Levels of Orders


A chief complaint that circles around the military is the length and detail of operations orders (OPORDs). These criticisms range from orders having too much detail, with the effect of subordinate commanders and leaders suffer in their own professional development.  

In thinking about how the military writes and publishes orders, it is worth the time to look through the lens of each level of war. Further, the military should look at changing the construct of orders at the strategic and institutional levels of war by ways of replacing mission statements with vision statements. 

Orders are the method by which commanders and leaders communicate to their subordinate leaders. Orders translate decisions and guidance made throughout planning and execution of an operation. The orders reflect a leader's personality and should never betray their command philosophy. Understanding orders at each level of war (tactical, operational, strategic, and institutional) is critical for any military profesional. 

Orders at the Tactical Level

Orders at the tactical level of war tend to be short, direct, and to the point. Starting at the platoon level, orders typically follow the five-paragraph Operations Order format found in U.S. military doctrine. Up through the battalion level, orders rarely include annexes and appendixes. Moreover, at the platoon and company level, orders are less formal, often coming in the form of a briefing. On any given day there is a second lieutenant briefing an order off index cards to his or her squad leaders.

It is at the battalion and brigade level where orders begin to appear in word documents, often with an accompanying OPORD PowerPoint briefing. It is at the battalion and brigade level where annexes and appendixes such as the intelligence Annex B or sustainment’s Annex D first make their appearances.

Given that a battalion commander and primary staff officers such as the operations officer (S3) are senior to company commanders, orders writing does not typically include representation from subordinate units. Further, given the pace of action at the tactical level, commanders and staffs (if there is a staff), have the least amount of time to plan. Indeed, decision cycles at the tactical level move at a rapid pace.

It is paramount to understand that at the tactical level of war, orders reflect the lowest common denominator. This is to say that a commander will write an order in enough detail to communicate with the subordinate who he or she trusts the least. This is a realty that some leaders can take broad guidance and run, while other leaders need excruciating detail before they feel comfortable to act. 

Commanders and leaders who issue tactical orders tend to have direct contact with their subordinates. This direct contact allows for adjustments of FRAGO's to the orders in real time. Squad leaders, platoon leaders, and to an extent company commanders can afford a modicum of vagueness in an order, s clarity can come rapidly from one who is physically close on the battlefield. Indeed, there is greater flexibility for an error in a tactical order than at higher levels of war.

Orders at the Operational Level

Orders in divisions, corps, joint task forces, and other operational level units expand in their length and in their detail. This includes longer situation and service and support paragraphs written by a dedicated intelligence and sustainment staff.

Although a commander’s intent is present in every operational order, it is at the operational level of war where the intent surpasses the mission statement in relevance. Commander’s at the operational level arrange and synchronize their forces in time and space. Time is longer, and space is wider at the operational level, thus the commander is linking multiple tactical actions.

With expanded time comes more detailed planning prior to the publication of orders. With more time comes more ways to think through mitigation measures where the commander assumes risk.

The expanded space at the operational level now means that actions occur in multiple domains. While tactical level commander are typically have control over one domain in rigidly defined area of operations (AO), operational commanders must account for multiple domains. Further, areas of operation can cover hundreds of miles, and be contiguous or non-contiguous. 

It is at the operational level where commanders tend to have more physical distance from their subordinates. The concept of both mission command and clarity of intent becomes paramount at the operational level and higher. According to Milan Vego, in his book Joint Operational Warfare, "clarity requires precise wording so that a directive (order) can not be misunderstood." 

Orders at the Theater Strategic and Strategic Levels of War

Orders at this level tend to be long and detailed, but long and detailed for specific reasons. First, orders initiated at the strategic level become the necessary authorities required spending of money. This may range from an order to conduct a specific type of training, an order to attend a planning conference, or an order to move forces from one area of the world to another.

Second, orders at the strategic level assume the greatest risk should they fail. This is risk in both blood and treasure. Understanding the stakes at the strategic level mean that flag officers require detailed thought, planning, and risk analysis on all issues from command relationships to battlefield control measures. A well-written order will highlight what risk is acceptable, and what risk is not acceptable in the commander’s intent. 

Third, orders writing and publication at the strategic level of war is a dialogue. Orders conveyed to three and four-star level commands undergo a review multiple times.  Reviews of the order begin at the action officer level, continue at the O6/GS-15 level, and again at the GOFO level. During these reviews subordinate commands not only look at their tasks for concurrence, they often rewrite them. Moreover, subordinate commands, with an understanding of the higher commander’s intent will write in their own tasks. 

Within each round of review, subordinate commands have the opportunity to non-concur with an order. Non-concurs of orders can be emotional events. When officers work at strategic level staffs, they may not worship at the altar, but they certainly attend the church of consensus.

The multiple rounds of review should not be confused with time. At the strategic level orders production can take weeks and months to publish. Conversely, in times of crisis the creation, coordination, and publication of an order can occur in less than 24 hours.

It is at the theater strategic and strategic level where the complications of combined or multi-national headquarters arise. Staff officers and planners working at these levels must develop the skill of writing for review. Indeed, orders at the theater level often come in pairs, an order written for the alliance, and an order written only for a specific nation. Those with experience on U.S. military staffs understand the importance of a relationship with the foreign disclosure officer. 

An aspect of orders at the theater and strategic level is the existence of contingency plans related to said orders. That is, orders tend to fall back on pre-written CONPLANS and OPLANS. These pre-written plans tend to have scores of man-hours dedicated to planning and writing them from experts across the staff. With respect to these plans, orders become easier to develop and write during times of crisis. Further, these plans tend to reside within the larger construct of a theater campaign plan.

Orders at the Institutional Level of War

Orders writing at the institutional level of war are similar to those at the strategic level. The chief difference in the development of orders. These differences are time and the level of coordination and consensus required to publish an order.

Writing an order at the service level is a long and arduous process. From conception to publication can last months. However, this time is necessary for a multitude of reasons. First, institutional orders tend to create DOTMLPF changes that have effects that last decades. This includes the development of doctrine or the acquisition of combat platforms. Second, orders at the institutional level often compel major commands to spend large portions of their budgets. 

Changes in Orders Writing

There is one major change that should occur within orders at the strategic and institutional level. Paragraph two of Operations and Execution Orders should expand to include a vision. A mission statement, while certainly applicable at the tactical and operational level of war is not sufficient at the strategic or institutional levels of war.  Joint and service doctrine should adapt the idea of a vision statement. Joint Publication 1-02 does not define the word vision, nor do the suite of service publications.

There are examples of published strategies such as the army’s Human Dimension Strategy that include a vision. However, the vision statements vary in ways from their nature to their length.

While a properly written mission statement includes the who, what, when, where, and why of a military operation,[i] those who work at the strategic level often find themselves veering away from doctrine to accommodate the desires of civilian leadership. Indeed, the higher level of command and staff, the less concern there is for sticking to doctrine, which often uses military jargon. Further, the mission statement often becomes a point for strategic messaging, turning what was meant to be a short sentence into a long run on sentence with multiple On Order tasks tacked onto the end.

As a mission statement focuses on the present, a vision looks forward, beyond the immediate task. In this aspect, a vision differs from a mission statement in the timeframe. It is here where strategic level documents such a combatant command’s campaign plan should move from a mission to a vision.  The timeframe of a vision can be five, ten, or even twenty years. Appropriate places for the vision statement include campaign plans that look deeper into the future than simple orders at the tactical level.

Opposed to mission statements which describe what the unit or organization will do, a vision describes what the future will look like. This is more than desired conditions or end state often found within an operational approach. Indeed, desired conditions and the endstate still fall within the confines of a specific mission or operation. A vision statement expands the perspective both in time and space.

As the joint force pivots to the idea of long-term competition with enemies and adversaries around the globe, often at a level below the threshold of conflict, OSD, the Joint Staff, and Combatant Commands should provide a vision on where they see themselves vis-à-vis their respective competitors.

While mission statements belong to commanders at each level of war, vision statements are the domain of strategic leaders (GOFOs) throughout the joint force. Moreover, while staffs can generate a mission statement during the planning process, the development and communication of a vision belongs to the strategic leader. A staff should not formulate or write out a strategic leader’s vision. Indeed, a person who can not conceptualize or formulate a vision for an organization should not be placed in charge of large organizations, nor in command at the highest levels in the military.


There are a number of ways the joint force can adopt the idea of a vision. The first step is to define “vision” within joint doctrine. Second, strategic leaders throughout the joint force should replace mission statement with visions in published concepts and strategies. Moreover, documents originating from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in his role as the global integrator should provide a vision on what the future looks like. The vision would be paramount in any global plan or concept that integrates the actions of multiple combatant commands and the services.

Joint and service education should instruct rising field grade officers on the use and construction of a vision. This can start as early as the Command and Staff College, all the way through Capstone. Pushing senior leaders in the military to think, and to write at a higher level is paramount in communicating to members of a strategic organization.   


[i] From Joint Publication 1-02: Mission Statement: A short sentence or paragraph that describes the organization’s essential task(s), purpose, and action containing the elements of who, what, when, where, and why.

Levels of Intelligence


According to U.S. joint doctrine, each level of war has a corresponding level of intelligence.[i] This enables the flow of information and intelligence to move up and down each level of command. Further, the levels of intelligence construct enables leaders at all levels of war to make decisions on the allocation of intelligence capabilities. However, the paradigm of tactical, operational, and strategic intelligence does not account for institutional intelligence, or how the services and the nation plan to defeat threats in the long-term future.

Figure       SEQ Figure \* ARABIC
   1     Levels of Intelligence per Joint Publication 2-0.  This fails to account for Institutional Intelligence

Figure 1 Levels of Intelligence per Joint Publication 2-0.  This fails to account for Institutional Intelligence

Tactical Intelligence

In U.S. joint doctrine, tactical intelligence is defined as “Tactical intelligence is used by commanders, planners, and operators for planning and conducting battles, engagements, and special missions.”[ii] Further, tactical intelligence centers on immediate threats faced by these respective commanders.

The consequences of tactical intelligence failure can lead to the loss of life, the loss of equipment, and the loss of battles. However, failure of tactical intelligence is not the cause for a nation losing a war. Further, investment in and success of tactical intelligence is not a panacea for failures at the operational, strategic, and institutional levels of war.

Operational Intelligence

Similar to operational level planning, operational intelligence occurs within joint commands such as Combatant Commands or subordinate joint force headquarters. Operational intelligence assists commanders of various service level units to act in unison.

When one nation achieves complete surprise at the onset of a war, the result is often characterized as strategic surprise, or a result of strategic intelligence failure. Examples include the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and Egypt’s surprise attack in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. However, these attacks incurred a strictly military defeat, both of which the United States and Israel respectively overcame. Indeed, no matter how many ships the Japanese were able to sink on December 7th, the United States possessed the institutional capacity to produce more ships and sailors than the Japanese could ever throw into the Pacific.

The consequences of operational intelligence failures range from the defeat of tactical units on the battlefield to the loss of theater level campaigns. However, in a similar manner to the tactical level, strategic success can overcome operational failure.

Strategic Intelligence

U.S. Joint doctrine looks to strategic intelligence to assist in the development of weapon system and force structure requirements.[iii] While this may be true for short term changes to force structure, the long-term changes to force structure and capabilities development falls under the new concept of institutional intelligence.

The consequences of strategic level failure are dire, but not necessarily a threat to the existence of a nation. At times, strategic level failure is simply the inability to predict global events. For example, the collapse of the Soviet Union surprised intelligence professionals around the globe.

U.S. Joint doctrine offers up assistance in determining major weapons systems and force structure requirements as an aspect of strategic intelligence.[iv] This is where current joint doctrine misses the boat. Joint intelligence doctrine lumps capabilities development in the same bin as strategy and policy development. In doing so, the doctrine conflates two distinct skill sets of intelligence professionals, and passes on the opportunity to recognize the unique talents of intelligence personnel who can look  not only at a map, but into the far and distant future.

Institutional Intelligence

Institutional Intelligence is a combination of how the services develop planning scenarios that enable capability development for the mid to long-range future, and how the services understand the domestic environment to enable the manning, equipping, and training of the joint force.  

Institutional intelligence relies on assumptions more than any other level of war. In the development of scenarios, services must consider the future combat capabilities of foreign adversaries as well as the potential capabilities of our own, and allied nations. This could include advancements in weapons technology such as artillery that can shoot further, or rotary wing aviation that can fly greater distances on less fuel.

More than assuming future technologies, institutional intelligence must look at possible enemies and adversaries in the distant future. While it can be safe to assume that some competitors in today’s world will be the same three decades from now, it is also possible for friendly nations to turn based on their domestic politics, as in the case of Iran in 1979. Moreover, enemies and adversaries can quickly turn into allies, as in the case of Eastern European Warsaw Pact nations following the demise of the Soviet Union.

Much of institutional intelligence occurs in the unclassified domain. Documents such as the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends Report emphasize this need.[v] Indeed, developing a picture of the future involves various research agencies, businesses, and other organizations outside of government.

One of the best examples of institutional intelligence is the development of the various Army College War Games in the inter-war period. Students attending the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania planned against potential conflicts against a variety of nations. These scenarios led to the development of War Plan Orange, the plan to defeat Japan, which was, conceptualized prior the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The consequences of institutional level intelligence failure can damage the nation. The effects of preparing for the wrong war, or entering the next war with the wrong capabilities can lead to strategic or national level defeat. The failure of the German Air force to develop the proper capabilities to conduct strategic bombing directly led to its defeat in the Battle of London.[vi]  

Understanding the Domestic Enviornment

Tactical, Operational, and Strategic Intelligence tend to focus on the operational environment overseas. Any intelligence shop of value to a commander visualizes aspects of the terrain, the population, and enemy forces. Institutional intelligence is paramount in how the military prepares for the next war. Operational and Strategic leaders must know and understand the domestic environment as a way of understanding the capabilities of their own service.

Institutional intelligence should focus on domestic conditions. Leaders responsible for manning, equipping, and training the force must understand domestic demographics and trends. This aids in decisions such as where and how to focus recruitment efforts, and how to encourage career service members to stay in the force.

Military strategists and those responsible for raising a force should understand the domestic economy and its impact on recruitment and retention of service members. Unlike intelligence focused on the enemy, institutional intelligence should provide leaders with an understanding of high tech corporations as a competitor for human capital. When China or Russia implements a new military or economic policy, hordes of analysts study the impacts it may have in the event of a conflict. The US military should do the same as domestic policy changes in line with election cycles.

Knowing oneself has long been mantra of wise advice. The Oracle at Delphi, Sun Tzu, and Army doctrine on leadership have all advocated for understanding yourself before fighting an adversary. Nations across the globe spend enormous amount of resources on understanding foreign nations and the likelihood of future conflict. The United States invests in the study of nations like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, and Russia to gain an understanding on how they may conduct warfare in the future. Indeed, the United States Army has an entire functional area of foreign affairs officers who serve commanders and US embassies as experts on various nations and regions across the globe.

The nation that has the most impact on the nature of a conflict is our own. The enemy does get a vote, but our vote still counts. Understanding our own nation’s demographics and culture to build an Army around it is equally if not more paramount for success in future conflict.


[i] Joint Publication 2-0. Joint Intelligence. 22 October 2013.

[ii] Joint Publication 2-0. Joint Intelligence. 22 October 2013.

[iii] Joint Publication 2-0. Joint Intelligence. 22 October 2013. Pg. I-24

[iv] ibid

[v] Letter from the NIC Chairman https://www.dni.gov/index.php/global-trends/letter-nic-chairman

[vi] Williamson Murray. 1983. Strategy For Defeat The Luftwaffe 1933-1945. Air University Press. Maxwell Airforce Base, Alabama.

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. 

War Is....


The Dead Prussian is one of the best Podcasts going. At the end of each interview, the host, Mick Cook asks each guest to complete the following sentence; War is…  The answers vary, and range from Clausewitz’s “war is politics by other means” to creative answers such as “war is fashion by other means.” Here is my attempt to define war, with a deliberate attempt NOT to revert to Clausewitz’s definition. 

War is Ying and Yang.

War reveals. War exposes the best and worst of human beings. Famously there are the cases of My Lai and Lieutenant Calley and Private First Class Green in Yusifiyah. In these cases war exposed at the individual level the worst in mankind. War exposed the worst of American men and women at Abu Ghraib, who prior to serving at the prison were upstanding soldiers. War shows who should hold power and positions of responsibility, and who should never be in charge of another human being. Moreover, a simple review of history shows at the organizational level, the use of military force has enabled some of the worst atrocities of mankind.

With every ying there is a yang, and with the worst comes the best. While war exposed the worst of man at Mai Lai, it exposed heroic men who chose to stand against evil. The actions of Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr. gives hope to those who believe in the inherent good of our fellow human beings. 

Just as the use of military power enables evil, it is consistently a force of good. The good ranges from the liberation of European and Asian nations in the Second World War, to the scores of humanitarian assistance missions following natural disasters.

Revealing the best and worst of us happens in more cases than famous massacres and Medal of Honor earning moments. The ying and the yang of warfare reveals who can speak truth to power and those that serve as yes men to their commanders. In the latter, war exposes who will report up to higher authorities the information they want to hear. A short reading on the history of Vietnam exposes the latter.

War destroys. The violence of warfare destroys lives in savage ways. The destruction of lives occurs on a daily basis. Opposing sides in war aim to kill their enemies until their side has achieved its respective political aim. However, death and destruction is never limited to those who carry weapons and wear a uniform. Civilians and non-combatants often find themselves victims of fighting. War can destroy their property through an errant missile strike, and war can take an innocent’s life all the same.

Not only does war snuff out the literal lives of those fighting and caught in the crossfires, war can destroy the future. Illustrating how war can take away the future is a passage from Guy Sajer’s masterpiece The Forgotten Soldier.

“Paula, we’ll be married, I swear it. But the war prevented me from keeping my word, and the peace made it lose all its value…So please forgive me, Paula. It wasn’t my fault. You knew the misery of war too, and fear, and anguish. Perhaps – and I wish it with all my heart – perhaps you were also spared. That at least would allow us both to remember. The war destroyed Berlin, and Germany, and Killeringstrasse, and perhaps the Neubachs too, but not you, Paula…that would be too horrible. I have forgotten nothing.”

War took away the future. A marriage that never happened, kids that were never born, grandchildren that were never spoiled. They may have survived the war, but their dreams were gone.


War creates. Out of the rubble of conflict emerge some of the most phenomenal aspects of mankind. In the arts, the First World War created the intellectual space for authors such as Remarque and Hemingway and poets like Owen and Sassoon to give the world the gift of their words. Ditto for Norman Mailer and his experience in the Second World War. Its not just writers and artists that war creates, out of war comes a generation of 

War creates leaders. In America alone national leaders emerged in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and the two World Wars. There is no dearth of political leaders who earned their fame in conflict. Creating leadership is certainly a human aspect of war, but the ying and the yang apply equally to the unknown masses returning from a war 

War sends men and women back home from conflict. Soldiers return on airplanes, and other soldiers return in boxes. Of those that return alive, some come back physically and mentally stronger; others come home weaker than the day they

The ying and yang list can go on forever. War creates and war destroys; war exposes the best and exposes the worst; war reveals the truth tellers and reveals the frauds, war strengthens and war weakens. As national leaders consider the use of military force to solve their nation’s problems, it is worth remembering that for every potential positive outcome, there is an equally potential disaster looming on the horizon.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the DoD, or the U.S. Government

Keys to Success; Advice to Operational and Strategic Level Planners


At some point, every officer embarking on his or her first tour at the operational or strategic level experiences a level of trepidation. Indeed, leaving the comforts of tactical level planning can be a scary ride. Higher echelons f planning push people to level of mental discomfort they have rarely contended with in previous jobs. The following is a litany of advice on attaining success at higher staff levels.

First, get into a strategic mindset. This means staff officers should take the time to think about big problems, big ideas, and big solutions. Taking the time to pull away from daily business to reflect on the larger aspects of problem sets is the difference between mediocre and high levels of talent. This reflection time does not come easy, and high quality planners will ensure they

Further considerations in the strategic mindset are reframing understanding of time. At operational and strategic levels, the decision cycle slows down. When compared to decisions at the tactical level, getting a 4-star commander to make a decision can take eons. Moreover, attaining decisions from strategic leaders often means obtaining consensus within the rest of the staff. This takes time. Luckily, it takes time to get onto the calendar of said decision makers, which allows ample time to build the required consensus.

Gaining consensus should not sacrifice the quality of the product. Planners must understand and consider which hills to die on when moving papers and briefings through review. Solving issues at the action officer or O6 level is typically the best course of action. However, planners should cultivate an understanding on what is non-negotiable for their directors. When appropriate, let the flag officers have the discussion, and wait patiently for their guidance.

The consensus aspect is an underrated part of planning. The best officers know whose opinions are valued by the commander, and those whose opinions are nice to have. Some of this is dictated by personality, and sometimes this is dictated by position. For example, the public affairs section and the operational law section should comment on nearly every product or plan. Indeed, senior leaders will often ask at the onset of a presentation what legal or public affairs thought of the plan or product.

A second key to success at higher echelons is the ability to write. Operational and strategic level planners cannot rely on PowerPoint skills to get them through their time. The best planners communicate complex ideas through the written word. Planners exercise their power though writing commander’s estimates, position papers, information papers, and white papers. Moreover, these papers must be succinct and to the point.  

Pride cometh before the fall. In terms of writing, planners quickly learn that writing is a team sport. Every directorate and division within a staff must have the opportunity to comment on as well as concur or non-concur on every paper. Although papers that reach decision makers contain input from multiple people, there is one primary officer responsible for the paper. Key to navigating this nuance is writing fast enough to ensure all interested parties have the time to review and comment. Avoid emotional attachment to staff papers.

If you want to become a better writer, the first step is reading. If you find yourself assigned to an operational or strategic level staff, chances are you made the decision to become a lifer. Like it or not, the military is your career, and as a career officer you have a duty to continually mold your intellectual apparatus. This means reading.

Reading is not limited to professional journals and books. Staff officers must remain current on relevant joint and service doctrine. Officers on joint staffs should take the time to read new army, navy, air force or Marine Corps doctrine. Officers in a service level assignment should take the time to read both joint doctrine and concepts. Further, planners need to read new national level guidance such as the National Security Strategy or National Defense Strategy. 

Planners at higher echelons of command should form their own professional development-reading list. This should include daily news articles, professional journals (both hard copies and internet sites), books covering a wide range of subjects from fiction to history, to economics, and warfighting.

Planners should invest their time improving briefing skills prior to their first day at an operational or strategic level staff. The old saying “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” holds steady vis-à-vis senior leaders. Fouling up a briefing early in an assignment often has cascading effects that will minimize the impact of a planner throughout his or her tour. It is vital to rehearse every brief, and to anticipate questions from the audience. Unlike tactical level briefings, those sitting around the table will have less knowledge on a subject than the briefer. Questions are not meant to test the briefer, but rather to develop a better understanding of a problem or a solution. In this aspect, “I don’t know” is better than providing inaccurate information.

Knowing the audience is a universal aspect of public speaking. The first brief should never be the best brief. Over time, the best planners adapt their briefing style to the desires of their senior leaders. Some senior leaders may pepper a briefer with questions on every slide; others will hold their questions until the end of the brief. Further, you will find that many senior leaders take the time to read their read-ahead packets, and skip right to the questions at the onset. As a planner, never shy away from asking other members of the staff with briefing experience how key leaders like their briefings. 

The best planners are subject matter experts in their own respective areas. This seemingly obvious statement has a deeper meaning. An Army officer serving on a joint task force or combatant command staff needs to be the expert in all things army.

Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” In a similar manner, you miss 100 percent of the information that comes out of a meeting you do not attend. The battle rhythm of every joint command fills up with a multitude of meetings. It is prudent to sit in on as many as you can. The various working groups and ongoing OPTs will help any planner in their ability to understand the commander’s priorities and major issues affecting the command. Further, attending meetings will allow a planner to offer their input into various projects as a way to advance their own priorities. Do not wait for an invitation to these meetings, and don’t wait for your boss to tell you to attend. This is a critical aspect of making yourself relevant.

Measures for success

At an individual level, the first measure of success is the speed at which your staff actions are approved. Over time, written products such as information papers or decision briefs will make their way through the approval process with minimal changes. Nothing ever gets through an entire “chop” with zero remarks or changes, but the successful staff officer develops a knack for  

The first measure of a successful staff officer is knowing whether or not people rely on you for information. If you find other members of the staff constantly coming by your desk for advice and information, or if other members of the command consistently call you asking for products, then you have attained success. When flag officers or the commander ping your desk, then your success is at a completely new level.

Successful staff officers are in high demand. More than a gathering around a desk, successful staff officers tend to have their calendars full. This occurs as the best staff officers get invited to other working groups and operational planning teams. The successful staff officer is not invited as a subject matter expert, but rather as someone who has developed a reputation for solving problems. People know rather quickly who they want applying brainpower to their

Finally, C.S. Lewis once described an inner ring. Belonging to this inner ring meant “It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.” Indeed, it is better to work on a weekend, than deemed irrelevant to solving a problem at hand. Successful staff officers know the call is coming.


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.  

Reviewing "A Passion for Leadership; Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service"

Following his retirement from public service, former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates authored two books. The first was a memoir of his time as Secretary of Defense, his second detailed the leadership lessons he learned over a lifetime of public service. In A Passion for Leadership, Gates uses his lessons learned as the Director of the CIA, President of Texas A&M, and Secretary of Defense to write about leading change in large bureaucratic organizations.


Gates focuses on a leader's ability to build teams and break down stovepipes as essential elements of strategic leadership. In building teams, Gates reflects that changing an organization may require a leader sacrifice speed of change with a gain of getting change right. Slowing down the pace allows for greater buy in of a program, as well as better-developed recommendations from all those involved. Leaders attain buy in for a program thorough more than time, they do so by breaking down organizational silos.

In important aspect of leading change, according to Gates, is the ability to break down barriers internal to an organization. In the military, this means members of various J-Codes need to work together to solve problems. Gates advocates for the stand-up of cross cutting task forces to design and implement change. With the stand-up of task forces, Gates highlights that all parts of an organization will become part of the process for proposing and implementing change. Indeed, Gates used this method at Texas A&M, the CIA, and the Department of Defense to ensure every section of each respective bureaucracy had a stake in their institutional change. For example, as head of the CIA, Gates created multiple task forces to redirect the focus of intelligence away from the Cold War mindset.

Gates also reflects on the value of investing in personal relationships to help in gaining support for change proposals. This may mean frequent meetings with academics and state legislatures while serving at a public university, or taking the time to engage with people on the hill while serving in the Pentagon or at Langley.

Most leaders understand the need to elevate high performers, and those who add value to a team. Gates takes the time to reflect on the importance of this aspect of leadership, but follows this up with techniques on removing people who obstruct progress. Gates understands that public servants at high levels operate under different laws and regulations when it comes to removing people from their positions. Further, Gates details the importance of reflecting on the positives of previous public service (some of which last a lifetime) when an individual is removed from a position. Removing or firing people in Gates’s opinion must be done with respect and care. Indeed, offering people the flexibility to resign over a period of months allows the space to find new talent while keeping a semblance of continuity for an organization.

This book is a primer for military officers who look to lead at the operational and strategic levels. Further, it serves as a guide to career and appointed leadership in government on how to lead change in large organizations. It is a fast read, and a worthwhile addition to any leader’s bookshelf.

Creativity: The Power of Off Sites


Creativity generally occurs when two disparate ideas link together to form a new concept or way of performing. Walter Isaacson, in his biography of Leonardo Da Vinci comments, “Innovation is a team sport, creativity is a collaborative endeavor.”  Over the course of my military career I have found this observation be generally true. However, I would add on an addendum, that innovation, or creativity in our day-to-day work occurs outside the office and not inside of a conference room or between

At an individual level, some of the best ideas come to light while having off-hand discussions with other service members somewhere between the hours of 1100 – 1300. Open and candid discussion between peers over Mexican food on Taco Tuesday or in the food court on a random Thursday tend to enable new ideas at almost every level. This may mean squad leaders sharing ideas on the best counseling techniques, or company commanders discussing new ways to run their company command post. Having commanded for 22 months in 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, I can attest that the best ideas I followed through with never came sitting in my office, or walking through the motorpool, they came through discussions with soldiers in the dining facility, and in discussion with my fellow commanders over

At the collective level, the best opportunities to generate creativity come from off-site events. These events can range from a staff-ride at a local Civil War Battlefield, or a staff visit to a local war museum to name just a couple. More than just the educational aspect, the ability of staff rides to build teams can shape future discussions. Members of a unit who spend time with each other at a staff ride, will then grab a coffee, or a meal together during times of intense planning, or other high stress environments. Those follow-on discussions can change the trajectory of a plan or course of action under

To quote Isaacson again, “Ideas are often generated in physical gathering places where people with diverse interests encounter one another serendipitously.” As a U.S. Army Strategist, I spend most of my hours working in a SCIF, surrounded by planners from various J-Code directorates (J2, J3, J4, etc..). While working long strenuous hours either participating in or leading operational planning teams, I have discovered the necessity of team members having discussions away from the computer screen, away from the planning cell, and away from leaders who will instantly critique their ideas. Officers who lead planning teams should keep this aspect in mind when planning during times of

A key part of running any operational planning team is time management. Operational Planning Team leaders must acknowledge that their team requires time outside of the planning cell to think and reflect on their work. OPT leaders must recognize, indeed enforce upon their planners time outside of the planning cell with other members of the OPT. This may include lunch breaks, or even breaks to grab a coffee at the post Starbucks. Rather then view this as wasted time; it is paramount to think of it as a productive endeavor. Moreover, ideas developed during a break may not come to fruition until further in the planning process. The seeds of an idea planed during a coffee break in mission analysis may grow and mature in course of action development, or be tested during wargaming. As Lost’s John Locke can attest, we often accomplish most when we work the least.

Running a Meeting


The impression a leader makes on others contributes to his success in leading them. This impression is the sum of a leader’s outward appearance, demeanor, actions, and words.

- ADRP 6-22

                 Reflecting on my 17 years of active service, there one item I wish I had learned in the military’s professional military education (PME) program. How to run a meeting. Running a meeting is a distinct skill, and should be taught to our officers and non-commissioned officers throughout their careers.

                Every officer, in nearly every position will run a meeting. Platoon sergeants, platoon leaders and company commanders run training meetings. Executive officers run staff meetings. Action officers at every level run their own internal staff meetings. Operational and strategic planners run Operational Planning Teams (OPTs). Within joint commands, every J-code runs some kind of Board, Bureau, Center, Cell, or Working Group (B2C2WG) within the command’s battle rhythm. More often than not, and for better or worse, leaders learn to run these meetings by way of mentors or self-learning.

                The Army defines three attributes of a leader within leadership doctrine (ADRP 6-22). These traits are character, intellect, and presence. The ability to run a meeting relates to the latter two. An individual may have presence in front of a formation, but can rapidly lose confidence of his or her staff when they flail through a meeting. Often, fumbling through a meeting where the outcome is nothing of consequence can deflate the morale of anyone in attendance.  

A leader’s first impression on members of his or her team can often occur at a meeting. Further, a meeting may be where an individual has their touch points with their rater and senior raters. Failing to run a meeting properly, either by having no purpose, not controlling the tempo or topics of conversations, allowing one “A type” personality to dominate discussion, or not sticking to timelines can harm a leaders reputation within a command.

                At the tactical level, Army doctrine does discuss the importance of training meetings. ADPR 7-0 refers to the training meeting as “the single most important meeting for managing training in brigades, battalions, and companies.” TC 25-30, A Leaders Guide to Training Meetings does discuss some inner working of unit training meetings, focusing on the company level. It is a useful guide for those looking to understand training meetings, but useless in the development of leadership skills required to actually run the meeting.

                On the positive side, there is some level of recognition in the joint force, that organizing meetings within a battle rhythm, each with a distinct purpose that eventually leads to flag officer touch points is paramount to a command’s success. The Joint enabling Capabilities Command (JECC), located in Norfolk Virginia hosts a knowledge management course where tools such as the 7-minute drill and skills such as battle rhythm analysis are taught. Indeed, officers skilled in assisting a command’s chief of staff to organize a battle rhythm are in high demand.

                Other options to improve a leader’s ability to run a meeting include operational planning teams is the Red Team University at Fort Leavenworth. Although the objective of the Red Team School is to promote critical thinking, and create leaders who can provide alternative analysis, the techniques taught at the course are certainly applicable to OPT leadership and overcoming toxic personalities in meetings. Further, leaders throughout the joint force should seek self-improvement in their ability to run a meeting through various business literature such as Harvard Business Review.

                Each of the services should consider adapting the tactics, techniques, and procedures of the JECC’s knowledge management enterprise. Moreover, emphasizing the skills and abilities it takes to run an efficient meeting through a NCO and officers professional military education. The joint force and services can start with distance learning through joint knowledge online (JKO), as a prerequisite prior to arriving at a command. Moreover, commanders at the tactical level should use time and resources to develop this skill in their junior leaders. Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer Professional development programs should reach out to experts in the business community to teach running a meeting to junior leaders (and in many cases senior leaders). 

                Based solely on my observations over the past 22 years in the military, our educational model should adopt a method to teach leaders at all levels the science and art of running a meeting.

The Predictability of War


We have a history of hoping for the best. We hope for the best because war, of all things on this earth, is predictable.

Both Napoleon and Hitler understood that invading Russia would result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and eventually lead to their respective downfall.  They knew and communicated this risk to the citizens of France and Nazi Germany.

We can look to obscure wars such as Russia’s war with Japan back at the turn of the twentieth century. The Tsar sent his fleet into the Pacific only after a proper net-assessment of their adversary. The Tsar knew his fleet would be destroyed, and that the war would lead to the outbreak of Japanese colonialism over the next four decades.  

As Germany, France, and Britain went to war in 1914, each nation foresaw the horrors of the Somme, and Verdun. Military planners clearly articulated the risk of invading Belgium to Kaiser Wilhelm, and the statistical probability that 750,000 German citizens would die from starvation due to the allied blockade.

Accurately predicting the outcome of war is not unique to foreign nations. When Eisenhower and Kennedy pushed advisers into Vietnam, they did so with an understanding that the conflict would turn into a war, and that an enemy so clearly outmatched in terms of technology could kill over 58,000 Americans. President Johnson and his Best and Brightest Team prepared the public for the horrors of Mai Lai. Moreover, when congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, each voting member knew how the ever-expanding war would divide the nation and have impacts on foreign and domestic policy that still resonate today.

In 2003, America went to war with the Army we had, because that is exactly the Army we needed to invade and occupy Iraq. Indeed, not only did we have the army we needed, but we wargamed against the exact enemy we would fight. I distinctly remember going to war, and receiving briefs on what would occur in places like Avu Ghraib, Yusifiyah, and Haditha.

 When, in 2011, America left Iraq, we had the understanding that a Junior Varsity Team could never conquer large swaths of territory and incite fear and violence across the globe. Thank god that never happened.

When we think about possible conflicts with North Korea, Iran, or any other nation, we should keep in mind how war always moves in unexpected directions.