What makes a commander’s mission orders authoritative and direct but also adaptive and agile? It is important to note that the principles of mission command are critical in a combat setting and operation. In order to properly understand the core principles of mission command, it needs to be defined. It is stated that “mission command is the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based upon mission-type orders” (Deployable Training Division, 2020, p. 1). The seven principles include “competence, trust, shared understanding, mission orders, commander’s intent, disciplined initiative, and risk acceptance” (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Public Affairs, 2019, para. 7). Operation Anaconda conducted in Afghanistan is a prime example of how these concepts were poorly realized on a battlefield. It was a military operation, which was an essential part of the War in Afghanistan. The key target was al-Qaeda and Taliban groups, and U.S. forces tried to destroy them in March 2002. Operation Anaconda shows how the lack of adherence to principles of mission command made it challenging.
Principles of Mission Command in Operation Anaconda
Firstly, the principle of competence refers to having technically and tactically competent people conducting an operation who have appropriate experience and training. Operation Anaconda was “successful because up to several hundred enemy fighters were killed … U.S. casualties totaled eight military personnel killed and over 50 wounded” (Kugler, 2007, p. 1). In other words, the soldiers, officers, and commanders were highly competent at eliminating the enemy with minimal losses. The sheer difference between causalities and deaths between both sides shows the extreme level of combat proficiency among U.S. forces. The success was primarily due to an outstanding mission command, which would not be possible with high levels of trust.
Secondly, the principle of trust is about mutual confidence among people and teams in conducting an operation by performing the tasks they were assigned as flawlessly as possible. However, intelligence officers failed to deliver accurate estimates since “the actual number of fighters was considerably higher, perhaps 700–1000. They were more heavily armed than thought” (Kugler, 2007, p. 6). Although mutual trust could be observed through the entirety of Operation Anaconda, the most prominent enablers were intelligence officers, who needed to provide the necessary estimates of enemy locations, numbers, and military capabilities. Thus, the operation’s initial preplanning and preparatory phases were highly reliant on CIA officers’ expertise and knowledge. This problem is a prime example of how mission command was challenged with flawed intelligence, which reflects the incompetence of intelligence officers and subsequent loss of trust and difficult combat. The result was a lack of trust, which hindered shared understanding on the battlefield.
Thirdly, the principle of shared understanding refers to having collective knowledge and connected actions when operating in the same environment. For example, “Generals Franks and Mikolashek reached the conclusion that a U.S. tactical commander was needed in Afghanistan” (Kugler, 2007, p. 8). In other words, a shared understanding of the situation was achieved, where they realized the military needed unity of command. Before, many commands and orders would need many verifications and challenged coordinative efforts to conduct. The lack of proper collective knowledge made it difficult to operate cohesively in collaborated mission orders, whereas the absence of connected actions reduced the strength of U.S. forces.
Fourthly, the principle of mission orders is about communication, which is comprised of clear instructions to military personnel and groups. It is stated that “during the planning phase for Operation Anaconda, this bifurcated air-ground command structure was not deemed troublesome because a major close air support (CAS) effort was considered unnecessary” (Kugler, 2007, p. 8). Therefore, there was a major frustration between Air Force and Army when it came to airstrike coordination. The lack of properly structured and organized communication mechanisms between different military forces resulted in poor coordination of efforts. Since there were barriers to mission orders, having one unifying commander was essential to accurately translate the commander’s intent.
Fifthly, the principle of commander’s intent refers to a concise and clear task, condition, purpose, and limitation expressions. It is stated that “the hammer’s job was to attack the enemy on the valley floor, and the anvil’s job was to prevent the enemy from fleeing, thus leaving Taliban and al Qaeda fighters exposed to the attack by Zia’s troops” (Kugler, 2007, p. 13). In other words, the commander’s intent was clearly defined and simplified in a hammer and anvil framework. This resulted in a direct understanding of the overall intent given to each group and division. This simplicity delivered a vivid illustration of how U.S. and friendly Afghan forces would operate. Despite the previous failures, the establishment of a rigid and comprehensive commander’s intent led to better-disciplined initiative.
Sixthly, the principle of the disciplined initiative is about bringing more flexibility and adaptability to the mission. It is stated that “when the main column became aware of this incident, it sent several vehicles to the Guppy to provide help, and then continued on its drive toward the Whale” (Kugler, 2007, p. 15). Thus, the error made by a U.S. AC-130 was immediately factored in as a change to the planned process. Since friendly Afghan soldiers were mistaken for the enemy, unexpected damage was done, which resulted in a change of plans. However, the operation did not stop or halt since the military personnel was still disciplined in taking the initiative to proceed further. Some risks were taken, which revealed a great degree of risk acceptance.
Seventhly, the principle of risk acceptance refers to being tolerant and aware of all risk factors, which are unavoidably present in any military operation. It is stated that USAF officers and over 30 Enlisted Forward Air Controllers “had to use tactical maps for this purpose, and many of their maps were not detailed enough to determine exactly where targets were located” (Kugler, 2007, p. 19). In other words, the lack of laser-targeted designators and other equipment, as well as the smallness of the mountains, increased the risk of failure of the operation. The military personnel were forced to operate under a greater degree of risk factors.
In conclusion, it is important to point out that operation Anaconda reveals how the lack of adherence to the principles of mission command made it challenging. Among competence, trust, shared understanding, mission orders, commander’s intent, disciplined initiative, and risk acceptance, only the former element was present. Operation Anaconda was conducted in Afghanistan, and it is an example of how these principles were poorly realized on a battlefield. A number of friendly Afghan and U.S. soldiers were put in difficult and life-threatening positions due to the poor following of these principles due to organization, structure, and disunity.
Deployable Training Division. (2020). Mission command [PDF document].
Kugler, R. (2007). Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan: A case study of adaptation in battle [PDF document].
U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Public Affairs. (2019). TRADOC CG emphasizes the importance of mission command. U.S. Army.