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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/FM 3-0 prescribed the purpose of intent. However, the manual did not specifically lay out what intent should look like. Almost like intent itself, it described the why and left it to the subordinate manuals to determine the how. Thus, other Army manuals over the years have interpreted the manuals and provided guidance on the content or way intent should look. These manuals focused on planning and battle command and various school houses (Infantry, Armor, Field Artillery, etc.) had prepotency for the content. Because of this, we have seen some interesting trends over the years regarding how intents were crafted. Let’s review some of these trends.

There was a period where commanders seemed to compete against themselves to see who could use the most descriptive and emotionally charged words. These intents were highly reminiscent of a Vince Lombardi half time pep talk. Certainly, these intents were extremely colorful and made for quality entertainment. However, they did little to promote initiative within subordinates and were relatively non-effective as a commander’s tool. Here’s an example:


I want to rapidly advance on the objective where we will overwhelm the enemy with violent and synchronized employment of all our weapon systems.

It’s short. It’s concise. It says what the commander wants to do.

Or does it?

What has this commander said that is of any particular use? Rapid advance as opposed to a slow advance? Violent and synchronized fires versus tame and chaotic fires? Useless, right — Right.

This is an example of an intent that is too short and lacking in substance. It is a lift out of some how to fight manual and tells the subordinate nothing he already knows. It is not enlightening nor does it provide the commander’s vision. It’s memorable, but to what
end? Could a subordinate, facing an unexpected event on the battlefield, use this intent as a guide to how he should act?

Don’t sacrifice clarity for brevity. Say what you have to say in as few words as possible.

After this, we went through a time when commanders saw themselves as author’s writing the next great American novel. These intents were long (some 2-3 pages) and verbose. They may have contained critical elements, but these nuggets were buried within the pages. These intents were heavy in the “how” and dictated actions to subordinates and consequently, discouraged initiative not promoting it. In most instances, these intents were a rehash of the concept of operation. Here’s an example:

I see this mission as a three-phase operation: recon, attack, and consolidation on the enemy position. All must take place in limited visibility. We must move quickly while maintaining security and command and control. We will use our superior night optics to dominate the enemy. We will seek a weakness on the enemy’s eastern flank. The scouts will find it and direct us toward it. At that point, we will create a penetration using our superior firepower and maneuver in concert with punishing artillery. Once we have gained a foothold, we will pour through the breach and envelop the enemy from the east. Our purpose is to gain control of the ridge and thereby control the approaches from the south and facilitate the passage of the rest of the brigade to continue the attack north. Our desired end state is to find the task force in control of the ridge with sufficient combat power to find off a company sized enemy counterattack. We will create lanes for the follow-on forces to pass through. They will be guarded and clearly marked. We will accomplish this by conducting an aggressive and stealthy reconnaissance with the scout platoon. Recon in the west will be oriented on assessing the strength of the defense while recon in the east will orient on finding a penetration point. We will then move out in a diamond formation with Team Delta in the lead, Bravo and Alpha on the wings and Charlie in trial as the reserve. We will move deliberately, using artillery to destroy selected targets and to draw attention away from the movement. Delta will lead into the breach, followed by Bravo and Alpha. Charlie will secure the breach site. The three assault companies will roll up the enemy flank. This attack relies on speed, firepower, and our superior night vision.

How about this intent paragraph? It certainly is exhaustive. It seems pretty good. It seems that the commander has laid out the operation in great detail. It may be a bit long and hard to memorize, but it seems complete.

In fact, there is way too much here and little of it is truly empowering. We call this type of intent paragraph a ‘travel log’. It is a synopsis of the entire scheme of maneuver delivered in heroic language. It reads like a lesson plan not like a vision. Had Grant delivered something like this to Sherman, we wonder how the latter would have viewed his freedom of action.

[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.