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Communicating Intent and Imparting Presence


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Communicating Intent
and
Imparting Presence

Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence G Shattuck, U.S. Army


An Empirical Study of
Commander’s Intent

Command and control processes are not unique to the Army, or even to the military. Many other organizations have practices to develop plans and procedures and then implement them at some other time and place as the senior member of the organization desires.despite complexity or uncertainty. But no other organization works as hard at explicitly formulating and communicating intent to its subordinates as the US Army. The concept of intent is written into our doctrine and taught in our schools. Yet, as a profession, we have some work to do before we effectively formulate, communicate, interpret and implement intent.

In an empirical study, four active duty battalions (two armor, one mechanized infantry and one ground cavalry squadron) participated in the research. Figure 1 describes the simulation that was used to collect data. The battalion commanders and their operations officers knew the research was investigating the intent process within their organizations, but the company commanders were only told that the process was a garrison-based exercise to provide the battalion with practice in developing operation orders.


Figure 1. Data Collection from battalion and company commanders.

The battalion commanders were issued a brigade operation order (OPORD) with maps and overlays that tasked the battalion to defend in sector and to be prepared to counterattack. The OPORD was based on an actual NTC scenario. The battalion commanders and their staffs had one week to develop a battalion OPORD with all appendixes and overlays. They then disseminated the orders, which included statements of intent, to subordinate company commanders. These company commanders (four per battalion) were given a week to develop their own OPORDs and then briefed them back to the battalion commanders.

An investigator reviewed copies of the battalion and company OPORDs. Then, two situation reports (SITREPs) were created for each battalion. In the first SITREP, the companies were blocked from completing their specific mission but could still achieve the higher-order objectives of the battalion commander. In the second SITREP, the companies had completed their missions with relative ease and had to decide what to do next. In both cases, the intent statement of the battalion commanders provided sufficient information to help the company commanders respond to the SITREPs.

The battalion commanders were presented with the SITREPs and asked how they expected the subordinate company commanders to respond to each SITREP. Their answers became the basis for evaluating the responses of their subordinate company commanders. The SITREPs were then presented to the company commanders. The responses of the company commanders were recorded. The battalion commanders were shown the responses of their subordinates and asked to judge those responses relative to their own.

Four battalions, each with four company commanders that were given two SITREPs, generated 32 episodes. The battalion commanders judged that the company commander’s responses matched their intent in only 17 of the 32 episodes (53 percent). In three episodes, however, the responses matched only by coincidence—the company commanders made their decision based not on their understanding of the battalion commander’s intent but because they misinterpreted the information available to them. In three other episodes, although the battalion commanders judged the decision of the company commanders to match their own, they were, in fact, substantially different. Battalion commanders considered them a match because the company commanders were “thinking along the right lines.” If these six episodes are considered mismatches, then the responses matched in only 11of 32 episodes, or 34 percent.


Successful company commanders that matched their battalion commander’s intent initially determined the disposition of friendly and enemy forces. They specifically referenced procedures and the intent statement in the battalion OPORD. They also acknowledged that they had to coordinate their activities with commanders of adjacent units prior to taking any action.


The amount of time the company commanders had worked for their battalion commanders varied from as little as one week to as long as 21 months. Figure 2 summarizes the responses of the company commanders to the SITREPs based on the length of time they had worked for their battalion commanders. The data do not suggest that the ability of the company commanders to match their battalion commander’s intent was linked to the length of time the company commanders had been in command. However, the research did reveal several interesting patterns in the performance of subordinate commanders.


Figure 2. Summary of company commander responses based on their time in command.

Discussion of empirical findings. Successful company commanders that matched their battalion commander’s intent initially determined the disposition of friendly and enemy forces. They specifically referenced procedures and the intent statement in the battalion OPORD. They also acknowledged that they had to coordinate their activities with commanders of adjacent units prior to taking any action.


There are four equally important components: formulation, communication, interpretation and implementation. The first two components—formulation and communication—are the senior commander’s responsibility. . . . Our officer education system emphasizes formulation and students have virtually no opportunity to practice the other three components.


Unsuccessful company commanders generally did not refer to the battalion commander’s statement of intent. In addition, unsuccessful commanders exhibited several other behaviors. Some commanders exhibited flawed tactical knowledge. For example, one commander’s response to a SITREP was to reposition his unit on the battlefield. In the scenario, however, there was insufficient time to accomplish this maneuver. The enemy would have attacked the company on its flank as it moved. A few commanders had a low tolerance for situational uncertainty. They decided not to act without more information to reduce their uncertainty. In some instances, commanders misassessed available information. Even though they were given information on the status of enemy units, for example, they did not incorporate it into their mental model of the battlefield. Some commanders also exhibited a rigid adherence to procedures despite new information that indicated they were facing a novel, unanticipated situation. When a major, unanticipated event occurred on an adjacent part of the battlefield, these commanders would not deviate from their assigned mission, even though the event jeopardized the higher-order goals of the system. Finally, the study indicated that, in some instances, battalion and company commanders disagreed concerning doctrinal terms. If a battalion commander and a company commander do not have the same definition of “delay,” the subordinate commander may make an erroneous decision.

The feedback from all four battalion commanders participating in the study indicated that it was worthwhile and they leaned a great deal. The results gave them a clear picture of how successfully they communicated intent to their subordinate commanders. In addition, the results identified areas that each unit needed to improve in formulating, communicating, interpreting and implementing intent.

Responsibilities of senior and subordinate commanders. There are four equally important components: formulation, communication, interpretation and implementation. The first two components—formulation and communication—are the senior commander’s responsibility. Subordinate commanders interpret and implement intent. Subordinate commanders at a given echelon will also be senior commanders and must formulate and communicate their intent to the next lower echelon. Our officer education system emphasizes formulation. Students at combat arms advanced courses, CAS3 , Command and General Staff College (CGSC) and even Army War College students, practice writing intent statements based on information provided by their instructors (including higher commander’s intent, mission statement, information concerning friendly and enemy forces and task organization). The final product in these schools is usually an OPORD that is briefed to an instructor. However, students have virtually no opportunity to practice the other three components.

Training officers in the classroom to communicate, interpret and implement intent is extremely difficult because these components are context-based—personality- and situation-dependent. Interpreting and implementing intent is especially problematic. Senior commanders formulate intent prior to hostilities, based on their vision of the battlefield. They also communicate their intent to subordinate commanders, who interpret it prior to hostilities. If the battle goes according to the vision, there is no need for subordinate commanders to refer to the intent statement. It is only when the battle deviates from the plan that the intent statement becomes significant. However, the context in which the intent was developed (the senior commanders’ vision) has now changed. Subordinate commanders now must interpret and implement the intent based on a new, probably unanticipated context. As stated earlier, our military schools do not teach subordinate commanders to interpret and implement intent. The results of the research reported earlier indicate that subordinate commanders may not be learning these skills in the field either.


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