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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


“Intent = Purpose + Method + Endstate.”
“ Intent should have five elements.”
“ It should have two elements.”
“ It’s Aftragstaktik made simple for the masses.”
“ It should be a structured process.”
“ It should be informal.”

THESE STATEMENTS about commander’s intent, some of them obviously contradictory, were collected a few years ago from Combined Arms and Services Staff School (CAS3) students and Army War College (AWC) students—all combat arms officers. Their understanding of commander’s intent clearly demonstrates that although the concept of intent has been in our doctrine for quite a while, confusion still exists. Yet, there has been little empirical investigation into the process of communicating intent. After a brief review of what Army doctrine and other literature have to say about intent, this article will present the sobering findings of one study that investigated the communication of intent in four active-duty combat arms battalions. Next, the article will propose a method to help commanders improve their ability to communicate intent to their subordinates. Finally, the article will argue that the process of communicating intent is subordinate to another process known as imparting presence.

Commander’s Intent
in Doctrine and Practice

Although US Army commanders have long used intent to guide the actions of subordinates, it has only recently been formally included in doctrine. Commander’s intent first appeared in US Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, in 1982.1 During the 1970s, the military tended to centralize decision making. Events such as the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran signaled the need to empower subordinate commanders on the scene. Army doctrine writers used the German army’s Aftragstaktik, first introduced in the early 19th century, as a model for today’s concept of commander’s intent.


If the enemy commander has 10 possible courses of action, but the friendly commander, restricted by the senior commander, has only one course of action available, the enemy clearly has the advantage. But, if the friendly force’s senior commander, through a minimally constraining intent statement, empowers his subordinates, they can adapt to any situation they confront.


Aftragstaktik, best translated as mission-oriented command, was developed in response to the French revolution and “Napoleon’s method of waging war, which swept away the traditional armies and their linear tactics, iron discipline, blind obedience and intolerance of independent action.”2 According to J.L. Silva, Aftragstaktik was not a set of procedures but a philosophy, a social norm within the German army. At its foundation was the realization that “battle is marked by confusion and ambiguity.” The German army leaders “consciously traded assurance of control for assurance of self-induced action.” These leaders developed a military cultural norm that supported and expected decisive action by subordinates in the face of uncertainty or ambiguity. Fundamental to the success of Aftragstaktik in the German doctrine was trust. Silva writes:

“Trust between superior and subordinate is the cornerstone of mission-oriented command. The superior trusts his subordinate to exercise his judgment and creativity, to act as the situation dictates to reach the maximum goal articulated in his mission; the subordinate trusts that whatever action he takes in good faith to contribute to the good of the whole will be supported by his superior.”3

Silva indicates that such confidence in subordinates stems from the superior’s intimate personal knowledge of each one. German senior commanders knew that such knowledge was essential to implementing Aftragstaktik.

In formalizing Aftragstaktik into US Army doctrine, the fullness of the concept was diluted. The 1993 version of FM 100-5 defines commander’s intent, but there is no discussion of social norms, expectations, trust or intimate personal knowledge of subordinates. Instead, FM 100-5 focuses on structure and content rather than process.

“The commander’s intent describes the desired endstate. It is a concise statement of the purpose of the operation and must be understood two levels below the level of the issuing commander. It must clearly state the purpose of the mission. It is the single unifying focus for all subordinate elements. It is not a summary of the concept of the operation. Its purpose is to focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished in order to achieve success, even when the plan and concept no longer apply, and to discipline their efforts toward that end.

The intent statement is usually written but can be verbal when time is short. It should be concise and clear; long narrative descriptions of how the commander sees the fight tend to inhibit the initiative of the subordinates.”4

Intent in practice. Gary Klein’s study of intent statements and preliminary investigations indicated that intent statements often do not comply with doctrine’s content and structural guidance. Klein collected 97 intent statements for analysis and found that their lengths ranged from 21 to 484 words, with most of them averaging between 76 and 200 words.5 Here is an intent statement written by a brigade commander deployed to the National Training Center (NTC), Fort Irwin, California.

“The purpose of X Brigade.s operation is to protect the Corps, rear and build-up of follow-on friendly forces. In support of Division and Corps, we must attack rapidly to the west in the Central Corridor, destroy the lead motorized rifle battalion (MRB) of the XXX Motorized Rifle Regiment (MRR) between Phase Line (PL) IMPERIAL and PL EXCALIBUR, and then seize defensible terrain along PL EXCALIBUR. To do this, X-X Infantry (Light) will infiltrate to secure Hill 780 (NK4411), deny the enemy its use, and block to the west to prevent the enemy’s use of the mobility corridor between Hill 780 and the south wall of the Central Corridor (Avenue of Approach 3). Task Force X-XX, the brigade main effort, will move to contact in zone, fix the advance guard main body (AGMB) and destroy it with an enveloping attack in depth. Brigade deep artillery fires, close air support and scatterable mines will be designed to attrit its commitment into the Brigade zone, and force the AGMB into the southern avenue of approach, where TF X-XX can destroy it by direct fires. After destruction of the MRB in zone, TF X-XX will continue the attack to seize defensible terrain along PL EXCALIBUR. End state visualized is lead MRB of XXX MRR destroyed; brigade with heavy forces in control of Brown and Debman passes; and brigade postured to conduct defensive operations to destroy follow-on enemy regiments.”6

This brigade commander took pride in his clear, doctrinal intent statements. Unfortunately, in this case, he missed the mark. The italicized portion that dominates this long intent statement is method. It tells each subordinate unit what to do, and the detail limits the flexibility of subordinate commanders for if they fail to accomplish the tasks listed, they fail to achieve their commander’s intent.


J.L. Silva, Aftragstaktik was not a set of procedures but a philosophy, a social norm within the German army. At its foundation was the realization that “battle is marked by confusion and ambiguity.” The German army leaders “consciously traded assurance of control for assurance of self-induced action.”


In an operation order briefing held later during this same brigade’s NTC rotation, a battalion commander asked for clarification of his unit’s mission. The brigade commander, somewhat frustrated, said, “OK, you want your brigade commander’s priority? Take care of this. If you don’t get this right then TF X-XX will not be able to get through.” The brigade commander’s response was, arguably, a much clearer intent statement than the written form that he had spent so much time crafting.

Flexibility versus synchronization. The difference between the brigade commander’s written and verbal intent statements highlights the tension between the constructs of centralization and flexibility. The senior commander must make an inherent tradeoff which impacts the subordinate commander’s ability to adapt to battlefield conditions. The battlefield is a highly complex, uncertain environment where a commander matches wits with his opponent while coping with such variables as terrain, weather, morale, fatigue and equipment. Providing subordinate commanders a large degree of flexibility is critical to success. Consider the following illustration. If both the enemy and friendly commanders have only one course of action available to them, parity exists. If, however, the enemy commander has 10 possible courses of action, but the friendly commander, restricted by the senior commander, still has only one course of action available, the enemy clearly has the advantage. But, if the friendly force’s senior commander, through a minimally constraining intent statement, empowers his subordinates, they can adapt to any battlefield situation they confront.


A battalion commander asked for clarification of his unit’s mission. The brigade commander, somewhat frustrated, said, “OK, you want your brigade commander’s priority? Take care of this. If you don’t get this right then TF X-XX will not be able to get through.” His oral response was, arguably, a much clearer intent statement than the written form that he had spent so much time crafting.


Senior commanders must not lose the ability to synchronize events as they provide flexibility to subordinate commanders. A commander who does not synchronize subordinate efforts invites disaster. During Israel’s 1956 Sinai Campaign General Moshe Dayan stated:

“To the commander of an Israeli unit, I can point on a map to the Suez Canal and say: ‘There’s your target and this is your axis of advance. Don’t signal me during the fighting for more men, arms, or vehicles. All that we could allocate you’ve already got, and there isn’t anymore. Keep signaling your advances. You must reach the Suez in 48 hours.’”7

These orders all but eliminated Dean’s ability to influence the battle. On one occasion, an entire brigade watched while two other brigades were fighting to capture an objective. In retrospect, Dayan realized his mistake. He wrote that the heavy emphasis on improvisation and flexibility and the absence of a strong controlling hand meant that “our capacity for misadventure [was] limitless.” And, granted “a huge measure of independence,” the brigade commanders failed to coordinate their movements.8 When senior commanders provide their subordinates with flexibility at the expense of synchronization, battlefield activities are coordinated only by coincidence.


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