Operational Commander's Intent

By Vego, Milan | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Operational Commander's Intent


Vego, Milan, Joint Force Quarterly


The commander's intent is the key element in providing a framework for freedom to act and thereby enhance and foster initiative by subordinate commanders during the execution of their assigned missions. Yet despite its great importance, the commander's intent is still not understood well in the U.S. military. All too often, its purpose, content, and execution are either misunderstood or misused. There is also little recognition that its importance varies for each Service and at each level of command. Another problem is that the commander's intent is increasingly (and wrongly) used for purely administrative and other noncombat activities in peacetime. Perhaps the main reason for this is the lack of knowledge and understanding of the historical roots and theoretical underpinnings of the entire concept and its purpose.

In general, the importance of the intent depends on the character of the military objective to be accomplished, levels of command, and the nature of the medium in which pending operations will be conducted. The advantages of applying the commander's intent are generally higher in a decentralized command and control ([C.sup.2]) because it is there that a large degree of freedom of action is required so subordinate commanders can act independently and take the initiative in accomplishing their assigned missions. In general, the more nonmilitary aspects of the objective predominate, the greater the need for centralized [C.sup.2], and therefore the smaller the importance of the commander's intent. In other words, the intent is much more critical in a high-intensity conventional war than in operations short of war. The higher the level of command, the greater the factors of space, time, and force, and thereby the greater the importance of the commander's intent. It plays a relatively greater role in land warfare than in war at sea or in the air. This does not mean that the intent is unimportant in naval and air warfare.

Term Defined

The intent can be defined as the description of a desired military endstate (or "landscape") that a commander wants to see after the given mission is accomplished. In terms of space, the intent pertains to the scope of the commander's estimate (in U.S. terms, the commander's area of responsibility plus an undefined area of interest). Depending on the scale of the objective, tactical, operational, and strategic desired endstates can be differentiated. For example, in a major operation, the commander's intent should refer to the situation beyond a given area of operations plus the area of interest, while in a campaign, it should encompass a given theater of operations plus the area of interest.

The Purpose

The main purpose of the intent is to provide a framework for freedom to act for subordinate commanders. In general, the broader the operational commander's intent, the greater the latitude subordinate commanders have in accomplishing assigned missions. The intent should allow the subordinate commanders to exercise the highest degree of initiative in case the original order no longer applies or unexpected opportunities arise.1 In issuing the intent, the higher commander informs subordinate commanders what needs to be done to achieve success even if the initially issued orders become obsolete due to unexpected changes in the situation.2 The intent should provide an insight into why the higher commander is embarking on a particular course of action. (3) The higher commander's intent should define mission success in a way that provides commonality of purpose and unity of effort. (4) The intent should be used as a broader framework for the development of friendly courses of action (COAs), while the more narrowly focused restated mission should serve as a guide in formulating each COA. The main utility of the commander's intent is to "focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished in order to achieve success, even when the plan ... no longer applies, and to discipline their efforts toward the end. …

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