Military professionals must be good planners. General George S. Patton Jr. wrote: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.”1 President (and retired General of the Army) Dwight D. Eisenhower similarly said: “If you haven’t been planning you can’t start to work, intelligently at least.”2 Finally, some unknown but brilliant philosopher said: “Proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance.”
Planning is, therefore, a core competency of a naval warfighter, as important as seamanship, navigation, leadership, training, maintenance, and tactics. The ability to do all of those other core competencies is meaningless if a unit cannot plan its way out of port.
Given the importance of planning, it is worth revisiting how the Navy trains and prepares its officers to plan at the tactical level. Joint professional military education stresses planning at the operational and strategic levels of war but leaves tactical planning to the individual warfighting communities. And although these communities focus appropriately on tactics, which are the maneuvers between tactical units, there is not as much focus on the tactical planning that should occur to ensure units enter a situation at the best advantage.
When I trained to become a submarine department head, I did not receive the same sort of in-depth training in the intricacies of planning as I did about submerged navigation, communications, weapons, and engineering. Although I benefited tremendously from mentorship by both of my commanding officers (COs) when I served as an operations officer in two submarines, my first sustained experience with having my plans evaluated and critiqued did not occur until I took the Submarine Command Course as a prospective executive officer (XO). Afterward, as an XO, I realized that my department heads similarly did not have the background or training to adequately plan some of the more complex operations we carried out.
What makes me believe my experience was not isolated to my own ships or exclusive to the submarine force are lessons learned from recent unfortunate incidents in which lives were lost and mission objectives were not achieved, such as the capture of two Riverine Command boats off Farsi Island in January 2016 or the 2017 collisions involving the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and John S. McCain (DDG-56). In all three incidents, there was a common factor: a lack of prior proper planning.
Readers may argue that these mishaps are the exception, not the rule. After all, the vast majority of Navy ships and aircraft have not experienced such incidents. That may be so, but as an Army pilot once said: “The absence of an aviation accident does not mean you’re flying safely; it means you haven’t crashed yet.”3
Friction and Iron Will
The biggest difference between master planners and apprentices (or even journeymen) is an understanding of and respect for the potential of “friction” in any plan. Indeed, many planners are frequently surprised by friction when it occurs. The concept, described by Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, seems easy to grasp:
Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war. . . . Countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal. . . . Friction, as we choose to call it, is the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.4
Friction is not Murphy’s Law, however; everything will not ordinarily go wrong. Friction simply means that something or some things will go wrong.
In addition, Clausewitz’s friction is intrinsically human. Even when it manifests through equipment failure, the cause is normally poor maintenance or improper operation. At Farsi Island, for instance, the friction that led to the crews’ capture stemmed from human causes: the delay in the riverine boats’ departure because of poor maintenance practices, the inadequate repairs that led to the mechanical breakdown of one boat, and the crews’ failure even to realize that the boats were transiting through Iranian waters and therefore to take proper precautions.5
Many leaders approach friction the way Clausewitz expected them to: “Iron will-power can overcome this friction; it pulverizes every obstacle, but of course it wears down the machine as well.”6 This is sometimes referred to as “white-knuckling it.” I have certainly done it on occasion, when I recognized that friction had overcome my plan, time was short, the objective was still achievable, and there was no time to brief a new plan. White-knuckling works, but it requires adequate experience, knowledge, and situational awareness. It is not something that can be executed by a beginner; normally it requires an expert to pull it off.
This expert usually has the capacity not only to do his or her own job, but also to oversee the jobs of most of the other personnel. Such talented individuals merit praise, because they are like most-valuable players on a sports team, able to lift a sometimes-mediocre unit and propel it to greatness. But such iron willpower comes at a cost. Over time, teams—or even entire units—come to rely on these white-knucklers, even though this reliance frequently erodes optimal team operations.
Perhaps the most dangerous scenario is when the white-knuckler is the commanding officer. Team members find it hard to provide forceful backup to the CO, and at some point, the CO’s iron willpower wears down his or her own situational awareness and judgment. When this happens, COs make mistakes, sometimes fatal ones. The 2001 USS Greeneville (SSN-772), 2012 Montpelier (SSN-765), and 2017 John S. McCain collisions had this sort of CO-centered burnout at their core.7
Iron willpower, therefore, is no more than a short-term solution. For sustained tactical success, friction requires long-term solutions, and developing them should eliminate many of the dangers of white-knuckling. To do so requires a design for tactical planning. This design should proceed along three major lines of effort: personnel, training, and tools.
Operations Officers: The Right Experience
When planning for the future, past experience matters. Those who can visualize impending friction and deal with it seem to possess, as Clausewitz says, almost supernatural skill: “Moreover, every war . . . is an uncharted sea, full of reefs. The commander may suspect the reefs’ existence without ever having seen them; now he has to steer past them in the dark.”8 Such supernatural skill is really the benefit of years of experience and the development of muscle memory. Consequently, an experienced operations officer is essential to planning around friction.
But most Navy operations officers are not very experienced. Most are department heads, working directly for a unit’s CO and XO. In submarines, the role is combined with that of the navigator. In all cases, this department head still has to run a department, including overseeing its administration, as well as carrying out collateral assignments, standing watch, and so on. And, unfortunately, many operations officers bring only the knowledge of their first assignments. As a result, they may find nearly every operation they are expected to plan to be a novel event, with no prior experience to draw on.
In the aftermath of the 2012 Montpelier collision, the submarine force stood up operational safety officers (OSOs), emulating naval aviation’s aviation safety officers. OSOs independently review plans and advise the CO. But submarine OSOs are division officers on their first sea tours. While they may be the most senior division officer on board, they usually possess less experience than the more senior operations officer.
This is not how the other armed services plan. In the Army and Marine Corps, the operations officer is equal in rank to the XO (although the XO retains seniority as “first among equals”), and the assignment is often an important stepping-stone to command. The Royal Navy submarine service goes even further and assigns a “command rider” to submarines preparing for missions vital to British national security. The command rider is often a CO of another submarine undergoing prolonged maintenance or a post-XO who has screened for command. The command rider performs a multitude of roles: become intensely familiar with recent intelligence on the area of operations; help draft plans; and provide independent advice to the actual CO of the mission submarine. In short, the Army, Marine Corps, and Royal Navy assign experienced officers, with multiple previous tours or deep specialist knowledge, to oversee tactical operations, without entailing them with other duties or administrative distractions.
There would be a number of benefits if the Navy chose to assign more senior officers as operations officers. They likely would be command-qualified, have previously served as a department head, and be equal or senior in experience to the XO. They would speak with greater authority, and COs would be more likely to solicit and listen to their advice. They would not be encumbered with the administration of a department. And they could be focused entirely on tactical training, planning, and command-level oversight. Such an operations officer would also free the XO from overseeing both training and administration.
In addition, a more senior operations officer billet would lead to more experienced future COs. If operations officers were taken from the same pool of officers who are serving as XOs, as in the Army and Marine Corps model, it would lead to longer XO and operations officer tours, because fewer officers would be available year-to-year to serve in either role. Alternatively, if officers served a split tour as first the operations officer and then the XO, it would ensure significant planning experience in all future COs. There would be a challenge in adjusting the current career paths, but given that the Blended Retirement System has recently altered the incentives and importance of a 20-year retirement, the time might be ripe for such a change.
Training to Plan
Employing senior operations officers will help with identifying friction and planning ahead to reduce it. But Navy units need a more robust and standardized approach to planning. For the most part, units plan with ad hoc processes that owe much to the experiences, talents, and traits of those units’ individual leaders. Consequently, the quality of tactical planning varies widely.
Standardized tactical excellence demands standardized and focused training by experienced leaders. The Royal Navy already does this; its planning course trains prospective operations officers and COs from the surface, submarine, and aviation communities together, which instills a deeper appreciation for the missions of the broader Royal Navy as well as providing exposure to different perspectives.
The U.S. Navy should follow the Royal Navy’s lead and develop a mandatory servicewide tactical planning course for all COs and operations officers. The course should cover, at a minimum, commander’s intent, effective prioritization, risk management, fatigue management, training, and certification.
Special attention should be directed at crafting a commander’s intent. Arguably, this is the CO’s most important planning responsibility. When friction occurs and delays ensue, it is important everyone understand what absolutely needs to happen and what is optional. For example, it may be essential for a ship to be at a certain waypoint at a certain time; it might be optional, however, to communicate while getting there. There may come a moment when a subordinate officer or enlisted supervisor, perhaps even a junior enlisted sailor, may have to make a decision with no time for orders; understanding the commander’s intent may be essential to the successful outcome of the mission. Clear intent and a well-trained crew can obviate the need for a white-knuckling CO.
Some planners do not consider training and certification. But a good plan should include some sort of training to certify a team to conduct the operation—or it should identify what necessary training has already taken place. Such a step would force leaders to confront training gaps before they become apparent in a crisis. Navigating through a crowded strait is not the time to discover that the helmsman and lee helmsman have never practiced split steering.
Finally, this course should eliminate misperceptions about planning. A good plan is not a lengthy procedure, nor is it a checklist. Indeed, plans should be understood to cover a range of products: commander’s intent, priorities, assignments to ensure the right people are in the right place, contingencies for friction, required deliverables, appropriate references, and tripwires to prompt the team to either request help or abort an operation.
When the U.S. Army first stood up its School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth in 1983, there was widespread skepticism about the utility of the course. But after SAMS graduates proved their worth in planning operations in Panama and Kuwait, the Army increasingly assigned them to plan the toughest challenges. The Navy should establish its own SAMS for tactical planning.9
Tools for Planning
In conjunction with a formal and standardized training program, the Navy should also generate a standardized planning process. Before World War II, the Navy trained all its officers to plan for operations at the tactical and operational levels of war with a planning process called “The Estimate of the Situation,” later revised within a publication entitled Sound Military Decision.10 “The Estimate of the Situation” and Sound Military Decision provided a common template that the Naval War College trained with for three decades, from 1910 to 1945. The combination of a proven standardized process and Navy-wide training paid dividends when the Navy went to war in 1941. But when the war was over, the Navy’s most successful planners, particularly Admiral Raymond Spruance, pushed to eliminate this process because they believed it was formulaic and inhibited creative planning.11 Spruance may have been right, but he also overestimated the ability of future planners to replicate his genius; arguably, subsequent Navy doctrinal publications have not adequately replaced “The Estimate.”
The Navy should develop, publish, and train on a new “Estimate of the Situation.” This “Estimate” should not simply be a manual, but also a standardized, user-friendly computer program. Operations officers need to plan three-dimensionally: time, space, and priorities. Most plans include only one dimension: Some are simply a timeline of events, some are a chart with waypoints and a planned track, and others are a list of priorities. A good plan must incorporate all these elements, perhaps on a detailed electronic chart on which a planner can input times, waypoints, and some sort of coding for prioritization.
Some of this is already addressed by the Mission Planning Application (MPA) program, which is on board a select number of surface ships and submarines.12 By evolving MPA and designing a standard planning program for aircraft, surface ships, and submarines, the Navy could also help eliminate stovepipes among warfighting communities and instill an overarching understanding of tactical operations for planners to build on in subsequent tours.
Such a standardized program also could eliminate PowerPoint-driven operations. Instead of preparing quad slides and annotating chartlets on PowerPoint (products that will almost never be used by the team actually executing the operation), operations officers should be able to plan and brief an operation using only the planning program. Not only will such a planning program lift the administrative burden that most slideshow operations briefs have become, but it should also provide a common interface for the entire team to study and prepare for upcoming operations. At some point, perhaps such a program could even replace the commanding officer’s night orders.
Planning is Everything
Whether in peacetime or war, good planning at all levels is essential to overcoming friction and achieving objectives. As President Eisenhower famously said: “I heard long ago in the Army: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”13 Eisenhower’s words still ring true. Good planning allows units to look further into the future, deal with friction more readily, and adapt to last-minute tasking.
As the Navy fully embraces the challenge of great power competition, the need is greater than ever for a strong focus on successful tactical planning. In fact, given the small size of today’s Navy, every tactical unit has assumed greater importance. There is little margin for failure; the Navy can ill-afford units to simply “wing it” or for COs to overcome inadequate planning through iron willpower.
Developing the kind of program outlined here will allow the Navy to take an important step toward ensuring that all tactical planners are ready for sustained and decisive high-end combat.
1. GEN George S. Patton Jr., USA, War as I Knew It, annotated by COL Paul D. Harkins, USA, introduction by Rick Atkinson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947), 354. Emphasis in original.
2. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Remarks at the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference, November 14, 1957,” in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957, 235 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1958), 818.
3. BGEN Paul Bontrager, USA, Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group discussion, 24 January 2014.
4. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret eds. and trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 119, 121.
5. Commander, Destroyer Squadron Fifty, to Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, Ser N00/034, Subj: Command Investigation to Inquire into Incident in the Vicinity of Farsi Island Involving Two Riverine Command Boats (RCB 802 and RCB 805) On or About 12 January 2016, dtd 28 February 2016, Findings of Fact IV.A.21-IV.A.48, IV.B.7-IV.B.18, IV.E.1-IV.G.13.
6. Clausewitz, On War, 119.
7. VADM John B. Nathman, USN, RADM Paul F. Sullivan, USN, RADM David M. Stone, USN, and RADM Isamu Ozawa, JMSDF, to Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, 13 April 2001, Subj: Court of Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Collision Between USS Greeneville (SSN-772) and Japanese M/V Ehime Maru that Occurred off the Coast of Oahu, Hawaii on 9 February 2001, Opinions paras. 9, 10, 14, 22–26, 31–32, 39–42, 52; Commander, Submarine Force Atlantic to Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, dtd 21 Dec 2012, Ser N00/S034, Subj: Command Investigation into the Collision Involving USS San Jacinto (CG 56) and USS Montpelier (SSN 765), para. 1.e; Admiral P. S. Davidson to Vice Chief of Naval Operations, dtd 26 October 2017, Subj: Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents, 11–13.
8. Clausewitz, On War, 120.
9. Kevin C. M. Benson, “Educating the Army’s Jedi: The School of Advanced Military Studies and the Introduction of Operational Art into U.S. Army Doctrine, 1983–1994” (Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 2010).
10. RADM E. C. Kalbfus, USN, Sound Military Decision (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1942), i.
11. John B. Hattendorf, B. Mitchell Simpson, and John R. Wadleigh, Sailors and Scholars: The Centennial History of the U.S. Naval War College (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1984), 70–73, 155–61.
12. Office of Naval Research, “Breakthrough Capability Keeps Subs, Ships on Safe Track,” Navy News Service, Story Number: NNS141216-06, 16 December 2014.
13. Eisenhower, “Remarks at the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference, November 14, 1957,” 818.