In Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars, the author highlights the president’s frustration with the military advice he received leading up to the surge in Afghanistan. Woodward recounts an exchange between the president and the chairman of the joint chiefs:

Obama: You guys just presented me with four options, two of which are not realistic… Of the remaining two, 40,000 and 30,000 to 35,000 are about the same… You have essentially given me one option. You’re not really giving me any options…. We were going to meet here today to talk about three options.

Mullen: No, I think what we’ve tried to do here is present a range of options, but we believe Stan’s [McChrystal] is the best. (p. 278)

The issue of presidential dissatisfaction with military advice is not a new one; problems in the Kennedy, Johnson, Ford and Carter administrations are well documented. As a result, improving military advice to civilian authority was one of the fundamental goals of the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 (G-N).

At the heart of the problem, political leaders often seek options for the best use of military force while military leaders present advice in the form of a recommended course of action, derived from a consensus-based planning process. Former DASD for Plans Dr. Janine Davidson masterfully describes this problematic relationship in her forthcoming article in Presidential Studies Quarterly (Winter 2013). She concludes, “Ultimately, the output of the military’s planning process fails to deliver the type of nuanced advice in the form of creative options that the president needs.”

Davidson attributes the “broken dialogue” to three sources of civil-military friction. The first source relates to the difference in expectations of civil-military control. Two differing schools of thought help frame this issue. Military leaders are more likely to be part of the Samuel Huntington school while political leaders are likely to subscribe to the Eliot Cohen school.

In the former, many feel civilian leadership should provide the military with broad objectives and then stand aside while the military professionals plan and execute. Those in the latter school believe a great civilian war leader has the inspiration and willingness to question military advice on operational matters and impose alternatives to military preferences when their judgment differs.

The second source of friction, as alluded to, is that the current military planning system does not effectively support presidential decision-making. Finally, the cultural difference in balancing risk and escalation with overwhelming military force often involves tradeoffs among resources and force size.

Contingency planning is unquestionably necessary; however, it is extremely costly to maintain the current system within the joint rubric. Operational level planning in its current form requires thousands of military and civilian personnel at the CoCOMs, service component commands and Joint Staff; lengthy training; and expensive IT systems in support. Despite the considerable commitment of resources, the effectiveness of the current planning system is questionable at best.

As General Anthony Zinni, USMC (ret) describes of Iraq, “I think there was dereliction in insufficient forces being put on the ground and fully understanding the military dimensions of the plan. I think there was dereliction in lack of planning. The president is owed the finest strategic thinking. He is owed the finest operational planning. He is owed the finest tactical execution on the ground. … He got the latter. He didn’t get the first two.”

Current service and joint planning processes essentially follow similar steps: take planning guidance (tough to get right) and commander’s intent, develop courses of action (COA), and use evaluation criteria to reach a staff recommendation of the best COA to give to the Commander. This consensus-based process is clearly vulnerable to many problems, chief among them – groupthink.

Although the current joint planning system has proven itself to be less than effective, the joint process drives investments within the services. Again, this can be attributed to G-N. Dr. Carnes Lord of the Naval War College notes that G-N empowered the chairman to solicit program and budget recommendations from the CINCs rather than the services alone. The intent of G-N was to strengthen the link between war planning and Washington-level decision-making on military policy and force structure. (p. 170)

Recently, naval scholars and practitioners alike have highlighted the problems associated with G-N. (See Anderson, Friedman, McGrath, Owens and my piece in the NWC Review) Despite the growing body of evidence that G-N has not worked as intended, Congress unfortunately continues to empower the joint system. For example, the FY 2013 NDAA recommends additional authority for the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. (Section 951)

The current joint planning system must be reformed. Rather than building a single OPLAN with branches and sequels, CoCOMs planners should develop a host of options, at various levels of detail, for potential contingencies within their AOR. While there must be a coordinated effort to sync operational plans and service capabilities, plans should not be used to fuel inexhaustible demands for additional resources or to justify force structure. The role of the Joint Staff in the investment decisions of the services should be curtailed as well and by doing so, ineffective processes and layers of bureaucracy could be eliminated.

The coming fiscal pressure on the defense spending should force leaders in the Department and on the Hill to forthrightly evaluate every aspect of how the joint force operates today and eliminate or revise ineffective practices. Every defense dollar spent on unnecessary overhead takes away from actual war fighting capabilities and valuable training opportunities. If US military forces indeed become “hollowed out” as is the current topic of debate, leaders on the Hill and in DoD must equally share the blame.

Posted by Robert Kozloski in Homeland Security, Policy

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  • Couldn’t agree more; something’s broken and the Huntington-Cohen divide is growing wider. In defense of the JS/COCOMS, I’d say that they are not alone and the strategic advice deficit extends across all of the departments; further limiting the availability of quality strategic advice. What worries me is that the departments/agencies are looking to them for guidance on planning.

  • Well, can only comment on the first bit about President Obama’s comments about the operations in Afghanistan:

    Most civilians nowadays (including myself) have no combat experience whatsoever, so understandably it’s hard for President Obama to grasp the situation and make a decision.

    In this sense, I would argue that the best approach would be:
    Civilian leaders should make the call as to whether to engage in military operations (unless the US is under attack, in which case the response is obvious) or not.

    Once the decision to enter into a war/operation is made, let the military handle it. If the civilians aren’t happy with the operation, they can always pull out.

    As for managing the defense budget, well, the vast majority of the cost is manpower, so that’s probably where the US should focus on…and if number of personnel are important, than the US government should look at stopping raises, reducing benefits, maybe even a draft to cut costs? I’m sorry but a volunteer military means very expensive personnel. I’m pretty sure China doesn’t pay its soldiers and Generals very much, and as far as I know, Al Qaeda fights for free.

  • Jeannette Haynie

    Thanks for an excellent post. Obama’s Wars highlighted, in a way I hadn’t expected, the major divide between what the military believed we should provide and what the White House expected to be provided. The part that surprised/bothered me most (and it’s an area I have zero experience in at that level) was that it seemed as if the White House expected to get a nuanced, cross-Department array of options from DoD with limited input and even less specific guidance, and I couldn’t follow State’s role. The book was alarming on many levels.
    On another note, as a Reservist on the JS with an accordingly limited appreciation for the full day-to-day pain experienced there, I agree with your suggestion to limit the role played. I have never seen the like of the layers and processes involved. Wouldn’t even know where to start.

  • vtbikerider

    One of the questions that stands out is why planning has gotten so complex, so layered, so detailed that it seems to paralyze the process. With all the computing power we have compared to previous wars, it would seem that this would be easier, rather than harder. Or, is this just a symptom of either option overload or CYA writ large?


    The system is flawed in that no system can impose discipline on those upon whom discipline cannot be imposed. No system can make a president deliver his military a clearly defined end state and no system can make a bunch of GOFOs ignore their lifetimes of bureaucratic politics and deliver a plan that reaches the desired end state as quickly and efficiently as possible.

    Presidents, like the worst boss you ever had, will be vague so they can neither be wrong nor blamed.

    GOFOs will gravitate toward solutions that have each service getting a piece of the action, and maximize DoD’s budget, which is great for defense contractors too. War is a very profitable business, and as long as we’re at war, business is good for DoD and all who deal with DoD.

    The system might be improved by inserting a group between the president and the military who are somehow imbued with an incentive to make things go as well, as quickly, as cheaply, and as efficiently as possible. Good luck with that.

    The system isn’t broken. The types of people who rise to great positions of power in politics can never be pinned down and the types of people who rise to great positions of power in the military are careerist, parochial bureaucratic infighters. Thus we get what we have.