The operational environment has changed in such a manner that requires commanders to be free to act, based on the higher commander’s intent, with flexible thought and application of combat power. Commanders must do this in concert with other commanders to create synergy with capabilities in all domains to seize fleeting opportunities to overmatch opponents—and it won’t come without risk.
In 2012, the U.S. Joint Staff Force Development office produced a planner’s guide entitled “Cross-Domain Synergy in Joint Operations.” The document describes cross-domain synergy and further provides techniques and procedures for joint staff planning to achieve synergistic effects during operations. The authors asserted that “cross-domain synergy is not an end in itself, but a by-product of effective joint planning.” To be sure, planning is required; however, based on the complexity and uncertainty of the operating environment, military operations require a method of ensuring synergy beyond the planning phase of an operation, when the operating environment changes and opportunity for success during the conduct of an operation requires unplanned and unforeseen actions.
To win in complex environments, we must not hinge our plan on knowing more than the enemy or knowing precisely what the enemy will do. Through flexibility of mind and agility of actions, we can respond to uncertainty and fight through friction with positive results. This requires us to decentralize decision-making and capabilities to the lowest possible level, and requires leaders with a disposition for action vice planning. We must strive to achieve “intent-based synergy”; to extend the idea that to be successful we must move beyond the plan, synchronization matrices and execution checklists to a modus operandi of spontaneous and opportunistic cooperation that arranges capabilities in time, space and purpose, without higher directives, to accomplish the mission. When conditions change, and the original plan becomes inadequate, the ability to quickly organize capabilities and optimize actions in all domains is critical to seize fleeting opportunities for mission success.
Articles and publications describe the operating environment as complex and lethal with opportunities to achieve desired effects in all domains (land, maritime, air, cyber/electromagnetic spectrum and space). “Complex” is defined in the U.S. Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World as “an environment that is not only unknown, but unknowable and constantly changing.”
This complexity is brought on by the availability of mass communications and social networks, proliferation of advanced weapons, unmanned aerial and ground systems, ubiquitous sensors, dynamic populations, combat forces and varying political systems and ideologies. The interaction of these elements and activities transforms an already cluttered environment into one of hyperactivity.
This is the operating environment in which planners and commanders must demonstrate complex reasoning and the ability to visualize a dynamic, multidomain battlespace cluttered by a bewildering array of sensors, shooters and entities of interest. In an unknown, unknowable, cluttered, hyperactive and constantly changing operating environment, achieving synergy across domains as a byproduct of mission planning is, quite frankly, impossible.
Plans, or mission orders, entail synchronization, which is the arrangement of military actions in time, space and purpose to produce maximum relative combat power at a decisive place and time. The level of synchronization required for an operating environment that is constantly changing is difficult to anticipate or plan. Ironically, as agile as we imagine ourselves to be, an imbalanced view of synchronization reduces flexibility, stifles initiative and reduces options for seizing unforeseen opportunities.
For example, subordinate commanders will most often strive to stay within the finite boundaries of the scripted and rehearsed course of action. The challenge of “sticking to the plan” is avoiding oversynchronization, which makes organizations and the operation fragile; where one change to the plan disrupts synchronization of the entire operation, or prevents units from creating or seizing opportunities to achieve the commander’s intent and mission success.
There are leaders across the services who feel synchronization will be even more important as we attempt to “scale synergy” across multiple domains and services. However, the challenge with cross-domain synchronization, especially at lower echelons, is that effectively dealing with rapid presentation of threats and seizing opportunities rewards those who are empowered to independently recognize changing conditions and take appropriate action, rather than delay action to gain positive higher confirmation or pristine refinement of the original mission. A balance of necessary synchronization and freedom of improvisation is required to respond effectively to changes in the operating environment not accounted for in the plan, or when opportunities arise and time for action is fleeting.
According to the 1986 version of Field Manual 100-5: Operations, “Synchronization need not depend on explicit coordination if all forces involved fully understand the intent of the commander, and if they have developed and rehearsed well-conceived standard responses to anticipated contingencies.”
However, the fallacy with this line of thinking is that if a complex operating environment is uncertain, unknowable and constantly changing, then how could any leader or staff possibly “well-conceive” or, for that matter, “anticipate” what may occur, and therefore plan and synchronize an appropriate response prior to executing the plan?
Make no mistake, planning is required as the effort produces a level of appreciation for the operating environment as it exists at a point in time, but as the environment changes, deviations from the original plan may be required to increase the likelihood of success—and those deviations may not be accounted for before executing the plan.
Intent-based synergy aims to achieve the cooperation of two or more organizations, agencies or agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects, guided by a clearly understood intention that aligns each toward a common objective. Achieving opportunity may be through spontaneous means, local recognition or mutual opportunity identified by more than one element, unit, organization or service. Within the Multi-Domain Operations concept, intent-based synergy is the manner in which commanders allow subordinates to orchestrate convergence of capabilities in time and space and across domains to seize fleeting opportunities or to respond to changes in the operating environment.
To allow “opportunity convergence” of capabilities requires organizations, agencies and agents that demonstrate resilience and adaptability to respond effectively to surprise, gain positions of advantage and recognize opportunities for action that achieve the commander’s intent. Critical to intent-based synergy is the latitude for all elements involved to take independent actions to cooperate, align and optimize their activities to appropriate positions of advantage that contribute to the realization of the guiding intention and achievement of the operational objective.
It also means all levels of command must accept risk, as the opportunistic convergence of capabilities will often present potential risk. In other words, intent-based synergy enables sufficient alignment of available cross-domain capabilities to achieve fundamental effects but does not guarantee an absence of collateral cost. The aim is that the opportunity seized far outweighs that cost—such as a change to the overall plan, or redirected resources from one effort to another, resulting in a seized opportunity for the campaign, with potentially less than desirable outcomes for a particular operation.
An opportunity is a decision point—a chance to decide between multiple courses of action—but it is also time-sensitive. Therefore, to exploit opportunity in war, a commander must make a good and timely decision. To truly confer decision-making ability to a subordinate headquarters, the subordinate headquarters must have the resources and authority to take effective action. When responding to threat action, opportunity or change in the operating environment, the need for flexibility in command and control is greater for the committed commander than for anyone else. The committed commander cannot depend on constant direction, or permission, from a higher headquarters, but must fight independently even when communications are degraded.
To achieve intent-based synergy, the committed commander must know the intention of the commander two or even three levels above them, understand the concept of operation of the immediate commander and know the responsibilities of the units on their flanks and in support of their operations. Furthermore, the committed commander must have access to, and the authority to employ, capabilities in multiple domains. If the committed commander understands these things, and has the requisite resources and authorities, then they can conduct the operation confidently, anticipate events, and act freely and boldly to accomplish their mission without further orders. If an unanticipated situation arises, committed commanders should understand the purpose of the operation well enough to act decisively, confident they are operating within their higher commander’s intent.
Rather than concentrating on formulas and checklists—with their inherent predictability—intent-based synergy requires all elements to see their options, create new options and shift rapidly between those options to lead or support operations as the situation changes. Whether that element is by organic design or task organization is a moot point; in a battlespace physically and virtually isolated, the components of cross-domain maneuver must readily be at hand. Only commanders who trust their subordinates, decentralize operations, push capabilities downward and are willing to accept the risk inherent with “on-the-fly” integration of effects can respond faster than the threat. If observations and desired actions must be passed up the chain of command, the plan revised, the synchronization matrix updated, and the command for action then transmitted back down the chain, the response will be slow and opportunity lost.
Achieving Intent-Based Synergy
Despite doctrinal emphasis on Mission Command, empowering subordinates and creating flexible plans, Army leaders at all echelons remain focused on strict adherence to execution checklists, survival of the plan via synchronization matrices and retaining decision-making at higher levels. Furthermore, combat training centers reinforce this rooted behavior because it is easier to critique compliance with a synchronization matrix than evaluate effective maneuver that deviates from the plan, or improvisation that produces desired results.
The result of this rooted behavior is generations of leaders and commanders who focus more on planning, retaining capabilities at higher echelons, and explicit synchronization and execution checklists with emphasis on control vice accepting risk, and equipping subordinates with necessary capabilities and allowing them the freedom to develop the situation and take action to create and seize opportunity.
To achieve intent-based synergy, we must decentralize decision-making, place substantial capabilities at low levels either organic or via flexible access, and allow subordinates to cooperate and orchestrate cross-domain effects as they deem necessary regardless of the level at which they are assigned. Additionally, commanders must trust their subordinates will understand and carry out their desires, and subordinates must trust they will be supported when exercising their initiative—even if certain costs result. All levels of command must have a shared understanding of the intent, the mission and the focus of effort, and assume the risks associated with subordinate freedom of action. Such trust and risk acceptance is molded by a shared way of thinking. Through intent-based synergy, subordinates can collectively see opportunities to integrate capabilities across domains and have the freedom to take actions required to win.
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Characteristics of the Operating Environment
Changes in the character of war require leaders at all echelons to think, access and employ capabilities in all domains to win.
- Actions will occur in all domains quickly and often simultaneously.
- Hyperactivity will challenge commanders and leaders at all echelons to manage the pace and tempo of events and military operations.
- Communication systems, while vast and advanced, will provide all actors with intelligence and deception, and can be degraded.
- Increased lethality, clutter and hyperactivity will create a fluid and ambiguous battlefield that will extend across all domains and require military forces to operate dispersed for protection in a state of continuous action and response.