December 1, 2009  

War planning for wicked problems

Where joint doctrine fails

There is increasing awareness within the Defense Department that wars are interactively complex or “wicked” problems. A series of new publications and ongoing doctrinal revisions reveals a growing understanding of this fact. Yet, even as this awareness grows, DoD is struggling to adapt the Joint Planning Process — itself a manifestation of military doctrine — to deal with these kinds of problems. In part, this struggle is a reflection of an ongoing debate about the meaning and influence that wicked problems and design should have on current military thinking.

This article will examine the challenges interactively complex problems pose to U.S. military planning and doctrine. It will offer some modest suggestions for dealing with these problems. We use the terms “interactively complex,” “ill-structured” and “wicked” interchangeably throughout the article.

Warfare has always been interactively complex. This is not a new discovery, but admitting that DoD strayed from this fundamental truth is. During the Cold War, the problem of deployment loomed so large that the U.S. focused its planning process on quickly deploying forces from the continental U.S. This was a natural result of the first imperative of U.S. military planning: transporting forces thousands of miles, marrying them up with their equipment and moving out to engage the enemy. Since the possibility of war against the Soviets in Europe represented the biggest challenge facing U.S. forces, speed of deployment was essential. Naturally, we applied early computer technology to this structurally complex problem of marrying thousands of personnel and major end items to hundreds of airplanes and dozens of ships through a multitude of airfields and ports. Because the demand always exceeded the available lift, deployment was the first and most difficult planning problem. Further, once these forces arrived in theater, the problem they faced was well-defined: stopping the Soviets. The arriving forces were employed according to well-planned and frequently rehearsed concepts.

Thus, over decades, we developed and refined the Joint Planning and Execution System to make it an effective tool for dealing with the structurally complex problem of deployment. But we mistakenly believed we could apply the same process to deal with operational level employment issues as well — that is, how to fight a thinking adversary. The cumulative impact has been several generations of military planners focused on finding solutions to what are essentially engineering or structurally complex problems rather than interactively complex problems. This is a legacy that today’s leaders must overcome.

Ill-Structured or ‘Wicked’ Problems

Training and Doctrine Command pamphlet 525-5-500, “The U.S. Army Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design,” performs a great service to planners by providing them an effective “CliffsNotes” on the nature of problems. Of particular importance, it provides 11 characteristics of wicked problems. While each characteristic is essential to understanding the nature of a problem, four directly challenge our status quo thinking about the current planning process:

• There is no definitive way to formulate an ill-structured problem. As a result, experts will honestly disagree on the definition of the problem as often as they do on the solution. Yet according to Joint Publication 5-0, “Joint Operation Planning,” the planning process starts with “initiation” and quickly jumps to “mission analysis.” In fact, JP 5-0 describes initiation simply as when an “appropriate authority” at the strategic level — the president, defense secretary or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — “initiates planning by deciding to develop military options.” Unfortunately, this approach is often reflected in our planning process when we completely overlook the critical step of developing a working definition of the problem. Instead, we assume that the problem will already be defined by the political leadership. But recent experience proves that this is often not true. Therefore it is essential that the military planning staff confirm the presence of a clear definition of the problem (not the mission) in their dialogue with the political decision makers. This is the fundamental step in dealing with a wicked problem. Unfortunately, according to the current planning process, the military staff should just get on with developing courses of action.

• Ill-structured problems are interactively complex. By definition, these problems are nonlinear. Small changes in input can create massive changes in outcome, and the same action performed at different times may create entirely different results. It is very difficult if not impossible to predict what will happen. Yet our war-planning process often promulgates detailed plans for well over the first 100 days of a conflict. Obviously, the true value of planning comes from the interactions of those doing the planning, not the plan itself. By shifting our planning focus from details of the plan to defining the problem, we can reap the benefits of intensive planning while exploring other problem definitions that should drive branch planning.

• Ill-structured problems have no “stopping rule.” By definition, wicked problems have no end state. Rather, the planner must seek a “good enough” solution based on maintaining equilibrium around some acceptable condition. Unfortunately, our doctrine and practice continue to focus on developing an end state for every plan. When dealing with wicked problems, thinking in terms of an end state will almost certainly lead to failure. Instead, we should think about how to sustain “steady state” over the long term. While apparently a semantic quibble, accepting that wicked problems don’t “end” is vitally important for campaign planners and commanders alike.

• We cannot understand an ill-structured problem without proposing a solution. Understanding the problem and conceiving a solution are identical and simultaneous cognitive processes. For example, if we formulate an insurgency as being driven by a small group of terrorists, our solution will be completely different than if we envisioned the insurgency as a popular revolt driven by a coalition of the angry based on ideology, poor governance, profit and revenge. The formulation of the problem largely frames the potential mitigating actions and, at least partially, defines the solution. This is a key and highly nuanced distinction. Though we try to understand wicked problems in their entirety, it is impossible to do so. Thus, if our solution fails, it well may be that our problem definition is also incorrect. Simply attempting a new course of action to solve the problem as we previously defined it may be doomed to failure.

These four characteristics by themselves show that the essentially linear joint planning system is poorly suited for dealing with problems of this nature.

Ill-Structured Problems and Doctrine

We teach planners to look to doctrine for a process and potential solutions. But doctrine is based on authoritative fundamental principles that are intended to guide military action in support of national objectives. Given the unique and diverse nature of ill-structured problems, however, it is fair to ask how a generalized set of principles can be useful in dealing with terrorism, pandemics, human trafficking, piracy, nuclear proliferation, cyberwarfare and the potential rise of a new conventional peer competitor. The answer, of course, is that it cannot. The nature, depth and breadth of ill-structured problems make it impossible to provide detailed doctrinal planning guidance relevant to all threats.

Even if this were not the case, overly explicit doctrinal manuals would risk being excessively prescriptive and, arguably, inhibit commanders from using sound judgment to make independent decisions when grappling with wicked problems in specific operational or tactical settings. Thus, the best joint doctrine can hope for is to address “how to think” about ill-structured problems without dictating “what to think” about them.

Joint Doctrine and Campaign Design

JP 3-0, “Joint Operations,” dated Feb. 13, 2008, and JP 5-0, dated Dec. 26, 2006, are illustrative examples of doctrine that adequately captures conventional ideas and mainstream views about joint warfare. But, neither reflects current understanding of ill-structured or wicked problems and campaign design in the Army and Marine Corps. Space does not allow a full cross-comparison between joint doctrine and Army-Marine Corps manuals on these topics, but a cursory review of TRADOC Pamphlet 525-5-500, Field manual 3-24, “Counterinsurgency” and the Marine Corps’ “Tentative Manual for Countering Irregular Threats” indicates that a number of central ideas concerning the nature of wicked problems have failed to migrate into JP 3-0 and 5-0. These joint manuals are being revised. With luck, current thinking will survive the doctrinal “sausage mill” and the manuals will include both a discussion of wicked problems and how the characteristics of these problems affect design.

However, we are not encouraged by the fact that the Army’s new FM 5-2, “Design (Draft),” provides an excellent discussion of design but wishes away a fundamental characteristic of wicked problems. It seems to imply that once the commander has framed the problem, the planning team can get on with the plan. It does not discuss the high probability that the initial problem definition will not be complete, perhaps not even correct, and will certainly be subject to change as the interactions among the players evolve. Nor does it suggest that some of the alternative problem formulations developed by the design team should be prioritized and used as a starting point for branch planning. The failure to incorporate the clear understanding of wicked problems in “Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design” into the doctrine of FM 5-2 is a trend that needs to be reversed. The remainder of this article examines nine key ideas that should be expanded upon in future revisions of both publications and made part of best practices.

Issue 1: Rush to think, not to plan. Problem framing, a prerequisite to campaign design and joint planning writ large, is a primary tool for better understanding the nature of ill-structured problems, their nuances and layered implications over time. Helping planners formulate and select courses of action is secondary when dealing with such problems. Current doctrine and practice exhibit an excessively strong bias toward planning in lieu of problem framing. This belies the nature of ill-structured problems, which are multifaceted, extraordinarily complex, insolvable in the short-term and defiant of unitary solutions proposed by a single U.S. government agency. In today’s world of fragile and failed states — awash in a sea of transnational actors who operate outside of the international system — framing ill-structured problems before rushing to plan should be a doctrinal priority. Currently, it is not. Although FM 5-2, “Design (Draft),” sets out to change that mental approach by specifying that design is an iterative learning process, it fails to clearly discuss how as the structure of a particular problem changes, this affects how one thinks about and deals with it.

Issue 2: Interactively complex problems require serious branch planning. The character and nature of interactively complex problems should drive the planning process that joint commanders and their staffs follow as they transition from problem framing into planning itself. While a modified version of the joint planning steps can be used, the first step must be problem framing. The last step, plans/order development, must also be reconsidered. Since experts will disagree on the definition of a wicked problem, and hence its potential solutions, it is prudent to develop alternative definitions of the problem and use them as the basis for branch plans.

Joint staffs expend enormous effort in developing a base plan but rarely spend sufficient effort in developing branch plans. Branch plans simply prepare the command for the possibility that the primary plan might fail or the problem may have been improperly defined. Given the inherent nature of wicked problems, this is highly likely. In fact, most wicked problems are managed through an iterative learning process that deepens the understanding of the problem. The fact that each ill-structured problem requires a custom solution means planners have to continually work to redefine the problem as it evolves. There is no going back to the start because the act of attempting to “solve” the problem ultimately changes the problem.

Branch planning does not mean accepting failure. Rather, it allows the command to rapidly shift to a different approach to accomplish the mission. For instance, a branch plan for Iraq would have assumed that the Iraqi government might not be capable of running the country after the removal of the regime. In short, branch plans provide a working answer to the question: “What if?”

Issue 3: Structurally complex plans require a different team of planners. Given the nature of the problems facing “design teams” — generally a subset of a larger joint planning group (JPG) — the composition of these teams will be substantially different than in years past. Problems such as nation building and humanitarian relief frequently require a host of outside experts — health specialists, economists, city planners, financial analysts, religious scholars, women’s rights advocates, anthropologists — to augment the traditionally insular and predominantly military JPGs.

This is not business as usual. Our participation in formal resident school exercises indicates that melding such interagency, nongovernmental and, in some cases, host nation representatives into design teams/JPGs is much more difficult than current doctrine acknowledges. This process is further complicated by the requirement to have interagency planners agree on the problem definition before commencing planning.

Issue 4: Shared discourse yields better problem understanding and results in improved planning guidance. As noted in FM 5-2, a detailed and lengthy exchange of ideas between a joint commander and his staff about an ill-structured problem before planning begins is essential to acquiring a shared understanding and a common vision. Since, by definition, experts will not agree on either the definition of the problem or its solution, this is a much more interactive, iterative and cerebral approach than today’s doctrine acknowledges. Gaining situational understanding (as opposed to mere situational awareness) involves much more than “taking a brief” from the J-2 (intelligence). Instead, it may necessitate an iterative process between the commander, his staff and external subject matter experts. The latter may be requested to participate in a series of discussions spanning weeks, if not months, and perhaps become permanent members of design teams/JPGs. In some cases, it may be prudent for them to deploy with the joint task force to a crisis. Nonetheless, at some point, the commander must provide his definition of the problem and his guidance for drafting partial solutions — courses of action — that he wants explored. It is essential that the planners capture the other potential definitions of the problem and include them as branch plans as time allows. Recent operations indicate branch planning has consistently been overlooked, which causes leaders to be surprised by events that occur outside the base plan. The use of alternative problem framing as a source of generating branch plans will help overcome this deficiency.

Discourse also provides the joint commander with a vehicle for informally vetting his planning guidance with his staff before issuing it to the staff formally. Done correctly, this may save the staff from needless “fits and starts” once it begins planning. This may also facilitate early buy-in from the nonmilitary JPG members, potentially reducing friction later in the planning process.

Finally, discourse is invaluable to senior leaders up the chain of command and back in Washington. Collectively, they need to understand how the joint commander and his planners are looking at a given ill-structured problem to ensure the view from below conforms to their expectations and common understanding of the problem. Given the nature of wicked problems there is a high probability that there will be disagreement about the problem definition and the solution. Thus, it is essential that senior decision makers participate in defining the problem as well as outlining other potential definitions. Planning can then proceed based on the senior leader’s problem definition with branch planning designed to cover other potential outcomes.

Unity of effort can be achieved only if there is fundamental agreement about basic assumptions, planning factors and restraints/constraints that have been identified in the initial stages of problem framing/campaign design. Waiting until the mission analysis step or until the plan is published and forces have crossed the line of departure is too late. In short, there must be a two-way discourse going on: one within the command and one with external agencies. Traditional doctrine focuses on the former. Today’s world of ill-structured problems requires that joint doctrine embrace a much broader view of the latter.

Current practice slights the role external agencies play in the planning process. It takes significant time to galvanize support with allies, the United Nations and the international community. This support is often contingent upon disparate organizations participating in the planning process in a real rather than a pro forma way. Recent history indicates these organizations will be reluctant partners (or refuse to participate in a campaign altogether) if they cannot play a constructive role in the front-end planning process. Although the U.S. has advanced interagency planning in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the interagency planning community in Washington has been less successful adapting to wicked problems.

In short, wicked problems demand much earlier interface among all stakeholders as well as between higher and lower echelons of command. Unfortunately, joint practice as well as doctrine have not been informed by this essential requirement. Moreover, the new Army manuals must survive the staffing process, which has a reputation for diluting new concepts. Once published as doctrine, these concepts will have to successfully inform military education and training. If history is an accurate indicator, this is where they will meet their stiffest resistance.

Issue 5: Campaign design helps cope with but not overcome uncertainty and chaos. JP 3-0 reveals a major philosophical divide between joint doctrine writers and the authors of this article. It states: “Operational art helps the [joint force commander] overcome the ambiguity and uncertainty of a complex operational environment.” We think not. Our view of ill-structured problems is that ambiguity and uncertainty cannot be overcome. They can only be managed or, at best, mitigated. This is not an insignificant difference. Since ill-structured problems have no stopping rule and often are symptoms of higher-level problems, operational art is about coping with uncertainty and developing a high tolerance for ambiguity while striving not for an end state but for an acceptable sustainable state. Planners must always consider the requirement to maintain the acceptable state. To imply that ambiguity and uncertainty can be mastered by operational art and campaign design is a serious overstatement.

For these reasons, we worry that current doctrine contributes to the development of unattainable end states, overly ambitious courses of action and exaggerated military capabilities, and generates unreasonably optimistic timelines. In reality, military forces can tinker with ill-structured problems at the margins, but these problems are seldom resolved by a coup de main based on triumphal end states that derive from traditional military planning. Why? Few ill-structured problems are militarily-centric in nature. They are driven by political corruption, disease, resource deprivation, overpopulation, urbanization, illiteracy, refugees, globalization, extremist ideology or some combination thereof that create conflict and instability. In short, these problems are symptomatic of much larger issues than military power can solve alone. As always, the best military forces can do is shift the terms back to a political conflict that will never be static.

To this end, the current doctrinal definition of operational art is simply inadequate. Joint Publication 1-02, “Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms,” defines it as “the application of creative imagination by commanders and staffs — supported by their skill, knowledge, and experience — to design strategies, campaigns, and major operations and organize and employ military forces.”

This definition is too narrow. Yes, operational art is still about designing strategies, campaigns and major operations. But, in a world where ill-structured problems are the norm rather than the exception, today’s joint planners must bring together all elements of national power into a single, integrated and coherent campaign where military force might not be the dominant instrument. Thus, it is time joint doctrine accepts the fact that not every joint campaign will be exclusively focused on organizing and employing military forces. Today, joint planners must grapple with “whole of government” and even “whole of society” approaches on a daily basis. Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted that any effective plan must integrate political, economic, diplomatic, informational and cultural power into a national or even international campaign.

Issue 6: Guard against campaign design elements becoming a checklist. Joint doctrine has identified 17 design elements that joint commanders and their staffs are encouraged to use when constructing a campaign. In all fairness, current doctrine states that these elements are tools to be used selectively when shaping a concept of operations or differentiating between various courses of action. But recent experience in Afghanistan and Iraq — hybrid wars of the modern age — suggests that there may be additional campaign elements that designers/planners should consider. Obviously, an inclusive list would be situation-specific and too long for this article; however, the following provide a sample of the types of questions we need to ask:

• What is the history of the country and region and what historical timelines apply in this society?

• What is the social structure of the country and region? What is the ethnic, tribal and religious composition of the indigenous people?

• What are the sources of instability in the conflict zone?

• From where do these sources derive their energy and longevity?

• Is the host nation government legitimate in the eyes of its people?

• Are the host nation ministries of government competent, capable and productive?

• Are the host nation military and police honest, professional and operationally effective in their environment?

• Does rule of law function effectively in the host nation?

• Under what justification is the U.S. preparing to use military force (e.g., self-defense, U.N. resolution, treaty obligation)?

• What is the stated U.S. political purpose for using military force?

• How are the neighbors in the region likely to respond to a U.S. intervention?

• How will this operation be perceived by the world community?

• What strategic and operational assumptions underlie this campaign?

• Do our friends, allies and the international community support the undertaking?

• What is the “norm” that we will accept variation around? More simply, what is the “good enough” state that we will strive to maintain upon completion of the operation?

We think these questions are at least as important, if not more so, than the traditional 17 design elements.

Future doctrinal publications could also benefit from an infusion of common sense in rank ordering campaign design elements. For example, it is misleading to imply that senior leaders should worry about war termination and end-state criteria before they have tackled the fundamental problems of organizing the campaign: building a coalition, mobilizing the industrial base (if required), and obtaining diplomatic over-flight rights from foreign nations. In short, current doctrine places inordinate attention on “reverse engineering” a campaign.

Issue 7: Ownership of campaign phasing needs updating. JP 3-0 outlines the traditional five phases of a joint campaign or operation (shape, deter, seize initiative, dominate, stabilize and enable civil authority). Yet when describing these phases, the manual states: “Operations and activities in the ‘shape’ and ‘deter’ phases normally are outlined in security cooperation plans. And those in the remaining phases are outlined in [Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan] directed operation plans. By design, operation plans generally do not include security cooperation activities that are addressed elsewhere.”

Yet recent Guidance on the Employment of the Force requires combatant commands (COCOMs) to write a theater campaign plan that covers all five phases with a time horizon of approximately 10 years. Primary emphasis is to be given to the first two phases — shape and deter. Peacetime engagement and security cooperation have been made co-equal to other campaign phases. Theater campaign plans currently being developed by COCOMs will reflect that they are responsible for preserving the peace, deterring war, and, if deterrence fails, fighting to win. Like all wicked problems, the key step is going to be defining the problems the COCOMs wish to address in order to shape and deter. Even when the COCOM has done so, it will be essential to coordinate the planning across U.S. government and international agencies. Further, DoD needs to address those situations when DoD is not, and perhaps cannot be, the lead agency.

After years of attaching Annex “Victor” (Political-Military Plans) to finished Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan directed operations plans, the planning community finally realized why integrated political-military planning in the government was so abysmal: It was always treated as an afterthought. This led to the following observation: parsing out various phases of a single campaign to be planned by different bureaucratic entities is a sure recipe for failure. Ironically, we no sooner learned that lesson then we turned around and violated it again with regard to Phase 4 (stabilize) planning and execution in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

So, what was the compelling rationale in the past for treating Phase 0 (shape) and Phase 1 (deter) differently? We don’t know the answer, but we think it may be rooted in the huge discrepancy between Defense Department resources and those of other U.S. departments or agencies involved. Not only do these phases need a great deal of time and energy, they will likely be conducted under a lead agency other than DoD. Yet for that to happen, those agencies will require major increases in resources.

Issue 8: Ill-structured problems continuously evolve. Ill-structured problems do not remain dormant during the planning process. They continue to evolve with great speed, usually becoming even more complex. Dealing with this kind of problem has been described as “trying to change a tire on a moving truck” and places an enormous burden on the joint commander and his planners. To be successful, they must avoid a crucial pitfall: turning a blind eye to the real world by not constantly reassessing the nature of the problem. Failure to do this can cause a campaign plan to be irrelevant in coping with the ill-structured problem the JPG was created to deal with in the first place.

In addition, the staff should be developing branch and sequel plans alongside the primary plan. Yet, given the amount of time and effort required to develop and brief a primary plan, many staffs forego serious analytical work on branches and sequels. This is a terrible mistake because in doing so they waive the opportunity to think through a wide range of options that might potentially help them should their assumptions or the operating environment change dramatically, which it almost always does.

Issue 9: Ill-structured problems require a feedback loop and “whole of government” or even “whole of society” measures of effectiveness (MOEs). As part of the planning process, it is essential to identify campaign measures of effectiveness to ensure participating agencies and higher authority agree on how to define success. Like the rest of the planning process, this will be both iterative and difficult. It is doubly hard when the mission is peacekeeping, counterinsurgency or nation-building — primarily because the U.S. military is only one of many actors involved.

As part of developing the MOEs, planners must develop a credible and comprehensive assessment program that provides feedback to joint planners if the MOEs are to be meaningful. We have seen repeatedly — in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — that it takes both legitimate MOEs and a credible assessment program to effectively determine campaign progress. If either is poorly constructed or not present, it can easily undermine a campaign’s intellectual and moral foundation.

DoD’s growing awareness of the nature and impact of wicked problems is encouraging. If the draft of the Army’s “Design” manual can survive staffing largely intact and reintegrate the discussion of wicked problems that was a vital part of the “Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design” pamphlet, it will serve as a strong base upon which to build 21st century joint doctrine. This will be an important step in changing how military planners work through the complex process of designing a campaign. However, this will only be the first step. The concepts must become an integral part of the way we do business. They must be socialized through our education and training systems for our military and civilian personnel. In particular, the ability to understand the world as it is, rather than see it as an engineering problem, will be critical to American’s long-term success. Continued refusal to carefully define the underlying nature of the problems we face virtually ensures failure to manage them. AFJ

T. C. Greenwood is a retired Marine colonel who served 31 years and is now a defense analyst. T.X. Hammes is a retired Marine colonel and is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.