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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

FM 100-5 (1986). Within ‘Airland Battle-The Sequel,’ the term commander’s intent is first specifically discussed. The references include the following:

  1. “Subordinate leaders will be expected to act on their own initiative within the framework of the commander’s intent.”
  2. “Speed depends on the violent execution of the plan by fire and maneuver units, but it also depends on full understanding of the understanding of the commander’s intent.”

FM 100-5 (1993)

 The 1993 edition was the first to give the concept stand alone discussion. It clearly laid the groundwork for how intents are crafted today. The key emphasis was on writing intents concisely and ensuring they were not focused on explaining the how of the operation (instead of the why). The manual states:

“The commander’s intent describes the desired end state. It is a concise expression of the purpose of the operation and must be understood two echelons below the issuing commander. It must clearly state the purpose of the mission. It is the single unifying focus for all subordinate elements. It is not a summary of the concept of operation. Its purpose is to focus subordinates on the desired end state. Its utility is to focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished in order to achieve success, even when the plan and concept of operations no longer apply, and to discipline their efforts toward that end.


The intent statement is usually written but can be verbal when time is short. It should be concise and clear; long, narrative descriptions of how the commander sees the fight tend to inhibit the initiative of subordinates. A commander’s order should contain the intent statement of the next higher commander.

FM 3-0 (2001) This edition stressed the importance of commanders writing their own intents and that they were not to be focused on a particular course of action. The manual states:

“Commanders express their vision as the commander’s intent. The staff and subordinates measure the plans and orders that transform thought to action against it. The commander’s intent is a clear, concise statement of what the force must do and the conditions the force must meet to succeed with respect to the enemy, terrain, and the desired end state. Commanders make their own independent, and sometimes intuitive, assessment of how they intend to win. The final expression of intent comes from commanders personally.”

“Intent, coupled with mission, directs subordinates toward mission accomplishment in the absence of orders. When significant opportunities appear, subordinates use the commander’s intent to orient their efforts. Intent includes the conditions that forces meet to achieve the end state. Conditions apply to all courses of action. They include the tempo, duration, effect on the enemy, effect on another friendly force operation, and key terrain.”

FM 3-0 (2008) The recently released manual (after much examination) adds civil considerations to desired end state. It also reinforces the importance of keeping intent short (3 to 5 sentences) and being easy to remember. The manual states:

“Commander’s Intent: The commander’s intent is a clear, concise statement of what the force must do and the conditions the force must establish with respect to the enemy, terrain, and civil considerations that represent the desired end state. The commander’s intent succinctly describes what constitutes success in an operation. It includes the operation’s purpose and the conditions that define the end state. It links the mission, concept of operations, and tasks to subordinate units. A clear commander’s intent facilitates a shared understanding and focus on the overall conditions that represent mission accomplishment. During execution, the commander’s intent spurs individual initiative.”

“The commander’s intent must be easy to remember and clearly understood two echelons down. The shorter the commander’s intent, the better it serves these purposes. Typically, the commander’s intent statement is three to five sentences long.”

“Commanders develop their intent statement personally. Commander’s intent, coupled with mission, directs subordinates toward mission accomplishment, especially when current orders no longer fit the situation and subordinates must decide how to deviate from them. Subordinates use the commander’s intent to orient their efforts and help them make decisions when facing unforeseen opportunities or threats.”

The last two editions of the operations manual have moved away from a recipe outline and towards a description of usage. This move towards description versus proscription reflects the recognition of the art behind the science. In the end, intent belongs to the commander. It must be his vision of how the fight will unfold and how he expects his unit to respond. It must create a shared vision that allows subordinates to act in the absence of orders and yet in a manner that compliments the desired outcome. A well written intent need not be leaden with military jargon. It should not be a Xerox copy of a field manual on how to attack, defend, or anything else.

[continued on next page]

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8


  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.