A Comparison of Tactical and Operational Planning


When compared to operational and joint level planning, tactical and service level planning such as the army’s military decision-making process (MDMP) is quite easy. Before we look at the details of leading and understanding operational planning teams (OPTs) it is worth the time to discuss the differences between tactical or service level planning, and planning at the operational level of war.

Tactical planning, despite all the rave of mission command comes with clear guidance from higher levels of command. Indeed, MDMP calls for commanders and staffs to analyze the mission and intent two levels higher. Battalions, Brigades, and even divisions can cut and paste their higher headquarters mission statement into their own mission analysis and subsequent orders. Planners at the joint staff and combatant commands do not have this luxury. At the operational level of war, planners must translate strategic guidance that is often murky. This guidance may come in the form of presidential speeches, remarks from the Secretary of Defense, or from documents such as the National Security or National Defense Strategy. The latter two may be two or three years old and say nothing specific to the current problem

Tactical planning tends to be directive in nature. Once the commander decides on a way ahead, the staff and subordinate units salute and move out. At the operational level, planning and guidance is a dialogue. Officers working at the operational and joint level quickly realize that they are rarely the expert on any givin problem set. Planners at all levels must be comfortable with picking up the telephone to call planners at higher levels to discuss published orders to determine the intent or meaning of language in such orders. This demand is because planners at the operational and strategic level can be inexperienced and unfamiliar with joint level operations and processes.

At tactical levels, planners tend to have the backstop of experienced key leaders who have encountered similar problem sets in the past. Indeed, within a battalion and a brigade, the operations officer (S3) and the commander are normally the most senior and experienced officers within the command. Junior officers have the luxury of the assumption that the commander will guide planners in the right direction. For planners at the operational level, life it a bit more difficult. Officers serving on the joint staff or within combatant commands may be serving their first tour of duty higher than brigade level, away from their ship, or outside the cockpit. The ability to call higher headquarters or to ask senior ranking officers for the answers to the test is seldom an

Life is easy when everyone in the room works for the same boss. At the tactical level, planners often gather in a room, and the lead planner has control of the entire planning team. At the operational level, planners often seek consensus among individuals in the room. Members of the planning team not only represent the command, but can represent other combatant commands, other agencies within the government, or other allied and partner nations. The directive method of “the commander said” does not work so well at this


Not only must operational level commanders conduct a dialogue with adjacent and higher level organizations, said dialogue may lead to non-doctrinal solutions or answers. Civilians working at the Department of Defense are not tied to short and concise mission statements. Indeed, at the operational level, mission statements of a combatant command or multi-national task force are a form of strategic communication to the rest of the world. Planners at this level must be comfortable taking direction from men and women who do not care what is written inside of an Army Doctrinal Reference Publication (ADRP). 

Knowing and understanding capabilities is another critical difference between tactical and operational planning. Naval commanders, air force wing commanders, and army and marine battalion and brigade commanders along with their respective staffs have deep knowledge of the capabilities under their command. Further, these commanders and staffs tend to have detailed knowledge of where these capabilities lie on the battlefield and when they are available to employ. Operational planners must be comfortable with uncertainty in the development of their battle plans. Planners at the operational level request capabilities, and when those capabilities are assigned to the command, the timing of their arrival and employability is often uncertain. Indeed, operational level planning requires the language of capabilities requirements in lieu of naming the exact unit as done at the tactical

The last key difference between tactical and operational level planning is the speed of decision-making. The higher-level one works, the slower pace of decisions. While tactical commanders have the luxury of gut instinct type decisions, operational and strategic leaders must carefully weigh their decisions against known and unknown information. Moreover, this slower pace is critical, as the results of decisions at higher level tend to have a greater impact on both the mission and the force. Indeed, at higher levels of war, decision-making is more deliberate and dictated by a battle rhythm. At the tactical level, staffs can often walk into the office of the commander, while at the operational level, commanders schedule their respective schedules around the decisions they make. When decisions are made outside of the normal battle rhythm, it takes time for planners to get on the commander’s calendar, and to ensure the rest of the command and staff concurs with the recommendation. This takes time.

Despite the similarities in the service level and joint planning processes, the skill set required for each is unique. Leaders of OPTs need to take the time to consider and think through the nature and character of leadership and planning at the operational level of war. Operational planning demands patience, the ability to negotiate through complexity, and the ability to manage a variety of personalities each with their own sets of expertise.