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Letter to the Editor

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Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter 2006-2007Re: Doctor David Bryant, Can We Streamline Operational Planning? Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter 2006-2007.

Doctor David Bryant’s article seems to lack the situational context needed to place many of his recommendations into perspective. Having instructed operational art and campaign design at the Canadian Forces College (CFC) for 10 years, I have several reservations about the author’s suggestions, especially the one pertaining to pursuing only one Course of Action (COA) when preparing plans.

The author contrasted two competing demands on planners: the desire to be thorough and effective; and the need to be fast and efficient. In essence, the competition between these two circumstances highlights the differences between two entirely different situations: a Deliberate Planning Environment, where time is available to consider all options and consult widely; and an Urgent Planning Environment, where reaching a decision in as short a time as possible is of paramount importance. Doctrinal guidance does exist to abridge the decision-making process when time is of the essence. In a crisis, an experienced commander, aided by a capable staff, can reduce significantly the exploration of factors, consultation with other authorities and experts, and consideration of options. However, history advises that only in the utmost of dire circumstances should a commander forgo collective staff action and launch into an intuitive decision-making process. In such situations, an element of critical information overlooked (or not sought from competent authority) will usually lead to disaster.

The examples put forward in the article were of a tactical nature (the behaviours of a brigade staff and naval officers in simulated anti-submarine scenario). While the Operational Planning Process (OPP) has application at this level, tactical procedures and training of many sorts (individual, team, unit, and formation) most often direct and inform actions, rather than analytical assessment and deduction. In such limited confines as single-service tactical arenas, experience and training assist commanders to ‘know’ the right action and to trust their judgement in time-constrained situations. This is hardly ever the case in joint operations at the operational and strategic levels of war (and can also be so in a joint tactical scenario) where a myriad of military and non-military factors and service-specific concepts of operation indicate very different options for separate courses of action.

The OPP is, first and foremost, a guide to planning that encourages consultation and consideration of a broad range of factors. The ‘encouragement’ necessary to ensure that this takes place on a routine basis is accomplished by the formalization of the process. This is done because it is a practical impossibility in joint operations that a single person or a limited staff will have the breadth of experience and expertise necessary to make accurate assessments and informed recommendations to commanders. The process of consultation and consideration (and appreciation, thereby) of the different characteristics that make land, naval, and air warfare processes unique is an unending educational undertaking. For students at CFC, slow time and methodical review of factors, capabilities, and limitations is essential to allow them to internalize even the most basic of these special concepts. Once finished their program of studies, they are only beginning to comprehend the options open to them for planning joint operations. By the time they graduate, however, they are (or should be) well aware of the complexities of joint warfare, and they are at least familiar with the OPP. None should harbour any delusions about the monumental nature of the task or of the usual outcome of weak planning efforts. Recent events have shown how catastrophic the consequences can be for staffs that do not open their minds to the full breadth of options available for the attainment of strategic, operational, and even tactical objectives.

The Winograd Commission Report into the Israeli conduct of operations in Lebanon has been described in press reports as ‘a political bombshell.’ The text of the interim report does not mince its words when laying blame for the inept performance of the Israeli Defence Forces: “[Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made] mistaken and hasty judgements and did not manage the events, but was dragged along by the army. Mr. Olmert did not ask the army for alternative plans to those presented and did not ask the right questions.”1 Clearly, this event shows that when an authority is overconfident and a commander settles irrevocably on a single course of action, the potential for disaster exists. All that is required to turn potential into horrible fact is a determined and innovative enemy.

The author also made other observations that suggest he does not understand how the OPP is applied by more able planners: “...experts frequently deviate from formal procedures” and “steps ... were returned to five times throughout the four planning cycles, again illustrating the lack of rigid separation of steps within the OPP.” In my experience, both with teaching OPP and using it in ‘real life,’ rigid adherence to the steps of the process are only necessary until the planners are fully conversant with the intent of the process – to ensure that fully collaborative planning is undertaken and that a broad range of factors have been considered in the formulation of options. ‘Rigid’ separation of the steps in the process is neither necessary nor profitable. Such dogmatic adherence to a ‘checklist’ approach to planning will not result in the effective orchestration of military force that lies at the very centre of Operational Art. As I used to say to my students: “The Checklist is the crutch of a weak mind.”

Kenneth P. Hansen
Commander/Professor of Political Science
Naval Liaison Officer/Defence Fellow
Centre for Foreign Policy Studies
Dalhousie University

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  1. Cited in “Israeli inquiry aftershocks” by Ariel Cohen, Washington Times, 4 May 2007. <http://washingtontimes.com/functions/ print.php?StoryID= 20070503-084338-7933r>


DND Photo RE-2007-056-028 by Corporal Evan Kuelz

Top of the world: Defending Arctic Sovereignty. A Canadian Air Force CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft surveys the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, near the North Pole.