By Colonel (ret'd) Pat Stogran
Before I venture into my next topic of discussion, I wish to thank all those people who offered comments on my last column where I introduced the theory of strategic, operational and tactical levels of war. This month a copy of my book Rude Awakening: The Government’s Secret War Against Canada’s Veterans goes out to Mr. Joe Fernandez. A loyal Esprit de Corps reader, Mr. Fernandez offered me such a wealth of military history and commentary on the strategic level of war that I cannot do it justice by narrowing the scope of his analysis to serve as a link between articles. Not only did he hit on the key theme of the complexity of the competing interests at the strategic level, he made the very important observation that many of the players at that level — on our side, that is — are patently unprepared to function in that ambiguous and volatile environment. Suffice to say that a lot of what Mr. Fernandez said in his opening salvo on the strategic level of war will find its way into my column in the future.
In this issue I would like to harness the thought processes of my readers as I introduce the uninitiated to the military planning process. When I was a young officer we used to call the process that we followed to devise a military plan the “Appreciation of the Situation.” Our approach evolved from and was very similar to British Army doctrine. In the 1980s the Canadian Forces sought to enhance interoperability within NATO by adopting a common lexicon, so we changed the name of our process to the “Estimate of the Situation” in order to conform with our larger cousin, the United States Army. Procedurally, however, while the Estimate in the Canadian context was similar to the American METT-T (an acronym for the factors of mission, enemy, terrain and weather, troops and support available, time available (and later civil considerations, hence METT-TC)), our process remained true to our British heritage.
I think it is safe for me to say that the military Estimate of the Situation formed the cornerstone of an army officer’s function. We were always called upon to back-brief our tactical estimates or summarize the key deductions thereof as students on courses and when serving on the job. Even when I was a procurement staff officer at National Defence Headquarters, one then-Colonel Romeo Dallaire, Director of Land Requirements, would have us do estimates of all sorts to define the operational requirements for new military equipment. Later when I deployed operationally to Bosnia as a military observer and later in Afghanistan when I was the Commanding Officer of 3 PPCLI, I filled reams of Filofax pages with mini-estimates for all sorts of situations that I encountered, and I am sure many of my colleagues at every level would make the same claim.
Given a mission, we would first consider all the factors associated with the task at hand. They normally included the enemy or “threat,” the environment in terms of ground and weather, time and space constraints and freedoms, and friendly force dispositions and capabilities. We analyzed each factor in detail to arrive at exhaustive list of what-we-called “deductions.” The ‘old and bold’ out there will remember at least one tactical exercise without troops (TEWT) when trying to present their consideration of factors while being badgered by the senior officer present with, “So what? So what? So what?” That was a passive-aggressive way of telling us that we were failing to follow this deductive process through to its “logical conclusions.” Another role model of mine whom I considered to be a guru of the estimate process, Colonel John Joly, PPCLI, accomplished what dozens of my other instructors had failed to by impressing upon me that a factor was examined adequately only after the planner arrives at groupings, tasks and control measures that can be embraced in a plan to either exploit the potential of, or mitigate the threats posed by the respective fact.
As one can imagine, in proper brainstorming fashion a detailed estimate would arrive at a humongous list of deductions, some of which — many, in fact — could be redundant, impractical, of marginal utility, and competing for scarce resources. It isn’t until the next stage of the process, known as the “Assessment of Tasks,” that the planner takes stock of that laundry list of deductions by identifying critical tasks that might constitute a force’s main effort or vital supporting efforts and would therefore be priorities for resources. A planner might decide to phase an operation in order to concentrate resources successively on mission-critical tasks to achieve a decisive effect at a given time and place. Some of the tasks arrived at by this deductive process can be discarded out of hand, under-resourced, or combined together to make best use of resources when the level of risk in doing so is considered acceptable.
The next step is the synthesis of the key deductions into possible courses of action (COA) open to the enemy and to friendly forces, normally three of each. At this point, often, the process wrongly becomes more prescriptive as planners apply doctrinal templates, past experiences, or intuition to create the COA options. Sometimes two alternative options will be concocted for no other reason than to legitimize an obvious course of action that was pre-conceived during the consideration of the factors. The final step in the estimate process is to compare the COAs to identify which might best satisfy the mission. This can be accomplished by simply qualitatively assessing the advantages and disadvantages of each proposed course of action. Alternatively, when time permits, lists of assessment criteria, weightings and measures of assessment can be applied in matrix form to give the appearance of greater rigour and quantitative evaluation.
At higher levels of tactical command as well as the operational and strategic levels, general staffs will conduct a similar process collectively under the steady hand of a chief of staff, with the ops, logistics, administration, and civil affairs cells contributing such consideration within their areas of expertise. If time permits, the various COAs will be war-gamed, which could be as simple as considering the actions, reactions, and counteractions that opposing forces might undertake at each decisive moment and piece of key terrain during the operation. On the other extreme, entire staffs and subordinate commanders could become involved in elaborate computer simulations. The superior commander will influence the process by receiving Information Briefs and updates from the staff, issuing what is known as “Commander’s Guidance,” possibly participating in the war-gaming, and deciding on the final COA at a Decision Brief. Warning Orders are issued early in the process and followed up with amendments as information becomes available, culminating with the issuing of formal orders for the impending operation.
During my three-year sabbatical as an instructor in Australia I had the privilege of reviewing literally hundreds of plans conceived by army officers from the ranks of captain to lieutenant-colonel, prepared both individually and as staffs. On one particular occasion I had a defence scientist and reserve officer, Dean Bowley, who with limited military experience as a reserve officer found himself in a session with eight or ten of the Australian Army’s keenest fire-breathing, snake-eating warrior captains and majors of their regular army. Notwithstanding his lessor experience, Dean was a very clever fellow so he was quite capable of applying the principles and the doctrines to tactical situations, although his renderings often lacked the templated precision that characterized the submissions of his colleagues. In an early session all the plans presented were very, very similar save Dean’s. His colleagues all slipped back into their comfort zones when it became apparent that they had all nailed the correct answer to the tactical problem and that Dean might be the only victim of my instructional interrogation. You can imagine how they felt when I congratulated Dean for having produced the only plan that, in my opinion, stood a chance of working. I conceded that his scheme of manoeuvre was unorthodox and it might be difficult to execute effectively, but I added that this is what we train for. It is often said that a plan never survives the first shot fired in anger. Success is often if not always dependent on the expertise and commitment of the trigger-pullers. On the other hand, Dean Bowley’s classmates had clearly identified the plan that the enemy most certainly would have already ascertained to be our most likely course of action and planned countermoves accordingly.
Given what we now know about the levels of war and the deliberations of military planners in anticipation of battle, what deductions would you make via-à-vis Canada›s involvement in conflicts such as the Middle East? How much influence do you think the phenomenon of «group think» might taint the planning process? I want to hear from you, and the reader whose contribution piques my operational interest will receive a copy of my book Rude
Awakening: The Government’s Secret War Against Canada’s Veterans.