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.
The American Revolutionary War
The fledgling naval efforts of the United States relied heavily on the initiative and valor of individual commanders. Captains could operate for weeks or months without guidance from higher command. Distance and the limitations of line-of-sight communications at sea mandated a degree of initiative and trust and limited coordinated naval operations. As a result, coordinating bodies and admirals granted captains wide latitude to accomplish general strategic or operational goals.
As a prime example, when John Paul Jones was directed to take command of the Ranger, his orders directed him to raise and train a crew then:
proceed on a Cruize against the enemies of these United States conforming to the Orders and regulations of Congress made for the Government of their Navy, and in conformity thereto Take. Sink, Burn or destroy [sic] all such of the enemies Ships, Vessels, goods and effects as you may be able. We shall not limit you to any particular Cruizing Station but leave you at large to search for yourself where the greatest chance of success presents.3
These orders from the Marine Committee of Congress are remarkably vague by today’s standards. They would be followed by further orders to Europe, where Jones would execute what is perhaps the greatest single-ship operation of the Revolutionary War, the cruise of the Ranger.
At the time, command of the sea focused on control of seaborne trade or the transportation of armies. Naval powers sought to control trade through blockades or to land troops in vulnerable strategic areas. Weak powers, such as the American colonies, sought to raise the enemy’s economic costs through commerce raiding. Capturing enemy merchants and transports deprived opponents of supplies while supporting one’s own forces. Jones, however, had a more unconventional view of naval strategy: He advocated for raids against undefended British points of interest—which would force the British to redirect assets to defensive operations, relieve pressure on the colonies, and cause panic among the British public, merchant class, and Admiralty.4 Jones’ strategic goal, the loosening of the blockade against the colonies, supplemented the Marine Committee’s naval strategy of pressuring the British economy and supplying American forces, but it also brought the war to England’s shores. Ultimately, his vision aligned with the Marine Committee’s goals, and the latitude afforded to him enabled his eventual success.
Jones had been directed to proceed with the Ranger and take command of the new frigate L’Indien, but the vagaries of international politics denied him this prospective command. Rather than await guidance from the Marine Committee, Jones rerigged, reballasted, and cleaned the hull of the Ranger, improving her speed and performance. On his own initiative, he arranged the exchange of salutes with a French fleet, a tacit recognition of the United States and the American flag and a political-strategic coup.5 Instead of simply returning to sea and raiding British shipping for prizes, Jones focused on the larger interests of the nation and had the leeway from the American Commissioners in Paris to conduct operations with strategic implications.
In April 1778, the Ranger conducted two amphibious raids and dueled with HMS Drake. The raids were ambitious: One aimed to burn the port of Whitehaven, the other to capture the Earl of Selkirk. Each had a strategic goal. The former was to prompt the British to shift forces from the colonies to protect the home islands, and the latter was to use the Earl of Selkirk as leverage to obtain the release of American sailors held in British prisons (at the time, soldiers were being exchanged but sailors were languishing in prison ships). Neither raid was particularly successful on a tactical level. In Whitehaven, Jones managed only to spike a few guns in the fort and burn a couple of ships, and the attempt to seize the earl failed because he was not at home.6 The duel with Drake, while dramatic, was materially unimportant. The British man-of-war was not a powerful or important one.
However, these tactically unremarkable actions effectively accomplished the Marine Committee and Jones’ goals. A prisoner exchange was arranged (using Drake’s crew), and the raids were politically and economically damaging. The English coastline immediately went into a defensive position, and London papers began publishing calls for support and Admiralty action.7 The Public Advertizer, a London paper, reported a 400-percent spike in inter-island insurance rates.8 In addition, at least four ships were tasked with hunting down the Ranger.9
French Revolutionary Wars
If not for his good luck and tactical skill, Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson might have been hanged for insubordination, but his initiative, aggressiveness, and reliance on tactical mission command made him one of the greatest fighting sailors of all time.
Nelson can claim much of the credit for the early victory in Britain’s war against Revolutionary France at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. At one point, as the two fleets were jockeying for position, they wound up on opposite tacks, and the two lines of battle passed each other in opposite directions. British Admiral John Jervis ordered his line to “tack in succession,” a move that would have put both fleets on the same tack, would have taken time, and might have placed the British at a disadvantage. Nelson, commanding the 74-gun HMS Captain near the rear of the formation, instead placed his stern to the wind and turned to engage the enemy. This action tied down the front of the Spanish line but left Captain exposed until Jervis saw the potential of the maneuver and ordered the rest of the fleet to close and engage.10
Jervis’s intent had been to close and engage the Spanish, but Nelson had seen a better way to close that led to a smashing victory. Responding to a critique of Nelson from a rival, Jervis said, “If you ever commit such a breach of your orders, I shall forgive you too.”11 Nelson’s later promotion to admiral would give him the chance to employ naval mission command as a tactical philosophy.
Nelson’s approach to combat leadership is the definition of mission command. As Arthur Herman puts it, “No admiral . . . could control the action and tempo of a sea battle from his quarterdeck . . . the best an admiral could do was to devise his strategy, point his ships in the right direction, and trust his captains to carry out his plan as they, not he, saw fit.”12 This is what Nelson accomplished at the Battle of the Nile.
On the way to Egypt, Nelson communicated his thought process to his subordinate commanders through a series of theoretical discussions over dinner.13 He conveyed his commander’s intent. Armed with this knowledge and the trust of their admiral, the captains handled their ships aggressively, cutting through the chaos of battle and enabling lethal execution against the essentially reactive French.
The Battle of the Nile was a triumph of tactical mission command. The French were anchored in Aboukir Bay, close to the coast, with their landward gunports closed. Nelson’s initial goal had been simply to engage the French with a combination of shock and superior gunnery, but Thomas Foley, commanding HMS Goliath, noticed there was space to pass between the French ships and the shore. Nelson then yelled orders to HMS Zealous to follow Goliath, and eventually five ships would flank the French force with devastating effect.14
Like Nelson at Cape St. Vincent, Foley saw an opportunity and seized it, bringing massed fire against an unprepared opponent. In his after-action report to the Earl of St. Vincent, Nelson credited the Nile victory to “the judgement of the captains.”15 The Royal Navy’s gunnery may have granted some tactical benefits, but it was the willingness to improvise and seize opportunities that ensured British success at both battles.
The mission command approach embodied by Nelson at Cape St. Vincent and the Nile, both as a subordinate and as a superior, took advantage of opportunities created by chaos. At Cape St. Vincent, Nelson saw a chance to prevent the French from escaping. At the Nile, Foley’s gamble netted the Royal Navy 10 of 13 French ships of the line captured or destroyed.16 In this mission command structure, the relationship between captain and admiral is central and reciprocal. It relies on trust in the initiative of the captain and the flexibility of the admiral. As the subordinate takes the initiative, the superior must be willing to flex and follow.
Models of Mission Command
While mission command undergirded some of the great successes of the Age of Sail, it was not total. Commanders could and did receive detailed instructions. However, rigid adherence to these orders could be counterproductive; indeed, it would have precluded Nelson’s actions at Cape St. Vincent and may have limited Jones to simple commerce raiding.
Trust in the judgment of subordinates eroded as communications proliferated. Today, navies are integrated entities where admirals can, and often do, try to control the action of every subordinate ship. What remains of independent command exists primarily in the submarine force, where communications are intermittent at best. This may be acceptable when defending a strike group, but it likely will be untenable when conducting single-ship or surface action group operations. If the Navy wants to see more initiative and innovation, it needs to trust its people. Admirals need to talk through combat scenarios with their subordinates and build trust. War is chaos, but by devolving decision-making to commanders on scene, like Nelson or Jones, the Navy can position itself to take advantage of that chaos.
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.