The Currency of Mission Command

By Capt. Bill Shafley

Information is the currency of mission command. Mission command’s six tenets include trust, shared awareness, disciplined initiative, mission orders, commander’s intent, accepting prudent risk. All trade in information to ensure an adequate combat outcome. Clausewitz urges strategic thinkers to consider the value of the object while developing ways and means commensurate with the end. Commanders and their staffs must make their information requirements explicit with Clausewitz’s reminder at the forefront of their analysis.

Subordinate units and staffs are awash in raw data. Their collective ability to add value to that data and make it actionable information is limited by capacity. Senior staffs can easily outpace their subordinates’ ability in value creation and force an investment of effort that saps capacity dry. It is a common question from senior staffs to subordinate commands to state “let us know how we can help.” There are a few ways to alleviate some of this burden.

Reshaping Commander’s Intent and Information Requirements

Subordinate commanders need clear intent. Information exchange between senior and subordinate can neither be effective nor efficient if intent is unclear or unavailable. Drafting intent is one of the most challenging of tasks for a senior commander. It involves the translation of higher headquarters’ value of the object into a theory of the fight that transforms limited resources into action. It is the commander’s opportunity to discuss risk appetite in a manner that guides effort.

Intent is foundational to decision making. It is the basis of shared awareness. If intent is left poorly defined or incomplete, neither the senior staff nor the subordinate can put to good use their disciplined initiative or begin to build shared awareness. Intent, in this sense, serves both the subordinate and the staff. The subordinate uses tactics, techniques, and procedures to convert intent into action. Staffs develop information exchange requirements based upon intent. Intent is the foundation that ties tactical action to necessary decisions. Well-conceived information exchange requirements based upon clear intent can yield success or dampen the impact of tactical action gone awry.

Commander’s Critical Information Requirements (CCIR) are a misunderstood and misapplied tool, but can be valuable to building shared awareness. A CCIR ties an information requirement, as it relates to the enemy or the friendly force, to a decision. CCIRs are developed during mission analysis. They are refined during Course of Action (COA) development and finalized through wargaming. They are eventually promulgated as part of a decision support matrix tied to events as they unfold in the tactical space.

CCIRs require action. They define what data is collected. They require some entity to collect, analyze, and report that data. A commander, or their designated representative, makes decisions based upon that information that take the outcome of a tactical action and convert it into a broader operational aim.

CCIRs are often used in a manner that mirror a set of Commanding Officer’s Standing Orders. Most naval officers are familiar with the pages full of rules of thumb, guidance, and direction to “call me when.” This type of reporting matrix has merit. It takes the guess work out of when and how to notify the commander. Yet, the “why” can get lost in the gathering of information and the notification itself. Instead of thinking tactically about the fight unfolding, leaders head down toward collecting administrative minutiae to “feed the beast.”

Planners learn very early on the “1/3-2/3” rule as it applies to time available to plan. If a tasking order is received from a higher headquarters and the confirmation brief is required in a day, then the staff has eight hours to conduct mission analysis and COA development while subordinate units have 16 hours to conduct their own planning for execution. This rule prevents higher headquarters from delving too deeply into planning for execution and leaves time for subordinate units to think through the tactics, techniques, and procedures required to execute the mission.

This same type of rule can be applied to setting CCIRs and creating the associated decision matrix. Collecting information poses a tax that trickles down into the organization, sapping the attention and effort of subordinates. At times, the amount of effort expended to gather information in response to an “ask” from higher headquarters can at best far outpace the value of the information collected. At worst, that “ask” could distract and disorient subordinates to the point where they miss a fleeting opportunity to take advantage of a developing situation. It would be best in these instances to understand that the act of gathering information takes effort and attention. Keeping CCIRs lean and necessary preserves resources of all sorts, from surveillance assets, to decision support assets, and inevitably fires. In the end, leaders may have to accept ambiguity in the short term to preserve decision space and resources in the long term.

With commander’s intent in hand and a lean set of CCIRs promulgated and understood, there is an additional tool available to trade information in a manner that supports the commander’s decision cycle. The Commander’s Battle Rhythm and its boards, centers, cells and working groups is the engine that drives operations. A disciplined approach to inputs and outputs, agendas, and membership can ensure the information being pulled into the system is fit for purpose and useable. The same 1/3-2/3 rule should apply here as well. Every opportunity should be taken to “pull” information passively into the battle rhythm and decision support matrix through official products and communications channels.

The battle rhythm should be assessed frequently to ensure the inputs and outputs are providing decision-quality information. Some of the most dangerous words uttered by a higher headquarters staff are “the boss wants to know.” These well-meaning words can impose outsized demands on subordinate units. Too many of these innocent asks could point to poor analysis on the front end. Many staffs go through the Seven-Minute Drill at the beginning of their battle staff training program. The drill is important to ensure that timings and participation are synchronized and deconflicted. Yet, the inputs and the outcomes can becomes glossed over as the battle rhythm flows through its paces. Every event is an opportunity to assess whether it is returning the proper information necessary for situational awareness and decision. A long list of due-outs and actions back to the staff or a subordinate unit may be symptomatic of the wrong inputs, outputs, and agendas.


Mission command’s success as a method of command and control is the commander’s business. It takes a level of commitment to and trust in the staff processes and professionalism of its members. Information requirements are the currency of command. Communication is the process in which this currency is spent. Every exchange of information is a transaction that costs something in term of level of effort. Disciplined use of CCIRs and the Battle Rhythm are manners to control the inflows and outflows of these transactions. Just like frivolous spending can create a deficit, a lack of discipline and necessity can create situations where the gains of mission command in terms of initiative can be squandered as subordinate commanders scramble to answer just one more request for information from higher that was probably right there in front of them to begin with.

Mission command won’t likely fail because of a lack of disciplined initiative or trust. It will break down because commanders have not taken the time to truly think through and generate a concise commander’s intent that codifies the information requirements necessary to build decisions upon. It will break down due to the staff’s inability to create an information bill and weigh the staff tax necessary to generate successful mission orders. It will break down because the staff just kept on asking one more innocent question, after another, and after another. It is the commanders who set the tone.

Captain Bill Shafley is a career Surface Warfare Officer and currently serves as the Commodore, Destroyer Squadron 26 and Sea Combat Commander for Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group. He has served on both coasts and overseas in Asia and Europe. He is a graduate of the Naval War College’s Advanced Strategy Program and a designated Naval Strategist. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 26, 2009) Lt. Jon Bielar, left, from San Diego, and tactical action officer Lt. Paul O’Brien, from Chesapeake, Va., call general quarters from inside the combat information center during the total ship’s survivability exercise aboard the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG 54). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Walter M. Wayman/Released)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.