Tactical and Technical

Tactical Spurs Part One: Making Plans to Fight Battles

By Tom McDermott August 28, 2020

Introduction: The plan is nothing

Dwight Eisenhower was spot on when he famously said, ‘plans are nothing: planning is everything’.  But, as tacticians, it is worth asking ourselves what Eisenhower really meant by this, and what it means to us.  Does the plan really mean nothing?  And what bit of ‘planning’ did he consider to be ‘everything’?  How do we bring this famous phrase down to our level and draw useful, tactical benefit from it?

To me as a Battlegroup (BG) Commander, Eisenhower’s quote is about the inherent chaos and uncertainty of warfare.  While we can - and always must - make assumptions about what might happen, we can never truly predict the future: especially when we face a human enemy who always gets a vote.  The enemy won’t withdraw when we thought they would, nor will they be where we predicted.  The escarpment that we assumed would be passable for a tank, won’t be.  The weather that we assumed would be good, will be rubbish.  In short, the ‘plan’ will never work.  Indeed if we try to blindly execute it, we will fail.

Tactical success instead therefore lies in our ability to handle the chaos and uncertainty.  Once in contact, we need to be able to make the right tactical decisions and place the right assets in the right place, faster and more effectively than our adapting adversary.  This is where the true value of ‘planning’ lies.  Planning, if conducted well, forces us to analyse the uncertainty of the forthcoming fight: to grab it and to try to wrestle it under control.  It makes us think about what we want and what our enemy wants, and how the two interact.  It makes us consider what we cannot change things like the terrain and the weather, and consider what we can change.  Planning forces us to take assumptions and then continually challenge them.  If done really well, planning acts almost as ‘pre-thought’, allowing us to develop agreed contingency plans and options that we can enact as soon as conditions are met: without pause or hesitation. 

To use Boyd’s famous phrases, good planning improves our ability to observe, orient, decide and act faster and better than our enemy.  It helps us keep the initiative and prevents us getting bogged down.

What about the products of planning?

But if the plan is nothing, what about the staff products we produce from planning?  Are they as unreliable as the plan itself, doomed to irrelevance as soon as the LD is crossed?  Far too often this is the case.  Exquisite Decision Support Overlay Matrices (DSOMs), produced over many sleepless nights, are never looked at again.  Mountainous Synch Matrices are found to be so cumbersome that they simply cannot keep up with a changing battle.  ISR overlays with tens of NAIs, unlinked to either assets or decisions, never make it onto the maps of the fighting echelon.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Done well, the products of the plan can be the secret to rapid, effective and decentralised execution.  They can be the way in which the analytical rigour of ‘planning’ is brought to life.  They can be the key to what we call ‘orchestration’: the wielding of assets to apply overwhelming psychological and physical pressure on an adversary.

Over the years, I have come to conclude that there are six outputs of planning that are key in fighting battles.  They are:

  • the Commander’s Intent,
  • a single set of Control Measures,
  • a useable Synch Matrix,
  • a clear understand of Risk Appetite,
  • agreed Contingency Plans and Decision Points, and
  • the Wargame

More tools than products, these are key because they help us leverage and hold onto the invaluable analysis that comes from ‘planning’.  From the start of the process, both commanders and staff should have the production of these tools in mind.  I’ll break them down one by one.

Commander’s Intent.  Of all the elements of an Operational Order, this is the most important … indeed perhaps the only truly important … part.  The Commander’s Intent seeks to capture, in simple but sophisticated terms, what success looks like at the end of the operation.  Such a clear intent allows all effort to be unified: especially once contact is joined, and the plan is forced to evolve and adapt.  Because this vision can only truly exist in the mind of the commander, it is vital that the commander writes it themselves.  Only the commander can find the right words to capture what the vision looks like.  In my view, even initial drafting of the intent by the staff can ruin this effort, as it almost inevitably shapes the commander’s vocabulary in a way that they wouldn’t choose themselves. 

I can’t capture the purpose of the intent better than Field Marshal Slim in Defeat into Victory, when he writes, ‘dozens of operations orders have gone out in my name … but I never, throughout the war, actually wrote one myself.  One part of the order I did, however, draft myself: the intention.  It is usually the shortest of all paragraphs, but it is always the most important, because it states – or it should – just what the commander intends to achieve.  It is the one overriding expression of will by which everything in the order and every action by every commander and soldier in the army must be dominated.’  But it is not enough for the commander to just write the intent themselves, they have to write it well.  It takes skill and experience to craft an intent statement.  It must be specific enough to unify effort across a diverse organisation, but vague enough so as not to stifle creativity.  It must be vibrant and creative, a sharing of the vision that exists in the commander’s mind.  And it must, on the balance of probabilities, be achievable.

Control Measures.  For the conduct of every operation we invariably draw lines on maps to help us control the orchestration of forces.  Some of these lines are there to guide us forward.  Others are designed to restrain: to prevent us from over-extending, losing balance, or triggering a pre-considered enemy action.  The best ones; however, are those that help us to adjust the plan whilst in execution.  Such control measures allow us to rapidly re-orientate manoeuvre forces on the fly, or trigger pre-established contingency plans when a certain set of conditions are met.  While every set is unique, I have found that there are three general rules that help produce a good set of control measures.

First, control measures must be logical and linked back to the analysis of planning.  The planner must be able to explain why each measure is there: its purpose, the asset it relates to and what triggers its use.  The chain of action and the chain of decision must be clear.  If the logic of a control measure cannot be explained, it is superfluous and should be removed.  Second, control measures must be simple and memorable.  While Battle Management Systems (BMS) now provide accuracy and reliable updates, control measures are still almost always going to find themselves on a commander’s physical map … and more importantly, imprinted in the commander’s head.  Crew commanders must be able to use them on the move, at night, in red light, with the turret backwards, and while eating an oily cheese sandwich.  Naming is vital.  It is far easier to remember a country name than an NAI number and if these are laid out alphabetically from north to south, then even better. 

Finally, there must be a single master set of control measures, approved by the BG commander.  Shadow sets of intelligence or logistics measures designed by the S2 or S4 create confusion and lack command approval and analysis.  If a control measure is important enough that it will be used to fight the battle, then give it a name and get it on the master trace.  The generation of a set of fighting control measures is an art, but if you can get it right, it will build deep flexibility into your plan.

The Synch Matrix.  There is no such thing as single-domain tactics anymore.  Or at least there shouldn’t be.  Every tactical action we take should now be multi-domain and intrinsically joint.  As such, our new skill set revolves around what I increasingly call ‘tactical jointery’: the ability to synchronise joint assets at the lowest tactical level to overmatch an adversary. 

At the heart of this skill is the Synch Matrix.  This tool should allow us, at a quick glance, to understand how we are layering and combining assets to make the whole more than the sum of its parts.  Like control measures, the secret of a good Synch Matrix is to make it simple yet sophisticated.  A Synch Matrix is above all an execution tool, and therefore it needs to be able to be printed and placed in a commander’s folder, or stuck on the back of a map board.  It doesn’t need to be complicated, and should be kept effects-based: simply listing the effect each unit is dedicated to at a given time, where this is taking place, and any key interdependencies.  A good Synch Matrix will include a summary of expected enemy actions (which keeps the tool adversarial in nature) and assessed decision points.  It will also include key elements of meteorology and ephemerals, helping commanders to understand how these might be leveraged against the enemy.  Critically it must include the Reserve, and its priorities at each phase.

There is only one real test of a Synch Matrix: whether it adds value in execution.  As the battle evolves it should help commanders at all levels to rapidly adjust: understanding where assets can and cannot be re-synchronised to dominate a changing battlefield.  Often the allocation of joint assets (particularly ISR and joint fires) will be fixed far in advance and many echelons above and won’t be able to be changed.  A good Synch Matrix well reveal this, helping a commander understand where their freedom of adjustment lies.  Critically, it will also help him or her articulate risk to his higher HQ, fighting for additional assets.  The classic sign of a bad Synch Matrix is if it never again sees the light of day following planning.  Whether too cumbersome, too complicated, too inaccessible, or all of the above, this sort of Synch Matrix fails to add value and is thus forgotten.  The resulting poor synchronisation of assets invariably hurts.

Risk Appetite.  Every military decision is a risk decision, and we don’t (in general) spend enough time studying and honing our understanding of risk theory.  We also endemically view risk as a bad thing, which is wrong-headed.  Almost everything in combat is dangerous – especially doing nothing – and therefore we simply can’t execute tactics without taking risk. 

A risk is defined by the Australian Army as a dangerous event that is made up of two parts: likelihood and consequence.  An event that has a high likelihood and high consequence is a serious risk, and vice versa … with a sliding scale in between.  But in terms of tactical risk there is a key third factor in analysis that is often missing: the potential benefit of taking the risk.  There are times when a commander might be faced with an action that is exceptional risky, but if successful it might prove decisive: for example the early insertion by aviation of clandestine reconnaissance patrols well outside of the range of friendly force support.  This is a choice the commander might well choose to make, as he or she moves to embrace high risk for the clear potential of a tactical payoff.

Rather than looking at risk as a negative thing, it is therefore far better to divide risk into bad risk and good risk.  Analysis in planning helps us to identify bad risk, and then ruthlessly treat or terminate it as best we can.  But planning must also help us identify and understand good risk: the sort of risk we should seek to embrace and accept as we pursue tactical success.  Ultimately, all risk is owned by the BG commander.  It is therefore key that he or she formally articulates what the appetite for risk is.  My habit is to do this as a set of statements, along the lines of ‘I will accept risk in …’, and ‘I will not accept risk in’.  Like the intent, a clear understanding across the BG of good risk, bad risk, and the commander’s appetite for risk is key in enabling decentralised execution and mission command.

Contingency Plans and Decision Points.  Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the great German tank commander, was a fan of embracing big, bold risk.  But he differentiated between ‘boldness’ and ‘gambling’.  A bold plan, he said, was one in which success was not certain, but if it failed you had forces at hand to recover.  A gamble on the other hand is an operation that leads to either total victory or the utter destruction of your force.  Sometimes, as Rommel says, the gamble is justified … but it is obviously preferable to be able to recover if it all goes wrong!

This is where contingency plans (CONPLANs) and Decision Points (DPs) come in.  As planning progresses and as the S3 friendly analysis starts to interact with the S2 enemy analysis, clear points tend to emerge where the fight will go one way or the other: a little like one of the classic, choose-your-own adventure novels.  To respond to these moments, planners need to develop clear, crisp CONPLANs, along with related DPs to trigger them.  Done well, these CONPLANs and DPs act almost as ‘pre-thought’, enabling the BG to react in the face of the enemy without further consideration or orders.  But CONPLANs and DPs can’t be vague, ephemeral ideas.  They need to be clearly articulated, resourced, rehearsed and ready.  While it might sound obvious, the start-point to this is giving them a name and writing them into the orders.  Once you can ‘google’ it, it starts to exist … and then you are on the right path to avoiding the gamble.

The Wargame.  Of the five steps of the MAP, two should be pre-eminent: especially if you are under time-pressure.  The first is mission analysis, which leads to the all-important commander’s intent.  The second is the conduct of a Wargame (or multiple wargames) as part of COA analysis and refinement.  If you are going to invest time in something, invest it in Wargames.  These adversarial, analytical activities are at the heart of the quality of the five tools I have listed above.  If conducted well, they assesses if a plan has a fair chance, all things being equal, of achieving the intent.  They lead to improvements and additions to control measures, testing that each one is grounded in inherent logic.  They check the vertical alignment of the Synch, confirming that assets are massed and aligned at the right time to have the best effect and checking that CONPLANs and DPs are realistic and understood.  Finally they allow the commander to examine his or her risk appetite, bringing ‘good risk’ to the forefront, and examining how ‘bad risk’ will be terminated.

There are a thousand ways to wargame, ranging from a hasty movement of stones across a map, through to sophisticated AI-enabled simulations tools.  However one chooses to do it doesn’t matter, but it must be done.  Games must have two sides, with the enemy played as independently and realistically as possible.  They must be taken slow and steady: don’t let people get rushed by nerves.  They will always take longer than you think, so must be ruthlessly controlled by the Operations Officer.  The commander doesn’t run them: he or she applies friction and tests the plan.  Run many of them if you have time!  And make sure you have a goddamn scribe, who actually absorbs the outcomes into the planning.  If the final orders and control measures don’t have the lessons of the wargames within them, then you haven’t wargamed.

Conclusion: The Troop Leader’s Perspective

As a BG commander you are taught to think two down, and task one down.  I try to keep ‘two down’ at the front of my mind when considering the outputs of planning.  I imagine young Troop Leaders in major combat, who have attended BG or CT orders and are now scrambling back to their troops to prepare for battle.  Time is invariably against them and friction will be piling on.  They won’t have slept, the light will be fading and they will be nervous of what will happen.  Their Troop Sergeant won’t have been with them for orders, so it is their responsibility to get the message across.  They are where the rubber hits the road.  What do they really need to be carrying as they leave the ‘O Gp’?  What will make their lives easier and their likelihood of tactical success better?  How do we help?

My answer is that we give them the six tools above.  They need to understand the commander’s intent, so that if it all goes to hell, they’ve lost comms and they are separated from their CT, they know what the commander wants them to do.  They need a single, simple yet sophisticated set of control measures, both on their map as they leave orders and on the BMS in their turret, which will help them adapt the plan when the plan invariably changes.  They need to have the same Synch Matrix as the BG commander, so they know when they have assets and their risk is low, and when they don’t and the risk is high.  They need to know the CONPLANS and DPs: if the enemy is in AI EAGLE when they get there, this activates a DP and triggers CONPLAN VIPER (the re-orientation of the CT to the west to DEFEAT the enemy counter-attack).  They need to know that the commander wants them to take the good risk of pursuing the enemy if the opportunity emerges, but that he or she will court-martial them if they trigger the bad risk of crossing the Limit of Exploitation!  Finally, they need the confidence of the wargames: the knowledge that the fighting tools have been tested and proven, as much as is possible in the chaos of war.

To return to Eisenhower, ‘planning is everything’ because, done well, it has the ability to give young combat commanders the tools to fight.  Achieving this as a Battle Group HQ is; however, an art not a science.  Learning this art is the first responsibility of BG commanders and staff and I hope in a small way that this first ‘tactical spur’ keeps us on the right line.



Tom McDermott

Tom McDermott is a serving Australian Army Officer and a student of strategy and military ethics. You can follow him on Twitter via the handle @helmandproject.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


Tom, great article, I think you have really captured the core essence of the art of planning. I really like your analysis of Eisenhower’s statement. I think that planning is about pre thinking, to optimise Synchronisation and options at the decisive moment, and I think you really get at that in this article. I think your core outputs are on the money, and would commend these to planners at all echelons. Thanks for sharing this, I have filed it to reflect on for The next JPG.

Tom McDermott’s input enhances the debate on planning. I would like to offer a few perspectives to add value to the discussions. The mission is an essential output of the analysis of the superior commander’s intent. Accordingly, the commander may choose to refine his intent statement following the mission analysis process. Risk appetite is a misnomer. The discussion on ‘risk appetite’ is likely to confuse understanding of the commander’s intent. The term is used in several government departments and corporations and confuses rather than enlightens because very few executives can explain or describe their organisation’s risk appetite. ASIC’s recent criticism of one of the ‘big four’ bank’s board of directors suggests that lack of knowledge of their bank’s risk appetite was a contributing factor in the issues identified by the Regulator. Risk appetite is appropriate for say, an investment bank where the board discusses the various risk profiles of selected investments and is willing to take a loss in the pursuit of a profit, but I would argue that the term is not appropriate for government or non-investment-type organisations. Risk is best reviewed as part of mission analysis where freedom of action is considered in terms of restrictions, constraints, risks, and opportunities. Once the mission is agreed, focus should be on achieving the mission that has been shaped by the assessment of threats (risks) and opportunities; or, using Tom’s vernacular, bad risks (threats) and good risks (opportunities). Risk is analysed in terms of likelihood and consequences, and opportunity is analysed in terms of benefit and feasibility. At the conclusion of the analysis process, it will be clear that ‘risk appetite’ per se becomes redundant as the mission analysis has incorporated the freedom of action that the operation permits. The mission risk profile will have been assessed for the level of risk that the mission attracts and therefore, the level of sign- off required for the mission to go ahead - otherwise referred to as risk management authority. Mission command – understanding the commander’s intent assists the junior commander in knowing how to respond when non-predicted threats and opportunities arise post H hour. Risk management is implicit (rather than explicit) in the mission appreciation process and is best left as such. Finally, and since Tom mentioned the risk of “court martial”, it is appropriate to suggest that an addition is made to the planner’s tool kit – the integration of strategic, operational and tactical objectives. Understanding how the strategic, operational and tactical objectives are integrated (or nested) will reduce the likelihood of a risk event occurring that might otherwise lead to a disciplinary hearing. Nonetheless, Tom’s article is thought-provoking and enhances the debate.

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