Analysis of Mission Command Within the Battle of Ia Drang
By Jason L. Glenn
The battle at the landing zone X-RAY (LZ X-RAY) in the Ia Drang River Valley occurred from 14 November to 16 November 1965. Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Harold Moore led the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, against numerically superior elements of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) led by General Chu Huy Man (Builder et al., 1999). This operation responded to the NVA attack on an American compound that left eight Americans dead and many wounded. General Westmoreland, commander of the American forces within South Vietnam, escalated the troop presence and revised the mission from defense to search and destroy. General Westmoreland directed Major General (MG) Harry Kinnard, the 1st Cavalry Division commander, to find and destroy the fleeing elements of the NVA. With little guidance, Colonel (COL) Brown, the commander of the 3rd Brigade, ordered LTC Moore and his battalion to air assault into the Ia Drang River valley to find and destroy the fleeing enemy. Poor situational awareness by the 1st Cavalry Division commander and staff, the 3rd Brigade commander, and LTC Moore led to inadequate overall mission command, even though the U.S. air assault successfully prevailed. Synthesizing modern mission command principles, elements of command and control (C2), and the C2 warfighting function into the Ia Drang case study will highlight precisely how vague guidance and intent from successive commanders can impede mission progress and increase the risk.
Mission Command of Ia Drang
The Department of the Army (2019c) defines mission command as empowering subordinate leaders down to the lowest level to plan, make decisions, and execute operations based on current conditions of the operating environment while meeting the higher commanders’ intent. Commanders could not conduct multidomain operations without the revised mission command approach. Multidomain operations co-occur in the air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace domains to prevent the enemy from gaining the initiative (Department of the Army, 2022). The battle in the Ia Drang River valley was a multidomain engagement that consisted of an air support force of 16 helicopters for troop transport, U.S. Air Force fixed-wing tactical support, and twelve artillery guns situated approximately nine kilometers east (Builder et al., 1999). MG Kinnard ordered the 1st Cavalry Division’s 3rd Brigade to intercept the fleeing NVA forces. With little input from the higher command, COL Brown’s only direction to LTC Moore was to air assault into the Ia Drang valley with his battalion and conduct search and destroy operations. Even within this vague approach to mission command, Americans and the NVA displayed several mission command principles.
COL Brown selected LTC Moore for the assault mission based on his combat experience and competence. The Department of the Army (2019c) defines the principle of competence as the general education, understanding, training, and self-development of the organization and leaders and their ability to utilize mission command effectively. LTC Moore demonstrated this principle when he stepped off the helicopter and began issuing directives to his subordinates at LZ X-RAY. Additionally, LTC Moore demonstrated his competence through visual and verbal commands and his presence on the battlefield. His presence demonstrated much more than the physical act of being at that specific time and location. His presence comprised shared hardship and danger and provided a calm, collected example to his subordinates (Department of the Army, 2019a).
Moore (1965) wrote that most American casualties had wounds through their heads and middle torso, indicating a well-trained enemy force. The fact that this enemy was supposed to be breaking contact at every opportunity and continuing to flee west was contrary to the aggressive attacks. These actions indicated that the NVA were competent and confident in their abilities and commander and that a certain level of trust and shared understanding existed.
Shared Understanding and Mutual Trust
The Department of the Army (2019c) defines shared understanding as a collaborative effort between commands, commanders, and subordinates to understand all aspects and variables of the operational environment (OE). Moreover, the shared understanding highlights the commander’s intent, problems within the OE, the enemy, terrain, and civil considerations. A successfully shared understanding enables mutual trust to exist between commands and subordinates. The only shared understanding that occurred between American commands was that an enemy force of an unknown number was fleeing west after attacking the civilian complex and that LTC Moore would chase them down to kill them. LTC Moore executed a minimal intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) with his staff and company commanders before the air assault began. According to the Department of the Army (2019b), the IPB gives commanders and staff a holistic view of the battlefield to determine the enemy situation, potential enemy courses of action, anything within the OE that could impact operations, and civil considerations, to name a few. This limited IPB created a vague shared understanding and neglected to account for the tall grass, significant forces of NVA, and enemy threat.
Conversely, the NVA forces continuously acted within the intent of General Man, which indicates that a shared understanding and mutual trust must have existed among the enemy forces. General Man’s overall goal was to pull the American forces into combat and outmaneuver them with attack forces of 50-100 NVA troops, and the NVA troops demonstrated that tactic repeatedly (Builder et al., 1999). The demonstrated lack of shared understanding by the Americans led to a cut-off platoon and increased risk during the battle.
Risk is inherent in all operations and all OEs. Commanders collaborate with their staff and subordinates to promulgate potential hazards and accept the residual risks that remain (Department of the Army, 2019c). LTC Moore left little decisions to his subordinate commanders after the battle began. After repelling several attacks, LTC Moore understood that the overall risk of the enemy overrunning his battalion was extremely high. All the negative mission command associations up to this point, lack of command intent, vague shared understanding, poor IPB, and collaboration, led to the high-risk situation that the Americans were in. As a direct result, Americans suffered heavy casualties from enemy attacks. To combat the elevated risk, LTC Moore used the rapid decision-making and synchronization process to monitor the OE continuously and revise his plan according to enemy actions (Department of the Army, 2021).
Elements of Command and Control During Ia Drang
The Department of the Army (2019c) highlights that C2 is the authority, derived from law, exercised by commanders over their subordinates. Moreover, the art of command is enabled by authority, responsibility, decision making, and leadership, while control involves giving direction, receiving feedback, information, and communication. Disciplined initiative and a shared understanding result from a balanced use of mission command, and unfortunately, C2 during the battle of Ia Drang was very centralized by LTC Moore. He controlled every battle aspect through his authority, including the disposition and management of reserve forces and when helicopters could land (Moore, 1965). Through his own decisions and command method, LTC Moore accepted sole responsibility for everything that occurred over the three-day battle.
Decision Making and Leadership
LTC Moore exercised command over his assigned and attached forces through the fast, efficient decision making and superior leadership. Decision making refers to the ability of commanders to select the best course of action, given the current situation and variables present, while accepting responsibility for the outcome of the decision (Department of the Army 2019c). LTC Moore made and executed many decisions throughout the battle, defeating a numerically superior force with limited personnel and supplies. Unfortunately, LTC Moore relied little on the art of command and focused primarily on the control aspect of mission command.
Direction and Feedback
Direction and feedback are both elements of the control mechanism of mission command. Commanders use more control than command when risk is higher, and subordinates are inadequately prepared (Department of the Army, 2019c). LTC Moore directed and controlled artillery fire throughout the three-day battle. He never delegated any aspect of his decisions. LTC Moore used the information and feedback from the cut-off platoon to direct artillery fire against enemies as they advanced near their position. Additionally, he used the feedback from the cut-off platoon to plan and send an element of the second battalion to successfully recover them. LTC Moore communicated with the incoming helicopters as the battle progressed to extract the dead and wounded from the fight. Moreover, LTC Moore consistently communicated the action to COL Brown to maintain a shared situational perspective.
Command and Control Warfighting Function
The C2 warfighting function comprises tasks that command forces, control operations, enable the operations process, and form the C2 system. Moreover, the C2 warfighting function system includes the people, processes, networks, and command posts. Integrating the tasks and systems of C2 applies all available combat power to the main effort within the operational environment (Department of the Army, 2019c). LTC Moore excelled in many C2 tasks but fell short in others.
LTC Moore demonstrated strict control over operations throughout the assault preparation, intelligence collection, and recon during the battle. There was never a time that he delegated any authority to other commanders. He drove the operations process from his command post on the battlefield. His location was forward enough to monitor the operation, communicate with his subordinates, and control his formation's defensive and offensive nature (Department of the Army, 2019c). Shortly after the battle began on the morning of 14 November, LTC Moore quickly established the C2 system used throughout the battle.
The C2 system exists primarily to assist the commander in executing operations by arranging the right people, establishing the processes that achieve the commander’s intent, setting up communication networks, and establishing and maintaining a command post for information collection and distribution (Department of the Army, 2019c). As previously stated, LTC Moore established the command post in the middle of LZ X-RAY to monitor his subordinates and the enemy. He understood that the people of his unit were his most important asset, which is the primary reason for the direct control he maintained over the battle. The chain of command and LTC Moore established specific combat-related processes and networks before executing the air assault. For example, the command team established supporting fire from artillery and tactical air support by fix winged aircraft. These networks were highly effective in disintegrating close enemy attacks. The NVA similarly adjusted its tactics to render artillery fire ineffective. General Man orders his troops to attack quickly and as close as possible to avoid as much of the artillery as possible. LTC Moore responded by bringing the artillery so close that it became dangerous to his formations. Even so, this process had the desired result, and the enemy finally retreated from this battle on 16 November 1965.
Synthesizing mission command principles, C2 elements, and the C2 warfighting function with the Ia Drang case study demonstrated that vague guidance and intent from successive commanders impeded mission progress and increased the risk for LTC Moore and the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment. Although several principles of command were present in the actions taken by LTC Moore, he neglected to create a shared understanding, did not promote the disciplined initiative, and settled for vague mission orders. LTC Moore did not have the option to exercise much of the element of command but instead relied heavily on control of his formation. Conversely, the NVA demonstrated much more use of the art of command throughout their attacks as they adapted to how Americans fought. The overall degradation of the American C2 system neglected to converge all elements of combat power because LTC Moore could not command effectively from his command post. However, he adapted to enemy actions and developed command decisions and alternatives to win the fight.
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