Developing Tactical Commanders

By Asad Khan

First published in the September 2001 Marine Corps Gazette

Marine Corps doctrine describes command as the authority that a commander lawfully exercises over subordinates by virtue of rank or assignment. Command includes the authority and responsibility for effectively using available resources and for planning the organizing, directing, coordinating, controlling, and employing of military forces for the accomplishment of assigned missions. Command in battle incorporates two vital skills-the ability to lead and the ability to decide. These two skills are tightly interwoven and are the central factors in creating and directing combat power to accomplish the mission and achieve the commander's desired end state.

The Marine Corps training and education process does well in developing good leaders, but how does one develop the other vital skill of command-the ability to decide, specifically tactical decisionmaking? Currently, there is no program in the Marine Corps that focuses on developing a commander's tactical decisionmaking skill at the battalion/squadron level and higher. The Marine Air-Ground Task Force Staff Training Program (MSTP) offered me the opportunity to attend the U.S. Army's Tactical Commanders Development Program (TCDP) at Fort Leavenworth, KS to observe how the Army teaches its commanders tactical decisionmaking skills and to determine whether the Marine Corps could adopt their program. This 2-week program conducted by the Army's School for Command Preparation (SCP) offers a dozen such courses every year. The SCP is the Chief of Staff of the Army's program to assist command selected officers in preparation for command. The purpose of the school is to coordinate and conduct battalion- and brigade-level precommand training for Active and Reserve Component command selected officers. This school offers the Army's Pre-Command Course (PCC), the Tactical Commanders Development Course (TCDC), and the Brigade Commanders Development Course (BCDC). All three of these courses are 1 week in duration and are linked as they build upon what is taught in the preceding course.

The Marine Corps and the Army are very similar in how they prepare commanders for the leadership aspect of command via the Commanders Course at Quantico and the PCC at Leavenworth. However, this is where the Marine Corps and the Army depart in how they train future tactical commanders. The question before us as an institution is whether the Marine Corps is training its future commanders to be effective tactical commanders or whether it is merely providing its commanders with the administrative tools necessary to be successful garrison commanders. As this article will demonstrate, the U.S. Army takes great measure in preparing its commanders in the second of the two vital skills in command-the ability to make timely and appropriate tactical decisions on the field of battle. That said, it is the position of this author that the Marine Corps can benefit from how the U.S. Army prepares its commanders for battalion and brigade command.

In addition to its existing resident schools, nonresident programs, and branch training programs, the Army offers its commanders a formal program to practice and develop tactical decisionmaking skills at the battalion and brigade level.

Typically, Army commanders attend their respective branch (military occupational specialty (MOS)-specific) PCCs. The purpose of this branch PCC is to hone the MOS-specific skills of the officers selected for command. Following the completion of the branch courses, commanders are required to attend the SCP. The first course that a commander attends at this school is the PCC. This 1-week course is very similar to the Marine Corps' 2-week Commanders Course. Then, based on the level of command assignment, commanders attend either the TCDC or the BCDC. However, commanders are encouraged to stay for both the TCDC and BCDC courses; combined, these two courses make up the TCDP.


Like the Marine Corps Commanders Program, this course provides up-to-date information, presented by senior Army leaders (Chief of Army Staff; commanding general, Training and Doctrine Command; commanding general, Combined Arms Center; Deputy Chiefs of Staff for Personnel,Intelligence, and Operations; et al.) on a wide array of issues, programs, and items of special interest to understand Army policy, programs, and command.

In addition, as a supplement to the PCC, the SCP offers the Command Team Seminar. This unique 5-day seminar is designed to assist spouses of officers selected for brigade and battalion command and spouses of selected command sergeants major in building a command team. This type of training for the command team (commanders, sergeants major, and their spouses) enhances communication, cooperation, and helps to create a positive environment for families, unit, and the community.

Although I did not attend this course, I canvassed those participants who attended the course the previous week. These attendees and their spouses enjoyed the opportunity to interact with their peers and felt that the time spent with their senior leadership in an informal seminar setting to exchange views was invaluable.


This course is designed for commanders who will potentially operate as members of a brigade combat team (maneuver brigade commanders and their traditional battalion commanders to include field artillery, combat engineers, combat service support, and combat aviation battalion commanders). The course focuses on the commander's role in visualizing, describing, and directing the actions of his unit during combat operations with primary emphasis on the close fight. TCDC enables commanders to examine the critical role they must perform during the planning process. TCDC also allows participants to have the opportunity to develop skills in tactical decisionmaking, intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB), offensive and defensive fundamentals, and combat service support. To support the tactical decisionmaking of the officers in combat service support, the course offers specialized seminars designed to address their specific considerations in sustaining combat operations.

The learning environment of TCDC furnishes a unique opportunity for commanders to assess their tactical decisionmaking competence, and then provides an opportunity to develop and apply tools and concepts to enhance their warfighting proficiency. Through several simulation-based tactical fights (two a day) against a competitive opposing force (OpFor), future commanders:

* Demonstrate and develop skills to fight and sustain a unit.

* Demonstrate tactical and technical combined arms skills by synchronizing fires, maneuver, and intelligence.

* Solve complex tactical problems through creative and critical thinking despite the fog and friction of uncertainty.

* Understand the linkage between decisions and decisionmaking tools (Military Decision-Making Process, commander's critical information requirements, wargaming, and decision support template).


This course follows the TCDC. It is unique in that most of the training is one on one through the use of coaches/mentors. Participants are given one-on-one instruction in solving complex tactical problems and anticipating available options and decisions for both friendly and enemy forces. The course is designed for brigade combat team maneuver unit commanders and focuses on all aspects of battle command. Specifically, how can commanders develop an intuitive sense in visualizing, describing, and directing the actions of their unit during combat operations? As in the TCDC, future commanders are exercised through several simulation-based tactical rights (two a day, with four fights on the last day) against a competitive OpFor. The focus is on:

* Analyzing how they provide purpose, direction, and motivation to their unit.

* Anticipating and making scenario-driven decisions related to force employment (main effort, security, and reserve), resource allocation, and resource priorities.

Reflecting the changing operational environment, several of the tactical problems during BCDC were related to military operations on urbanized terrain. The participants were taken on a tactical exercise without troops to the city of Lawrence, KS (population approximately 100,000). As part of these tactical problems, the future commanders planned stability and support operations with the city leadership-city manager, police chief, emergency management, utilities, et al. All the city participants were read into the scenario and role-- played their current positions (with allegiances to opposing tribal factions) within the scenario. This added a sense of realism and an interesting dynamic to the tactical problems. In addition, the future commanders had to prepare actual media interviews based upon the higher commander's media guidance for support and stability operations.

The TCDC and the BCDC are intense courses and are not designed for the "passive participant." There is a substantial amount of homework (reading, developing commander's intent, commander's critical information requirements, and guidance) during the course to prepare for the next day's fights. All of the courses at the school are doctrinally based. Given that doctrine in the Army and the Marine Corps is closely aligned, I did not find any significant variations between how the two Services plan and execute tactical operations. Prior to attending the course, the school provides a reading list to ensure that participants have a strong understanding of:

* The Military Decision-Making Process (similar to the Marine Corps Planning Process).

* Field Manual (FM) 3, Army Operations Manual (similar to Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1-0, Marine Corps Operations).

* FM 34-130, Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (dual-designated as Marine Corps Reference Publication (MCRP) 5-2A).

* FM 3-100.40, Tactics. (The Marine Corps has no such publication. Over the last 2 years, MSTP has used this publication extensively in its curricula and recommended to Doctrine Division that it be dual-designated as either a Marine Corps Warfighting Publication or an MCRP).

* FM 101-5-1, Operations Terms and Graphics (dual-designated as MCRP 5-12A).

The highlight of each fight was the after-action tool within the Janus simulation system. Janus provides the means to isolate individual warfghting functions and assess the degree to which commanders achieve synchronization using the standard after-action review (AAR) process. Through this AAR process, the instructors/coaches/mentors were able to show the commanders the consequences of their decisions, the ability (or inability) to synchronize and sustain combat power, and the skill in anticipating enemy decisions. Simply stated, the AARs captured the salient points that a commander needs to consider in making tactical decisions. Figure 1 captures the recurring themes of the AARs.

As warfighting becomes more complex and operations increasingly rely on centralized planning and decentralized execution, it will be critical that the Marine Corps focuses on developing the tactical decisionmaking skills of its commanders. Existing professional military education (PME) does not focus on tactical command of battalions, regiments, and Marine expeditionary units, nor does it prepare a commander for battle command. Normally, PME schools focus on Service/joint staff action and not on command because the students have not yet been selected to command. Also, during school exercises, very few students are afforded the opportunity to play the role of a commander. Essentially, future commanders at the battalion/squadron level and higher have to rely on their own experiences and personal study to prepare for the tactical decisionmaking. Unfortunately, given the limited number of billets in the Operating Forces, the current MOS experience is not sufficient to develop the tactical decisionmaking of our future commanders either. In many cases, commanders with 17 years of service have spent less than half their time in their MOS at or below the level that they will be commanding. (See Figure 2.)

The changes in our operational environment require commanders who are strong leaders possessing effective tactical decisionmaking skills. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the institution to prepare its commanders to be successful in this environment and to provide them the tools to overcome the challenges of tactical command. One way the Marine Corps can do this is to adopt a similar program to that of the Army. However, the adoption of such a program will not come without a price. It will require substantial resources in terms of infrastructure, budget, and qualified personnel with command experience. One way of minimizing the cost in infrastructure and budget may be to have our commanders attend the TCDP. This can be done at a nominal temporary additional duty (TAD) cost of around $1,500 per person. Marine commanders, especially combat arms and combat support officers, should attend the Army TCDP prior to assuming command. As an example, the Marine Corps can send 30 command selected officers a year for around $45,000. Since the school offers 12 courses a year, these officers can attend TAD (when a permanent change of assignment is involved) or as temporary instruction in conjunction with permanent change of station. This will be much cheaper then trying to establish our own program.

The Marine Corps already uses several Army schools to train our officers in basic or advanced courses such as artillery; armor; infantry; intelligence; engineer; nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons; et al. Given my discussions with Army officers who have attended these courses, they feel that each Service brings a uniqueness that both can benefit from. Furthermore, given that the future of combat will most likely be joint (maybe joint force land component commander), it would benefit both Services to understand how the other tactically prepares for and fights battles. In my discussions with the director of the SCP, I found he supports having Marines in future courses and looks forward to building a relationship to advance the tactical development of commanders-- both soldiers and Marines alike.

Over the last 5 years, I have been fortunate to have attended an intermediate-level school and a second year program, and then was assigned to MSTP as an instructor where I have taught at various Marine Corps schools (The Basic School, Advanced Logistics Officers' Course, Command and Staff College, School of Advanced Warfighting, General Officers' War-fighting Program) and commands and participated in numerous joint-level and Marine expeditionary force-level exercises. Given this background, the Army's TCDP is the most challenging and productive 2-week program that I have encountered in the last 5 years. The Marine Corps and our Marines will benefit greatly by giving our future attalion/squadron-level commanders (and higher) the opportunity to attend this course and develop their two vital skills-the ability to lead and the ability to decide-that are the central factors in creating and directing combat power to accomplish the mission and achieve the commander's desired end state.