Planners are a strange breed. If you are one of us, you know this already. Even if you are not, serving in a staff role will bring you into contact with the people who are actually putting pen to paper to write the plan to win the war . . . or at least accomplish the unit’s mission. If you wear a US military uniform—or those of our allies who share our planning practices—you are probably familiar with planning at the company, battalion, or brigade level. But there also exists a buffet of specialized planning that takes place at the division level and above. It’s a rich feast. The higher up you get, the more types of planners you will interact with. Understanding what each does—understanding how the different flavors of planning stack up on the dessert menu—will allow you to find the planner you need for the thing you are tasked to do.

Yes, it’s a silly analogy. But you either have fun with this stuff, or it kills you. So let’s dig in!

Frutti di Bosco/Mixed Berry – Strategic Planning

Strategic planning focuses on the “big picture.” It supports the military planning process by focusing on the intersection of politics and military action. It considers a mix of economic, diplomatic, and social factors. “Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world”—that’s the essence of it.

Strat planners may have attended the sixteen-week Basic Strategic Art Program course at the Army War College, which provides the foundational instruction for Army strategists and the FA59 designation. (Get it? The “5” is the planning chief and the “9” is the civil-military chief, so a “59” combines both.) Force management is sometimes lumped in with strat planning, but that tends to ruin the taste, being more concerned with how the combatant commands allocate forces to a theater of war (an “operational” concern) than actual strategy.

Serve cold, with a copy of the Economist or some obscure trade publication, because it’s all about the price of oil, really.

Double Dark Chocolate – MILDEC

Military deception—or MILDEC, because jargon is how we know it’s a real Army thing—should be an integral part of all military planning, but is typically relegated to some subordinate part of the overall plan. The dark art of MILDEC planning formulates these “plans within plans.” MILDEC planning is supported by graduates of the classified, forty-hour Military Deception Planners Course.

As set out in Field Manual 3-13.4, Army Support to Military Deception, MILDEC planning is undertaken on a need-to-know basis, apart from the main planning effort. The goal is to create an illusion in the enemy decision-maker’s mind. These aren’t the droids you are looking for. MILDEC is inflatable tanks, fake radio signals, Gen. George Patton’s FUSAG, and everyone’s favorite wooden horse.

MILDEC planning has a hard-to-pin-down taste. Ingredients include a spoonful of the theatrical. What the other guy is expecting to taste is a large part of the flavor, at least initially, but at the last minute it proves to be something different. Serve without anyone realizing.

Pistachio – Assessment

Assessment involves determining metrics by which the unit will judge progress toward mission accomplishment. By understanding the plan, the assessment officer can design something that is unbiased and effective. The wrong metrics can be just as devastating as a bad plan. Operational assessment technically doesn’t require any math . . .

However, the assessment officer is typically an operations research/systems analyst (ORSA). The proponent office for ORSAs is the Army G8. As a creature of the finance bubbas, an ORSA has a financial analyst’s skills: quantitative and qualitative analysis, applying probability models, and statistical inference. When the assessment officer is an ORSA, math just happens naturally.

The recipe includes chunks of milestones (measures of effectiveness) and a heaping measure of objectivity. Assessment has an uninviting taste. But if you eat it regularly, it turns out to be good for you.

Organic, Artisanal Vanilla – ADM

ADM, or Army Design Methodology, represents the Army’s capstone effort to get leaders to widen their frame of reference, to separate the causes of the underlying tactical problem from mere symptoms, which may be more apparent. It turns out that the Army was able to plan all sorts of operations unburdened by any profound understanding about the region in which the operations were supposed to take place. Army planners also proved able to put together a fully executable plan without ever really addressing the underlying question of what, exactly, the plan was meant to achieve. ADM’s laudable goal was to force senior leaders to actually think about what they were trying to accomplish and the dynamics of the environment in which they were going to accomplish it. The result was, sadly, a “creativity checklist.”

Some maintain they can discern the subtle differences in flavor that ADM adds to planning, whereas to everyone else ADM simply gives you the same results as you would have achieved if you received clear commander’s guidance regarding the desired end-state, invested some thought into planning without Army-regulation blinders on, or read a newspaper once or twice. As Army Technical Publication 5-0.1, Army Design Methodology describes, ADM was inserted into Army doctrine in 2010 because “commanders and staffs had difficulty understanding complex situations.” Without a sufficient understanding of the operating environment, they assumed what they currently knew explained everything they saw. This assumption turned out to be invalid.

ADM should be served before MDMP. Some think it pairs nicely with ill-defined problem sets (so-called “wicked problems”). The fact that ADM doesn’t really add anything to planning—and that “wicked problems” aren’t a real thing, but rather a retroactively applied label for situations where leaders failed to sufficiently understand the battlefield or the battle itself—doesn’t seem to change their minds.

Vanilla – MDMP

The Troop Leading Procedures used at the team, section, platoon, and company levels stay there. Planners at the battalion level or above use the Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP). If used thoughtfully and in conjunction with a little knowledge, it is methodical, it is reproducible, and it works.

SAMS—the School of Advanced Military Studies, made up of the one-year Advanced Military Studies Program for majors and junior lieutenant colonels and the two-year Advanced Strategic Leadership Studies Program for senior lieutenant colonels and colonels—is the Army’s premiere planning course for field-grade officers. As the Rangers are to the infantry, SAMSters are to mere mortals who plan. If you have MDMP questions, find a SAMSter. As the “Jedi Knights” of the planning process, SAMSters focus on the holy trinity of history, theory, and doctrine.

MDMP is a seven-step process. Hand-waving any of the steps causes problems later in the process. Each subsequent step requires the outputs of the previous step in order to work. Planners. Cannot. Skip. Any. Of. The. Steps.

One of the first things you will notice is that staffs skip a lot of the steps. Staffs at higher echelons are not immune from this problem: upon receipt of the higher headquarters’ order, planners notice important chunks of the order are “to be published”—a euphemism for “we aren’t going to write this.” One of the most elusive unicorns is the running estimate—a key responsibility of the special staff and vital to both the commander’s situational understanding and the planning team’s ability to get to work. Similarly, “gathering the tools” is supposed to involve collecting the physical items the planners will require to embark on the planning process. There is always someone who thinks digital copies of everything will do; those people are always wrong. A good planning SOP gives the G5 sergeant major the authority to mortally knife-hand anyone who suggests the Command Post of the Future—or whatever macabre torture device it is being replaced with—makes paper unnecessary.

Making up tactical tasks is another big problem. Old-school planners start to sweat when the draft mission statement does not include any words defined in Army Doctrine Publication 1-02, Terms and Military Symbols. If the best verb the planners can come up with is “conduct” (as in “conduct training”), the commander should make them think more. And better.

Serve MDMP as early as you can, as it takes time before it is ready for consumption. Bear in mind no one will enjoy it until after the commander has signed off on the draft and the final version has been sent to ops for publication and distribution.

Mochi – RDSP

Not so much a planning process as an excuse to avoid a planning process, under the Rapid Decision-Making and Synchronization Process “leaders combine their experiences and intuition to quickly understand the situation and develop a [course of action].” This process is colloquially known as two majors in a room, making decisions. It’s what the future operations cell does when they write a branch or a sequel to the original plan.

Serve as a . . . actually, you know what, just choke it down.

A Broken Bowl (“Why is my ice cream all over the floor?”) – Red Teaming

Red teaming is understanding the existential limits of our own understanding—internalizing Plato’s parable of the cave—and then helping plan the war from inside the cave. Red teaming challenges assumptions and takes a critical look at the planning process to identify oversights. As it turns out, the Army’s monoculture is an exploitable organizational weakness and red teaming is the closest thing the Army has to a cure.

Red teaming examines the problem set through a different lens. Special techniques are used to tease out invalid assumptions and point out mistakes that can arise due to staff groupthink, garden-variety ignorance, or too-specific commanders’ guidance that narrows the scope of the problem so that its true nature is not perceived. It does not involve establishing a full-fledged parallel planning cell.

Red teamers can study at Fort Leavenworth’s University for Foreign Military and Cultural Studies for six, nine, or sixteen weeks. Red teamers are not smarter than everyone else; they are just keenly aware of the fog of ignorance we all swim in but mostly ignore. Burdened with this knowledge, they think differently.

The nature of red teaming is difficult to discern. It may be a container in which other planning disciplines are served, it may be an edible wrapper that is itself consumed and complements the dish, or it may be a like dry ice—it helps us get to where we need to go but evaporates before the dish is consumed. Maybe we shouldn’t be eating ice cream at all? Whatever it is, red teaming can’t be consumed on its own, but has the potential to make everything else more wholesome, nutritious, and more delicious. Red teaming can start off adding a bitter taste. But combined with a large dollop of irreverence and a healthy splash of command-group support, it can be a sweet and worthwhile addition to almost any dish. More important than the taste is the overall effect: consume just enough red teaming and your plan will be much more sound. An organization that consumes too little red teaming, on the other hand, can see their plan fail in a way that could have been foreseen and prevented. A staff that takes in too much red teaming can find itself wondering why God has abandoned them, swallowed up by the cave of nihilism.

So, do you think you have a big enough appetite for all these treats? Before entering into the planning universe, it is always good to know what specialized planning task presents itself. At the very least, appreciate the cornucopia of flavors that go into a division OPORD.


Garri Benjamin Hendell is a major in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. In addition to serving in leadership positions as a cavalry scout, he has graduated from courses in two of the specialized planning disciplines mentioned in the article and served overseas as both a squadron plans officer and as a division strategic planner, and is currently assigned as a (non-ORSA) division assessment officer.

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: Sgt. Anshu Pandeya, US Army