Small Wars Journal

Joint Operational Design, Re-imagined…

Mon, 10/26/2020 - 10:00pm

Joint Operational Design, Re-imagined…

By Andrew “Buster” Crabb


In July of 2013, Syria was in a full-blown civil war. Throughout the country, there were numerous armed groups vying for supremacy: the Syrian Armed Forces, Hezbollah militias, Iranian advisors, Al Nusra Front, Ahrar Al Sham, Syrian Democratic Forces, thousands of foreign jihadists and a superabundance of other violent groups. At the time, as the J5 Future Plans & Operations Officer for CENTCOM Forward – Jordan (CF-J), my team and I were tasked to come up with options and ideas in case CF-J was to form a Joint Task Force and interdict in the war-torn country. Unfortunately, for such a complex and unbounded problem, my team of SAMS graduates, ORSAs, and subject-matter experts found the Joint Planning Process lacking; operational design was in its infancy, not doctrine, and not well known by anyone on the staff.  We went on to improvise and develop operational concepts, but it was clear that there was a gap in the U.S. military’s planning and problem solving methodologies.    

     Since that time, operational design has been adopted into Joint Doctrine. The Armed Services and US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) have also, in different forms, adopted operational design. In my later years in uniform, as well as in my current role as an Operational Planning Instructor at the Joint Special Operations University, I have become very familiar with Joint Operational Design and related schools of thought.  Yet, I still go back to those early days of CF-J and ask the question—would any of these methodologies have helped us analyze and address the very “wicked” (i.e. highly complex) problem of Syria circa 2013? Again and again, I find myself coming to the conclusion that the answer is, flatly, “no.” As currently captured in JP 5-0[1] (Joint Planning), Joint Operational Design is seriously limited in both its usefulness and application. Joint Operational Design needs to be re-imagined.

     What would a re-imagined Joint Operational Design methodology look like? It would need to borrow the best aspects of the existing design and planning processes.  It would be a methodology that encourages creative thought followed by analytical rigor. It would be a process that is simple to understand and execute, but is a completely thorough way of concept development.  Most importantly, it would be a process that can be used to problem-solve against a variety of problem-sets—operational, non-operational, straightforward, complex, defined and undefined.

Design pictorial addressing a fictitious problem, in this case moving a SOF HQ from Okinawa. A good starting point…

Outside of JP 5-0’s Joint Operational Design, there is a great body of work upon which to draw.  The Joint Planning Process (JPP)[2] offers a thorough, methodical approach to planning based on task analysis and reductionism. The Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning (JCIC)[3], offers an expansive way to design campaigns utilizing a “competition continuum” and leveraging the whole of the government and international partners. Within certain sectors of the military, there is also a school of thought—simply called “Design”—that emphasizes creative thinking via rich discourse (i.e. group collaboration) and solution expression through metaphors. These metaphors can be relayed in many ways, including sketches, pictorials and even physical models. From the Services, the 2015 Army Design Methodology (ADM)[4] starts off brilliantly, showing how we can observe problems and different ways to think about them.  Unfortunately, all these methodologies fall short in various ways: JPP’s lack of flexibility, JCIC’s focus on operational problems, Design’s limited ability to transition concepts to plans, and ADM’s mirroring of JP 5-0’s operational design methodology.


That leads us to back to an examination of Joint Operational Design, its conception, evolution and adoption by the U.S. military. Operational design’s first advocate was Israeli General Shimon Naveh[5], who pioneered the concept to address what he saw as the intellectual shortfalls in military deliberate decision-making.  Those shortfalls came to life when the asymmetric threats that opposed Israel in the 2006 Lebanon war incurred a deadly cost for mission accomplishment; this led to Naveh’s work being embraced to a greater degree, both in the Israeli and in U.S. militaries.  Many in the U.S. military saw his systemic operational design (SOD) as a way to address the limitations of the Joint Planning Process (and its Service-led cousins such as the Army’s Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) and the Marine Corps’ Planning Process (MCPP)). Many in US planning circles saw SOD as addressing the need for a methodology that promotes conception and expression of creative solutions.

Towards that end, in 2015 JP 5-0 added a Chapter for Joint Operational Design. In the follow-on 2017 version of JP 5-0, Joint Operational Design is a process that starts with a review of the elements of “operational art.” It then goes through an examination of the environment and an analysis of the actors involved in the problem-set. That leads to the outcome, described as an “operational approach.”  Simply stated, this “approach” is an operational concept for a campaign or complex operation.  JP 5-0’s Joint Operational Design methodology has many, many strengths, particularly when facing one or two main adversaries who preside over an ordered operational environment (OE).  Joint Operational Design begins with a strong emphasis on understanding the OE, understanding ourselves, our adversaries, and other significant actors involved in the problem-set.

Exploration and understanding the environment in which the problem exists is a critical step in problem solving and planning. There are many methodologies one can use to explore the environment or situation in which the problem exists.  In addition to products such as decision making templates, situational templates, there is an acronym soup of analytical tools available to study and research a problem’s environment. These intellectual guides include: Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information, Infrastructure (PMESII); Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People, Events (ASCOPE); Diplomatic, Informational, Military, Economic (DIME). All of these are tools used to examine the operational environment from the vantage point of a variety of interests and facets.  The Joint Special Operations University’s Special Operations Planning Course utilizes a guide developed by the intelligence community. It was developed specifically to understand irregular warfare environments: IGIVO—Issues, Goals, Influencers, Vulnerabilities, and Outcomes. Regardless of which is most applicable, they are all means to end, which is to understand the problem-set’s environment from a variety of perspectives.

     To assess ourselves, our adversaries and other actors, JP 5-0 operational design relies on a Center of Gravity (COG) analysis. For years the idea of a COG has been controversial, often quickly devolving into debates concerning what the creator of the idea (19th Century military leader, practitioner and theorist General Carl Von Clausewitz) meant in the original German text and other well-meaning but tiring arguments. In a significant shortfall, after spending much time discussing and defining what a COG is and is not, amazingly JP 5-0 does not clearly present a way to identify a center of gravity. Instead, it essentially says that through thorough analysis the COG will become obvious. Once the actor’s COG has been identified, JP 5-0 utilizes a “Critical Factors Analysis” (CFA), a concept originally developed by Dr. Joe Strange[6], to explore ways to attack and undermine our adversaries’ (or protect our own) COGs.  JP 5-0 instructs that once you have identified these critical factors, you can link them to decisive points, group those points into Lines of Operation and Lines of Effort (LOOs / LOEs), and link the outcomes of LOO & LOEs to your desired End State.  Collectively, this is your operational concept or campaign plan.

     Setting aside all the argumentation surrounding Clausewitz’s intent, the COG analysis can be extremely useful as it identifies the main strengths (Dr. Strange’s simple way of defining a COG) and aspects (critical capabilities, critical requirements, and critical vulnerabilities) of ourselves, our enemies and significant actors in the OE.  Identifying the critical factors underpinning the COG can lead to very creative ways to directly and indirectly undermine our adversaries’ COGs, protect our own COG, all towards achieving our ends.

     However, when one applies the Syria 2013 litmus test to JP 5-0’s operational design methodology, its limitations are quickly revealed. In a straightforward, binary competition (us against one nation state’s military), and in an ordered area of responsibility, JP 5-0’s Joint Operational Design works quite well.  As one begins to add additional foes and disorder to the OE, it loses its usefulness. For Syria July 2013, had we utilized Joint Operational Design as it is currently constructed, we would have done a COG analysis against 15 or more groups—yet would defeating any of those groups really have resulted in an increased ability to “impose our will” in the OE and achieve our desired end state? More likely, defeating one group would have emboldened and/or strengthened other competing groups, led to greater disorder and to a further challenge to achieving our end of defusing the crisis. In a disordered environment, with multiple foes, Joint Operational Design is at best limited, and very well could be counter-productive.

     Further, as currently constructed, would Joint Operational Design help us visualize a humanitarian assistance campaign?  What about below-the-threshold-of-violent-conflict campaigns—e.g. developing a Theater Security Cooperation Plan (TSCP) in a Theater not at war? Or perhaps developing a comprehensive plan to establish a country’s navy? Clearly, Joint Operational Design as laid out in JP 5-0 isn’t wholly suitable for developing a solution for any of those problem-sets. Finally, let’s not even consider using Joint Operational Design to problem solve for non-operational, wickedly complex and/or undefined problem-sets (e.g. Should we establish a Forward Headquarters in the Middle East?; What can we do in East Africa?).

A re-imagined Joint Operational Design must be flexible and thorough, yet simple enough to comprehend and follow.