Joint Force Operating Scenarios: Improving Analysis and Oversight of Force Development

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I will assess each service’s force structure to ensure it supports the wide range of missions required to meet the nation’s defense goals. I will also ensure that we continue to use all analytic tools at our disposal to assess service force structure and sizing strategies.

– Lloyd Austin, then-nominee for secretary of defense, advanced policy questions, Senate Armed Services Committee, January 2021 

The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces … the subordination of military power to the civil.

 – Lloyd Austin, then-nominee for secretary of defense, opening statement, Senate Armed Services Committee, January 2021


The U.S. Department of Defense is undergoing historic change. It’s responding to a rising China, adopting new warfighting concepts, and reassessing the civilian-military relationship. The scale of this change raises the question — does the department have a formal process to provide and evaluate data related to these initiatives and reinforce historic norms related to civilian control?

Unfortunately, while that was true once, it is no longer the case. In 2002, the Department of Defense established a scenario-based analytical process to support deliberations by the department’s senior leadership on strategy and budget matters. Officials intended for it to provide a starting point to evaluate options for future force development by the military services through a joint framework. However, this analytic approach was essentially defunct by 2017, encouraging the oft-cited criticism that the Defense Department has no comprehensive method for examining innovative ideas for future force capabilities on a threat-informed basis.



Without an effective analytical process, the services will likely revert to generating questionable warfighting scenarios to justify parochial programming priorities. This would undermine the joint force’s overall effectiveness through misapplication of limited resources and energy. Perhaps more concerning to the Joe Biden administration and to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the services would then be empowered to operate outside the bounds of detailed civilian oversight. Encouragingly, since 2019, the six military services and U.S. Special Operations Command have developed an initiative — the Joint Force Operating Scenario — to evaluate and refine capability development, force sizing, emerging warfighting concepts, and innovative approaches through wargaming, modeling, and simulation. This article will briefly outline the purpose and demise of the Defense Department’s original evaluation process, summarize the joint force operating scenario governance and its accomplishments to date, and propose a way ahead to codify this essential force development process under the oversight of the new administration.

The Process: Overview and Obituary

The Defense Department established the Analytic Agenda process in 2002 (subsequently renamed Support for Strategic Analysis and codified in department instruction and directive) “to provide analytic support to [Department of Defense] senior leaders as they deliberate strategy and budget matters and to support evaluations of force structure needs across the joint force.” It was led by the “tri-chairs”: representatives from the undersecretary of defense for policy, the Joint Staff J-8 (Force Structure, Resource, and Assessment), and Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation. Under tri-chair leadership, the services, functional combatant commands, agencies, and — often — geographic combatant commands developed plans to solve the military problem presented by the undersecretary of defense for policy. These joint plans — called concepts of operations or CONOPS — typically took 12–18 months to develop. Upon completion, modeling and simulation analysts built databases, conducted quantitative analysis on the campaign, and evaluated force structures, programs, and emerging warfighting concepts.

This process continued until 2017, with the joint team conducting planning and developing analytical products to inform and enable the evaluation of budget requests. Products included a number of written documents with embedded briefing slides and spreadsheets that outlined key aspects of the proposed operation, including: the road to war, the adversary’s approach and the capabilities of its forces, the joint mission and commander’s intent, key friendly tasks by domain (maritime, land, air, etc.), each service’s contribution, etc. The analysis included briefings on friendly and enemy casualty rates for specific units/platforms, munition expenditures, and other campaign insights generated from modeling and simulation. One final plan, which was produced in 2017, was not approved for use. Over the next two years, Support for Strategic Analysis — which briefly became the informal Defense Planning Analytic Community — never developed another product for evaluation.

The Support for Strategic Analysis process was torpedoed because of disagreements over products and budget implications. First, the tri-chairs believed that the resulting deliverables were cumbersome, inflexible, pursued only “single point solutions” that did not sufficiently explore a range of options, and did not provide senior leaders direct answers to their questions. From the service perspective, the plans were undeniably detailed, but detail is a necessary requirement for modeling and simulation, which require specific geographic coordinates and performance characteristics to adjudicate combat outcomes. Further, these capabilities needed to be coordinated within the context of a joint campaign, especially since integrated systems are an attribute of warfare in the information age. Admittedly, the cumbersome and prolonged nature of the initial planning process proved incompatible with the timely production of excursions — deliberate departures from the original plan for the purpose of sensitivity analysis — and collaboration. The results were point solutions — narrow approaches that would not adapt well to changed circumstances — whose insights were not integrated back into the department in order to develop the future force as quickly as possible.

Second, some of the tri-chairs believed that the services did not pursue innovative solutions and ground-breaking technologies, but instead remained fixed on their programmed force structures and overseas basing arrangements. As with the first issue, this is factually correct but doesn’t tell the entire story. The services wanted to “play what is programmed” to establish an analytical starting point, which supports follow-on sensitivity analysis to determine how changes in capabilities and/or circumstances affect outcomes. The problem was that the services did not explore alternate force structures, overseas basing locations, and emerging capabilities to appreciate what changes could have outsized effects. Unfortunately, this problem was due to collective mistrust (on the part of the military services) regarding how the sensitivity analysis would have been used to impact present-day budget requests.

In short, the old process was not creating final analytical products that satisfied all needs for all stakeholders. While the services leveraged the analysis to support nearer-term programming and budgetary decisions, longer-term issues faced by policymakers and program evaluators did not enjoy an equivalent level of satisfaction. Its approach caused friction within the analytic community, precluded cooperation to generate new concepts of operations, and ultimately stopped the process from providing the necessary support to senior defense leaders. Eventually, the tri-chairs agreed to dissolve the process and annul the directive establishing it.

Joint Force Operating Scenario: Emergence, Governance, and Results to Date

In late 2018, responding to pressure by then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis for analytics to support the National Defense Strategy, the services needed a new approach with the demise of Support for Strategic Analysis and the gridlock of the Defense Planning Analytic Community. They realized that the creation of separate force designs in isolation would likely lead to marked differences in the appreciation of the challenges of great-power competition. This would have resulted in an overestimation of individual service contributions to the joint force.

Experienced stakeholders in the Defense Department understood that there needed to be a way to fuse the appreciation of the problem, the design of the force, and service warfighting concepts into a model of how conflict may be waged in the future that could be measured qualitatively and quantitatively. Therefore, planners and analysts from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and U.S. Special Operations Command recommended a governance vehicle to develop a Support for Strategic Analysis-like product. Ultimately, nine three-star-equivalent and senior executive service personnel signed a memorandum of agreement to develop a concept of operations based on a defense planning scenario approved by the undersecretary of defense for policy. The tri-chairs, as well as representatives from the Joint Staff J-7 (Joint Force Development), Joint Staff J-4 (Logistics), and National Guard Bureau were invited and participated as non-voting members of the three bodies.

From January 2019 to June 2019, service and Special Operations Command planners conducted an academic symposium on the military challenge facing the United States, followed the joint planning process based on a select defense planning scenario prioritized previously by the Defense Planning Analytic Community, and published a comprehensive product that addressed competition and conflict in accordance with the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s guidance. All analytical products were uploaded to the Joint Data Support archive — an information storage provider within Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation — for use across the department. A separate effort led by service and Special Operations Command analysts who embedded within the joint working group converted the product into a joint database, which published initial results in February 2020 and then uploaded the datasets to the Joint Data Support site.

We want to emphasize two points. First, the novel process was thorough and quick. It holistically addressed a new scenario with limited resources in six months, which nearly matched the lower time bound of an older process that included many more personnel. Second and more importantly, the product published in June 2019 evolved with the database effort, whose goals were to be “data ready” for analysis on a common model and to have total visibility and transparency under plausible limitations of the defense planning scenario. Specifically, the Marine Corps structure and capabilities changed dramatically after the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David H. Berger, published his planning guidance in July 2019. Nevertheless, the changes to forces and concepts were seamlessly adapted. This is because the approach allowed participants to establish relationships between planners and analysts. In addition, it developed a “problem to be solved, not a solved problem,” wherein capability, capacity, policy, and strategy gaps were highlighted and potential (but not authoritative) solutions identified for further examination. Within this framework, the services can apply the capabilities, force structure, and approach they deem best to help solve the military problem from their perspective. Thus, when they change forces or capabilities, it does not alter the overall objectives or joint campaign so they can build on innovative ideas. The products remain dynamic as new institutional learning takes place in wargames, modeling, and/or simulation, as new capabilities become feasible (based on agreed business rules), and as the Biden administration implements its strategy and policy. This is the essence of innovation within a joint approach and demonstrates that a detailed product is not inherently cumbersome and/or inflexible.

As the analysts built the Joint Force Operating Scenario campaign model database over the second half of 2019, the services leveraged the resultant products to support numerous wargames. The Marine Corps alone conducted five games based on the first product to support its Force Design 2030 initiative and wrote excursions to explore alternate force structures and capabilities. As the Joint Staff participated in the process, the J-7 — the directorate responsible for joint force development — used the product as the “seed corn” for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Globally Integrated Wargame 20. Further, the Navy and Marine Corps used a Joint Force Operating Scenario excursion at the recent Naval Service Game 20. At the time, this concept of operations was the only 2018 National Defense Strategy-compliant product in the Department of Defense’s library.

Based on this first success, a second Joint Force Operating Scenario was recently produced with all six military services as voting members and chaired by the Navy. To incorporate even more transparency, the group of non-voting participants expanded to include the undersecretary of defense for policy, Special Operations Command, Strategic Command, Cyber Command, Transportation Command, and Northern Command. Planning began in April 2020 and concluded in December 2020 — extended to nine months due to COVID-19 — and should result in a completed database in May 2021. The quick pace of the project is due to proactive, concurrent planning and the modification of models built for the first iteration. From the Marine Corps’ perspective, this product will serve as the primary service wargaming scenario for 2021 and early 2022, allowing the service to examine different approaches, new units, and disruptive technologies and to understand how they affect the maritime and joint campaign’s success and service investments.

Codifying a Proven, Services-Driven Process

The Joint Force Operating Scenario process has improved service capability development and has provided joint campaign analysis through wargaming, modeling, and simulation. This approach integrated civilian strategic guidance and warfighting capability — within the framework of defense planning scenarios — to address the most pressing operational challenges facing the United States and its military. It has been prototyped and twice delivered results through an integrated joint approach. Codifying this process as a regular approach rather than as discrete, independently organized efforts is the best path forward.

We recommend that all six service chiefs and the commander of Special Operations Command sign a memorandum of agreement to formalize the Joint Force Operating Scenario approach to force development and design. Regarding full membership, this should be limited to service chiefs and Special Operations Command because of the direct reporting relationship to the secretary of defense (matching the other service secretaries). The Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, Joint Staff, and functional component commands (Strategic, Cyber, and Transportation Commands) should continue to be included as participating but non-voting members. This would ensure critical stakeholders the opportunity to provide their input and assist in the development of analytical products to support their requirements, as practicable. This memorandum should specifically not include geographic component commands — responsible for employing current forces to deter or defeat aggression today — to avoid “fight tonight” plans that can inhibit the development future forces based around innovative approaches and revolutionary technologies.

This agreement should commit its signatories to generate one new concept of operations per year, and one or two updates to previously generated products based on guidance provided by the secretary of defense and undersecretary of defense for policy. This will provide a robust database to defense analysts in the Defense Department, force developers and programmers, policymakers and strategists, and civilian leadership. It can also serve as a collective scenario pool for wargames and studies that will allow holistic analysis on a commonly understood problem set, wherein representatives from other services can immediately contribute and apply operational concepts since they are familiar with the underlying assumptions and joint approach. It balances the need for the services to generate an analytic starting point derived from programmed force structures and posture within initial products and the need to explore alternate approaches through both coordinated, joint efforts and independent, service-specific initiatives based in an agreed-upon joint campaign. This tempo also addresses concerns of cumbersome and inflexible products. Unlike the deliverables associated with the defunct Support for Strategic Analysis process, these products, accompanying data sets, and wargaming, modeling, and simulation reports would be maintained by Joint Data Support for use across the Department of Defense.

Most importantly, this production schedule would complement — not replace — Joint Staff-led efforts such as the joint warfighting concept that pursues new doctrine and aligns capability development through a joint lens. A major critique of Support for Strategic Analysis was that it pursued “single point solutions.” The Department of Defense can employ two processes — one led by the services and Special Operations Command and one led by the Joint Staff — to address more possibilities and develop better warfighting, policy, and strategy approaches. Additionally, the Joint Force Operating Scenario’s Agile-like approach and narrower scope provide insights quickly to inform near-term budgets (that cannot wait years for a more comprehensive grand design) as well as longer-term approaches to force design, such as the joint warfighting concept. By operating within the production loop of the joint warfighting concept, the process we propose offers a fast and relatively low-cost option to prototype force development ideas that can “fail fast” rather than “must succeed.”


The Defense Department needs a disciplined, transparent, and timely process to develop warfighting capabilities, concepts of operation, and accompanying data sets for analysis while simultaneously strengthening civilian oversight. Senior military officials, planners, and analysts participating in the Joint Force Operating Scenario process in 2019 and 2020 addressed the shortfalls of the previous defunct approach, created a template for the future, and demonstrated a consistent, open, and testable standard going forward. This process enables the services to conduct cutting-edge force development and design. It also includes appropriate integration and oversight from the civilian leadership and the Joint Staff. The six service chiefs and head of Special Operations Command should codify this proven approach for Secretary Austin’s team to ensure a sound foundation — through data, analysis, and oversight — for emerging warfighting concepts and capability development.



Maj. Leo Spaeder is a Marine air-ground task force planner currently serving at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate, Combat Development & Integration, Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps.

John K. Adams is a retired marine currently serving as the director of the Plans Branch, Concepts and Plans Division, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate.

C. Travis Reese is a retired marine and graduate of the U.S. Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting. He is currently a defense strategy and policy consultant in Washington, D.C.

John T. Quinn II is a retired marine and graduate of the U.S. Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting. He has worked in a variety of military strategy and plans billets since 2001 and is currently with Concepts and Plans Division, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory/Futures Directorate.

The opinions expressed here are the authors’ alone and do not represent the U.S. Marine Corps or Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Maj. Robert Fellingham)