We are going to have to empower [and] decentralize leadership to make decisions and achieve battlefield effects in a widely dispersed environment where subordinate leaders, junior leaders . . . may not be able to communicate to their higher headquarters, even if they wanted to.

Gen. Mark Milley, 2017

It was “Fight Night” at JRTC—the Joint Readiness Training Center—and like so many rotations before, Geronimo 6, the opposing force commander, watched his troopers confidently mount their vehicles and prepare for the battle ahead. Tonight would be unscripted, but he had fought this fight many times before with devastating effects on his adversaries. His motorized companies would probe for weak spots as quadcopters searched for the ultimate high payoff target—the brigade combat team (BCT) main command post. Once that huge target was located, and it would be located, he would bring down a barrage of long-range precision fires, chemical munitions, and a crippling cyber attack that would crush the BCT’s ability to exercise mission command. The hours that followed would simply consist of mopping up the dazed, uncoordinated infantry battalions before his soldiers could head back to their motor pool and turn in their equipment.

This night proved different. The BCT main command post, normally a gigantic tent complex with dozens of vehicles pointing the way to the nerve center of the brigade’s mission command systems, was not in the usual locations. Smaller signatures dotted the BCT’s footprint, but the fires staff could not determine which target to use their limited assets against. Numerous cyber attacks failed to penetrate the BCT’s digital systems. Geronimo 6 finally ordered his motorized companies forward for a fight on equal terms. It was shaping up to be a longer night than he’d expected. Somehow this BCT managed to hide the most important target on the battlefield, and the entire nature of the fight shifted in their favor.

There is some artistic license in this story, but it is based on the 3rd BCT, 101st Airborne Division “Rakkasans” command post architecture deployed to JRTC in March 2019, deliberately aimed at grappling with one of the great challenges in the BCT experience at the Army’s combat training centers: our ability to conduct mission command on the multi-domain battlefield is hampered by our size and lack of mobility. The modern threat challenges every warfighting function in ways that previous enemies could not. As we debate how to evolve, there is one point on which everyone at the tactical level seems to agree: we hate our tactical operations centers (TOCs). They are like bureaucracy—huge, slow, and constantly growing. And like bureaucracy, no one can articulate a better solution. Rather than accept the status quo, we should embrace this era of change to bring mission command firmly into the twenty-first century.

The “Third Offset” is not just about materiel solutions; it is about innovating to challenge old paradigms and finding doctrine, training, and manning solutions we can implement now at the unit level. An example of such innovation is working to restore survivability to the BCT headquarters through distributed mission command, using organic equipment creatively to compete against peer and near-peer adversaries and be prepared for the realities of the multi-domain battlefield.

The Problem of the Modern TOC

While the United States fought for twenty years in Iraq and Afghanistan, our near-peer competitors watched and adapted. China’s and Russia’s modernization programs feature improved information, surveillance, and reconnaissance, electromagnetic warfare, and long-range artillery working together to achieve increasingly lethal effects. These capabilities are calibrated to take advantage of specific US capability gaps and deprive us of critical enablers, especially our ability to conduct mission command. The modern BCT TOC is ill suited for survival against an enemy with the capability to rapidly detect and engage it with long-range precision fires. The sheer physical size and large electromagnetic signature of the aggregated BCT command post make it easy to find, and the legacy mission command systems that take hours to disassemble and reconfigure make it easy to fix and finish. We must take steps to become smaller, more agile, and more survivable or risk a decapitating strike that deprives the BCT of critical leadership, digital architecture, and sensor-to-shooter linkages.

The best counter to enemy observation and fires is to become smaller, but that is easier said than done. Combat training centers highlight the vulnerability of the command post to rotational units, but offer no ready solutions. On the contrary, BCTs feel compelled to use the “Mega-TOC” approach in order to successfully perform all of the functions of a command post, which traditionally requires large in-person rehearsals, co-located staff planning, and digital battle command systems based on traditional employment. BCT commanders and staffs express a desire to be more agile and survivable, but the doctrine, equipment, and external evaluation structure simply do not encourage change. The root of the problem lies in the inherent paradox of the BCT: it is a tactical unit expected to conduct maneuver operations, but the amount of organic capability in its design requires a massive headquarters structure to synchronize the warfighting functions. Units cannot simply make their TOCs smaller without eliminating capabilities they must have. Reshuffling the command post layout is usually where the effort ends for many BCT staffs, because operating as smaller distributed nodes is not intuitively obvious using organic communications capability.

Distributed mission command in the BCT is not a delusional aspiration and we do not need to wait for a revolutionary materiel solution to do it. Nor do we need to return to purely analog command posts; digital systems provide incredible capability that we must retain. At the most fundamental level, distributed mission command means executing the functions of the command post without staff co-location. BCTs across the Army were forced into distributed garrison operations by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many discovered that they could achieve a high level of functionality using commercial collaborative tools and communication systems. The same principles we have demanded of our junior leaders during the COVID-19 response—clear commander’s intent, shared understanding, and disciplined initiative—form the essential building blocks of tactical distributed mission command. We simply require a reliable tactical digital network to link them together.

The Rakkasan Model

The tactical network is the glue that binds a distributed mission command system. It allows the BCT to maintain our decisive edge in processing fires, a live digital common operating picture, and effective lateral and vertical communications. The organic means for each separate node to achieve this digital link, their Tactical Communications Node (TCN) and Satellite Terminal Trailer (STT), are limited to two systems in the BCT headquarters that weigh over ten thousand pounds and cannot be utilized in air assault operations. Smaller solutions, such as the TCN Lite—consisting of a HMMWV and a trailer—are just now being fielded to units across the Army as replacements, but the number of systems available to the BCT has not changed. Achieving distribution means stretching these systems’ capabilities to their fullest, and incorporating other available solutions alongside them. It also means challenging our operating concepts and closely held paradigms at all levels. In short, commanders at every echelon must truly embrace the principles of doctrinal mission command as prescribed by Army Doctrine Publication 6.0, Mission Command, not as a platitude, but a fundamental driver of the commander’s risk assessment. The exercise of authority and direction, communicated through mission orders, must be clearly communicated through staffs exercising disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent, executed by agile and adaptive leaders comfortable operating inside communications windows that may open once every twenty-four hours. Such principles are codified in doctrine, but putting them into practice challenges the trust of commanders, and the discipline and training of their staffs.

Equipping constraints make the leap from the conceptual to the practical particularly daunting for the BCT. The Rakkasan model began by acknowledging the fact that the two TCNs and STTs in the headquarters company inherently limit the staff’s ability to disperse. By substituting them with a Global Rapid Response Information Package (GRRIP) system in our tactical command post (TAC), we freed one TCN/STT to create a third command post that we called MCAS—Mission Command Augmentation Support. This development alone did not solve the greater problem of distribution. Slow network speeds and long setup times associated with the server stacks providing the hub for digital services were still a significant problem.

The solution came through a radical change to both the communications architecture and mission command operating concept for the BCT. The key to making the architecture work was the Global Agile Integrated Transport (GAIT), a system that can be configured to provide access to the secure tactical SIPR network on a commercial fiber optic network. A 2019 article published by the US Army Signal Corps described GAIT as “a network architecture that interconnects the Army’s largest tactical network transport hubs, known as Regional Hub Nodes (RHNs), to create a global network mesh that enables high-capacity fluid data exchange from anywhere on Earth.” In other words, GAIT allows the BCT an alternative to the limitations of its current organic communications capability by utilizing a static location with a fiber optic connection. The MCAS was the “analytical brain” of the BCT, consisting of the BCT intelligence support element, network operations, and future operations cell. It resided in “sanctuary,” outside of enemy direct and indirect fires, where it could operate using hard-wired connections and mitigate the effects of the “brain’s” voracious bandwidth consumption. Creating the MCAS immediately reduced the size of the BCT main command post by nearly 70 percent, and allowed those remaining forward to focus solely on current operations. The main command post and tactical command post were freed to alternate control of the fight and conduct survivability moves, now reduced by hours to under ninety minutes, while the detailed planning, intelligence analysis, orders production, and digital services remained uninterrupted. The command posts were connected via traditional tactical SIPR using standard BCT WIN-T assets. The removal of nearly one hundred BCT staff and enablers from the tactical network improved bandwidth and system stability, optimizing the knowledge management, collaborative planning, and digital communication tools required to build shared situational awareness across the BCT battlespace.

The communications architecture necessary to implement distributed mission command is only half the solution. Training the staff to operate without the benefit of co-location is equally critical. Deliberate staff repetitions to master the Military Decision Making Process and other critical TOC battle drills are necessary before moving to distributed planning that demands disciplined initiative from junior officers and noncommissioned officers. A predictable battle rhythm ensures that a staff maintains shared understanding and receives the commander’s guidance staff members need for informed planning. We went through several designs and iterations before finding the correct balance of capabilities and personalities at each distributed location, and multiple multi-echelon training evolutions to develop a battle rhythm that provided informational inputs to facilitate shared understanding and enable timely decision making.

The final product the Rakkasans deployed to JRTC was a “tactical cloud.” The future operations cell and intelligence support element in the MCAS generated plans that went to the current operations team in the forward command post for execution. The battle rhythm, ruthlessly enforced, ensured the planners received daily guidance from the commander to inform their next cycle, which continued uninterrupted without the need for survivability moves. The BCT and battalion command posts in the field conducted these moves once or more a day, but could do so with the confidence that the digital common operating picture, orders, planning products, and digital communications services were available as soon as they were able to stop and re-establish a link. Commanders across the BCT enjoyed enhanced situational awareness, more predictable access to the BCT commander and his daily guidance, and less exposure traveling for in-person meetings and rehearsals that were all conducted virtually—to include the BCT defense combined arms rehearsal. Survivability increased at the battalion level as well, since these smaller command posts were no longer tethered to the BCT for information and digital services. On-demand information, available in the BCT’s tactical cloud, empowered battalion commanders by restoring their ability to make mission command decisions based on their tactical situation. Distribution of the BCT command post and subordinate units, combined with assured communications, was the critical combination that unchained our units from excessive control and a slow, cumbersome orders process and allowed them to gain and maintain the initiative against a skilled and dynamic opposing force.

Managing Risk and the Way Ahead

Implementing distributed mission command at the BCT level means departing from doctrine, and this is not without risk. The most obvious element of risk a commander must assume is a catastrophic loss of communications. Severing a distributed BCT’s digital link degrades its ability to conduct future planning, intelligence processing, and a host of digital services. Satellite denial, cyber attacks, and electromagnetic jamming certainly make this a possibility. The Rakkasan design included multiple redundancies to mitigate these risks, with positive results at JRTC. We maintained a dual-capable satellite/4G LTE GRRIP system at each location for redundancy, and a SMART-T at the rear and main command posts for point-to-point communications in the event of satellite jamming. Our ability to detect and eliminate cyber intrusions was actually enhanced, because communications personnel enjoyed increased network visibility from a fixed site. Redundancy not only translated to improved network stability, but allowed increased cyber monitoring from higher-echelon enablers at Army Cyber that could alert our network specialists to potential vulnerabilities and intrusions. At JRTC, our communications architecture proved resilient against a satellite denial attack and multiple cyber intrusions, 100 percent of which were detected and defeated without the adversary gaining access. Most importantly, the BCT digital network was online 99 percent of its time in the “box.” The longest single outage of ten minutes was due to a soldier tripping over a power cord.

The Rakkasan experience at JRTC does not mean that it is possible to eliminate risk. We found our network reliability and speeds actually improved by distributing, but the loss of a crucial satellite link is very real. Additional equipment would greatly assist BCTs across the Army in achieving greater flexibility and redundancy. Each BCT is already equipped with two sets of servers, one of which should remain forward at the main command post. Additional GRRIP systems would provide redundant means of digital communication, not just among BCT command elements, but the battalion headquarters as well. Regardless, BCTs are left with a stark choice: risk the loss of communications and services for a period of time, or risk the destruction of the TOC in a single artillery barrage. In an environment where being seen means being killed, the latter risk appears much higher. Units deprived of communications are still expected to accomplish their individual missions based on the commander’s intent, regardless of the status of their communications systems. Distributed mission command does not eliminate risk of communications loss, but its redundant and survivable nature increases the likelihood that critical capabilities are physically protected to rejoin the fight.

The Rakkasan experiment is not the only solution, but it demonstrated that any BCT can drastically reduce vulnerability against peer and near-peer competitors. Smaller, more numerous, and more reliable digital communications equipment would expedite this effort, but the risk of waiting to take action is simply too great. The Army can and should implement change now by testing and developing nonmateriel solutions to an enterprise-wide distributed mission command model at echelon. The threat is real and specifically developed to exploit our vulnerabilities. It is a problem we cannot wish away or wait for capability developers to solve. Change is inevitable, but our willingness to innovate, challenge paradigms, and take risks drives the pace of that change. We must innovate at the speed of war, not the speed of a bureaucratic acquisition system. The first battle of the next war will expose the areas where we failed to evolve with the threat, and we cannot afford to sacrifice our ability to exercise mission command. Albert Einstein observed that in any crisis there is great opportunity. We must leverage the current crisis of competing with peer and near-peer competitors to find the opportunities to innovate at the tactical level.

Col. John Cogbill currently serves as the Deputy Commander (Operations) of the 101st Airborne Division. He is a West Point graduate and earned a MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School. He commanded the 3rd Brigade Combat Team (Rakkasans) of the 101st Airborne Division and most recently served as the JSOC Chief of Staff.

Maj. Eli Myers currently serves as a Deputy Operations Officer for the Joint Interagency Task Force–National Capital Region. He is a West Point graduate and earned an MA from the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.  He served as the Executive Officer for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team (Rakkasans) of the 101st Airborne Division under Col. Cogbill.

Image credit: Spc. Austin M. Riel, US Army