Ask the Right Questions, and You’ll Get a Better Answer: How Training in the Philosophy of Mission Command Will Enable Our Commanders to Get Staffs to Get It Right the First Time

In his 2012 book, Bleeding Talent, economist Tim Kane uses the example of retired GEN David Petraeus to illustrate how the global war on terrorism has exposed a failing in the Army’s leader-development systems. Kane states that Petraeus’ relative demotion from U.S. Central Command commander to commander of the United States’ effort in Afghanistan in 2010 “is something to interpret very positively for the man and very negatively for the institution.”1 Former Marine officer Renny McPherson similarly asks why no other generals were available to take the top job in Afghanistan. McPherson concludes that the U.S. military “had failed to produce enough leaders like Petraeus.”2 Both these men use the Petraeus example to argue that the Army needs to improve its capacity to grow top leaders to win the nation’s wars.

This analysis focuses too narrowly on the top level of command. The fact that the Army’s emphasis on waging modern war is almost entirely concerned with its highest-ranking commanders speaks more ill of the profession than does the alleged scarcity of general officers qualified to handle top commands. In an organization designed to deploy anywhere in the world and conduct unified land operations (ULO), it should not take a four-star general with a doctorate in international relations to figure out that providing basic services to a district of Baghdad reduces insurgent violence.

For the Army to develop and sustain a high degree of situational understanding while operating in complex environments against determined, adaptive enemy organizations, it must make its field-grade commanders as effective as its flag officers. It can accomplish this by working to fulfill two training goals. First, the Army needs to train its commanders to drive the operations process across all aspects of ULO. Second, the Army must train its staffs to implement commanders’ intent universally well across ULO to increase commanders’ ability at every level to make decisions in any operational environment. Achieving these two endstates will greatly increase the Army’s ability to not only seize and retain the initiative in future conflicts but, more importantly, will empower subordinate commanders to gain the information they need to exercise disciplined initiative and exploit the windows of opportunity that characterize modern military operations.

What is supposed to happen

Uncertainty has always been a factor in military operations, but the battlefield of the future will only be more uncertain and complex. The Army acknowledges this in its Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-0, Mission Command, stating, “[M]ilitary operations are complex human endeavors characterized by continuous, mutual give-and-take moves and countermoves among all participants.”3 The interaction among friendly forces, the enemy and civilian groups on the modern battlefield produces results that “are often unpredictable – and perhaps uncontrollable.”4

To respond to these exigencies, the Army has promulgated the philosophy of mission command, which ADP 6-0 defines as “the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of [ULO].”5 Commander’s intent enables disciplined initiative, and this is in turn dependent on commanders, subordinate leaders and their staffs achieving and maintaining a common understanding of their operational environment. While such understanding is difficult to achieve in modern war, staff exist to mitigate that difficulty, specifically by supporting commanders “in understanding situations, decision-making and implementing decisions throughout the conduct of operations.”6 One of the most critical responsibilities of a staff is to “[study] the operational environment, [identify] information gaps and [help] the commander develop and answer information requirements.”7 The Army considers information to be “good” if it is accurate, timely, usable, complete, precise and reliable.8

Commanders are expected to drive the operations process that characterizes staff work to generate commander’s critical information requirements (CCIR). The organization should subsequently focus its intelligence-collection and information-generation efforts on answering the CCIR as they apply to friendly and enemy forces. The CCIR-generation process presumably takes into account both the traditional offensive and defensive characteristics of ground warfare and the ambiguities inherent in stability operations.

Staffs then devise methods for answering the CCIR to allow the commander to make decisions and to enable disciplined initiative for his junior leaders. Typically, this staff work takes the form of wargaming in the military decision-making process (MDMP) and allows the staff to develop a rolling estimate of the situation facing the organization. Implied in this staff responsibility is the staff’s ability to creatively identify information gaps to meet both the commander’s CCIR and intent. Also implied is the expectation that the robust human talent inherent in staff organizations will both produce “good” information and cause staffs to constantly challenge their own understanding of the operational picture to keep abreast of the complexities of modern warfare. All this activity ultimately allows Army organizations and commanders to develop and maintain the situational understanding necessary for making decisions and seizing the initiative.

What actually happens

My experience – and that of many of my peers – indicates that most Army organizations practice in a suboptimal manner the principles of mission command previously specified. Army commanders tend to embrace their responsibility to lead and direct their organizations but largely do not fully comprehend how their responsibility to understand, visualize, describe and assess drives the process that enables them to make decisions.

Part of this problem is cognitive. ULO requires that commanders balance high-intensity operations (offensive and defensive operations) with stability operations to win the nation’s wars.9 Most Soldiers quickly concede that most of the Army’s activity in the war on terrorism focused on stability operations, the subset of ULO concerned with “activities conducted outside the United States in coordination with other instruments of national power to maintain or re-establish a safe and secure environment.”10

If a sizeable portion of the Army’s commanders understand that ULO requires a proper mix of high-intensity and stability operations, they have not demonstrated an equal understanding of applying mission command across all ULO domains, particularly where commander-staff coordination to produce meaningful CCIR is concerned. Staffs engaged in the war on terrorism conduct solid MDMP for high-intensity operations, such as battalion-sized air assaults into enemy strongholds, because this exercise is drilled into Army staff officers and the CCIR for high-intensity operations are relatively straightforward.

Wargaming and developing CCIR for stability operations usually require creative problem-solving and a more nuanced understanding of the operational environment, and it is here where many of today’s junior captains – and tomorrow’s company commanders – believe we need to focus our efforts on improving. Stability operations both have different objectives and require different decisions from commanders than do high-intensity operations, implying the need for different information. Identifying the composition, disposition and strength of an enemy mechanized battalion, and then identifying how to seize the initiative, is taxing but ultimately easy work for well-trained professionals. Figuring out how to bring stability to an Afghan district is seemingly more complex because it involves a host of variables that are harder to quantify than the number of enemy T-72 battle tanks, and because most units’ commanders and staffs have not cognitively separated stability operations’ CCIR and MDMP processes from high-intensity operations.

In spite of the obvious differences between them, most commanders allow their staff MDMP process to produce CCIR for stability operations that are identical to the CCIR they would produce for high-intensity operations. It is common for platoon leaders in Afghanistan to spend most of their time attending shuras, negotiating contracts for basic services or assessing the progress of the rule of law in their area of operations (AO). Nevertheless, CCIR for all these stability operations tend to read like the CCIR for an attack to seize an enemy stronghold: how many AK-47s were encountered, where is the enemy placing his improvised explosive devices and how many military-aged males are in the AO? The commander-staff interaction process does not typically account for the information-requirement discrepancies between high-intensity operations and stability operations.

This presumes that staffs constantly conduct MDMP and produce CCIR for their commanders during stability operations. More often than not, commanders exercise mission command to produce valid CCIR for high-intensity operations but fall back on static-state operations and quarterly line-of-operations reviews to maintain their situational understanding in stability operations. Staff work rapidly degenerates into a complacent model of checking the box for weekly decision and command-and-staff briefs, and staffers cannot help but come to see their jobs as undemanding. As a result, organizations get staff officers who do not try to devise creative ways to overlay tribal affiliations with economic data and levels of violence in a battalion area of responsibility.

Another part of the problem is cultural. Simply put, the Army as an organization tolerates the notion that staffs are not the place for commanders to send their talented officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). This defies both history and math.

The denigration of staff work defies history because great armies have typically concentrated phenomenal talent in their staffs to achieve decisive results in war. Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington points out that one of the reasons the relatively small and weak state of Prussia was able to transform itself into a world-class military power in the span of a generation was through its development of a professional staff system.11 Huntington notes that service on the Prussian General Staff “was the most coveted duty in the German army.” Also, service on the General Staff came to signify an officer’s possessing the “highest standards of knowledge, competence and devotion to duty.”12 Huntington also strongly insinuates that the French army’s lack of an equivalent staff system strongly contributed to their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.13

The denigration of staff work defies math because most of an officer’s career is spent on staff. In a typical 20-year career, an infantry officer will spend perhaps four years leading Soldiers as a company-grade officer and perhaps two more as a battalion commander. He will spend a solid 70 percent to 75 percent of his remaining 15 years in one staff position or another. As a result, the Army needs to consider whether it wants to continue to allow a mentality that leads its officers and NCOs to consider their work as important only 25 percent to 30 percent of the time.

This cultural perception becomes problematic when it influences career decisions for promising leaders. The perception that assigning promising leaders to staff wastes their potential leads most commanders to turn their staffs into repositories of substandard performers. Commanders who have avoided staff work as best they can, meanwhile, are less likely to know how to properly wield a staff once they are given one. These cultural and cognitive factors produce, in the end, a decreased ability by the Army to fight and win the nation’s wars.

The proof of this is in the prolonged execution of the war on terrorism itself: the Army has performed superbly in executing high-intensity operations against insurgent enemies but still grapples with creating and sustaining the situational awareness necessary for successfully executing stability operations.

Commanders have created shared understanding for high-intensity operations but not for stability operations. They articulate commanders’ intent very well for traditional offensive and defensive operations but tend to allow the information requirements for waging stability operations to be recycled versions of their intent for high-intensity operations. Subordinate leaders are thus left with prolonged periods in stability operations where, through a combination of a lack of information and guidance, they are unable to exercise disciplined initiative to take advantage of windows of opportunity.

How to fix it

None of this is an indictment of staff personnel or commanders. The Army has demonstrated over the past 13 years of persistent conflict that it is very good at producing highly trained and highly educated leaders to meet its organizational needs. There is also scant indication that the Army is willing to “forget” the lessons of the war on terrorism as they pertain to stability operations: stability operations figure prominently in all major Army doctrine publications, constitute dedicated blocks of instruction in most major Army career qualification courses, and are incorporated into the training plans of most Army maneuver units. Success in tomorrow’s wars requires translating the profession’s experience in more than a decade of ULO to training mission-command-related best practices into all echelons in all units.

In mission command, the commander is the central figure. The Army needs to make sure that its commanders understand this means they drive the operations process in all aspects of ULO, and that the operations process characterized by commander-staff interaction pertains equally to ULO’s high-intensity and stability-operations components. Moreover, the operations process needs to be distinctly tailored for high-intensity and stability operations.

The most basic change the Army can make to address this problem is to introduce the concept of relevance to its doctrinal characterization of information. A commander who is concerned with the role of relevant information in enabling decision-making will drive a staff to produce and answer relevant CCIR for all aspects of ULO. A commander who does not will be content with recycled products that may have no bearing on his current operational situation.

Another important doctrinal point for the Army to emphasize is the various components of effective CCIR. High-intensity operations tend to preoccupy staffs with the enemy-centric aspects of CCIR, also known as priority information requirements (PIR). However, in stability operations, friendly forces’ information requirements (FFIR) are often as – if not more – valuable in helping commanders make decisions as are enemy-focused PIR. The ability to answer FFIR asking if host-nation government officials’ policies complement military operations in an AO allows commanders to decide how they will try to shape their relations with those officials in the future through military operations, Commander’s Emergency Relief Fund projects or wide-area security patrols. Good commanders drive their staffs to produce holistic CCIR so that they, and their subordinate leaders, are empowered to make more numerous and effective decisions across the full spectrum of ULO.

The human talent to conduct the analysis required for producing relevant and holistic CCIR for stability operations is more than present at every echelon of command. Today’s Army employs graduates of the world’s premier universities and veterans of our longest war with near-limitless experience in fighting both the high-intensity and stability-operations fights. Moreover, our staff officers and commanders understand the basic informational elements inherent in stability operations such as counterinsurgency: 10 years of being drilled in population-centric operations, trend analysis and cultural understanding has ensured this. These skills must be applied to MDMP as consistently in stability operations as corresponding skills are applied to the MDMP for high-intensity operations, and with the same professional rigor to produce meaningful CCIR.

Commanders should not be satisfied with staff work that generates identical products for all ULO components. Instead, commanders must insist that their staffs use their knowledge, education and technology to produce the information they need to prevail in the complex environments that characterize stability operations.

This task will be greatly facilitated by staffs being drilled in the specific skillsets that enable successful MDMP across all aspects of ULO. Most staff officers are familiar with basic statistical methods by virtue of their commissioning sources, and most staff NCOs are familiar with the informational requirements for stability operations. It would be worth commanders’ time to hold MDMP drills with their staffs that are specifically focused on applying the information-collection techniques and data-refinement procedures that made retired generals Petraeus and Peter Chiarelli the celebrated strategists they are.

The doctrine, talent and experience to achieve better situational awareness is present across the force. What the Army needs now to fully realize the endstate expressed in this article is education and training. Focused education on mission command and intent orders at captains’ career courses and Command and General Staff College – combined with combat training center (CTC) decisive-action rotations – helped the Army master the essentials for waging high-intensity operations in the 1980s and 1990s. MDMP for high-intensity operations is easy for staffs today precisely because of this organizational experience; the same experience can and should be replicated now for the totality of ULO. The Army’s implementation of decisive-action rotations is the right step in this direction. Like the watershed of experience gained from initiation of the CTC program in the ‘80s and ‘90s, decisive-action rotations – staffed by cadre with a doctrinal foundation in mission command and personal experience in waging all aspects of ULO – should force Army units to perform well under all the conditions of the modern battlefield.

Finally, the Army must aggressively attack the stigmatized perception of staff work. It must do this to ensure that staffs become net attractors of talent, and to ensure that personnel comprising staffs understand the importance of their work and that they constantly seek to apply all their talents to furthering the organization’s effectiveness. Skeptics may claim that it is impossible for an organization like the Army, where the primary effort lies in leveling lethal force against armed enemies, to make staff work seem glorious. Those critics miss the larger point, however. The goal is not to make staff work glorious; it is to make its practitioners aware of the importance of their function and to be motivated with pride in that importance. The Army has demonstrated that it has the ability to institute cultural shifts across the force before, whether on the strategic level, as seen in its eventual embrace of stability operations, or on the small-unit level, as seen in the adoption of physical-readiness training doctrine. The same process must now be applied to the force’s perception of staff work. Doing so will ensure that the Army’s units are primed with the motivated leaders it needs to win tomorrow’s wars.


1 Kane, Tim, Bleeding Talent, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

2 McPherson, Renny, “The Next Petraeus: What Makes a Visionary Commander, and Why the Military Isn’t Producing More of Them,” The Boston Globe, Sept. 26, 2010,; accessed July 18, 2013.

3 Headquarters Department of the Army, Army Doctrine Publication 6-0, Mission Command, Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Army, 2012.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Joint Publication 3-0: Joint Operations, Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2011, V4.

11 Huntington, Samuel P., The Soldier and the State, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.