Biology and Mission Command


3.5 Billion Years of Support and Implementation of “Mission Command”

Dr. Rafe Sagarin                                                     


General Martin Dempsey’s “Mission Command” White Paper of 3 April 2012, meant to inform the development of Joint Force 2020, lays out the framework for an adaptable force that can operate in the dynamic security environment of the future.  As a biologist, I am struck by how many of the concepts have parallels in biological evolution, especially in the process of adaptation, which has allowed all organisms to live, and thrive, on a risk filled planet for 3.5 billion years.

What I offer here are time-tested biological concepts that lend support to the mission command concept.  The concepts I present are not one-off oddities of nature, but general attributes of biological systems that are remarkably consistent across the millions of species on Earth.  Further, these attributes suggest practical pathways by which to implement the goals of mission command.

Adaptation is the Key

At the end of the day, mission command is fundamentally about forming a system that is adaptable.  Because we are human, we have the unique luxury of creating a system that adopts the best attributes of natural adaptive systems without taking on the high burden of failure (lots of death and non-viable mutations) that goes along with biological evolution. In designing such a system it pays to recognize that biology has worked without extensive planning, predictions of the far future, or efforts to make responses perfect or optimal. Extensive advanced planning or prediction is simply a waste of energy in a complex and unpredictable world, and perfection is not only impossible to define, but completely unnecessary when the need is simply to reproduce success. Instead, adaptable biological systems do four key things that allow them to operate in a risk-filled and unpredictable world: 1) they have decentralized systems for sensing change quickly; 2) they have redundant systems to respond to the sensed change; 3) they have the ability to extend their responsiveness beyond their inherent capabilities by engaging in symbiotic partnerships; and 4) they have a method (replication, cell division, reproduction, etc.) to iterate successful solutions. 

The Biological Roots of Mission Command

These properties of adaptable systems emerge from specific practices that align well with the three “key attributes” of mission command identified by General Dempsey: understanding, intent, and trust.

Understanding is fostered in biology through intensive and decentralized observation.  The most successful organisms have decentralized ways to sense and respond to change in the world.  An octopus, for example, can change color instantly because millions of skin cells spread across its body change in response to what they each sense in their little part of the octopus’ theatre of operations. Our adaptive immune system is an exemplar of this kind of observation as it utilizes millions of decentralized cells to identify, and respond to, invading pathogens with virtually no communication “up the chain of command” to our central brain.  The immune system would be both worthless and unworkable without the larger body it belongs to and brain it works for (which provide those cells a home and nutrients), but it completes the mission of keeping our body safe largely in a decentralized manner.

Intent is the hallmark of biological systems and one of the reasons they are an excellent model for human systems.  As the early 20th century marine biologist Ed Ricketts wrote, “A study of animal communities has this advantage. They are what they are, for anyone to see who can and will look clearly. They cannot complicate the picture with worded idealisms, saying one thing and being another.”  Humans can hide and confuse intent under the guise of these “worded idealisms,” so it is essential to identify the core need underlying the intent.  In doing so, it is important to understand that intent isn’t an independent force in biology—it is intimately linked to how the organism operates in relation to other organisms and its environment.  Consider that from a fish’s point of view, a shark’s intent is much different when it is swimming around an aquarium (where it is well fed and it only needs to swim to oxygenate itself) vs. when it is swimming in the wild (where it is simultaneously looking for oxygen and a meal). Building the skills of observational understanding among ranks below and above the command is essential in ensuring that intent is well received. 

I would further press that a mission command force must use these observational skills to better understand the true intent (as opposed to the stated intent, which may not be the same thing) of its adversaries.  A fish doesn’t try to turn a shark into a vegetarian—it accepts the risk of predation in the world—but it does use its observational experience to try to escape from the shark, trick the shark, or even form a partnership with a shark.  One of the most effective measures for reducing the IED threat in Iraq wasn’t better armor or jamming technologies, but forming symbiotic partnerships with local populations that generated greater numbers of tips about IEDs and IED makers. Understanding the intent of these populations—rather than assuming they could only be classified as an “enemy”--was essential in forming these partnerships.

Trust is fortunately deeply seeded in biology.  Essentially all organisms since the beginning of biological time needed systems for understanding what was like themselves and what was not like themselves.  All organisms have this “self/non-self” recognition system that lets them know who to trust.  For humans, this is codified in culture or “tribal identity”.  We often consider tribal identity as dangerous and conflict-generating, citing examples of militant religious identities and domestic terrorists.  We also consider tribal identity as enshrining stasis and adherence to outdated norms.  These are both biased readings of human evolutionary history, where tribal identity has overwhelmingly been a source of advancement and adaptability. The trust enshrined in tribal identity is what kept a naked and largely defenseless ape secure for most of our time on Earth and it continues to have a critical value today. The trust we place in members of our tribe give us the freedom to innovate and to take the risks to try new ways of living.  

Adaptable Mission Command Requires a Balance

A key aspect of mission command is balance—as General Dempsey states, “understanding...must flow from both bottom-up and top-down”.  Biological organisms are neither completely decentralized nor centralized in their approach to problem solving.  Decentralized observers and responders are essential to get a localized and high tempo reading of the challenge at hand.  Centralized command, in parallel, carries key functions which include having a globalized and contextual sense of the local challenge, providing resources to support those charged with meeting the challenge, and providing a means for reproducing successful solutions.  Through natural selection, organisms like the octopus have arrived organically at this balance. Bringing this balance to present day human command structures—which are overwhelmingly centralized--will likely require leadership to relinquish some control.  General Dempsey provided some specific illustrations on how this might be accomplished in the training environment—by incorporating uncertainty, imperfect information, and the need to delegate. 

These same characteristics can be generated in all operations of a future force through the process of challenge-based problem solving.  Challenges, as opposed to “orders”, put the onus of finding the best solution on decentralized agents.  A challenge that is well-tuned to the operational environment (understanding) and well-articulated (intent) will almost always yield faster, cheaper, and more effective results than a centralized mandate.  Of course, relinquishing controlled planning to the unknown and unpredictable outcomes of a challenge requires commanders to utilize the last attribute of mission command—trust.  Trust in the subordinate challenge solvers and trust in the system of challenge-based problem solving.  The former can only be generated through relationship-building. As for the latter, there are now dozens of case studies from many complex environments of successful challenge-based problem solving—from DARPA’s “Grand Challenges” to biological challenges to identify novel protein conformations (issued in the form of a multi-player online video game)—which reveal empirically the power of trusting decentralized problem solvers enough to get the job done. 

As General Dempsey stated, the basic principles of mission command are not new concepts.  Indeed, they are billions of years old.  The challenge is to implement them throughout the Joint Force.  Lessons from the massive case study database of nature can inform this implementation at every level.

About the Author

Dr. Rafe Sagarin is an ecologist at the University of Arizona who specializes in helping security, military, emergency response, business, and non-profit organizations utilize concepts of biological adaptation in their problem solving.  Further elucidation of these concepts is available through seminars and workshops, on the website, and in Dr. Sagarin’s book, Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease (Basic Books).