Small Wars Journal

The Battle of Mogadishu; Framework of Mission Command Failure

Tue, 01/03/2023 - 5:39pm


The Battle of Mogadishu; Framework of Mission Command Failure

By Gustavo Arguello

On 3 October 1993, during operation codename Gothic-Serpent, United States special operators in Mogadishu, Somalia, had the task of capturing high-ranking members of Aidid’s militia. The operators executed Gothic-Serpent as part of Task Force Ranger, under the overall command-and-control of General Garrison, the commanding officer who directed the capture of the high-ranking militia lieutenants. Participants expected the mission to last 30 minutes, but the battle extended overnight and eventually became the bloodiest battle since the Vietnam war. According to the case study “The successes and failures of the battle of Mogadishu and its effects on U.S. foreign policy”, the Gothic-Serpent met its operational goal despite the number of casualties in the 15-hour battle (Dotson, 2016).

Operation Gothic-Serpent had special operation members from at least three separate military services; these units included Army Rangers, Delta Force operators, and helicopters from the 160th special operations aviation regiment (SOAR). Also, Airforce para-rescue personnel and Navy members from the elite team-six sea, air, land (SEAL) unit (Bowden, 1999). Despite the high level of competence, mutual trust, and experience the special operators had, tactical errors occurred, resulting in the loss of American Soldiers due to mission command and command-and-control failures. The Army measures success by accomplishing mission goals, which in the case of the Gothic-Serpent, operators captured the two targeted lieutenants along with other militia leadership members (Dotson, 2016). During operation Gothic-Serpent, Task Force Ranger succeeded in their military objective despite mission command failures, lack of command-and-control elements, and poorly executed tasks and system related to the command-and-control warfighting function.

Mission Command

The Army describes mission command as “the approach to command and control that empowers subordinate decision-making and decentralized execution appropriate to the situation” (Department of the Army [DA], 2019a, p. 1-3.). The Army’s mission command concept enables commanders at the lowest level to exercise initiative by applying mission command principles, including competence, mutual trust, and risk acceptance. Mission command depends on correctly applying those principles to conduct the mission and meet the commander’s intent. Gothic-serpent’s objective required capturing and securing Aidid’s militia lieutenants because the commander identified the lieutenants as high-value targets. Due to the mission’s complexity, special operators would execute the high-risk mission.

The Army defines risk as “the probability and severity of loss linked to hazards” (Department of the Army [DA], 2019b, p. 1-20); risk is an inherent part of all military operations, and avoiding risk is impossible. Gothic-Serpent presented risk factors such as conducting the mission in a known hostile area within the city, removing the element of surprise and cover of night for the task force, and facing an unknown number of enemy combatants (Dotson, 2016). Gothic-Serpent planners did not understand the operational environment or the enemy’s disposition. According to Dotson (2016), Aidid’s militants had high morale due to the recent confrontations against united nations troops, where they destroyed a Blackhawk helicopter. With support from subordinate commanders and the staff, commanders analyze risk levels and figure out how to mitigate the risk. However, General Garrison accepted the risk of executing the mission during daylight hours due to the elements’ shared understanding of the mission objectives and their mutual trust.

In Army terms, mutual trust refers to “the shared confidence between commanders, subordinates, and partners that they can be relied on and are competent in performing their assigned tasks” (DA, 2019a, p. 1-7). General Garrison designated commanders for each one of the mission elements, with the ground force commander in charge of the execution of the operation and one commander for each subordinate element (Bowden, 1999). General Garrison trusted his subordinates’ competence because all special operation units are composed of highly trained, competent individuals. General Garrison saw the mission as appropriate for the level of command assigned due to the trust in the high competence of the special operators and subordinate leadership within Task Force Ranger, empowering subordinates by delegating the authority to execute command-and-control of all elements involved.


Command-and-control refers to the commander’s ability to exercise authority over personnel assigned under their command for the mission. The Army defines command-and-control as “the exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated commander over assigned and attached forces” (DA, 2019a). During Gothic-Serpent, General Garrison appointed the ground forces commander as the officer in charge of the operation, with two subordinate commanders, a Ranger element commander, and the Delta element commander (Bowden, 1999). The ground force commander positioned his command post in a vehicle within the convoy tasked with securing and removing the captured individuals (Dotson, 2016). The ground force commander would have applied elements of command, such as authority and decision-making, and elements of control, such as direction and communication from his vehicle, located away from the raid’s location.

Elements of Command and Elements of Control

The Army’s elements of command, “authority, responsibility, decision making, and leadership” (DA, 2019a, p. 2-1), are essential to all operations. During Gothic-Serpent, the ground force commander exercised authority and decision-making over the radio. He had to rely on the information from the subordinate elements’ commanders. According to Bowden (1999), all commanders depend on prompt information for decision-making. The Army defines decision-making as the commander’s ability to identify the most favorable course of action to accomplish the mission (DA, 2019a). In the case study, the ground force commander could not make decisions due to the command post’s location; simultaneously, he could not exercise the elements of control.

The elements of control include information and communication, “commanders use control to direct and coordinate the actions of subordinate forces” (DA, 2019a, p. 3-3). The primary element of control failure occurred due to a communication breakdown. According to Dotson (2016), aircraft and ground forces had poor and untimely information, mainly because the forward observer team used the Orion spy plane to send and receive information to the operations center at the main command post. One example of communication failure identified in the case study happened due to the use of the Orion spy plane. The plane provided directions to the forward observer team, who then repeated the information to the convoy drivers, causing the convoy to get lost (Dotson, 2016). During Gothic-Serpent, the information did not flow, and it took ample time to get to those who needed it; as a result, the convoy passed their turns prior to receiving directions late and untimely information due to delayed communications. Delayed information led to a failure of the command-and-control warfighting function tasks and system.

Command-and-Control Warfighting Function

The Army describes the command-and-control warfighting function as “the related tasks and a system that enable commanders to synchronize and converge all elements of combat power” (DA, 2019b, p. 5-3). Because this function is the core of all other warfighting functions, execution of mission command and command-and-control occurs through the command-and-control warfighting function tasks and system. The tasks refer to the command of forces and control of operations and the command-and-control system establishment. In contrast, the system refers to the people, processes, and command posts (DA, 2019a). Simultaneously, the warfighting function of command-and-control helps commanders integrate other elements of combat power, such as movement-and-maneuver, and protection to accomplish mission objectives.

The movement-and-maneuver warfighting function refer to “the related tasks and systems that move and employ forces to achieve a position of relative advantage over the enemy and other threats” (DA, 2019a). During Gothic-Serpent, the Ranger and Delta elements did not mix; each had its chain of command and mission (Bowden, 1999). Delta operators conducted the raid, while the Ranger element conducted security and managed the protection warfighting function with air support provided by the helicopters. The lack of unity during the raid, and subsequent movement to the crash site demonstrated a failure in the leadership element of command. Also, it made maintaining positive command of forces complex and lacked adequate protection.

According to the Army, the protection warfighting function relates “to tasks and systems that preserve the force so the commander can apply maximum combat power” (DA, 2019b); protection of the movement-and-maneuver forces was critical to the mission’s success. To accomplish the mission, the ground force commander required the Rangers to establish and maintain security at the Olympic hotel during the raid (Dorson, 2016). According to the case study, the ground commander had the mission to secure the captured individuals and transport them back to the main Ranger base, located one hour away (Dotson, 2106); as previously stated, the communication element of control failed during the transportation of personnel. As soon as the raid started, the Somali militants attacked the Americans from every location in the city, eventually striking a helicopter and causing it to crash (Bowden, 1999). Once the helicopter crashed, Delta and Ranger operators had to move and maneuver to secure the crash site and protect the injured personnel.

During movement to the crash site, the Delta operators applied better elements of control-and-command tasks; Delta operators communicated proficiently using hand signals, while the younger, less experienced Rangers, shouted at each other (Bowden, 1999). Due to the disciplined initiative by Delta operators, they initiated a movement to the crash site, as the Ranger commander struggled to maintain authority over the element (Bowden, 1999), despite the lack of a command post, communication failures, and the lack of leadership, Delta maintained command-and-control over the element. In contrast, according to Bowden, the Ranger element separated and lost unit integrity (1999), at this point, the Ranger commander lost control of operations, and lost the ability to provide direction or receive feedback from his element. According to Boden (1999) the younger Rangers followed the more competent Delta operators, due to lack of communication. The Ranger command no longer commanded all his forces because the failure to establish the proper command-and-control system. Those located at the main command post, could not provide direction or information, because they had no positive control over the people on the ground conducting the movement towards the crash site.


During operation Gothic-Serpent, Task Force Ranger succeeded in their military objective despite mission command failures, lack of command-and-control elements, and poorly executed tasks and system related to the command-and-control warfighting function. Mission command is the Army’s approach to command and control, to empower subordinates’ decision-making and decentralized execution, enabling command-and-control by the principles of competence, risk acceptance, and mutual trust to name a few. Command-and-control is crucial to all operations, and commanders must appropriately exercise the command-and-control elements to apply proper decision-making over the commanded forces. Commanders execute the related task and system of the command-and-control warfighting function, which serves as the core for all other warfighting functions, such as protection and movement-and-maneuver. In Army terms, the Gothic-Serpent operation succeeded; Task Force Ranger captured the identified high-value targets, despite all the command-and-control failures throughout the operation.


Bowden, M. (1999). Black hawk down. (1st ed). Atlantic Monthly press.

Department of the Army. (2019a). Mission command: Command and control of the Army forces

(ADP 6-0).

Department of the Army. (2019b). Operations (ADP 3-0).

Dotson, P. B. (2016). The successes and failures of the Battle of Mogadishu and its effects on

U.S. foreign policy. Channels, 1(1), 179-200.

About the Author(s)

MSG Gustavo A. Arguello is an Air Defense Artillery Senior Sergeant. He has served in all
leadership positions from team leader to battery First Sergeant. He is currently attending the
Sergeants Major Course at the US Army Sergeants Major Academy. His civilian education
includes an Associate of arts in general studies and a Bachelor of Science in management studies
from the University of Maryland Global Campus. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in
management studies with emphasis in leadership from Excelsior College.



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