Mission Command Analysis of Ia Drang Operation
By Rodani Tan
During the Vietnam War, Builder et al. (1999) mentioned that before 1965, the fighting by the United States (U.S.) Soldiers in Vietnam had been in minor skirmishes with Viet Cong (VC) troops conducting hit-and-run counterinsurgency operations. However, the situation significantly escalated since 6 February 1965, the VC attacked the U.S. compound in Pleiku, leaving eight Americans dead and hundreds wounded. In November 1965, Colonel (COL) Thomas W. Brown ordered the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, commanded by then Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Harold G. Moore Jr., to execute an airmobile assault operation in Ia Drang valley and conduct a search and destroy operation against the VC and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) (Albright et al., 1970). At the same time, North Vietnamese General (GEN) Chu Huy Man, with three NVA regiments, ordered preparations for conducting offensive operations in the same area of Ia Drang to inflict significant casualties against the U.S. military (Builder et al., 1999).
GEN Man’s preparation for offensive operations set the stage for a large-scale battle for the very first time, fundamentally changing Vietnam’s war. The Battle of Ia Drang was bloody and savage, causing over 1,200 NVAs killed, while the U.S. lost over two hundred Soldiers (Krepinevic, 1986). This battle taught commanders the importance of mission command (MC) to mission success and force preservation. “MC is the Army’s 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). LTC Moore’s successful application of MC principles, the elements of command and control (C2), and the C2 warfighting function (WfF) to accomplish the mission and preserve his force provided excellent lessons for future commanders.
Principles of Mission Command
The principles of MC serve as the foundation for MC. As described by DA (2019a), “the principles of competence, mutual trust, shared understanding, commander’s intent, mission orders, disciplined initiative, and risk acceptance enable successful MC” (p. 1-7). LTC Moore, his commanders, and GEN Man executed several principles of MC in preparation and during the Battle of Ia Drang. Carland (2000) pointed out that the commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, GEN Harry Kinnard, disliked their early operations as reactionary and time constrained. He preferred mission-type orders and the freedom to conduct his operations, which General Westmoreland granted and authorized through mutual trust and shared understanding to go after the NVA. The Battle of Ia Drang demonstrated several principles established by LTC Moore, such as competence, disciplined initiative, and risk acceptance.
The Center for the Army Profession and Ethic (CAPE) (n.d.) defines competence as an “Army professional’s demonstrated ability to perform their duties successfully and to accomplish the mission with discipline and to standard” (p. 2). Rigorous training, experience, and education develop leaders’ and Soldiers’ competence. In the Army’s profession, training is always a priority and integrated into all operations to ensure proficiency in all tactical and technical tasks. Combat training and continuous self-development are crucial for preserving life and property on battlefields. Builder et al. (1999) reported that the 1st Cavalry Division deployed to Vietnam as a newly designated helicopter borne division supporting search and destroy missions.
Under this Division, LTC Moore and his Soldiers displayed their competence and proficiency in this new airmobile assault operation. From the initial assault and throughout the operations, U.S. forces could adapt quickly to changing operational environment by promptly establishing and reinforcing defensive positions to repel large NVA forces (Albright et al., 1970). Moore (1965) also cited the enemy as competent and well-trained. The enemies were experts at camouflage and lethal, shooting his officers and noncommissioned officers in the head and upper part of their bodies. The Battle of Ia Drang proved that a more competent force would always prevail and defeat the opposing force. In addition to competence, LTC Moore and his Soldiers displayed disciplined initiative and risk acceptance while operating against a massive force of NVAs in Ia Drang Valley.
Disciplined Initiative and Risk Acceptance
Disciplined initiative is the ability to act without direct orders when the opportunity arises to achieve the commander’s intent, and risk acceptance refers to the leader's ability to accept risk to achieve desirable outcomes despite exposure to harm (DA, 2019a). A disciplined initiative combined with other principles of MC, like risk taking, enables rapid actions against the enemy, seizing an opportunity or advantage that will contribute to the overall success of a mission. Risk will always be part of any operation, which needs consideration and analysis when planning and during an operation due to factors constantly changing. LTC Moore’s Soldiers exercised disciplined initiative after receiving orders to secure the landing zone (LZ), lunging from their helicopters and at once setting up defensive positions covered by high willowy elephant grass (Albright et al., 1970). The UH-1D pilots and crews accepted the risks of continuously delivering supplies and personnel under heavy enemy fire, which earned LTC Moore’s admiration and respect (Moore, 1965). Instilling discipline, initiative, and risk acceptance allowed LTC Moore’s subordinates to make rapid decisions throughout the battle, as it grew complex and chaotic for LTC Moore to command all parts of the operation directly. In addition to the principles of MC, LTC Moore also applied the elements of C2 throughout the battle to ensure effectiveness and efficiency in accomplishing his objectives and preserving his force.
Elements of Command and Control
Elements of C2 are those actions and attributes that enable the commander to apply C2. “C2 is the exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated commander over assigned and attached forces in the accomplishment of a mission” (Joint Chiefs of Staff [JCS], 2020, p. GL-4). LTC Moore exercised C2 to his organic units in Ia Drang and attached units he asked for. The Battle of Ia Drang offered numerous C2 challenges for LTC Moore, but he did not waiver from ensuring unity of action against the enemy. He used the intangible elements of command, which are authority, responsibility, decision making, and leadership, to display his command presence and to motivate his Soldiers to continue fighting against difficult odds.
Authority is a function of rank and position exercised over subordinates granted by law and regulation (DA, 2019a). LTC Moore’s initial concept of moving each company by leapfrogging to the west eventually changed upon arrival into the LZ with inaccurate intelligence information (Builder et al., 1999). He used his authority to change his orders and make immediate decisions to adapt to the changing dynamics of the battle to ensure that his troops continued to fight and defend the LZ. His Soldiers continued to fight until he ordered a withdrawal, showing respect for his authority. LTC Moore and his subordinate leaders expertly applied the decision-making element of command, preventing the enemies from overrunning their positions. Albright et al. (1970) mentioned that one company commander quickly requested LTC Moore to provide artillery smoke to help his company pull back from a position during heavy fighting. LTC Moore relayed the request, but artillery smoke was not available. He decided to approve the use of white phosphorous, which gave the same effect, drawing from his previous experience in the Korean War. His command effectiveness on the battlefield employed the use of elements of control like direction, feedback, information, and communication.
LTC Moore provided directions to his units into positions that best defended the wave of enemies coming into their location. “He beat the initial onslaught through skillful positioning and wise use of his reserves” (Builder et al., 1999, p. 96). LTC Moore’s subordinates provided immediate feedback to the developing situations. Based on such feedback, he adapted and gave orders to change tactics to support his subordinates. LTC Moore also provided his superiors feedback so his commanders could assess the situation and mobilize projected troops that could support his operation. The key to giving direction and receiving feedback is information and communication. The information given provides the understanding for a commander to visualize a situation and decide. While communication is the vehicle for which information travels, constant communication is key for developing a shared understanding and executing a plan efficiently. LTC Moore effectively transmitted his command concepts which his subordinates understood, and directly communicated orders to them in anticipation of enemy intentions and feedback from his subordinates (Builder et al., 1999). His action describes the importance of the C2 function that, when appropriately applied, complements the C2 WfF function in effectively using capabilities.
Command and Control Warfighting Function
The C2 WfF is the related tasks and a system that enables commanders to synchronize and converge all elements of combat power” (Department of the Army [DA], 2019b, p. 5-3). These tasks, like command forces and establishing the C2 system, and systems like processes and command posts, aid the commander in controlling all the assigned forces within his area of operations. Law gives commanders authority to command forces assigned to them. A single commander provides unity of command, enabling unity of effort in accomplishing an objective.
Establishing a C2 system provides a framework and connection for different units to function and create a shared understanding like a task organization inside an operations order. For instance, LTC Moore was the battalion commander who commanded several companies, including other attached supporting units. C2 system, like the information collection process, is vital for a commander to understand an operational environment. Albright et al. (1970) depicted information collection when LTC Moore conducted reconnaissance to identify the best LZ to use for landing his unit; he decided to use LZ X-ray because it allowed a more significant force to deploy in one landing.
The command post is also an essential C2 system because it provides an identified location for subordinates to report and coordinate various activities of the operation. In Ia Drang, LTC Moore established his command post by an anthill surrounded by his companies to properly control the operations of his forces (Albright et al., 1970). His position also provided command presence and inspiration to his troops which his subordinates could observe. With all the challenges confronting LTC Moore’s unit, his quick decisions and reactions inspired his subordinates never to give up and continue fighting for each other.
LTC Moore’s successful application of MC principles, the elements of C2, and the C2 WfF function to accomplish the mission and preserve his force provided excellent lessons for future commanders. His competence and his Soldiers’ initiatives throughout the operation enabled them to thwart the advance of an unexpected colossal force. Applying the elements of C2 enabled him to direct changes in anticipation of his enemy’s intent or feedback from his subordinates. Moreover, using the various tasks and the C2 system before, during, and after the battle enabled LTC Moore to successfully develop a plan, adjust his intent, defend his terrain, inflict casualties on the enemy and preserve his remaining troops. Overall, LTC Moore overcame the challenges he confronted in Ia Drang by using a modern style of airmobile operation partnered with effective MC.
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