Few know mission command better than retired Gen. Carter F. Ham. In the time between his enlistment as an infantryman in 1973 and his retirement as a geographic combatant commander in 2013, Ham experienced the Army from a variety of perspectives, including as the commander of U.S. Army Europe and as the director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As the current president and chief executive officer of the Association of the U.S. Army, Ham continues to make a difference on behalf of the men and women who serve. Here are his insights on mission command as the Army looks to the future.
Q: After having a career that spanned four decades, what does mission command mean to you?
A: When I think of mission command, it is getting the right process by which leaders make decisions to employ their forces from the strategic to tactical levels. It is freedom to act within intent and established parameters, and it’s achieving the right blend of initiative and control.
I’ve thought about this a lot as the Army sometimes has a tendency to rebrand old ideas with new names. The term “mission command” started gaining momentum over “command and control” in the late 2000s, particularly when Gen. Martin Dempsey was at Training and Doctrine Command. A lot of talk within the profession suggested this really wasn’t anything new but, rather, what the Army had always done in terms of mission-type orders and building trust.
General Carter F. Ham.
My sense was that it wasn’t quite the same. The cohort of senior Army officers at the time, myself included, grew up mostly in the Cold War era with very clearly defined boundaries, rear areas, adjacent units, and the like. When that era changed and the Army found itself in highly irregular warfare, leaders recognized command and control wasn’t adequate for the new environment.
The command piece was okay, but the control piece was overly regulated given the circumstances in which the Army was anticipated to operate. It was time for a change, and I think mission command was exactly the right focus. With varying degrees at varying levels, and certainly as circumstances change, we must enable leaders to operate with empowered, disciplined initiative and higher degrees of flexibility.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as commander of U.S. Africa Command?
A: Most Americans think of Africa as a single place; it’s not. It is huge; at the very least, Africa is 54 countries with vast geographic differences, linguistic challenges, and economic, cultural, and ethnic diversity. It’s an exceedingly complex area of operations.
When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told me he intended to recommend the president nominate me for [commanding general of] the Africa Command, I had two feelings simultaneously. First was pure exhilaration: “Holy smokes, you’re going to be a combatant commander! You get your picture hung on the entryway of the Pentagon!”
But instantaneously, the second feeling hit: “You don’t know anything about Africa.” At the time, it was not a part of the world any of us in the military thought much about.
Carter F. Ham as lieutenant colonel commanding U.S. forces in Camp Able Sentry, Macedonia, speaking to Admiral William Owens in 1995.
I was going from a very Europe-centric career — frankly a very comfortable setting for me because I had relationships with many of the senior leaders — to exceeding discomfort in Africa. It was intellectually stimulating, but I just didn’t have that foundational understanding of the area of operations as I did in Europe.
For me, this was mission command in practice at the upper operational and strategic levels. Despite the dispersed nature of U.S. forces, the requirement to work with host-nation forces, and the diversity of missions — ranging from very precise targeted activities and hostage rescue to maritime security, humanitarian assistance, and veterinary teams helping with herds of animals — there was still an expectation from the Secretary of Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the other service chiefs. They were empowering me to make decisions in this vast and complex area of responsibility.
You can’t do that with a highly structured, highly controlling style of leadership. I had to catch myself sometimes, and my senior enlisted leaders would often remind me, “General, they don’t need you to tell them how many times to turn the screwdriver; they need your intent.”
If you can describe your intent, subordinate leaders will accomplish the mission.
Q: How does mission command need to evolve to maximize readiness for the future operational environment?
A: There is recognition that the Army has to refocus after 15-plus years of irregular warfare and counter-insurgency operations. Gen. [Mark] Milley has it right; we have to get back to preparing for combat operations across all domains against a very capable, state-based adversary. It’s a much more complex environment in which to operate.
The first half of my career was highly structured and very clearly focused on a state-based adversary, the Soviet Union. It was a very dangerous, but also very predictable, period. We knew their doctrine and organizational structure; they knew ours. We knew their equipment and capabilities; they knew ours. Our war plans were incredibly detailed: we knew exactly where we were going to fight and exactly where almost every soldier was going to go in the defense of Western Europe. Control was dominant.
That is not the environment in which the Army will operate in the future. We have to develop leaders who can thrive in the ambiguity that is certain to exist in future combat. Leaders must know how to exercise mission command and make proper decisions without linkages to their higher and adjacent units, or when communications are degraded. That, I think, is the great challenge the Army faces today.
Carter F. Ham speaking to reporters during a press briefing at the Pentagon in October 2005.
Q: Can you discuss the importance of mission command for sustainment formations?
A: I’m not a logistician, but I learned the importance of sustainers early. When I was a division operations officer, I had some great mentoring from my division commander. The simple message was, “The brigades, they’re going to win the fight; you don’t need to spend time mapping things out for them. Your job is to set the conditions for those brigades to operate, and the biggest piece of that is sustainment.”
In the Cold War, sustainment was a complex operation; it’s tenfold more complex today. There are no longer safe rear areas, secure supply routes, or the ability to move “iron mountains” of supplies to the point of need at a moment’s notice.
In my era, sustainment was mostly a math problem: how do you move stuff from point A to point B? Today’s sustainment challenge is much more of an art than it is a science. How will sustainers make sure that dispersed, often separated, units have what they need to fight and win on the future battlefield?
The science is certainly still there; you still have to make sure fuel, water, chow, and ammunition are at the right place at the right time. But now, more than ever, sustainers have to be inside the heads of maneuver commanders, understanding what they want to achieve. That’s where it becomes more of an art, and I think that’s where mission command enters into the realm for sustainment leaders.
Q: How important is training?
A: I’m old enough to have been in the Army before there were combat training centers, and it’s night and day. I was an opposing force guy at the National Training Center in the mid- to late-1980s, and you could see the Army get better. Repetition matters. Complexity matters. The difficulty created in the training base matters.
We want Army leaders to be more challenged in their training than they will be in combat. That’s tough to achieve these days, particularly given multi-domain operations. How do you create that cyber, electronic warfare, or geographic complexity leaders will have to deal with? The more we invest in the rigors of our training, the better off we will be. That certainly applies to the sustainment force.
There are tremendous opportunities in the Synthetic Training Environment that allow for repetition and increased difficulty without great expense. At some point you still have to put Army units in the dirt to train, but it’s the most expensive way to do so. There’s so much you can do prior to that point so that units enter that phase at a much higher level. For all of our forces, the Synthetic Training Environment will yield a stronger Army that is able to train at levels we can’t imagine today.
General Carter F. Ham being sworn into office as the Commanding General, U.S. Army Europe by Cairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen on Aug. 28, 2008.
Q: Where does integration with our allies and coalition partners fit into mission command?
A: In our guiding documents, including the National Military Strategy and Army vision, we’ve established a recognition that the Army will always operate with allies and partners. The scale will vary from time to time, but we’re always going to do so in some form. As fast as the Army is changing, we have to be careful we don’t leave our allies and partners out of our modernization efforts.
We also have to become increasingly comfortable with the idea of U.S. maneuver forces being sustained by forces of another country and vice versa. This became almost normal for us when our force presence in Iraq and Afghanistan was very high. Now that force levels are significantly lower, junior leaders have less opportunity to interact with our allies and partners. We have to find a way to replicate those kinds of activities in the training base.
Again, I think it is more art than science. Part of the art is making sure each of the partners has responsibility for support, for sustaining, and for direction in a coalition-type operation. That doesn’t happen by accident. Through the exercise of mission command, we want to create leaders who are comfortable in multinational environments.
Q: How are we doing as an Army when it comes to soldier resilience?
A: When I came home from Iraq, I think like many soldiers, I felt incomplete. I felt I had left soldiers behind; I came home and those I had served with were still there. I came to the Pentagon, the five-sided puzzle palace, and my work just didn’t feel very fulfilling. I had this tremendous longing to go back.
As a one-star general at the time, I don’t pretend I was on patrol facing hard combat every day like a squad leader or platoon sergeant. That’s an extraordinary kind of stress I frankly didn’t see on a daily basis. I think for leaders the effect is a little different; it’s a different kind of stress. Particularly for commanders, when you lose soldiers in combat — soldiers who are wounded or killed executing orders you issued — that stays with you.
When I came home, it was my wife who said, “Hey listen, you’ve changed.” That was important. It was recognition that a normal person can’t be exposed to combat and be unchanged. A lot of soldiers go through combat and deal with it very effectively. They’re resilient, they deal with it openly and confront it, and they continue to move forward. But there’s a spectrum, and on the other end are soldiers who have post-traumatic stress or, in more severe cases, traumatic brain injury. I was one of those who needed a little bit of help; mine came from an Army chaplain.
I’ll confess I was outed publicly. It wasn’t me coming forward; it was someone else talking about it. But as a general officer, my sense was [that] many other soldiers were having the same challenges readjusting to a nondeployed environment. If coming forward publicly would encourage one other soldier to get help and to say, “I’m having a tough time,” to his or her spouse, a chaplain, a social worker, a commander, a first sergeant, to somebody — then my speaking out was worthwhile.
I think the Army is once again leading the nation in matters like this. The senior leadership — the Secretary, Chief of Staff, and Sergeant Major of the Army — are coming forward and saying, “Hey, it is strength to step forward and say I need a little bit of help.”
Carter F. Ham listens to a soldier’s comments during a visit to the headquarters of the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Reserve.
(Photo by Master Sgt. Mark Bell)
That’s what the Army needs. We need soldiers who can take a blow, whether physical or psychological, recover, and be stronger in continuing their mission.
There’s still a lot of work to be done; we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the stigma is gone. We have to keep it as a frontline Army effort and continue to say, “This can make you stronger; and when you’re stronger, our Army is stronger.” But I’m really proud of our efforts thus far.
Q: You’re one of only a few to rise from private to four-star general. What advice do you have for soldiers today?
A: First, recognize I didn’t go from private to four-star overnight; there were just a few intervening steps along the way. When I was enlisted, I rose to the exalted position of being our battalion command sergeant major’s driver. He was, to me, the model of the noncommissioned officer: mission-focused, hard on soldiers, and always fair. He made me a better soldier. And after all these years, it comes back to one question, “Why do you serve?”
We get so busy sometimes that we forget this. We talk a lot about what we do; we talk less about what we’re for. Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to young leaders, both enlisted and officers, I ask them to think about the oath they took. It is the bond that ties us together, the shared commitment each one of us made to serve the nation.
In my mind, it’s what makes the Army such a unique organization. I have lots of experience as a joint officer, and I truly value the other services. We have the best Marine Corps, the best Navy, and the best Air Force. But of all the services, I think the Army is uniquely of the people. We’re the biggest and most diverse. I think it’s worthwhile to sit back and say, “What is this Army for, and why is it that more than one million women and men have raised their right hand and said I’m willing to do this?”
Every now and then, take time to think about it. Don’t get consumed by it, but take pause and remember why you chose to serve this nation. I found when I did, it caused me to reflect as a professional soldier and “re-green” myself. For any Army leader — enlisted, officer, or civilian — it’s a worthy endeavor to remember why.
Arpi Dilanian is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4’s Logistics Initiatives Group. She holds a bachelor’s degree from American University and a master’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Matthew Howard is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4’s Logistics Initiatives Group. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgetown University.
This article was published in the January-March 2019 issue of Army Sustainment.
This article originally appeared on the United States Army. Follow @USArmy on Twitter.