Few things are more frustrating for new planners than realizing what is taught at the schoolhouse does not translate smoothly in their first assignments. New planners assigned to combatant commands and given the responsibility of developing the command’s campaign plan quickly learn that the process is more complex than they envision and risk disenchantment when their plan sits on the shelf without being read or implemented. The development of combatant command campaign plans (CCPs) is a core function of each geographic combatant command to integrate military operations, activities, and investments in its area of responsibility. The concept behind and mechanics of developing CCPs are taught at service and joint professional military education programs. However, student planners are rarely given sufficient time to create a CCP entirely. Furthermore, these programs often do not provide the context for a CCP’s development. To better prepare future planners, here is an insider’s perspective of the lessons learned developing a CCP at US Central Command (CENTCOM).

Experience with CCPs

From September 2018 to April 2020, I served as a senior war planner at CENTCOM and was responsible for developing the CCP. My previous experience shaped my approach to developing CENTCOM’s CCP. First, from 2010 to 2011, I worked at Headquarters, Department of the Army G-3/5/7, evaluating the Army’s equities in CENTCOM’s plans. This required me to think about how to apply Army capabilities on behalf of CENTCOM. Next, from 2014 to 2018, I worked at US Special Operations Command – Central (SOCCENT), CENTCOM’s theater special operations command, advocating for forces and resources to accomplish SOCCENT’s specified objectives articulated in the CENTCOM CCP. This assignment required me to integrate joint special operations capabilities, which gave me a broader joint planning perspective before my CENTCOM assignment.

The purpose of CCPs

To fully understand the purpose of a CCP, a planner must appreciate the purpose of the geographic combatant command (GCC) in its specified area of responsibility (AOR). Most planners will examine the guidance provided in the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and National Military Strategy (NMS); however, they often fail to place these documents in relation to three presidential-level documents that provide the “why” a GCC is directed to perform military operations, activities, and investments—or OAIs—in its AOR. I had everyone in my operational planning team (OPT) examine the National Security Strategy (NSS), the Unified Command Plan (UCP), and the Contingency Planning Guidance (CPG) so they understood why we were developing a CCP.

The NSS articulates the nation’s broad national security objectives and encompasses the whole of government. While student planners often learn strategy consists of ends, ways, and means, the NSS does not include that language. Rather, the NSS is an aspirational document that specifies what the nation’s enduring interests and its core regional interests are. For CENTCOM, the core interests are broadly stated as requirements to:

  1. ensure freedom of navigation and movement along critical sea lines of communication for the world’s energy resources,
  2. ensure the region is not dominated by a hostile power, either from within the AOR or externally (e.g., Russia or China), and
  3. protect the homeland and prevent weapons of mass destruction proliferation.

Next, we reviewed the UCP, which is tied to the NSS—although this is not explicitly articulated in either document. The UCP defines the missions of the GCCs and the functional component commands such as SOCOM. The UCP identifies each GCC’s boundaries and broadly directs all GCCs to detect and deter threats to—and, if necessary, defend—United States interests. The UCP tasks CENTCOM to identify and deter threats to our national interests. We then read the CPG. To plan for the threats identified in NSS, the secretary of defense issues the classified CPG, which directs each GCC to develop contingency plans for known threats to US interests ranging from deterring state aggressors to preventing functional threats such as the acquisition and use of weapons of mass destruction.

Cumulatively, the OPT learned the task and purpose of developing a CCP by reviewing those three documents. I then communicated to the OPT that our CCP needed to become operational in a theater campaign order (TCO) that directed and assessed OAIs over a five-year timeline. Overall, I saw the CCP and the TCO as serving four key leaders:

  1. the commander, who owns every aspect of the plan and its execution,
  2. the chief of staff, who integrates the entire staff in its implementation,
  3. the J3, who is responsible on behalf of the commander to prioritize resources and risk, and
  4. the component commanders, who must execute the plan.

Since only the J3 has tasking authority, a TCO is a way to hold the staff and component commands accountable for the execution of the CCP. If done correctly, a synchronized CCP and TCO allow the commander, chief of staff, and J3 to manage the campaign in a resource- and risk-informed manner. I informed the OPT that the process would be broken into two phases. Phase one consisted of understanding the strategic environment, task analysis, and developing the operational approach. Phase two consisted of developing the structure of the plan.

Understanding the Strategic Environment

In phase one, we analyzed the strategic environment by conducting an intelligence preparation of the battlefield. At the strategic and operational levels, this meant examining the geography, history, economic drivers, and technological challenges and opportunities present in the AOR. To achieve understanding among the OPT, I conducted a tabletop exercise using the pieces from the board game Axis and Allies to lay out the AOR geography on a map. During that exercise, I covered the configuration of the critical energy (oil, natural gas, and coal) sites, energy pipelines, rail and road infrastructure, and maritime routes, including chokepoints. Then, we laid out where Russia, China, the United States, and regional powers such as Turkey, Israel, India, and the Arab states were postured (both economically and militarily). We discussed both Sir Halford Mackinder’s “Heartland” and Nicholas John Spykman’s “Rimland” geostrategic theories. We then analyzed the British posture before and after the “East of Suez” decision in 1967. This tabletop exercise helped frame the geo-economic and geostrategic interests of the AOR.

We then studied why key players such as China were investing heavily in the AOR. We overlaid Admiral Zheng He’s voyages in the 1400s and identified that China was using his journeys as an initial blueprint for parts of the Belt and Road Initiative. Many of the ports the Chinese are focusing on today were ones that Zheng He visited in his explorations. The OPT used operational terms such as key terrain and interior lines when discussing Russian and Chinese strategic and operational activities that could directly or indirectly control access to the AOR’s key terrain. We looked at the three maritime chokepoints (Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal, and Bab al-Mandeb) in the AOR that could affect US joint operations. Our analysis exposed that CENTCOM’s posture may be less than optimal for current and future threats and helped the next part of the CCP development: task analysis.

Task Analysis and Operational Design Development

After analyzing the NSS, UCP, and CPG, the OPT then reviewed the NDS, NMS, global campaign plans (GCPs), and global integrated base plans. Across these, we determined CENTCOM had over eight hundred tasks. However, taking a page from my days as a brigade planner, I asked my team to break those tasks into their essential elements to make the process manageable.

The NDS and NMS are nested and the tasks we analyzed came from the NMS and GCPs, which are linked. Therefore, we determined that there were about twenty-five essential tasks that CENTCOM needed to focus on to achieve its broad mission as laid out in the UCP. This determination was accomplished by analyzing the NMS’s five mission areas (Assure Allies and Partners, Compete Below the Level of Armed Conflict, Deter Conventional Attack, Deter Strategic Attack, and Respond to Threats) and aligning them to the five threat areas (Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and violent extremist organizations). The OPT identified the twenty-five essential tasks and the OPT then took the NMS and replaced joint force in tasking statements with CENTCOM to see if they were applicable. My team then determined that, specific to the CENTCOM AOR, tasks related to Russia and China were the same. The OPT also combined the “Deter Strategic Attack” tasks associated with the five problem sets. Since Iran’s threat is specific to the CENTCOM AOR, we broke Iran-specific threats out in more detail.

In the end, my team determined that our higher guidance consisted of fourteen essential tasks, which is more manageable than trying address over eight hundred. Based on our analysis, we developed an operational approach that was threat-based against our core interests. Next, we identified the military objectives because we recognized the enduring nature of gaining and maintaining a position of advantage as articulated in Joint Doctrine Note 1-19: Competition Continuum and the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning.

Next, the OPT broadly inventoried assets available in the theater (personnel, units, etc.) to establish a baseline. Additionally, the OPT conducted a plans and orders audit, which determined CENTCOM had over four thousand plans, orders, fragmentary orders, and similar items. Many were outdated or provided contradictory guidance. Furthermore, we determined that there was no proper accounting of how many tasks were assigned to the same component or unit or whether there were sufficient resources to accomplish those tasks, which we found to be the case in multiple instances.

We needed a clean slate to address the inherent friction of so many requirements for the components by synchronizing the CCP and subsequent TCO. The OPT’s analysis and audit allowed us to develop an operational design and a draft mission statement. Once the commander approved the mission statement and the operational design, the OPT transitioned into phase two of campaign plan development.

Building the Plan

Phase two consisted of determining how to structure the campaign plan and how to tie it directly into the TCO. The previous CENTCOM campaign plan was ninety-seven pages, which the current commander found too long. Having been a former CENTCOM J5, Joint Staff J5, and director of the Joint Staff, he knew what he wanted in terms of length and scope. In response, my team developed a twenty-eight-page base document that provided clear overarching guidance for the command to achieve his intent. By shifting language to Annex C (Operations) and supporting appendices, we removed approximately fifty pages from the campaign plan itself.

We broke down each line of effort identified in the base document and Annex C into a separate appendix such as the one for countering violent extremist organizations. I stressed that there needed to be a direct connection between CENTCOM’s contingency plans and Annex C and the appendices because I saw the campaign plan’s purpose was, in part, to improve our position to execute contingency plans.

Using the NMS mission areas, we worked backward from “Respond to Threats” to “Assure Allies and Partners” and developed intermediate military objectives (IMOs). IMOs are a series of objectives organized along a line of effort that are measurable and support the achievement of a military objective or endstate. Working closely with the J3-Plans, we identified critical IMOs that needed to become tasks to be completed within the TCO’s two-year timeline. This work included identifying the IMOs linked to named operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan and major OAIs in the AOR, including force posture adjustments.

To ensure we did not create a list of IMOs similar to CENTCOM’s eight hundred assigned tasks, we also cross-referenced the IMOs in each appendix and combined as many as we could so that the CCP clearly articulates a five-year plan of action for the command tied to annual assessments that drive the TCO. As a result, the IMO-task connection gave each component approximately ten to fifteen tasks to manage, refine, and assess in its mission analysis.

To develop campaign synchronization, the OPT developed a joint scheme of maneuver to help the staff and components visualize and organize the IMO-task connection with proposed OAIs. The joint scheme of maneuver consisting of posture, security cooperation, and communications synchronization would directly influence the theater posture plan and security cooperation plan. The OPT developed proposed OAIs within the joint scheme of maneuver’s distinctive bins to ensure standardization for the command’s assessment model. Utilizing the joint scheme of maneuver across the three lines of effort helped the OPT identify potential threats and opportunities. For example, identifying requirements and vulnerabilities associated with the contingency plans informed efforts with the CCP and future TCO to synchronize components’ actions across the theater. The process was developed to help the command forecast and align its resource requirements.

Additionally, we sought to integrate emerging joint warfighting concepts, such as the Army’s Multi-Domain Operations, into the command’s exercise program, especially when operating with allies and partners. For example, we encouraged adapting a Navy-centric multilateral exercise to incorporate the Army and Air Force long-range fire capabilities in order to demonstrate the joint force’s ability to target maritime threats from multiple domains.

Providing Clarity

As one of my mentors at Headquarters, Department of the Army used to remark, “Funding is policy. All else is rhetoric.” Put in other words, a great plan without resources is worthless. The CCP’s goal is to provide a clear framework for the components to visualize their requirements five years in the future with a level of fidelity that allowed them to clearly articulate those requirements to their service headquarters as part of the program objective memoranda they submitted. This articulation is essential for posture-related adjustments since the theater posture plan covers a five-to-eight-year horizon.

Similarly, the TCO synchronizes CENTCOM’s subordinate operations orders for named operations such as Operation Inherent Resolve and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. The TCO provides sufficient clarity that the components can plan and submit their global force management requirements to their service headquarters. As a result, both the campaign plan and the TCO serve to provide a strategic and operational framework for the command and components to conduct OAIs informed by annual assessments linked to the global force management and budgeting processes.

Accept Reality

General Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Another famous strategist, Mike Tyson, is famous for saying, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The root lesson for both: no plan is perfect and you have to be flexible and adaptable. While most planners understand this to mean developing branches and sequels, I offer that a plan developed by a committee will never be perfect. A CCP is written by a committee representing the interests of the various staff elements and subordinate component commands. As such, it is a compromise from the beginning of competing objectives and authors, no matter how harmonious planning and drafting may be.

Additionally, no matter how involved you are in the project, you should never take the product you worked on personally. If you do, you will face a lot of difficulty trying to defend everything you put into the CCP. I lived by the rule of thumb that I will be satisfied with the final product as long as the key concepts or ideas remain. Finally, while developing a CCP is a complex undertaking, gaining an appreciation for how the process works beyond what is taught will help future planners better navigate managing OPTs and develop products that are both useful and executable.

Lt. Col. Chad M. Pillai is a US Army strategist who has completed multiple joint and institutional Army planning assignments. He earned his master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and will begin his War College fellowship at Queen’s University in the fall.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Vince Little, DoD