Fixing the Information Faucet: Army Mission Command Systems Need Fundamental Change So Units Can See the Enemy (and Themselves)
Major John Bolton
“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.” – Henry David Thoreau
This spring the Army had a real-world Mission Command challenge as COVID-19 forced continued operations and training while within Social Distancing guidelines. Units began operating remotely, using a variety of platforms and apps including Line, WhatsApp, and zoom. Some utilized Defense Collaboration Services while others relied on teleconference lines. A common theme, however, is that many tactical units did not deploy their Mission Command Systems (MCS) Command Post of the Future (CPOF) connected via JNN/CPN/STT - the systems designed for communication during combat and tested during every Combat Training Center (CTC) rotation.1 In other words, at a critical moment, systems either failed or simply fell by the wayside, unused because of broad agreement on a lack of utility.
I conducted an informal survey of 60 military and civilian personnel, ranging on rank from junior warrant officers to colonel along with a few Army Civilians. The overwhelming consensus shows units rare employ Digital MCS when they have other options. Representative comments are telling: “During a recent Corps Warfighter, [another Corps] was on CPCE while the training Corps was on CPOF. By the end, the training Corps commander ignored CPOF all together” and “[MCS] can be quite cumbersome to setup, sustain and ultimately lack interoperability with other branches of service."2
Whether due to lack of training or conceptual flaws (this author’s view), the fact that units poorly utilize MCS should cause serious concern as the Army focuses on “near-peer” combat and rapidly deployable, decisive formations as envisioned by Multi-Domain Operations. This paper describes current MCS and architecture, illustrates the conflicting relationship between MCS and the Art of Mission Command before making some recommendation to better enable Mission Command across Army formations, enabling them to better see themselves and the enemy.
Background: What Are Army Mission Command Systems
Though Army Digital MCS present themselves as tools to enhance situational awareness, they too often produce the opposite: a fictional picture that inhibits subordinate initiative as leaders fixate on systems rather than operations, expending precious time and energy in the management of larger than necessary Command Posts (CPs). While the Army has recognized shortfalls of current systems, scrapping a planned update, it is worth considering the fundamental flaws in MCS concepts.3
MCS have two purposes: developing a Common Operating Picture (COP) across echelons and enabling dissemination of information (orders). In practice, MCS support CP functions such as controlling and assessing operations, knowledge management while facilitating the commander’s decision-making process through collaboration tools.4
Digital MCS fall into two broad categories: Upper and Lower Tactical Internet (UTI/LTI). LTI consists primarily of FM/HF/TACSAT radio networks and the Joint Capability Release (JCR) system. These systems are robust, rugged, and relatively simple, requiring only minimal operator training. Radios remain the backbone of tactical communications though they are relatively slower and prone to net congestion.
UTI consists of satellite uplinks and servers supporting Command Post of the Future (CPOF), SharePoint, Ventrillo, and Transverse applications.5 UTI also facilitates linkages between the Tactical Airspace Integration System (TAIS) and the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS). UTI systems require substantial training and support, including power generation and air conditioning.
A Solider utilizes JCR (Lower TI) inside a tactical vehicle.6
Unfortunately, UTI MCS are often non-functional in practice due to interoperability issues, system requirements, and a dearth of training to say nothing of externalities such as weather and solar flares.7 CPOF, UTI’s primary product, is the penultimate example of these problems. Despite over a decade of refinement, CPOF remains obtuse and of limited utility. It is rare to find anyone who has voluntarily used CPOF outside of CTC rotations and Warfighter exercises.
To Soldiers accustomed to touchscreen phones and the ubiquitous Windows desktop, CPOF's interface remains largely alien due to its Unix roots. Moreover, CPOF cannot readily disseminate documents (requires pasting and re-formatting) while JCR requires a special USB drive; CPOF has limited combability with JCR, AFTADS, and TAIS — and then only with substantial effort. Since CPOF shares everything off “host” machines, network latency quickly becomes a limiting factor. CPOF maps quickly become cluttered and do not easily scale to printable versions. One Soldier told me that the best thing about CPOF’s lasted update was that it was Windows-based (rather than UNIX), meaning he could use it for other applications.8 The cumulative effect of UTI system is often to inhibit a unit(s)’ ability to rapidly transition and disseminate orders.
Problems at the CTCs: The Computers Lie to Us and We Like It
"I could use the same After-Action Review slides for nearly every unit, only modifying minor details."9 – JRTC Observer Controller/Trainer
Lessons Learned publications reveal units habitually fail to employ MCS during CTC rotations. Maddeningly, though Brigade Combat Teams are more capable than their antecedent formations, they routinely fail to fully employ their combat power and enablers.10 The Battalion-sized Opposing Force (OPFOR) habitually defeats formations four to six times larger. Units consistently fail to manage transitions, often completely losing control of subordinate units as they struggle to maintain both analog and digital systems, often while moving.11 Digital MCS exacerbate the challenge. Because they are so (seemingly) convenient, units fail to back up the digital COP with an analog system, losing all sense of the battlefield while moving.
Moreover, Digital systems incentivize bad habits by playing to our biases, telling us that we have "situational awareness" when in fact we only have a small picture of our own forces and virtually none of the enemy.11 Icons convey authority, allowing CPs to declare "Situational Awareness" when we only know the positions of our own forces (and then only platforms, not people). As a result, “units may not report critical information such as friendly locations and enemy actions [via the radio.]”12 Consequently, the digital COP gives a false sense of security when clearing ground for fires.
Digital MCS used outside after a tent collapse at JRTC.13
Compounding the problem, automation equipment is ill-suited for field environments dominated by dust, rain, wind, violent handling, and unstable electricity. Printers do not have a “field mode.” UTI systems require larger, fixed sites vulnerable to “threat detection and targeting,” as well as computer hacking and exploitation, concerns not easily dismissed in the current operating environment.14 CTC lessons learned documents explicitly warn units against using "mega-TOCs" due to their large signature and inherent vulnerability to jamming, fires, and infiltration.15
[Information Dominance] depended on an unfounded yet widely accepted belief that sensors, communications, and information technologies would generate near-certainty in armed conflict.16 - LTG McMaster, Crack in the Foundation
Digital MCS are the legacy of flawed concepts from the 1990s, specifically Network Centric Warfare (NCW). Gleaning the wrong lessons from Desert Storm, the Joint Force presumed it would henceforth enjoy information dominance, despite evidence that Desert Storm was less a decisive technological victory, than one of competence exacerbated by technology.17 While Future Combat Systems (FCS) promised that every Soldier would have “unprecedented levels” of situational awareness, these promises and assumptions ran head-on into the realities of Clausewitzian friction which, though reduced, can never be ameliorated.18 Twenty years on from FCS, a “seamless tactical network” remains elusive. Far from the astrategic “Certain Victory” promised by NCW advocates, campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan made the Army re-learn some hard truths about the nature of war.19 Non-linearity and chaos combine to make clear that “friction will persist more or less undiminished in future war regardless of technological developments.”20
Even if achievable, Information Dominance was always a misleading goal because merely possessing information “is not actually an indication of superiority over an adversary; information is not so much an end in itself as one means among others.”21Developing a battlefield picture is fundamentally inductive: we see only bits of the enemy. We must synthesize the enemy’s intentions from composite pieces or actions, working out the details. Digital MCS, on the contrary, shows a deductive world, with a seductively simple picture. This framing restricts our conceptual ability to understand the enemy’s capacity and intentions.
Impact on the Art of Mission Command
Technology cannot replace the human ability to create and make intuitive judgment.22
– GEN Martin Dempsey
Given CTC reports, something is clearly amiss with Army units’ ability to apply Mission Command. I witnessed this first-hand as a Brigade Aviation Officer. Our Airborne BCT planned to utilize analog methods, which we practiced for months. At JRTC, however, CPOF was the only authorized tool. Consequently, expended substantial organizational resources to comply with a forced format. Our commander had to use an awkward click-to-talk interface with the CPOF “spotlight” despite a readily available phone (or short drive or flight to the higher headquarters).
As the aphorism goes, doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results is insane. But as discussed above, units prefer to utilize systems that work. Prescribing the use of specific methods during rotations is not just inherently restrictive, it is bad practice.
MG Petraeus and BG Ben Freakley confer over a paper map during Operation Iraqi Freedom.23
When aggregated, small frustrations and faulty processes mean Digital MCS inhibit the Art of Mission Command. Simpler is better. A well-constructed mission order, developed to echo the commander's intent, remains the best method to coordinate unit actions. A CPOF briefing is hardly better than a PowerPoint slide deck; it is often worse. During the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, leaders rotated across the battlefield to gain information. Even during a major war, this demonstrates that a HMMWV (or jeep) hood can work better than a screen. Experiences at CTCs show that units have more situational awareness during their first 72 hours of analog operations than after setting up Digital MCS.24 Rather than creating dilemmas for the enemy, we create them for ourselves when Digital MCS create staff-crushing complexity.
Counter-intuitively, simpler systems and processes are not necessarily easier. It takes substantial effort (and training) to write concise orders with clear guidance and graphics.25 Digital systems confound this effort by introducing extra friction; units become focused on the system and not the problem. JRTC Observer/Controller-Trailers report that “mission briefs take several hours to build… The focus becomes updating slides instead of developing executable plans that consider contingencies and include rehearsals.”26 Rather than the mission at hand; we end up fighting our systems rather than the problem or enemy, “cutting our feet to fit the shoes” of mandatory systems.27
The real discipline required in Mission Command is for leaders to resist the urge to reach down and, instead, focus on the next event. Without substantial patience and discipline, Digital MCS can foster a culture of micromanagement.28 It falls to training, teamwork, and leadership to create resilient organizations ready for battlefield stress.
What to Do: Fixing Mission Command
Machines don't fight wars. Terrain doesn't fight wars. Humans fight wars. You must get into the mind of humans. That's where the battles are won. - John Boyd
Armies have long realized that the leaders must develop intent and train units to operate in the absence of communication. A British Army Field manual from 1912 advised “that [the Army] must train the judgement of officers so that when left to themselves they may do the right thing.”29The mandatory use of Digital MCS imply that the Army has forgotten that conflict is chaos with uncertainly remaining war’s predominant characteristic.
Continuing to force units to use systems at odds with Mission Command principles is not a wise course. Nor is it necessary. According to Generals Townsend, Brito, and Crissman: “Well-trained units discipline their use of systems to protect the initiative of soldiers closes to the problem…[they] avoid the temptation of unnecessarily applying increase control of ‘reaching down’ just because they have the tools to do so.”30
Army’s Mission Command Philosophy31
How do we respond to a battlefield where human error, uncertainty, and fickleness combine with non-linear, complex systems to create chaos? To paraphrase President Reagan: “it’s a simple answer after all;” the answer lies in the principles of Mission Command, particularly “building teams through mutual trust” and “creating shared understanding.”32 Mission Command relies on acceptance of an imperfect, unclear world and trust between and within units.33 Computers cannot replicate this implicit trust — and may often destroy it.
We must acknowledge the reality of chaotic battlefields. Training must require leaders to build teams and give clear guidance to enable subordinate action. We much continually “rematch our mental/physical orientation with [the] changing world so that we can continue to thrive and grow in it.”34 FM 6-22 recommends leaders examine a “problem in depth, from multiple points of view,” without settling on the first answer that comes to mind.35
If you take good people and good ideas and match them with bad processes, the bad processes will win 9 out of 10 times.36 - Secretary Mattis
Training must include complex environments which will force leaders to make choices with imperfect information and vague instructions, eschewing bloated software and systems unless they demonstrate capability to improve Mission Command.37Practically, units cannot expect to use one system in garrison and another in the field. The daily methods, routines, and norms of communication and staff work should not change drastically when during field training. Creating this “software” of standardized actions and communication must be the primary focus on commanders and staffs.38 Commanders create and sustain shared understanding through collaboration and dialogue within their organizations to facilitate unity of effort, only using digital systems to augment, not replace this process.
Our forbearers defeated the Wehrmacht with a combination of acetate, commo wire, and onion paper, yet we seem to believe that a digital map is sufficient.39 Historically units developed situational awareness through effective staff work (collecting information and projecting requirements), battlefield circulations (to see things first-hand, convey guidance, and receive feedback from subordinates), and high-quality liaison officers. By embracing Mission Command Principles, not digital systems, the Army can relearn this method of command, enabling units to better see themselves and the enemy.
. JNN: Joint Network Node; CPN: Command Post Node; STT: Satellite Transportable Terminal. Together these components, combined with many others, comprise the Upper Tactical Internet architecture. US Army Program Executive Office Command Control Communications-Tactical, “Mission Network: At-The-Halt,” accessed June 27, 2020, https://peoc3t.army.mil/tn/ath.php.
2. John Q. Bolton, Informal Mission Command Survey, Raw Data April – June 2020, accessed July 5, 2020, https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1hibNX1osavnea28Gy5jYdCByXSEmidOtbP3_3mjQGWU/edit.
3. Sydney Freedberg, “Army Struggles to Streamline Its Networks for War,” Breaking Defense, July 24, 2017, accessed June 28, 2020, https://breakingdefense.com/2017/07/army-struggles-to-streamline-its-networks-for-war.
4. FM 6-0, Commander and Staff Organization and Operation (Washington, DC: US Army, May 2014), 1-1.
5. This is not inclusive but refers to the most utilized systems.
6. Claire Heininger, “Next-Generation Blue Force Tracking System to be Featured in Army Exercise,” US Army Acquisition Support Center, accessed July 15, 2017, http://asc.army.mil/web/next-generation-blue-force-tracking-system-to-be-featured-in-army-exercise.
7. Zach Jones, “Focus on the Fundamentals: Analog Mission Command Systems in the Direct-Action Fight,” CALL, Decision Active Training Environment at the JRTC, 46-53.
8. Conversation with SGT Hannah Rogers, October 2018, Fort Polk, LA.
9. Conversation with Senior OC/T during JRTC Rotation 17-07.5, June 2020.
10. See MAJ Jason Woodward and CPT Jeff Godfrey, USA, “Air Assault Planning in a Decisive Action Training Environment” Aviation Digest 3, no. 4 (October-December, 2015):11-14; CPT Dustin Duncan, “Analog vs. Digital Planning,” in DATE AT THE NTC, VOL. IV (Ft. Leavenworth: CALL, September 2016): 11-13; and Schoellhorn, “Preventing the Collapse.”
11. See Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL), Decision Active Training Environment at the JRTC, Volume XII: Joint Forcible Entry and Combined Arms Maneuver (Ft. Leavenworth: CALL, June 2016) and Date At The NTC, VOL. IV (Ft. Leavenworth: CALL, September 2016), NTC Operations Group, “Working to Reverse NTC’s Routinely Observed Training Shortcoming,” CALL, 1st Quarter, FY20, accessed June 28, 2020, https://call2.army.mil/toc.aspx?document=17971, and JRTC Operations Group, Into the Valleys of Death: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Transitions in Operations (Ft. Leavenworth: CALL, November 2018).
12. Anonymous, “Systems that Strangle,” The Military Leader, accessed October 31, 2017, https://www.themilitaryleader.com/systems-that-strangle.
13. Jones, “Focus on the Fundamentals,” 46-53.
14. Author’s personal files.
15. White, Lombardo, and Selby, “A Smaller Footprint;” David Perkins, “Multi-Domain Battle: Driving Change to Win in the Future,” Military Review 97, no. 7 (July-August 2017):6-12.
16. See JRTC Operations Group, Into the Valleys of Death and Robert White, Charles Lombardo, Ken Selby, “A Smaller Footprint: Multidomain Battle Means Command Posts Must Evolve,” Association of the US Army, May 15, 2017, accessed July 10, 2017, https://www.ausa.org/articles/smaller-footprint-multidomain-battle-means-command-posts-must-evolve, Jones, “Focus on the Fundamentals.”
17. HR McMaster, “Crack in the Foundation: Defense Transformation and the Underlying Assumption of Dominant Knowledge in Future War,” Student Issue Paper, Center for Strategic Leadership S03-03, (Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army, November 2003), 13.
18. See Stephen Biddle, “Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us about the Future of Conflict,” International Security 21, no. 2 (Fall 1996):139-179, accessed October 20, 2017, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/447442 and Daniel Bolger, “The Ghosts of Omduran,” Parameters no. 3 (Autumn 1991):28-39.
19. Christopher G. Pernin et al., “Lessons from the Army’s Future Combat Systems Program” (monograph, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Arroyo Center, 2012), 14, accessed June 27, 2020, ; Barry D. Watts, "Clausewitzian Friction and Future War," (Washington DC: Defense University, October 1996), 112.
20. Watts, "Clausewitzian Friction and Future War," 112-115.
21. Pietrucha, “Living with Fog and Friction.”
22. Martin Dempsey, “Mission Command,” (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 3 April 2012), 6, accessed 18 July 2017,
23. US Army, On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom, (Ft. Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press, August 2004), 214.
24. Sean C Bernabe, JRTC Ops Group Commander, remarks to 4/25 staff, 28 February 2017, Ft. Polk, LA.
25 Dempsey, “Mission Command,” 6.
26 Dustin Duncan, “Analog vs. Digital Planning.”
27 Amos C. Fox, “Cutting Our Feet to Fit the Shoes: An Analysis of Mission Command in the U.S. Army,” Military Review 97, no. 1 (January-February 2017): 49-57.
28. LTC Brian P. Schoellhorn, “Preventing the Collapse: Fighting Friction after First Contact at the National Training Center, Military Review 100, no. 3 (March-April 2020): 6-18
29. Bolton, “Modifying Situational Awareness.”
30. William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, quoted in Hew Strachan, The Direction of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 202.
31. Stephen Townsend, Gary Brito, Doug Crissman, and Kelly McCoy, “Reinvigorating the Army’s Approach to Command and Control,” Military Review Online, May 2019, https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/Online-Exclusive/2019-OLE/March/Reinvigorating-MC, accessed July 3, 2020.
32. Ronald Regan, “A Time for Choosing,” October 27, 1964, Reagan Presidential Library, accessed June 28, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXBswFfh6AY; ADRP 6-0, 2-1; ADP 6-0, 1-6
33. David Caligari, “Trusting Imperfection: Getting Mission Command to Succeed,” Grounded Curiosity, accessed November 1, 2017, http://groundedcuriosity.com/trusting-imperfection-getting-mission-command-to-succeed.
34. John Boyd, “Destruction and Creation,” ed. Chet Richards and Chuck Spinney, November 2011, accessed June 28, 2020, http://pogoarchives.org/m/dni/john_boyd_compendium/conceptual-spiral.
35. US Army, FM 6-22 Army Leadership (Washington DC: US Army, October 2006), 6-1.
36. Mattis quoted in Thomas Ricks, “Revising Our Armed Forces,” Foreign Policy Best Defense, February 19, 2016, accessed August 21, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/02/19/revising-our-armed-forces-3-ok-if-it-isnt-about-money-or-technology-what-is-the-real-key-to-military-innovation.
37. Pietrucha, “Living with Fog and Friction.”
38. For a discussion on the “software” of staff work see Philip Zelikow, “To Regain Policy Competence: The Software of American Public Problem-Solving,” Texas National Security Review 2, no. 4 (August 2019): 110-127.
39. For a historical example see Eugene M. Greenberg, “Signals, the Story of Communications in the XIX Tactical Air Command up to V-E Day,” XIX TAC Headquarters, Germany, June 1945, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 62.