by MSG Christopher McDougall, US Army
Editor’s Note: This article details the Battle of Ia Drang (Vietnam, 1965) which was depicted in the 2002 movie We Were Soldiers.
The Battle of Ia Drang took place in November 1965 between elements of the United States’s (U.S.) 1st Cavalry Division and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) (Major Battle Erupts in the Ia Drang Valley, 2009). The battle proved significant, representing a fundamental shift in the U.S.’s approach to military operations in Vietnam. Before November 1965, the U.S. military categorized its operations in Vietnam as a counterinsurgency involving special forces and military advisors focused on eliminating support to the Viet Cong (Builder et al., 1999). The Battle of Ia Drang unfolded at Landing Zone X-Ray (LZ X-Ray), where Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Harold Moore’s 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment (1/7 CAV) fought heroically against a superior force consisting of two NVA regiments led by General Chu Huy Man (Builder et al., 1999). The three-day battle was the bloodiest battle during the Vietnam War and fundamentally changed how each side conducted future operations.
LTC Moore was unlikely aware of the term mission command during his tenure with 1/7 CAV. However, he masterfully employed mission command concepts leading up to and during the Battle of Ia Drang. “Mission command is the Army’s approach to command and control that empowers subordinate decision making and decentralized execution appropriate to the situation” (Department of the Army [DA], 2019a, p. 1-3). Mission command relies on an environment of mutual trust and understanding that empowers subordinates to make decisions that align with the commander’s intent to achieve mission success (DA, 2019a). Though the terms were nonexistent in Army doctrine during the Vietnam War, the incorporation of mission command principles, command and control (C2), and the C2 warfighting function (WFF) enabled LTC Moore’s forces to successfully defeat the NVA at LZ X-Ray.
Combat operations at Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam, November 1965. Major Bruce P. Crandall’s UH-1D helicopter climbs skyward after discharging a load of infantrymen on a search-and-destroy mission. Image Source.
Principles of Mission Command
Commanders must rely on subordinate leaders to make decisions in complex operating environments. The decentralization of command authority enables subordinate elements to seize the initiative when opportunities to exploit the enemy present themselves. Successful mission command relies on integrating seven principles, including competence, mutual trust, shared understanding, commander’s intent, mission orders, disciplined initiative, and risk acceptance (DA, 2019a). These principles enable subordinate leaders to maintain momentum on the battlefield when communication systems fail, and mission orders do not unfold as planned. This exact scenario unfolded during the Battle of Ia Drang. Effective use of several mission command principles enabled 1/7 CAV to win a decisive victory against the NVA. Expert employment of competence and mutual trust principles proved pivotal during the battle.
The Army defines competence as the ability to execute tasks with discipline and to standard through deliberate training, development, education, and experience (DA, 2019a). Soldiers and leaders who demonstrate competence result in an increased level of trust between them and their commanders. When commanders have confidence in the ability of their subordinate leaders to execute an assigned task or mission, they are less likely to micromanage every aspect of its accomplishment. Competence is not something that occurs naturally. Instead, repetitious training focused on task proficiency, teamwork, and confidence develops a Soldier’s competence. Commanders regularly evaluate their organizations’ proficiency formally, through structured assessments, and informally, through observation and oversight.
LTC Moore and his enlisted counterpart, Sergeant Major Basil Plumley, were responsible for developing one of the Army’s first airmobile battalions. The command team led 1/7 CAV through an intensive training program designed around helicopters while simultaneously building competence amongst the Soldiers and teams within the battalion. The NVA tested the competence of the Soldiers of 1/7 CAV at LZ-Xray. The battalion met unexpected heavy resistance and found themselves decisively engaged in three separate actions, including the defense of the LZ, movement to contact to the north of the LZ, and B Company, which was isolated and conducting a defense (Builder et al., 1999). LTC Moore’s trust in the competency of his subordinate leaders was paramount as the C2 systems became quickly overwhelmed and ineffective. Throughout their training and in combat at LZ-Xray, the Soldiers of 1/7 CAV demonstrated a remarkable level of proficiency, thwarting the NVA assault while establishing mutual trust among themselves.
Cavalrymen of the 1st Cavalry Division (airmobile) in action during the battle of Ia Drang. Source.
Mutual trust is one of the most important mission command principles. An organization’s members develop mutual trust over time as they demonstrate proficiency during training and mission execution. Mutual trust is the shared confidence between commanders and their subordinates to competently perform their assigned tasks to standard (DA, 2019a). Mutual trust includes a commander’s trust in their subordinates’ abilities and the Soldiers’ trust in their commander’s ability to make sound decisions with their interests in mind. Before arriving in Vietnam, LTC Moore earned the respect and trust of his Soldiers as he led his formation from the front and demonstrated genuine care for the training and well-being of his Soldiers. As a result, his Soldiers willingly followed his orders despite the dangers they knew existed within the jungles of Vietnam. LTC Moore relied on input from his subordinate leaders to understand the overarching operational picture unfolding around LZ-Xray. LTC Moore’s trust in his subordinate leaders enabled him to make critical decisions about the judicious use of reserves and supporting fires to defeat the NVA at LZ-Xray (Builder et al., 1999). Additionally, his ability to leverage elements of command and control was instrumental throughout the battle.
Elements of Command and Control
C2 is “the authority a military commander lawfully exercises over subordinates, including the authority to assign missions and accountability for their successful completion” (DA, 2019a, p. 1-17). C2 enables commanders to control the activities of subordinate organizations to ensure unity of effort toward accomplishing a mission or task. The four elements of command include authority, responsibility, decision-making, and leadership (DA, 2019a). Control is the processing of information to provide direction and feedback to elements within a command to achieve mission success in line with the commander’s intent. (DA, 2019a). The four key elements of control include direction, feedback, information, and communication (DA, 2019a). Command is the art of C2 as it relies heavily on one’s judgment, whereas control is the science of C2 as it is a process-driven model (DA, 2019a). LTC Moore faced significant command and control challenges during the Battle of La Drang. The situation on the ground quickly deteriorated, requiring 1/7 CAV to transition from an offensive search-and-destroy operation to a hasty defense against an overwhelming force (Builder et al., 1999). LTC Moore’s ability to rapidly make decisions based on real-time feedback from his subordinate leaders enabled 1/7 CAV to earn a decisive victory against the NVA.
Decision-making is a foundational element of command that enables subordinate commanders to make rapid decisions without seeking feedback from higher-level commanders (DA, 2019a). Decentralized decision-making empowers commanders with the most direct information to make critical decisions as an operation unfolds. The rapid nature of informed decision-making allows elements in contact to maintain initiative while simultaneously reducing the risk associated with waiting for approval from higher headquarters.
LTC Moore quickly learned that the intelligence assessments related to the NVA’s composition at Ia Drang were wrong. This knowledge required LTC Moore to make rapid decisions without the ability to communicate directly with his brigade commander. Radio traffic focused on directing fires and communication with internal and external air assets quickly overwhelmed the C2 systems (Crawford, 2022). Without the ability to communicate effectively with his higher command, LTC Moore decided to internally organize a defense focused on maintaining control of LZ X-Ray, committing his reserve, preserving his forces, and withdrawing from the valley (Builder et al., 1999). He communicated his new intent directly to his Soldiers using what little C2 system bandwidth was available and face-to-face communication.
LTC Moore, Battle of la Drang 1965. Source.
Communication is a control mechanism that involves the multidirectional dissemination of information between commanders, subordinates, and adjacent units. (DA, 2019A). Communication must be multidirectional to be effective. Commanders receive information from subordinate leaders to make informed decisions during military operations. Commanders drive operations by effectively communicating decisions based on the quality of the information they receive. Leaders within 1/7 CAV effectively communicated not only with themselves but with supporting artillery and air support elements during the Battle of Ia Drang. As the battle unfolded, LTC Moore made sound decisions based on the situational understanding gained from the reports of his subordinate leaders. Based on a clear understanding of the operational environment received from these reports, LTC Moore decided to commit his reserves and shift to the defense. These decisions enabled the battalion to defeat two regiments of NVA while preserving 1/7 CAV’s combat power (Builder et al., 1999). Additionally, LTC Moore effectively leveraged the C2 WFF to integrate fires and movement and maneuver during the three-day battle.
Command and Control Warfighting Function
The U.S. Army organizes its capabilities into six WFFs, including C2, movement and maneuver, intelligence, fires, sustainment, and protection (Department of the Army [DA], 2019b). The organization of capabilities within each WFF enables commanders to integrate and synchronize capabilities to achieve desired effects on the battlefield. The C2 warfighting function consists of the “related tasks and systems that enable commanders to synchronize and converge all elements of combat power” (DA, 2019b, p. 5-3). C2 enables commanders to effectively integrate each of the WFF’s capabilities to achieve mission success. The four tasks associated with the C2 WFF include control operations, driving the operations process, establishing C2 systems, and commanding forces (DA, 2019b). The four C2 systems include networks, command posts, processes, and people (DA, 2019b). LTC Moore’s commitment to the training of his people and his ability to seamlessly integrate the fires WFF enabled 1/7 CAV to earn a decisive victory during the Battle of Ia Drang.
People, rather than technology, determine the effectiveness of command and control systems. Under the C2 system, the term people refer to the human aspect of operations (DA, 2019a). War is fundamentally a human endeavor. Advanced technology is only useful if an organization has trained people to employ it on the battlefield effectively. As commander of the 1/7 CAV, LTC Moore understood the importance of developing the capabilities of his Soldiers. The organization executed a rigorous training plan to develop the Army’s first airmobile capability. The effectiveness of the individual people within 1/7 CAV was evident throughout the three-day Battle of Ia Drang. Sergeant Savage, for example, assumed control of his platoon after the death of the platoon’s senior leadership. Sergeant Savage organized a hasty defense for his isolated platoon, established communication systems, and directed indirect fires, saving numerous Soldier’s lives (Cash, 2001). The effectiveness of the fires WFF was critical not only to Sergeant Savage but throughout the entirety of the battle.
Battle of Ia Drang Valley LZ X-Ray. Source.
Fires Warfighting Function
The fires WFF is an essential component of modern warfare. Effective employment of fires is critical to success on the battlefield. The fires WFF includes coordinating and employing fires to achieve desired effects on the battlefield (DA, 2019b). Fires include a wide range of military capabilities, including artillery, air support, missile systems, cyberspace operations, and the targeting processes associated with each capability (DA, 2019b). LTC Moore’s assessment that coordinated fires, including air support and artillery, provided a significant tactical advantage was correct. The U.S. Army fired 33,000 artillery rounds while the U.S. Air Force introduced the world to the capabilities of the B-52 bomber during the three-day battle (Swift, n.d.). The devastating effect of fires on the NVA fundamentally changed how they conducted future operations against the Americans.
Though the terms were nonexistent in Army doctrine during the Vietnam War, the incorporation of mission command principles, C2, and the C2 WFF enabled LTC Moore’s forces to successfully defeat the NVA at LZ X-Ray. The Battle of Ia Drang significantly shifted how the NVA and U.S. Army approached future military operations in Vietnam. LTC Moore empowered his Soldiers to make necessary decisions based on his trust in their competence and proficiency. The battle was a testament to the importance of the principles of mission command, which continue to shape how the U.S. Army approaches command and control to this day.
Builder, C. H., Bankes, S. C., & Nordin, R. (1999). No time for reflection: Moore at Ia Drang. (pp. 89-102). Rand. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA369560.pdf
Cash, J. (2001). Fight at Ia Drang. U.S. Army Center of Military History. https://history.army.mil/books/Vietnam/7-ff/Ch1.htm
Crawford, J. (2022). Mission command in the IA Drang Valley. NCO Journal. https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Portals/7/nco-journal/images/2022/April/Ia-Drang-Valley/Ia-Drang-Valley.pdf
Department of the Army. (2019a). Mission command: Command and control of Army forces (ADP 6-0). https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/ARN18314-ADP_6-0-000-WEB-3.pdf
Department of the Army. (2019b). Operations (ADP 3-0). https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/ARN18010-ADP_3-0-000-WEB-2.pdf
Major battle erupts in the Ia Drang Valley. (2009). HISTORY. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/major-battle-erupts-in-the-ia-drang-valley
Swift, J. (n.d.). Battle of Ia Drang. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/battle-of-Ia-Drang
Soldiers of the U.S. Army 1/7th Cavalry disembark from a Bell UH-1D Huey at LZ X-Ray during the battle of Ia Drang. Source.
Master Sergeant Christopher M. McDougall is a native of Indianapolis, Indiana. He began his military service with the Indiana National Guard in November of 2000. In December of 2003, he transitioned to the active component where he currently serves as a military policeman. MSG McDougall has held every leadership position from team leader to first sergeant and is currently a student at the Sergeants Major Academy, Class 73. He has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan in support of the Global War on Terrorism. An avid outdoorsman, he actively enjoys hunting, fishing, and snowboarding and is looking forward to returning to Fort Carson where he will serve as the 759th Military Police Battalion’s operations sergeant major.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.