OPT Composition


The OPT Lead

Operational Planning Team leaders typically come from either the J5 or the J35 on a joint staff. However, an OPT lead can come from any part of a staff. OPTs that stand up to solve logistical problems may have a leader from the J4, while OPTs solving force protection related issues may come from the protection cell, or J34.

The best analogy for the role of an OPT leader is that of a head coach in professional sports. OPT leads must understand the planning process to guide their team through planning. They must understand the rules that govern planning, and ensure the team follows them at every step. Further, much like athletic coaches, OPT leaders must manage the wide range of personalities on their team. Just as commanders are responsible for unit cohesion, OPT leads are responsible for the cohesion and teamwork within their OPT.  

Formal duties of the OPT leader include establishing the OPT’s battle-rhythm, and integrating it into the broader staff’s battle rhythm. Further, the OPT leader communicates the commander’s intent to the planning team, ensuring each step of the planning process is in line with said intent. Third, the OPT leader is responsible for every product the OPT produces, or fails to produce. This includes briefings, orders, commander’s estimates, or any other product sent to the commander and subordinate units. OPT leaders must be prepared to answer for anything the OPT does or fails to do. This latter aspect demands that the OPT leaders continually communicate with the Chief of Plans and other senior leaders on the staff.

The least important aspect of an OPT leader is rank. OPT leaders normally range from Majors to Colonels. However, for an OPT lead, rank is of less significance than influence. Indeed, a young major running an OPT may have officers senior in rank on his team. When rank becomes an issue, the OPT lead must leverage the senior officers in the room to get through the problem. OPT leaders must be comfortable with this paradigm.

The Deputy

Much like an executive officer, the first responsibility of an OPT deputy is to lead the planning team when the OPT leader is not present. In this aspect, the selection of an OPT deputy is one of the most important decisions leaders on staff can make. An OPT leader must have confidence in his or her deputy that work will carry on, and products will continue in their progression when they are away from the team.

More than serve as the head of an OPT in the leader’s absence, an OPT deputy is the enforcer of the OPTs rules. In this aspect, the OPT deputy is similar to a Chief of Staff. The deputy must enforce timelines, ensuring that the mission analysis, course of action development, or other step of the planning process is complete, with respective products prepared for presentation to senior leaders and decision makers. Moreover, the deputy enforces the OPT Leader’s battle rhythm and ensures all personnel participate in the process at the proper time.

Other responsibilities of the OPT deputy include ensuring attendance at critical meetings, and representation of the OPT in other battle rhythm events. The OPT deputy must enforce a process where attendees at other events (CUB, Rules of Engagement Working Group, etc..) share their information with the entirety of the OPT. Indeed, updates from OPT members and subject matter experts should be a part of the OPT’s internal battle rhythm.

Liaison Officers (LNOs) 

All planning involves organizations above, below, and parallel to the team conducing the planning. Combatant Commands have supporting commands, subordinate service components, and answer to OSD and Joint Staff. Liaison Officers ensure the smooth communication between various organizations who have a role in high-level problem solving.

The Operational Planning Team must ensure respective LNOs are present at key briefings and meetings. However, OPT leads should understand that LNOs are one deep. Often, they are expected to attend other meetings occurring within the command’s battle rhythm. OPT leaders should clearly communicate when the attendance of an LNO is necessary to continue planning.

It is important to understand that LNOs do now work for the OPT leader; rather they work for their parent command. As such, LNOs should be knowledgeable in their parent organization’s capabilities and limitations and be familiar with their commander’s intent and concept of operations. Just as LNOs communicate with their respective commands, they must continually answer requests for information from the planning team.

Knowledge Management, IT, and Adminstration

Every planning team needs a person to serve in an administrative role. This person will ensure that the planning team compiles, organizes and posts information in a logical manner to aid the planning process and to preserve information for future reference. This may mean posting documents on a portal page, or compiling read-ahead binders for leadership prior to a briefing. The planner serving in the administration role should also capture any lessons learned or key insights that pop up throughout planning.

The Red Team

Every planner should have a fair level of skepticism. However, full time skeptics, devil’s advocates, or red team members are essential to the development of every plan. Indeed, the joint military community now emphasizes the importance of Red Teams through an entire appendix in the 2017 version of Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Planning. 

A quality Red Team will help the planning team identify areas of risk within their respective plan. This may be through challenging planning assumptions, or though the pre-mortem analysis method. A quality red team will force the rest of the OPT to think critically and to consider alternative points of view. Understanding points of possible failure, and mitigating those points enhances the viability of a plan. This translates into saved lives.

The Night Shift

When planning teams move to a 24-hour cycle, it is the night shift that will make or break the OPT. OPT leaders must carefully select who will work at night, carefully avoiding the temptation to stack the deck with the best planners on day shift. As the battle-rhythm tends to slow at night, the night shift is often responsible for the improvement and finalization of the morning briefings. Further, OPT leaders should consider putting their best writers on the night shift. These writers can take the time at night to develop the word products such as the Commander’s Estimate, Warning Orders, and Operations Orders. Orders are the ways in which military organizations communicate with one another, and serve as the primary means for tasking subordinate units. The night shift requires smart planners who are familiar with doctrine to produce these documents for the command.

Functional Experts

OPTs perform at a high level when every element of the staff shows up. Every J-Code (J1-J9) and special staff (e.g. Public Affairs, Legal) should contribute to the problem solving that takes place within an OPT. More than providing deep knowledge within their respective areas, functional experts are responsible for keeping leaders in their J-Codes and staff sections up to date on the work of the planning team.

Subject Matter Experts

It would be hard to take a planning team planning an operation against Russia without representation and participation from the local Russian expert. It is incumbent upon the OPT leader to ensure that experts on a country, or problem set offer their perspective. For example, when planning a humanitarian assistance mission, it is necessary to have the local USAID/OFDA staff member in the room.


Before work begins, it is paramount for operational planning team leaders to understand who need to be in the room. As I have mentioned in previous essays, nobody has a monopoly on knowledge. The ability for an OPT leader to look around the room and recognize human capital shortfalls is often the differnence between success and failure.