Driving the Dark Road to the Future: A Guide to Revitalizing Defense Planning and Strategic Analysis

dark road

The Secretary and I rely on robust analysis to inform strategic decisions on policy, risk management, and options for the future force. We need analysis to explore key assumptions, variables, and uncertainty in the future environment, ideally within the context of multiple future scenarios. Organizations seeking strategic decisions must provide the Secretary and I with options to consider and highlight key assumptions and limitations. We expect that the underlying analytic work is robust, well-socialized and that the data, methodology, and findings are credible.
-Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, Feb. 2, 2022

There is a dirty secret at the heart of defense planning. Plans, force design debates, and budget analysis all hang on arguments, assumptions, and analysis that would receive a failing grade in an undergraduate research methods seminar. The underlying logic tends to be deductive absent sufficient analytical mechanisms to evaluate alternatives much less consider the challenge of uncertainty. Following the classic deductive reasoning exemplar that Socrates is man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal, defense strategy too often is reduced to my widget is lethal, lethality wins war, my widget will win the next war. Context, obstacles, and competition are wished away. Complex historical cases are reduced to mythmaking and trends divined into simplistic scenarios to justify predictions derived from deduction. According to Anthony Cordesman, analysis becomes ritual. As a result, policymakers find themselves driving in the dark.



How can the military professional escape this trap? While previous work has focused on principles, we propose a practice-oriented approach that involves iterated wargaming and sensemaking combined with best practices from data science where the player is radically empowered and central. Building better plans, force designs, and concepts starts with enlightened soldiers and cultivating Bildung, the German Enlightenment concept of education, character, intellect, and professional development to create more reflective practitioners at the center of Peter Perla’s cycle of research. Strategic analysis is not a sterile, abstract process where manuals and reports alone will save the republic from losing the next war. It is the quest to make the future, not respond to it. Seen this way, the selection of methods and holding each to their own standard by the people who will sacrifice the most in the making of the future is the best light to help navigate the dark road to the future.

Below we outline an unclassified experiment conducted over the last year to empower operational planners from the School of Advanced Warfighting at Marine Corps University to design and develop wargames testing force design propositions in collaboration with the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. Contrary to the sweeping attacks emerging across the retired general officer community, force design is not without merit. It illuminates larger opportunities and challenges on the horizon for a joint force set to prioritize active campaigning, integrated deterrence, and building enduring advantages when the new National Defense Strategy is finalized. More importantly, the experiment points to an approach for overcoming the methodological challenges inherent in defense planning and competitive strategy. Treating professional military education more like Montessori for warriors is the best way to revitalize strategic analysis.

How Do I Know What I Know?

The military professional has long wrestled with both epistemic and aleatory uncertainty. Epistemic uncertainty, also referred to as systematic uncertainty, concerns questions about whether or not a model, parameter, or process is an accurate representation of a future state. It assumes you can generate a correct answer to questions like, “What is the optimal force design for deterring China and reassuring Europe partners standing up to Russian aggression?” If the military professional gets the model right, they can see the outlines of an unfolding future. Aleatory uncertainty is the domain of random processes. Black swans and unrepeatable processes cast a shadow over any attempt to divine the future. The military professional cannot answer the question about deterrence and assurance posed above. It is impossible to know the right answer because it is random. The only viable planning option is to hedge and make a lot of small bets in search of a big payoff.

Too often, the existential dread of uncertainty leads to a search for false idols preaching certainty. Overtime a collection of bureaucratic processes — organizational alchemy — codified defense strategic analysis activities such as the Planning, Programmatic, Budgeting and Execution System, the Joint Strategic Planning System, and Support to Strategic Analysis. After 2018, the prevailing view was that the existing model of strategic analysis was insufficient to prepare for a new era of great power competition. Thus the Department of Defense started using the Joint Force Operating Scenario framework, which supported — among other things — the analysis and evaluation process that produced the new U.S. Marine Corps force design and stand-in force concept.

All of these processes — new and old — rest on an impossible task: predicting the future. Even more vexing, defense planning involves timelines that are often five (the future years defense program) to 30 years (the shipbuilding plan) into the future, making the task even more challenging. The longer the forecast horizon, the larger the predictive interval and the larger the range of possible outcomes. There is no single future, but an endless unfolding of alternative pathways and timelines.

The Least Bad Answer

Over the last year, faculty at the School of Advanced Warfighting embarked on an experiment. What if instead of the traditional continuum of planning exercises, classroom instruction, and lectures, students were introduced to different analytical methods and wargame designs as a means of empowering them to answer vexing questions of increasing complexity and uncertainty such as the optimal future force design? The intent was to give students the ability to wrestle with uncertainty and struggle with the impossible task of describing (and testing) paths to the future. There were four intermediate objectives associated with this larger purpose, oriented around graduating an operational planner able to: first, sponsor a wargame associated with force design, operational plans, and emergent concepts of operation; second, participate in combatant command and service-level wargames; third, understand how to design an analytical wargame; and fourth, interpret wargame results to adjust and improve a force design, concept, or plan. The yearlong vision was designed to culminate with three student-designed and student-led operational-level wargames related to the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Lab’s campaign of learning evaluating force design concepts.

The design of the experiment emerged from previous reform efforts, wargames, and a desire to connect defense strategic analysis and combat development to the schoolhouse. Students were introduced to historical cases, decision games, and seminars that allowed them to explore how to apply wargaming to current and future operational problems of varying and increasing complexity. These seminars moved from post-World War II analytic wargaming by RAND and service-level initiatives like the global series and Unified Quest to debates about modern battle networks and the concept of stand-in forces. In addition to classroom instruction on advanced planning techniques, the curricula also included red teaming to help students employ alternative analysis techniques alongside traditional wargaming and social science methods.

The mix of seminars, games, and students knowing they had to create a process to answer questions about the future of the U.S. Marine Corps created a classroom that was more laboratory than lecture hall. Students explored how to combine modeling and simulation with wargaming, how to test assumptions as hypotheses, how to approach wargaming through the lens of the scientific method, and how to potentially include automated wargaming processes such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. Throughout, the students anchored on the necessity of human decision-making as the basis for wargaming, applying Sid Meir’s mantra that “games are a series of interesting decisions.” This approach reinforced the school’s vision of forging operational planners through honing and cultivating Bildung through complex problem-solving, self-reflection, and professional growth. The focus was less on what a student knows and more on how to learn and create knowledge that addresses emerging problems in the profession of arms.

Seminars were punctuated with hands-on gaming and decision-making. First, the school adapted the game Axis and Allies and its opensource variant, Triple A, to create a dynamic game environment where students could fight each other and analyze force posture, design, and modernization efforts in relation to ongoing campaigns. The students made strategic decisions on a worldwide scale to balance ends, ways, means, and risk but more importantly were engaged in a competitive wargaming environment with other free-thinking participants and multiple pathways to victory. Called Strategy Lab, the forum served as a vehicle to help students discuss what types of analytical wargames they would design based on the course of the game.

Second, the faculty introduced best practice digital and table-top wargaming tools, such as the Operational Warfighting Series, to the students in both planning exercises and short, seminar-length wargames and decision exercises. Each of the curriculum planning exercises ended with an actual wargame where students fought their plan against a thinking enemy using a mix of Matrix Game commercial-off-the shelf offerings from Operational Art of War IV for historical counterfactual games to Command for modern air and naval operations. Historical counterfactual games helped students explore joint principles of war as an analytical tool to evaluate how their plans for joint forcible entry operations unfolded in contact with a thinking enemy. Modern games helped students gain an appreciation for battle networks, salvo exchanges, and critical information effects ranging from cyber and electronic warfare to deception. In other words, the games served as ideal types that encouraged reflection, learning, and experimentation while helping students think about how they might build their own games around interesting military decisions.

Third, after exposing the students to a range of historical games and gaming methods, faculty adapted the capstone planning exercise to empower students to design and execute unclassified analytical wargames for the Warfighting Lab. The capstone planning exercise focused on Marine stand-in forces in the Indo-Pacific in support of the joint force in competition and in the escalation from competition to crisis with a peer adversary. This two-week exercise helped students apply their understanding of planning and adversary doctrine, military theory, and capabilities to develop viable military options for campaigning beneath the threshold of armed conflict and the transition from crisis to conflict. While the exercise focused on a theater-level challenge, it did so in a manner that stressed naval campaigning and the employment of Marine littoral regiments at the core of the emerging force design concept.

Against this backdrop, students were organized into three planning teams that spent a month designing, executing, and assessing the Marine littoral regiment and its ability to contribute to a naval campaign along three lines of inquiry: first, the extent to which the formation and associated employment concepts provide a credible force to assure allies and deter adversaries; second, whether the new formation provides viable military options for the naval campaign in the transition from competition to crisis; and third, whether or not the formation is cost effective overtime. While the school faculty and Warfighting Lab provided advisors and subject matter experts, the goal was to radically empower the students to design analytical wargames and evaluate the results independently as a means of practicing empowerment and cultivating Bildung.

In other words, revitalizing strategic analysis starts with giving military professionals space to teach themselves to drive in the dark and evaluate tradeoffs in the making of the future force. The end state is the reflective practitioner, not the power point brief, white paper, or near-term bureaucratic debate. If the schoolhouse can graduate thinkers who embrace uncertainty, complexity, and develop novel and rigorous methods to answer hard questions for senior leaders, it increases the ability of the military to out-adapt and out-innovate rivals. Winning the next war starts with cultivating more intellectually curious and analytically astute planners.

What did the students find? While a series of publications will detail insights over the next year in Proceedings, some top line observations standout. First, the wargames that tested the deter and assure aspects of force design as they relate to naval campaigns illustrated that network connectivity is more important than individual weapon lethality in modern war. Deterrence is not just about capabilities. It also involves questions of resolve (credibility) and signaling (communication). The more a modern battle network connects services and partners, the more credible it is as a signaling mechanism. Services need to be more deliberate in factoring these aspects into their force design and ensuring partner interoperability across the battle network to create deterrent effects. In this respect, integrated deterrence and Joint All Domain Command and Control show promise, but the devil will be in the details and ensuring that services don’t produce overly stove-piped systems incapable of communicating with one another and that partners are allowed to plan together. Interoperability is not just technical. It has human and procedural components.

Second, there are tradeoffs at the operational level in how to sustain future naval campaigns that require additional scrutiny. The current debate about force design is too narrow and doesn’t consider operational-level logistics and how (or if) new platforms like the light amphibious warship will connect with existing amphibious ships and pre-positioned stockpiles to create the depth required to provide viable options to geographic combatant commanders in a crisis. Understanding the costs to move resources and ensure operational reach as well the likelihood the constellation of lift assets, bases, and partner access can survive contact is a central question for future study.

On to the Next Experiment

Strategic analysis will only become a more critical enterprise that balances art and science if the stewards of the profession know how to design and evaluate competing propositions about the future force. To use Daniel Kahnmann’s framework in his new book, Noise, the goal is to design decision-making processes that reduce noise and lend themselves to adaption. The military professional will almost certainly get their prediction about the future wrong, so judge analysis based on the analytical process more than its accuracy. It is only by honing the ability to craft predictive processes that we ensure strategic analysis and defense planning evolve as disciplines.

This logic has significant implications for how we teach military professionals and the relationship between the schoolhouse and the military. Learning to drive in the dark requires taking intellectual risks, debating counterfactuals, and testing hypotheses. The classroom cannot be a lecture hall or list of great commanders and great campaigns absent critical analysis and exploring alternatives.

Second, in line with the original vision of J.C. Breckenridge, schoolhouses need to directly connect to current and future operational challenges and teach officers complex problem solving rather than rote memorization or tired historical epiphanies. Too often, classrooms are disconnected from the needs of the force in modern professional military education. While students need time to learn foundational ideas, they also need exposure to the uncertainty and complexity at the core of defense planning and strategic analysis. More importantly, they need to be empowered to make predictions, test hypotheses, and organize wargames and other analytical tools that help shape the future force and grow them professionally.



Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D., is a professor of strategic studies at the School of Advanced Warfighting and a senior fellow for future war, gaming, and strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Michael Rountree is a Marine officer serving as the Operational Planning course director at the School of Advanced Warfighting.

The views expressed are their own and do not reflect the views or positions of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: Creative Commons via Flickr user Ian Livesey