Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 11, 2009

Strategic corporals and mission command

Filed under: State and Local HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on August 11, 2009

Last Thursday Chris Bellavita and T.M. Moody, Assistant Sheriff for Law Enforcement Operations with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, offered a provocative post.  The comments generated the most substantive conversation HLSWatch has hosted in a very long time.

The original post is worth reading again.  But the key insight and proposition, it seems to me, is:

Urban police forces must train their patrol personnel—who comprise the most critical and vulnerable front line in a major incident—to recognize the signs of a terrorist attack, and to act immediately to deploy safely and effectively in small teams rather than as individuals.  Team leaders must fully grasp their role and mission, and must understand how their actions serve to support other elements of a self-executing all-agency plan, especially in the absence of effective communications.

This reminded some commentator’s of the Marine Corps’ concept of the strategic corporal, which reminded me of how this concept is explained in the current Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency (COIN) Field Manual, to whit:

Mission Command is the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution… Successful mission command results from subordinate leaders at all echelons exercising disciplined initiative with the commander’s intent to accomplish missions.  It requires an environment of trust and mutual understanding.  It is the Army’s and the Marine Corps’ preferred method for commanding and controlling forces during all types of operations. (COIN Manual, pages 46-47)

Pause for a moment to consider the import of that last sentence.  The Army and Marine Corps prefers the “disciplined initiative” of subordinate leaders “during all types of operations.” Last week Sheriff Moody noted, “To train large police forces to remain dependent on hierarchical command and control paradigms to the exclusion of other alternatives is to train for failure.”  Roger that.

The COIN Field Manual goes on to explain, “Young leaders — so called ‘strategic corporals’ — often make decisions at the tactical level that have strategic consequences.”  You can’t pick and choose if and when a young leader is given this power.  It is a power that emerges when tactical operations suddenly stumble into a — usually unexpected — strategic inflexion point.  Decisions or non-decisions will be made.  There will be strategic consequences, intended or not.

To take advantage of these occasions — rather than being taken advantage of — Army and Marine Corps doctrine pushes the development of tactical leaders who have a sufficient understanding of mission and purpose to make choices that advance strategy.

This is not simply done and it cannot be fully explained in a typical blog post.  But following is a key paragraph from the COIN Field Manual:

Commanders exercise initiative as leaders and fighters. Learning and adapting, with appropriate decision-making authority, are critical…  Effective senior leaders establish a climate that promotes decentralized modes of command and control — what the Army calls mission command and the Marine Corps calls mission command and control.   Under mission command commanders create the conditions for subordinates’ success.  These leaders provide general guidance and the commander’s intent and assign small-unit leaders authority commensurate with their responsibilities.  Commanders establish control measures to monitor subsordinates’ actions and keep them within the bounds established by commander’s intent without micromanaging… The operation’s purpose and commander’s intent must be clearly understood throughout the force. (pages 242-243)

Consistent with these principles, at its best the military communicates, communicates, communicates and trains, trains, trains and exercises, exercises, exercises.  Through communication, training, and exercising the military can transform a 19-year-old who was uncertain about pizza preferences into an informed, insightful, and decisive warrior or, even more remarkably, an effective peacemaker.

Compare and contrast the investment of time and money in military training, education, and exercising to what is undertaken by the civilian public safety sector.  In too many jurisdictions — and certainly within DHS —  it is like comparing apples and orange seeds (and seedless varieties are popular).

We increasingly turn to the military for solutions because we have invested so much in building their capacity.  There are military lessons-learned that can and should be adapted to civilian organizations.  But to do so will require a similar investment of time and money.

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Comment by J.

August 11, 2009 @ 11:55 am

Personally I think this is a horrible idea. I didn’t catch the guest blog previously, but do you really want a situation across America where the US cops act like they’re facing Islamic terrorists every day? Maybe you need to review how the UK has fumbled its paramilitary ops against alleged terrorists and taken down the wrong guys or used way too much excessive force.

This isn’t Mumbai. This isn’t London. The reason “we increasingly turn to the military for solutions” isn’t because they’ve got some kind of lock on the answers, we do it because we’re lazy. We think that giving a job to the military will result in success because they are self-sustained organisms that don’t bicker, don’t question, have insane amounts of personnel and resources, and don’t follow the laws that cops do. Yes, training for the possibility of paramilitary attacks within the US might be a good thing, considering all the domestic gun-nuts that we have. But let’s not pretend as if turning all the police into mini-SWAT teams is the solution.

Adama: “There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 11, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

WOW great comment by J. Agree wholeheartedly but perhaps it is premised on a Reductio ad Absurdem. If you were total all the resources, personnel, and equipment for US domestic law enforcement and compare with DOD would be an absurd comparison. Okay where does that leave US? What I worry about is the lack of effort by DOD to train up and be consistent on domestic crisis management and support for civil authorities. Either because of ego and hubris or just plain willingness to ad hoc such a sensitive tasking, over and over again DOD confuses law enforcement and humanitarian missions and that they must be clearly in a support role domestically.

Okay and now the kicker! Accepting most of the post and the above comment how does this all work in what is likely to be a highly contaminated environment? When NUNN-LUGAR Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act was passed in 1996 it was assumed that DOD was on top of both force protection and personal protective gear against WMD. Sorry Congress but that assumption proved totally incorrect. I leave to others where they think DOD stands today but just note that last month GAO put out an interesting report criticizing DOD’s lack of preparedness agains WMD. And while this administration and the last promised a WMD Czar (or Czarina) so far none has accepted the crown.

Comment by Sgt. T

August 11, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

J, I think we’re all clear on what you oppose, so I ask this question with all due respect: What do you propose the answer to be? We don’t have the option of opting out. An appropriate response to everything that is placed in front of us is the mainstay of our charter. That statements that this is not Mumbai or London are semantically true and of little relevance. The difference between a Columbine and a Mumbai are only determined after the fact. When the shooting starts first responders don’t assess the political motivations or psychological predispositions of the people pulling the trigger. We can only respond within our policy and training. Prior to Columbine accepted doctrine was for law enforcement to set a perimeter for containment and await the arrival of SWAT. The public outrage following that incident, where officers followed training and doctrine while killing took place inside, was sufficient to generate a shift of policy and training. Since then we’ve been attempting to craft appropriate responses to black swans without society offering much in the way of guidance beyond “if something happens make it stop”.

To phrase it another way with regard to the question at hand, we’re already on the field waiting for this ball to be hit towards us. The only variables are how hard the ball gets hit and how many defenders society allows us to keep on the field.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 11, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

Sgt T asks the key question! My answer is that we don’t have the answer or answers yet so have to keep working on it. But I have to admit the “active shooter” paradigmn I had not really thought of in the case of any event. There is some history in US riots and civil disorders of the public safety even fire service personnel being targeted during the event. Arnold asked for some of my background info on Breslan and Nord-est and hoping my memory of active shooters is correct. Clearly military style assult may very well get hostages killed not rescured. Witness 1972 Olympics. So this is clearly one type of event in which the most exquisite judgement and timing is necessary and how to train and develop protocols for that is definitely very very tough. But hey a march of 1000 miles starts with a single step. Hoping others are thinking or have thought of the issues raised by these posts and comments.

Comment by Quin

August 11, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

I think some are missing the point of the Strategic Corporal. This is not about using military forces or tactics to accomplish tasks within the US. This is about leadership, problem solving, decision styles and promoting a culture where the best possible decisions can be made when there is a short period of time available to do so. I think some of the comments here are evidence of the blowback that sometimes occur anytime decisionmaking styles and concepts developed within the military community make their way to civilian communities.

The first time two men teamed up to defend themselves from a predator, or another man, the seeds were laid for developing the decision processes and leadership concepts that have come down through thousands of years of warfare. But just like we wouldn’t throw out all of the commercial ideas and products developed from NASA’s space endeavours, we shouldn’t be so quick to throw out the lessons that have literally been written at great expense in blood and lives.

The military, law enforcement and Homeland Security functions have something basic in common, and its not guns. It’s that they are confronted with exceptional, sometimes deadly, events for which decisions must be made quickly and and have far reaching effects on communities and the country. The lessons learned through military practice in some cases can be traced back to the Roman legions reformed by Marius and even further. Even the modern military logistics system owes a great deal of debt to the methods and concepts developed by the French some 400 years ago or more as they began to develop depot systems. To throw all of this knowledge away simply because of its source would be a disservice to the people we are supposed to protect…. at the very least.

The crux of the issue at hand is how to make a good decision to a difficult problem as quickly as possible. The concept of the Strategic Corporal is one framework in how to accomplish that by creating a path for junior leaders to make decisions. It is not a pancea, but it is a theory that has shown its usefulness in practical application in a variety of fields.

When confronted with exceptionally important problems with short decision times, it becomes necessary to prioritize resources, responses and to make those decisions as quick as possible. The concept of the Strategic Corporal is to train those at the lowest supervisory levels, who are the closest to the problem and in the best position to size it up, to make those decisions, speeding up the decision process enormously and leading to more efficient solutions to problems. This is a concept that has broad applications including the business world (see this link to a relationship between Wharton and the Marine Corps http://leadership.wharton.upenn.edu/l_change/trips/Corps.shtml ). And I can guarantee you these concepts and decisions are executed within the military structure far, far more often for non-lethal missions and decisions than for purely tactical and strategic ones of finding, attacking and destroying the enemy. Dealing with training, personnel/HR, logistics, legal, political, and commerical/contracting issues will occupy the far more plentiful, and often mundane, time that surrounds actual combat.

Simply put, the concept of the Strategic Corporal is a product of a mellenia of learning and practical application. If it didn’t work it would eventually be discarded for something better in the darwinian discipline of war.

Responding to the original subject, the issue of training and education is certanly an expensive investment in the process. If I am not mistaken, The Basic School, the roughly 6 month course taken by all newly commissioned Marine Officers, has around 1500 hours of instruction now. That is in addition to the student’s training at either a military academy, ROTC program, or Officer Candidate School. Then add an additional school for their military occupational specialty (MOS) and possible additional courses for “new joins” at the unit they join, and you have an entire year or more of highly concentrated instruction. Just to become a basic officer, and your average Marine Corporal, probably having already served at least 2-3 years in service, if not having quite as much traditional schooling, has a greater period of time actually performing and observing these tasks in real world environments.

There is a good reason for such an expensive investment in time and education. It can be dangerous and unfair to allow junior leaders to make decisions with strategic consequences who are not adequately trained. It is that very fear that makes it hard to delegate such responsibility in the first place. Like any system it can suffer from poor leaders, inadequate or under resourced training, or poorly grounded doctrine, leaving those junior leaders vulnerable to making poor decisions. But if you have well organized, intensive training for those junior leaders, grounded in well versed doctrine and surrounded by a common culture, reinforced by like peers and good leaders, you will get exceptional results. Whether they are a Marine, firefighter, police officer, emergency manager, first responder or corporate professional.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 11, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

Quin makes my case better than I did.

I did not mean to suggest a militarization of law enforcement. I am strongly opposed to such tendencies.

SGT. T’s scenario is one of my concerns. Bellavita and Moody were clear in this regard. I should have done better setting the context and problem-set. But I am also concerned to create the opportunity for “disciplined initiative” in many other less intense — but still strategic — settings.

Precisely because I am opposed to militarization of law enforcement and other public safety functions I advocate investing considerably more in the training and development of these civilian personnel. I frankly want to remove the temptation to call on the military.

The concept of the strategic corporal, as Quin so ably outlines, is about professional effectiveness when engaging a whole continuum of challenges.

Comment by Clinton J. Andersen

August 11, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

Touching on the military point real quick, the military will generally always be well trained, well stocked, and ready to respond to practically any incident that is imaginable, of course depending on whose sitting in the presidential seat. Before I entered the nuclear scene I had no idea that we practice many times daily for nuclear war. We practiced day in and day out so while removing the temptation may sound good in theory I think when compared to other forces they won’t ever be counted out. This is the sad reality only because of the way the government is setup and how each state and municipality has to fight for every dollar where as the military is federal and still fights, mind you, but receives much more. Then again, I was only Air Force. :-)

William, you commented, “What I worry about is the lack of effort by DOD to train up and be consistent on domestic crisis management and support for civil authorities.” Maybe things have changed in the last couple of years since I’ve been out but having a relationship with the community, the city, and the state in which the military installation resides was huge. We had books of memorandums of understanding and support so we knew when an incident went down who could provide what and how could we help each other out. We even did exercises that involved working with civilians and so we could hash out any problems that might have arisen as a result.

To answer the original question “Compare and contrast the investment of time and money in military training, education, and exercising to what is undertaken by the civilian public safety sector”, I don’t think there can be any comparison, really, because the need for this type of training in the U.S. has been minimal. If our country were like any of the middle eastern countries that faces suicide bombers and other such threats on a daily basis I would bet that police officer training would be different as well as the amount of money and support allocated for such. Right now we have two threats; a giant terrorism ordeal, such as 9/11, or a smaller lone-wolf terrorism type ordeal, such as Virginia Tech, or OKC. In one instance all you are doing is response and recovery. In the other there may be time to stop the event from accumulating any more damage but that time is literally minutes.

For the most part, I think the reason the way we haven’t seen any increase in empowerment in the civilian sector is because of accountability. Sure, we could train officers to start responding to possible terroristic events more tactically but all it takes is for that one lawsuit to bring everything down again. For crying out loud, take a look at Officer Gates and Professor Crowley. Whatever happened there should have been a local incident. It was so small yet it was blown sky high. Imagine the consequences of the strategic corporal. I fear the risks to many departments would outweigh the benefits, at least for now.

Comment by J.

August 12, 2009 @ 6:55 am

Okay, good discussion. Appreciate the feedback, and let me elaborate based on your comments. Quick comment to William on the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act for Domestic Preparedness, yes, the assumption was, who better than the DOD to train people on CB defense, but to be clear, it wasn’t about force protection or terrorism response, it was a very technical focus on augmenting emergency responder knowledge about “super-hazardous” materials. DOD leadership really wasn’t thrilled about the program but Congress said “do it and here’s the money” so it was done until DoJ stepped in and took control in 1999.

To be clear, I am all for leadership training and increasing the proficiency of police so that they are better guardians of the public. Enabling them to make life-saving decisions on the scene is crucial, no question. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the original post was focused (I believe) on police forces encountering terrorists (whether foreign or domestic) and being able to take immediate action.

“Precinct and field level commanders must have intimate knowledge of the overall agency response plan, and must understand the role of their particular component in support of that plan. These ad-hoc urban tactical teams will have a clear mission: locate, target, and destroy the attackers. Centralized command and control, particularly during the first long hours of such an event, will likely have little to offer with respect to the effectiveness and survivability of the response teams.”

“Locate, target and destroy” – those are military terms. Now I’m not a member of the law enforcement community, but my understanding is that they work in an environment where there are lots of civilians and the terrorists aren’t standing out except if they are wielding the guns. I don’t see the cop on the beat as the guy/gal responsible for search and destroy in a city block – what they are supposed to do is “serve and protect” the public.

Unless every cop is being trained to go through a building and take down gun-wielding opponents a la “Magnum Force” or “Delta Force”, I just don’t see it as credible to assume they will be good counterterrorism shooters. I would rather that every metro area have a good SWAT team that is prepared and trained for those specific – and most importantly, FEW – cases where a serious terrorist group decides to attack a shopping mall.

Good ideas are one thing, implementing them is another. I don’t think that an adequate cost/benefit analysis has been conducted here to seriously put forward the case that this concept should be enabled across the nation for the few and random acts of violent extremism. The SWAT concept still stands as valid and more cost-effective.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 12, 2009 @ 8:04 am

Hoping desperately not to have the last word on this thread. An apologies to each of you by referring to your first name or post commenting acronym. This thread really is very very important. A couple of points. I was going to defend Phil because in reality given that you have to start someplace the military training materials have some really good stuff in them. Second, I helped design the CIVIL LIASON course for DOD adding a great deal of the civil emergency management materials that I thought should be included and most was. Also the course gets better and better as time goes on. What is the course? Each DOD domestic facility has an specified individual that works with the surrounding communities to make sure all understand the DOD role in supporting the civil community and its needs in a crisis and what the specific infrastructure commander can do in a crisis. I tried to get FEMA to design the flip side of this course, training civilian officials to have some understanding of DOD and the role of the Armed Services. Totally failed. Tried to get groups like NEMA and IAEM involved in issue and various EM course curricula at college and university level. Again NADA! Not sure why the civil sector is so reluctant to find out what it is paying for and how it might be useful in the DOD world writ large. Even TODAY hoping someone reading this blog and its posts and comments can carry on more successfully than me this effort.
Quin! Whoever you are I would be very interested in what you do for a living or thinking? Contact me offline at vacationlanegrp@aol.com Your comments are really an amazing integration of many complicated issues in a thoughtful presentation. Thanks so very much.
As for the nuclear world, I note in passing the establishment of a new ‘Nuclear Command” in the Air Force and will be interested to know if the full spectrum of nuclear issues from targeting to safeguards and nuclear surety are involved and delegated to that command. I would argue for a new purple suited force across all the services dealing with the complexity of use and employment and safeguards and surety. Hey then perhaps Cyber Security and other things. I can dream can’t I?
And J. hope this is of some help on the past! FEMA sent two people to the Senate staff of SAM NUNN who finally panicked over the 1996 Olympics and preparation for terrorist attacks. He and his staff failed to be reassured by any of the briefings given and in particular the two FEMA civil servants sent up to brief him. They of course had not a clue about FEMA’s role in terrorism [see a chronology that might be of some use—http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dhs/fema/chron.pdf]And again FEMA shot itself in foot. Nunn’s staff tried to do their best and so in desperation gave DOD the lead for three years. Despite its specific Presidential assigment in PD-39 and after approving drafts of that document–FEMA again refused to so what it was assigned by the President. Arguing no staff and no funding that was adequate. So DOJ and its newly created OFFICE of DOMESTIC PREPAREDNESS was created and lept into the breech. This resulted eventually in a disaster for FEMA, ODP and civil terrorist preparedness and response. Hoping this is of some assistance and recommend you read the chron above which is not perfect.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 12, 2009 @ 8:47 am

One further thought! Actually two. The URL for the Argonne Chron is correct but seems to be having difficulty with Google going directly to the doc. So contact me offline at vacationlanegrp@aol.com for a copy.
With respect to Clinton’s comment, specifically the following:

“the military will generally always be well trained, well stocked, and ready to respond”

Unfortunately that is not my experience. They are great at a show of force but often resort to ad hoc on the fly efforts even though they do have some excellent plans and protocols. Remember it took almost a full year to reach agreement on Iraqi invasion plans. Also as documented by General Honoree in his book largely focusing on Katrina the military actually had no idea what should be done or what was needed. Only his personal experience and JOINT Command arrangements that were highly unusal allowed the active forces, the NG, and the out of state NG forces to assist in a situation brought to the crisis level by both the size of the event and the civilian response. This is also documented elsewhere. Question I have for Clinton–one clear situation to be trained and ready for–employment of a WMD in the DC area–DOD ready or not? I say not ready. And by the way I would move the Pentagon operations to Ft. Riley. Dispersal is a good strategy for resilience.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 12, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

I read J’s second set of comments just before boarding a trans-continental flight. The implications remain unresolved six hours later… but in a good way.

His concerns and cautions — and those expressed by others — cannot be dismissed. There are tactical, cultural, cost-benefit, and maybe even some constitutional issues that complicate full implementation of “mission command” for law enforcement.

But, I am not dissuaded, just helpfully challenged.

Full disclosure: much of my motivation is not related to counterterrorism or even emergency management concerns per se. What motivates me is to see mission, purpose, and strategy tightly tied to decision-making regardless of the profession or the role. Too often we are ineffective — and too often we are treated (and come to see ourselves) as cogs-in-a-machine — because we are not mission-focused, mission-inspired, and mission-effective. (Which emphasizes how important it is to be wise in selecting and articulating mission.)

But this ideal does have specific counterterrorism impacts. For example, last year I was working with police, firefighters, corrections officials, intelligence personnel, and some critical infrastructure specialists on terrorism prevention. One particular group insisted they had no role in threat or vulnerabilty identification. They would be told who/what is a threat and they would be told who/what to protect.

They insisted such decisions were “above my paygrade.”

It took awhile, but they finally began to understand they were uniquely situated to perceive threats and vulnerabilities that would otherwise be missed “up the chain.” They shared a mission responsibility for threat and vulnerabilty analysis.

It was as if blind men could suddenly see. Once they understood the mission and their potential contribution they began sharing with one another (and eventually up the chain) all sorts of important insights with implications for (very) local counterterrorism, wildfire prevention, drug enforcement, border security… the list exploded.

These were mostly long-time public safety personnel (and one rookie). They left with a new enthusiasm — and some new tools and skills — for performing an important mission. I understand it has continued and grown in the year since I was with them.

At least in my mind — and for that particular jurisdiction — this was one step in a process of moving from heirarchical control to mission command.

Comment by Clinton J. Andersen

August 13, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

William, The DOD would have been preparing for WMD’s in DC long before the protection of any other asset, since DC is government. After the passing of the Defense Against WMD’s act in 1996, there have been many exercises to test readiness specifically in the DC area, MIRRORED IMAGE, CALYPSO WIND, CAPITOL REACTION and TERMINAL BREEZE. With 55 WMD Civil Support teams nation wide, WMD’s are something the nation is prepared for. Having said that, how prepared remains the question. Depending on the size, chemical, weapon, etc. success can only be estimated. The larger the problem, the deadlier the chemical, the harder it will be to respond, contain, and recover. However, if any region is prepared for it the best, DC would be it.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 17, 2009 @ 8:14 am

Clinton you could add TOPOFF Exercises I-IV! Now we have add National Level Exercise V this month. My problem is that if fully analyzed for the WMD sections of above US not prepared as substantiated by various GAO and OIG reports. But hey I am the glass is half empty type not the glass is half full. I see consistent deterioration in the ability of the US to mount a technical response in highly contaminatied areas and in additon that response does not really deal with decontamination, access and re-entry. Hoping you are right and I am wrong. See today’s federal register for interesting notice co-published by OSTP/EPA/DHS on WMD incidents/events. The chain of command outside military channels is extremely problematic.

Comment by Mike Starr

June 10, 2013 @ 6:09 am


I have been reading a lot recently about the “Mission Command” technique and studied your article and a lot of the blog comments with interest.

It seems to me that quite a few companies are now offering very expensive corporate training employing the principles of Mission Command. I would like to pose a question for debate ….

Considering the high costs involved, how effective do you think a short two day strategic leadership and management course can be in developing the necessary Mission Command skills required to run a large organisation.

What do you think could be achieved (if anything) in such a short period ?

Mike Starr

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