Small Wars Journal

Introducing the Notion of “Type II” Mission Command

Sat, 09/30/2017 - 1:20am

Introducing the Notion of “Type II” Mission Command

Grant M. Martin

This is a synopsis of a chapter I wrote[i] in the newly released book, Mission Command: The Who, What, Where, When and Why: An Anthology[ii], edited by Donald Vandergriff and Stephen Webber, available on Amazon (all profits go to Objective Zero, a military charity for the prevention of suicide). In this article, I attempt to make a case that the U.S. Army executes Mission Command fairly well in environments that we once called “High Intensity Conflict” (HIC). I further assert that where we struggle with Mission Command is in those environments that are the opposite of HIC.

"Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Because messes are systems of problems, the sum of the optimal solutions to each component problem taken separately is not an optimal solution to the mess. The behaviour of a mess depends more on how the solutions to its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other.”

-- Russell L. Ackoff[iii]

What is Mission Command?

According to the U.S. Army’s Mission Command Center of Excellence website, “Mission Command is the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution, using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander's intent.” [iv] Practically speaking, however, the concept includes both the command and control relationships required to control forces through the issuance of mission orders and the systems necessary to communicate with said forces. Thus, when talking about the concept, one could be talking about the philosophy, the practical execution of the philosophy, or the systems required to execute the philosophy.

The Debate

The current debate seems to revolve around two points: 1) whether or not the Army’s systems themselves are obstacles to Mission Command (mainly the personnel system and/or the communications systems), or, 2) whether or not commanders understand that Mission Command is larger than just “Command and Control,” which are the formal relationships between units that allow for controlling forces. These two subjects of debate, while very important and contentious, miss one important point: whether or not Mission Command as currently defined and theoretically practiced is sufficient for all situations. In short, if the U.S. Army was to have the perfect command and control relationships, communications systems, and grasp of the philosophy, would we still have problems in some environments? It is my assertion that when we are involved in Irregular Warfare environments our current Mission Command concept is severely lacking.

Irregular Warfare

Sidestepping the debates about how or whether to categorize warfare, for simplicity’s sake I would like to delineate between two different situations (understanding that no one example is clearly one or the other). The first situation would be what has been termed “High Intensity Conflict” or various other names to include Conventional Warfare. This situation I would characterize as one in which the belligerents’ armies are controlled by a centralized entity, most of the troops wear standardized uniforms on all sides, and the political objectives are relatively clear, reachable by mostly military action, and have the support of at least most of the political entities on all sides, if not their populaces as well. The opposite of conventional warfare would be what I would call “Irregular Warfare”. This would be a situation in which at least one side’s armies are not controlled by a centralized entity, at least one group’s fighters do not wear standard uniforms, and wherein at least one side’s political objectives are unclear, not attainable through mostly military action, or lacking in popular political support.

To avoid any baggage with these terms, however, in the Mission Command Anthology I name the first situation as “Type I” situations and the second as “Type II.” Obviously this should not be taken as an “either/or” proposition, all examples of warfare can include portions of both situations. The point isn’t that one should be favored, the point is that one’s methods should match the situation. This begs the question, are the U.S. Army’s current methods for the conduct of Mission Command sufficient for the range of situations between the two extremes of the two types I identified?

Methods For Type I Mission Command Environments

In my chapter in the Mission Command Anthology, I make the case that our current methods match relatively well to the requirements for Mission Command in Type I environments. That is, when we have a clear mission that is militarily accomplishable and that our populace understands and supports, our philosophy, command and control relationships, and personnel and communications systems work relatively well in accomplishing the mission. Linear, “ends-ways-means” thinking, deterministic planning, and rational decision making are sufficient for these environments, which are the normal methods taught in U.S. Army professional military education. Our personnel systems mainly support one and two-year processes and with our current technological overmatch, Type I warfare currently does not last more than two years for the U.S. Our communications systems provide commanders instant connection and even allow direct observance of activities thousands of miles away in some instances.

Because these environments will most likely result in linear cause and effect relationships, the scopes of the operations are bounded in proximate time and space. This means that our current assessments feedback loops, learning systems, and overall meta understanding of phenomena are largely sufficient. These match what our current doctrine, training, and education systems provide.

The Problems with Using Type I Methods in Type II Environments

Using Type I Mission Command Methods in Type II environments, however, might present problems. Type I Mission Command methods do not address those instances in which: 1) a commander cannot give sufficient mission orders, 2) a force’s aggregated efforts will not meet operational or strategic objectives, or, 3) empowering subordinates will not necessarily lead to reaching intermediate objectives. For instance, if a commander does not know, truly, “why” they are conducting an operation, then the current Mission Command concept may be insufficient. Not knowing the “why” can occur for many reasons. One is that, at the highest levels, the politicians might not be sure what they would like to accomplish or it could be politically inconvenient to admit what they would like, thus necessitating either obfuscation or the giving of a very abstract purpose to military units. In these cases, Mission Command would seem impossible, since not knowing “why” would not allow a subordinate to act in the absence of detailed orders. Not knowing the purpose of the operation would mean that the subordinate could take literally any action and be justified in doing so.

Another situation would be one in which a commander’s subordinates’ aggregated actions do not result in the accomplishment of the mission’s purpose. Assuming that winning all the battles, for example, will result in the war being won is potentially a bad assumption in Type II environments.

Thus, it is my assertion that many of the problems, if not most, with our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq emerge from utilizing Type I Mission Command and related methods in Type II environments. Winning every battle, ensuring positive metrics every year and unit rotation, assuming the aggregation of effects is sufficient, and thinking and planning linearly with a focus on execution is not allowing us to make progress. This begs the question, what methods would assist us in Type II environments?

A Different Definition for Mission Command

Instead of relying on “mission orders,” and the implied logic behind “commander’s intent,” which is that purposes and actions can always support the next “higher” level’s purposes and actions, I propose that Mission command should add two elements: “context,” and “learning.” That is, Mission Command as a proposition, would be stated as, “During military operations, in linear causality situations (Type I), leaders should give subordinates mission orders and allow the subordinates to show initiative in execution and adaptability according to changes in the situation, using the leaders’ intent to guide that initiative and adaptation; in non-linear causality situations (Type II), however, leaders must both assist and be assisted by their subordinates to best appreciate the context of the situation and during execution must learn and constantly adjust the appreciation of the context based on that learning- of note: the learning must go both ways. Additionally, one cannot assume one’s systems and processes will always support activities in Type II environments.”

This statement thus proposes a theory of Mission Command as being different dependent on the context. During explicit operations that are bounded in space and time and that allow the exploitation of linear cause and effect relationships, Mission Command can rely on mission orders, initiative of execution, and adaptability to changing situations based on the commander’s intent. During operations that are not explicit enough to allow linear cause and effect relationship reasoning, Mission Command must morph to one being a learning effort that is solidly grounded in the context (to include an honest appraisal of one’s systems and processes). Recognizing that that context is changing, however, leaders must use that learning to constantly re-define and appreciate said context.

The key in the latter case is that leaders at all levels must engage in constant learning and re-defining of the context, and the learning must go both ways: leaders at “higher” levels will not understand things simply because they have the most experience. Experience of previous phenomena normally does not assist one during non-linear cause and effect and very dynamic situations, indeed: over-reliance on experience can often impede learning. For the job of “taking the hill,” experience is, all things being equal, invaluable. For the task of “increasing stability in an Afghan province,” whatever experience a U.S. military commander might be expected to have in that area, it surely is at best insufficient. At worst that prior experience will be an obstacle to learning about the new context. In situations with non-linear cause and effect relationships, one of the most valuable characteristics to have is humility. Being able to admit ignorance is not something normally prized in military cultures, but it is absolutely necessary for learning in our latter example.

In short, Type I environments should prioritize execution, Type II should prioritize learning. The key insight isn’t that you only do one, but that there should be a shifting of priority. You will still execute in Type II situations, but your priority is “to learn.”

A New Theory of Mission Command

The theory I am proposing would read thusly:

Mission Command is a philosophy that describes the relationship of a commander to his subordinates in terms of their collective actions to best accomplish missions. This philosophy acknowledges two types of situations and, thus, two types of Mission Command. The first type consists of traditional Mission Command and starts with a commander’s mission orders, followed by a subordinate’s initiative in execution and adaptability during changes in the situation. The subordinate’s ultimate guide is the commander’s intent: the greater purpose the subordinate’s activities serve. The second type consists of those situations wherein the effects of both the subordinate’s unit on the commander’s purpose and the effect of the commander’s unit on, ultimately, strategic and policy objectives, is not the direct product of the actions of the respective units.

In the latter situations, the commander must engage with the subordinate(s) in an effort to define the context in such a way as to provide a shared appreciation of the situation, realizing that no one person or “level” of command can fully appreciate the situation. In addition, the commander and the subordinate(s) must engage in a context-unique learning effort in order to inform each other as to the changes in the context and the changes in each other’s’ appreciation of said context. Critically, one part of the contextual learning is how one’s systems and processes might impede success in Type II situations. It must be noted that during any one military operation commanders will most likely be required to conduct both types of Mission Command, sometimes simultaneously.

One hypothesis that can be developed from this theory is that the reason the U.S. military has been unable to inculcate Mission Command properly, if we assume that to be the case, is that it has largely been involved in “Type II” situations, and yet only applying Type I Mission Command. We can go further and attempt to predict what types of problems the military would most likely see if it were true that the Type I tool was being used for both Type I and Type II situations. One such prediction would be that, in the cases of Type I situations, the military has performed very admirably. Examples would include: the overthrow of the Taliban, the initial invasion of Iraq, the capture of Saddam Hussein, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Another prediction would be that, in the case of Type II situations, the military has struggled. Examples would include: the denial of sanctuary for Al Qaeda, the establishment of governance in Afghanistan and Iraq, the stability of the region, the development of security forces within the two countries, and the development of a successful Syrian insurgency.

Why the American Military Currently Cannot do Mission Command

It is my assertion that the American military is largely a Type I Mission Command kind of organization. That is, when faced with situations wherein the objectives are clear and there is a linear relationship between cause and effects, the American military excels. If true, it would follow that a Type II Mission Command environment would give the American military issues. This may help explain why the American military has struggled in the counterinsurgent environments of Afghanistan and Iraq post the invasions: the initial invasions were environments conducive to Type I Mission Command. The aftermath required Type II.

The main thing that needs to change in the U.S. Army is that it must have the ability to question its systems and processes when conducting Type II missions. It cannot afford to assume that its systems and processes support Type II missions. This requires a focus on learning, shared understanding, humility, and a context unique learning system.


The U.S. military has struggled with its follow-on missions in Afghanistan and Iraq of stabilizing the countries and establishing security forces, governance, and economic development. Many reasons have been offered for this failure: lack of strategic guidance from Washington, D.C., the inability of the rest of the Federal government to support the non-military efforts of governance and economic development, and the inability of the U.S. military to properly conduct counterinsurgency operations. Although some of these reasons may be valid, I think that a larger issue is how the military conducts its operations, where its focus is, and how it learns from them.

I assert that during explicit operations wherein effects are proximate and linear cause and effect relationships exist, the U.S. military has conducted Mission Command quite capably. Where it has struggled, I further assert, has been in those instances wherein effects were not proximate and there were non-linear cause and effect relationships involved. In those instances, a different type of Mission Command was necessary.

It is my further contention that this different type of Mission Command cannot rely on the assumptions that the other type relies on: namely that the purpose of the operation will be explicit, that all units will be logically supporting each other and the greater purpose, that aggregated efforts will reach the desired purpose as in a linear fashion, or that current systems and processes support activities in all situations. When those assumptions are invalid, then another type of Mission Command must be used, one that takes into account those invalid assumptions and mitigates them by having commanders and subordinates engage each other to appreciate the context in a shared manner and inform each other as operations unfold as to how that context is changing and how the appreciation of the context needs to change.

End Notes

[i] Vandergriff, Donald and Webber, Stephen, editors. Martin, Grant “Is the U.S. Army’s Current Concept of Mission Command Sufficicent for All Situations? Introducing the Notion of ‘Type II’ Mission Command” in Mission Command: The Who, What, Where, When, and Why: An Anthology, self-published, printed by Createspace: Charleston, 2017.

[ii] Vandergriff, Donald and Webber, Stephen, Mission Command: The Who, What, Where, When and Why An Anthology, self-published, printed by Createspace: Charleston, 2017.

[iii] Ackoff, Russell L., "The Future of Operational Research is Past", The Journal of the Operational Research Society, 1979, p 102-103.


About the Author(s)

LTC Grant M. Martin is a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army. He has served in Korea, Afghanistan and South America. He graduated from The Citadel, has an MBA from George Mason University, and an MMAS from the School of Advanced Military Studies. He is a Ph.D. candidate at North Carolina State University’s Public Administration program with special interest in researching the organizational obstacles within SOCOM and DoD to effective Irregular Warfare. He has been published in the International JournalMilitary, and the Small Wars Journal, in addition to contributing to chapters in two textbooks on Design Thinking.