Small Wars Journal

Suicide Bombers and T-72s: Using Mission Orders to Defeat the Hybrid Threat

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Suicide Bombers and T-72s: Using Mission Orders to Defeat the Hybrid Threat

Christopher Baldwin and Jeffrey Baldwin

In the summer and fall of 2014 fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Russian sponsored Ukrainian separatists offered an unmistakable demonstration to the United States and its allies of the danger posed by hybrid threats.  The West once again confronted the deadly combination of guerrilla tactics, conventional military operations, and organized crime. Previous encounters include the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN)-Viet Cong hybrid threat to the Republic of Vietnam and US, as well as Hezbollah’s sophisticated hybrid threat tactics against Israel during the 2006 war.  Hybrid threats like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists, Hezbollah, and the PAVN/VC possess common characteristics.  They are asymmetric, choose to fight on their own terms, and specialize in audacious operations to capitalize on psychological victories.  In order to defeat this type of enemy, the US Army must employ its human capital through the robust employment of mission orders.

Over the past several years the US Army has renewed its focus on mission command and a key component of mission command is the use of mission orders. The US Army defines mission orders as “directives that emphasize to subordinates the results to be attained, not how they are to achieve them”.[i] On the subject of mission orders, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote that commanders “will be required to clearly translate their intent (and that of higher) to their subordinates and trust them to perform with responsible initiative in complex, fast-changing, chaotic circumstances.”[ii] Simply put, leaders must provide a vision of a successful mission, explain its purpose and then trust their subordinates to accomplish that mission.  The definition and concepts of mission orders must not become a new group of “buzz words” or filler on briefing slides.  Instead, the Army must operationalize mission orders at all levels during training exercises and combat operations in order to defeat a hybrid threat.

Combat at the Speed of Social Media…#weattackatdusk

The obvious question is “Why specifically are mission orders so critical against a hybrid threat?” The answer to the question lies in the sheer complexity of a hybrid enemy.  When discussing ISIL, Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the operations officer for the Joint Staff, described its capabilities by stating, “They’re very well organized.  They are very well equipped.  They coordinate their operations.  And have thus far shown the ability to attack on multiple axes.”[iii]   When analyzing the hybrid threat, Army leaders must realize that these multiple axes do not just refer to cardinal directions from which attacks come.  On the battlefield the hybrid threat will use both car bombs and conventional battalion-sized assaults.  They are as likely to communicate over radios as through Twitter.  The hybrid threat will provide social services in one village and assassinate a local leader in another.  Due to the many facets of this threat, an Army leader must, for example, understand how to conduct a conventional assault before sunrise, meet with local leaders to discuss the regional security situation over lunch, and then react to a guerilla style small arms ambush at night while constantly preparing to defend against an armored vehicle attack.  In this type of environment, there is no time for micromanagement or overly detailed orders, as the battlefield is too complex and evolves too quickly. 

When training for and conducting operations against a hybrid threat, commanders must ensure their subordinate leaders and staffs understand they will face an enemy that will evolve at the speed of a text message.  It is crucial that operations orders provide a clear task, purpose, and end-state and discuss the enemy’s most probable and most dangerous courses of action.  On the modern battlefield, a capable hybrid threat will rapidly adapt its tactics to degrade or neutralize U.S. capabilities.  An Army unit might be in the midst of the enemy’s most dangerous course of action only to see the enemy break contact and blend into the population.  In this type of fight against this type of enemy, leaders should remain flexible and focused on the endstate.  Commanders should provide their junior leaders the latitude to lead within clear limits. That is the essence of mission orders:  giving clear intent and giving leaders the ability and freedom to operate within that intent.

To paraphrase General Patton…no good decisions are made in swivel chairs (or behind a laptop)

Not surprisingly, the best method to ensure that mission orders are employed properly against a hybrid threat is realistic training.  Any unit serving as the opposing forces (OPFOR) on any exercise, at any level, should assume the role of a hybrid threat.  Currently, the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin California is incorporating the hybrid threat into many of its training exercises in the Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE). Units training at NTC (as well as at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk Louisiana and the Joint Maneuver Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany) see doctrinally based conventional, unconventional, paramilitary, and criminal threats conducting aggressive attacks across the maneuver area. Units at every echelon are forced to react to and fight a dangerous hybrid enemy that uses a wide variety of tactics, weapons, and equipment.  These scenarios provide ample opportunities for commanders to employ mission orders.  The aggressiveness and speed at which the hybrid threat operates at NTC is unforgiving of any micromanagement or “fire and forget” command styles, and successful units are the ones who best utilize their human capital via mission orders.  While there is no template or blue print to properly use mission orders against a hybrid threat, there are common trends in high-performing teams.

Successful organizations at NTC are the units whose commanders communicate a clear and concise task, purpose, intent, and end-state.  These units deploy their reconnaissance elements early.  Instead of loitering in an assembly area, these reconnaissance teams are gaining valuable information on enemy disposition, terrain, routes, and local attitudes. Successful commanders understand that agility will remain an important aspect in the battle, and to that end, their junior leaders know how to employ mortars, artillery, and close air support; they do not have to wait on an available forward observer (who may be supporting another unit) to use fires against the enemy.  Additionally, because they understand the operation’s purpose and end-state (as well as their higher headquarters intent), leaders in these units constantly cross-talk using all communications systems and do not have to immediately send every change in the enemy situation to an already over worked battle captain.  When they see an opportunity to exploit a situation, these leaders seize the initiative.  Logisticians in these organizations monitor intelligence updates and the progress of the battle in order to remain proactive when providing vital supplies to the point of need.  The distinguishing characteristic of the hybrid threat is its ability to constantly adapt its tactics, and the units that succeed against this enemy are the ones who ensure all of their leaders remain adaptive while focusing on the mission’s overall end-state.

Getting it Right

From the seizure of Mosul in less than 48 hours to the attack on a civilian jet over the farm fields of Ukraine, the hybrid threat has reemerged and shown its lethal capabilities.  Presently, hybrid threats pose dizzying combinations of maneuver warfare, improvised explosive devices, public executions, and smart phones.  To defeat this type of threat, leaders must be given the time and space to conduct operations in order to reach their higher headquarters endstate.  It is the duty of commanders to allow their junior leaders to perform and not to suffer under the strain of micromanagement. 

It is also the responsibility of leaders at every echelon to seek out and stay current on the threats the United States faces. Specific threats will inevitably change, but all signs point toward the evolution and strengthening of the hybrid threat.  The US Army’s best method to defeat the hybrid threat is by using mission orders during all training events and combat operations.  From a forty eight hour field problem at a unit’s home station to a month long exercise at the National Training Center, leaders at all levels must constantly use mission orders against a hybrid threat opposing force. Though the hybrid threat will use smart phones to coordinate mechanized assaults supported by suicide bombers, Army leaders that understand the use of mission orders and trust their subordinates will decisively defeat them on the battlefield.

End Notes

[i] United States Army (2012).  Mission Command: ADP 6-0, Washington, DC:  Dept. of the Army.

[ii] General Dempsey, Martin (2012 April 3).  Mission Command White Paper.  Retrieved from

[iii] Michaels, Jim (2014 August 22).  Islamic States goes beyond terror with its tactics.  USA Today.  Retrieved from


About the Author(s)

First Lieutenant Jeff Baldwin is a reconnaissance platoon leader in the 1st Cavalry Division.

Major Chris Baldwin is a Foreign Area Officer stationed at the US Embassy Amman Jordan.



Mon, 11/24/2014 - 3:51pm

In reply to by OldyButGoodie

Based on the Hagel firing, seems we have our answer already. Apparently nothing has changed.


Sat, 11/22/2014 - 8:20pm

I've made similar comments in other places. Although I never saw actual combat, my service time was during the Vietnam war. The fact that President Johnson and SOD McNamara chose individual targets and local infantry objectives was well documented at the time. In other words, it was the antithesis of Mission Command.

Today however, although things seem to have started badly, I get the impression that the Brass has succeeded in getting the US administration to loosen some of the restraints and micro-managing. We shall see.