Small Wars Journal

What National Culture Teaches Us About Mission Command

Mon, 03/04/2024 - 7:29am

What National Culture Teaches Us About Mission Command


By Colonel Joe Junguzza and Colonel Kelly Lelito

“Individualism, the love of enterprise, and the pride in personal freedom, have been deemed by Americans not only as their choicest, but their peculiar and exclusive possessions.” – James Bryce[1]


Mission Command was made in America. While the formal term Mission Command was not coined until 2003, it has been in practice throughout American military history.[2]  Three core tenets of Mission Command are Commander’s Intent, Mutual Trust, and Common Understanding.[3] In essence: Commanders communicate intent; subordinates must understand this intent and then determine how it is best accomplished. A bedrock of mutual trust bolsters and strengthens relationships between commanders and subordinates, and optimizes the execution of commander’s intent on the battlefield. According to Army doctrine, “Mission command is the approach to command and control that empowers subordinate decision making and decentralized execution appropriate to the situation.”[4]  Mission Command is how the Joint Force grants agency to the lowest appropriate echelon.

While the doctrinal designation of Mission Command may be fairly recent, its practice is deeply embedded in American history.  During the Civil War, Brigadier General Warren coordinated the occupation of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg based solely on Major General Meade’s guidance to protect the Army’s left flank, a maneuver which ultimately led to the Confederacy’s defeat.[5]  In World War II, Major General Gavin took the initiative to conduct a river crossing during Operation Market Garden to meet the intent of seizing northern end of the Nijmegen Bridge when the allies initially failed to take it.[6]  During Operation Desert Storm, Captain H.R. McMaster’s decision to push past the limit of advance in the Battle of 73 Easting led to a decisive victory over Iraqi forces.[7]  Mission Command doctrine reflects the reality of how the United States military has always operated.  It is a core advantage and always has been; it is reflective of the independent spirit and initiative upon which the nation was conceived and founded. A society that values initiative breeds a Force capable of exercising initiative.

Why the execution of Mission Command is more important than ever

In 21st-century warfare, battles will be won with technology… but also through initiative. The speed of technological advance will not slacken; the pace with which technological advances insert into the fight will not recede. New technologies bring permanent change to the art and practice of warfare; they always have and always will. Although maintaining a technological edge matters, human factors are equally in play, and ever have been as well.

According to the ancient Romans, “Audentis Fortuna Iuvat” (Fortune Favors the Bold). An alternative translation, “Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat” (Fortune Aids the Brave) echoes a similar sentiment. [8]  Both boldness and bravery are attributes of initiative – among the list of synonyms for initiative, Merriam-Webster lists: self-reliance, drive, enterprise. Verbs commonly used along with ‘initiative’ are action verbs: initiative is taken, seized, captured.[9]

U.S. doctrine considers initiative the primary component of the art of tactics.  In fact, the term initiative is so ubiquitous that it appears over a hundred times in Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces. [10] Gaining and maintaining initiative is considered key to successful military operations, and creates a more flexible and agile force.[11]  The flexibility and agility conferred by the skilled practice of Mission Command cannot be overstated.

These advantages cannot be leveraged if commanders and their subordinates are untrained, unable, unwilling, and –particularly– unempowered to exercise them. Mission Command enables decentralized execution of commander’s intent. This delegates not only the permission, but the duty to use disciplined initiative to exploit opportunities and mitigate avoidable risks.[12]  If initiative is the key ingredient to success in warfare, Mission Command is its delivery method. 

Why Americans are so good at it

The U.S. Military is good at Mission Command because it reflects American culture.  Americans are raised with a comparatively high degree of autonomy.  As they mature, they make their own decisions as they plot their own course. Americans choose where they live; where (or if) they worship; and which values they embrace. Likewise, Americans channel their talents and interests to follow their desired vocation or career path – their studies follow their passions. These cultural norms are enshrined in the founding principles of our Nation, they are reflected in our founding documents. 

Democracies thrive because people are free to contribute to society by harnessing their aptitudes, abilities, and interests.  Two thirds of the ‘unalienable rights’ cited in the Declaration of Independence are liberty and the pursuit of happiness.[13]  Both of these terms embody the concepts of individual initiative and self-reliance, which are central to our culture.  The term “rugged individualism” was coined by President Herbert Hoover.  Many decades later, this characteristic is still claimed by presidents and pundits to be part of America’s DNA.[14] 

For most United States Military recruits, autonomous decision-making is already a long-ingrained personality trait. In practice, some of this ‘rugged individualism’ must be tempered if one is to succeed in the profession of arms. In fact, a critical component of initial indoctrination into the uniformed services is the suppression of autonomy. In the Army, one of the first thing new recruits learn are the ‘Army Values’. Loyalty, Duty, Respect, and Selfless Service are all tied to subordination of self and individual identity to a higher purpose.[15]  The first two weeks of basic training are spent largely on discipline and teamwork.[16]  The Army trains new Soldiers to follow orders and work as a team to synchronize and coordinate their efforts. Basic training is designed to imbed pride in the individual: they are now part of a large, prestigious organization, with a deep and honorable history. Sometimes, this means that very junior Soldiers need to follow orders without question. Gradually, the Army develops individuals to give feedback to commanders when they have questions or suggestions. Eventually – when appropriate – maturing Soldiers are encouraged to practice autonomous decision-making and problem solving.

Mission command can only be exercised when discipline and initiative are in balance. The ability to find that balance and successfully execute the commander’s intent – in other words, to thoughtfully practice one’s role within the mission command structure – comes with time, training, and experience.  Given those investments, American servicemembers are culturally predisposed to succeed within a Mission Command construct –Americans ‘have the right stuff.’

Why the Russians are so bad at it

The Russian Army’s inability to apply the tenets of Mission Command have been apparent from the outset of the Russo-Ukraine War. During the initial invasion, the Russians demonstrated their commanders would not deviate from strict adherence to orders even when their ability to accomplish the mission was severely degraded as a result.  This was particularly evident in Bakhmut, Mykolaiv, and Chernihiv, when Russian forces suffered significant casualties following orders to bypass Ukrainian strongpoints.  In the early months of the war, many Russian general officers were killed because they moved close to the front lines to direct their troops.[17] While some may argue this demonstrates a certain level of courage among Russian flag officers, it also exposes an inability to trust subordinates to execute the mission –especially should conditions change at the front. 

In an autocratic society, citizens are given the illusion of choice – choice is permitted – so long as there is no conflict with the regime’s objectives. Individual autonomy in Russian society is very limited in comparison to Western societies.[18] It is much harder to give subordinate military commanders agency within a culture that does not have much of it.  

President Vladamir Putin leverages post-Soviet nostalgia to push an ideology where the needs of the collective and a strong, stable state come first.[19]  This prioritization of ‘the needs of the state over the needs of the individual’ appears to be endorsed by a majority of the Russian citizenry, which believes in Russian exceptionalism and Russian great power status.[20] These beliefs form the cornerstone of Russian culture. Russian culture does not translate well for the implementation of Mission Command.

In 2008, Russia attempted to reform its officer-heavy, Division-focused Army into smaller Brigades that could operate more independently.[21] This clearly didn’t take.  By 2017, the Army abandoned its attempt to create a professional Non-Commissioned Officer corps and assigned those duties to junior officers.[22] Compounding the inability to establish even rudimentary autonomy within its force, the Russian Army increasingly fills its enlisted ranks with prisoners, debtors, convicts, the unemployed, and those trying to avoid deportation.[23]  An Army so crudely cobbled together inevitably forgoes strategic planning in favor of makeshift tactics –this is all it is capable of.

On the Ukrainian battlefield, Russia is using “Storm-Z” units in a vulgar and wasteful approach:  A myasnoi shturm or “meat storm” employs sacrificial waves of Russian infantry, unsupported by artillery or suppressive fires, towards Ukrainian forces to attempt to identify their positions, overwhelm them, or deplete their ammunition.[24]  The commanders of these poorly trained units are routinely ignored when making suggestions on assigned missions.[25]

The astonishing number of Russian casualties realized in the first year of this war were attributable in no small part to the total failure of Russian leadership to embrace and apply any level of Mission Command during this conflict. The only evidence of autonomous thought or action on the Russian side of the battlelines can be solely attributed to the Wagner Mercenary Group reinforcements – and then only with numerous caveats, limitations, and provisos.  In this rare exception, the loosening of the reins of autocratic control proved disastrous.  Following the shocking events of the Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny, Putin likely has little appetite for repeating the experiment. The Russian Army appears to be doubling down on a force that follows orders and demonstrates little room for inspired initiative.   

Why the Ukrainians so readily adopted Mission Command

Ukraine was much more adept in adopting some of the basic tenets of Mission Command, especially commander’s intent and the common understanding of it.  Despite operational surprise during the initial Russian axis of advance and significant disruption of Command and Control (C2), Ukrainians were able to demonstrate initiative at the tactical level. [26] Even without higher headquarters’ instruction, many smaller units understood the intent and began attacking Russian forces that were moving in administrative columns.[27] Small units operated independently against a much larger Russian force. These units were effective because their purpose was to defeat the Russian Army and cause as much disruption as possible. Low level commanders were able to make decisions and conduct operations effectively.

The Ukrainians were able to adopt the principles of agency and Mission Command in ways that the Russians are simply unable to.  While not a literal replication of a Western democracy, Ukraine reflects democratic values to a much greater extent than many of its regional neighbors.   According to a recent Freedom House assessment, Ukraine is considered a transitional democracy while its former Soviet satellite neighbors like Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are still considered consolidated authoritarian regimes.[28] 

There is also an aspirational difference between the populaces of Russia and Ukraine:  30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey with citizens from countries that had been freed from the Soviet Union.  The question was put to individuals as to whether they believed in democracy and market economies, or whether they wanted to return to communism and a state-run economy. While a majority of Russians wanted to go back to an autocratic model, the Ukrainian results were much more favorable to the freedoms and structures inherent in democracy and capitalism.[29]  It is this cultural predilection towards agency for the citizenry which makes adoption of Mission Command principles natural for the military that defends those citizens. 

The Russo-Ukraine War: Lessons learned from 2 years of observation

Both Russia and Ukraine have shown the ability to adapt.  The war would be over if they could not.  However, the Ukrainian Army can adapt and adopt at much lower echelons than the Russian Army.

The current battle of Avdiivka is an example of the Russian Army's inability to adapt using lessons learned from earlier experiences during this war.  Russian forces began an offensive to take Avdiivka in October with poorly led, poorly trained, and ill-disciplined elements of the Donetsk People’s Republic.[30]   One Ukrainian battalion commander described the Russian attacks as repeated “attritional” frontal assaults by small groups of infantry.[31] ‘Attritional attacks’ are a euphemism for myasnoi shturm.  Lower-level Russian commanders initially made progress in preparing the use of infantry squads, but Russian Command’s insistence on large frontal assaults have literally killed off any chance of successfully implementing these ideas.[32]  Several months into the battle, Russia is still using this tactic.[33]

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces are adjusting their tactics based on lessons learned during the counteroffensive in the summer of 2023.[34]  The Ukrainians have met with success using smaller sized infantry units – particularly on the east bank of the Dnipro River where they have established a bridgehead that the Russians have been unable to dislodge.[35]  While both sides have made adjustments, only the Ukrainian military empowers their subordinates to implement those adjustments independently.

 In the Russo-Ukraine War, the Ukrainians far over-preformed the initial expectations of most of the international community. A more successful alignment to Mission Command principles has clearly given the Ukrainian Army an advantage over its Russian counterparts.  Cultural precursors to Mission Command can imbue a persistent edge that is generational in nature.  Internalizing and practicing the tenets of Mission Command is not a silver bullet, nor a fast-track to victory – but it is a foundation for Ukraine to build on…  a foundation that Russia is simply not capable of adopting. 

What this means for future partnerships

When assisting a foreign nation, the United States must recognize that nation’s cultural propensity for Mission Command and adjust accordingly.  Mission Command is developed through training over time. It is as much an art as it is a science, and it is not practiced at a fixed point, but along a continuum – after all, some operations require tighter controls over a subordinates’ actions than others.[36]  During collective training, it is important to give agency to subordinate commanders so they can develop a feel for when to take initiative and make decisions on their own. It is not enough to assume they will be able to do this spontaneously in combat; they must learn these skills through training and acculturation.

Mission Command is neither a switch nor a spigot that can be turned on or off by will or whim.  One cannot “sprinkle a little mission command” on just prior to kinetic conflict and anticipate positive results. Recognizing an army’s innate potential begins with understanding the culture that produced that army.  To properly mold an army in Mission Command doctrine, we must understand the clay that we are working with. 

COL Joe Junguzza is an Armor and Information Operations Officer, a Brigade Commander in the United States Army Reserve, and a student in the United States Army War College (USAWC) Distance Education Program. 

COL Kelly Lelito is an Army Reserve Strategist and an Assistant Professor at the USAWC, where she is also a Course Director for Theater Strategy & Campaigning.

Kelly and Joe are taking part in a USAWC Integrated Research Project led by Dr. John Nagl that focuses on lessons learned in the Russo-Ukraine war.  During the course of their research, a connection between a society’s pre-war culture and their military’s adoption of Mission Command began to emerge. 

Please Note: The views here expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. 



[2] U.S. Department of the Army, Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces, Field Manual No. 6-0 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2003)

[3] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Operations (JP 3-0) (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2017), II-6, III-3.

[4] Department of the Army, Mission Command, ADP 6-0  (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2019), 1-3, ARN34403-ADP_6-0-000-WEB-3.pdf (

[5] Donald P. Wright, “16 Cases of Misson Command” Combat Studies Institute (US Army Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, KS) July 2013, 25

[6] Donald P. Wright, “16 Cases of Misson Command” Combat Studies Institute (US Army Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, KS) July 2013, 87

[9] Thesaurus, s.v. “initiative,” accessed February 14, 2024,

[10] Headquarters, Department of the Army, ADP 6-0: Mission Command (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2019)

[11] Department of the Army, FM 3-0: Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2017), 3-14.

[12] Headquarters, Department of the Army, ADP 6-0: Mission Command (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2019), 1-12.

[17] Meredith Deliso, “Why Russia has suffered the loss of an 'extraordinary' number of generals,” ABC News, May 8th 2022,   Why Russia has suffered the loss of an 'extraordinary' number of generals - ABC News (

[18] Freedom House, “Global Freedom Status: Russia” Nov 19, 2023 Russia: Freedom in the World 2023 Country Report | Freedom House

[19] Maria Snegovaya, Michael Kimmage, and Jade McGlynn “The ideology of putinism, CSIS, September 2023, 2,3,14

[20] Maria Snegovaya, Michael Kimmage, and Jade McGlynn “The ideology of putinism, CSIS, September 2023, 3

[21] Congressional Research Institute, “Russian Armed Forces: Military Modernization and Reforms” July 20th, 2020 Russian Armed Forces: Military Modernization and Reforms (, 1

[22] Congressional Research Service “Russian Armed Forces: Military Modernization and Reforms” IN FOCUS

July 20, 2020, 1

[23] Institute for the Study of War, “RUSSIAN OFFENSIVE CAMPAIGN ASSESSMENT” Nov 3rd 2023, Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, November 2, 2023 | Institute for the Study of War (

[24] Joshua Yaffa, “Inside the Wagner Group’s Uprising”, The New Yorker, July 31st 2023, Inside the Wagner Group’s Armed Uprising | The New Yorker

[26] Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi, Jack Watling, Oleksandr V Danylyuk and Nick Reynolds, “Preliminary Lessons in Conventional Warfighting from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: February–July 2022”, Royal United Services Institute (London, United Kingdom), 30 Nov 2022, 23

[27] Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi, Jack Watling, Oleksandr V Danylyuk and Nick Reynolds, “Preliminary Lessons in Conventional Warfighting from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: February–July 2022”, Royal United Services Institute (London, United Kingdom), 30 Nov 2022, 28

[36] Department of the Army, “ADP 6-0, Mission Command”, July 2019, 1-6

About the Author(s)

COL Joe Junguzza is an Armor and Information Operations Officer, a Brigade Commander in the United States Army Reserve, and a student in the United States Army War College (USAWC) Distance Education Program.  

COL Kelly Lelito is an Army Reserve Strategist and an Assistant Professor at the USAWC, where she is also a Course Director for Theater Strategy & Campaigning.