Small Wars Journal

The Value of Planning

Thu, 08/30/2018 - 7:50am

The Value of Planning


L. Burton Brender


The plan was simple: invade before it was too late.  The industrialized north needed the south’s vast fields of agriculture; indeed, its very survival might depend on it.  Besides, many in the north argued this military intervention was nothing more than restoring the country’s former union.  It had a longstanding and, as the government argued, completely legitimate claim on the south’s territory.  Then there was also the growing threat of foreign invasion.  If the north did not unify the land quickly, neighboring countries might decide this is an opportune time to settle old disputes.  Of course, none of the moralizing really mattered.  A short, well executed war would double the size of the country and secure its future for hundreds of years.  The north would take this land—and it would do it quickly.  The leader of the north, a man of considerable height for the time, sat with his advisers.  They determined that their country would not get lured away with other opportunities further south and west, no matter how tempting.  Once it had what it needed, it would retire to secluded silence again.


Therefore, in the week before Christmas 1740, Frederick the Great took his army of the north across Prussia’s lightly defended southern border into Silesia.  The Prussian plan was well thought out: its end was the Austrian province’s capture.  He was not interested in a single inch of land elsewhere, and he would not allow any advisors or opportunities to balloon his goal out of proportion.  The ways he was going to get to these ends were sound, as well.  Prussia would rapidly overwhelm the Silesian defenses, secure its key cities and highways, and establish a strong defense.  Lastly, he had the means.  His prosperous economy paid for the best mercenaries money could buy and he would give them no more work than he had promised.


By the end of January, Frederick’s forces had conquered nearly the entire province of Silesia.  Only the last enemy redoubts remained, and they were under siege.  In April, Austrian forces attempted to relieve their besieged brothers and repel the invaders.  However, the well-prepared Prussians won a stunning victory at the city of Mollwitz.  Silesia, the “south,” with all of its wealth, was Prussia’s.[i]  Frederick the Great’s plan had worked perfectly, and it was all thanks to the plan.


270 years later, institutions like the American Army finds themselves culturally ambivalent about plans.  While episodes like Prussia’s invasion of Silesia are famous examples of good planning, the 20th century has presented some harsh lessons about their alternative fates.  The Von Schlieffen Plan, for one, was Imperial Germany’s blueprint for defeating France and Russia in World War I.  It did not result in a victory.  Then there was France’s post-World War I Maginot Line, designed to prevent a German invasion from ever happening again.  It was easily undone.  And then there was the 1942 Allied assault on the French port of Dieppe in occupied France.  A force of 6,000 was completely repulsed leaving1,000 dead, 2,000 captured, and 106 aircraft shot down.[ii]  Perhaps considering events like these, the great American general turned president Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “plans are worthless...”[iii]

However, students of military history will remember that he quickly added “…but planning is everything.”[iv]  The American Army reflects this paradox.  While its formal military schooling avowedly values planning highly, the Army’s popular culture does not.  Why?  Is it because the Army has paid scrupulous attention to military history, or are there more visceral reasons?


In 2017, a US Army corps participated in the deployment of one of its brigades to the National Training Center on Fort Irwin, California.  Such a deployment is a major affair.  Just the movement a brigade and its thousands of vehicles, containers, and personnel is a small logistical wonder.


It therefore came as a great surprise when, on this brigade’s last day of leave, its corps ordered it to participate in an emergency deployment readiness exercise.  Its instructions were to deploy to the NTC not by rail, as had been the plan, but by sea—and to do it in fifteen days.  Of course, the brigade was capable and agile, and it accomplished its mission.  However, it and many of that post’s civilian elements had to work 24-hour operations, including over a previously promised four-day weekend, to achieve this success.


But, do not think this was some sort of blunder.  This surprise timeline had been very deliberately crafted by a capable staff planner, and the management of chaos was one his stated training objectives.  Indeed, it was practice at what the Army considers its highest form of readiness, what it might colloquially call reacting to contact.


Reacting to contact (responding successfully to the unexpected), is a cultural value the Army teaches from a very early age.  For example, a senior cadet at Pacific Lutheran University’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps once designed a training event for his unit.  He carefully calculated the periods of time his cadets would need to unload busses, take accountability of equipment, and receive safety briefs.  However, his cadet commander, a former ranger battalion NCO, said “no, cut the time in half.”[v]  There was no malice in this order, nor was there any lack of organizational savvy or desire to see cadets fail.  Rather, this was trying to inculcate in the cadets the ability to succeed at the Army’s most critical task: succeeding in the face of the unexpected.  These cadets learned that very well.


The American Army, like America itself, trusts its ability to solve problems by reacting to contact over deliberate planning and there are a few cultural traits that help explain why.  The first is that Americans are a future-oriented people.  For them, and their Army, the past simply holds less weight than the future.  Of course, this is not that surprising.  Americans do not have that much history to draw from.  In the US public school system, the earliest national history the curriculum begins with is generally the colonies of the 17th century.  As an independent country, America has only existed for 242 years (compare that with Korea’s 5,000 years of recorded history).


This future orientation combines with a uniquely American brand of optimism: life is only going to get better the further they go.  A 2018 article in The Atlantic chronicled that Americans generally think life is better today than it was a century ago, and in another hundred years it will be better still.[vi]  As admirable as this is, these beliefs can unwittingly bias Americans against the idea of planning.  Logically, if the past holds relatively little weight and the world is on the rise, the very concept of planning has an intrinsic flaw: what could someone last year have possibly known about what I am facing today?  Am I not better prepared now, after another year of experience, to meet the problem than them?


Yet, there is something to be said for planning.  I argue that a well-made plan is superior to even the best extemporaneous response.  Though both skills are indisputably necessary, a plan can achieve a grander objective with fewer resources and less risk.  And, one need not look further back in military history than the Gulf War for an example.


On August 2, 1990 Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, invaded its neighbor Kuwait.  Unable to withstand the onslaught, Kuwaiti forces were quickly overran.  So fierce was the enemy’s attack, in fact, that in a single day, Iraq arrived at Kuwait’s capital and killed the emir’s younger brother in combat.[vii]  In two days, it had captured the whole of the country.[viii]  The United States, correctly perceiving a threat to the world’s energy supply, responded by leading a coalition against the Iraqi invaders.  The lynchpin of its operation was the counter offensive, Desert Storm.


Forces under the command of US Army General Norman Schwarzkopf devised a simple plan.  First, a feint: the US Marine Corps deliberately let slip intelligence of its amphibious practice landings on the eastern shores of the Arabian Peninsula.  In late Feburary, 1991, this deception drew Iraq’s attention away from the coalition’s secret, lethal blow massing in the Saudi desert.[ix]  Expecting an assault from the sea, Hussein made extensive preparations oriented against the south and east of his captured territory.[x]


But this was all according to Schwarzkopf’s plan.  Leading his staff’s efforts were his Advanced Military Studies Program graduates, the “Jedi Knights.”[xi]  This cadre of planners devised the flanking maneuver that defeated the Iraqi Army, an attack military history knows as “the left hook.”[xii]  Instead of meeting Iraqi defenses in the south and the east, where the Iraqis were prepared to face the US Marine Corps, highly mobile mechanized forces swung in a wide arc to the west.  Traveling 150 miles through featureless desert, armored vehicles looped to the northwest, taking the enemy in its flank and rear.  Stunningly, coalition forces defeated the Iraqi invaders in only 100 hours of major combat operations in one of the most lopsided victories in American military history: US forces lost 382, while Iraq suffered somewhere between 1,500 and 100,000 casualties.  At its most conservative estimate, that is a near 4:1 ratio.  While impromptu decision-making is an indispensable skill, even in this example, a well-crafted plan is simply better.


So, what makes planning better than reacting well?  As previously stated it allows for a planner to more reliably achieve an end at less cost.  Because he has the benefit of time, a planner can carefully balance three critical considerations: ends, ways, and means.[xiii]  Ends are those things one wants to happen, ways are the actions that lead to them, and means are the physical things that do those actions.  What made Desert Storm a good plan, why it brought a swift end to a victorious war, was the proper balancing of these three things.  Here is how the American military did it.


Like every good plan, it started with the end.  The war’s planners knew what they wanted: a Kuwait returned to its inhabitants, free from Iraqi threat.  More importantly, they knew what they did not want.  They did not want Israel to respond to the Scud missiles raining down on them, because that would broaden the conflict.  They did not want Saudi Arabian oil production to be impeded, because that would unhinge the world’s economy.  Most of all, though, they did not want to expand the conflict into a counter-invasion of Iraq.  A counter-invasion would have led to the fall of a powerful, if wicked, figure in the Middle East, and then a regional power vacuum, and then to either ceding Iraq to its neighbors or the US committing to a prolonged occupation.  The Gulf War succeeded because it kept its end well-defined, refusing to be baited into conflicts it was not prepared to win.  Except at the greatest of need, and even then, only with exceptional care, a good plan does not change its ends.


The war’s planners also applied appropriate ways to their end.  First, diplomacy.  America and the international community used the open forum of the United Nations to give Iraq the chance to back out peaceably.  When nonviolent measures failed, America banded together the outraged countries of the world into a military partnership.  Then, economics.  The United Nations imposed harsh financial penalties and air travel sanctions on Iraq.  Sadly, these also failed to turn the Iraqis back.  As its last resort, America led its coalition to war.  As the winter of 1990 approached, the US and its partners drew its plans against the forces of Iraq in Kuwait.  There was great wisdom in all of this: a good plan clearly defines its ways, all of which lead logically to the achievement of their end.


Finally, the coalition’s war planners ensured their best chances at success by committing the necessary means to their plan.  The coalition marshaled 670,000 troops, 425,000 of which were American, on the Arabian Peninsula.  US leadership commanded air, ground, and naval forces in the deserts and Persian Gulf.  The war’s planners worked together with the full might of American federal agencies like the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) alongside those of its coalition partners.  It coordinated for relief organizations like the Red Cross and the Red Crescent.  Then, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell described, it brought overwhelming force to bear on the enemy.  After only 100 hours of major combat operations, the Iraqi invaders who did not have the good sense to surrender or flee died where they stood.[xiv]


And as tempting as it was to pursue Iraq’s decimated army all the way to Baghdad, coalition forces did not cross the border into Iraq.  This was absolutely the right thing to do.  Changing the nature of the war to a counter-invasion would have been a disastrous expansion of the clearly-defined end that the coalition had so carefully allocated ways and means against.  This insidious temptation to do more than intended is so common, in fact, that it even has a military nickname: mission creep.   But, like Frederick the Great’s carefully laid plan to take Silesia 251 years earlier, Operation Desert Storm specifically guarded against mission creep, doggedly maintaining its clearly successful ways and means against its specified end.  Changing ends without a ruthlessly logical review of ways, or at least a lavish increase in means, almost assures failure.  Sticking to its well-defined end, its rational ways, and within its means is what made the Gulf War a stunning military success.


But let us return to where we started: the invasion of Silesia’s fertile southern fields now nearly 300 years in the past.  If Frederick of Prussia is indeed great, he perhaps owes this title to one trait more than any other: he could plan well.  He knew what he wanted, chose rational ways to achieve it, and committed the necessary means.  He kept courage when things looked grim and knew when to say when.  He trusted his careful strategies to succeed against the very best of his opponents’ reactions—and he was victorious.  This took intelligence, courage, and emotional control.  In short, it took good planning.  No one will ever need convincing that all of us, military and otherwise, will have times when we will have to react well off the cuff—this is a daily occurrence.  However, what we do need convincing of is what Norman Schwarzkopf and Frederick the Great understood long ago: the importance of good planning.  Those who do this well, in addition to thinking on their feet, will be successful in both war and peace.


The author’s views are his own and do not represent those of the United States Army or the Department of Defense.


End Notes

[i] Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, Belknap Press; Jay Luvaas, Frederick the Great on the Art of War, (New York, NY: Free Press); Dennis E. Showalter, The Wars of Frederick the Great, (Harlow, UK: Longman Publishing Group).

[ii] George Dvorsky, “The 8 Worst Mistakes Made by the Allies During World War II, io9, November 27, 2013, accessed December 9, 2018,

[iii] Gerhard Peters and John T. Wooley, “Remarks at the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference: November 14, 1957,” The American Presidency Project, accessed December 31, 2017,

[iv] Ibid.

[v] James Mitchell, interview by author, Parkland, WA, 2004.

[vi] Jared Keller, “What Makes Americans So Optimistic,” The Atlantic, March 25, 2015, accessed January 1, 2018,

[vii] Dave Johns, “The Crimes of Saddam Hussein,” January 24, 2006, accessed December 30, 2017,

[viii] Blake Stilwell, “21 Facts about the First Gulf War,”, September 15, 2017, accessed January 10, 2018,

[ix] P. Antill, “Gulf War – Coalition Amphibious Operations,” February 26, 2003, accessed January 8, 2018,

[x] John M. Broder, “Schwarzkopf’s War Plan Based on Deception,” LA Times, February 28, 1991, accessed December 30, 2017,

[xi] David Evans, “Schwarzkopf’s ‘Jedi Knights’ Praised for Winning Strategy,” Chicago Tribune, May 1, 1991, accessed January 1, 2018,

[xii]Wyatt Olson, “’Left Hook’ Deception Hastened War’s End,” Stripes, accessed December 30, 2017,

[xiii] Department of Defense (DOD), Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Joint Operational Planning (Washington, DC: US Department of Defense, August 10, 2005).

[xiv] Stilwell.


Categories: military planning

About the Author(s)

L. Burton Brender is the coauthor, along with Rod Pattan, of the poetry book In Cadence, and the forthcoming pictorial history Cashmere from Arcadia Publishing.  He has written for The Strategy Bridge, Mirror Northwest, Tacoma News Tribune, and Military Times, among many others.  He is a member of the Military Writers Guild and the Olympia Writers Group.  Follow his work at Swords & Pens.