Act On Commander's Intent

By Captain Dale C. Rielage, U.S. Navy


The Navy must return to a decentralized command-and-control culture to produce combat victories.


Independent execution of commander’s intent is at the core of the Navy’s self-image. Our identity flows in no small part from the original six frigates commissioned by the nation. Their first captains received their orders, then departed to carry the young republic’s flag to far seas. There, they carried out their tasks, relying on their judgment while knowing that guidance from higher authority was often months away. The ongoing influence of this tradition makes the Navy more agile and adaptable than either our joint partners or our potential adversaries. Current naval operations, however, are characterized by a close control that would be unrecognizable to our predecessors.

As the Navy plans for what a more broadly networked force looks like, it risks locking in a command-and-control style that destroys our unique culture of mission command and ultimately makes the fleet less effective and less able to defeat adversaries at sea.

A House Divided

To understand the choice the Navy is making, it is necessary to comprehend the two basic approaches to command and control in the Navy today. These competing approaches struggle to express themselves in future fleet design; in key investment decisions; and in current tactics, techniques, and procedures. In many cases, however, the competition of ideas is cloaked in arguments about individual systems or operational issues. Other times, it is unclear if advocates focused on narrow issues have considered the second-order effects of their approach on the broader command culture. The discussion is further complicated by the fact that both camps use the same words to describe very different approaches to naval warfare. Broadly, the two can be characterized as:

Decentralization of command: This entails shifting command authority to the lowest and most numerous nodes possible within the fleet. Three critical elements enable this style of command: clear and effectively communicated commander’s intent; common doctrine that guides operations; and mutual trust among command levels.

Decentralization of forces: The general concept here proposes disaggregated operations and physically dispersed platforms across a broad sea space. These dispersed forces concentrate consequential combat power by synchronizing their fires, relying on networks and communications links that are sufficient to support the exchange of information and engagement orders. The physical dispersal of forces sometimes is accompanied by language suggesting a down-chain dispersal of command; however, most designs for disaggregated forces rely on centralized command to achieve coordinated effects.

The Unspoken Assumptions

Leaders currently embrace an approach to command and control based on their understanding of current and future combat environments and the role of individual platforms during combat. Naval forces aligned to Central Command generally create tighter, more communications-dependent command-and-control arrangements than Pacific Command-aligned forces.

This alignment is a natural result of the recent operational experiences of these forces. For the past decade and a half, Central Command has been a key component of the global war on terrorism—a joint fight focused on the Middle East. Each campaign in this conflict has taken place in a benign maritime operational environment. The physical and electromagnetic communication links that enable the rapid exchange of high volumes of information to support these operations have been uncontested. Full-motion video in support of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—or simple staff officer curiosity—is transported across the globe and back as a matter of routine. The expectation of constant, secure communications drives the daily operational style.

In contrast, Pacific Command forces focused on Russia, China, and other peer or near-peer maritime challengers have an inherent skepticism about their networks and communications links. Both Russia and China place counter-command-and-control warfare at the center of their plans for fighting a capable power such as the United States. They expect their mechanisms of command and control to be challenged and make returning the favor an essential part of their planning. Even when these adversaries cannot directly damage our systems, the growing ubiquity of long-range sensors and weapons can drive us to turn off our own active sensors and communications to avoid revealing our presence. In either case, the communications-intensive style of warfare that has become familiar is not tenable in this environment.

Stumbling into Centralization

In considering the “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John M. Richardson made it clear that success in this current operational environment requires “decentralized operations, guided by commander’s intent.”1 While informed by tradition, this assessment is based on a considered analysis of how command style enables victory in naval combat.

• First, reliance on commander’s intent is the most effective counter to an excessive dependence on communications and networks. A force that is synchronized in intent remains effective when communications fail, are lost, or are overwhelmed.

• Second, commander’s intent, executed by the lowest level of command practical, is faster than any network or communications means. As then-Lieutenant Commander Dudley Knox observed in 1913, “neither signals, radio-messages, nor instructions, written or verbal, can suffice to produce the unity of effort—the concert of action—demanded by modern conditions in a large fleet.”2

• Third, this command style is most effective at exploiting the talents of our people. Creative, flexible solutions, implemented dynamically, are tactical innovation at its most powerful—and most likely to bring success in combat.

But despite this guidance and the tradition of decentralized command in the naval service, strong internal and external currents bias the institution toward a centralized command-and-control model. If the Navy is to make deliberate choices about its approach, it is important to recognize these factors:

Jointness influences: In recent combat operations, naval forces have been supporting elements within a larger joint construct rather than being the main effort. Each U.S. military service brings a unique culture with its own command-and-control style and expectations,the Navy’s is the most decentralized.3 The joint fight has been strongly influenced by the heavily centralized Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) model advocated by the U.S. Air Force, which is perhaps the ultimate example of command centralization. The Air Force Air and Space Operations Center (AOC) seeks to command and control all air assets within a theater of operations. It is an exquisitely designed, carefully synchronized, and highly communications-dependent structure. To conform to joint requirements, several generations of Navy leaders have learned to adapt naval power to this model, to the point of emulating the centralized air-tasking order process that is the AOC’s premier command mechanism.

We are built to buy: As the senior service staff for the Navy, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations is constructed and optimized to man, train, and equip the Navy. Its staff focuses on the purchasing and supporting of force structure and the budgeting that enables it. This function is essential, but it biases the staff to material rather than doctrinal solutions. The influence of industry, as internal and external advocates for material solutions, compounds this bias. Doctrine, meanwhile, is formally the purview of a small, much more junior staff located in Norfolk.

Centralization is efficient. In an era of limited resources, the ability to centralize functions allows efficiencies in resource allocation. For example, if analysis of full-motion video is conducted from one central node, the skilled analysts involved can be used to support any fleet. This model, successful in recent conflicts, ignores the fact that an efficient, centralized reach-back capability is of no use if the communications links “back” are severed.

Communications privileges the communicators: The U.S. Navy has established an information warfare community that exists in part to provide “assured command and control.” This is a profoundly challenging task, and one that must be done well by technical experts. This construct, however, has created a cadre institutionally biased to assure the fleet that it can offer the unbroken linkages it is tasked to provide.

It is (not) the Network, Stupid

This critique is not a rejection of the realities of the information age. On the contrary, rejecting the potential power of information, sensors, and cognitive human-machine pairing would severely disadvantage the Navy in future conflicts. However, as the Navy conceptualizes, designs, and builds these systems and networks, it must ensure three critical elements. Navy networks must:

• Disperse capability. The more capability that is accessible at the unit level, independent of other systems, the more likely its power will be accessible to commands in a communications-challenged environment.

• Degrade gracefully. The system must be constructed with the mindset that linkages will be routinely denied in combat—and must provide sufficient functionality regardless.

• Never be fully trusted. Even if the network functions perfectly, adversaries will seek to populate it with false and misleading information.

These are engineering issues we are well equipped to solve—if we establish the correct requirements for our systems. Fundamentally, the machines are not the most difficult problem; the people are.

(Not) Training to Commander’s Intent

Decentralized execution is rarely practiced in either daily operations or fleet training. Were this any other combat task, we would dismiss out of hand the idea that we could execute it without training. Yet in actual combat, we expect our leaders and subordinates to shed their daily professional experience and act with the operational independence of a Raymond A. Spruance or an Arleigh Burke.

For our articulated command style to be real, we must exercise both the human command elements and the command linkages in a robust, realistic, and challenging manner.

For fleet units, a valuable forcing function to shift command paradigms would be to restrict their sensors and communications. Not only would this force training in the mechanics of communications, it also would force command elements to understand and triage the information they “need” to support operations. To move from simple communications training to training in command, these restrictions would need to be long enough that a staff or command could not simply “duck and cover” for a few days before resuming regular operations.

In a recent discussion, one young surface warfare officer recounted an exercise conducted by the littoral combat ship to which he was assigned. The intent had been to exercise the ship in a limited emissions environment. Stripped of communications and active sensors, the commanding officer was clearly uncomfortable and conducted the balance of the exercise with maximum caution. We need to progress beyond our discomfort and make these kinds of operations normal and even comfortable.

Offering subordinates intent and latitude for their initiative is effective only in a culture of trust. As Admiral Richardson articulated, decentralized command “is reliant on the trust and confidence that is based on a clear understanding, among peers and between commanders and subordinates, of the risk that can be tolerated.”4 At present, most junior officers and unit-level commanders perceive that tolerance for risk in the force is low.5 We have many mechanisms for conveying limitations on risk—disciplinary processes, relieving command triads, and relentless general military training. We have few tools for conveying acceptance of risk.

Toward independent action

Naval command and control seeks the synchronization of complex, dynamic combat actions in the face of active, intelligent efforts to disrupt them. There are no perfect answers to this challenge, and execution of commander’s intent is not a panacea. Senior officers can provide unclear guidance or misread the situation. Subordinates can make choices that are not what their seniors would hope—as when Fleet Admiral William Halsey uncovered the amphibious force to pursue Japanese carriers at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Focusing the Navy on decentralized operations, guided by commander’s intent, does not spring from a romanticized view of our past; it is a cold-blooded assessment that this style of command is the most likely to produce victory in naval combat, now and in the future.

The first requirements for optimizing command and control are to be honest about our current approach and deliberate in creating the command culture we desire. In 1913, then–Lieutenant Commander Dudley Knox took second place in the U.S. Naval Institutes’ Prize Essay Contest with a candid critique of U.S. Navy command and control. Just 15 years earlier, the service had enjoyed overwhelming victory and acclaim in its first modern combat against the Spanish Navy. Despite that success, Knox asserted that the system of command at the time had “never stood the supreme test of a large fleet action against a formidable enemy; and it is safe to say that even our greatest triumphs were accomplished in spite of glaring faults which most of us will candidly admit.”6

Today the Navy finds itself in a similar place. Successful in decades of complex joint combat operations, we have produced a command-and-control culture unlikely to survive contact with a determined maritime adversary.

Knox concluded his 1913 essay by contending that the “initiative of the subordinate” should be the governing principle in U.S. naval doctrine and leadership. That concept was embraced by the service, folded into the culture, and taught and gamed at the Naval War College. As new technology entered the fleet, the interwar Fleet Problems worked to integrate them into this concept, rather than allowing the technology to create the command structure. By the mid-1930s, the U.S. Navy was the only modern navy to make delegation of authority an explicit part of its command-and-control doctrine.7 Ultimately Knox’s shipmate, Fleet Admiral Ernest King, codified it in his instructions to the fleet in January 1941.8

The modern U.S. Navy is at an inflection point. Instinctively, most serving officers know the command style we articulate is not the style we practice. That cognitive dissonance was tenable in the face of a benign maritime security environment. In many cases, we have grown comfortable with a centralized style in execution and are inadvertently creating command-and-control systems that threaten to make centralized control our structural default.

This centralized system will not stand the shock of modern high-end maritime combat. Command by commander’s intent cannot be the stuff of folklore and history. To be real, decentralized action guided by commander’s intent must be our daily mode of operation—familiar, comfortable, and instinctive.

1. ADM John M. Richardson, U.S. Navy, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 1.0” (January 2016).

2. David Kohnen, 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), 23.

3. Carl Builder, The Masks of War: American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

4. Richardson, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.”

5. LT John F. Tanalega, U.S. Navy, “Invest in Initiative,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 142, no. 12, (December 2016), 68-71.

6. Kohnen, 21st Century Knox, 28.

7. Michael A. Palmer, Command at Sea: Naval Command and Control since the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 251-75.

8. CINCLANT Serial 053 of January 21, 1941, reproduced in The Administration of the Navy Department in World War II (Washington, DC: Naval History Division, 1959), appendix 1.

Captain Rielage is the U.S. Pacific Fleet Director for Intelligence and Information Operations. He is a career intelligence officer who is in his sixth consecutive tour focused on the Indo-Asia-Pacific. He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings.

Practice decentralized C2

Beyond “turning out the lights” on the fleet, one of the most valuable drills for training to commander’s intent is the “locked room” exercise. This drill takes one or more teams—battle staffs, watchstanders, or command elements—and places them each in a closed room. Presented with a task and the commander’s guidance, the teams are required to plan and respond. After the initial scenario is presented, the teams are limited in their ability to communicate laterally or with higher or subordinate commands. In some cases they are limited to short messages, or to communications between select units that flow only one way. In other cases, units alternate between periods of full communications and no communications.

Information has a variable chance of reaching the intended audience, and delivery is only sometimes confirmed. Throughout the exercise, additional information is presented to the training audience, requiring their current efforts to be reassessed and altered to carry out the mission in the face of changing circumstances and opportunities.

The locked room exercise has several key effects. First, it conditions commanders to act in the face of limited or ambiguous information. As theorist Milan Vego articulated, “One of the distinguishing traits of the successful commander is the ability to act quickly on incomplete knowledge of the situation and, in the process, be willing to take some high but prudent risks.”

We have generally trained commanders, especially at higher levels of command, to rely on their networks. In many cases, there is an intense focus on creating a complete and current common operational picture (COP), with the expectation that coherent decision making follows. The COP, of course, is a current picture, offering no insight into what will be in the future. Conceiving and conveying intent for the future relies on other, inherently incomplete insights.

Second, conducting a locked room exercise with teams that will work together in actual operations conditions them to each other’s assumptions, expectations, and intent. Commanders learn to nuance their orders such that subordinates understand their intent and the reasoning behind it.

This style of training is an area where the Naval War College could lead. Currently, most Naval War College games, both for students and operational commands, feature unrestricted communications. In the face of systems challenges, “sneaker net” and face-to-face discussions between gaming centers and classrooms, each ostensibly representing commands separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, are constant. Command nodes rarely drop out of the game entirely, victims of enemy action against them or their networks. Introducing realistic command and control friction, ultimately adding elements of a “locked room” to these events, would add essential realism.




Conferences and Events

WEST 2019

Wed, 2019-02-13 - Fri, 2019-02-15

Sharpening the Competitive Edge: Are We Ready to Compete, Deter, and Win Globally? Wednesday, 13 February - Friday, 15 February...

2019 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

17 January - Book Talk

Thu, 2019-01-17

18 January - Presentation

Fri, 2019-01-18

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership