Planning Is Everything

By Bucknam, Mark A. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Planning Is Everything


Bucknam, Mark A., Joint Force Quarterly


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On January 31, 2007, just a few weeks after the surprise announcement that Robert Gates would replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, Secretary Gates was briefed on military plans and the key role envisioned for him in the development of those plans. This was not a detailed briefing of the 50-plus contingency plans then in existence. It was an overview of the planning process itself and an introduction to the 15 or so top priority plans that the Secretary would review in greater detail in the months ahead. At the meeting, Secretary Gates confirmed his commitment to play an active role in the process for developing and reviewing plans. This would be a priority for him. As he saw it, involvement in the planning process was one of his core responsibilities as Secretary--indeed, it is one of the few responsibilities of the Secretary enumerated in Title 10 of the U.S. Code.

In late 2008, after nearly 2 years in his position, Secretary Gates declined a suggestion that he delegate authority to approve some of the lesser priority plans by noting, "Looking at the list, I think it would be a dereliction of my responsibilities to not approve the subject contingency plans." At the initial plans briefing in early 2007, Secretary Gates also agreed to his briefers' recommendation to consolidate disparate planning guidance documents, so as to bring greater coherence and consistency between planning for wartime contingencies and planning for Department of Defense (DOD) day-to-day activities around the world. In agreeing to these things, Secretary Gates was furthering an initiative called Adaptive Planning begun by his predecessor. He was also strengthening civilian control of the military.

Whoever replaces Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense must be prepared to immerse himself in the DOD planning process. This article first considers some barriers to the Secretary's involvement in planning and then looks at the benefits of planning beyond just the production of plans. It next describes how the Adaptive Planning process improves civilian control of the military--bringing military planning into tighter alignment with administration policies and priorities. After explaining the current plan development and review process, the article highlights the vital role that the Secretary plays in the planning process.

Barriers to Involvement

The Secretary of Defense after Dr. Gates will confront a multitude of challenges that will compete for his attention and make it difficult to focus his time and energy on the department's planning processes. Not least among his concerns will be the ongoing operations in Afghanistan, the wider war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, and coping with America's worldwide commitments in an era of declining defense budgets. Other challenges will include unpredictable natural disasters, such as the earthquakes and tsunamis that have devastated Indonesia, Haiti, and Japan in recent years, and manmade crises, such as the political revolutions that have roiled the Middle East in 2011. If recent history is a reliable guide, the next Secretary will also be forced to contend with stories questioning the loyalty of top military leaders and with media storms over the state of civil-military relations in America. Indeed, the breadth and depth of responsibilities that go with running the world's largest and most powerful bureaucracy are so vast that the job has been described as "nearly impossible." (1) As one former Secretary explained, "The list of secretarial responsibilities is so imposing that no single individual can totally fulfill them all." (2) Gates's successor will have to choose carefully the areas that he will want to focus his attention on, and then work to stay focused on them.

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Regardless of the background, talents, and expertise with which the next Defense Secretary enters office, certain aspects of military planning will seem unnatural and arcane. …

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