Command and control

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While the term is used, most often, in a military context, command and control (C2) (C&C) involves the legal responsibility and goal setting for, and supervision of, organizations and people. There is often an implication that this applies to fast-changing situations. C2 is a necessary part of civilian emergency response under the Incident Command System.

At a high level, command creates policy, while control provides the mechanisms to execute policy. U.S. doctrine is a broader statement of the essence of Clausewitz's dictum that "war is the extension of national politics by military means." Modern grand strategic doctrine includes many aspects of national power besides military, to include diplomacy, economic warfare, international law enforcement, covert action, information operations, and peace operations. Before the means can be selected, however, the goals must be defined. At the doctrinal level of the U.S. Department of Defense, "National strategic direction defines the strategic purpose that guides the employment of the military instrument of national power. At the crux of this understanding must be the strategic purpose, which may be attributed to the nature of and goals of the adversary, and the systems perspective of the operational environment."[1]


Briefly, command is a lawful authority for authority over subordinates. It includes ensuring they are trained and prepared to do their jobs, they have the appropriate resources, and their activities are compatible with those in related organization. The preceding tasks are sometimes grouped as administration. There is also the responsibility for having the commanded resources actually carry out their mission, with the commander (or delegate) providing appropriate guidance for unexpected situations.

Strategic intent of the commander

It does not follow that the skills for defining strategic objectives are the same skills involved in extending these goals by military means. Modern communications are a mixed blessing, in providing information, but also the ability for senior commanders, not even necessarily ones with military training, to micromanage. A classic example from the Vietnam War was the preparation of detailed air target lists, and even weapon and aircraft selection, and President Lyndon B. Johnson's Tuesday lunches[2] While GEN Maxwell Taylor attended some, before he became Ambassador to South Vietnam, he was the only person present with senior military experience -- and, while he was a distinguished paratroop and ground commander, he had no professional background in air warfare. This questionable merge of political commanders attempting to exert military control took place in a democracy, with at least informal checks and balances.

Dictators, with rare exception, tend to be egotistical and increasingly believe their own propaganda, portraying them as expert in national goals and in military skills. One particularly stinging assessment of Saddam Hussein, was:[3]

He is neither a strategist, nor is he schooled in the operational art, nor is he a tactician, nor is he a general, nor is he a soldier. Other than that, he's a great military man. — GEN H Norman Schwarzkopf Jr.

A responsible commander must have an intent that can be communicated to subordinates and to staff:

The commander’s intent is a clear, concise statement of what the force must do and the conditions

the force must establish with respect to the enemy, terrain, and civil considerations that represent

the desired end state.[4]

Chain of Command

The term chain of command often is used to describe the hierarchy that stretches from the highest to the lowest level commander, and all the intermediate levels inbetween.

Dual chains

Flowing from the very top level of policymaking, such as the U.S. National Command Authority, there are two chains of command. One, which typically has mixed civilian and military leadership, is called "administrative". It is concerned with the generation and preparation of forces, including recruiting, training, acquisition of goods and services, finance, non-combat transportation, and a wide variety of absolutely necessary but "housekeeping" functions.

The second chain, which is the focus of this article, concentrates on the use of the prepared forces in operations, variously in geographic and task-oriented assignments.


To carry out a control function, the responsible person needs to communicate with the controlled people or organizations, so command and control are often grouped as command, control, and communications (C3). In turn, computer systems may be needed as tools for the three preceding activities, so C4 includes data management.

In contrast with command, control is the exercise of command authority, delegated (or held) by a lawful commander, to carry out the commander's intent. The person with command authority has all control, for his level, until he delegates it. He may, in a manner consistent with the relevant legal system, delegate aspects of command.

In U.S. Army doctrine, "While command is a personal function, control involves the entire force. Control is the regulation of forces and warfighting functions to accomplish the mission in accordance with the commander’s intent. It is fundamental to directing operations. Commanders and staffs both exercise control.[5]

Scope of control

There are different levels of control; this section reviews them while the next discusses the means by which control can be exercised.

For command and control to be exercised intelligently, one must understand the problems one is trying to overcome. Gaining knowledge about the nature of the opposition is the function of intelligence, thus another function is often grouped, and the set of functions required to carry out missions is designated C3I or C4I.

There are disciplines of both managing the intelligence process itself (e.g., intelligence cycle management), but also for the types of information flow required at different levals of command and control. For the latter, see C3I-ISR.

Operational control

Operational control (OPCON) gives the authority to direct training, organization, and direct operations to conduct a mission. The operational commander will normally work through the chains of command of subordinate forces, usually giving mission-type rather than detailed orders.

This type of control, however, does not include administrative or logistic matters that pertain to the internal structure or discipline of subordinate units. Sensitivity to such matters is especially important in multinational operations.

Tactical control

Tactical control (TACON) is an authority to direct assigned subordinates in performing specific assigned missions or tasks. It does not include authority to make permanent or long-term changes in the organizational structure or responsibilities of subordinates, although a tactical commander usually can create mission-oriented task forces, task groups, and task units that will exist through all or part of the assignment, but not afterwards.

If one has OPCON, one also has TACON unless TACON is further delegated. In military usage, it includes authority over combat arms, combat support, and combat service support resources assigned for the mission.

Administrative control

Administrative control (ADCON) focuses on the organization and support of operational missions. It can include the authority to reorganize, train, and direct the resources that provide the resources for operational and tactical action. If the commander so delegates, it may extend to long-term activities, such as recruiting and dischargin personnel, contracting for goods and services, personnel management, allocation of resources, and ensuring the readiness of people and units to carry out operations.


When a commander or resource is directed to coordinate with other organizations, no command or control is assumed. There is, however, a responsibility to keep that other organization informed of one's actions, so the chain of command and control there can conduct operations that do not conflict with one's own.

Exerting control: types of orders

There are different ways to exercise control, and the focal point at which the controlled actions are directed. The type appropriate for a given situation will, in part, depend on the personality and leadership style of the officer with the authority to control, and the training, discipline and motivation of the resources being commanded.

Two major schools of thought regarding orders developed in the preparation for the Second World War. Subsequently, there have been greater insights into the interaction of orders, the status and progress of one's own forces, and the adversary's situation.

The schools were first articulated by Germans, and German terminology is often used in professional military writing. Auftragstaktik, or mission-type orders, operational orders should describe what is to be done, not how it is to be done. This contrasts with Befehlstaktik, or detailed orders, which leave little room for initiative on the part of subordinates. Detailed orders of the latter type, again in the 1930s and 1940s, were characteristic of Soviet military thinking. [6]

Directive control
Ever-faster Boyd loops

Mission-type orders are ideal when the subordinate forces are motivated, thoroughly knowledgeable of their capabilities and resources, have excellent communications and situational awareness, and recognize the power to dominate the enemy by thinking and acting more quickly.

Especially in land warfare, directive orders require decentralized control, down to the level of the leader of a fire team of five soldiers. If one leader falls, another takes over, or if a unit is isolated, they improvise. One of the hallmarks of an army that can use mission-type orders is that it has a professional non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps; the sergeants are the backbone of every fine army. While the basic distinction between commissioned officers and NCOs is that officers are responsible for the preparation and leadership of units, NCOs are responsible for the preparation and leadership of individuals. While a company sergeant might not be qualified to develop a complete plan for the deployment and use of a large unit, that sergeant has worked with the company commander and is thoroughly familiar with the commander's intent.

Many brave men broke down psychologically in North Korean prisoner-of-war camps in the Korean War, but one group that never lost cohesion were the Turkish soldiers that had been captured. No matter what their captors did with the senior man, the next most senior would take control.

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity — GEN George S. Patton Jr.

John Boyd articulated the power of delegating both information and decision in the OODA loop:

  1. Observe: become aware of a threat or opportunity
  2. Orient: put the observation into the context of other information; form one's perspective and situational awareness
  3. Decide: make the best possible action plan that can be carried out in a timely manner
  4. Act: carry out the decision.

After the action, the actor observes again, to see the effects of the action. If the cycle works properly, the actor has initiative, and can orient, decide, and act even faster in the second and subsequent iterations of the Boyd loop. The trends continue in the concept of military swarming.

Detailed control

There have been historical reasons would not work, For example, the Roman legions, in close combat, would form a shield wall, with swords moving between the shields, and arrows and javelins from rear ranks protected by the front wall. The integrity of the shield wall had to be kept at all costs, including the cost of initiative. As long as they could hold that formation, enemy warriors, individually superior fighters to the Roman legionaries, would be defeated. It was when Roman formation, including their defensive camps, were broken up, such as at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest , where a legion could be destroyed.

In battles such as Waterloo, where black powder muskets had short range and soon would make the line of battle invisible to the officer in charge of multiple lines, the musketeers had to follow rigid rules for firing, and then for one rank to protect the rank that was reloading.

The Allied bomber offensive against Germany in the Second World War provided contrast: the B-17 bombers, whose defensive machine guns could provide interlocking defenses as long as they held tight formation, had to follow detailed orders. Their escorting fighters, however, could defeat an opposing interceptor only if the escort pilot was fast and flexible enough to get inside his opponent's OODA loop.

Training of German and Allied soldiers, however, was far more extensive than that of the Soviet Red Army. Soviet orders were detailed, because their soldiers were not trained to operate independently.

Applying control

One of the reasons for detailed control in most large wars prior to WWII was that the tactical model was often frontal assault, with success measured in breaching the enemy lines, regrouping, and then starting the next deliberate attacks. Two battles in the First World War, which were tactical successes but strategic failures, demonstrated the lack of imagination necessary for mission orders to work. At the Second Battle of Ypres (22nd April to 25 May 1915), the first large-scale use, by the Germans, of chemical weapons opened a huge hole in the Allied lines, but the Germans were unprepared to exploit the breach. 1st Canadian Division, a unit that was much more flexible, held their ground, but then counterattacked and took back control.

It was the turn of the British to have a failure of imagination at the Battle of Cambrai (20 November to 3 December 1917), where, again, a new technology: massed tanks opened a large breach, but there was no force available to exploit it.

Too late for it to be significant in WWI, the Germans developed what were variously called "infiltration" or "storm" tactics, where picked units would look for weak spots in the Allied line, and attack in a manner diametrically opposed to frontal attack.

The stormtroopers' mission was to cross "no man's land" and take possession of the enemy's trench. The squads were trained to move as individual units, taking advantage of the cover and concealment that the terrain provided. This changed the role of the

NCO from being behind his men and pushing them forward to being

in front of them to lead them, and making decisions.[7]

As the WWI Germans delegated authority to NCOs, two U.S. Marine teams from the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, under Corporals L.M. Lentz and C.H. Ingram III may have exercised more initiative, in the Gulf War, than Iraqi Lieutenant General S.A. Mahmud, who led the one significant Iraqi ground attack into the evacuated city of Khafji. Khafji was taken by an Iraqi corps numbering in the tens of thousands, but the cut-off teams stayed undiscovered. With the "fog of war", the higher-level staff did not know their exact position, so was hesitant to fire artillery into Khafji. Nevertheless, they prepared hideouts, set up defenses, and attempted to direct air and artillery onto the Iraqis. Their fire requests were sometimes refused, because their position was not known, but they were able to call in some fire and keep their higher headquarters informed. Eventually, they were able to withdraw without detection. [8]

Leadership: the means of control

What makes soldiers move forward into what well may be their death? A common answer is "leadership", but, just as the style of orders have to match those in control with those being controlled, leadership has to be appropriate for the people and the culture. John Keegan's The Mask of Command contrasted the leadership styles of:[9]

  • Heroic: Alexander the Great had to be a visible inspiration leading his troops.
  • Anti-hero: Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, conveying fighting as something that had to be done, but at which he was thoroughly competent and imperturbable, quietly exuding confidence and calm
  • Unheroic: Ulysses S. Grant, unpretentious, in a democratic manner to which soldiers could relate; excellent at picking competent subordinates and delegating appropriately,
  • False heroic: Adolf Hitler, a man whose war leadership was theatrical, but whose troops lost confidence, fighting only for each other and their people

It was obvious when George Patton visited the front lines, in a Jeep with oversized stars and blaring siren. In his autobiography, however, Patton emphasized that the top commander needed to be seen at the lines, showing he was aware of the situation and would share danger. Much less known than his "blood and guts" public persona was his careful preparation, which involved much staff interaction. He wrote that generals should be as obvious as possible when coming to the front, but should be quiet in going back to the command post, leaving the memory of his presence behind.[10]

Usage that may be confusing

Remember that command is a legal authority, which often centers around the setting of national policy by governmental leaders, but that control may require the exercise of specialized professional skills related to tasks, missions, and resources. The term "civilian control of the military" really should be "civilian command of the military". Most top civilian leaders have a comprehensive view of national policy and goals (i.e., what is to be done), but they may not have the technical expertise to direct how it is to be done.

In some situations, such as the Vietnam War, civilian leaders have tried to take on operational or tactical control. This may have worked in the 19th or 18th centuries, but became quite impractical unless the civilian had a solid military background. Again, the idea of directive control comes in: the most effective civilian role is to set policy on what is to be accomplished.


  1. Joint Chiefs of Staff (13 February 2008), Joint Publication 3-0: Joint Operations p. x
  2. "The World; How Presidents Take The Nation Into War", New York Times, 20 January 1991
  3. Nelan, Bruce W. (11 March 1991), "Military Tactics: Could Saddam Have Done Better?", Time
  4. FM 3-0, Operations, U.S. Department of the Army, February 2008p. 5-10
  5. FM3-0, Operations, p. 5-1 to 5-2
  6. Leonhard, Robert H. (1991), The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver-Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle, Presidio pp. 50-57
  7. Higgins, Peter E. (1990), Historical Applications Of Maneuver Warfare In The 20th Century
  8. Westermeyer, Paul W., The Battle of al-Khafji, United States Marine corps
  9. Keegan, John (1988), The Mask of Command, Penguin
  10. Patton, George S., Jr (1983), War as I knew it, Bantam