Chapter 1
The Nature of Command and Control

War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. . . . The commander must work in a medium which his eyes cannot see; which his best deductive powers cannot always fathom; and with which, because of constant changes, he can rarely become familiar.”

—Carl von Clausewitz

To put effective command and control into practice, we must first understand its fundamental nature—its purpose, characteristics, environment, and basic functioning. This understanding will become the basis for developing a theory and a practical philosophy of command and control.


No single activity in war is more important than command and control. Command and control by itself will not drive home a single attack against an enemy force. It will not destroy a single enemy target. It will not effect a single emergency resupply. Yet none of these essential warfighting activities, or any others, would be possible without effective command and control. Without command and control, campaigns, battles, and organized engagements are impossible, military units degenerate into mobs, and the subordination of military force to policy is replaced by random violence. In short, command and control is essential to all military operations and activities.

With command and control, the countless activities a military force must perform gain purpose and direction. Done well, command and control adds to our strength. Done poorly, it invites disaster, even against a weaker enemy. Command and control helps commanders make the most of what they have—people, information, material, and, often most important of all, time.

In the broadest sense, command and control applies far beyond military forces and military operations. Any system comprising multiple, interacting elements, from societies to sports teams to any living organism, needs some form of command and control. Simply put, command and control in some form or another is essential to survival and success in any competitive or cooperative enterprise. Command and control is a fundamental requirement for life and growth, survival, and success for any system.


We often think of command and control as a distinct and specialized function—like logistics, intelligence, electronic warfare, or administration—with its own peculiar methods, considerations, and vocabulary, and occurring independently of other functions. But in fact, command and control encompasses all military functions and operations, giving them meaning and harmonizing them into a meaningful whole. None of the above functions, or any others, would be purposeful without command and control. Command and control is not the business of specialists—unless we consider the commander a specialist—because command and control is fundamentally the business of the commander.1

Command and control is the means by which a commander recognizes what needs to be done and sees to it that appropriate actions are taken. Sometimes this recognition takes the form of a conscious command decision—as in deciding on a concept of operations. Sometimes it takes the form of a preconditioned reaction—as in immediate-action drills, practiced in advance so that we can execute them reflexively in a moment of crisis. Sometimes it takes the form of a rules-based procedure—as in the guiding of an aircraft on final approach. Some types of command and control must occur so quickly and precisely that they can be accomplished only by computers—such as the command and control of a guided missile in flight. Other forms may require such a degree of judgment and intuition that they can be performed only by skilled, experienced people—as in devising tactics, operations, and strategies.

Sometimes command and control occurs concurrently with the action being undertaken—in the form of real-time guidance or direction in response to a changing situation. Sometimes it occurs beforehand and even after. Planning, whether rapid/time-sensitive or deliberate, which determines aims and objectives, develops concepts of operations, allocates resources, and provides for necessary coordination, is an important element of command and control. Furthermore, planning increases knowledge and elevates situational awareness. Effective training and education, which make it more likely that subordinates will take the proper action in combat, establish command and control before the fact. The immediate-action drill mentioned earlier, practiced beforehand, provides command and control. A commander’s intent, expressed clearly before the evolution begins, is an essential part of command and control. Likewise, analysis after the fact, which ascertains the results and lessons of the action and so informs future actions, contributes to command and control.

Some forms of command and control are primarily procedural or technical in nature—such as the control of air traffic and air space, the coordination of supporting arms, or the fire control of a weapons system. Others deal with the overall conduct of military actions, whether on a large or small scale, and involve formulating concepts, deploying forces, allocating resources, supervising, and so on. This last form of command and control, the overall conduct of military actions, is our primary concern in this manual. Unless otherwise specified, it is to this form that we refer.

Since war is a conflict between opposing wills, we can measure the effectiveness of command and control only in relation to the enemy. As a practical matter, therefore, effective command and control involves protecting our own command and control activities against enemy interference and actively monitoring, manipulating, and disrupting the enemy’s command and control activities.


The basis for all command and control is the authority vested in a commander over subordinates. Authority derives from two sources. Official authority is a function of rank and position and is bestowed by organization and by law. Personal authority is a function of personal influence and derives from factors such as experience, reputation, skill, character, and personal example. It is bestowed by the other members of the organization. Official authority provides the power to act but is rarely enough; most effective commanders also possess a high degree of personal authority. Responsibility, or accountability for results, is a natural corollary of authority. Where there is authority, there must be responsibility in like measure. Conversely, where individuals have responsibility for achieving results, they must also have the authority to initiate the necessary actions.2


The traditional view of command and control sees “com- mand” and “control” as operating in the same direction: from the top of the organization toward the bottom.3 (See figure 1.) Commanders impose control on those under their command; commanders are “in control” of their subordinates, and subordinates are “under the control” of their commanders.

We suggest a different and more dynamic view of command and control which sees command as the exercise of authority and control as feedback about the effects of the action taken. (See figure 1.) The commander commands by deciding what needs to be done and by directing or influencing the conduct of others. Control takes the form of feedback—the continuous flow of information about the unfolding situation returning to the commander—which allows the commander to adjust and modify command action as needed. Feedback indicates the difference between the goals and the situation as it exists. Feedback may come from any direction and in any form—intelligence about how the enemy is reacting, information about the status of subordinate or adjacent units, or revised guidance from above based on developments. Feedback is the mechanism that allows commanders to adapt to changing circumstances—to exploit fleeting opportunities, respond to developing problems, modify schemes, or redirect efforts. In this way, feedback “controls” subsequent command action. In such a command and control system, control is not strictly something that seniors impose on subordinates; rather, the entire system comes “under control” based on feedback about the changing situation.4

Command and control is thus an interactive process involving all the parts of the system and working in all directions. The result is a mutually supporting system of give and take in which complementary commanding and controlling forces interact to ensure that the force as a whole can adapt continuously to changing requirements.


The typical understanding of effective command and control is that someone “in command” should also be “in control.” Typically, we think of a strong, coercive type of command and control—a sort of pushbutton control—by which those “in control” dictate the actions of others and those “under control” respond promptly and precisely, as a chess player controls the movements of the chess pieces. But given the nature of war, can commanders control their forces with anything even resembling the omnipotence of the chess player? We might say that a gunner is in control of a weapon system or that a pilot is in control of an aircraft. But is a flight leader really directly in control of how the other pilots fly their aircraft? Is a senior commander really in control of the squads of Marines actually engaging the enemy, especially on a modern battlefield on which units and individuals will often be widely dispersed, even to the point of isolation?

We are also fond of saying that commanders should be “in control” of the situation or that the situation is “under control.” The worst thing that can happen to a commander is to “lose” control of the situation. But are the terrain and weather under the commander’s control? Are commanders even remotely in control of what the enemy does? Good commanders may sometimes anticipate the enemy’s actions and may even influence the enemy’s actions by seizing the initiative and forcing the enemy to react to them. But it is a delusion to believe that we can truly be in control of the enemy or the situation.5

The truth is that, given the nature of war, it is a delusion to think that we can be in control with any sort of certitude or precision. And the further removed commanders are from the Marines actually engaging the enemy, the less direct control they have over their actions. We must keep in mind that war is at base a human endeavor. In war, unlike in chess, “pieces” consist of human beings, all reacting to the situation as it pertains to each one separately, each trying to survive, each prone to making mistakes, and each subject to the vagaries of human nature. We could not get people to act like mindless robots, even if we wanted to.

Given the nature of war, the remarkable thing is not that commanders cannot be thoroughly in control but rather that they can achieve much influence at all. We should accept that the proper object of command and control is not to be thoroughly and precisely in control. The turbulence of modern war suggests a need for a looser form of influence—some- thing that is more akin to the willing cooperation of a basketball team than to the omnipotent direction of the chess player—that provides the necessary guidance in an uncertain, disorderly, time-competitive environment without stifling the initiative of subordinates.


Military organizations and military evolutions are complex systems. War is an even more complex phenomenon—our complex system interacting with the enemy’s complex system in a fiercely competitive way. A complex system is any system composed of multiple parts, each of which must act individually according to its own circumstances and which, by so acting, changes the circumstances affecting all the other parts. A boxer bobbing and weaving and trading punches with his opponent is a complex system. A soccer team is a complex system, as is the other team, as is the competitive interaction between them. A squad-sized combat patrol, changing formation as it moves across the terrain and reacting to the enemy situation, is a complex system. A battle between two military forces is itself a complex system.6

Each individual part of a complex system may itself be a complex system—as in the military, in which a company consists of several platoons and a platoon comprises several squads—creating multiple levels of complexity. But even if this is not so, even if each of the parts is fairly simple in itself, the result of the interactions among the parts is highly complicated, unpredictable, and even uncontrollable behavior. Each part often affects other parts in ways that simply cannot be anticipated, and it is from these unpredictable interactions that complexity emerges. With a complex system it is usually extremely difficult, if not impossible, to isolate individual causes and their effects since the parts are all connected in a complex web. The behavior of complex systems is frequently nonlinear which means that even extremely small influences can have decisively large effects, or vice versa. Clausewitz wrote that “success is not due simply to general causes. Particular factors can often be decisive—details only known to those who were on the spot . . . while issues can be decided by chances and incidents so minute as to figure in histories simply as anecdotes.” 7 The element of chance, interacting randomly with the various parts of the system, introduces even more complexity and unpredictability.

It is not simply the number of parts that makes a system complex: it is the way those parts interact. A machine can be complicated and consist of numerous parts, but the parts generally interact in a specific, designed way—or else the machine will not function. While some systems behave mech- anistically, complex systems most definitely do not. Complex systems tend to be open systems, interacting frequently and freely with other systems and the external environment. Complex systems tend to behave more “organically”—that is, more like biological organisms.8

The fundamental point is that any military action, by its very nature a complex system, will exhibit messy, unpredictable, and often chaotic behavior that defies orderly, efficient, and precise control. Our approach to command and control must find a way to cope with this inherent complexity. While a machine operator may be in control of the machine, it is difficult to imagine any commander being in control of a complex phenomenon like war.

This view of command and control as a complex system characterized by reciprocal action and feedback has several important features which distinguish it from the typical view of command and control and which are central to our approach. First, this view recognizes that effective command and control must be sensitive to changes in the situation. This view sees the military organization as an open system, interacting with its surroundings (especially the enemy), rather than as a closed system focused on internal efficiency. An effective command and control system provides the means to adapt to changing conditions. We can thus look at command and control as a process of continuous adaptation. We might better liken the military organization to a predatory animal—seeking information, learning, and adapting in its quest for survival and success—than to some “lean, green machine.” Like a living organism, a military organization is never in a state of stable equilibrium but is instead in a continuous state of flux—continuously adjusting to its sur- roundings.

Second, the action-feedback loop makes command and control a continuous, cyclic process and not a sequence of discrete actions—as we will discuss in greater detail later. Third, the action-feedback loop also makes command and control a dynamic, interactive process of cooperation. As we have discussed, command and control is not so much a matter of one part of the organization “getting control over” another as something that connects all the elements together in a cooperative effort. All parts of the organization contribute action and feedback—“command” and “control”—in overall cooperation. Command and control is thus fundamentally an activity of reciprocal influence—give and take among all parts, from top to bottom and side to side.

Fourth, as a result, this view does not see the commander as being above the system, exerting command and control from the outside—like a chess player moving the chess pieces—but as being an integral part of this complex web of reciprocal influence. And finally, as we have mentioned, this view recognizes that it is unreasonable to expect command and control to provide precise, predictable, and mechanistic order to a complex undertaking like war.


The words “command” and “control” can be nouns,9 and used in this way the phrase command and control describes a system—an arrangement of different elements that interact to produce effective and harmonious actions. The basic elements of our command and control system are people, information, and the command and control support structure.

The first element of command and control is people—people who gather information, make decisions, take action, communicate, and cooperate with one another in the accomplishment of a common goal. People drive the command and control system—they make things happen—and the rest of the system exists only to serve them. The essence of war is a clash between human wills, and any concept of command and control must recognize this first. Because of this human element, command is inseparable from leadership. The aim of command and control is not to eliminate or lessen the role of people or to make people act like robots, but rather to help them perform better. Human beings—from the senior commander framing a strategic concept to a lance corporal calling in a situation report—are integral components of the command and control system and not merely users of it.

All Marines feel the effects of fear, privation, and fatigue. Each has unique, intangible qualities which cannot be captured by any organizational chart, procedure, or piece of equipment. The human mind has a capacity for judgment, intuition, and imagination far superior to the analytical capacity of even the most powerful computer. It is precisely this aspect of the human element that makes war in general, and command in particular, ultimately an art rather than a science. An effective command and control system must account for the characteristics and limits of human nature and at the same time exploit and enhance uniquely human skills. At any level, the key individual in the command and control system is the commander who has the final responsibility for success.

The second element of command and control is information, which refers to representations of reality which we use to “inform”—to give form and character to—our decisions and actions. Information is the words, letters, numbers, images, and symbols we use to represent things, events, ideas, and values. In one way or another, command and control is essentially about information: getting it, judging its value, processing it into useful form, acting on it, sharing it with others. Information is how we give structure and shape to the material world, and it thus allows us to give meaning to and to gain understanding of the events and conditions which surround us. In a very broad sense, information is a control parameter: it allows us to provide control or structure to our actions.10

The value of information exists in time since information most often describes fleeting conditions. Most information grows stale with time, valuable one moment but irrelevant or even misleading the next.

There are two basic uses for information. The first is to help create situational awareness as the basis for a decision. The second is to direct and coordinate actions in the execution of the decision. While distinct in concept, the two uses of information are rarely mutually exclusive in practice. There will usually be quite a bit of overlap since the same exchange of information often serves both purposes simultaneously. For example, coordination between adjacent units as they execute the plan can also help shape each unit’s understanding of the situation and so inform future decisions. An order issued to subordinates describes the tasks to be accomplished and provides necessary coordinating instructions; but the same order should provide a subordinate insight into the larger situation and into how the subordinate’s actions fit into that larger situation. Likewise, a call for fire, the primary purpose of which is to request supporting arms from a supporting unit, also provides information about the developing situation in the form of a target location and description.

Information forms range from data—raw, unprocessed signals—to information that has been evaluated and integrated into meaningful knowledge and understanding. A commander’s guidance to the staff and orders to subordinates constitute information as do intelligence about the enemy, status reports from subordinate units, or coordination between adjacent units. Without the information that provides the basis of situational awareness, no commander—no matter how experienced or wise—can make sound decisions. Without information that conveys understanding of the concept and intent, subordinates cannot act properly. Without information in the form of a strike brief which provides understanding of the situation on the ground, a pilot cannot provide close air support. Without information which provides understanding of an upcoming operation and the status of supply, the logistician cannot provide adequate combat service support.

Effective command and control is not simply a matter of generating enough information. Most information is not important or even relevant. Much is unusable given the time available. More is inaccurate, and some can actually be misleading. Given information-gathering capabilities today, there is the distinct danger of overwhelming commanders with more information than they can possibly assimilate. In other words, too much information is as bad as too little—and probably just as likely to occur. Some kinds of information can be counterproductive—information which misleads us, which spreads panic, or which leads to overcontrol. Information is valuable only insofar as it contributes to effective decisions and actions. The critical thing is not the amount of information, but key elements of information, available when needed and in a useful form, which improve the commander’s awareness of the situation and ability to act.

The final element of command and control is the command and control support structure11 which aids the people who create, disseminate, and use information. It includes the organizations, procedures, equipment, facilities, training, education, and doctrine which support command and control. It is important to note that although we often refer to families of hardware as “systems” themselves, the command and control system is much more than simply equipment. High-quality equipment and advanced technology do not guarantee effective command and control. Effective command and control starts with qualified people and an effective guiding philosophy. We must recognize that the components of the command and control support structure do not exist for their own sake but solely to help people recognize what needs to be done and take the appropriate action.


The words “command” and “control” are also verbs,12 and used that way, the phrase command and control describes a process—a collection of related activities. We draw an important distinction between a process, a collection of related activities, and a procedure, a specific sequence of steps for accomplishing a specific task. Command and control is a process. It may include procedures for performing certain tasks, but it is not itself a procedure and should not be approached as one.

Command and control is something we do. These activities include, but are not limited to, gathering and analyzing information, making decisions, organizing resources, planning, communicating instructions and other information, coordina-ting, monitoring results, and supervising execution.

As we seek to improve command and control, we should not become so wrapped up in feeding and perfecting the process that we lose sight of the object of command and control in the first place. For example, we should not become so con- cerned with the ability to gather and analyze huge amounts of information efficiently that we lose sight of the primary goal of helping the commander gain a true awareness of the situation as the basis for making and implementing decisions. The ultimate object is not an efficient command and control process; the ultimate objective is the effective conduct of military action.

So rather than ask what are the functions that make up command and control, we might better ask: What should effective command and control do for us? First, it should help provide insight into the nature and requirements of the problem facing us. It should help develop intelligence about the enemy and the surroundings. As much as possible, it should help to identify enemy capabilities, intentions, and vulnerabilities. It should help us understand our own situation—to include identifying our own vulnerabilities. In short, it should help us gain situational awareness.

Next, command and control should help us devise suitable and meaningful goals and adapt those goals as the situation changes. It should help us devise appropriate actions to achieve those goals. It should help us provide direction and focus to create vigorous and harmonious action among the various elements of the force. It should help us provide a means of continuously monitoring developments as the basis for adapting. It should provide security to deny the enemy knowledge of our true intentions. And above all, it should help generate tempo of action since we recognize that speed is a weapon.

So, what does command and control do? In short, effective command and control helps generate swift, appropriate, decisive, harmonious, and secure action.


The defining problem of command and control that overwhelms all others is the need to deal with uncertainty.13 Were it not for uncertainty, command and control would be a simple matter of managing resources. In the words of Carl von Clausewitz, “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.” 14

Uncertainty is what we do not know about a given sit-uation—which is usually a great deal, even in the best of circumstances. We can think of uncertainty as doubt which blocks or threatens to block action.15 Uncertainty pervades the battlefield in the form of unknowns about the enemy, about the surroundings, and even about our own forces. We may be uncertain about existing conditions—factual information— such as the location and strength of enemy forces. But even if we are reasonably sure about factual information, we will be less certain of what to infer from those facts. What are the enemy’s intentions, for example? And even if we make a reasonable inference from the available facts, we cannot know which of the countless possible eventualities will occur.

In short, uncertainty is a fundamental attribute of war. We strive to reduce uncertainty to a manageable level by gathering and using information, but we must accept that we can never eliminate it. Why is this so? First, since war is fundamentally a human enterprise, it is shaped by human nature and is subject to the complexities, inconsistencies, and peculiarities which characterize human behavior. Human beings, friendly as well as enemy, are unpredictable. Second, because war is a complex struggle between independent human wills, we can never expect to anticipate with certainty what events will develop. In other words, the fundamentally complex and interactive nature of war generates uncertainty. Uncertainty is not merely an existing environmental condition; it is a natural byproduct of war.

Command and control aims to reduce the amount of un- certainty that commanders must deal with—to a reasonable point—so they can make sound decisions. Though we try to reduce uncertainty by providing information, there will always be some knowledge that we lack. We will be aware of some of the gaps in our knowledge, but we will not even be aware of other unknowns. We must understand the forces that guarantee uncertainty and resolve to act despite it on the basis of what we do know.

It is important to note that certainty is a function of knowledge and understanding and not merely of data. Although they are clearly related—they are all forms of information, as we will discuss—the distinctions among them are important. Data serve as the raw material for knowledge and understanding. Knowledge and understanding result when human beings add meaning to data. Properly provided and processed, data can lead to knowledge and understanding, but the terms are not synonymous. Paradoxically, not all data lead to knowledge and understanding; some may even hamper the gaining of knowledge and understanding. The essential lesson from this distinction is that decreased uncertainty is not simply a matter of increased information flow. More important are the quality of the information and the abilities of the person using it—and the willingness and ability to make decisions in the face of uncertainty.

The second main element that affects command and control, second only to uncertainty in order of importance, is the factor of time. Theoretically, we can always reduce uncertainty by gaining more knowledge of the situation (accepting that there is some information we can never gain). The basic dilemma is that to gain and process information takes time. This creates three related problems. First, the knowledge we gain in war is perishable: as we take the time to gain new information, information already gained is becoming obsolete. Second, since war is a contest between opposing wills, time itself is a precious commodity used by both sides. While we strive to get information about a particular situation, the enemy may already be acting—and changing the situation in the process. (Of course, the enemy faces the same problem in relation to us.) And third, the rapid tempo of modern operations limits the amount of information that can be gathered, processed, and assimilated in time to be of use. Command and control thus becomes a tense race against time. So the second absolute requirement in any command and control system is to be fast—at least faster than the enemy.

The resulting tension between coping with uncertainty and racing against time presents the fundamental challenge of command and control. This is perhaps the single most important point to take from this chapter. It is also important to recognize that the enemy faces the same problems—and the object is to achieve some relative advantage. Although there is no easy answer to this problem, the successful commander must find a solution, as we will discuss.


Many of the factors that influence command and control are timeless—the nature of war and of human beings and the twin problems of uncertainty and time, for example. On the other hand, numerous factors are peculiar to a particular age or at least dependent on the characteristics of that age. As war has evolved through the ages, so has command and control. In general, as war has become increasingly complicated, so have the means of command and control. What can we conclude about the environment in which command and control must function today and in the foreseeable future?

The prevailing characteristics of the information age are variety and rapid, ongoing change. An unstable and changeable world situation can lead to countless varieties of conflict requiring peacekeeping operations on the one extreme to general war on the other. Since we cannot predict when and where the next crisis will arise or what form it will take, our command and control must function effectively in any envi- ronment.

Technological improvements in mobility, range, lethality, and information-gathering continue to compress time and space, forcing higher operating tempos and creating a greater demand for information. Military forces may move more quickly over greater distances than ever before, engaging the enemy at greater ranges than ever before. The consequence of this is fluid, rapidly changing military situations. The more quickly the situation changes, the greater the need for continuously updated information and the greater the strain on command and control. Future conflict will require military forces able to adapt quickly to a variety of unexpected circumstances.

The increasing lethality and range of weapons over time has compelled military forces to disperse in order to survive, similarly stretching the limits of command and control. Military forces are bigger and more complex than ever before, consisting of a greater number and variety of specialized organizations and weapons. As a result, modern military forces require ever greater amounts of information in order to operate and sustain themselves, even in a peacetime routine.

In the current age, technology is increasingly important to command and control. Advances in technology provide capabilities never before dreamed of. But technology is not without its dangers, namely the overreliance on equipment on the one hand and the failure to fully exploit the latest capabilities on the other. It is tempting, but a mistake, to believe that technology will solve all the problems of command and control. Many hopes of a decisive technological leap forward have been dashed by unexpected complications and side effects or by the inevitable rise of effective countermeasures. Moreover, used unwisely, technology can be part of the problem, contributing to information overload and feeding the dangerous illusion that certainty and precision in war are not only desirable, but attainable.

In this complicated age, command and control is espe- cially vulnerable and not just to the physical destruction of facilities and personnel by enemy attack. As the command and control system becomes increasingly complex, it likewise becomes increasingly vulnerable to disruption, monitoring, and penetration by the enemy as well as to the negative side effects of its own complicated functioning. Its own complexity can make command and control vulnerable to disruption by information overload, the overreliance on technology, misinformation, communications interference, lack of human understanding, lack of technical proficiency or training, mechanical breakdown, and systemic failure.


Although command and control systems have evolved continuously throughout history, the fundamental nature of command in war is timeless. Noteworthy improvements in technology, organization, and procedures have not eased the demands of command and control at all and probably never will. While these improvements have increased the span of command and control, they have barely kept pace with the increasing dispersion of forces and complexity of war itself. Whatever the age or technology, the key to effective command and control will come down to dealing with the fundamental problems of uncertainty and time. Whatever the age or technology, effective command and control will come down to people using information to decide and act wisely. And whatever the age or technology, the ultimate measure of command and control effectiveness will always be the same: Can it help us act faster and more effectively than the enemy?

Back to Table of Contents
Top of Page
Chapter 2
Chapter 3