The Mentality of Mission Command

Hannah Hager

Do you what it feels like to have a mental link with someone? How about what it means when Mission Command references the necessary mental link between commanders? How is this mental link developed and maintained? And, why is it important?

A 30-year veteran of the Marine Corps (1975 – 2005), Thomas "TX" Hammes, PhD, Senior
Thomas Hammes, Research Fellow, The Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, started his service during a period when the Marine Corps first started to address the concept of Mission Command.

In this interview, Dr. Hammes explores the mental link between commanders – how it is developed, maintained and integrated across the multiple demands of air, sea and land.
Would you define for us what it means when Mission Command references the mental link between commanders? What establishes a mental link; and how is it developed and maintained?
The mental link is a common understanding or an implicit communication between the two people. It’s like when you watch a ball game, and a quarterback will just look at the wide receiver, who will pick up on what he wants from that look. It’s because they’re linked. If they hadn’t had that mental link, there would have been no communication.
This becomes important even in times of deep and rich communication links, because you say the same thing to different people and they have different responses based on their personal background. There has to be a common background, a common understanding and a common approach to that.
Now, if you’re in a civilian business, you can achieve a mental link by training and working together. The problem with the military is we only do our real job in spurts. There are only wars during certain periods. So, how do you prepare for this in the peacetime periods?
There are exercises in the field, but the problem is they’re in limited numbers and you don’t develop the depth of understanding. What I think works best is constant tactical decision games, where you set up a tactical situation, then you have the person who’s picked to solve it explain to you how he sees the battlefield. What are your strengths? What are the enemy’s strengths? What are your weaknesses; his weaknesses? How are you going to achieve the next highest commander’s intent? You have to know two commanding levels higher than yourself by applying your strengths against his weaknesses. That discussion allows you to understand how the person sees the world.
This doesn’t happen just once, but it needs to happen every day. Pretty soon, you get a really good feel for the people working for you. You also apply it with training launch in the field, where you do the same type of thing: You give them a problem, and you have them actually walk the ground and show you how they’d distribute their forces. After you talk through that, you can begin to understand how each of your subordinates responds to this type of directive. They will never respond the same way, it’s a given. That’s when you, as the leader, have to figure out how they’re different, and what the different responses will be.
Could you share an example that shows how a mental link between teams with more similar shared mental models achieves better planning, are more skilled at information sharing and made fewer errors?
Probably one of the greatest examples is Rommel leading his division across France in 1940. Rommel had a characteristic of always being way out front, and the division is driving down one road, but he’s got a reconnaissance open out on another road where he thinks there might be a gap in the French lines. And he decides there is a gap there. But it’s pretty primitive communication at the time. And he’s got a single High Frequency radio. He tries to get a message out but the message is badly broken, all he can get the receiver to understand is "Rommel" and the name of the village he’s in. The message receiver was not his chief-of-staff, it was his artillery commander, because artillery had better radios.
Despite this, the entire division pivoted and took the other road, based on those two words. Now that’s a ten thousand-man division, on the fly, that changed direction and attacked in a different direction. That’s an understanding between the commander, he had trained with them hard over the winter, they knew that Rommel would be out front, that if Rommel communicated that he was someplace, that he was trying to draw the division to him because he’d found a way. That’s probably the premier example of two words.
Another example would be Genghis Khan and his widely scattered columns. He would have columns scattered hundreds of miles across terrain, and yet they would know how to coordinate because they knew how he fought, they knew what he wanted and they would take different routes and assemble, to the objective. Each column commander knew what was needed and knew what he had to do. The mental link actually overcame the lack of any kind of physical or electronic communication link.
Those examples are quite dated in terms of technology. What technologies exist today that enhances mental links at the heart of Mission Command?
Well, one of the problems is that a lot of the technologies are actively hostile to developing mental links. Because of the constant bombardment of information from so many places, it’s harder to pick out what the commander thinks is important. When he has to give limited communications and he’s forced to think about what he communicates, that will narrow it down.
The way you can kind of overcome this is, you may not be physically collocated with your people, so you can do online tactical decision games or email. They don’t have to be continuous in real time. It’s more useful if they are, but you can exchange emails back and forth so that you can begin to understand how the other guy thinks.
Switching gears a little bit, what are the current problems with integrating mental links between air, sea and land domains?
Well this is interesting, because while I am absolutely convinced that Mission Command is the only way to fight in the very complex environment of ground domain, because literally there are tens of thousands of people moving around, there’s no way that you can control them or even know where they all are at all times. You have to rely on mission command. Because otherwise things stop while they wait to get orders, and that’s how the enemy gets ahead of you in their decision cycle.
Mission Command is very limited in an air environment. They all obey the laws of physics and are in the air for a fairly short duration, and so are fairly predictable. In an air environment, it’s very possible for a central commander in an air operations center to actually physically control most of the fight. You don’t have fighter squadrons flying in a sector suddenly deciding he’s heard a radio message, he’ll race over to another part of the sector to join the fight. That’s not the way it works, because the de-confliction problems and distribution of assets, etc.
In sea combat, because of extreme dispersion, there’s more of a case for mission command. Undersea warfare is pretty much Mission Command. The guidelines are essentially: This is your sector, this is what I want you to do with it, now go do it.
In that way, the domains are somewhat different. It’s the same way with space. You don’t want somebody in a space command suddenly deciding he wants to move a satellite around without coordinating with other people. Therefore, there’s less room for maneuvering in those environments that should be centrally controlled, because of the nature of the few number of objects and the fact that they work by physical principles rather than human interaction.
Throughout your very extensive career, how has the mental link within Mission Command evolved? And where do you see it headed in the future?
I don’t know that it’s necessarily evolved. I mean like I said, Genghis Khan was quite a few years ago, and he had it down. The mental link is an inherently human activity, and human activities, frankly, get perfected by different groups and then fade away and then get perfected again and then fade away, and we’ve seen that. So I don’t think there’s a lot of that going on.
You may see a little bit more of an ability for networks to self-organize. Now you’re getting into the concept of immergence, rather than Mission Command. But with a Mission Command type order, or, "This is what I want you to accomplish, this is why I want you to accomplish it," then the possibility of everybody being in constant communication, cell phone communication or whatever network you have, allows them to self-organize to understand how the situation is evolving, and then organize under the direction of the Mission Command to achieve what they’re doing.