Army Special Ops / By MAJ Robert McBride and 1SG Ted Sager: Mission Command is a very common term in today’s Army. However, if you ask a Soldier what mission command actually means, you are likely to receive a blank stare. So, what does the term really mean and how does it enable a unit to succeed in its operational requirements? 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 in the conduct of unified land operations (ADP 6-0).
MH-47G conducting Amphibious Assault training in support of 1st SFG(A) and Malaysian Partner Forces near Penang, Malaysia, February 28, 2017. / ARMY PHOTO BY CW4 ERIC MCPHERSON
A key principle of mission command is trust. Trust must be established between senior to subordinate, subordinate to senior, and peer to peer to ensure mission accomplishment. Enabling disciplined initiative is another key principle each commander must accomplish to truly empower Soldiers. Disciplined initiative is action in the absence of orders, when existing orders no longer fit the situation, or when unforeseen circumstances or threats arise (ADP 6-0). Employing disciplined initiative does not mean checking with the boss prior to making every decision. It means knowing the commander’s intent, being trusted to make decisions, and being empowered with the authority to make things happen. Empowering Soldiers with authority was a key component to success on a recent deployment in the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) area of operations (AO). For the “Night Stalkers” of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne)(SOAR(A)), mission command and empowerment are concepts that have been at the forefront of operations since the unit’s inception, and are very much embedded in the Night Stalker culture.
160th Soldiers are challenged nightly to overcome the most difficult of obstacles to ensure mission accomplishment. As the Night Stalker Creed states:
Service in the 160th is a calling only few will answer because the mission is constantly demanding and hard. And when the impossible has been accomplished, the only reward is another mission no one else will try.
The Army has manned our unit with outstanding Soldiers who are intelligent, motivated, innovative, and dedicated to our ground forces. However, even the best Soldier will not be effective if he or she is not empowered within the organization. The nature of the 160th organization, deployment model, and support to Special Operations Forces (SOF) requires empowerment. We supported SOF from all service components on numerous exercises in PACOM, operating in countries from South Korea to Australia. There are few operational environments more demanding than PACOM, outside of combat. The PACOM AO consists of 36 countries spanning over half of the Earth’s surface, consisting primarily of vast oceans.
With the necessity for multiple helicopters, aircrews, maintainers, and staff support personnel to be transported into the region to support missions on a short timeline, the 160th is presented with logistical and operational challenges that are difficult to overcome. Combine those challenges with complex, SOF-centric, mission sets with a small mission support package and you truly are witnessing a significant accomplishment that occurs several times a year. As is common to SOF, the 160th deploys in small units to austere locations without significant enabling capacity.
In March 2017, 4-160th SOAR(A) supported 1st Special Forces Group on the Vector Balance Mint 17 exercise in Malaysia. The challenges of planning, deploying, and supporting missions in this country showcased mission command and empowerment in the Night Stalker culture. Throughout this deployment, there were countless examples of empowerment enabling mission success. In this article, the accomplishments of the Liaison Officer (LNO) and Flight Operations Specialist are specifically highlighted.
A clear example of empowerment enabling mission success occurred before any helicopters were in country. A C-17 Globemaster had never previously landed at the airfield that was identified as the staging base, yet the mission necessitated bringing in three C-17s in the course of 24 hours. The airfield was unprepared to receive such a large heavy aircraft, download aircraft and equipment, then refuel quickly enough before the next C-17 arrived while preserving their commercial air traffic interests. Host Nation authorities were understandably anxious.
While the Task Force Commander tackled the deployment from home station, the forward LNO conducted coordination with multiple local agencies in Malaysia to ensure the aircraft arrived with sufficient time to build up and support missions to ensure enduring host nation support throughout the exercise. The LNO routinely worked outside of his scope to ensure the intent was met of the aircraft arriving on time without damaging host-nation relations. He coordinated with the U.S. State Department to ensure all paperwork was sufficiently processed. Simultaneously, he coordinated multiple meetings with Malaysian airport officials to ease their concerns regarding runway, taxiway strength, C-17 wing-tip clearance, and deconflict with scheduled commercial air traffic.
Throughout the exercise, the LNO worked hand-in-hand with the Air Force Tanker Airlift Control Center (TACC) to ensure scheduled arrival times and departures were met within the parameters of mission necessity and Host Nation preference. In order to make timely decisions, the LNO did not have time to check with the Commander on every decision or agreement he made, nor did he feel he needed to. He was an empowered Soldier who had the trust of his Commander to make decisions that accomplished the commander’s intent. Without disciplined initiative, along with the empowerment to make decisions, undoubtedly, the aircraft would not have arrived on time and Customer Support missions could have been delayed or cancelled.
The 15P (Flight Operations Specialist) during Vector Balance Mint 17 was newly promoted to sergeant. His responsibilities included the set up and management of the tactical operations center (TOC). He was entrusted to coordinate with Host Nation partners with the filing of flight plans, fuel, Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) deconfliction, and Air Traffic Control (ATC). Throughout the process, this young NCO had to navigate through dissimilar flight filing and tracking systems to establish a system that satisfied both US Army doctrine and Host Nation partners. There were conflicting interests between the Host Nation Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), Malaysian Airlines Berhad (MAB), and unit SOPs.
Throughout it all, the NCO was entrusted to preserve the overarching strategic goal behind the exercise. He understood we were guests in a sovereign nation and trying to build partnerships. Tact and patience were prevailing character traits at all times. Many of his interactions with these agencies were conducted while the preponderance of his leadership was out training with our customers and Host Nation partners. The NCO did not have the luxury of checking with his commander prior to making every decision. He was empowered to act on the commander’s behalf and did so accordingly.
These successes do not happen by accident. First and foremost, Soldiers at every level must understand commander’s intent and what it truly means. They must understand appropriate levels of risk and have the discernment to raise concerns when required. They must understand the balance of keeping the commander informed, versus seeking step by step permission. Organizational culture either exemplifies or limits the benefits of mission command. The Night Stalker culture centers on key attributes such as professionalism, innovation, commitment, motivation, and empowerment. Without these attributes, trust is difficult, if not impossible at all levels. Without trust and empowerment, there can be no mission command. These and other attributes have ensured the continued success and respect of the Night Stalkers, and were clearly evident on our most recent deployment to PACOM.
MAJ Robert McBride and 1SG Ted Sager are the command team for Bravo Company, 4th Bn., 160th SOAR(A) and served as the ARSOA commander and senior enlisted advisor for Vector Balance Mint 2017 in Malaysia.