From Battle to Homeland: Does Battlefield Leadership Work in Homeland Security

– Executive Summary

Mission command is a military leadership approach to enable decisive action in battle or other crises. U.S. Army doctrine states that mission command, “empowers subordinate decision-making and decentralized execution appropriate to the situation.”[1] Mission command comprises seven principles: competence, mutual trust, shared understanding, commander’s intent, mission orders, disciplined initiative, and risk acceptance.[2] In the past few decades, the concept of mission command has been borrowed and integrated into many aspects of the homeland security enterprise (HSE). Given recent events affecting national security and new threats to the homeland, the ability for civil-military interoperability has received increased attention. The use of mission command is one way to increase this interoperability. This thesis examines the modern HSE environment and assesses whether the use of mission command by agencies in the HSE has improved performance.

This thesis uses case studies to determine the effectiveness of mission command during major HSE responses. The first case study examines the military’s use of mission command during the Super Storm Sandy response. The next case study uses the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, to examine mission command during firefighting. The final case study examines law enforcement’s use of mission command during the 1 October shooting in Las Vegas. The thesis then evaluates the case studies in terms of the principles of mission command to answer these questions.


To what degree and how has mission command’s use in the HSE affected performance during an agency’s response to incidents?

Are there elements of mission command that could be incorporated more broadly in HSE, including NIMS?


1. Competence

Across the incidents, the organizations examined showed high tactical proficiency. The organizations could reliably execute unit-specific or generalized responses. The main issues with competence were derived from limited training and experience with large-scale incidents and associated processes. The agencies showed less proficiency at the operations level during large-scale incidents. Limited time and resources to train for infrequent incidents are the main contributing factors to building competence.

2. Shared Understanding

Most of the agencies in this analysis had prior relationships with the other responding agencies allowing them to communicate effectively and build shared understanding. The agencies built these relationships through training, exercises, and prior incidents. The case studies also affirmed the usefulness of liaison officers (LNO) in creating shared understanding. Currently, communications, tracking, and artificial intelligence (AI) have not replaced LNOs to facilitate understanding among response elements. A major improvement area is developing an accurate, common operating picture. In addition, many incidents develop faster than humans can understand the situation. Thus, shared understanding is the area ripest for a technological solution supported by AI.

3. Commander’s Intent

All the incidents studied displayed the value of having a good commander’s intent and its usefulness in driving response actions. The HSE members’ use of the commander’s intent is a best practice that the HSE should expand beyond first responders. However, the cases showed that commander’s intent alone is insufficient for effective mission command. Commander’s intent still needs the support of the other mission command principles.

4. Mission Order

Using mission orders allowed the agencies to delegate tasks quickly and to adjust objectives as the situation dictated rapidly. Communicating quickly during a rapidly evolving incident is critical for success. Mission orders are a critical element that the HSE needs to effectively direct operations in a chaotic environment and a skill necessary for all members of the HSE.

5. Mutual Trust

Most of the agencies observed regularly interacted with each other and built trusting relationships. Inter-agency training and exercises were vital to developing mutual trust between the agencies. Training and exercise are particularly important for agencies that do not frequently interact outside large-scale events. HSE leaders must ensure trust enhances shared understanding and creates a common operating picture. Too much trust can result in information flowing only in one direction leading to an incorrect shared understanding. Mutual trust is also necessary to conduct meaningful after-action reports that allow for improvement.

6. Disciplined Initiative

In the cases examined, the responders effectively used the commander’s intent to guide disciplined initiative towards a common objective. Disciplined initiative combined with the other mission command principles drives actions toward achieving the desired outcome. One perennial negative is that initiative and desire to be part of the action and support comrades can often lead responders to self-dispatch. A better understanding of mission command and its principles could help agencies better inform their members about how to respond in a disciplined way and give a reason not to self-dispatch, thus reducing the desire to go rogue.

7. Risk Acceptance

The agencies studied all adopted a forward-leaning strategy that required the assumption of operational and tactical level risks. The cases show that a forward-leaning mindset is critical to successfully getting ahead of an incident. Risk acceptance is balancing conflicting priorities and accepting risk in one area to advance the overall objective. It requires constant assessment and reassessment by the leadership.


HSE has improved as mission command ideas have become more prevalent in the HSE. The correlation suggests a link between improved response and mission command application.

1. Mission Command in the Decision-Making Cycle

A common way to frame the decision-making cycle is to use John Boyd’s Cycle of Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) Loop.[3] Figure 1 Mission Command Relationships and the OODA loop was created to further understand mission command based on the observations noted in the case studies. Mission command principles shape the context in which a subordinate makes decisions. Framing the principles in mission command in the OODA Loop helps illuminate where and how the principles support effective decision-making. Shared understanding is a crucial component of Observe and gives all the operators a common starting point.

Figure 1. Mission Command Relationships and the OODA Loop

The part of mission command that the commander has the most influence on is the orient phase. With the principles of competence, mutual trust, mission orders, and commander’s intent, the commander directs the subordinates’ initiatives and actions toward the desired end state. This allows the commander to drive decisions even without direct consultation.  

Finally, risk acceptance and disciplined initiative principles allow subordinates to take decisive action and act effectively. The OODA Loop is iterative and cycled through many times until mission completion.[4] Mission command allows the commander to effectively guide subordinates through the OODA Loop towards organizational objectives.

2. Assessment

Due to the numerous changes to the HSE over the past twenty years, it is impossible to pin improvements on one factor. However, the analysis of the case studies suggests a positive correlation between mission command principles and effective responses. They suggest that the effective application of mission command likely contributed to the successful response in these cases and the improvement in the HSE over the last few decades.

3. Key Findings

This thesis has five significant findings from its analysis of mission command in the HSE:

  • Mission command is present in many areas of the HSE to varying degrees in different agencies
  • Mission command is not formally the HSE doctrine
  • Mission command in HSE is heavily influenced by military doctrine
  • Application of mission command principles can be linked to the success of the response to Super Storm Sandy, the Camp Fire, and the 1 October shooting
  • Mission command is positively correlated with improvement in the HSE

4. Recommendations

The HSE should incorporate mission command formally into the HSE to better propagate the framework and allow for improved performance for three main reasons. First, the Incident Command System (ICS) system was insufficient to respond effectively to complex incidents. Second, there is a positive correlation between mission command and successful responses. Third, mission command is already present in many organizations that are part of the HSE. This thesis recommends that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) adjust National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the ICS to incorporate mission command as a doctrinal element with only necessary adjustments fitting the HSE. This will further develop homeland security as a professional field of knowledge and improve the response of agencies and organizations in the HSE.

[1] Department of the Army, Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces, ADP 6–0 (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2019), 1–3.

[2] Department of the Army, 1–7.

[3] Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (Delft, Netherlands: Eburon Academic Publishers, 2005), 2.

[4] Osinga, 3.

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