Schwerpunkt). Maneuver forces would then focus their efforts on this decisive point which should lead to mission accomplishment. The attack was normally conducted on a narrow axis and a penetration was made at the Schwerpunkt. Finally, the shoulders would be enveloped and expanded in a process known as Aufrollen.


Befehlstaktik was built on the conventional wisdom of the day and was widely used throughout World War I. Auftragstaktik did not develop fully until the German Army was forced to seek new ways of breaking the trenchline stalemate. Reconnaissance-influenced tactics became very successful, but also dictated major changes in the way war was to be fought. Lead elements, called Stosstruppen, preceded the attack. These were squad to platoon size, often led by noncommissioned officers or junior officer, working alone and under decentralized command and control. Their objective was not well-defined since they were seeking gaps instead of advancing on specific locations. To succeed, these troops needed to know what the commander had in mind – his intent.

This way of ‘doing business’ gave rise to mission-type orders that were more general in nature and driven by purpose rather than task. Thus, a Soldier needed to understand the ‘why’ of the mission and not how to do it. The Soldier could determine the how based on the circumstances. It can be argued that this is where the importance of commander’s intent first became apparent.

Certainly, US Army Commanders at all levels have been giving their intent since the inception of the Army. Within written doctrine, there have been references to intent and initiative since the end of World War II. However, it wasn’t until the 1982 edition of FM 100-5 — Operations (the Army’s keystone doctrinal manual) that intent began receiving the attention it truly deserved. Below we will briefly discuss how intent as evolved doctrinally within the US Army utilizing FM 100-5 (later titled FM 3-0).

FM 100-5 (1982). For those who have been around awhile (that includes us), this manual was a turning point in the way we looked at how war should be fought. It was the manual that brought the term ‘Airland Battle’ into our lexicon. Although the concept of commander’s intent is not specifically addressed; the operational concept of initiative is emphasized. Within this discussion, it stresses how commanders must enable Soldiers to exercise initiative to take advantage of opportunities during a battle when they arise. The key passage in the manual relating to this initiative states (we have underlined critical words):

“To preserve the initiative, subordinates must act independently within the context of an overall plan. They must exploit successes boldly and take advantage of unforeseen opportunities. They must deviate from the expected courses of action without hesitation when opportunities arise to expedite the overall mission of the higher force. They will take risks, and the command must support them.”

[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.