April 1, 2007  

Think backward, plan forward

Anthology of case studies provides starting point for strategic planning

The future remains an enigma wrapped in familiar myths and all-too-comfortable illusions. One can try to predict the future, but prognosticating is a difficult art as well as a dangerous hobby.

Real strategists do not get to wait for events and know that it is bad policy to react as they unfold. Serious statesmen and generals realize (or should) that incomplete information is the norm, and that all crystal balls are cloudy. Yet, policies have to be laid out, strategies have to be formulated, and defense institutions shaped for the next challenge, no matter how vague or imprecise our concept of the future is.

“The Fog of Peace and War Planning” is an anthology of case studies that explore this challenge. Given what we think we know today about strategic planning up to 9/11, and the stunning gaffes surrounding Operation Iraqi Freedom, this book is timely. These cases illuminate the many challenges faced by policymakers and military planners during uncertain but threatening periods.

The issue of uncertainty was underscored in the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, issued in February 2006. That report described the planning environment as one of transition, a shift from “a time of reasonable predictability — to an era of surprise and uncertainty.”

Of course, as that American strategist Yogi Berra quipped, “it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” Strategic planning has always required difficult calculations regarding many variables, including challengers, technology, economics and the potential behavior of both allies and adversaries. The serial surprises this country has faced since 1989 suggest that surprise is something we are all too familiar with. But given that the future portends faster changes and possibly greater calamities, strategic planning is taking on greater salience despite its messy complications.

Since uncertainty is such a challenge to strategists, a historically informed understanding of planning under ambiguous circumstances would be useful. The editors of this set of historical case studies have the requisite qualifications to guide this effort. Talbot C. Imlay holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale, and Monica Duffy Toft teaches at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard. They have assembled an extremely credible team of scholars to examine planning in four different eras.

In their opening chapter, the editors identify several factors to guide the case study authors. These include:

• Historical shifts (including changes in technology).

• Nature of the interstate system.

• Nature of political systems.

• Civil-military relations.

• Bureaucratic politics (the nature of the intrastate system).

• Individual planners.

There are too many essays in this book to discuss each, but some are truly excellent. Military historian Fred Kagan dissects Russian war planning after the Napoleonic era. Much of its planning was in extremis, but reasonably executed by ad hoc committees. His contribution highlights the inability of the Russian political system to adapt to the emerging industrial revolution, and how its social structure built around serfdom limited its ability to match technological advances in the military sciences fielded by the British, French and Prussians. The resulting fiasco in the Crimea brings out the impacts that can occur when a state is unable to assess or adapt to seismic shifts.

Jon Sumida of the University of Maryland deftly addresses the complications faced by British planners confronted with an emerging rivalry with Germany during an era of rampant technological change. Contemplating the rise of an antagonistic major power while still concerned with its global commercial interests, key British strategists, most notably Adm. Jackie Fisher, were able to balance competing requirements, and preserve the Royal Navy’s sea power advantage. The result was dramatic changes in Britain’s defensive posture. Some changes evidenced great foresight; in others, Fisher underestimated the time needed for new technologies to mature in order to provide needed capabilities.

British historian John Ferris studies the pursuit of aviation capabilities by British planners in the interwar era. The Royal Air Force, led by dogged Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard, steadily increased the capabilities of the air arm of the United Kingdom’s defense. Ferris shows that the RAF had both the authority and the resources to pursue its air power vision, and critically judges its limited results in strategic bombing. He shows how Britain hedged its bets by also investing in Fighter Command to enhance the island’s defense. This essay correctly identifies the faith-based assertions and “arbitrary predications” that Trenchard and others held about strategic bombing. Like the U.S. Army Air Corps, the RAF fell in love with its visionary doctrine despite a lot of evidence to the contrary. A cynic would note that many current RMA and Transformation enthusiasts in the U.S. had the same problem.

Andrew Krepinevich, a retired U.S. Army officer and head of a prominent independent think tank in Washington, D.C., details the development of carrier aviation by the U.S. Navy. While offering a nicely composed overview, the author does not note how much naval planners got wrong in this era, and how other developments, especially advances in submarine and torpedo systems, got overlooked. These shortfalls proved almost critical in 1942 in the North Atlantic, and severely undercut U.S. military operations in the Pacific through 1943.

The Navy should get credit for thinking through the challenges generated by the need to conduct an inherently naval campaign across the Pacific, but in the interwar era it devoted 126 of its 132 war games to that single plan, War Plan Orange, and failed to prepare for coalition or global war. Flexibility was not a forte of naval planning in this period, but the Navy’s rigorous evaluation of concepts and technologies via simulation and fleet exercises provided a consistent corrective to both its strategy and investments. Krepinevich ably demonstrates how this process narrowed the gap between the ends and means of strategy in the Pacific.

The editors are particularly aware of the additive complexities of coalition planning, and the European case studies suggest that formal planning among allies takes particular care. As David Stevenson’s assessment of pre-World War I planning shows, German and Austrian coordination was virtually nonexistent and their objectives were mutually inconsistent. The challenges presented by input from alliance members with different objectives and uneven capabilities may undermine the efficacy of formal planning. The need for foresight and flexibility in the identification of friends and foes is another historically grounded reality.

Above all, the editors stress flexibility. The military adage “don’t fall in love with your plan” applies to strategic planning as well. In peacetime, plans should be constant reviewed in an iterative cycle. Critical assumptions must be retested, and planners must recognize when new information disproves the basis of the plan or alters crucial decision points. This is the major conclusion in “The Fog of Peace.”

Overall, this is an invaluable if incomplete inquiry. While they offer a useful range of examples, these cases do not adequately address two critical factors. The first is the role of military or organizational culture. “The Fog of Peace” relies more on bureaucratic politics as a source of organizational change and innovation. But civil-military relations and innovation are better viewed through the lens of strategic or organizational culture. British strategist Colin Gray has long argued that culture plays a significant role in the identification of strategic choices and thinking. This is because this collective set of biases, presumptions and values frames how planners and strategists from one culture think and act. It is inherently impossible for a strategist to separate himself from his culture, and it is just as impossible to understand the development and execution of a strategy with assessing the role that prior experience and encoded cultural values play.

Second, “The Fog of Peace” slights the importance of rigorous process, and the role of bureaucracy in the making of strategy. One prominent futurist points out that we will face numerous sharp jolts or major discontinuities in political, military and economic areas in the 21st century. These interconnected surprises, major discontinuities, will bring about a different world, one in which the rules of the game are fundamentally altered. Many potential discontinuities have their roots in ongoing trends, and can be identified. By studying these emerging realities and alternative futures, we can better anticipate the consequences.

Formal planning processes are a solution to the dilemma. This is really not an exercise in prediction, as much as it facilitates rigorous thinking. It is a part of the process of reducing uncertainty, and clarifying risks associated with it. Planning and prediction are just as important for the mental preparation and the learning that results from doing the work. But knowledge of past cases is the starting point for thinking about the future, which is why this book deserves wide reading and serious contemplation. In the aftermath of Iraq, there is much to give pause regarding the complexities of planning. Hopefully, we can learn something from the development of what one journalist has less-than-charitably called “perhaps the worst war plan in American history.” “The Fog of Peace” offers a practical framework for testing that conclusion.

FRANK G. HOFFMAN is a retired Marine officer and national security consultant employed by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.