Leeroy Jenkins, Monday Night Football, and Mission Command

Fans of this blog are undoubtedly familiar with the tale of brave Sir Leeroy Jenkins.  As Leeroy is away from the keyboard, enjoying a bucket of fried chicken, his clan leader briefs his fellow World of Warcraft players on an intricate plan to raid a rookery of dragon hatchlings.  Unaware of the grand plan, Leeroy charges in alone and unafraid, uttering his infamous battle cry.

Though Leeroy’s initiative is commendable, the outcome is inevitable: the “Pals for Life” are slaughtered to the man.

The tale of Leeroy Jenkins is fitting as the US Army transitions from a decade of Wide Area Security to a training environment dominated by Combined Arms Maneuver.

In Wide Area Security, battalion and brigade commanders behave much like tennis coaches:  they can give broad guidance and coaching tips to their company commanders and platoon leaders, but in general, they’re unable to intervene in every tennis court at once.  In this environment, small-unit commanders can show extraordinary initiative, planning and executing missions as they see fit.

Combined Arms Maneuver, on the other hand, resembles that most martial of games: American football.  On the gridiron, the coach must synchronize the efforts of each player, ensuring the play runs smoothly.  The players, in turn, must be aware not just of their exact role, but also the moves of their adjacent players, as well those of the team as a whole.

In many ways, this is little more than a “mission order“.  In football, much like Combined Arms Maneuver, a linebacker must know that his role is to block the opposing team.  He’ll also know what the linebackers to his left and right are going to do, and he’s prepared to help them block their respective offensive linemen, should they falter.  Most importantly, he knows how vital his role is:  should the defense break through the lines, they’ll try to sack the quarterback, who’s trying to pass to the wide receiver.

In football, just as in battle, contingencies will inevitably occur.  Balls will be fumbled or intercepted, players will foul, and of course, the opposing team always “gets a vote” in the play.  Nevertheless, if events render the initial plan obsolete, players still have their marching orders: prevent the enemy from obtaining the ball, and move the ball down the field.  A player is free to use that initiative, so long as it serves the overall end-state.

A successful play requires little more than a well-developed Situation Paragraph, Mission Statement, and Commander’s Intent.

Microsoft Office allows us to create massive operations orders with seemingly little effort or time, thanks to the magic of copy and paste.  We can attach dozens of annexes, pages of “coordinating instructions”.  Even a “Fragmentary order” for an Army brigade in garrison–generated weekly–may top hundreds of pages, with operations orders rolled inside of Fragmentary Orders.  (Wrap your heads around that, USACAC).

But as experience in the Combat Training Centers has shown, the most important portions of the mission order–the Commander’s Intent, and the higher unit’s mission–have garnered little more than a hand wave.

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In a recent training scenario, a cavalry squadron was performing a screen in front of the main force, which was defending against an enemy advance.  At the beginning of the battle, one AH-64 Apache helicopter was shot down, just ahead of the forward line of troops (FLOT).

Much like modern Wide Area Security, elements of the cavalry squadron rushed forward to rescue the downed aircraft.  And, much like Leeroy Jenkins, they were not only easy prey for the enemy, but they also placed their unit’s mission in jeopardy: they were supposed to screen  and report on enemy forces, not rescue downed aircrew members.  Had they realized their importance in the brigade’s mission–spelled out in the Commander’s Intent–maybe they would have acted differently.

Reviewing the operations orders for several battalions revealed that we simply don’t value the importance of the Commander’s Intent, or the higher unit’s missions.  Many were simply copy-and-paste jobs, others haphazardly drafted.  Some didn’t even have a higher unit’s mission at all.

Field Marshal William Slim, writing in his memoirs, explained the importance of the Commander’s Intent:

I suppose dozens of operations orders have gone out in my name, but I never, throughout the war, actually wrote one myself.  I always had someone who could do that better than I could.  One part of the order I did, however, draft myself–the [Commander’s Intent].  It is the shortest of all paragraphs, but it is always the most important, because it states–or it should–just what the commander intends to achieve…It should therefore be worded by the commander himself.

As information technology allows us to spit out information faster than ever, let’s never forget that, sometimes, shorter is more memorable.

The Pals for Life might not have understood the importance of the Commander’s Intent. But at least they had chicken.

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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