He either fears his fate too much
Or his desserts are small,
Who dares not put it to the touch
To win or lose it all.

― James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose


I believe history does not repeat itself, but as Mark Twain pointed out at times it does rhyme. Once again in my life our Army is reassessing how it will fight large-scale ground combat operations against peer and near-peer adversaries, possibly while outnumbered. The conditions have changed since the first time I experienced this upon entering our Army at the end of the Vietnam War. We are coming out of a prolonged period of platoon- and company-level high-intensity combat that has taken place within the context of operational- and strategic-level counterinsurgency. And once again, we are struggling to come to grips with what are the significant threats to the republic and how to organize, equip, and train our Army to defeat these threats and win our nation’s wars. Naturally, the subject of risk comes up repeatedly.

Successful conduct of warfare under conditions of multi-domain operations will require consideration of the principles of war, especially mass and economy of force. In order to penetrate an enemy defense or disrupt an enemy offense the tactical commander must accept risk in the form of an economy of force—in order to attain the effect of mass, fires, and effects—against an enemy. Mass and the attendant risk of economy of force enables penetration and maneuver to a position of advantage to hasten the dis-integration of enemy systems. (The Army has deliberately chosen to hyphenate “dis-integrate,” which refers to “breaking the coherence of the enemy’s system by destroying or disrupting its subcomponents . . . [and] degrading its ability to conduct operations while leading to a rapid collapse of the enemy’s capabilities or will to fight.) The risk to the force and to the mission is in the ability of friendly forces to move faster than an enemy force can react and take advantage of learning where the economy-of-force zone is placed.

I was motivated to write by an exchange I read on Twitter in mid-March:

After such a clarion call to action I had to put fingertips to keyboard and enter the discourse on “risk,” taking risk, training to recognize when to take risk, and so on. The subject is tactical risk, and given our doctrinal return to the study of large-scale ground combat, “tactical” in this context ranges from corps to division, though conditions—time, battlespace, and force size, for example—at these levels are clearly different. Given this, I constrained myself to considering tactical risk from battalion to corps. I look down to the battalion level because to assess risk and develop a main effort, staffs must wargame with echelons two levels below—a division staff with battalions and a corps staff with brigades.

At present, according to our own Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate, our Army uses the joint definition of risk as the somewhat definitive start point for our understanding. That definition—“Risk is the probability and severity of loss linked to hazards”—is not really useful for any discussion on the intricacies of assuming risk in tactical operations. I suggest this definition is at the root of the pervasive perception of a “risk-averse” decision-making culture in our services.

A commonly accepted definition of tactical risk would add to the discourse on the subject, so for the purpose of advancing the conversation I suggest our Army use the following definition of tactical risk (thanks to Lt. Col. Matt McGrew of the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate for commenting on this verbiage, which does not currently appear in doctrine):

Tactical risks are those opportunities arising from planned events, anticipated events, unforeseen events and chance which, if taken, win a battle at hand. Contingency planning, the use of a reserve, and economy-of-force operations are three examples of how commanders accept and account for tactical risk while maintaining flexibility of thought and action. Taking risk must be seen in relationship to an advantage for the unit. The stakes involved in a particular conflict will influence what levels of tactical (and operational) risk are acceptable.

This proposed definition is a reasonable starting point for discussion. It reflects the reality that commanders assume the responsibility of taking risk as they plan for and conduct operations.

A couple of years, I was involved in work in which I proposed text for a doctrinal manual (I believe it might have been ADRP 3-0, Operations). What I proposed offers a useful foundation upon which to build a more detailed examination of the art of assessing and taking risk (I took the text from my personal files and modified it slightly for this article).

Regarding the relationship of initiative and risk, maintaining or seizing the initiative requires prudent, disciplined risk taking focused on winning rather than preventing defeat. Commanders must understand the difference between prudent risk and a gamble. The difference is that a commander can recover from taking a risk and having it potentially unhinge an operation. A gamble is a win-or-lose situation, as Montrose described in the epigraph at the beginning of this article. Mission command requires commanders to take prudent risks, exercise initiative, and act decisivelyespecially when the outcome cannot be foreseen. Because war exists in the domain of chance, every decision involves some form and level of risk. Among key elements of the art of command are deciding how much risk to accept and minimizing the potential negative effects of accepting risk.

Commanders must succeed while acting under conditions of uncertainty. In offensive or defensive operations weighting the main effort may require the risk of taking an economy-of-force decision in another sector or zone. In stability operations a commander may take risk by allocating monies on a project that will be completed over the long term rather than projects generating immediate, short-term gains. Risk in both types of operation must be communicated to higher headquarters to ensure understandinganother form of risk mitigation.

Risk, or more specifically hazard reduction measures, identified in planning add to the plans flexibility during execution. For example, the hazard to health can be mitigated by enforcement of field hygiene and a preventive antibiotic regimen. Unclear situations may require increasing the depth of a security area or the size of a reserve. Movement formations that provide for initial enemy contact with the smallest possible friendly force may also be appropriate. Hazards and uncertainty regarding the enemy situationthreatswhile risky, are not related to the risk or opportunity of action within the spirit of the intent.

Other ways to compensate for risk are to allocate time and resources to subordinates to develop the situation. As subordinates develop the situation, the higher headquarters monitors and learns. After better understanding the situation, the higher headquarters then reinforces success. This may include committing more forces to specific actions in offensive and defensive operations. In stability operations, it could include providing additional resources to projects that are working effectively (for example, allocating additional monies for specific types of infrastructure development).

Knowing when to persist in a particular concept of operations during execution and when to abandon it is an important commanders skill. During execution, commanders normally modify initial plans and overcome difficulties to execute their concept of operations. When they judge, however, that their planned operation is not succeeding, they do not hesitate to change it substantially. (For example, they may shift the main effort or decisive operation to a new element.) If they determine they need change to accomplish the mission, better achieve the higher commanders intent, or preserve the force, then commanders replace the planned operation completely. Adhering to a plan when the situation changes significantly risks failure and wastes resources and opportunities. This does not mean commanders abandon the operation at the first sign of problems. On the contrary, commanders must have the tenacity to work through setbacks and persist against stubborn problems rather than automatically implement changes to the plan.

I developed these paragraphs with the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate, going through several iterations, so I cannot take complete credit for the words. I recall as well asking several retired and active duty friends for their thoughts. Our aim was to develop an understanding of when to focus on recognizing, accepting, and acting upon risk during the conduct of tactical operations. As such, defining the tactical level of warfare provides a sharper focus. Joint doctrine defines it as:

The level of war at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to achieve military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces.

Risk is more than enemy actions, health hazards, and disease vectors, although these are potent threats and hazards that tactical formations encounter. This is why a recognized calculation in considering losses, for training and warfare, is the non-battle injury rate. The risk to mission is the risk taken at all levels of war. Taking risk is a part of a focus on winning the battles and engagements of tactical-level warfare.

The commander’s ability to take a risk to win engagements and battles rests upon building the level of trust required to operate within the spirit of mission command. This is no small effort. The commander, being a guider more than a doer, will have to truly give actionable guidance, and thus has an obligation to learn how to do this well. The best advice on giving guidance comes from our Army history and one of our better commanders, George Patton. He espoused the view that a commander should tell people what to do, not how to do it, and should be surprised by (and support) their initiative. A commander cannot be an “I know what I want when I see it” type of leader. There are enough senior folks who are like that now, but commanders of this type will not help our Army embrace and live the philosophy of mission command. The commander must have the ability to listen to and translate the commanding general’s ideas, concepts, and musings into viable guidance for subordinates who might not be in the room when the great men/women utter the first words in thunder. Risk and the fog of battle cannot be allowed to begin with the issuance of commander’s intent.

Operational risk was taken and accepted in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom/Cobra II. Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the coalition ground force commander, proposed that G-Day, the start of ground operations, precede A-Day, the start of air operations. The air component commander, Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, stated he required fifteen days to establish the conditions for successful ground operations and sustain air supremacy. McKiernan accepted this risk, trusting in violent execution on the part of V Corps and I MEF as well as the ability of the air component to deliver air interdiction and close air support on call. The result of accepting this risk was attaining operational surprise on Iraqi forces on D/G-Day.

The second risk McKiernan accepted was in the size and commitment of his reserve. Given the requirement, established by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, to continually request forces to enter the battle, the Third Army reserve at the beginning of Cobra II was composed of the headquarters of the 82nd Airborne Division and one brigade of paratroopers. Once this force was committed, until the next request for forces was approved and this force arrived in theater there was no more ground reserve. The mitigation of this risk was provided in the form of air supremacy. The focus at this time was on winning the opening and subsequent battles at the start of the campaign. General staffs must think like commanders in the development and execution of orders.

The words we use to define our doctrinal terms influence our thinking. Our updated definitions, coupled with education, reflection, and training, will establish conditions to address the perceived culture of risk avoidance and risk aversion in our decision-making process. The risk/opportunity mindset is essential in the building of trust, which ought to underpin an acceptance of multi-domain battle. If we must penetrate an area defended by anti-access and area-denial measures in the physical, space, electronic-warfare, and cyber domains, then commanders in these future battles must be able to depend upon subordinates to take the risk of seizing an opportunity when these fleeting moments occur and act. Subordinate commanders must act with the assured knowledge that higher levels of command will support these actions.

The general staff at division- and corps- levels presents courses of action with varying degrees of risk, ranging from giving a screen task to a cavalry unit to establishing a main effort for the division through placement of the reserve, priority of fires, priority of sustainment, and so on. There are risks in the cyber world in continuing to intercept and listen to an enemy command network or deciding to disrupt it for immediate tactical gain. While the general staff can recommend where risks lie and when to take risk to gain a position of advantage the commander must take the decision. This leads me to recommend the following definition of risk, developed with the assistance of Lt. Col. Matt McGrew:

Commander-approved actions taken in the course of planning and executing an operation designed to consciously mass effects in one area, thereby taking assets away from another, to develop an enemy weakness or take advantage of a battlefield opportunity focused on winning the battle or major operation at hand and securing a position of advantage for follow-on operations.

To restate, a useful definition of tactical risks is:

Tactical risks are those opportunities arising from planned events, anticipated events, unforeseen events and chance which, if taken, win a battle at hand. Contingency planning, the use of a reserve, and economy-of-force operations are three examples of how commanders accept and account for tactical risk while maintaining flexibility of thought and action. Taking risk must be seen in relationship to an advantage for the unit. The stakes involved in a particular conflict will influence what levels of tactical (and operational) risk are acceptable.

Risk and opportunity must also account for conditions of time, space, and combat power. Under conditions of time a commander might have to take a risk with a part of her force in order to achieve a required objective in time. The commander might have overwhelming combat power but the time it takes to apply it might not be sufficient, therefore requiring execution of a more risky operation in order to be successful. With respect to the condition of space or geography, when considering the terrain—physical and cyber—a commander might have to take risks that she wouldn’t in other circumstances because of the constraints of geography. An example is Lee’s decision making when facing Hooker during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Finally, there are considerations of available combat power, whereby a commander might not have the advantages of numbers or overwhelming capability. The commander will need to fight outnumbered and still win or create a weakness somewhere for the chance at decisive action in another location. These conditions must be considered when making decisions about accepting the taking of risk for concluding a battle on favorable conditions. (These ideas derive from an exchange with Lt. Col. Matt McGrew.)

By defining tactical risk—and risk in general—we establish conditions for broad understanding of the need to act with deliberate speed in accord with the commander’s intent. We do not “put it to the touch to win or lose it all,” as Montrose described. Rather, we focus on winning the engagements and battles necessary to win the campaigns designed to attain military conditions for policy success.


Col. (ret) Kevin Benson, PhD, commanded from company to battalion level and served as a general staff officer from corps to field army. He was the CFLCC J5 (Plans) at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the director of the School of Advanced Military Studies. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Author’s note: I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Micah Zenko, Col. (ret) Greg Fontenot, and Col. (ret) Jim Greer, PhD, in the development of this article. Errors and omissions are solely my responsibility.


Image credit: Spc. Jeffery Harris, US Army