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.