The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Before Mission Command

  • Published
  • By Mr. Gene Kamena

The Air Force is not prepared to implement Mission Command (MC.)[1] Although an increasing number of Air Force senior leaders embrace the idea of MC, at least rhetorically, if it is to become a reality, there is much to overcome.[2]Conferences, new doctrine, and General Officers espousing the virtues of MC are a good beginning but attempts to implement MC too quickly into today’s Air Force could cause harm. To build an environment conducive to MC, the Air Force must revamp how it educates and develops leaders, change its force structure, relook its approach to Command-and-Control (C2), and transform its culture.[3]  

The United States has not fought a near-peer enemy since WW II.[4] Our ability to dominate in all domains over past decades allowed our military, particularly the Air Force, to rely upon exquisite, yet vulnerable C2 systems. Now facing peer adversaries once again, the Air Force is rethinking its approach to C2. Adversaries like China believe they can affect U.S. behavior by eliminating key nodes. Air Force senior leaders realize the potential for large and fixed Air Operations Centers (AOCs) to be destroyed or disrupted, leaving units and organizations without direction and taskings. Although MC will not solve the challenge of continuity of operations, it will help by complicating Chinese decision-making. 

As a first step, Air Force leaders should decide what they expect MC to accomplish in future conflicts. Is this effort about creating disciplined initiative at lower levels, or does it facilitate the continuation of operations? Although related, these are not the same thing. Disciplined initiative enables leaders to adjust to the realities of a fast-paced and ever-changing environment, particularly when not in contact with higher headquarters.[5] Leaders who own initiative can act upon opportunities in concert with the purpose of the operation. 

Continuity of operations is more complicated. The ability to prosecute operations when layers of C2 are disrupted or destroyed requires resilient networks and flexible processes. For instance, if the AOC cannot communicate or plan for 24 hours, MC might help for a while, but only as long as the original Commander’s Intent remains valid. The point is that the Air Force must decide what it wants to achieve through MC.    

Educating and Developing Leaders 

The Air Force assesses the brightest, best educated, and most capable people into its ranks. Unfortunately, the existing officer development regime stovepipes this fresh talent into narrowly defined technical jobs and functionally organized units for extended periods of time – too long. There are benefits to mastering technology, but these come at a cost. Given the requirement for officers to master complex systems, the AF implicitly emphasizes tactical and technical competence over leadership in officers' formative years. For many officers this translates into limited or delayed opportunities to lead and command. The first meaningful leader assignments come at the rank of Major or Lieutenant Colonel.[6] The cost to the Air Force is delayed (late) leader development and limited leader opportunities. 

Although MC is now taught in schoolhouses across the Air Force and encouraged by a few Major Commands (MAJCOMs), understanding how MC works in theory is not enough – MC must be experienced. Unfortunately, for some senior leaders it is too late. Even they embrace  MC intellectually, old habits and personal experiences are difficult to overcome. On the other hand, Lieutenants and Captains are unfilled vessels. Through education and hopefully firsthand experiences young officers will come to view MC as routine. In fact, once leaders experience meaningful MC, they expect nothing less.[7]

The legacy notion that centralized control and decentralized execution equates to MC will be difficult to defeat.[8] The concept of centralized control and decentralized execution is efficient, and threat environments over the past few decades allowed this approach to also be tactically effective.[9] Anticipated combat with peer adversaries places a greater value on an operationally effective force. Efficiency is desirable, but it alone will not win battles and campaigns.    


  • Offer broadening leadership opportunities earlier in officers’ careers. Young leaders must learn to work within a higher Commander’s Intent and outside their primary functional area.[10]
  • When selecting senior-level commanders, the Air Force may have to reduce expectations of technical skill or reserve higher-level commands for non-pilots - people who have the bandwidth to broaden their experiences and perspective.  
  • For MC to permeate the Air Force, it must also become the norm in garrison, the schoolhouse, and in training. Attempting MC exclusively in operational environments is a recipe for failure.
  • It takes time to develop leaders who are willing to accept risk and underwrite mistakes. The Air Force should begin teaching and practicing MC from the first day of an airman’s journey. Initially and at lower levels, the focus must be on how to operate within the confines of MC. For instance, how to translate the commander’s intent into appropriate action. Later, and at higher levels, emphasis transitions towards creating an environment where MC might thrive, an environment that demands appropriate action by subordinates.   
  • MC only works when leaders and the Air Force as an Institution underwrite honest mistakes. Junior leaders and Airmen listen to what senior leaders say, but they also watch what senior leaders do. For instance, a zero-tolerance policy towards aviation safety may serve to deter initiative in some instances.  
  • MC must be accepted and practiced across the entire force, not just by self-selecting leaders.[11] MC applies to all units, flying, support, and educational organizations. How MC is applied may vary between units and missions, but the principles of MC are sacrosanct. Doctrine is helpful in making MC a routine practice, but the driving force are leaders.   

Structure of the Force

The Air Force is functionally organized; units and organizations are built to perform narrowly defined sets of functions (tasks). For instance, a fighter squadron contains fighter pilots who fly fighter aircraft. Their function might be described in terms of Close Air Support, Counter-Air, Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD). Other units perform tasks relating to base security, contracting, and so forth. Units have what they need to execute their assigned function, but nothing more. For instance, a flying squadron has a minuscule admin staff, with most staff work spread among the pilots. The squadron commander does not own maintenance resources and does not have the capability to do much more than rudimentary flight planning and training. During combat, functional units are combined to create new, more combat capable, units - units that did not train together nor perform mission sets beforehand. 

Today, most squadrons, groups, and wings are little more than force providers and mission executors.[12] Their functional framework makes them suited for receiving and executing orders rather than planning independent or semi-autonomous operations.  Moreover, the ability to C2 operations for any length of time is non-existent. In fact, most flying units receive mission taskings and execute as directed – initiative is not a factor. 

The functional nature of Air Force organizations makes implementing MC difficult. The ability to forecast, analyze, plan, and conduct operations is vital for MC to succeed. In fact, freedom of action resides in the ability to understand, foresee, and take appropriate action within the broader picture and the Commander’s Intent. Ideally, a squadron would act with the intent of both the Wing Commander and the AOC. Today, this is not possible because orders are issued downward, they are directive, and sourced directly from the AOC. 

The embryonic “Lead Wing”[13] and “Agile Combat Employment”[14] concepts demand new thought. In the absence of orders, units and leaders require resources to demonstrate initiative and continue operations. When units are widely dispersed it is incumbent on higher-level commanders to provide a longer-term vision and Commander’s Intent to create a common understanding of the situation. This is particularly important when units are out of sight and communications with their higher headquarters.    


  • Assume that minutely prepared taskings emanating from high-level command posts will not be the standard in a future fight.  Therefore, organize units the way they will fight. Move beyond functional frameworks to mission-capable units, units that have the resources to conduct their wartime missions. Form these units before they are sent into combat - trust and confidence underpin MC.   
  • Resource squadrons and wings with enough staff to produce combat orders and to plan for future operations. This must be a reasoned approach because staffs tend to grow exponentially with time. A squadron should be able to plan 24-48 hours into the future, while a Wing looks 48-96 hours out. 


Current Air Force’s C2 processes and structures are centralized, rigid, and vulnerable. Operations planned in the AOC result in taskings directed downward to units for execution. If the AOC is disrupted or destroyed, operations become hindered and desynchronized.[15] The Air Force recognizes this possibility and is considering how best to mitigate this vulnerability. The prevailing emphasis seems to be focused on making the AOC more robust through technical means while also providing select Wings with enablers and larger staff.[16] For now, squadrons are left to receive orders and execute as directed. 

Orders must do more than merely task subordinates. Mission orders and Commander’s Intent statements are the heart of MC. The Air Taskings Order (ATO) is the current format for directing air operations.[17] It provides taskings and synchronizes complex operations on a recurring 24-hour cycle. The current ATO focuses on the management of scare resources but lacks an emphasis on the Commander’s Intent.[18] Moreover, the ATO is not a Mission-Type Order because it does not provide sufficient guidance if or when the situation changes. 

The Five-Paragraph Operations or Field Order is the standard orders format in the Marines and the Army. This format highlights Commander’s Intent statements (para 3a) and taskings in the form of “Task and Purpose.” The purpose for the mission or operation is more important than the task given. Units and leaders are often granted freedom of action to deviate from the task if they accomplish the stated purpose of the operation within a Commander’s Intent.[19]


  • Require commanders, regardless of the level of command, to produce a Commander’s Intent statement and to employ mission-type orders.[20] The five-paragraph field order used by the Army and Marines is a format that would put the Air Force in synch with other services. 
  • Emphasize the purpose of an operation over the specific tasks directed to units. Understanding the “why” of a mission bolsters initiative in subordinates when the situation changes or opportunities present themselves.[21]


Air Force officers are functionally minded; they identify closely with what they do. Whether a pilot, analyst, or maintainer, over time Air Force Officers narrowly see themselves through their skill set. This is true of other services, but it is acute with the Air Force, by far the most technological of the services, even more so than the Navy. Leading or commanding a squadron of people who all have the same set of skills, who think alike, and who all do the same function does not stretch a leader.[22] Leading people who do different tasks, have various skills, and who possess various motivations requires leaders to expand their leadership skills and general knowledge. Achieving unity of effort in a multi-functional (mission capable) unit demands an understanding of the bigger picture. 

MC requires leaders who are able and willing to lead beyond their comfort zone and take on tasks outside of their specific expertise. Future war will not reward, nor tolerate leaders who operate through narrowly defined roles. In times of crisis, no one will care what you fly when leadership is warranted. As mentioned above, operating, and leading multifunctional units will develop leaders who have a general understanding of what other units do, understand how the joint force works, and who can facilitate initiative within the Commander’s Intent.[23]

There is a cost of doing business where MC is concerned – mistakes. People will make mistakes during the execution of missions and while trying to take appropriate action within the Commander’s Intent. Air Force culture and practice must account for honest mistakes in the development of leaders and Airmen. 


  • Educate officers to view themselves as leaders first and to place their function (Pilot, Maintainer...) secondary to leading. In times of crisis, officers must take charge of everything within their purview.[24] The goal is to create leaders who understand the bigger picture and who are willing to act and prudently accept risk within the Commander’s Intent.   
  • People will make mistakes while trying to operate within the Commander’s Intent. The Air Force must absorb well-intentioned mistakes as the cost of doing business. Airmen will listen to what senior leaders say, but they will believe what senior leaders do. MC will fail in a single mistake Air Force. 


As a first step, Air Force senior leaders must decide what benefit MC brings to the future fight and the time horizon for that fight. You go to war with the force you have, not the force you want.[25] MC intended to foster initiative at lower levels will differ from MC designed for the continuation of operations. For instance, MC intended to continue operations, if or when communications with the AOC is disrupted, may allow initiative down to the Wing level of command, but no further. If the intent is to instill initiative throughout the force, then the principles of MC must be infused to the lowest level.

MC in the Air Force will not and probably should not mirror MC in the Army and the Marines. The eight principles of MC (Competence, Mutual trust, Shared understanding, Commander’s Intent, Mission Orders, Disciplined initiative, and Risk Acceptance) remain valid, but how the Air Force achieves each principle must fit the Air Force’s modus operandi. 

Necessity is driving change in the Air Force. The potential for fighting a war against another great power nation has the Air Force looking for solutions and reevaluating how it conducts its business. MC is not a quick fix, but it can assist during periods of crisis and when battlefield opportunities arise. The recommendation for the Air Force to revise how it educates and develops leaders, change its force structure, relook its approach to C2, and transform its culture is a heavy lift. Fortunately, these tasks can be done in phases. Begin by changing the force structure, this will make the other areas of transformation possible. The most difficult undertaking is to change Air Force culture. Changing culture takes time and will be frustrating - winning over or silencing entrenched naysayers is never easy.    

Finally, it is encouraging that the Air Force is leaning towards a form of MC, a non-technical solution for an identified problem. MC is an all-encompassing process that must be supported, if not directed from the very top. It will take time, maybe even a generation, for MC to become routine. Consider the recommendations offered in this paper as a starting point. The Air Force has the talent and leadership to make MC a reality - it just has to overcome itself to do so.


Gene Kamena
Mr. Kamena serves as the Director for the Joint Warrior Studies Seminar (JWSS) at the Air War College.

The views and opinions expressed or implied in Wild Blue Yonder are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.


[1.] “Mission Command. If a commander loses reliable communications, mission command enables military operations to continue through decentralized execution based on mission-type orders. Mission command empowers subordinate military commanders at all echelons who exercise disciplined initiative, act aggressively, and independently strive to accomplish the mission.” Joint Publication, Joint Campaigns and Operations (18 June 2022), III-5 

[2.] There are also many senior leaders in and out of the Air Force who question the suitability and usefulness of MC. The argument that initiative at lower levels might desynch operations seems to be the concern. The question at hand: is it better to have less refined operations while continuing operations, or should we solely rely on a centralized command approach?  

[3.] The author assumes readers are familiar with the principles of Mission Command as stated in ADP 6.0, July 2019: Competence, Mutual trust, Shared understanding, Commander’s Intent, Mission Orders, Disciplined initiative, and Risk Acceptance.  

[4.] The U.S. was prepared to fight the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but direct combat between the superpowers did not occur.  

[5.] Disciplined initiative is appropriate action working within the Commander’s Intent and vision for the operation.

[6.] The Army and Marine Corps place junior officer into leadership positions early in their careers. First Commands typically are as a Captain. Hence, the practice of receiving and issuing orders and commander’s Intent statements become routine at an early stage of development. 

[7.] MC often varies in the degree of control, the range of latitude granted to subordinates depends on factors such as: trust, confidence, the mission, and the purpose of the operation. In certain circumstances, MC can be very directive. 

[8.] USAF Doctrine Advisory on The Continuing Relevance of Centralized Control / Decentralized Execution, accessed on 30 March, 2023. 

[9.] Centralized control, decentralized execution.  One of our tenets of Airpower. It relieves everyone in the AF, except for those few do the planning, of the responsibility to know, understand or do the planning.

[10.] “To actualize mission command and its precepts, USAF leaders must expand their operational perspective beyond their role in executing the air tasking order. Through clear communication of commander’s intent, Airmen must develop a detailed understanding of the area of operations and how the senior commander envisions winning the fight. Requisite details include: enemy situation, friendly situation, joint force and air component operational priorities, phasing and sequencing of the operation, logistical and sustainment priorities, delegated authorities, and overall risk management.” Air Force Doctrine Note 1-21, Agile Combat Employment (23 August 2022), 5. 

[11.] Nukes and other strategic assets will certainly place greater constrains on MC, but MC should be encouraged to the extent possible. 

[12.] Group-level commands may disband at some point in time to serve as billpayers for enhanced Wings. 

[13.] A Lead Wing is made up of an expeditionary C2 headquarters, mission generation force elements and an airbase squadron. The A-Staff falls under the C2 force element portion of this concept, operating with higher headquarters, joint and coalition partners in combat. Senior Airman Kaitlyn English, “Defining Lead Wing's A-Staff”, Air Combat Command, (1 April 2022),

[14.] “ACE requires a revolutionary change in how the Air Force thinks about and conducts operations within the modern operational environment. This doctrine note informs relevant and forward-looking ACE concepts and provides a mechanism to quickly evolve doctrine to adapt to an ever-changing security environment. The intent of this doctrine note is to share information and generate discussion across the force. As ACE continues to mature through employment in field operations and exercises, feedback and lessons learned will continue to feed the evolution of this emerging doctrine.” Air Force Doctrine Note 1-21, Agile Combat Employment (23 August 2022), 12. 

[15.] AOC organization. The AOC is the CFACC’s C2 node that executes Centralized Planning and Decentralized Execution. Service in AOCs is not desired or rewarded, thus reinforcing the problem with our leaders not knowing, understanding and planning.

[16.] See Note 13. 

[17.] There are other documents that direct air operations such as the Master Air Attack Plan, Airspace Control Plan, Area Air Defense Plan and Airspace Control Order, and the JIPTL.

[18.] The ATO also deconflicts airspace. Deconfliction becomes more difficult in a MC environment. 

[19.] “These details are contained in mission-type orders (MTOs), starting with a standard 5-paragraph operations order (OPORD) to provide a snapshot of the commander’s intent. The OPORD communicates the purpose of the operation, desired end states, the method designed to conduct it, and the resources available for execution. Armed with this shared understanding, subordinate leaders can make effective decisions consistent with commander’s intent even if they’ve lost contact with higher echelons. Properly implemented, commander’s intent should align subordinate unit efforts and enable the fight to continue with unity of purpose until updated information is received.”  Agile Combat Employment, 5. 

[20.]  “Mission-Type Orders. Mission-type orders focus on the purpose of the operation rather than details of how to perform assigned tasks. Commanders delegate decisions to subordinates wherever possible, which minimizes detailed control and empowers subordinates’ initiative to make decisions based on the commander’s guidance rather than constant communications. Subordinates’ understanding of the commander’s intent at every level of command is essential to mission command.” Joint Publication 3.0, 18 June 2022, III-5. 

[21.] “In future peer conflicts, the US should not expect to achieve the air supremacy it enjoyed in recent low-intensity operations. Rather, it is more likely that every domain will be contested and characterized by fluctuating levels of superiority. By empowering subordinates at the lowest capable level to make decisions and take decisive action at their level, mission command provides the flexibility and agility required to seize opportunities despite enemy denial or degradation of communications.” Agile Combat Employment, page 5. 

[22.] Leading like-minded technical experts requires management, but little leadership. 

[23.] This also cultivates leaders who are effective within the broader joint structure. Additionally, this will broaden the pool of qualified officers for command positions.

[24.] A leader’s purview might be more than what they are functionally comfortable leading. 

[25.] “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” Donald Rumsfeld, 14 May 2013. 

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