Teaching JCWS

31 July - 8 August 2019: Operational Design and JPP

I am starting this blog to keep and share lessons learned on operational level planning. Having been assigned to instruct Joint combined Warfighting School students, I want to share what I learn throughout my time here. this will also offer an informal way of sharing my lessons learned over the past decade working at the operational and institutional levels of war. 

Couple ground rules that I will abide by. The school is a non-attribution environment. I will never shout out anyone by name, instructors, students, guest speakers, etc. Second, this is meant to share observations and lessons on instructing and planning. This is not meant to criticize, praise, or judge the school / institution in general. So here we go…

31 July: This initial Friday post covers my first two weeks of integration in the classroom. I am working with seminar 3 for the duration of the current class. Jumping into the curriculum, the students are well on their way in operational design and covering center of gravity (COG) analysis. I was able to lead the class through a discussion of Centers of Gravity. Two articles, Eikmeier and Vego seem to be paramount to understanding this topic.

I used examples of effective centers of gravity (Gulf War, Initial Invasion of Iraq) to feed the discussion and some examples of failure (Occupation of Iraq, Vietnam). One student approached me afterwards to offer that in Vietnam, we did not properly identify the South Vietnamese government as a Critical Vulnerability. I agree with that assessment, and offer that the same can be true for how we looked at certain Iraqi Security Forces. The Iraqi Police were a critical vulnerability that we never solved.

We (the other seminar instructors and I) are using the six steps Eikmeyer developed as a method to identify the COG at the operational and strategic level. Two thoughts on this. The 6 step method is effective, as it provides structure. My experience in COG identification is a group of officers brainstorming what the COG could be. So having a method to the madness is nice. Second, although JP 5-0 discusses a COG at three levels of war (Tactical, Operational, Strategic), I do not believe in nor will I teach the existence of a COG at the tactical level. Tactical COGs exist in the same space as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.  

The COG analysis covered the COG at the Operational and Strategic level, their associated Critical Capabilities, Critical Requirements, and Critical Vulnerabilities. The seminar did this for Red (the adversary), Blue (U.S.), and Green (Host Nation).

-The use of post it notes or stickies on the white board during planning gets more of the team involved. During the course of planning, a team member naturally drifts to the computer, and soon you have 8-10 people staring at a screen waiting on one person to move a box on PowerPoint, or to correct a spelling error in Word. Further, the stickie notes can move around to help order decisive points in both space and time, naturally flushing out an operational approach.


1 August: The seminar (I use class and seminar interchangeably) began development of their operational approach. A proper COG analysis strengthens the operational approach. In this aspect, when the planning team develops thoughtful critical vulnerabilities, these vulnerabilities morph into decisive points on the operational approach. Each decisive point was written on a sticky, pasted tot he white board, and grouped in a logical manner. The various groupings then became the Lines of Effort / Operation for the Operational Approach.

Monday 5 August: the seminar moved on from operational design and into mission analysis. In previous assignments the argument over which comes first, design or mission analysis is like arguing for the chicken or the egg. They are separate chapters of JP 5-0. However, in my view design leads the analysis. The seminar was versed in mission analysis, as I assumed they covered it in the Campaign Design section of the course (before I arrived). the seminar broke into three small groups to develop and compare/contrast what they developed, which for the most part was pretty good. I did make the following injects:

     -Rules of Engagement, SROE, and Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) are not limitations. They are things we (the United States) abides by. There can be specific elements of a ROE that constrain or restrain development of courses of action. for example, limited number of boots on the ground, or limiting lethal attacks against an adversary. However, broad statements like ROE and LOAC should not appear on a slide in front of a GOFO.


JCWS has a military history portion of the curriculum. The staff has leeway into how to integrate history lessons into the course. We had the seminar break up into three teams, and each team selected a previous conflict to examine. After examining the conflict, the teams were then asked to produce a chart that explained the similarities and differences to the exercise scenario. They were then asked what lessons they can apply from this lens. the three conflicts chosen were the Russia - Georgia War of 2008, the Arab - Israeli War of 1973, and Desert Storm.

This method has the seminar look at the analogy method as described in Thinking in Time by Richard Neustadt. I actually developed a slide while at USEUCOM comparing Georgia, Ukraine, and what could happen in Serbia, as a method to convince people not to throw out analogies.

This last point led to a thought that one of the “OPT Personalities” I missed was the historian. Or the guy in the OPT that loves to make historical analogies despite their degree in Criminal Justice.

Tuesday 6 August

I talked to the seminar about decision points today. I displayed some example Decision Support Matrixes from the ARDENT SENTRY exercise under JTF-X. The seminar appreciated the ability to look at some DSMs and what right looked like. It pulled in how CCIR is tied to decisions. Talking the class through, then showing an example seems to be an effective method. Further, I pulled in some generic decision points that run across every operation and exercise (e.g. Change FP posture, or Stand Up JTF).  


Throughout the 10-week course we are introducing Red Team group think mitigation techniques strait from the Red Team handbook. These techniques, such as 5 will get you 25, Dot Voting, and Circle of voices are paramount in getting full class participation. Indeed, the seminar will go through hundreds of 3x5 Index cards writing down their thoughts and ideas before the course is through.

To bolster the Red Team and group think mitigation, I played for the class the Abilene Paradox, a short video that serves as an example of the dangers of group think.

Wednesday 7 August

The class has begun course of Action (COA) development this morning. We broke them up into two OPTs to develop two distinct COAs. One is terrain focused, the other is enemy focused. I spoke a bit about what traps to avoid when designing what types of COAs to develop. 

AVOID: A heavy/medium/light characterization of COAs. Assuming each COA meets the minimum threshold of Adequate, Acceptable, Feasible, Distinguishable, and Complete, then you have made the decision for OSD easy. They will choose the light course of action. In a similar vain do not have Land Centric and Air Centric options, as decision makers will choose the latter. 

They look to develop a scheme of maneuver, identify main and supporting efforts, tasks to each component command, risk, and a C2 construct for each phase.

With regards to C2, I find that the C2 discussion can be the most important. A bad C2 construct can limit the effectiveness of good leadership at each level. There are times when good leadership can overcome a bad C2 design, but planners and joint force commanders shouldn’t count on it. I use Abu Ghraib as an example of bad leadership with a bad C2 where nobody understood who is in charge.

What becomes clear after looking at the COAs, is that each OPT became constrained by the Maps they used. Once the map was put up on the screen, that terrain became the maneuver space. COAs were restricted to their planning maps. It is sometimes necessary to use a broader map to get students to think at the operational level.

On the positive note, each OPT spent most of their time trying to construct the C2, and they did this as a group. Often, an OPT will task one or two planners to go off in a corner and construct the C2 diagram while the rest of the group flushes out the course of action. The result is a C2 chart that is disconnected and not in support of the course of action. the second positive note was the back and forth discussion in the group. Once they realized the complexity of command and control at the operational level of war, the lights came on.

Thursday 8 August

The two OPTs briefed out their respective courses of action. Each team briefed their COA sketch from the Whiteboard (in lieu of forcing them to make the perfect PowerPoint slide). Each COA had Phase II beginning with an enemy invasion. I used this to point out that phase changes should always be the decision of the U.S. commander, and at the time of his/her choosing. An enemy action should inform the decision to change phases, but not be the sole factor.

An interesting side note, as the seminar is filled with students from each service, an Army student used the term SF to indicate Special Forces, until an Air Force student asked for clarification as SF means Security Forces in Air Force parlance.

Finally, with regard to COA development, it is worth stressing the importance of maps. Often, planners become transfixed on the map in front of them. At the CCMD level, using a map that displays the entire CCMD Area of Responsibility (AOR) can help keep a planning team focused on the entire theater, not just the JOA that the Joint Task Force owns.

When the students discussed their C2 diagrams, I continued to press for what unit filled the role and where that unit will go. For example, a JTF or CJTF does not magically appear. Planners must designate a force who will serve as the JTF, and allocate time for said JTF to form. Moreover, when planners brief times when the JTF or any other unit will be IOC or FOC (Initial Operating Capacity / Full Operating Capacity), they must be prepared to discuss the checklist or terms that meet IOC/FOC. It’s always the first question.

Interestingly, IOC and FOC are not joint terms with regard to a HQ readiness. Each is a term that relates to capability development (such as the F-35) milestones. However, IOC and FOC seem to be universally understood with senior military leadership.


Following the COA briefs, we had a short discussion on Course of Action Comparison, more commonly known as Wargaming. This began with a discussion of their evaluation criteria which a small group of students developed. I preach to anyone creating evaluation criteria that a good place to start is with the Principles of War and the Principles of Joint Operations, both of which are found in Joint Publication 3-0 (page I-2). Other common or generic evaluation criteria include alliance/coalition cohesion and risk of expanding or escalating a conflict.

Proper evaluation criteria is key to evaluating and comparing each COA. At the operational level, there is a discussion of advantages and disadvantages of each COA. These must be framed from the chosen evaluation criteria, and not be new characters introduced this late in the planning process.