Chasing the Dragon

by Capt Timothy H Courchaine & 1stLt L. Glinzak

As Henry V surveyed the battlefield at Agincourt, he saw a sight he surely did not want to. Arrayed in front of him was the flower of the French King’s army, armor-clad knights and men at arms, thousands of whom had marched across Normandy and France and successfully cornered him here on a muddy, narrow field. He knew that his men were exhausted from campaigning, half starved, and most had unpleasant cases of dysentery, making their assembly area aromatic. He also knew, to a certain degree, the weapons capabilities of each side and the terrain he was fighting on. He could see across the field to the opposing commander’s standard and watch his enemy’s messengers move Irom battle to battle,1 relaying orders and observations. This picture paints an image of a commander who in reality had far more information, or at least felt that he had far more information, than what most commanders would feel today.2

Information saturation and the quest for information by commanders and the Marine Corps at large is a by-product of the proliferation of information-producing sources available to commanders in the field today. While these sources can be a critical asset, their overuse leads to two distinct drawbacks. First, the sheer volume of information one must process and the source management associated with its collection shifts the focus of the planning phase almost exclusively to an analytical approach. While thorough, it degrades a commander’s ability to make snap decisions when there are several hundred things that need to be considered. Secondly, by seeking to possess all of the potential information up front, a commander is centralizing decision making, a concept which flies in the face of the Marine Corps’ doctrine of decentralization. The quest of a commander in seeking information therefore should not be in collecting as much as possible but rather revolve around the question of what few, critical pieces of information their assumptions rely on. Similar to the priorities of reconnaissance, this question focuses data collection while narrowing the input necessary for a decision.

Just as warfare eventually caught up with the Industrial Revolution during World War I, the modern battlefield is increasingly influenced and dominated by the current Information Revolution. Computers and networks are now a necessary and common tool. ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assets can be found on a wide range of platforms and the information they can now provide is staggering. Communications have increased in range and reliability, allowing a commander potentially hundreds of miles away to receive information reports in realtime.

The information these assets provide can be absolutely critical to making the right decision and plan. When unfocused, however, they provide a sensory overload. Sifting through these sources can become the job, and while intelligence shops producing significant analysis are powerful tools, they are one rarely available to the lower-level commanders trying to make a decision with this exhaustive inflow of information.

This overload is not merely a passive one. Military planners recognize that these assets are available and want to make use of them. With increasing spotlights on the strategic implications of small unit decisions and a zero defect culture, it is a way of insuring a commanders decisions are not seen as negligent, and that commanders did their due diligence if something goes wrong. The drive for that clear picture of the battlefield is a commander’s safety blanket. When he knows exactly what he is up against, he knows what he will receive. This feeling of intellectual comfort in decision making leads to an overreliance on an analytical decisionmaking processes. With this increased reliance, commanders are less and less likely to be comfortable with the snap judgment necessary for quick and intuitive decisions that must be made during information deficits.

Maneuver warfare is the bedrock of Marine Corps tactics. Out-cycling the enemy, moving faster, adapting, anticipating the enemy’s next move, achieving a decision, and then exploiting success have all led to the triumph of maneuver warfare. Maneuver warfare has been embraced doctrinally and contributed to the success of countless engagements. In order for maneuver warfare to continue to be successful, however, we must stay rooted in its tactical fundamentals and, even more importantly, not let today’s thirst for information interfere with our ability to quickly achieve a decision and adapt to an ever-changing battlefield and thinking enemy.

One of the tactical fundamentals in the Marine Corps is achieving a decision.5 Decisions must be made quicker than our enemy-a 70 percent solution now is better than a 100 percent solution that comes too late. Unfortunately, when Marines wait for technology to answer ever}7 question, our desire for more information before we make a decision hinders our ability to achieve a decision before the enemy. Technology is a powerful asset that can be used to achieve a decision, but it should not be the driving force.

Part of achieving the decision to act before the enemy relies on a commander’s military judgement, which is hampered the longer they wait for information. Military judgment requires a leader to conduct a thorough METT-T (mission, enemy, terrain and weather, troops and support available-time) analysis, including looking at things from the enemy’s perspective in order to figure out the enemy’s most likely course of action.4 This allows a leader to analyze the situation and develop ideas. Such thorough analysis does not come only from technologically-provided information. Instead, it often comes from experience and the ability to use intuitive decision making.5 Instead of being over reliant on technology to paint a “perfect picture” of the enemy situation and the operating area, leaders should rely on their experience and intuitive decision-making skills to conduct a thorough analysis of that ever changing enemy and operating area. Leaders must be encouraged to use their skill sets to achieve a quick decision that may not be perfect but is more than capable of accomplishing the mission rather than a perfect solution that may come too late.

In addition to slowing down the decision-making process, the quest for information can harm our ability to adapt. MCDP 1-3 discusses how adapting means having flexible plans that avoid unnecessary detail, can be easily changed, and are simple.6 During the quest for information, leaders must ensure it does not over-complicate our plans and provide mundane details that, in the end, inhibit our ability to quickly change and adapt to a thinking, ever-changing enemy. Information can be an asset in developing critical aspects of plans, but it will never deliver a “perfect plan.” Such a plan will slow Marines down and prevent them from adapting. Instead, leaders should use the information gained to aid their METT-T analysis so that they can act as critical thinkers, ones who anticipate the enemy’s next move and are willing to improvise when a curve ball is thrown.

What commanders must realize is that as the battlespace continues to increase, so too will the information deficit inherent in command. The op posing will of the enemy is now spread across a wide front and is no longer visible in one look across the field. In order to combat this, the focus of information gathering must be laser like and identify only the decisive points of the decision-making process. In recreating the picture the ancient commander saw atop his horse, he saw a myriad of data points: the color or each banner, their jovial demeanor, and the flowers in the field. For a modern commander, however, which one is important? It will take too long and be too laborious to completely recreate the scene. At least two separate information sources could be required in such a scenario: image surveillance to show the banners and the flowers and human intelligence sources to reveal their demeanor. The prioritization of information is what will give the modern commander the equivalent decision-making power.

The Marine Corps preaches a doctrine of decentralization, one which should allow commanders to operate in this informational deficit because each or their subordinate leaders will have a closer view of the conditions in front of him. Essentially, they will have the view he is attempting to develop with all of the various information assets he is employing. “Mission tactics” is more than a task and a purpose statement given in case a situation does not develop according to plan-it is also a tool to make coherent and informed decisions effecting pivotal swings in battle when the commander is nowhere near, is unavailable, and quite possibly innocently uninformed as to the fact that his unit is even in contact.

As commanders seek information, the first place they often go is to their subordinates. This will either be with a task to go find information or a request to relay information back up to the commander. Tasked with gathering information, the subordinate leader is now diverted from making decisions in an area he is already adequately informed about for his own purposes to gathering, processing, and then relaying up to higher information that may or may not be critical. The over reliance on this dynamic creates a middleman in information development that results in both inefficiency and centralization in a removed leader.

Decentralization encourages bold, decisive leaders. Military judgment must be developed in our leaders so that they can quickly adapt and achieve a decision faster than the enemy. Technology is an asset that can aid in our success and decision making. It should not be relied on, however, to bring us to a “perfect plan” or to paint the “perfect picture.” Leaders must have confidence in their analytical and intuitive skills and be critical-thinking leaders. Such an environment should be rostered and encouraged within subordinates. Technology and information is a tremendous asset, but it is not as crucial as a critically-thinking leader who is able to take the information he is given-even if it is not all of the desired information-and use analytical skills to anticipate the enemy’s most likely course of action. This allows Marines to keep a quick tempo, one that is faster than the enemy and, in the end, is a foundation of maneuver warfare.


1. Battle is a medieval formation commonly used throughout the Hundreds Year War.

2. John Keegan, The Face of Battle, (New York: Penguin, 1983).

3. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1-3, Tactics, (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps, 1997), 11.

4. Ibid., 25-26.

5. Ibid., 26.

6. Ibid., 85-86.