Operational Planning as a State of Mind, Not a Starting Point

The new presidential administration brings with it a new corps of leaders who will have to learn how the Department of Defense (DoD) plans military operations. It also means an opportunity to improve how the United States projects power. The last 15 years created a growing awareness of modern conflict’s amorphous nature. Terms like gray zone conflict, hybrid warfare, and a host of others expose the limitations of the United States’ planning concepts. The Joint Staff’s concept for describing and planning for warfare, the Notional Operational Plan Phases, or six-phase planning construct, restricts planners and inhibits their ability to create plans well suited for reality. Instead of a constraining model of conflict, planners need a flexible, exploratory problem-solving technique that can adapt and bring the United States’ full array of national security tools to bear.

The six-phase planning construct is useful for the types of wars the United States prefers to fight. The construct is successful when the United States enjoys military dominance against its adversary, when phases I through III take place almost purely in the conventional military sphere, when the conflict begins with a well-defined problem set and end state, and when the conventional conflict occurs between two state actors. In short, it evolved from and is designed for conflicts reminiscent of the First Gulf War. In these circumstances, sequential phases help planners project force requirements and flow without the rigorous information requirements of a less structured approach.

Unfortunately, the world does not seem inclined to follow the United States’ joint military planning preferences. The history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, and several other operations shows that conflicts’ phases do not move forward inexorably from one phase to the next, or in the same pattern from conflict to conflict. Leaving stabilization until the end of major combat operations neglects important considerations until many government structures are destroyed or abandoned. This draws out stabilization efforts, prolonging conflict and the requirement to keep troops in theater. Moreover, this planning structure limits coordination with other U.S. government agencies. Conflict resolution requires all relevant government agencies to coordinate political, economic, information, and military efforts. Without mechanisms to facilitate coordination, tensions between various efforts on the ground may work at odds. Most importantly of all, history and current events show the United States needs planning tools that adapt to irregular, unconventional, hybrid, gray zone, and future warfare concepts without having either to abandon existing planning methods or create new ones.

To prepare and address future threats, DoD needs to define traits that improve flexibility instead of forcing planners to abandon their operational concept or restrict their creativity. Future operational planning should feature exploratory problem-solving techniques rather than a model of conflict, use an iterative instead of a sequential approach, be shaped for an era of persistent engagement, and adopt an interagency process.

Exploratory Problem Solving

Many conventional planning techniques assume planners fully understand problem sets before developing an operational plan. Unfortunately for even the best military planners, that is rarely the case. Many complex situations are only understood through participation, and existing models are often either so reductive they are useless or specific enough to be useful but wrong. Models can also inhibit comprehension and creative solutions by imposing views that may not suit the actual environment.

An exploratory problem-solving technique, though labor intensive, can resolve many of these issues. By reducing the use of models in lieu of exploration, this approach minimizes restrictions on creativity and the ability to understand the problem. It determines as much information as possible in advance but assumes that a well-defined problem set that will serve as the beginning of a solution design can only be created through involvement and experimentation. Critically, an exploratory problem-solving technique expects both the reality of the operational environment and the planners’ understanding of it to change.


One of the best ways to implement an exploratory problem-solving technique is to replace sequential phases with an iterative planning and intelligence cycle. The iterative cycles should function at the operational level of war and constantly change the understanding of the character of a conflict and operational goals when necessary. A shift from the six-phase model’s sequential approach to an iterative approach reduces allegiance to a predetermined roadmap, avoids commitment to a solution prior to understanding a problem, and increases the probability of adaptation to a changing operational environment.

One of the most notable recent examples of an iterative operational-level planning process in action was Russia’s actions in the Ukraine. As detailed by Michael Kofman, Russia quickly cycled through political warfare, state-sponsored insurgency, hybrid war, and limited conventional war. Adaptation to stalled progress, inefficient methods, and changing understandings of ground events drove their iterative changes rather than a predetermined, written-out plan.

Similarly, our planning should account and adjust for events as they occur and should allow for more than just military considerations to be included in the plan. An iterative process would allow planners within DoD to review plans and foster a shared consciousness with counterparts across the government. The Joint Interagency Task Force - South and the Afghanistan Threat Finance Cell were interagency initiatives that engendered trust among an empowered group of representatives. Both efforts reported marked improvements in interagency collaboration and operational successes. A venue to discuss and weigh potential plan refinement could lead to greater flexibility and collaboration.

Shaped for an Era of Persistent Engagement

After World War II, the United States became the leader of a nascent world order. Since that time, it has been in U.S. interests not only to defend the country from existential threats, but to also maintain the status quo and ensure continued U.S. primacy. Many U.S. adversaries found themselves unable to compete with U.S. conventional military power. Therefore, adversaries have resorted to asymmetric tactics in service of coercive objectives.

Consequently, the United States has engaged in numerous operations that were somewhere below the threshold of an existential threat in order to maintain that status quo. Both academic and defense institutions recognize the requirement for persistent deployments. Planning efforts should, therefore, not be constructed with a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, planning must account for the need to monitor parts of the world constantly and with preventative intentions.


With the prominent role persistent, less-than-existential conflicts play in U.S. foreign policy, the United States needs to incorporate all elements of its national power to address these challenges. Every conflict requires a tailored combination of military dominance, stabilization, economic viability, governance, and targeted messaging. This is neither a new requirement nor a new idea. Lend-lease and U.S. aid to the Soviet Union were economic components of a broader strategic plan during World War II. The Marshall Plan was, in today’s terms, an economic component of post–World War II stability operations to prevent Europe from falling under the control of communist radical extremists.

Producing a synchronized plan that incorporates all elements of national power in today’s information environment requires both a more collaborative planning culture and a more effective communications platform. The days of State Department cables are over. Information that is worthy of sharing within an individual organization is worth sharing at all levels between organizations—not just among leadership at the highest echelons. The U.S. government should adopt platforms that allow for real-time and transparent information sharing at all levels, across all organizations. Within a given country, civil servants at the embassy, military deployed at and below theater-level commands, and individuals monitoring policy and intelligence development from the continental United States should be privy to the same information in real time. If coordination is required for effective foreign policy, we must get honest about the access we provide to those who represent the United States to our allies and partners. In real terms, this means a more diverse set of people contributing to plans. But this also reveals the need for a true technological solution to support the input and collaboration between the breadth and depth of needed stakeholders.

The Once and Future Operating Environment

U.S. military planning doctrine has evolved for short-term, limited wars in a predictable, symmetric environment in which the enemy has very little say. To perform more effectively, the United States needs a new planning method that removes constrictive models of war, does not assume understanding prior to involvement, forces adaptation, and fully realizes the combined potential of all tools of U.S. foreign policy.

Kristen R. Hajduk is a nonresident fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and currently serves as a special assistant in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Justin Lynch is chief marketing officer for the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
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Chief Marketing Officer, Defense Entrepreneurs Forum

Kristen R. Hajduk