Defense Secretary Robert Gates sees an active role in developing and reviewing plans as one of his core responsibilities. Similarly, his successor will have to immerse himself in the DOD planning process. There are barriers to the Secretary’s involvement but also benefits beyond simply the production of plans. Today’s iterative plan development and review process, functioning under the Adaptive Planning rubric, is a significant improvement over pre–Goldwater-Nichols practices as well as those of the 1990s and early 2000s. It would be easier for combatant command planners if the Secretary did not take a hands-on approach, but it would come at a cost to national security. The process found under Adaptive Planning cannot succeed without the Secretary’s involvement now and going forward.
On January 31, 2007, just a few weeks after the surprise announcement that Robert Gates would replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, Secretary Gates was briefed on military plans and the key role envisioned for him in the development of those plans. This was not a detailed briefing of the 50-plus contingency plans then in existence. It was an overview of the planning process itself and an introduction to the 15 or so top priority plans that the Secretary would review in greater detail in the months ahead. At the meeting, Secretary Gates confirmed his commitment to play an active role in the process for developing and reviewing plans. This would be a priority for him. As he saw it, involvement in the planning process was one of his core responsibilities as Secretary—indeed, it is one of the few responsibilities of the Secretary enumerated in Title 10 of the U.S. Code.
Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III meets with USSOUTHCOM commander and Joint Directors at USSOUTHCOM headquarters
DOD (Cherie Cullen)
In late 2008, after nearly 2 years in his position, Secretary Gates declined a suggestion that he delegate authority to approve some of the lesser priority plans by noting, "Looking at the list, I think it would be a dereliction of my responsibilities to not approve the subject contingency plans." At the initial plans briefing in early 2007, Secretary Gates also agreed to his briefers' recommendation to consolidate disparate planning guidance documents, so as to bring greater coherence and consistency between planning for wartime contingencies and planning for Department of Defense (DOD) day-to-day activities around the world. In agreeing to these things, Secretary Gates was furthering an initiative called Adaptive Planning begun by his predecessor. He was also strengthening civilian control of the military.
Whoever replaces Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense must be prepared to immerse himself in the DOD planning process. This article first considers some barriers to the Secretary's involvement in planning and then looks at the benefits of planning beyond just the production of plans. It next describes how the Adaptive Planning process improves civilian control of the military—bringing military planning into tighter alignment with administration policies and priorities. After explaining the current plan development and review process, the article highlights the vital role that the Secretary plays in the planning process.
Barriers to Involvement
The Secretary of Defense after Dr. Gates will confront a multitude of challenges that will compete for his attention and make it difficult to focus his time and energy on the department's planning processes. Not least among his concerns will be the ongoing operations in Afghanistan, the wider war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, and coping with America's worldwide commitments in an era of declining defense budgets. Other challenges will include unpredictable natural disasters, such as the earthquakes and tsunamis that have devastated Indonesia, Haiti, and Japan in recent years, and manmade crises, such as the political revolutions that have roiled the Middle East in 2011. If recent history is a reliable guide, the next Secretary will also be forced to contend with stories questioning the loyalty of top military leaders and with media storms over the state of civil-military relations in America. Indeed, the breadth and depth of responsibilities that go with running the world's largest and most powerful bureaucracy are so vast that the job has been described as "nearly impossible."1 As one former Secretary explained, "The list of secretarial responsibilities is so imposing that no single individual can totally fulfill them all."2 Gates's successor will have to choose carefully the areas that he will want to focus his attention on, and then work to stay focused on them.
USNORTHCOM and Joint Task Force North commanders discuss updates to Defense Support to Civilian Law Enforcement Agency operations
DOD (Armando Carrasco)
Regardless of the background, talents, and expertise with which the next Defense Secretary enters office, certain aspects of military planning will seem unnatural and arcane. It will seem unnatural because military planning includes planning not only for operations one intends to conduct, but also for those things one hopes never to do. Even long-serving foreign policy professionals sometimes fail to grasp this aspect of military planning and assume that the existence of a plan indicates an intent or desire to execute that plan. Such thinking is not unreasonable. Human success, even survival, depends on efficiency—that is, on not wasting time and energy on unnecessary things. No mentally sound person would hire an architect to design a high-rise office building, obtain building permits, retain lawyers to draw up contracts, and advertise for tenants if that person had no intent to build. Yet the U.S. military routinely devotes enormous amounts of time and energy to detailed planning for contingencies that are unlikely, and that the U.S. Government also energetically strives to prevent.3
Military planning will seem arcane to the new Secretary because it is arcane. Even within the military, the detailed workings of military planners remain relatively obscure—part science and procedure, and part art. It is the product of specialized training, education, and experience. Furthermore, as with any professional subspecialty, planning has its own language. Perfectly ordinary words, such as assumption and supported, have very precise meanings for military planners; and many uniformed officers who have not been planners themselves have enjoyed full and successful careers without mastering the nuances of "planner-speak." Finally, military contingency plans are tightly controlled. Access to them is restricted to those individuals in DOD and in other executive branch agencies with a strict need-to-know caveat. Little wonder, then, that senior civilian policymakers forced into contact with military planning often struggle to achieve some level of comfort with their roles in the planning process. Notwithstanding these obstacles, the Secretary of Defense plays a vital role in ensuring that DOD realizes the significant benefits that come from planning.
Benefits Beyond Plans
Military planning is a necessary endeavor if the President of the United States is to have realistic options from which to choose in time of military crisis. Indeed, the mantra of civilian policymakers in the Pentagon responsible for planning is "options for the President." Planners commit the unnatural act of pouring huge amounts of time and energy into planning for the unlikely and undesired, so that the President and his senior advisors will have plans for dealing with crises that require a military response should such crises erupt. This is not to suggest that any plan should ever be executed as written. No plan survives beyond first contact with reality, to paraphrase the 19th-century Prussian Field Marshal Helmut von Moltke.4 The point is that the mere act of planning is valuable for its own sake, and not just for the plans that result from it. Indeed, President Dwight Eisenhower, who served as head of the Army's War Plans Division during the early months of World War II, is well known within military circles for proclaiming that "plans are worthless, but planning is everything."5
Members of 10 participating militaries review terrain model during planning for exercises Partnership of the Americas 2010 and Southern Exchange 2010
Peruvian Naval Infantry
Planning—especially when it is conducted according to the DOD Adaptive Planning process—is valuable for several important reasons. First, planning compels interaction among military planners throughout DOD, and between those military planners and the staffs that support policymakers in the Pentagon. By strengthening the networks connecting these officials, DOD is better prepared to deal with other related operational and policy challenges, not just the challenges associated with specific plans. Second, planning is valuable because it requires senior military officers in the combatant commands to engage in discussions of strategy and policy with senior Pentagon policymakers. Discussions of strategy among senior uniformed leaders and civilian policymakers are rare, and without the right sort of planning process, they would be rarer still. These strategic discussions enable planners and policymakers alike to examine U.S. foreign policy and plans, and to explore a plan's underlying assumptions, objectives, options, opportunities, risks, and myriad other factors. Such discussions lead not only to better plans, but also, often, to better policies. Third, in the development and review of a plan, a wide range of DOD officials will have a chance to scrutinize a plan and improve it. Although access to plans is tightly controlled, the major components of DOD (for example, the Services, combatant commands, certain agencies, and the Joint Staff) have specially designated planners whose job it is to review and comment on top priority plans. Fourth, the planning process creates opportunities for military planners to work with their counterparts in other departments and agencies of the executive branch, thereby helping to ensure that the benefits cited above spread beyond DOD.
The Adaptive Planning initiative, as it has evolved under Secretary Gates, has gone a long way toward realizing the four benefits just described and rectifying deficiencies in the DOD planning processes that existed prior to the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986.6 Before Goldwater-Nichols, civilian policymakers did not participate in the plan development and review process. Then, as now, military plans were built by combatant commanders—the four-star officers who report directly to the Secretary and President and who are responsible for geographic or functional commands (for example, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Strategic Command). However, before Goldwater-Nichols, the Secretary of Defense was the only DOD civilian who got to see military plans, and that was after the plans had been finalized and approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.7
Goldwater-Nichols provided a sound legal basis for ensuring greater civilian involvement in military planning. The law gave the Secretary the statutory authority and responsibility to "provide to the Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] written policy guidance for the preparation and review of contingency plans."8 By law, the Secretary's guidance is to be approved by the President, and the Chairman adds his own strategic direction in a separate guidance document. To aid the Secretary in discharging his responsibilities, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy was tasked with assisting "the Secretary of Defense in preparing written policy guidance for the preparation and review of contingency plans; and in reviewing such plans."9 The changes to DOD planning procedures wrought by Goldwater-Nichols were not self-implementing, and throughout the 1990s, the Secretary's staff struggled to attain the larger role for civilian policymakers envisioned by Congress when it crafted the law.
The Adaptive Planning initiative has steadily strengthened the hand of civilian policymakers in the military planning process and has kept plans more up to date and relevant to the ever-changing security environment. The Secretary of Defense's personal involvement in the process of developing and reviewing plans has been the cornerstone of Adaptive Planning, and can safely be credited for recent major improvements in DOD campaign and contingency planning. Secretary Gates's predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, formally launched the Adaptive Planning initiative in 2003 to get the military to produce better plans more quickly10—though the impetus for the initiative could be traced back even further, to Rumsfeld's intense dissatisfaction with his minuscule role in the development of plans, and with the slow pace of military planning after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
By 2005, despite significant resistance within the bureaucracy, DOD began in earnest to implement Adaptive Planning. First and foremost among the "essential elements of Adaptive Planning" was the imperative for "clear strategic guidance and frequent dialogue."11 The new planning process would "feature detailed planning guidance and frequent dialogue between senior leaders and planners to promote a common understanding of planning assumptions, considerations, risks, courses of action, implementing actions, and other key factors."12 Although the initiative was designed to yield other improvements, the interactive and iterative engagement between senior policymakers and military planners was the most important of them all. Without the Secretary's involvement, combatant commanders and senior civilian policymakers would devote far less time and attention to plans than they do today, resulting in a concomitant lessening of interest among their subordinates, and an overall diminution in the quality of plans and benefits derived from the planning process.
As noted in the opening paragraph, Secretary Gates gave the go-ahead early in 2007 to consolidate policy documents so as to bring greater coherence to the guidance and planning for DOD worldwide, day-to-day activities and the guidance and planning for contingency operations. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, the White House and Pentagon generated a bewildering tangle of strategy and guidance documents without any clear articulation of which guidance trumped which, or how consumers of the guidance should prioritize among the disparate signals sent from Washington. In 2008, with Secretary Gates's approval, Pentagon officials promulgated one overarching policy document to guide planning for employment of forces—for both actual employment (planning for worldwide, day-to-day activities) and potential employment (planning for contingencies). The rationale underpinning the new consolidated guidance stipulated that all planning started at the top, with the President's priorities, as established in the National Security Strategy. From there, the Secretary of Defense's staff would lead efforts to devise a National Defense Strategy, while the Chairman's staff spearheaded production of a National Military Strategy. Although each subordinate strategy added somewhat greater specificity to guide the combatant commanders in implementing the National Security Strategy, all three documents remained couched in high-level terms and were of limited use to DOD military planners. The new consolidated planning guidance of 2008 provided the details combatant commanders needed to prioritize their efforts and to write their own regional or functional strategies. The combatant commanders' strategies were in turn implemented through campaign plans drawn up by their staffs. Those campaign plans implemented strategies mainly designed to prevent crisis and conflict—in accordance with the National Security Strategy goals. But campaign plans also helped prepare the way for success in conflict if prevention efforts failed—consistent with the guidance for contingency planning approved by the President.
The Plan Review Process
Secretary Gates's consistent involvement in the planning process helped to ensure that policy and strategy guided the bureaucracy—particularly the uniformed military planners within it—and not vice versa. But how does the Secretary get involved? What is the plan development and review process? The best one-word description of the process is iterative. For a new plan, a combatant commander would go through three different reviews with the Secretary of Defense. Ideally, those in-progress reviews (IPRs) would be spread over a 6-month period, though it often took 12 to 18 months to get through all three IPRs with the Secretary.13 The first review would cover the mission analysis, where the challenge or problem to be addressed would be clearly defined and agreed upon. This first stage would examine political endstates, military objectives, assumptions, threats and opportunities, and a mission statement for a given scenario or problem. The second IPR would address concepts for meeting the challenge or solving the problem that had been defined in the first IPR. Finally, the third IPR would examine the fully developed plan, risks to the plan, and steps needed to pave the way toward successful implementation of the plan. Once a plan was approved, it would be scheduled for annual reviews that would include detailed assessments of the plan and the strategic assumptions upon which it was built. For relatively straightforward plans, the first two IPRs might be combined into a single session with the Secretary, whereas new and conceptually complex plans, such as the one dealing with cyberspace operations, might require an extra IPR or two to obtain the Secretary's final approval.
Officers from U.S., Central, and South American forces meet at planning exercise for PANAMAX 2010
U.S. Navy (Brian Goodwin)
At each stage of plan development, there would be preliminary briefings and staffing procedures that had to be completed before a combatant commander would be scheduled to sit down to brief the Secretary. Plans going to the Secretary would first be briefed within the Secretary's staff—the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD)—to the Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Defense (DASDs) whose policy portfolios included the challenge or problem addressed by the plan. Ideally, a revised version of the briefing would then go to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy a few weeks after the briefing to the DASDs. If all went well in the briefing to the Under Secretary, the combatant commander would conduct an IPR with the Secretary a few weeks later. The prebriefings would normally be conducted by the two-star director for Strategic Plans and Policy—the J5, in military parlance—from the combatant command responsible for the plan in question; for prebriefings to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, it was not uncommon for a combatant commander or his three-star deputy to attend. At the Pentagon, the DASD for Plans would oversee the process for OSD, and would invite to the initial briefings those regional or functional DASDs with responsibilities for policy areas affected by a given plan. At these DASD-level prebriefings, action officers in OSD who possessed intimate familiarity with the plans and with associated U.S. Government policy would arm the DASDs with tough questions designed to ensure that the combatant commands were fully compliant with policy guidance given to them. The questions during these prebriefs would also be intended to highlight for the military planners those aspects of a plan that OSD officials believed needed refinement before the plan would be deemed ready to be briefed to the Secretary of Defense. These same OSD action officers would also be responsible for preparing the "read-ahead" materials for the Under Secretary and Secretary.
Smart planners would welcome the first level of prebriefings as a means for improving their briefings and associated plans; it was much easier to accept constructive criticism at this level than to see their four-star bosses squirm when the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy or the Secretary himself demanded answers to the same tough questions. Not all planners perceived this advantage. In 2009, one particularly recalcitrant two-star complained to the DASD for Plans on a video teleconference, with staff members present on both sides, that he (the two-star) did not see any benefit to the prebriefing—in essence challenging the civilian DASD to justify the Secretary's planning process to the combatant command staff's satisfaction. Putting aside the inappropriate way in which the point was raised, the two-star's question betrayed a stunning lack of appreciation for the DASDs' ability to provide the planners with insights into the Secretary's thinking and his likely concerns. Moreover, the question incorrectly presupposed that the prebriefing process was meant solely to aid the combatant command planners, entirely missing the point that the vetting process was also meant to serve the needs of the Secretary of Defense.
Through prebriefings, the staffs often cleared up confusion, corrected flawed assumptions, clarified key issues, and analyzed realistic options for dealing with those issues, thereby enabling the Secretary to engage in more substantive discussions during a plan review with a combatant commander—focusing on matters that could only be decided at their level. Absent the prebriefing process, the Secretary's time would often be wasted on matters that should have been settled by the DASDs or the Under Secretary for Policy, or time would be wasted in muddling through sterile discussions of complex issues that should have been thought through and clarified by the staffs. In several instances, the prebriefings educated policymakers by making clear the true feasibility (or infeasibility) and likely costs of preferred policy options. Thus, the prebriefing process has tended to improve policymaking as well as plans, and most combatant commands have slowly come to see the process as value-added for themselves, rather than as mere bureaucratic hoop-jumping.
The plan review process, including the prebriefings, comprises a fundamental aspect of civilian control of the military. Civilian control, as the term is used here, involves more than just ensuring military respect for civilian authority and compliance with the orders of the President and Secretary—those aspects of civilian control are not in doubt. Civilian control also includes making sure military leaders understand and adhere to the priorities and policies of the administration and that military planning reflects those priorities and policies. No Secretary of Defense is likely to ever read an entire theater campaign plan or operation plan—typically amounting to hundreds of pages of written text. But the action officers who work directly for the DASDs will. That is why the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy was given a statutory role under Goldwater-Nichols legislation to assist the Secretary in producing the guidance for, and in the development and review of, contingency plans. Indeed, the Obama administration populated the key positions in OSD Policy with political appointees who were seasoned policymakers with previous tours in the Pentagon. The Honorable Michèle Flournoy, James Miller, and Kathleen Hicks filled the top strata in the Policy hierarchy responsible for plans. All had previously served in OSD Policy leadership positions with responsibilities for plans or were closely associated with the planning process. With the transition to the Obama administration, OSD also created a new position—the DASD for Plans—highlighting the increased importance these policymakers ascribed to planning. Janine Davidson, another veteran of OSD Policy and a former U.S. Air Force pilot, has held that position since its creation. Since early 2009, then, DOD has had a civilian political appointee whose order of precedence ranks above Active-duty two-star officers, and whose primary responsibility is to focus on the development and review of plans. The next Secretary of Defense will thus inherit an organization and a process designed to enable effective civilian involvement in and direction of military planning.
Vital Role of the Secretary
For the Adaptive Planning processes to work, the Secretary and those who manage his calendar must support the OSD staff in fulfilling its role, and enforce the review process that goes first through the DASD for Plans, then the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, before reaching the Secretary. Otherwise, combatant commanders and their planners would almost certainly revert to developing plans with little or no input from civilian policymakers and attempt to go straight to the Secretary for approval. Secretary Rumsfeld and his senior staff assistants were wont to allow combatant commanders to effectively bypass the OSD staff, particularly with combatant commanders who were known to be the Secretary's close confidants. This would at times result in a situation where no one from the OSD staff who had actually read the plan in question, and who had significant expertise on the policies and issues relevant to the plan, was able to know the content of the commander's IPR briefing in time to adequately prepare the Secretary. Nor were these OSD experts always allowed to attend the actual review sessions—the IPRs—with the Secretary and the combatant commanders. This absence made it impossible for the experts on the Secretary's staff to faithfully follow up on his tasks, questions, or decisions. In short, this lax enforcement of the plan review process allowed certain combatant commanders to control the process and to sidestep difficult issues. For example, DOD plans for countering weapons of mass destruction stagnated for most of 2007, after experts on the OSD staff were unable to adequately participate in the preparation for an IPR with Secretary Rumsfeld in late 2006.
With Secretary Gates, the practice of end-running the OSD staff came to an end, and no plan review could be placed on the Secretary's calendar unless the DASD for Plans confirmed that the plan was ready to go to the Secretary. On several occasions during Secretary Gates's tenure, IPRs were cancelled when a combatant command attempted to bypass the prebriefings to the DASDs or to the Under Secretary for Policy. Similarly, IPRs with the Secretary would fall from his calendar when combatant commands attempted to put off the prebriefings until just a few days before the briefing to the Secretary, making it impossible for the commands to incorporate policy guidance or make needed changes in their briefings—a practice that subverted the intent of the prebriefings while appearing to adhere to the IPR process. More than one IPR was cancelled when a combatant commander attempted to change the purpose of the meeting or substitute a different briefing in lieu of the one that had been scheduled.
To his credit, Secretary Gates and his administrative staff did a much better job than Gates's predecessor at enforcing deadlines for the combatant commands to provide briefing materials prior to plan reviews. Gates had a widely held reputation for reading everything that his staff provided him, and he came to the IPRs well prepared to discuss the plans. Moreover, Secretary Gates was impatient with any general or flag officer who attempted during an IPR to introduce new or updated briefing materials that had not been vetted by the OSD staff. If a combatant commander produced a document at an IPR for the Secretary to sign, Dr. Gates would look to his Under Secretary for Policy, in effect asking why it was not part of his read-ahead material. A disapproving look from the Under Secretary would settle the matter, and Secretary Gates would leave the paper on the table, unacknowledged and unsigned. That happened more than once, despite warnings from senior uniformed and civilian officials in the Pentagon to the combatant commands to avoid the practice.
The ability of certain combatant commanders to evade strategic discussions with their boss and to avoid difficult issues during Secretary Rumsfeld's tenure, and the more rigorous implementation of Rumsfeld's Adaptive Planning procedures under Secretary Gates, highlights an important point: very few people can tell a combatant commander what to do. Though the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy stand higher in the pecking order than combatant commanders, they are not in the chain of command. Only the Secretary of Defense and the President can technically order combatant commanders to do anything. That is why the Secretary's involvement in the planning process and his support for his own staff in enforcing that process are so vital. One example illustrates the point well. Throughout 2007 and much of 2008, U.S. Central Command refused to bring plans to the Pentagon, despite the importuning of Pentagon officials of three- and four-star rank—both uniformed and civilian. More than one staff officer in the Pentagon has speculated that one factor in Admiral William Fallon's abrupt and premature departure in March 2008 as commander of U.S. Central Command might well have been that the admiral refused to bring plans through the OSD staff to the Secretary of Defense—a failing he was known for in his earlier capacity as commander of U.S. Pacific Command. Combatant commanders can get away with such behavior for a while, for no Secretary will be eager to expend the time and political capital necessary to rein in a wayward four-star commander. But any Secretary who wishes to manage the planning process to ensure that the President has options in times of crises—even if they are the "least worst" options for dealing with situations that all would rather avoid—must be willing to engage in the planning process and see to it that difficult policy issues get addressed as far as possible in the development and review of plans. In short, without Secretary Gates's involvement in the planning process, and his enforcement of the process for reviewing plans, the combatant commands would have been held to much lower standards of planning and thinking. Moreover, there would have been much less interaction among the staffs of the various organizations with stakes in the plans, and that would have redounded to the detriment of those plans and the DOD ability to cope with crises.
The iterative plan development and review process that exists today under Adaptive Planning represents a significant improvement over pre–Goldwater-Nichols practices and over the practices of the 1990s and early 2000s, but it cannot succeed without the Secretary of Defense's support and enforcement of the process. It would be easier for combatant command planners, and worse for U.S. national security, if the Secretary did not take such an interest in planning. Only if the next Secretary commits to being an active and engaged participant in the planning process will these hard-won improvements become institutionalized and further improvements accrue. JFQ