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The Complex World of Military Planning

Last week after the mass murders in Nice, France, I called into a local talk radio show. When beginning to discuss the topic, I was asked if I “had the answer” to the attacks and threats that are coming at us at an increasing pace. My answer was “no.” Without having all the requisite intelligence information, nobody can. It is impossible. The area of operational planning is far too complex and detailed to come up with an answer in a 30 second bite. When pressed for an answer, I again refused to give what appeared to be the controversial clip the hosted wanted to hear. I am unwilling to give such a target rich statement because: 1) It is foolhardy to do so and 2) I am not that one statement “fits all” guy. Sorry, I am too smart for that. I taught operational planning for too many years, know the information too well and am too well-versed in military history to distill my thoughts into such a single statement. The host, not liking my answers actually hung up on me but that is okay. I have taught thousands of students over the years on this subject. While teaching this subject, I have also debated many a man/woman much better informed on such subjects than this radio host. People who want to actually learn something rarely run from the unknown.

Here is the reality in dealing with ISIS and any terrorist groups – foreign or domestic. There is NO ONE solution. This is why we incorporate Joint Doctrine and define exactly how we should go about executing any military operation. And let me tell you, it is NOT an easy endeavor. From Joint Intelligence of the Operational Environment to things like, strategies, objectives, courses of actions, measures of effectiveness, coercive strategies, both friendly/enemy center of gravity analysis, basing, and desired end-state requirements to name just a few, operational planning is a very difficult thing to accomplish well. Anybody who attempts to say they “know” what we should do and yet does not go through all the required steps, is someone who does not and cannot fully understand the actors involved. It is not a knock on anybody but one simply cannot “know” exactly what to do nor can it easily be summed up in a single sentence or statement. Even when very experience military planners work together, they often “get it wrong” because of many unforeseen circumstances or incomplete intelligence. A perfect example was our focus on destroying German ball- bearing plants during World War II.

Through it all, however, there is one thing I am willing to stake my name on and that is the importance of well crafted, fully formed and clear strategies and objectives. You want to debate me on this topic, bring it. In over ten years of teaching operational planning, in my opinion, there is no other area more important than the development of good, cogent objectives. Nothing. Objectives drive absolutely everything. Everything! Without good objectives, everything else is worthless. You can kill thousands of enemy combatants, torch cities and burn industry but at the end of the day if you have not defined what your purpose really is, you are wasting time, money and assets. Remember, the purpose of war is never to kill and destroy. Inevitable reality? You betcha, but it is not war’s purpose. To convince the enemy to do your will, however, is war’s purpose. This is a topic in and of itself to be discussed at another time. But last year, I wrote an article for The Weekly Standard titled, Why Our Strategies Against ISIS Are Worthless. Feel free to substitute ISIS for any group who we are now facing or have ever confronted. Until we define exactly what it is we want to do in this so-called war on terror, we cannot possibly know “how” to do it. Sounds simple, folks but . . . . Below is that article.


Unfortunately, the United States’ strategies against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) are fundamentally flawed and doomed to fail. A review of the U.S. Joint Doctrine demonstrates that we lack both clear objectives and strategies. This is recipe for failure.

First, the matter of objectives. According to Joint Doctrine, objectives are the common thread that integrate and synchronize all planning activities. Objectives provide purpose and focus for the planning and employment of military forces and as such, they are the responsibility of the president and the secretary of defense. In short, the objective is simply the “what” of what you want to accomplish.

In light of this, the objective must meet three criteria. First an objective must be clearly defined, pointing toward clear end states at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. Once developed, everyone involved must be able to look at an objective and say, “Yes, I understand what we are trying to accomplish."

During the First World War, Colonel Billy Mitchell wrote that he had a certain mediocre captain on his staff. Before any order was published, Mitchell ensured this captain read it. Mitchell knew that if this captain understood the written order, he knew anybody in his command could. An objective should leave absolutely no ambiguity to the reader.

Next, the objective must be measureable. How does one know when they have achieved their objective? This is not necessarily an easy endeavor. Do we destroy a certain percentage (rarely a good measure) of enemy forces? Do we drive an enemy out of an area? Do we stop them before they reach a certain "line in the sand?" Do we shut down an electrical grid for XX hours? A lot of thought must go into crafting a coherent measure of effectiveness. Simply stating you want to “degrade” an opponent, as our administration once said about ISIS, is in no way a clear measure. Degrade? How do you define “degrade”? For how long? In what way? To what end? Although degrading the enemy is an operational or tactical level “effect” according to Joint Doctrine, it is in no way a strategic or operational objective.

Lastly, the objective must be attainable. If there is no possibility of achieving an objective, there remain only two options for the planner or commander. The objective must either be abandoned or modified so as to be achievable. One can bomb targets all day long, but if the subsequent death and destruction cannot achieve the stated objective, those actions are useless. This is why the too often poorly crafted objective of "winning the hearts and minds" of an enemy is so tenuous. In reality, depending upon the enemy, no matter what you do, this is may never be achievable. An admiral goal perhaps, but often destined to fail.

An excellent example of a clearly stated strategic level objective was put forth by President George H.W. Bush after Iraq invaded Kuwait. After the November 1990 U.N. Security Council authorization to use “all necessary means” to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait, the primary strategic objective that guided all U.S. and coalition political and military plans and actions simply stated when the war was over, no Iraqi military personnel would remain within Kuwaiti territory. Without question, this is an excellent objective that clearly satisfied the entire metric we previously put forth.

Now, consider strategy: the method for the overall conduct for accomplishing stated objectives. For the sake of simplicity, think of strategies as “how” you are going to achieve your objectives --- the "what." Here, planners and commanders use the full range of military options like lethal, non-lethal, kinetic, non-kinetic, alliances, coercive strategies, humanitarian missions and the like. While the particulars are not important in this discussion, one must understand that strategies must work to achieve objectives and thus a strategy is never “what” you want to accomplish. Clearly defined, measurable and attainable objectives must therefore come before strategies.

This is why before politicians espouse “strategies for defeat,” they must first define unequivocally what it is they want to accomplish including their strategic end states. Until then, they are simply spinning their wheels. With regards to ISIS, until we as a nation decide what it is we want to accomplish, no strategy is going to motivate them out of their current behavior. One can rest assured that ISIS is exploiting both our indifference and unfamiliarity with operational thought.


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