For decades, the cost of communicating for the Army has been almost entirely measured in dollars. How much money would the service require to purchase, operate, and maintain its information systems? How much bandwidth could a unit afford to connect its headquarters? Technological advances and the buildup of global communications infrastructure have driven these costs down over the last twenty years to the point where the difference between operating from the United States and a tent in a faraway desert is negligible, and information flows freely between headquarters around the world.

As the Army looks to transform the force to meet the near-peer threats of the future, it is apparent there are other critical costs associated with wartime communications. First, we are recognizing the risk that communication poses to the force. In Ukraine, we saw the devastating effects of electronic warfare targeting combined with precision fires. In response, we began experimenting with how to task organize our formations and disperse them across the battlefield, reducing our physical and electronic signatures while improving survivability. Although these efforts help reduce a unit’s exposure, the risk increases every time data is transmitted between those dispersed formations. Current analysis of Russian targeting cycles estimates the time between detection and delivery can be as little as three minutes. The operational costs of communicating now includes relocating out of harm’s way before a successful counterattack can be employed.

In addition to accounting for operational costs each time they communicate, commanders must consider the opportunity costs of the information they are sending. Because of the high availability and throughput of our current network infrastructure, units have enjoyed the luxury of not worrying about bandwidth use. In fully operational command posts, every staff section can simultaneously send robust PowerPoint documents to hundreds of recipients, engage in multiple video teleconferences, and pore through massive databases without a second thought. Users may complain about the network being slow compared to their internet at home, but they can still accomplish their missions without fear of a kinetic response. Yet, the bandwidth accessibility we have long taken for granted is changing.

Despite how robust our networks are when fully operational, our expectations for the next fight are drastically different due to the anticipated contest over the information domain. Our infrastructure, satellites, and regional hubs will be priority targets that adversaries will attack to deny, degrade, interrupt, and limit our ability to communicate and operate. The parts of our network that we successfully defend will quickly become bogged down as every unit attempts to transmit via increasingly crowded pathways. Connectivity will become an increasingly finite resource, and communications will incur higher opportunity costs. Every outgoing message will come at the cost of one that cannot be sent, because there will simply not be enough capacity to transmit every message.

How, then, do commanders accept the rising costs of communication and still accomplish their missions? The obvious solution is to train and prepare their units for the expected near-peer fight, not the fight they want, to master mission command through the use of commander’s intent and clear mission-type orders, to empower subordinate leaders to act with disciplined initiative, and to send them into the fight with doctrine and standard operating procedures that don’t rely on the continuous communication we have grown accustomed to. While mission command is not new to the Army, it hasn’t been employed to the extent that battlefield conditions will require; we must relearn it before the future fight becomes the current fight.

Inevitably, operational requirements will necessitate that commanders issue updated orders, and to do this they will have to communicate. But given the expected reduction in transmission capabilities and enemy response, every transmission will come at a premium. Commanders will have to prioritize their communication to address critical issues, and it’s important that they have thought through their prioritization ahead of time. One way to approach this prioritization is by framing it around the war, the warfighter, and the warfighting function. This sounds both logical and simple in theory; in practice, and in a complex and dynamic operational setting, prioritizing communications to limit transmissions is as challenging as it is crucial. That’s why a framework is necessary.

First, commanders should never lose focus on the war—their missions. What orders do they need to issue to drive their organizations and accomplish a given mission at a given time? Is there something going on with the main effort? Do they need to check a supporting effort? This begins with the tactical objective—the immediate goal the unit has set out to achieve. Commanders must look past tactical objectives, however, and see how they fit into the larger picture. In combat, nothing happens in isolation. Commanders must constantly assess the progress of their tactical objectives and how that progress affects their higher headquarters’ missions, and then communicate any adjustments needed to meet those objectives.

Next, commanders must recognize that war is an inherently human endeavor and prioritize communicating based on the warfighters around them—their higher-level commanders, subordinates, and peers. How do these individuals operate? What do they need to be at their most effective for the tasks they have been given? Some are likely to only need to be told the mission, intent, and end state to succeed. Some will need additional guidance to ensure they remain on the right track. Understanding how your higher-level commander thinks or the information the commander on your flank needs to make the most effective decisions is equally critical. These needs are often based on a combination of experience and individual personalities, and commanders need to know their fellow warfighters and adjust their communication priorities accordingly.

Finally, commanders must integrate every aspect of their organizations’ warfighting functions. While maneuver, fires, and intelligence are likely to dominate commanders’ attention, they cannot afford to focus on these exclusively. It doesn’t matter how brilliantly a company of tanks has maneuvered against the enemy if the tanks run out of fuel because sustainment requirements were not communicated. It is a commander’s role to identify which information is the most critical, balancing command-and-control operations, support, and sustainment in a way that prioritizes and mitigates key points of friction before they become a problem.

Crucially, for a unit to have confidence in this framework, it must be trained. Before deploying to the US Central Command area of operations, 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) culminated our predeployment training with a validation exercise. To find out how a contested communications environment would impact operations, we incorporated known capabilities of our adversaries. Throughout the exercise, the opposing force, utilizing those capabilities, detected many of our communications; at times they responded with one-way attack drones and targeted jamming. Since we anticipated the enemy’s capabilities, the Special Forces detachments, companies, and battalion headquarters designed a plan that did not rely on constant communications.

We redesigned how we planned, prepared, and executed our operations. When we did broadcast, we relied on clear intent and simple orders to coordinate our tactical mission, including enough flexibility in our plans to account for anticipated drift. We focused on building trusted relationships during our predeployment cycle and disciplined ourselves to communicating only what was absolutely essential to command and control the organization and maintain synchronization. Finally, we took advantage of our practiced doctrine and standard operating procedures to establish set logistics packages and increase self-sufficiency, limiting the amount of transmission time spent on sustainment. In short, we had to get comfortable talking less and trusting more.

One of the most trying times during that exercise was when we were unable to communicate with a particular detachment for nearly seventy-two hours—the time at which we knew that, if we did not receive an update, we would immediately activate a detachment in reserve to take over the mission. When the detachment’s members finally made contact, they were exactly where they were supposed to be, and our tactical objectives were still on track. Had we not planned for this and were we not able to remain true to our plan, we may have unnecessarily changed our plan, retasking other units to cover for the missing team. Not only would that have come at the cost of those missions, but also placed both our headquarters and theirs in danger while communicating the change. Although it was uncomfortable, we came out of the exercise better trained to handle the challenges we ultimately faced on our deployment a few months later.

The art of command is founded on sound judgment and reason. It is up to commanders to understand their operating environments, identify their current priorities, and decide how best to lead their organizations. The framework above simply provides a starting point for commanders to assess their situations and execute prioritized communications at any given moment. By delegating ownership and disaggregating their forces throughout their areas of operations, commanders can diffuse some of the anticipated costs. With practice, it’s possible to do this to such an extent that our adversaries can no longer identify and effectively target these critical command-and-control nodes, thereby increasing our operational effectiveness and survivability.

Lieutenant Colonel Tom Gaines is the ACoS G6 for 1st Special Forces Command. His writing on human creativity, decision-making, and technology can be found in Harvard Business Review and at West Point’s Modern War Institute.

Lieutenant Colonel Dave Lucas is the Battalion Commander of 4th Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group. He previously commanded 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group and a special operations task force.

Image credit: Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Keeler, US Army