As the promise of connected, networked warfare gives way to the possibility of communications-denied chaos, naval thinkers are turning to mission command as a path to victory. Mission command, loosely defined, is leadership by delegation. Commanders provide clear intent, well-defined boundaries, and resources, then give their subordinates latitude to exercise their own initiative—tempered by their judgment and prevailing local circumstances—to accomplish objectives. Mission command shortens reaction times, as on-scene commanders act based on intent instead of waiting for guidance.1 This increases the pace of operations, which can force an opponent into a defensive, reactive stance. Subordinate commanders become the drivers of mission execution.
In truth, sailors have been exercising mission command for centuries.2 By dint of time and distance, naval commanders historically have accomplished tasks ranging from basic patrols to major missions of state with only general instructions. This history of diffuse naval command can provide a model for operations in a modern communications-denied environment.
1. Eitan Shamir, Transforming Mission Command in the U.S., British, and Israeli Armies (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 14–15.
2. LCDR Graham Scarbro, USN, “’Go Straight at ‘Em’: Training and Operating with Mission Command,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 145, no. 5 (May 2019).
3. Marine Committee to John Paul Jones 18 June 1777, “The Continental Navy: I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight,” Naval History and Heritage Command.
4. Dennis Conrad, “John Paul Jones,” Naval History and Heritage Command,
13 October 2017.
5. Conrad, “John Paul Jones.”
6. J. Fenimore Cooper, Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers (Philadelphia, 1846; Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2015).
7. “Principal Inhabitants of Whitehaven England to the Earl of Suffolk, 23 April 1778,” “Henry Ellison and William Brownrigg to the Earl of Suffolk 24 April 1778,” “The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 1 May 1778,” and “The Public Advertizer, 6 May 1778,” in Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. 12, ed. Michael Crawford (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2013), 592, 595, 643, 668.
8. “The Public Advertizer, 8 May 1778,” in Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 674.
9. “Philip Stephens to William Fraser 2 May 1778,” in Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 647.
10. Arthur Herman, To Rule the Waves; How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (New York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 2004), 346–47.
11. Herman, To Rule the Waves, 348.
12. Herman, 356.
13. Herman, 357.
14. Herman, 357–58.
15. Horatio Nelson, “Letters and Dispatches of Horatio Nelson, August 2 and 3 1798,” The War Times Journal.
16. Herman, To Rule the Waves, 359.