Tags: Robert Kozloski
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.