This article describes five ideas for planning teams to focus thinking, enhance collective understanding and develop actionable solutions through: (1) defining the problem; (2) posture; (3) command, control, battlespace and authorities; (4) risk; and (5) end states. This article aims to ensure that planning teams have the knowledge to plan cooperatively, collaboratively, confidently and accurately.

Planning is an ephemeral skill. In a fleeting moment, a planning team can seize, or lose, the initiative against an enemy or a competitor. Gaining and maintaining the initiative requires an organised, empowered and collegiate planning team deliberately defining and understanding key strategic, operational and tactical opportunities. Initiative and momentum, gained through planning agility, leadership and practiced cognitive skills, are necessary to ensure planning teams are appropriately directed, enabled and resourced.

The five ideas in this article are collected by the author based upon education, on-the-job experience, training exercises, whole-of-government interactions, peacekeeping and combat operations. More importantly, these five ideas are collected through iterative personal growth and development including reading, listening, learning, leading, failing, adapting, cooperating, collaborating, supporting and succeeding. Like physical exercise, the mental exercise of planning requires varied and dynamic exertion, practice and refinement.

How Western militaries plan

The five ideas in this article aim to assist planners to effectively employ relevant planning processes. Iteratively schooled in planning processes from the commencement of their service, military professionals are educated to form or join collaborative planning teams to solve problems. In Western militaries, our plethora of planning processes include, among others:

  • Australian Defence Force, Joint Military Appreciation Process (JMAP)
  • Australian Army, The Military Appreciation Process (MAP)
  • Canadian Forces, Operational Planning Process (CF OPP)
  • NATO, Operational Planning Process (OPP)
  • UK, Joint Operations Planning
  • US Army, Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP)
  • US Army, The Operations Process
  • US Joint Operation Planning Process (JOPP)
  • US Marine Corps Planning Process (MCPP)
  • US Special Operations Command, Strategic Planning Process (SPP)

In the Australian Defence Force, these planning processes are studied, practised, rehearsed and applied in training centres, schools and all command levels. From corporal to general, and their joint equivalents, planning processes are employed to enhance understanding, solve problems and recommend decisions.

Varying slightly, Western military planning processes ‘use a…sequential series of procedures that translate higher command’s intent and desired end-state into concrete missions, tasks, objectives, and lines of operation in a reductionist, linear logic’.[1] Reductionism is ‘the practice of analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents’.[2]

In applying reductionism, the six-steps common in Western military planning processes are summarised as:

  1. What is our environment? Analyse human factors (enemy, competitors, own forces, populations, stakeholders, history, culture, policy, diplomacy, civil, information, infrastructure, economy, military, etc.), combined with geographic, technological, electromagnetic and cyber factors, impacting the problem we must solve.
  2. What problem must we solve? Define the problem.
  3. How do we solve the problem? Develop options, or courses of action, to solve the defined problem.
  4. Will our proposed solutions work? Analyse options, or courses of action, developed to solve the defined problem.
  5. Recommend a decision. Decide upon a solution to the problem.
  6. Implement a solution. Complete and issue direction, usually via an order or plan. Assess and review until the task is complete or the task changes as the environment changes.

These planning processes provide a solid base of knowledge for military professionals to plan. However, a base of planning knowledge is only the beginning of our journey to planning professional mastery. As planners learn and develop, they may find that the various permutations available to lead and implement various planning processes, can create uncertainty, or worse, inertia from planners.

Therefore, as noted, this article articulates five ideas on maximising benefits from planning teams.

Idea 1: Defining the problem  

Arguably, defining the problem is the most difficult and most important component of a planning process. As earlier described, the ‘defined problem’ remains paramount through each step of Western militaries’ six-step planning processes. The difficulty in defining the problem is concomitantly rewarded when a problem is simplified, and inched toward solutions, through disassembly, consideration, examination, discussion and review. Axiomatically, without problem definition, planners cannot effectively apply effort, time and resources to deconstructing, considering and solving a problem they do not understand.  

Effective problem definition provides commanders context for how one problem relates to their other competing priorities. Commanders are, or should be, the best planners in an organisation. When defining problems, commanders can add clarity and speed to the planning process through their experience, connections to peers and superiors, broad sense of organisational pressures and risk and tactical, operational and strategic understanding.  

However, tired, busy and overworked commanders benefit from planning teams providing broad and clear context for the problem at hand. This context enables time-pressured commanders to quickly align with the planner’s intimate knowledge of a defined problem. Therefore, planners can effectively bring commanders into the problem, through the following techniques:  

Write a comprehensive and detailed bottom line up front, or BLUF. A BLUF is not limited to one-line or a single sentence. Avoid BLUFs as brief headings or quick introductions. Instead, employ a BLUF as a practical and substantive dialogue with a commander aimed at enhancing the commander’s problem understanding. As a minimum, a BLUF should include:

  • Broad problem definition and background.
  • Who, what, when, where and why of a defined problem.
  • Actions occurred, anticipated or required.
  • The way ahead or next steps, especially defining information planners are seeking from a commander in terms of guidance or a decision to accelerate problem solving.

Following the BLUF, the planners quickly bring the commander into a defined problem by stating:

  • Facts - what planners know as certain or true.
  • Assumptions - what planners have defined so they may continue planning.
  • Unknowns - what planners don’t know and how/when they intend to find out.
  • Who is accountable for solving the problem? Note, it is rare for planners and more common for commanders to hold accountability for actual problem solving. The accountable person may be your commander, their commander, subordinate commanders, flanking commanders or other stakeholders.
  • When/how is the problem solved?

In addition to practical and substantive dialogue with their commander, planners should spend all time necessary on problem definition to reduce problem ambiguity. In defining a problem, planners should consider:

  • What guidance on problem definition has a commander provided?
  • How has the commander defined the mission? What is the problem to be solved?
  • What is at the heart of the problem, the centre of gravity – or as Clausewitz states ‘the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends…the point against which all our energies should be directed’.[3]
  • With the problem’s centre of gravity defined, what are the critical capabilities and critical requirements upon which the problem depends? What critical vulnerabilities are present in the problem? How can we define, measure, target, exploit or protect these critical capabilities, requirements and vulnerabilities?[4]

Finally, following centre of gravity definition, planners work to determine what decisions, and under what circumstance, the commander needs to make decisions. In supporting a commander’s decisions, planners in close coordination with commanders:

  • Define, measure and articulate a commander’s decision points.
  • Identify ways, or options, for the commander to achieve a mission. What actions are occurring to solve the problem? What actions can continue? What actions must stop?
  • Define means, or resources, allocated by the commander to achieve a mission.
  • Articulate ends, or objectives, the commander envisions for mission success.
  • Design and apply a defeat mechanism to the problem? A defeat mechanism may be defined as:
  • Shattering the enemy’s plans and dispositions;
  • Precluding the enemy from adapting, recovering, and reconstituting; and,
  • Breaking the enemy’s will for organised resistance.[5]

Idea 2: Command, control, battlespace and authorities  

Fifteen years ago, this author believed that ‘defining the battlespace and establishing a clear command and control system should be regarded as the very essence of effective planning at the operational level of war’.[6] With further experience, this author has added ‘authorities’ to the essential pairing of battlespace and command and control.  

Authorities, by another name, are known as caveats. While caveats are deemed pejorative, defining what a force cannot do, authorities emphasise the positive – what a force is permitted to do. For example, it is common for lead-nations in an operation to talk of coalition and partner ‘caveats’ in the same sentence when discussing their own ‘authorities’. Authorities range all combat functions including: command relationships; intelligence sharing; movement and manoeuvre including access, basing and overflights; lethal and non-lethal targeting permissions; logistics provision and support; and, force protection requirements.  

Authorities are most effective when accompanied by resources. Resources enabling authorities ensure command and control effectiveness. Where command and control provide a framework for operations, authorities with resources provide the parameters for that framework. Command and control define a strategic, operational and tactical vision, while resourced authorities define the practicalities of a plan’s feasibility, sustainability and acceptability.  

Considered in two parts, command and control encompasses:  

  • Command is the ‘exercise of authority [where] the commander decides what needs to be done and [then] directs or influences the conduct of others’.[7]
  • Control is feedback about the effects of the action taken. Feedback is the ‘the continuous flow of information about the unfolding situation returning to the commander—which allows the commander to adjust and modify command action as needed’.[8] Feedback provides information on the difference between a commander’s goals and the situation as it exists.

Importantly, command relationships are influenced by personal relationships. If commanders know each other, personally and professionally before a mission, then their personal relationship will influence, for good or bad, their command and control relationship. When establishing missions, planners in conjunction with commanders, should consider how to complement command and control relationships with known commanders’ personal relationships.  

In defining command and control, planners recommend the method of command. In coalition warfare, especially in warfare partnering the United States, there are generally four options enunciating methods of command:  

  • Operational control: the authority to perform those functions of command over subordinate forces involving organising and employing commands and forces, assigning tasks, designating objectives, and giving authoritative direction necessary to accomplish the mission.[9]
  • Tactical control: the authority over forces that is limited to the detailed direction and control of movements or maneuvers within the operational area necessary to accomplish missions or tasks assigned.[10]
  • Supported commander: in the context of a support command relationship, the commander who receives assistance from another commander’s force or capabilities, and who is responsible for ensuring that the supporting commander understands the assistance required.[11]
  • Supporting commander: in the context of a support command relationship, the commander who aids, protects, complements, or sustains another commander’s force, and who is responsible for providing the assistance required by the supported commander.[12]

Finally, in defining battlespace, planners should focus on the following details:  

  • What are the seams and boundaries of a mission, task and geographic area? What seams and boundaries already exist, including clan, tribal, local government, emergency services, school districts, business, etc.? Is there benefit in our mission boundaries aligning with existing boundaries?
  • How do these seams and boundaries offer opportunities to collaborate with host nations, flanking units, formations, coalition partners or neighbouring nations?
  • In taking advantage of collaboration, how do we establish intra-boundary and cross-boundary liaison, communications, support and learning?
  • In non-linear battlespaces – that is battlespaces with, potentially, global boundaries - coordination by planners requires early and continuous analysis, cooperation and support from specialist communities including: government, diplomatic, civil, maritime, air, land, special operations, transportation, strategic strike, cyber, information and web-based practitioners.

Idea 3: Posture  

Posture of a force, available to solve a problem for planners, is defined through three interdependent metrics – (1) forces available for a task, (2) footprint or location of forces, and (3) agreements enabling or restricting force deployment and employment. In summary, posture is:  

forces, footprint, and agreements…aligning basing and forces to ensure theatre and global security, respond to contingency scenarios, and provide strategic flexibility.[13]      

In understanding and articulating force posture, planners should consider:  

  • What are the enemies’ and competitors’ postures (forces, footprint & agreements)?
  • What are our own organisations’, including subordinate commands’, main efforts and supporting efforts?[14]
  • Under what conditions are our own organisations available to solve the problem of force posture? Do our organisations possess scalable capabilities to surge and solve posture problems? What is their notice-to-move?
  • Where are our required organisations located? Do they need to move and/or reorganise? Do they need additional training, resources or time?
  • Through what sequence will our units progress for deployment? When do our units assemble, deploy/redeploy, achieve initial operational capability and achieve full operational capability?[15]
  • Are there other organisations that planners may request to ensure a problem is solved? Note for intractable posture issues, such as access to a restrictive sovereign nation, planners may consider requesting support from organisations external to standard military organisations, including whole-of-government, industry, community, coalition, partner and allied capabilities.

Finally, planners should conduct a posture conditions check, of forces, footprint & agreements, prior to launching an operation, or executing a plan’s branch or sequel. A conditions check may include confirming:

  • Policy agreement and compliance
  • Doctrine alignment
  • Weather
  • Indicators and warnings
  • Force readiness
  • Confirmed objectives
  • Agreed command, control, battlespace and authorities
  • External to mission significant tasks, risks, sunk costs and opportunity costs.

Idea 4: Risk  

Planners may become so busy and immersed in their work that they neglect assessment of risk. Early risk assessment, continuously-considered, serves to test assumptions and identify planning weaknesses or resource shortfalls. Risk assessment enables commanders, if necessary, to amend plans and/or allocate or request additional resources. Employed through a continuous-cycle, a four-step risk assessment framework includes:[16]  

  1. Problem Framing - establishing the risk conventions and ‘risk to what?’
  2. Risk Assessment - identifying and scaling threats, ‘risk from what?’
  3. Risk Judgment - developing a risk profile, ‘how much risk?’ and Evaluating the Risk - ‘how much risk is ok?’
  4. Risk Management - decisions and actions to accept or mitigate threats, ‘what should be done about the risk?’

Importantly, planners should assess risk as they design appropriate command, control, battlespace and authorities for a mission. These risk assessments may include:

  • What is the risk to mission? Who owns the risk? For how long is risk to mission held?
  • What is the risk to force? Who owns the risk? For how long is risk to force held?
  • What are our measures of risk? For example, defining risk to mission and risk to force in categories of high, significant, moderate and low risk.[17]

Risk to mission and risk to force may not always align. For example, a commander may accept a significant risk to mission – e.g. an organisation can achieve most, but not all, critical objectives – while also accepting a moderate risk to force – e.g. an organisation has all appropriate available resources and critical contingency requirements.[18] In other words, a commander accepts that a plan may not achieve all mission objectives, while simultaneously ensuring the people executing the plan are appropriately resourced and supported. This resourcing and support includes critical contingencies, such as reinforcement, employing the commander’s reserve, medical evacuation, personnel recovery or crisis response.  

Finally, risk is not an idea or entity separate from operational effects. A useful measure of risk, and determining whether we are accepting too much risk or too little risk, is linking risk to performance. The two key performance parameters for planners are:  

Did we do it right? What are our measures of performance (MOP)? An MOP is any convenient measure of mission and task achievement. Examples are measurement and estimation errors, report time accuracy, detection probability, mission cost, reliability and availability.[19]

Were the things we did the right things? What are our measures of effectiveness (MOE)? An MOE expresses the extent to which an MOP satisfies a desired outcome to a commander’s satisfaction or compliance. Importantly:  

  • Avoid creating MOEs that require additional reporting requirements from subordinates.
  • Select only MOEs that measure the degree to which the desired outcome is achieved
  • Choose distinct MOEs.
  • Include MOEs from different causal chains.
  • Use the same MOEs to measure more than one condition when appropriate.
  • Structure MOEs so that they have measurable, collectable and relevant indicators.
  • Write MOEs as statements, not questions.[20]

Idea 5: End States  

Planners begin planning with the end in mind.[21] End states are required conditions defining achievement of a commander’s objectives, including assessing the end of an action, phase, operation or campaign.[22]  

End states rely on clear policy and strategy, which may or may not be available when planners develop a plan. Often, end states require reassessment and amendment when changes occur in the: situation; policy; enemy actions; friendly force capabilities, including coalition contributions; or, external factors. End states are a critical component of planning and must be continuously reviewed by commanders and planners and, if necessary, modified to maintain their relevance.

Key aspects of end state development by planners include:

  • Visualise, describe and measure culmination and termination criteria for our forces. A culmination point is ‘when a system no longer possesses the power to continue an operation’.[23] Termination criteria are the ‘specified standards approved by a commander that must be met before an operation can conclude’.[24]
  • Assess costs when developing options and end states for our forces, defined as:
  • Sunk costs where planners assist commanders to ‘decide the ceiling on acceptable costs and link [these costs] to the end state’. There is a temptation, like ‘bidders at an auction’ for commanders to ‘pay more than they intended [and] make the irrational but understandable mistake of letting sunk [or unrecoverable] costs rather than prospective additional costs’ influence their decisions.[25]
  • Opportunity costs of other activities or capabilities foregone. For planners, opportunity cost means optimal delivery of capabilities and effects, with acceptable risk and minimal wastage, enabling more activities or capabilities available for other priorities.
  • Plan and develop branches and sequels. A branch is a contingency option built into a base plan used for ‘changing the mission, orientation, or direction of movement of a force to aid success of the operation based on anticipated events, opportunities, or disruptions caused by enemy actions and reactions’.[26] A sequel is the ‘subsequent operation or phase based on the possible outcomes of the current operation or phase’.[27]


This article describes five ideas employed by planners to focus thinking, enhance collective understanding and develop actionable solutions through:  

  1. Defining the problem
  2. Posture
  3. Command and Control, battlespace and authorities
  4. Risk
  5. End States

This article aims to ensure that planning teams have the knowledge to plan cooperatively, collaboratively, confidently and accurately.  

Planning is iterative and demands practice. Like all skills, our planning skills fade and degrade if not rehearsed and practiced. Sound planning that gains and maintains the initiative against adaptive enemies requires organised, empowered and collegiate teams calmly and deliberately defining key strategic, operational and tactical opportunities.  

The five ideas in this article are collected by the author based upon education, on-the-job experience, training exercises, whole-of-government interactions, peacekeeping and combat operations. More importantly, these five ideas are collected through iterative personal growth and development including reading, listening, learning, leading, adapting, cooperating, collaborating, supporting, succeeding and failing. Like physical exercise, the mental exercise of planning requires constant exertion, practice and refinement.  

Finally, to give hope to planners who grind on plans, without respite, this article recommends US President Eisenhower’s dictum that: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning…you must start with this one thing: the very definition of [military planning] is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.[28]