Captain David Fields is finishing a 30-year career in the U.S. Navy. For nearly 15 years he has been working for fleet commanders in the Pacific on the nation’s most vital war plans. Here, he offers some thoughts on how the Navy can fix the planning community, how planners should best partner with the intelligence community, and tips on serving a four-star commander.
Nelson: What does the Navy need to do to improve Navy planning?
Fields: We need to maintain a healthy, professional planning cadre—but more importantly, we need to bring talented people back into the planning community. The Navy took a big step forward in 2010 when it created the Naval Operational Planner Specialty Career Path (NOP SCP), but the expected potential for promotion never materialized. At this point, the number one thing that needs to be addressed is providing a viable path to O-6 for the people who choose this path. NOP enjoyed success when it started. Competition was tight to enter and the billet base included O-6 jobs—many folks who wanted to be planners weren’t selected. Folks believed that the four O-6 jobs and the board precepts which prioritized NOP designations implied there was a path to O-6. It was about seven years before we selected our first O-6, and there were less than 20 left in the community. If you want quality folks who will stick around, you have to create a promotion path. The Navy has not assessed new NOP officers for several years and we are left with, at most, 14 professional planners.
But as soon as the Navy was clear they weren’t going to select O-6s, people started to get out. And right now we're left with, at the most, 14 planners in the specialty career track.
Nelson: Is this a case in which the Navy should do what other militaries do and carve out a separate path for a planner early in an officer’s career?
Fields: That's a model, that's the Army model. It works well for them. One way or another, the Navy needs to provide a foundation of expertise to build teams of experts with run time on important targets. I am fortunate in that I not only have an exceptionally strong team, but that team is grounded by 6 civilians who have longevity. My military cadre all have some sort of formal plans training and two have served in multiple planning tours. The longevity of my team is an unqualified advantage—every fleet commander deserves teams with similar experience.
Nelson: Is the Army model the one you'd want to see?
Fields: Yes, but not too early in a career. But somewhere around midgrade O-4, you know whether you're competitive in your community or not. So, go to a planning school, get to your first planning tour and decide if it’s for you. That’s the point at which the Navy should make selections and since you might not go back to your warfare community, the Navy should bias the selections to those with the most operational experience. Once in, you stay in a sea-shore rotation. Today there is too much uncertainty in the career path since planners only get an AQD [additional qualification designation] which aren’t prioritized in the detailing process. If we are serious about planning, we need a designator that creates a distinct career path and competitive category and which provides the right tool to get folks detailed in a way that leverages their experience.
Nelson: How does a planner’s mind-set differ from say, an operator’s mind-set?
Fields: A good planner has skills that are very similar to people that do deep academic research, where the answer that you come up with often doesn’t match the hypothesis that you started with. This is different from the mind-set that is developed as an operator. In operations you are immersed in a problem unfolding in real time and you are making mental adjustments continuously. As execution approaches, your view of the problem has automatically adjusted to match reality.
Operational planning problems, especially those with an identified adversary, tend to be complex—difficult to understand because of the unknowns and filled with unfamiliar causal relationships which create ambiguity. This is a skill you develop over time; like anything else, you get better with more experience.
Nelson: How do you grapple with assumptions in a plan? Access to territory in a war, for example. Some assumptions appear unrealistic yet we are bound to respect them.
Fields: Yeah. That's actually one of the things that I think frustrates people who do a planning tour but choose not to do it again. We make assumptions to replace a fact that is needed, but is not yet known. How a partner nation will support a future U.S. operation is a good example. Use of an “enemy course of action” is another. They tend to be tremendous sources of friction because everybody will have an opinion. So, assumptions are used to put a box around a problem to make it solvable which leaves ambiguity and an associated risk. For the planner, it's not about whether or not the assumptions are true, it's about framing the problem in a manner that allows you to solve it. That's kind of how I think about it. They aren’t satisfying for folks who aren’t comfortable with ambiguity, but left without one, you'd never make it past mission analysis so you just make the assumption and move on and then revisit it later.
Nelson: You mentioned intelligence a few times. How do you best partner with naval intelligence?
Fields: Yeah, my first tour after planning school was at then-Pacific Command. Not only was I working at mostly the secret level, but we were using intelligence analysis which seemed too cut and dry for the real world. Planners didn’t question the products, but it felt there was something missing and I kept hearing questions answered with, “but country x or y is a hard target”—totally unsatisfying. I was very fortunate, our good friend retired Navy Captain Dale Rielage recognized our struggles and embedded my entire planning team inside Pacific Fleet N2.
Almost immediately, “confidence levels,” “alternative analysis,” and “dissenting views” formed much of the missing conversation. What became clear at that point was understanding what makes up high-quality intelligence analysis was essential part of having the right conversation with a commander.
Nelson: How did you create that relationship with the intelligence community?
Fields: First, I didn’t do it, Dale Rielage did, but once I saw the embed model, it was clear that was the best way. You embed intelligence professionals in the planning organization, whether those intelligence professionals are trained planners or not—it doesn't matter. What's most important is you want an intelligence officer who is not afraid to provide an opinion and who can clearly articulate that whatever he's saying is an opinion versus a community or organizational position and offers alternative analysis to whatever is being offered. You don't get that type of discussion unless you're working sort of side-by-side.
I’ve found a much less effective method is a more traditional, “habitual relationship” that follows a battle rhythm tempo—periodic meetings or ad hoc working groups or operational planning teams. A lot of times you don't get to have those sort of deep discussions, the what ifs and alternative views of things that are necessary for creating understanding of a broader situation, maybe not just the topic that you're talking about, but other issues that are connected in important ways. The natural way of human interaction is that the conversation will wander. And a lot of times, it's that wandering piece that points you at the place you ultimately end up going. You don't get that when you're sitting in a room for an hour or two at a time arguing over an assumption or word choice.
Nelson: You've spent most of your time if not almost all of it in the Pacific. Does it matter if a planner stays in one geographic area?
Fields: I think across the board for everybody, no, it probably doesn't as long as there is a critical mass of expertise. You want some cross pollination because people and organizations approach planning a little bit differently. It's just one of those human endeavors where there is variation because there isn’t a perfect model to fit all contingencies. So, sharing those experiences is important. I do think that there should be a smaller subset of people who are deeply, deeply experienced in specific priority military problem sets because those are too complex to understand them unless you have significant run time.
My own experience is that while I understood how to run a planning effort right out of school, I didn’t really understand the IndoPaCom problem set until I was most of the way through my first three-year plans tour. I simply didn’t have the understanding to contribute meaningfully to the problem set until I had been focused on the target for over two years. The only reason it happened that quickly was our senior intelligence planner sat right outside the door of the OPT room we occupied. Literally, every time we walked in or out he handed us another piece of intelligence to read.
Nelson: Planners have a lot of access to senior flag officers. What advice do you have for planners when they have to communicate with their boss?
Fields: I think to be an effective communicator in any organization, you have to be able to read your audience and understand how they're going to receive information. That's much more important when you're talking about senior leaders who have a lot more going on than your piece of the puzzle and who all receive and process information a little bit differently. Communicate the way the flag officer is asking you to communicate. Sometimes it's directed and sometimes you just have to figure it out. As often as possible, I try to sit in the room while new leaders are being briefed by other people before we do our first brief. As a disinterested observer it’s easier to see the commander interact with the briefer and how he receives information. So, I work hard with my teams to observe closely and analyze interactions our leaders have to understand how best to communicate with each one. We debrief after key interactions, especially after a leadership change to figure out how that senior leader processes information and adjust presentations to match. A key to maintaining access to senior leaders is to communicate effectively within the time provided.
There's a reason why many leaders demand use of written or briefing templates, you may not like a particular template, but deviating wastes time and distracts from the message. I've had a commander who prefers a template for presenting concepts of operations that doesn’t match the planning process. To us the information seemed out of order, but for him it made perfect sense. We never lost any time because we brief things out of our preferred order.
Step two is to remember that nobody in the room matters except the person that you're briefing. Others may provide insight and commentary for the commander, but your conversation isn’t with them, it’s with the commander. Related, keep the emotion out of the conversation. Allowing emotion to interfere with communication is the quickest way for a briefing to go off track and sometimes the next opportunity to engage with a three- or four-star might be three months from now.
Lastly, I would say, understand what's going on in the headquarters so your voice over can be in a familiar context—especially important to know what the operations and intelligence officers are discussing with the commander. When you're using analogies, use analogies that resonate with the commander, either because he uses them or because they're part of the sort of ongoing set of operations happening.
Nelson: Does planning a pandemic response differ from a deliberate operational war plan?
Fields: The process isn’t different, but the lexicon and planning factors are unfamiliar to most of us so it is harder to convert a deliberate plan into an OPORD [operation order]. It’s also harder to approach pandemics unemotionally because they impact us in a more personal way than other contingencies.
Nelson: How do you consume information? Do you have any advice for others that are trying to think through hard problems in a military—and world, frankly—that lives on email and distraction?
Fields: I've never been connected with so many different organizations as well as I have as a planner. And so, it's even more crushing. Everybody wants your opinion or your team's opinion about something. Budget and requirements, industry, other commanders, and myriad others. I tend to open emails that I want to respond to and don’t leave for the day until they all answered . . . some days I hope for a forced reboot. . . . Some days, I filter email and only read the things that are “To” me.
Thinking through hard military problems means reading, a lot, and not actively thinking about a particular problem but instead looking for insights into human motivations and human nature. After all, warfare is a human endeavor.
Nelson: That's fair.
Fields: I empower my team to digest information for the team. Often, things come in, we get contracted research sent to us every week, hundreds of pages a week, some of which is useful, some of which is not. This is sort of an extension of the email question. I sort through the things and find the things are important and throw them on somebody's desk, and they get to tell me what that research paper said. So that's one way to sort of absorb large amounts of information. And by the way, this is what your commanders are doing too. They don't read everything. In fact, I would argue they don't read very much. They're getting briefed on things.
I think the bottom line is, I have a strong team, very fortunate there, that's grounded by a foundation of six civilians who are here basically forever, I mean, not really, they move in and out, but not very often. They know that I trust them to interpret the information for me and help me with sort of bottom line upfront stuff. That's hard, right? That took a long time for me to be comfortable with that. Going to talk to a senior officer about a topic that somebody else did all the research on.
So lesson number one is, you let the person who did the research do the talking. So one way to manage the deluge of information and digesting it is, I don't do all the talking to the commander. I'm in the room most of the time, not even all the time. The guys that work the projects, they're the ones talking to the boss, they know it best.
My battle rhythm really is, I do all of my organizing the next day at home. Log in to unclassified systems. I don't bother with unclassified emails at the beginning of the day because I've already looked at it before I came in. That only takes about ten minutes. I do email and I get in, I try to get in probably 30 minutes before the day begins. I sort the operations related emails that are sort of important for context of the headquarters. That's number one is to understand what happened in the operational world or what is happening in the operational world. That's job number one, which is strange to say for a planner, because if you don't pay attention to what's happening in the ops world, you can't even have a conversation with most of the people in the headquarters who are only concerned with what's happening in the ops world. Strange as it sounds.
That's the first thing I digest. And then, throughout the day, everyone's crushed with meetings. And so, five minutes at a time doing work. That's hard.
Nelson: And what are some of your favorite books at the moment?
Fields: Whatever my Commander is reading. It’s a window into his or her brain and can provide useful insight into how they are thinking about things.
I love the book For Crew and Country. You want to feel good about the U.S. Navy and the courage and resilience of individual Americans, that's a great book to read. John Wukovits I think. You want to feel good about America, read the Barnes and Noble Compilation of The Constitution of the United States and Selected Writings of the Founding Fathers. Creating a government designed to counteract human nature - genius.
I loved David Hackett Fisher's book, Paul Revere's Ride. What a great book that is about how important individual people are in connecting other people to make big things happen.
I recently read Secret War Against Japan, about mostly Australian and some American coastwatchers in World War II. Fantastic. Great book which highlights there is always a lot more to a story than meets the eye.
Kaigun, great story about how Japan almost got it right.
And I just read John Wylie's book Military Strategy. Have you read that?
Nelson: Oh yes. A classic. A great book.
Fields: I couldn't agree more. Admiral Wylie’s insight is simply fabulous and it’s easy to read, my favorite planner book right now.
Captain Fields is the Director of Future Plans and Operational Assessments for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. He is a Navy helicopter pilot, a 2005 graduate of the Joint Advanced Warfighting School and the senior officer in the Navy Operational Planner Specialty Career Path. The comments are his personal views and not those of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.