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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

This type of intent does little to paint a picture and does not indicate or empower leaders as to how to proceed. In fact, this type of intent paragraph tends to encourage blind execution. It is tempting to get lost in a sea of verbiage or feel the need to demonstrate that you “know” the plan inside and out. It is also tempting to describe the whole operation, soup to nuts. These impulses must be suppressed. Subordinates must be trusted.

Avoid long winded dissertations on the conduct of combat. Remember that you really don’t have any choice when it comes to trusting your subordinates. You won’t be where they are. You can’t see what they see. You have to rely on them to assess and act on their own. Your intent, executed properly, will ensure they as you would have them act.


Say what you must and cut the rest!

In the late 1990s, we began to see commanders begin writing their intents as we basically see them today. These intents were crafted with the over-riding principle that the intent links the unit’s mission with its’ concept of operation. With this in mind, today you will find commander’s intents consisting of three components: purpose, key tasks, and end state. We’ll discuss each of the elements in detail and then provide some examples of these intents.

PURPOSE: The purpose component within intent is the one optional element of intent. This is because if the commander is simply going to articulate the same purpose as was stated in the mission statement then it is not doctrinally required. This is purely redundant! However, if the commander desires to explain the broader or expanded purpose of his unit’s mission (not described in the mission statement); he should include it in his intent. This broader purpose should look beyond the “why” of this particular mission and relate to the bigger purpose (usually 1 to 2 levels up).

For example, the mission statement purpose may be for the commander’s unit to accomplish a task that assists another company in the battalion in making a river crossing. The broader purpose would then tell “why” it is important in the grand scheme of events to cross that river. Perhaps, getting that other company across the river will open a maneuver corridor for a follow-on battalion to continue the attack. Thus, in the commander’s intent, the commander would tell his subordinates “why” their operation is critical in opening that maneuver corridor (bigger picture) then in helping D Company cross the river.

KEY TASKS: These are the tasks (or effects) the commander believes must be achieved by the unit to achieve their mission. The tasks the commander selects must not be tied to a specific course of action. If the tasks selected were tied to one course of action this would obviously take away all flexibility within a unit. As discussed before, a commander must have options because things will not go as planned. If he writes an intent focusing on one option, it is not a very useful tool. When a commander provides these tasks to his subordinates, it can’t be a laundry list of tasks. Remember, it is key tasks and not just tasks. A good rule of thumb is between 5 and 7 key tasks. This provides focus and emphasis. Some examples of key tasks (or effects) could center on:

• Tempo of the operation
• Duration of the mission
• A piece of terrain that is vital
• Something you must do to your opponent regardless of the course of action.
• The effect of the civilian populace on the operation.
• The use of information operations.
• Key combat multipliers.

END STATE: The final component of intent and in our opinion the most important is the end state. In basic terms, this is how the commander envisions success at the conclusion of the mission. It is what he wants to see when all the dust has cleared. In doing this, the commander describes his forces in relation to several factors. First, what has his unit achieved against the enemy? What is the condition of his opponent after the purpose has been achieved? Second, how does he see the terrain at the end of the mission? Where are his forces located? Where is the enemy positioned? Third and very important is how the commander visualizes the status of the civilian populace at mission accomplishment. As we have discussed throughout the series, civilians on the battlefield can dramatically effect operations. Certainly, a commander wants to set conditions that ensure their impact is minimal and there are not riots on the streets forcing the commander to expend valuable resources. Finally, the commander wants to look in his crystal ball and anticipate what his unit will be doing next after mission accomplishment. How does the commander want his unit to be postured? What mission should they be preparing for next? A commander who is not thinking ahead is not thinking.

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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.