Small Wars Journal

Course of Action Analysis for Intelligence Professionals: How to Maintain Collaboration When Assuming an Adversarial Position.

Wed, 12/02/2020 - 12:32pm

Course of Action Analysis for Intelligence Professionals: How to Maintain Collaboration When Assuming an Adversarial Position.


Eric Slater


The purpose of this article is to provide intelligence professionals a set tactics, techniques, and procedures for successful course of action analysis. I also cover how to maintain a cooperative environment when tasked with role-playing the enemy.  This article is borne from the experience of having failed to grasp the collaborative nature of war-gaming as a lieutenant, followed by development through my captaincy as a staff intelligence officer and company commander assigned to the National Training Center.  Acknowledgement and appreciation to CPT Jacob Roberts, my operations counter-part in over twenty-five war games, and without whom I would have never conceptualized this article.


“Eric, you clearly did your homework.  You wiped the floor with us.  I learned absolutely nothing. XO, reset the board, I will be back in an hour.”  I will never forget the words of my Battalion Commander.  I was at the Leader’s Training Program at the National Training Center and had just completed the first war game of my Army career. As a newly promoted First Lieutenant, I was relatively proud of my work.  I had researched every enemy capability, memorized weapon system ranges, and had conducted substantial preparation in developing considerations as to how I could desynchronize my battalion’s plan.  I triggered chemical strikes, scatterable mines, and electronic warfare effects at critical points.  As a result, my battalion never was able to conduct its simulated breach and the commander demanded that we reset.  At the time, I did not understand why my commander seemed so upset with me.  I assumed that I had done exactly what the Army expected of an intelligence officer, but what I failed to realize is that I missed the point of the war game and prevented any useful outputs from arising from the process.


The war game is the most underutilized and misunderstood step of the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP).  It is also usually the first casualty of a condensed MDMP timeframe.  Field Manual 6-0, Commander and Staff Organization and Operations, outlines techniques, methodology, and roles and responsibilities for staff officers during a war game.  It also explains a war game’s key outputs, of which there are five: refined courses of action (COAs), potential decision points (DPs), war game results, updated assumptions, and initial assessment measures.  However, the roadmap to get from doctrinally prescribed tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to said outputs can become ambiguous relatively quickly.  How does the staff translate points of friction into a discussion that validates a plan while mitigating potential risks?  Where do we begin to refine our COAs?  What actions necessitate the generation of a branch based upon a DP?  A question more pertinent to this article: where does the intelligence officer fall into this framework?


Unfortunately, FM 6-0 is relatively scant on the responsibilities of an organization’s intelligence section during a war game. In all reality, a reader can distill Paragraph 9-167, which explains these responsibilities, to the following three items: roleplay as the enemy commander, assist with collection planning, and record results to update Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) products.  This is surface level information without any real emphasis on how to make the most of the exercise.  Intelligence manuals are equally insufficient on providing their audience a set of best practices for a successful war game. In my experience, doctrine has not been particularly helpful when it comes to enabling intelligence professionals to be successful during course of action analysis.  What is lacking is instruction on how to thoroughly integrate and serve as a collaborative party rather than as an antagonist to the staff. 

Intelligence professionals tend to take a fair amount of pride in their work.  This is a good thing as active and engaged members of the intelligence community are an asset to their organizations.  However, getting “married” to the work completed during mission analysis (MA) will only become a pitfall during the war game.  Once you have created the intelligence products necessary to plan against, it is time to take a step back.  We must make a mental transition and become dedicated to destroying the threats we have templated.  There is a fine line between planning for, generating and replicating a competent enemy, and becoming so committed to your threat COA statements that you defend them in an unproductive manner. 


The war game must be a cooperative exercise.  By the inherent nature of the word “game”, we often tend to think in terms of winners and losers.  During MDMP, however, this mindset will only result in unnecessary strife and subpar outputs.  If somebody decisively “wins” the war game, everybody loses.  During the war game itself, intelligence professionals are responsible for the generation of a threat that is competent, well integrated and self-actualized.  Anything less is a failure.  However, in attempting to produce this threat, there is a propensity to generate an enemy that goes far beyond the realm of reason.  There is no such thing as an omnipotent enemy, and we should never portray one.  How then, do we strike that balance?


In order to make a war game productive, the first necessary step for an intelligence professional is to come to the fight prepared.  You must bring completed IPB products, an event template with a full enemy decision support matrix (DSM), and a collection plan.  These products will serve as the backbone for every action you will take during the war game itself.  If the intelligence section conducted thorough IPB, the product should include an enemy decision cycle based upon calculated risks.  It should also include a well thought-out targeting cycle with assessments pertaining to when the enemy will employ special capabilities or High Value/High Payoff Targets. These products will serve as a roadmap, guiding the intelligence section through its moves throughout the war game. 


It is relatively important to stick to the framework provided by the products that you have already generated.  Too many times, I have seen intelligence officers move into the war game and immediately dismiss their IPB products for a previously undisclosed fourth COA sketch that they believe will enable them to “win.” This mentality hurts the process by undermining the point of war-gaming. It is far better to use the products that you have already created for this exercise.  Doing so accomplishes two critical things.  First, it prevents the war game from becoming unwieldy and unproductive.  The action-reaction-counteraction cycle can quickly spiral down rabbit holes.  At some point, these rabbit holes, rife with “what-ifs” and “what-abouts” become counterproductive.  Using the COA sketches and event template created during MA will enable you to adhere to the information that you have already assessed as the most critical for your commander’s situational understanding.  Second, it prevents intelligence officers from playing “got you” games, and shields them from the perception that they are trying to play one. If you are going to introduce a new enemy capability during the war game and it happens to affect the outcome of a decisive point in the friendly operation, then you have not done due diligence during IPB.  You should have previously templated this threat, provided opportunities to plan against it, and assisted with the development of COAs that could facilitate its mitigation.  Once you deviate from your products (without a justifiable and articulated reason), it sets you up to be the antagonist to the remainder of the staff and your collective outputs will suffer. 


This is not to say that in a dynamic environment situations will not arise that cause you to have to re-think your intelligence products.  It would be utterly irresponsible not to take the most current information available into deliberation with both your running estimates, as well as during the war game.  With that, a major consideration here is when to present that information.  Frequent communication with the remainder of the staff is critical.  If your first opportunity to present new information is during the war game, then it is indicative of staff “stove piping” and the outputs of MDMP will suffer.  It is a responsibility of the intelligence community to afford as much time as possible for the staff to analyze relevant information and assessments, especially when this information may trigger a return to MA. 


Throughout the war game, it is important to humble yourself and appreciate the knowledge base that other staff sections are bringing to the exercise.  The intelligence officer is not the subject matter expert on all warfighting functions.  Similar to a reverse IPB conducted during MA, the staff can continue to aid the intelligence section in generating a realistic threat throughout the war game.  Logisticians, for example, would be able help the intelligence section with understanding when and where the enemy would conduct refuel operations.  Collaborative input is a force multiplier.  Furthermore, this will allow the staff to refine its targeting cycle.  Take note, as experts from other staff sections advise you on how the enemy will conduct critical support functions.  This will facilitate the refinement of the collection plan by providing observable indicators tied to times and locations.  The intelligence section should also immediately feed this information to the operations section, enabling the operations officer to make the determination on whether targeting these functions will accrue a tactical advantage.  These measures will increase staff collaboration on both sides of the wargame and mitigate perceptions that the intelligence section is an antagonist.


One technique that is particularly useful in helping an intelligence professional stay on task is to generate a stack of index cards, each annotated with the use of an enemy capability tied to a DP.  These cards need to be borne from your COA sketches and event template to add value to the exercise.  The intelligence section should also generate these cards prior to the initiation of the war game.  Whenever the intelligence officer is going to conduct a potentially contentious action such as employ a chemical munition during a decisive point in the operation, he or she can then physically “play” a card with that action.  Playing action cards does a few separate things.  First, it demonstrates that you had already templated this action as an enemy capability.  It constitutes proof that you are not just inventing reactionary measures to regain an advantage or “win” the war game.  Secondly, it also generates a realistic resource scarcity.  For example, if you have templated two enemy FASCAM missions during a particular battle period, once you play those two cards, you are out of munitions.  You can also use these cards to place other realistic constraints on the templated enemy. For example, your templated attack aviation card can annotate how long the rotary threat will be on-station based upon blade hours.  War-gaming with a self-imposed resource scarcity more accurately replicates your enemy and leads to a realistic utilization of their templated capabilities. 


Another valuable tool I have used within the war game is what I refer to as a “tactical rewind”.  While playing the enemy commander, if I ever find myself accruing a tactical advantage, I recommend resetting the board before the play in which I gained that advantage (while this technique admittedly works best when using the box method of war-gaming, the staff can apply it to all three methods with some ingenuity).  At this point, I work with the operations officer and remainder of the staff to make a determination on what friendly effects we can generate.  We then collaboratively work to reduce the enemy’s capacity to accumulate that advantage.  Perhaps my enemy move was to employ a FASCAM thereby splitting an element moving through a canalizing piece of terrain.  By working through a hasty reallocation of breaching assets and the employment of a counterbattery radar system to provide warning for this action, we collectively mitigate that threat before resuming the war game.  Whether the move that caused the rewind was an aviation deep strike, chemical munition, or the seizure of a piece of key terrain, allowing the collective experience of the staff to mitigate the threat creates a better final product and ensures that the exercise remains collaborative in nature. 


It is important to remember that the fourth step of the military decision making process does not solely consist of the war game.  It also includes what we do with what we have learned during the exercise.  At the culmination of the war game, it is prudent and necessary to update your running estimates.  Ensure that your COA sketches are still valid, and make determinations on whether they require updates.  You will also need to relook your enemy DSM and event template.  Friendly actions may have forced you to make decisions, or alter your timelines.  Capturing these templated enemy reactions is critical.  Finally, you should relook your initial PIR and ensure that they remain valid and continue to drive decisions for your commander based upon what you learned during the war game.


Importantly here, intelligence officers should address any major alterations to their intelligence products with both the operations and executive officers.  This prevents the “stove piping” of information, and ensures the continuity of shared understanding throughout the staff.  We all must return to our workstations at some point.  However, there is no reason that this should lead us to working in a vacuum.  Continuing communication with your staff counterparts is necessary if you want to avoid a disjointed product.


In closing, MDMP is a collaborative endeavor.  For intelligence professionals, rolling over and losing should never be an option.  Always present a lethal threat.  However, committing too deeply to the victory of the threat comes at the detriment to you unit.  It is your job to assist your unit in conceptualizing and ultimately defeating that enemy.  It is also imperative to use the war game as an opportunity to reflect on your own assessments.  By implementing the techniques throughout this article, intelligence professionals can be a greater asset to their unit’s staff.  At the end of the day, we all must remember that the end-user of our operations orders will be an American Soldier.  Our personal pride and biases should never get in the way of providing that individual with the best products possible.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

About the Author(s)

CPT Eric Slater is currently the company commander for the 511th Military Intelligence Company, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Irwin, California. His dual role sees him additionally serve as the deputy commander for an opposition force reconnaissance squadron. Prior assignments include serving as a squadron intelligence officer for 2/11 ACR, and the assistant regimental intelligence officer for the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. CPT Slater has completed thirty-five Combat Training Center rotations, predominantly at the National Training Center. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from the College of the Holy Cross.  



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 8:31am

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Thu, 12/03/2020 - 12:35pm

Reminds me, in a way, of going through intel school in 1971. We were in what was called The Barn, which was more like a graduation exercise with a Fulda Gap type scenario. This was well before computers, so red and black grease pencils and maps covered in acetate were the norm.

Action proceeded apace as each 3-4 person teams tasked mythical units and intel assets for info on specifics, IAW FM 30-5/Combat Intelligence's EEI/OIR Collection Guidance and other specifics contained in the intel analysts' bible. That is until I decided to ask for some very specific and detailed information (especially weather). The referees wanted to know why and I tried my best to fence their questions away. They started to get increasingly angry and I finally relented, as part of our duties we were required to keep the commander informed of conditions for the use of tactical nuclear weapons by an enemy. You'd have thought one exploded in this classroom - no one had ever asked for this information before and they were, er, rather irked.

My team won. Most of us went to Vietnam a short while later.