Mission Command and the Operational Culture of a Special Operations Joint Task Force

By Brian Reed, MTI Contributor

Background, Context, and Mission Command

From May through August 2019, I served in Afghanistan as a member of the NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan/Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan (NSOCC-A/SOJTF-A).  In this capacity, I worked directly for the Commanding General.  

This was a tremendous opportunity for me.  I am a career Infantryman, with all my time spent in “conventional” infantry formations (Light, Mechanized, and Stryker).  As a Battalion and Brigade Commander, I commanded Stryker formations.  Throughout my career, I have multiple training and operational repetitions with Special Operations Forces (SOF), beginning with my first deployment to Haiti in 1994 for Operation Uphold Democracy.  This deployment to Afghanistan was my first as a member of a Special Operations task force.

The deployment was like a graduate program on warfighting and leadership.  It was certainly not perfect – like all other formations in the military, this task force had its share of challenges and issues.  That said, the execution of mission command the finest I have ever experienced in my career.  

Mission command is “the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders.”  There are seven (7) principles of mission command, of which one is competence.  According to Army Mission Command doctrine, Soldiers continually develop competence through institutional education, realistic training, and self-development.  Units also develop competence through realistic and complex collective unit training.  In turn, mutual trust and shared understanding between leaders and subordinates will grow once competence is established.

The only way a commander can enable disciplined initiative, empower agile and adaptive leaders, create shared understanding over time, and build mutual trust is if the units and leaders are trained to operate in such a manner.  

In my experience, what often separates a SOF unit from a conventional formation is the ability to acquire talent, train such talent in a repetitive and disciplined manner, and the available and unencumbered resources (to include time and money).  

As a company commander, battalion commander, and brigade combat team commander, my team and I were able to grow competent formations, but not to the degree that SOF formations are able to do so.  Frankly, we “get who we get” with respect to Soldiers and leaders, our time is encumbered with other Big Army requirements, and we do compete for a finite number of resources.  It is just different.  This is not a complaint.  It is a fact.

The OPTEMPO inside the command was high.  Afghanistan was a challenging, complex, and dynamic problem set.  It was “Ph.D. level” work.  The environment was violent and kinetic.  NSOCC-A/SOJTF-A itself was a diverse organization – multiple countries, languages, authorities and caveats, means of communication – which drove a constant re-alignment to adapt to the ever-changing conditions of Afghanistan.  The operational design was not static.  Throughout the command, the situation needed to be developed aggressively at all levels, and subsequently forces needed to be task organized for purpose.  The command could not lose its operational flexibility.

The Operational Culture

To operate in this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment – and to fight and win – the operational culture of the organization needed to be right.  This was tricky given the multiple teams, units, and staffs that came together to make up the command.  

Unlike conventional formations that typically deploy and redeploy together as whole units, this Special Operations Joint Task Force was comprised of smaller units and teams across all services of the military, many on their own rotation schedules for differing amounts of months.  Then, there were our international partners – the NATO Component – and our Afghan partners.  Finally, the headquarters (HQ) was not an organic 2-star HQ like conventional divisions.  

The entire HQ and staff did not train together before deploying, and it also faced the normal tyranny of personnel rotations over the course of the deployment.  

In some ways, it was like building an airplane in flight, and then continuously re-assessing that the plane was built to the right specifications for what it needed to do.

The operational culture started with the basics, and it started with the “6”.  In short, the commander and the command teams throughout the organization set the tone.  It was about generating the right habits and doing the little things correctly.  Wear of equipment was a perfect example.  While there is merit to the relaxed-grooming standards of many SOF units, there is a purpose behind it.  However, there was nothing “relaxed” when it came to the standards for the care and wearing of equipment – weapons, helmets, body armor, and special equipment.  The standards were non-negotiable.  Most importantly, the commander and the command team set the standard for all to follow.  Leadership started at the 6…and this lesson is transferable to any formation in our military.

What really set this task force apart from many of the units with which I served was how they thought about the fight:

  • Iterative decision making
  • Challenging assumptions
  • Not wed to past ways of doing things
  • Focused on solving the problem
  • Leveraging talent and assets across the formation
  • Making the technology work for you
  • Transparency in communication; flat, fast, and accurate reporting.  

The unit operated at the speed of trust.  Just as a commander needed to trust a lower-level leader to accomplish the commander’s intent, that lower-level leader needed to trust in the commander’s decision.  Trust went both ways.

The commander organized the staff to leverage the intellectual capital within the headquarters and his staff.  The complexity of the problems at all levels (tactical, operational, and strategic) required creative and free flowing thinkers who could provide practical solutions.  This also required bottom-up input and refinement.  The commander’s battlefield circulation to combat outposts and subordinate HQs allowed him to frame a more complete picture of the problems and possible solutions, in addition to sharing information from the operational and strategic level so the tactical formations better understood how they fit into the larger picture.  As an operational 2-star HQ, the staff informs higher headquarters, and resources (sets conditions for) subordinate organizations.  Communication was the key to success – drama free and focused on problem solving.

Decision making was anchored in understanding the environment; the ability to rapidly decide based on available information; the ability to rapidly change and get better; and communication…understand, decide, change, communicate.  The unit was never static.

The commander was a master of the white board process.    He used this to iterate with commanders and staff in small groups.  The seeds of an idea or a proposed solution to a problem were written on a dry erase board and the team essentially “thought” together…erasing some thoughts, writing out others, developing branches and sequels, re-aligning units and resources…all on the white board.  

The unit was good because members were able to think outside of sequences and were comfortable with ambiguity.  For those unit members who were uncomfortable in this space, they were left behind and no longer value-added to the formation.  You need to have the right human capital.  Sometimes this required changing the command relationships to get the right people in place, otherwise you constrained the organization.

Simplifying operations was also key.  Big operations with too many variables did not work – our Afghan partners did not have the means (resources) to plan and execute.  Our advisory efforts needed to simplify operations for the Afghans to the point of need.  Keep it simple.  Keep it focused.  Keep the objectives clear.  Clarify and simplify the ways and the means.  The tendency is for grand operations that will never take place…to sometimes “overplan”.  We are not graded on how “grand” we are…we are graded on how we resource to the point of need – focus and simple.  This is especially true in any coalition, or multi-national, operation.  Coalition warfare also requires accountability; all partner nations must do what is required of them.

Similarly, reporting had to effectively communicate what is important, both verbally and in the written word.  If not done well, you leave yourself open to interpretation.  A report cannot just be a piece of information.  Instead, the report needed to (1) communicate to the commander to solve a problem (problem identified and who has it for action); (2) provide an assessment; and/or (3) identify a requirement.  A constant command theme was to break down the barriers on information sharing and to be interoperable across the entire formation – U.S., coalition, Afghan-partners.  Interoperability means that we can communicate effectively.  A “brick and mortar” change was the evolution of a Combined Joint Operations Center that allowed the commander to create near-complete transparency in information flow, situational awareness, and courses of action to act decisively.  A key pillar was the introduction of technology to solve complex problems visualized on a fused Mission Command system, and the use of technical means to understand a physically denied environment.  The objective was to win in the cognitive.

The Takeaway

I was stationed at the U.S. Military Academy when I deployed.  I was post-Brigade Command and post-CENTCOM.  I was a senior Colonel.  That said, my time with NSOCC-A/SOJTF-A was an exceptionally valuable experience, and it allowed me to grow and develop as an Army Professional, a leader, and a leader developer.  You’re never too senior to learn. 

I would also argue that any conventional unit could build and grow a similar operational culture.  No doubt, there are limitations and constraints tied to resourcing and talent acquisition, but the big rock is the same – Mission Command is Army doctrine, not just SOF doctrine.  A unit culture that promotes disciplined initiative, agile and adaptive leaders, shared understanding, and trust is a unit that can successfully execute mission orders…that is, mission command.  Good training and leader development programs can do this.

Finally, my experience caused me to reflect on the following questions:

  1. What does my experience mean for leader development?  
  2. How do we “build” the type of leader required to lead in this environment?  
  3. What type of leaders do we need?

To this day, these questions frame how I teach, coach, and mentor cadets, officers, and NCOs

Brian Reed is a Soldier with 33+ years of active service as an Infantryman in the US Army.

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Notes:

1.  Mission command is a warfighting function and the Army’s philosophy of command described within the latest revision of Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-0, Mission Command.

2. I served as the Director, Commander’s Action Group for the Commanding General, United States Central Command.

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