Operational Planning Processes and Tactical Decisionmaking

I'm still not much in a creative mood, so I present you a slightly modified blog post written in 2014, but not published till today.

The Operational Planning Process (OPP) is a linear, analytic method for planning used by most NATO ground forces. The problems and inadequacies are well-known, and I'm not motivated to provide a list thereof.

I am motivated to push for an alternative approach, though:

This alternative approach is really an approach, not a method.
First, it is important to understand and value the consequences of Moltke the Elder's quote (which I assume to be largely correct based on military history):

"Kein Plan übersteht die erste Feindberührung."
("No plan survives first contact with the enemy.")

Second, it is advisable to take a look at how highly successful commanders actually led their forces tactically in mobile warfare: Many of them commanded in person on the scene - preferably at their Schwerpunkt. This is often ideal for leaders of battalion- to small brigade-sized forces.

Third, it is advisable to keep in mind that war isn't like exercises - especially if there's no front-line. There's often only one starting point (unless invasions happen) followed by campaigning till the end. Exercises have a starting point, few hours or days of action and then rinse, repeat. Many exercises are scripted to have serial phases.
Mobile continental warfare would be different. The phases would run in parallel, and the only starting points that are repeated are the insertions of refreshed reserves into the meat grinder. A staff officer might wake up, go to his folding desk and be confronted with reports of past actions, an ongoing action, a tactical plan for the day, a logistics plan for tomorrow and ongoing logistics planning for the day after - in parallel. He wouldn't be in "the" planning phase.

Fourth, there are great advantages to be found in training officers to the point where they can understand if not anticipate their peers' standard actions without much fuss.
A common doctrine that's good enough to be actually employed by the vast majority of officers is one way to support this - but only to a point, since doctrinal flexibility has its merits.
A personnel system that provides staffs and ground forces in general with enough stability to enable officers to get to know each other well long before they're transferred helps as well.

- - - - -

I'd like to push for a different attitude:
Planning should lose much of its prominence.

Planning should focus on delivering what was known as "Combat Service Support" (~support that doesn't affect the enemy directly; mostly logistics) and moving reinforcements. This is known to be a rather fruitful area of activity for planners.

Updates of (not very specific) missions given to manoeuvre forces on the other hand would be directed in a more "naturalistic" or "artistic" way. The corps or theatre commander or his deputies could make such adjustments right away, in reaction to a change of mind or a change of the situation that happened only minutes ago.

The tactical actions - both preservative and aggressive ones - should be led by commanding officers on the scene, leading from their position among their troops.

This should not sound very unusual, for it happened in many conflicts. My claim is that the way to go is to develop a system of command and control, leadership, coordination, planning et cetera based on the expectation that this is how things could be, should be and will be.

- - - - -

Let's see how this could look in a simple example:

Traditionally, HQ would draw up and consider some plans and finally issue orders to subordinate forces: Team A engages and fixes the enemy, Team B flanks.
The whole process takes a lot of time and the enemies don't play along. A and B often need to adapt themselves on their own on the spot, since HQ issued new orders with too much delay.

Now instead, HQ would tell Teams A and B to deploy into respective mission areas, with respective levels of ambition regarding tolerance for hostiles' presence there.
Hostile forces close with A, but A is not meant to fight decisively yet (dictated through the set level of ambition) - A ambushes and delays if the hostiles come really close. 
The deputy commander (commander is sleeping) at the HQ re-appraises the situation and tells A and B to cooperate with an increased level of ambition for their combined areas. A and B become authorised to update their common area border bilaterally without specific HQ orders.
A and B manoeuvre, and after a series of skirmishes their leaders sense an opportunity to strike, agree and execute a pincer attack.

Pay attention to the choice of words here; "level of ambition" and "mission area". The deviation from conventional doctrines here is to not give a mission about what to achieve, but to order an area to be (similar to the positions assigned to a patrol line of wolfpack submarines) AND to set a level of ambition. Level of ambition could range (in steps) from "do not engage under any circumstances" to "find opposing forces and inflict maximum casualties". The extreme levels of ambition would be suitable in a guerilla war only, of course. Typical continental warfare in Europe would rather have levels of ambition ranging from "deploy to detect and report movements of hostile units, but avoid losses" to "destroy hostile forces when conditions aren't disadvantageous".

- - - - -

I mixed a good dose of horizontal cooperation into this scenario. The same is true for area-centric missions and ambition levels. These favourite topics of mine are parts of the tool bag that could replace planning where the latter doesn't work anyway.

So in the end, there are ways to avoid the well-known inadequacies of the very bureaucratic processes. Such processes have their times and places, but I am in the mainstream when I assert that they're being used for too many purposes. The decision-making on the scene by leaders among their men - an almost alien thought in a computerised staff exercise - deserves to destroy many planners' claims relevance in regard to manoeuvres and combat.
We should also get away from trying to predict things. This does not work, period. Missions given by higher commands should be limited in detail by even higher command's orders. Any too detailed corps HQ orders should be outlawed and thus ineffective, period. A corps commander who pinpoints the timing of an action down to the minute shall go to prison as a private, period. "When you're ready, preferably before 1230" is accurate enough.


Written by someone who is really into improvisation and never liked planning much for activities where plans don't last anyway.


  1. To much planing, to complicated and to detailed planing makes you slow which is imo the most important disadvantage. Today modern technology allows commanders to control more and more things on an battlefield. From higher an higher levels of command more and more downwards. This overcontrol leads inevitable to overdetailed, overcomplicated and to much planing. For this reasons the technology slows down the forces because they use this technology in a wrong way.

    Therefore todays combat units are often slower than in ww2 although everything should be much much faster as the technology theoretically could improve the speed very much (faster vehicles, faster communication etc) But to the opposite the theoretically faster units are slower and slower.

    The same on every level even to the lowest tactical level. Everything is slowed down by todays planing ways.

    The two main reasons for this kind of planing are imo that the technology make it possible but also the overall dominance to avoid losses and to not take responsibilty for failure and to not allow failure at all. This Anti-Failure, Anti-Losses and Anti-Responsibility doctrine is then again a result of the culture of our western tm societies.

    For this reason we do not exploit the theoretical available speed the technology could give us and to the opposite we slow everything down through planing. So this kind of planing as it is a result from our current culture cannot be changed in the way suggested here because therefore before that our overall social culture must be changed.

  2. As an Add-on


    "Strategy is a system of expedients; it is more than a mere scholarly discipline. It is the translation of knowledge to practical life, the improvement of the original leading thought in accordance with continually changing situations."

    "There cannot possibly be practical value for strategy in general principles, rules derived from them and systems built up upon the rules."

    "If in war, from the beginning of the operations, everything is uncertain except such will and energy as the commander carries in himself."

    And to fight this uncertainty is exactly the target of the overdetailed to much planing. But as this is against the very nature of war itself, it must and will fail. And the reason why we today do not tolerate this uncertainty any more is then again the doctrine of no losses and the overall culture of not taking responsibility but to put it off to others to not threaten the own career, income, status, future wealth etc, in short the todays lack of idealism and the todays to much dominance of materialism.

    Logically the todays western tm societies want to solve this problem with machines, robotic warfare, drones, artifical intelligence etc and therefore this kind of warfare will become the dominant in the future as a result of our current culture. The rich will fight the poor not with hired human fighters as this makes them dependant on the fighters but with machines which then will be produced and controlled by other machines.

    So the nature of war itself and its natural developement towards total war (as the wars will last longer and longer in the future) will lead us inevitable to machine warfare against humans which then cannot afford the same kind of technology. The begining of this even has happened and its not a thing of the future but we are now in this kind of developement.

    This machine warfare will then also overcome the to detailed planing, as the machines will not suffer from the same logic to avoid losses and therefore the theoretical possible speed will then be possible. And will give the machines the definite military advantage against the conventional armies we look today.

    To exploit ai/machine warfare faster and further than all others will give the state who can achieve this the next absolutely advantage over his enemies.

    As the world will destabilise in the next decades more and more and this destabilisaton will threaten the rich this will come faster than it is anticipated today.

  3. "Therefore todays combat units are often slower than in ww2"
    Citation. Could any WW2 army could have seized Iraq, twice, with the same speed and efficiency? Remembering that modern armies muster far fewer soldiers, and therefore struggle to take or hold ground, like a WW2 army could. At the same time, fewer mouths to feed and fewer vehicles to transport.

    Then again. We are comparing apples to oranges. WW2 was an existential battle, whereas IRAQ was a war for Oil and chocolate.


    In regards to the main article, especially understood with the context of Horizontal cooperation highlighted: I struggle to grok the terminology "Levels of Ambition". Perhaps it sounds better in German?

    1) The article mentions that these should be numbered. What exactly is the benefit of this ranking? Is some formula in effect-- or is it a mnemonic technique.

    2) It seems that most aggressive levels of ambition are identical. Destroy the enemy with a minimum of casualties.

    3) How and when are levels of ambition adjusted? Is it understood that the sub-leaders set their own or should updates only come from above?

    1. https://www.benning.army.mil/infantry/magazine/issues/1990/JUL-AUG/pdfs/JUL-AUG1990.pdf
      page 28

      Compare the advance speed in OIF with the overrun of Yugoslavia 1941 in 12 days through MUCH worse terrain.
      OIF was actually quite sluggish. Caesar was quicker.

    2. Level of Ambition means how ambitious the opposition to hostile forces in the area is. Deep in enemy terrain that would be long range recon patrols doing observation only. The more hostile forces advance, the more urgent becomes their defeat or turnaround, thus the more ambitious the missions assigned to the area. This gives commanders leeway for manoeuvres, for shaping the battlefield rather than engaging right away in most areas.
      They also enjoy much freedom of action, little constraints by orders given by superiors.
      The operational (theatre) level commander would be limited to a set of orders that keeps him from giving detailed (and too slow) commands to individual manoeuvre forces. Instead, he would keep his mind focused on the operational level.

  4. Size of Iraq - 437.072 km²
    First Invasion of Iraq – 16.01.1991 until 05.03.1991 (49 days overall)
    Second Invasion of Iraq – 20.03.2003 until 01.05.2003 (43 days overall)
    Important: In the Wars in Iraq the US Forces in the theatre alone were much stronger than the whole Iraqi Forces overall in both wars, and especially in the second war. The Iraqi Forces in the second war 2003 were only a shadow of their earlier self and even weaker than in 1991. And the US Forces were 2003 to the opposite much more modern than in 1991.

    Size of France - 643.801 km²
    Battle of France - 10.05.1941 until 25.06.1941 (46 days overall)
    Important: The french army was in many important parts stronger than the attacking german forces. Also the technological niveau was equal and so there was no such gap as between the us and the iraq but to the opposite. The overall allied forces in the battle of france were stronger than the german forces in every aspect (numbers, equipment, position etc) except for motivation, leadership, strategy and tactic etc.

    Moreover: every vehicle, airplane and so on in 1991 and 2003 was for it own much much faster than any such vehicle in 1941 and had moreover much more reach. A Panzer III for example had only a speed of 40 km/h on roads and only 20 km/h offroad and a reach of only 100 km. By comparsion an M1 in the gulf war had an operational range of 427 km and a speed of 72 km/h on roads and a speed of 48 km/h offroad.

    4 times the reach and much faster on roads and even two times faster offroad.

    Moreover the Iraqi Tanks were no Match at all for an M1 but the western allied forces in france had many tanks which were much superior to an Panzer III.

    How is it then even possible that the US Forces needed so much time, as all their vehicles were much much faster, had an much greater reacht and the enemy was much weaker ? The answer is: a lack of speed. Often all units moved slow in comparison and only occasionally they were faster.

    And this slowness was not an result of a lack of motivation or of incompetence of the tank commanders or of technology, but it resulted mainly from the leadership. The leadership slowed down the combat units.

    PS: Every war is existential for the soldiers.

  5. Thereis so much myths, exagerations and omissions in the ''1941'' side of your example that's beyond ridiculous. Please inform yourself as I'm here to teach everybody, but let's sse very briefly:
    Airforces ? that was a great point in favor of the germans 1100+ tanks of the allied 3000 were two seaters new models of the infantry tank. Enormous difference in the use of radio, lack of good AA in the allied side, very good roads (and petrol stations) in Belgium and northern France, the german initialy attacked the weakest part of the French army with their best troops, in fact the germans have more divisions (120), new tactics never see before,they only have to defect the best troops, in june 1940 the frencha only have 40 divs (and no real allies) to defend te rest of France, they still did a quite amazing resistance wich is often totally ignored in the english-spaeking world, but it was too late..and many other things...

    - The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West, Karl Heinz Frieser
    - The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940, Robert A. Dougthy

    1. Well, if you know those books, why do you cherrypick instead of acknowledging how in particular Frieser described that lots of factors were in the Allies' advantage. Meanwhile, there was hardly any advantage on team Iraq in 2002 other than numbers of demoralised very low quality troops.

      Anyway, it's widely understood that adhering to typical NATO peacetime training practices would not produce agile or rapidly-moving land forces.
      Planning much is for when there's a lull allowing you to plan well ahead.
      Other than such lulls, we need to unleash the subordinates both from detailed plans and from real-time micromanagement.

      The Germans used the drôle de guerre of 1940 to plan ahead for the few days till the Meuse crossings, with not much else but the intent to race to the Channel afterwards. That plan worked. The Allies' plan meanwhile was not working. That's a 1:1 score. Most actual work was done at the spearheads, which were led by division or even corps commanders in person.

  6. balrog2005:

    The main disadvantage especially of the french army was overdetailed and to slow planing with the result that all french plans were outdated - often even before they come into effect.

    Especially the book of Frieser (which i have read at least 10 times) shows this very clearly. The cautios and detaile french planing processes on every level of command followed the speed of ww1 and it was this difference to the much faster speed of the germans that made the difference.

    For your other points i will simply citate Blitzkrieg-Legende from Frieser:

    Page 41 ff War die Wehrmacht vom Kräftevergleich her überlegen

    Number of Divisions:

    on the 10 Mai Germany had an overall number of 157 divisions from which 42 were reserve divisions. But against france only 93 divisions attacked.

    On the other side france had 117 divisions, from which 104 were defending the line from the maginot line to the channel. The british added 13 divisions (but 3 of them were understrength) at the beginning and later on sended 2 additional divisions (the 1 tank and the 52). The belgish and netherland forces together added 32 divisons.

    German attacking forces 93 Divisions - Allied Forces on the western front 151 Divisions.

    But as divisions can vary much in size and shape lets look at the

    Numbers of soldiers:

    Wehrmacht overall 5,4 million soldiers. The army with 4,2 million soldiers.

    But according to the plan only 3 million soldiers were used for the attack on france and this includes reserve units, units that are still occupied with gathering and even construction troops.

    On the other side the french had 6,1 million soldiers, with 5,5 million in the army. The british added around 500 000 soldiers around 1 million. But also of cause france did not send all troops to the front.

    The overall numbers at the front werde:

    Germany around 3 million (including reserves and construction troops) - the allied forces around 4 million

    Number of tanks:

    Germany 2439 tanks of which 523 were Panzer I (near to useless) and 955 were panzer II (also often useless). Only 278 tanks were Panzer IV and only 349 tanks were Panzer III, the rest were czech models.

    French: 3254 tanks at the northwestern frontier alone. But overall the french alone had 4111 tanks. The brits added 640 tanks and belgium and the netherland 310 tanks and even this were superior to german panzer I and panzer I
    So overall: Wehrmacht 2439 tanks - Western Allied forces 4204 tanks (most of them superior to the german tanks)


    Germany had 2589 comat aircraft on the western front available. The french air force alone had 5026 aircraft from which 3562 were combat aircraft.

    The french also produced high numbers of aircraft during the fight and even after the capitulation the french had 4268 aircraft left in the rest of france not under german occupaton.

    The brits added 1150 and the netherlands and belgium 222.

    Overall: Germany 3578 combat aircraft but only 2589 were combat ready. The western allied forces in france alone 4469 combat aircraft.

    Also many french aircraft were superior in qualitiy to the german aircraft.

    And so on and so on and so on.

    I wonder that you claim to have read the book as all your numbers (120 german divions vs 40 french divisions etc) are simply wrong.

  7. Let's see...the 40 french divs are for the new northern front in early june for the Fall Rot phase...that's being more precise maybe 50+ french divs of very variable quality, plus 2 or 3 from the commonwealth+more or less than french divs on the alpine front against the italians
    Lack or radios, of using radios for front operations,etc..., the french tanks again 1/3 were moving pillboxes and 2/3 were not really good for a tank vs. tank use. or any delicate tactical use Of the 4 french DCR 3 were spent on counterorders and mass confusion in small engagements.The DLM were good but again, spent on the Dyle plan in early may.
    The aviation: Frieser insist in that the french only have a fraction of their planes in the northern regions ready to fight. For twoo good reasons: as they are using WWI and defensive methods, a good number of planes are in reserves in central France, waiting to be used as the frontlines one's are spent. The second reason is that the rearmament plan at least give his fruits in june 1940, so the french manage, technically, to have more planes after the combats of may 40, but's that's just cold numbers, those planes are maybe airwhorthy but not combat worthy as they lack guns, optics or even pilots...the only figher equal to the Bf 109 was the Dewoitine d.520 present in very low numbers as any of the new french models that are going in production since early 1940 or sometimes june 1940...to few to litle...
    The AA was dismal. No point of insisting in it.
    Coordination between allies was non-existent besides the usual attaché in the belgian an Ducth cases and very low with the Brits.
    Again terrain caracteristics, road quality and even petrol stations, everything was ready for the motorized spearheads even more with the air superiority.

    Of course command&control was THE thing that made the difference but I'm not agree on may of your points, the allies with that supposed onmipotent 150 divs army with 4000 tanks ready to battle other tanks and 4000 modern planes would have survived only for sheer numbers and the suposed quality of their materiél..it was 4 armies sith a lot of defaults, with nearly no coordinations, with a lot quality contrasts between their owhn forces fighting a superb spearhead of motorized and armor divs commanded by leaders who were creating another age in warfare, all of that with dozens and dozens of 1918 type infantry divs behind them to occupy the terrain, wich make the whole thing very unique.