On Planning

by LtCol Steven Donnell, USMC(Ret)

This letter refers to Mr. William S. Lind’s commentary in the October 2000 Gazette, “Missing the Boat: A Response to Generals Knutson, Hailston, and Bedard. What began as promising discourse closed with a predictable refrain of maneuver warfare apathy within our Corps. As if the combatant commanders would choose a Marine-centric course of action based on our ability to translate the nonlinear tenets of the complexity theory into asymmetric applications. Desirable, but not probable.

The “absurd” idea that planning is more important than the plan is discussed in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 5, Planning (p. 84) not Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 5-1 as Mr. Lind asserts. However, the 5-1 does support the concept that planning is more important than the plan, for planning is a learning process that develops situational understanding to shorten decision cycles in execution. Faster, informed decisions lead to tempo-a viable antidote for the uncertainty inherent in all two-sided conflicts. Further, the understanding gained through planning prevails long after the plan itself supposedly succumbs to the line of departure.

As for the methodical “French-way-of-war” planning process, Mr. Lind lacks an appreciation for the volume of planning required at higher echelons, particularly during preexecution-deliberate planning when the Marine Forces and MEFs must incur the cost of overhead by populating the battlespace with sufficient structure to promote subordinate success. Additionally, Mr. Lind equates speed with maneuver warfare. While speed is a weapon and a genuine source of combat power (MCDP 1, Warfighting, p. 40), in war, it is relative speed that matters. I don’t have to outrun the bear; I only have to outrun you.

Lest we believe MEFs can cycle as fast as companies, we must be careful applying the lessons learned from free play, small unit exercises at The Basic School to larger commands.

Detailed planning for 90,000 Marines better not be easy. Level 4 TPFDDs (timephased force and deployment data), assault wave landing tables, and air tasking orders are not the result of serendipity and happenstance. The fact that the time required for detailed planning at the component or MEF surpasses the life cycle of most insects does not defy the principles of maneuver warfare. Even the company commander experiencing coup d’oeil as a result of “high ground intuition” needs frequencies, call signs, and airspace control measures to orchestrate his combined arms effort.

Perhaps Mr. Lind’s efforts might have been better served had he focused on why the MEFs continually exercise large-scale, conventional scenarios that drive staffs to laborious levels of detailed planning, particularly in light of the more likely scenario of military operations other than war. An examination of this issue and underlying causes-programmatics, force drawdowns, quality deficiency reports, theater engagement plans, and a lack of a Joint Chiefs of Staff single battle-would tie in better with Col Mark F. Cancian’s concern (“Still the Nation’s 91-1 Force?” MCG, Apr0) of dispersion versus concentration, which was the pretense for Mr. Lind’s comments in the first place.