The Misunderstanding of Actions On

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Actions on are designed to equip the recipients of orders to quickly react to a series of situations that may be encountered on the mission that follows. Actions on are good way to maintain or seize the initiative, coordinate subordinates and ensure command and control remains intact when deviations from the plan occur. It is a tool that has developed over time to plan for a series of situations within a mission. They describe what to do, how to do it and how to communicate up and down the chain of command.

Often, you will find orders list the same types of actions on regardless of the plan:

Actions on contact; 
Actions on mortar attack; 
Actions on ambush; 
Actions on separated; 
Actions on lost; 
Actions on lost comms; and
Actions on recon team contacted.

The list goes on.

There are a litany of actions on that are often generic and lack appropriate analysis. Anecdotally, nearly all junior commanders are guilty at one point or another of inserting a templated set of actions on at the last minute once the ‘actually important’ part of orders have been written. These generic templates can’t claim to be informed by unit SOPs and an explanation or example of actions on are not found in Australian Army doctrine.

However, we propose that developing your own actions on isn’t difficult and only requires three things: analysis, clarity and rehearsals.


During the conduct of the Military Appreciation Process (MAP), plans will continue to develop and change, as such, actions on should also change.

Consider each phase of an operation. What is happening, where are soldiers on the ground, what risks is an individual presented with versus the whole force element? Actions on may vary when considering these factors and wargaming your plan.

The easiest way to ensure this is to place actions on within the Course of Action – Development phase of the Individual Military Appreciation Process (IMAP). This also supports your FASSD (feasible, achievable, suitable, sustainable, distinguishable) assessment within Course of Action – Analysis. Make actions on part of the planning process, not an afterthought whilst writing orders.

Simply providing a generic “actions on contact” that hasn’t paid attention to the specifics of the enemy threat picture may not be robust enough to lead your soldiers to safety or victory.

Actions on should provide guidance if everything doesn’t go to plan, remain within the realm of possibility and be backed by analysis. You can also use them as one way to treat risks at your command level. 


The quickest way to confuse subordinates is by not speaking plainly. Long and complex explanations for actions on will be quickly forgotten, misinterpreted and ultimately will not meet the commander’s intent. 

As a rule, actions on should contain “who, what, when, where and the effect”.

When working in a larger force element, actions on may be written broadly, and mission command may be exercised against risk, competence and assets. In smaller teams, actions on may be directed to each section as part of their roles and responsibilities. 

Simple and clear instruction is required.


Time dedicated to rehearsals pays dividends when a mission does not proceed as planned. They inform and visually express the commander’s intent for the positioning of soldiers, the priority of effort and can reveal flaws within a plan.

A mud model or the Battle Management System (BMS) can be used as a visual representation to step through how actions on are executed on the ground; they can show the commander’s analysis, clarify points and aid rehearsals.

Rehearsals are not a training opportunity, but rather seek to alleviate confusion within an operational environment and underpin team cohesion and strengthen a team’s mutual understanding.

They allow the commander to focus on critical aspects of the plan and mitigate the more complex aspects, particularly those relating to control measures and communications.

Conduct of the Mission

The development of actions on doesn’t cease once the force element (FE) steps-off to conduct the mission.

Often, commanders spend a significant amount of time planning; conducting analysis, war gaming and refining. However, once the FE steps-off the analysis continues. Actions on can be refined on the move or at short halts when the threat and terrain assessment change, are better understood, or can be better visualised.

Planning and analysis are never complete. They begin with your higher commander’s orders, flow through to your own planning, conduct of the mission and assessment of mission success, which in turn then informs the next set of orders from your higher commander.

About the Authors: Lieutenant Emma Watson is the Adjutant of 11th Engineer Regiment. Follow her on Twitter. Captain Thomas Bourke is S35 at the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment.

Cover Image Credit: POIS Tom Gibson, Defence Image Gallery.