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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


4 April 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant wrote to MG William T. Sherman regarding his intent for the spring campaign;

"…move against Johnston’s army, to break it up and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources. I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of campaign, but simply lay down the work it is desirable to have done and leave you free to execute it in your own way. Submit to me, however, as early as you can, your plan of operations."

The result was Sherman’s march to the sea.


You’ll note that Grant didn’t tell Sherman to “march to the sea”. He told him to go as deep as possible knowing full well that in the course of the operation he would lose contact with his subordinate. Apparently this didn’t trouble Grant. He knew Sherman was capable, but he also knew that Sherman understood the idea behind his mission. He knew the effect he was to deliver given Grants clear statement of the desired outcome. Grant’s intent framed and guided Sherman’s operations in the South. Grant would not need to be on the telegraph every day exchanging reports and orders to know that Sherman was doing what was necessary. A well written intent empowers subordinates to execute missions with disciplined initiative.

This Month
For the past several months, we have concentrated on urban operations. We thought this month we would adjust fire and focus on the critical concept of commander’s intent. Certainly, the act of a commander (at any level) expressing his intent (verbally or written) for an impending mission is nothing new. For example, below you will find the intent given by Genghis Khan to 50 ‘volunteers’ before an attack:


It did not take a genius to understand what Khan wanted and what his end state was!


We will divide our discussion into the following pieces: 1) the importance of intent 2) a vey condensed history of intent 3) how intent as doctrinally evolved within the US Army and 4) the components of intent today. Throughout the article, we will through in some examples of intent utilized by commanders over the years. Let’s get started.

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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.