July 17, 2003

Goal->Strategy->Plan->Task

Steven Den Beste brings up a point that a friend and I have tried to make repeatedly, and to anyone who would listen, over the years: first you develop a goal, then a strategy, then a plan, then you accomplish the tasks.

Your goal states what must happen in order to be successful. For example, the US goal in the war on terror is that no group will exist capable of attacking the United States domestically, or American citizens or interests abroad, using terrorist tactics, and that America will continue to exist as a free nation with a representative government. Should the US do nothing, and this aim come about, then the US has achieved its goal. Should the US perform all kinds of actions, which in the end do not remove terrorism from the pantheon of weapons capable of striking at Americans, we will have lost the war, regardless of all other factors.

Your strategy is one of (usually) many possible ways to achieve the goal. For example, the US could have chosen any of the following strategies (and likely others) to achieve the above goal:


  • kill or capture all known and discoverable terrorists
  • destroy the states and other entities which sponsor terrorist organizations
  • buy off the states and other entities which sponsor terrorist organizations
  • buy off the terrorists themselves
  • convince other countries to pursue one or more of the above strategies
  • do nothing, and hope it will all blow over
  • destroy Al Qaeda, and their Taliban protectors, and then stop and pursue a different strategy (such as doing nothing, or buying off remaining groups and terrorist sponsors)

Each of these strategies has associated costs, monetary and otherwise, risks and benefits, and each has some capability to (at least theoretically) help us attain our goals. In the end, we chose to destroy all the terrorists we could find, and destroy their sponsors, and pressure other countries to help (though we haven't used our ultimate weapon of cutting them off a la Cuba if they don't cooperate to our satisfaction). For the purposes of this discussion, the wisdom of this choice is irrelevant. What is relevant is that this is the strategy the US is pursuing. The strategy will change, though, if it turns out that the strategy is not able to achieve the goals.

A plan is a set of steps which need to be accomplished, complete with the estimates of what resources will be needed to put the plan into operation and how the plan's elements will be sequenced. A plan generally consists of subplans, each a complete plan in and of itself, which are executed sequentially, simultaneously, or if a contingency arises. For example, our subplan for Iraq would have had steps to be executed if Iran intervened, if Syria intervened, if we were stopped short of Baghdad and the like. These are the famous "audibles" that General Franks spoke of. They do not indicate that the plan failed, but that we did a good job of planning for contingencies. (If the plan would have failed, there would have been a stopping point where we consolidated our position and created a new plan. It's obvious when this actually happens.)

Once a strategy has been chosen, there are many ways to make a plan to carry out that strategy. Each of these potential plans are evaluated for their ability to attain the goal, costs and other resource requirements, risks, and side benefits. Our plan in the war on terror over the long haul is not yet clear, but we can see the outlines: first remove Afghanistan as a sanctuary for the Taliban; then remove the terrorist sponsor states, starting with Iraq; then (presumably) remove other potential sanctuaries for terrorism by "fixing" failed states; throughout hunting down known terrorists and strengthening our organizational ability to detect, resist or respond to terrorist attacks. Obviously, contingency plans will be activated as the situation changes (for example, if Korea erupts into war). The plan will change, though, if we learn something which invalidates the plan or if we discover that the plan we have is not a good fit to our strategy.

Tasks are the atomic elements of a plan. They are those things which do not have smaller parts. For example, our Iraq plan had a subplan to get 3ID to Baghdad. This subplan had a plan for taking the bridges over the Euphrates. Each of the subplans consisted of tasks: sieze objectives A, B and C to get to the bridge; then lay down covering fire on any enemy units on the other side of the river; then establish a bridgehead by rushing units across the bridge; then expand the bridgehead; then remove any explosives affixed to the bridge.

The reality is that the President can control the goals; choose the strategies; and influence, approve and reject the plans. The JCS and the SecDef can advise on the goals; develop the strategy options; and select the appropriate plans for the chosen strategy. The operational commanders (like General Franks) can influence the strategies; develop the plans; and influence, approve and reject the subplans. This process continues down to the individual private soldier, who can influence the plans of his NCOs, and carry out the tasks assigned to him.

This is why it is ridiculous for opponents of the President to carp about him "failing" in the war on terror, because something went wrong with one small group of soldiers carrying out the 3rd or 5th or 9th level of subplanning of a particular contingency subplan of the plan for fighting opponent X. It is also why we have a very successful system of winning wars: authority to plan and execute is pushed down as far as possible. This means that the President is responsible for things he cannot control, but at the same time it means that we can react to changing or unanticipated situations without needing one person, or a small group of people, to approve or come up with every action that needs to be taken.

It seems to me that if people want to criticise the President's performance, they should focus on whether or not the goals are appropriate and doable; whether or not the strategy holds the best chance of achieving the goals; and whether or not the President's appointed subordinates are planning and setting policies which will accomplish those strategies. This, on the other hand, is meaningless.

Posted by Jeff at July 17, 2003 12:19 AM | Link Cosmos
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