Commander’s Intent Across the Services

Article 7 min
Review the definition of commander's intent for the Joint Forces, Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy.

In his book, Call Sign Chaos, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis talks about the challenge of communicating the commander’s intent. He writes, when commanding a large number of troops or a large organization, a leader must be able to communicate their intent in such a way as to allow people to act. It requires discipline and trust. Developing a culture of operating from commander’s intent demands a higher level of unit discipline and self-discipline than issuing voluminous, detailed instructions.

In drafting his intent, he learned to provide only what is necessary to achieve a clearly defined end-state: the purpose of the operation, the essential details to achieve the mission and a clear goal that enables what you intend to do next. Leave the “how” to your subordinates, who must be trained and rewarded for exercising initiative, taking advantage of opportunities and problems as they arise. He highlighted the need for clear and consistently enforced values to guide teams and organizations. Commander’s intent provides a framework that everyone can operate from.

As a Public Affairs and Communication Strategy Officers, it is your role to influence and support commander's intent. Knowing how the service defines intent provides insight into the mindset of the commander and what language to use to reach them. The same idea is critical when working in a joint setting. Understanding how a commander of a different service defines intent can provide the same insight into their thinking and how to frame your input so that it resonates with the commander.

Below are the definitions for each military service taken directly from the respective service doctrine for comparison. See the source at the bottom of each definition.

 
Joint Force seal
Joint Force seal
Photo by: Andrea Batts-Latson
VIRIN: 200422-D-VE872-1018

Commander’s intent is the commander’s clear and concise expression of what the force must do and the conditions the force must establish to accomplish the mission. It includes the purpose, end state, and associated risks.

Commander’s intent supports mission command and allows subordinates the greatest possible freedom of action. It provides focus to the staff and helps subordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commander’s objectives without further orders once the operation begins, even when the operation does not unfold as planned.

Successful commanders demand subordinate leaders at all echelons exercise disciplined initiative and act aggressively and independently to accomplish the mission within the commander’s intent. Subordinates emphasize timely decision making, understanding the higher commander’s intent, and clearly identifying tasks to achieve desired objectives. Well-crafted commander’s intent improves subordinates’ situational awareness, which enables effective actions in fluid, chaotic situations.

Source: JP 3-0 Joint Operations, II-7 

Air Force seal
Air Force seal
Photo by: Andrea Batts-Latson
VIRIN: 200422-D-VE872-1015

With a clear understanding of the intent of an assigned mission, commanders have the responsibility and authority to act and to trust subordinates to complete their assigned missions. To that end, all commanders will:

  • At all times display exemplary conduct as defined above.
  • Establish a healthy command climate.
  • Have a propensity for action.
  • Deliberately execute the duties and responsibilities outlined above, to include all aspects of executing the mission, leading people, managing resources and improving the unit.
  • Apply the tenets of effective command and control as defined in Joint Publication 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States and Air Force Doctrine Volume 1, Basic Air Force Doctrine, to increase the ability of commanders to make sound and timely decisions and enhance unity of effort.

Source: AFI 1-2 (8 May 2014) P. 5 

Army seal
Army seal
Photo by: Andrea Batts-Latson
VIRIN: 200422-D-VE872-1016

The commander’s intent is a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired military end state that:

  • Supports mission command
  • Provides focus to the staff
  • Helps subordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commander’s desired results without further orders, even when the operation does not unfold as planned (JP 3-0).

Commanders establish their own commander’s intent within the intent of their higher commander. The higher commander’s intent provides the basis for unity of effort throughout the larger force.

Commanders articulate the overall reason for the operation so forces understand why it is being conducted. A well-crafted commander’s intent conveys a clear image of the operation’s purpose, key tasks and the desired outcome. It expresses the broader purpose of the operation—beyond that of the mission statement. This helps subordinate commanders and Soldiers to gain insight into what is expected of them, what constraints apply, and, most important, why the mission is being undertaken. A clear commander’s intent that lower-level leaders can understand is key to maintaining unity of effort. (See ADRP 5-0 for the format of the commander’s intent.)

Successful commanders understand they cannot provide guidance or direction for all conceivable contingencies. They formulate and communicate their commander’s intent to describe the boundaries within which subordinates may exercise disciplined initiative while maintaining unity of effort. Commanders collaborate and dialogue with subordinates to ensure they understand the commander’s intent. Subordinates aware of the commander’s intent are far more likely to exercise initiative in unexpected situations. Successful mission command demands subordinates exercising their initiative to make decisions that further their higher commander’s intent.

Source: ADP 6-0 Mission Command (May 2012) P. 3 

Coast Guard seal
Coast Guard seal
Photo by: Andrea Batts-Latson
VIRIN: 200422-D-VE872-1013

The commander’s intent conveys the objective and the desired course of action, while the concept of operations details the commander’s estimated sequence of actions to achieve the objective. The concept of operations also contains essential elements of a plan, i.e., what is to be done and how the commander plans to do it. A significant change in the situation that requires new action will alter the concept of operations, but the commander’s intent — their overriding objective — usually remains unchanged.

Source: Coast Guard Publication 1: Doctrine for the U.S. Coast Guard (Feb. 2014) P.81 

Marine Corps seal
Marine Corps seal
Photo by: Andrea Batts-Latson
VIRIN: 200422-D-VE872-1014

We achieve this harmonious initiative in large part through the use of the commander’s intent, a device designed to help subordinates understand the larger context of their actions. The purpose of providing intent is to allow subordinates to exercise judgment and initiative — to depart from the original plan when the unforeseen occurs — in a way that is consistent with higher commanders’ aims.

Source: MCDP1 Warfighting P. 4-19

A commander’s clear, concise articulation of the purpose(s) behind one or more tasks assigned to a subordinate. It is one of two parts of every mission statement which guides the exercise of initiative in the absence of instructions. (MCRP 5-12C) 

Source: MCDP 1-0, P. Glossary-9

Commander’s intent is the commander’s personal expression of the purpose of the operation. It must be clear, concise, and easily understood two levels down. It may also include end state or conditions that, when satisfied, accomplish the purpose. Commander’s intent helps subordinates understand the larger context of their actions and guides them in the absence of orders. It allows subordinates to exercise judgment and initiative—in a way that is consistent with their higher commander’s aims—when the unforeseen occurs. This freedom of action, within the framework of commander’s intent, creates tempo during planning and execution. Source: MCDP 1-0, P. 3-15 

Navy seal
Navy seal
Photo by: Andrea Batts-Latson
VIRIN: 200422-D-VE872-1017

A clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the desired military end state that supports mission command, provides focus to the staff and helps subordinate and supporting commanders act to achieve the commander’s desired results without further orders, even when the operation does not unfold as planned.

Source: NWP 5-01 (December 2013) P. 426 (in glossary) (Note this is the most recent policy released to the public, hosted by the Naval War College) 

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