by Dan Cox and Michael Mosser
Author’s Note: The authors would like to think Scott Gorman and Bruce Stanley for providing constructive comments. The views expressed in this paper are the authors’ own and in no way reflect the official views of the School of Advanced Military Studies, the US Army, or the US Department of Defense.
Introduction: Toward a new understanding of “defense forecasting”
“Defense forecasting” is a phrase with multiple meanings, ranging from the prosaic to the strategic. In its traditional usage, defense forecasting generally applies to Department of Defense budgeting processes. Given that much of defense forecasting has taken place in the context of the DoD budget and allocation process, it is no surprise that the process of “defense forecasting” is generally static, linear, and reasonably mechanical. Used in another sense, though, “defense forecasting” is much more interesting: here, it implies foresight, planning and careful consideration of how the future operating environment (FOE) may look. Even more importantly, defense forecasting helps planners at all levels envision the role of US forces within the FOE.
At all levels of planning, defense forecasting links the realms of policy, strategy and operations together. At the policy level, defense forecasting is useful for understanding and anticipating the potential existential threats to the country, while at the strategic level defense forecasting plays a major role not just in predicting future strategic threats but also in shaping the U.S. military’s procurement and force generation cycles, closing the loop by offering force generation recommendations to policymakers. At the operational level of war, peering into the future is less about policy recommendations or strategic planning and more about the need to anticipate threats and adversaries which will affect deployed US forces. Here, officers work to develop rational scenarios that can be used to hone planning and leadership skills.
In this paper, we explore the concept of defense forecasting at various levels of the American defense establishment. After a brief treatment of forecasting at the policy and strategic levels, the paper critically examines forecasting at the operational level, first with a conceptual overview and then via a case study of scenario development at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Defense forecasting at the policy and strategy levels: Envisioning the FOE
How might current challenges and threats to the United States evolve from the current operating environment (COE) to the future operating environment (FOE)? How do we even begin to presume that we know the opportunities, challenges, or threats that will emerge? In many respects, these are the fundamental questions for defense forecasting. Far from a ‘blue sky’ exercise, defense forecasting considers the current operating environment first before projecting into the future. Writing in a recent issue of Army magazine on the role of movement and maneuver in the FOE, MG Robert Brown (2011:61) notes that the FOE is likely to look similar to the COE, but takes into account the natural evolution that accompanies all systems:
The future operating environment will include adversaries ranging from well-led, well-trained and well-equipped conventional military formations experienced in close fighting to irregular and hybrid forces. Our most likely opponents will continue to be irregular forces, extending from trained insurgents focused on local or regional regime change or global jihad to criminals and tribal groups focused on maintaining power within their local areas for economic reasons. In some cases these enemies will work together, forming a hybrid threat that combines conventional and unconventional units, equipment and tactics. Regardless of makeup or aim, however, the enemy will continue to be adaptive and networked, employing a range of weapons and technologies along with conventional and improvised weapons.
Even more importantly, defense forecasting implies a conscious effort to match capabilities to resources. This is accomplished through planning, at all levels of a nation’s military and security apparatus. Understanding how a nation plans for its defense and security is crucial to understanding its defense and security posture (and indeed, its attitude toward other actors in the international arena). Thus to understand the FOE, we must first understand the COE, and specifically how threats are identified, assessed, and mitigated at all levels. The next section of this paper briefly examines these levels, and the nature of defense forecasting and planning at each level.
Grand strategic/strategic level threats and defense forecasting/planning
It might be said that the business of defense is contingency planning, or defense forecasting as we refer to it here. Defense forecasting is constant and continuous, and occurs at every level of a nation’s defense and security apparatus. At the highest level, national policy and strategy are conjoined and conflated: each affects and influences the other. Threats at this level are at a minimum threats to national objectives, and at a maximum existential. At the international level, grand strategic threats are those which threaten not merely one nation’s existence, but rather the very foundations of the global order itself. A prime example of a policy-level (or grand strategic) threat at this level is that of genocide. At the national level, grand strategic threats, if misread or missed entirely, threaten the very survival not merely of a nation’s military but of its people, economy, and culture. Moreover, beyond threats which threaten a nation’s survival, grand strategic-level threats can be those which directly impact the identity of a nation. Thus, a conflict such as the Cold War was not merely a strategic threat to US objectives in Europe and worldwide, but also a policy-level threat insofar as a victory for the Soviet Union would have undermined the notion that the “West” had not merely a material but also an ideational advantage.
Grand strategic-level defense forecasting often takes place at a level not far below that of policy-level guidance (usually issued by the President in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief), and the distinction between the two levels is sometimes more nuanced than readily apparent. The key distinction is one of objective, and of application of resources to achieve those objectives. Thus the strategic level was defined by US Army FM 3-0 (section 2-4) as “that level at which a nation, often as one of a group of nations, determines national and multinational security objectives and guidance and develops and uses national resources to accomplish them.” How those objectives are met, and how resources are allocated and planned for to accomplish them, is the focus of the next section of this paper.
The US Department of Defense (DoD)
Grand strategic-level threats are addressed at the national level by a variety of government agencies, each with its own bureaucratic culture and mindset. No one agency is responsible for all facets of strategic threat assessment, nor for strategic planning and defense forecasting. Indeed, only the US Department of Defense undertakes true strategic planning, via its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). This is a serious problem, as Flournoy and Brimley point out:
There is still no systematic effort at strategic planning for American national security that is wholly inclusive, deliberative, and integrative….The absence of an institutionalized process for long-range national security planning puts the United States at a strategic disadvantage.
DoD strategic planning is intrinsically focused on the FOE, even if not explicitly stated as such. The need to plan, manage, and deploy forces against future threats permeates DoD planning processes, and in many respects drives those processes towards “jointness.” Strategic planning guidance is funneled from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) through a particular decision-making process where capabilities are defined matched with resources. Zavadil, Tindal and Kahan note that DoD strategic planning, taking place in the QDR, has evolved over time, and the 2001 QDR outlined a major shift in strategic threat assessment and defense forecasting. They note that the 2001 QDR:
…moved force planning, including strategic forces, from a threat-based, country-specific approach to a non-country-specific continuum of capabilities from minimal force to nuclear weapons. This transformation has changed the basic US force planning philosophy to a capabilities-based planning approach (CBP)…
DoD capabilities-based planning (CBP), according to Walker, was intended to more rapidly, effectively, and efficiently move capabilities to combatant commanders in a resource-constrained environment. Specifically, it was intended to replace the Resource Generation System (RGS), a “bottom-up” means of planning that led to service-driven “stovepipes” and lack of interoperability (see Figure one). Insofar as a “strategic” threat was identified, planning for its mitigation or elimination often took on the character of the weapons platform or system favored by the individual services.
Figure 1: CPB versus RGS (source: Joint Staff J8 2005)
CPB’s intended effect was to involve the Secretary of Defense earlier in the planning process, to avoid service-level requests surviving unchallenged through the initial stages of planning and becoming “stovepiped” until they landed on the Secretary’s desk at the end of the process. Coupled with an increased emphasis on new joint planning process—the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS)—the effect on strategic planning was to streamline defense forecasting to better match capabilities and resources against threats (see Figure Two).
JCIDS is the evolution of (and indeed merges elements of) the Joint Warfighting Capabilities Assessment (JWCA), which now takes place within the JCIDS process, seeking at a lower level to identify gaps where joint capabilities are not realized, and to work to identify solutions to overcome those gaps. JWCA and JCIDS together represent a major attempt to merge the strategic defense forecasting and defense acquisitions process. According to official Joint Chiefs of Staff documents:
The JWCA process exists to support the Chairman and the JROC [Joint Requirements Oversight Council] in accordance with CJCS/JROC guidance. JWCAs provide analytic support for JROC discussions and decisions on joint operational concepts, operational views of integrated architectures, requirements, and programmatic issues.
While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of CBP on identifying and mitigating grand strategic threats, it cannot be said that DoD is not at the very least doing its part to undertake the “systematic effort” in strategic planning identified by Flournoy and Brimley in 2006.
Figure 2: The JCIDS Process (source: Morgan 2005)
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
We have seen how the DoD undertakes high-level strategic planning via the QDR and operationalizes it via CBP; it focuses on defending the US against grand strategic threats. Another US agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), tasked with securing the nation against external threats, looks at defense forecasting in a different light: through risk management. In its most recent strategic plan, covering the fiscal years 2008 through 2013, DHS explains its approach to defense forecasting in the following way:
Because it is not feasible to secure our homeland against every conceivable threat, we have instituted risk management as the primary basis for policy and resource allocation decision-making. Risk management assesses threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences, examines the best opportunities to mitigate risk, and provides a useful framework for obtaining and allocating the resources necessary to reduce risk to acceptable levels. We will anticipate emerging threats and take appropriate early action.
In this case, the objective of DHS is, as noted, not to plan for every contingency, but rather to assess and manage risk to the homeland. Importantly, DHS must do so in budgetary competition with DoD and other Cabinet-level agencies. For FY 2012, for example, DHS has requested a total budget authority of $57 billion, compared to $670 billion for DoD. To maximize efficiency in formulating the appropriate locations to place resources, and to assess and evaluate the strategic position of the United States with respect to threats DHS uses risk management techniques:
The homeland security mission is complex, and resources are constrained. The Department will use qualitative and quantitative risk assessments to inform resource decisions. These resources will be targeted at the most significant threats, vulnerabilities, and potential consequences.
In merging budgeting with strategic planning, DHS utilizes the Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) planning framework, borrowed from the Department of Defense in 2008 and implemented for the 2010-2014 planning cycle (Figure Three). Of its four titular phases, the most important for our purposes here is the Planning phase, whereby DHS assesses the operating environment, undertakes a strategic risk assessment, develops strategy and policy for planning guidance, and prioritizes needs versus strategic risk.
Figure 3: US Department of Homeland Security PPBE Cycle (source: DHS 2008)
In the PPBE, operating as it is in the realm of limited information, limited resources, and an expansive mission (protecting the homeland), planning is by necessity a high priority. According to Bronson:
The planning phase of the DHS PPBE system is led by the Office of Policy with input from PA&E/OCFO and other offices throughout the DHS. The Integrated Planning Guidance (IPG) is the final product of the planning phase. The IPG forms the basis for threat information to guide component resource plan development. The annual IPG also serves as the strategic framework for the DHS PPBE programming phase.
The planning phase of the PPBE process entails, in the words of DHS itself, “the unconstrained prioritization of needs vs [sic] risk.” The planning phase ends with the Integrated Planning Guidance (IPG), which “provides guidance, direction, and prioritization for both long-term resource and near-term operational planning.”
The two examples of planning processes at the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security show that, at the grand strategic level, defense forecasting is done either via a systematic, capabilities-based planning process like that which takes place in the DoD, or via a somewhat less systematic, more-actuarial risk management process like that which takes place at DHS. How is such strategic-level defense forecasting operationalized? What, at the operational level, does defense forecasting look like, and what lessons might we draw from this level that may be applicable to defense forecasting at higher levels? It is to these questions that this paper now turns, through an examination of one particular instance of defense forecasting via scenario planning at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth.
Defense forecasting in practice at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS)
Using Scenarios to Anticipate and Plan for Future Threats
The objective at SAMS in examining the FOE is not to examine long-term trends for the purposes of determining which military platforms are appropriate to address future threats. Nor is SAMS in the business of teaching students what methods will help military strategists and policymakers best predict the future. Finally, while there is an element of risk analysis present in SAMS uses of scenarios to anticipate how to address potential future threats, SAMS is not primarily, or even secondarily, focused on assessing risks to the United States homeland.
Having said this, trends analysis and capabilities based planning do play a limited role in the initial stages of case selection at SAMS so understanding these processes, but not in depth, is necessary in order that appropriate cases are selected for scenario development and war-gaming. SAMS is focused on developing high-level planners and leaders who can deal with these threats, with a great deal of adaptability, in order that the initiative is never ceded to the enemy (ADP 3-0). The following background and example of lessons learned over the last two years of instruction at SAMS serves to elucidate how scenario planning for the FOE is distinct from other attempts to understand the FOE and how this process helps on-the-ground practitioners develop the critical thinking skills to deal with an uncertain future and a multitude of enemy threats.
If the 9/11 attacks taught America anything, it was that future threats are difficult to anticipate even if the enemy has been identified. Despite what Nassim Taleb (2007) postulates, 9/11 was not a “black swan” that changed the nature of warfare. According to Clausewitz, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for the nature of warfare to change, for there are immutable aspects of war such as “danger, exertion, uncertainty, and chance.” The character of war or how the war is fought is a different matter and that can change when a state is facing a different threat than was previously anticipated. Therefore, 9/11 was not an instance of America being caught off guard. Instead, it was a representation of a state being caught on guard for a wrongly anticipated future. This may seem to the reader, at this point, as semantically splitting hairs but it what we are attempting to relate is that this distinction is important and far more useful than attempting to predict and plan for alleged “black swans.”
In the intelligence community and in a major proportion of the scholarly community, using trends analysis to predict future threats is a mainstay. But in the military community, especially outside of military intelligence, scenario building and war-gaming become important tools for anticipating the details and how a military might react in a coherent way to these potential threats. So while books such as Andrew Krepinevich’s Seven Deadly Scenarios (2009) seem to fit the bill, these are simply overly general and somewhat sensationalized accounts of events that might occur in the future but they do little to prepare military planners and strategists for the actual threat they may have to face.
At SAMS, anticipating and planning for potential future threats is one of the pillars of the education that elite field grade officers receive. Each officer goes through seven exercises each dealing with a different potential future threat situation. But because SAMS focuses on operational art, these exercises contain both conceptual and detailed planning elements which create a higher order learning more applicable to a practitioner honing skills to anticipate and plan against any future military threat that might come that soldiers way. The threat itself ends up taking a back seat to the lessons learned over repeated attempts to develop concepts and details to deal with these threats.
A generic example of some lessons learned will help to illustrate the types of opportunities and pitfalls that can be gleaned from repeated scenario development and testing. The following does not represent a real scenario used at SAMS but instead is a generic scenario overlaid with some real insights students learned over the past two years of using scenarios to anticipate and plan for the future.
Figure Four shows a very generic setup that captures some of the lessons students at SAMS have learned by developing concepts and digging into the details of war-gaming against a slightly fictionalized future adversary. Figure 4 represents an amalgamation of lessons drawn from several scenarios SAMS students had to address and should not be construed as representing any particular real-world problem or any real-world nation-states. While trends analysis and grand theories of deadly future scenarios are important in leading the SAMS faculty, especially the exercise cell, to potential problem states and situations, in the end, the lessons learned come from delving into the minutia that only arises when one grinds through conceptual and detailed planning.
In Figure Four below, the United States has an Army group in the far northwest corner of its ally, Atopia. Atopia is an ally that not only shares good foreign relations with the United States but also has good oil production which the United States wishes to ensure is uninterrupted. Atopia’s immediate neighbor to the east is a hostile failing state, Btopia, which is undemocratic and historically antagonistic to both Atopia and the United States. Immediately to the east of Btopia is a regional economic and military power that shares a common ideology and history with Btopia, known here as Adversaria. Both the United States and Adversaria have a vested interest in Btopia. The United States is worried about the imminent collapse of this failing state and the implications for its ally Atopia as well as the potential disruption in world oil production since both Atopia and Btopia are major producers of oil. The United States is also worried about chemical weapons production and proliferation as Btopia has publically stated it is manufacturing chemical weapons in order to protect its sovereignty from bull western aggressor states. If a collapse occurs, the United States would like to see Btopia embrace democracy and capitalism as a coherent whole. The fragmentation of Btopia is viewed as a suboptimal outcome.
Key: Rectangles represent friendly forces (from the US perspective). Diamonds represent opposing forces from both Atopia and Adversaria. The symbology used comes from the US Army, so a rectangle with an X through its body represents an infantry group, a rectangle containing an oval is an armor group, etc. The stars represent the capitals of Atopia and Btopia while dark circles represent other cities within these two states.
Figure 4: Amalgamated Scenario Lessons (source: Cox 2011)
Adversaria has an interest in increasing ties with Btopia in order to create a more favorable oil exchange agreement. Adversaria has an interest in Btopia surviving as a state, even after a messy exchange of power, to serve as a buffer and in order that a democratic state not directly border its state. Adversaria views the chemical weapons as a deterrent to western aggressors and, even if the Btopia were to fracture, would prefer a new state form that has chemical weapon production capability. Both the United States and Adversaria also have a vested interest in avoiding conflict with one another which further complicates the situation.
Even though the scenarios through which SAMS students are given to work are set in the future—generally no more than five years—assumptions about military capacity and placement are based on reality. While Figure 4 is completely fictional as an illustration, SAMS students would have access to some intelligence of real-world force placement and capability and, as in this scenario, this creates operational problems that have to be addressed. Given the set-up described above and the map of forces and states presented in Figure 1, SAMS students begin to recognize potentials and pitfalls offered by the situation which are never explored in a trends analysis or broad opinion pieces on future perils facing the United States.
One of the first things as SAMS student will notice, they are at a positional disadvantage in terms of force predisposition. The major US Army group has been relegated to the far northwestern corner of Atopia. This is a political consideration, as the Atopian politicians do not wish to appear weak to their people or overly reliant on western military intervention. Even so, Adversaria has closer placement of troops and what appears to be a far easier path into the Btopia should they decide to intervene in a crisis.
SAMS students will also note that there are not a lot of paved roads in either country, which is typical in the developing world and most likely places that the US Army will fight, and no significant railroads. Logistical movement of troops and materiel from such a disadvantageous starting position will be problematic. The inclination to cheat out of the northwest corner as even a threat of danger approaches becomes strong but political realities on the ground may not allow for this.
Btopia is clearly in an aggressive position menacing Atopia’s capital and its most significant oil field. It is obvious, since Btopia is on the brink of collapse, that Btopia is attempting a classic semi-authoritarian diversion by attacking another state so the problems at home are forgotten. The SAMS students will be inclined to all sorts of thought initially such as reconfiguring Atopia’s predisposition only to learn the hard lesson of coalition warfare that other states are loathe to cede sovereignty over their own military to a foreign power no matter how closely allied the two states are. They also learn how hard it is to synchronize and time force movements and attacks with a coalition partner.
As the scenario plays out, another interesting conundrum emerges. Many of the hostile forces in Btopia switch from being addressed as clearly hostile to their predisposition being unknown. Btopia has collapsed in the middle of a war. Even some of the front line units stop fighting but the SAMS students cannot ascertain if this is an operational pause or an indication of the military fracturing or surrendering. As US and Atopian troops enter Btopia, they have to determine when, where, and whom to fight and they should not, although they can, continue to believe all units are hostile. The same problem faces Adversaria which may have crossed the border to help Btopia fight or under the ruse of humanitarian or refugee assistance in order to secure land for a new puppet regime. Neither the combined US/Atopian or Adversaria forces are sufficient to fight and conquer all of Btopia’s forces so both sides could use help from a renegade general or more simply from troops unwilling to fight.
This means that bypassing formerly opposing forces becomes an option but students have to really think hard about operational risk. Simply assuming forces that did not fire upon you when you passed will not fire on you or attempt to sabotage your mission in the future is folly. What students have done when they bypass a Btopian unit of unknown predisposition is to place a potentially harmful force on their ground line of communication which could result in severe resupply issues.
These are just a sampling of some of the conundrums and lessons SAMS students have learned from scenario exercises aimed at preparing them to be better leaders and anticipating future operational problems they may face when they go back into the field. These lessons tend to come out more starkly and leave a far most lasting impression on students when the scenario exercises are competitive. Students are far more clever, try harder, become more vested into the scenario, and discover far more when they battle one another. This is not an option with trends analysis and other speculative methodologies about the future. Further, the lessons learned are not universal but some of the challenges are common to almost any operation and the exercise itself helps the SAMS student become a more agile and adaptive thinker. This may be the most important aspect of scenario development and war-gaming which allows these officers to better anticipate the future and adapt to it.
These exercises are augmented by a twelve-lesson graduate course, Future Operational Art, which delves into the various theories and methods of predicting and anticipating the future, some relevant historical and contemporary case studies, and a capstone requirement for students to develop their own version of one potential military problem they feel the United States will face in the near future.
The development of the case study is a group project comprising three to four students. The students are required to define the problem, present the operational environment including an order of battle or the array of forces, identify the United States’ interest and speculate on the strategic and policy guidance for this military situation, translate this guidance into an operational campaign, and then identify the potentials and pitfalls any realistically comprised US force would face in such as situation. This is a daunting exercise, but SAMS students work hard every time to provide very good end products. Since the Future Operational Art course comes at the end of the academic training for these field-grade officers, the class and this project, in particular, allows the students to synthesize all they have learned and apply it toward thinking about the future.
The School of Advanced Military Studies does not have a bias against trends analysis or speculation on future threats. Instead, SAMS uses the products of these tools to guide case selection for scenario development and then develops scenarios about the near future and war-games them competitively in order that abstract theory is translated into good practice, conceptual and detailed planning is learned, and in order to understand the promise and peril that each unique future challenge might offer to military practitioners. The truth is more akin to Philip Tetlock’s “fox and hedgehog” analogy: both trend analyzers and scenario war-gamers bring different methodologies to the table. Neither is perfect and each alone is likely insufficient so reliance on one methodology at the exclusion of the other would be a grave mistake.
Conclusion: The Future of Defense Forecasting
Defense forecasting is an arcane science, and this paper has only scratched the surface of the planning process at each level of the US defense and security apparatus. While much progress has been made in streamlining defense forecasting and threat assessment at the grand strategic level, the fact that two of the country’s most prominent defense/security bureaucracies employ entirely different mechanisms to analyze risk implies a long and difficult road ahead to reach the nirvana of an integrated threat assessment/management/mitigation strategy.
What we have presented here should not be interpreted as an attack on trends analysis, capabilities based planning, or risk assessment based forecasting. Instead, we offer a fourth, less examined, possibility for examining the FOE. Since SAMS is developing planners and leaders who will need to understand the detailed obstacles and potential future threats offer, scenario development offers the officer the ability to develop not only conceptual plans but detailed plans and to better understand how concepts and details interact. Examining the details, ironically, allows for a better, deeper understanding of the potential threat which trends analysis may have identified.
The example of defense forecasting at the operational level, where US Army and sister service Majors and Lt. Colonels seek to plan in a complex environment sheds light on lessons that might be applied at levels further up the chain of command, but in order to do so the entire notion of defense forecasting may have to undergo an even more radical shift than it has so far: accepting (and embracing) complexity, chaos, and risk in the international arena.
Another interesting implication from this paper is that businesses tend to rely heavily on strategic analyses of future threats and companies that might be potential threats. It may turn out that SAMS’ use of scenarios has interesting implications for US businesses as well. Regardless of its use, the value of defense forecasting to complex organizations such as the US military (or the even larger and more complex US defense and security apparatus) is clear: forward-leaning, informed speculation on the future operating environment can make the difference between being able to respond to or mitigate unexpected events or failing to adequately address these challenges.
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