Commander’s intent is not enough. Junior commanding officers have to learn new ways of assessing risk. U.S. Navy (Andrew Schneider)
Admiral Scott Swift, former Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, argued in the February 2018 Proceedings that naval warfighters must learn and practice the art of command and control.1 Despite incredible technological advances, Swift says, this art will have to be practiced for environments in which communications could be disrupted or denied, perhaps for long periods. To deal with this, commanders will have to employ mission command “by providing clear and widely understandable commander’s guidance and intent before communications and networks are put at risk.”2 The Navy’s concept of distributed lethality—in which units may be widely scattered while supporting one another’s operations—necessarily requires well-executed mission command.3
In a highly distributed force situation, however, units might very well encounter conditions the force commander has not anticipated, causing even broad commander’s guidance—not to mention specific orders or plans—to be overcome by events. In such cases, subordinate commanders will have to assess how much risk acceptance is in line with the thinking of higher commanders.
This requires more than a commander’s intent statement; only coordination and education in advance will produce a shared thought framework that can permeate the force. In World War II, the vast majority of Pacific Fleet flag officers were graduates of the Naval War College and had participated in the 1930s games that explored a potential war with Japan. Not all commanding officers today possess such education. But a simple vocabulary and conceptual scaffold for thinking about naval combat could be established for use in fleet commanders’ conferences and included in Naval War College curricula.
Admiral Swift offers the fictitious but plausible example of a cruiser skipper who finds herself out of communication with higher headquarters. Her last instruction four days prior told her to seek and destroy as many threats as possible but to exercise calculated risk. She wonders if the order remains valid and how to interpret calculated risk. With limited information about local conditions and only fragmentary knowledge of the wider situation, she must engage in some sophisticated thinking about what to do next.
In the early 1800s, the Prussian Army developed a procedure that eventually was adopted by the U.S. Army and Navy called the commander’s estimate of the situation (CES). It involves a mission analysis, defining courses of action the enemy can adopt, concocting alternative own courses of action, and determining their relative merit on the basis of “wargaming” them against those of the enemy. This decision-making aid has served the U.S. military well since before World War II.
In Iraq, however, the Army found that something more was needed, a thought process preceding the mission analysis of the CES: problem definition.4 In an unstructured, complex, and unanticipated situation, unit commanders have to think for themselves about the kind of problem they face. Only after the nature of the problem is defined, at least tentatively, can they engage in the CES process. In modern, multidomain naval warfare in which forces might find themselves isolated, commanders will have to apply a similar approach, especially when determining how much risk to accept.
The three sets of terms that follow might help force commanders at multiple levels engage in constructive problem definition and the congruent risk assessment. The proposed framework is not comprehensive—but however incomplete, it offers a starting point.
Set One: Form of Strategy
Rear Admiral Joseph Wylie identifies in his book Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control two basic types of military strategies: sequential and cumulative.5 He contends that all strategies can be characterized in one of these two ways regardless of context. Sequential strategies are progressive, in the sense that one step leads to another. The classic example is the Navy’s drive across the central Pacific in World War II in which each island group’s seizure constituted a stepping stone to the next. Sequential strategies also might be functional or conditional, as when gaining air superiority is a prerequisite to ground or maritime operations or attaining local sea control is needed before an amphibious assault is attempted.
In cumulative strategies, events are related only through their net effect on the enemy. The German World War II U-boat campaign is a notable example. German Admiral Karl Dönitz did not care which merchant ships were sunk or where—only that enough were sunk that Britain gradually was starved of resources.
As insightful as Admiral Wylie’s book is, it misses a third major strategy: the decisive battle campaign. Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar, General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto at Midway all meant to produce decisive battles that would either lead to the end of hostilities or at least create strategic conditions that would confer a decisive advantage afterward. Each aimed to precipitate the desired battle under advantageous circumstances.
These three strategy categories should define how events in any war, campaign, or operation are related to each other. If so, they provide a framework for interpreting “calculated risk” in particular circumstances—a real help to our cruiser captain.
The cumulative relationship is easiest to understand. The goal is to chip away at the enemy’s strength, will, reputation, etc., while preserving one’s own. This requires a tactical method that minimizes risk. U-boats snuck up on ships and convoys and rarely confronted escorts. Guerrillas commonly use hit-and-run tactics. Calculated risk in such cases reduces one’s own exposure to damage or destruction because the point at which accumulated damage to the enemy will produce the desired results is uncertain.
In sequential strategies, risk calculation is not as straightforward. Because sequential attacks often occur under a timetable, risks must be taken to complete prerequisite tasks or phases so follow-on operations can proceed. On the other hand, if early losses are too great, subsequent operations may be delayed or canceled, requiring a change in strategy. Subordinate commanders must understand the larger sequence if they are to engage in congruent problem definition and decision making.
Admiral Chester Nimitz’s famous “calculated risk” message to Rear Admirals Frank Fletcher and Raymond Spruance on the eve of the Battle of Midway reflects Admiral Ernest King’s determination that the defense of Midway was less important than preserving carrier and cruiser forces for future operations.6 If our cruiser skipper understands that her local operations are supposed to help generate enough battlespace superiority for an amphibious operation to take place, she might interpret calculated risk a bit more aggressively.
Strategies designed to produce decisive battles involve still more-complicated risk calculations. At the strategic level, great risk is assumed because the initiator’s main forces/resources/reputation are committed—they go “all in,” in poker parlance. On the other hand, risk in terms of how battle is entered must be minimized, especially by attaining an information advantage over the enemy. Great tactical risks are justified to obtain that information advantage—such as through deception operations—and create conditions in which the main force can engage with advantage.
Had General Richard Ewell rolled the dice and seized Culps Hill on the evening of the first day of Gettysburg, or had Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commander of Admiral Yamamoto’s carrier strike force, accepted the risks of preserving his antiship reserve aircraft in the face of potential follow-on attacks from Midway-based aircraft, both battles might have turned out differently. For his part, Admiral Spruance understood the stakes and ordered a half-organized airstrike on Nagumo’s forces to maximize the chances of getting in the first blow.
A commander who understands the overall strategy—and his or her own role in it—will better define the local problem, leading to decisions that advance rather than disrupt the larger strategy. Our cruiser commanding officer would feel more confident in interpreting her last guidance if she knew which of these dynamics characterized the fleet’s overall strategy.
Set Two: Problem Form
Problem definition is aided by the understanding that warfighting problems come in one of three forms. The first is when there is a maneuvering opponent who chooses his course of action independently. This creates a game-theoretic matrix in which the relative merit of one side’s alternative courses of action is based on how they are estimated to interact with each of the enemy’s options. This is the classic form of confrontation in which the goal is to outwit the enemy.
The second form occurs when the threat consists of a series of hazards rather than a single maneuvering enemy. This was the situation confronting the U.S. Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II. Certainly, Dönitz was the guiding intellect behind the U-boat campaign, but the boats themselves operated independently in distributed arrays such that from the U.S. perspective, they constituted a series of hazards to be eliminated, avoided, or otherwise managed, much as improvised explosive devices were in Iraq. One of the key hazard management techniques in the Battle of the Atlantic was the convoy.
Third, a force might need to maximize some criterion. For Dönitz, it was the number of tons of Allied shipping sunk per month. In other cases, time might be the resource—the Alamo’s defenders in 1836 were trying to buy as much as possible for Sam Houston to organize an army. Other cases might involve territory seized or defended, or attrition of enemy forces.
The form a problem takes has implications for risk assessment. Against a maneuvering opponent, the risk assessment framework likely would follow that of the decisive battle strategy, whether or not the actual engagement is intended to be decisive. In Desert Storm, allied aircraft went in high to avoid antiaircraft guns, a hazard to be avoided, while radar-guided surface-to-air missiles were managed by eliminating Iraqi surveillance radars. Mines tend to be eliminated through sweeping or avoidance where possible or necessary.
Criteria maximization could call for accepting high levels of risk, as Colonel William Travis did at the Alamo, or minimizing it as Admiral Dönitz attempted to do with his U-boat deployments. The key for subordinates is to understand that criteria maximization is the name of the game. It should be evident that problem form must be analyzed in the context of the form of strategy the situation calls for.
Set Three: Mode of Naval Combat
Naval warfare has three possible modes: structured battle, melee, and sniping.7 In structured battle, the actions of groups and units are orchestrated either by direct orders, a predetermined plan, or through individual units operating independently but on the basis of a commander’s intent. The key characteristic is some degree of coordination among force elements. Plans and doctrine also exert control indirectly such that forces act in coordination. The notion of command and control normally is associated with structured battle, as the alternative appears to be chaotic loss of control and even command.
It need not be so, however. The history of naval warfare offers many examples of melee tactics in which units broke formation to engage the enemy independently. In the Age of Sail, when one side attempted to flee, trying to maintain attack formation would only slow the chase, so ships would act individually to attempt to make the battle more decisive. While melee tactics in the age of the composite warfare commander might appear neither necessary nor desirable, in future distributed lethality operations they might be both possible and useful. In fact, Admiral Swift’s example of the lone cruiser ordered to seek out and destroy as many threats as possible could imply melee tactics, depending on an analysis of the form of strategy and form of problem.
Pacific Fleet commanders in World War II developed a shared understanding of how to fight Japan thanks to wargames and Fleet Problems in the years leading up to the war. Incorporating into today’s wargames the forms of strategy and types of risk assessment presented here will help future commanders fight in communications-denied environments. U.S. Navy (James Foehl)
The third mode is sniping, in which units attempt to ambush the enemy and then retreat to avoid counterfire from stronger formations. The goal is to minimize risk to the shooter. This was the tactic of commerce raiders, especially submarines. Even aircraft carrier hit-and-run raids in World War II could be classified as sniping. The phrase “assume calculated risk” offers a clue to our cruiser skipper that this might be her commanders’ intent.
Our cruiser skipper has to figure out not only how to find and destroy enemy units but also how much risk to accept in doing so. If the fleet commander and her group commander understood how the three modes of naval warfighting fit into the overall operational strategy, they might have provided her and her fellow unit commanders with a useful definition of calculated risk before operations commenced. The COs then would have had the tools to engage in constructive problem definition and decision making if they perceived that local conditions had changed enough to require it.
Synthesis: Congruent Problem Definition
To make mission command a successful operating principle there has to be coherent thinking and decision making at multiple levels in the chain of command. In Nelson’s day, the admiral could have tea most afternoons with his subordinate admirals and ship captains, discussing tactical possibilities that led to a “mind meld,” creating his “band of brothers.” Rear Admiral Tom Zelibor achieved something similar in 2001–02 during Operation Enduring Freedom. His use of the Knowledge Web (KWEB) allowed him to discuss “what ifs” repeatedly with his warfare commanders.8 But Admiral Zelibor’s process required the almost continuous connectivity only available in an unopposed environment. Today, the use of something like KWEB could be effective ahead of hostilities, but once the shooting starts, continuous communications cannot be relied on; subordinate commanders will have to think for themselves.
The Navy’s professional military education system is a good place to start in teaching future commanders how to do so. The Naval War College already has superb strategy and policy and operations courses, as well as possibly the world’s best wargaming department. It would not be difficult to insert this article’s concepts into the curriculum and practice it in games; however, this would require that all officers complete the course either in residence or through distance education. In addition, fleet-level training exercises could reinforce the concepts.
The three sets of terms laid out here could form the basis for KWEB-like conversations among group and force commanders, fast-tracking force-wide mutual understanding. This understanding would power congruent wartime thinking in the face of disrupted communications and the sorts of unanticipated conditions that might nullify existing commander’s intent statements.
This framework also could be used to craft those statements. Human thinking and problem solving are based on giving things useful names. Naval warfare has an inherent logic structure to it that must be understood by all naval personnel and thus its elements must be named. It is hoped the names provided here will stimulate sailors of all ranks to think of more to expand and refine this framework.
The Navy historically has had a culture of delegation and independent command into which the concept of mission command fits well. However, in the age of long-range missiles and powerful information networks, tight orchestration of widely scattered units has become the ideal. As Admiral Swift argues, dependence on communications could be fatal to a force. The force must become more resilient in the face of enemy efforts to disrupt communications and other aspects of modern command and control. Adoption of a common means of talking about and assessing risk would be a good place to start.
1. ADM Scott Swift, USN, “Master the Art of Command and Control,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144 no. 2 (February 2018), 28–33.
2. Swift, “Master the Art of Command and Control.”
3. VADM Thomas Rowden, RADM Peter Gumataotao, and RADM Peter Fanta, USN, “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 141 no. 1 (January 2015).
4. U.S. Army, “Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design, Version 1.0,” TRADOC Pamphlet 525-5-500, January 2008. See especially section 2.3, “Problem Framing,” 21–26.
5. RADM Joseph C. Wylie, USN, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1967), 23–29.
6. Robert C. Rubel, “Deconstructing Nimitz’s Principle of Calculated Risk,” Naval War College Review (Winter 2015).
7. There is a lot more involved in how modes of naval warfare work in the missile age. For a more extensive discussion, see Robert C. Rubel, “Mission Command in a Future Naval Combat Environment,” Naval War College Review (Spring 2018).
8. LT Peter Majeranowski, USN, “Knowledge Web Plays Big in Transformation,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 129 no. 7 (July 2003), 43–48.
Captain Rubel was a Navy pilot who flew light-attack and strike-fighter aircraft. He retired after 30 years of active duty and then served for 13 years on the faculty of the Naval War College, including eight years as dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He has published more than 30 articles and several book chapters on naval and military subjects.