Tactics 101: 027. Commander’s Intent
4 April 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant wrote to MG William T. Sherman regarding his intent for the spring campaign;
"…move against Johnston’s army, to break it up and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources. I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of campaign, but simply lay down the work it is desirable to have done and leave you free to execute it in your own way. Submit to me, however, as early as you can, your plan of operations."
The result was Sherman’s march to the sea.
You’ll note that Grant didn’t tell Sherman to “march to the sea”. He told him to go as deep as possible knowing full well that in the course of the operation he would lose contact with his subordinate. Apparently this didn’t trouble Grant. He knew Sherman was capable, but he also knew that Sherman understood the idea behind his mission. He knew the effect he was to deliver given Grants clear statement of the desired outcome. Grant’s intent framed and guided Sherman’s operations in the South. Grant would not need to be on the telegraph every day exchanging reports and orders to know that Sherman was doing what was necessary. A well written intent empowers subordinates to execute missions with disciplined initiative.
For the past several months, we have concentrated on urban operations. We thought this month we would adjust fire and focus on the critical concept of commander’s intent. Certainly, the act of a commander (at any level) expressing his intent (verbally or written) for an impending mission is nothing new. For example, below you will find the intent given by Genghis Khan to 50 ‘volunteers’ before an attack:
It did not take a genius to understand what Khan wanted and what his end state was!
We will divide our discussion into the following pieces: 1) the importance of intent 2) a vey condensed history of intent 3) how intent as doctrinally evolved within the US Army and 4) the components of intent today. Throughout the article, we will through in some examples of intent utilized by commanders over the years. Let’s get started.
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