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Facts and Assumptions at the Theater Strategic and Operational Levels of War – A JPG Primer

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Facts and Assumptions at the Theater Strategic and Operational Levels of War – A JPG Primer

Alan M. Hammons


Imagine a scenario where you are a joint planner at a combatant command headquarters.  Your boss called you in early for a new and important task.  The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) is looking for a quick turn on a Commander’s Estimate for a growing problem in your Combatant Commander’s (CCDR) Area of Responsibility (AOR).  You need to convene a joint planning group (JPG) today and using the joint planning process (JPP) as a guide, develop the estimate in three days. 

At 0730, you send out an email to your trusty JPG to meet at 0800 in the J-3 conference room and begin to craft a rough timeline for today’s meeting.  Your proposed timeline looks something like this:

0800-0810: Roll Call (JPG Lead)

0810-0815: Plan Initiation/Overview of planning effort (JPG Lead)

0815-0900: Plan Initiation/Review Strategic Guidance

0900-0910: Break

0910-1000: JIPOE/Current Situation Update (J2 Lead/Country Desk Officers)

1000-1010: Break

1010-1200: Mission Analysis (All)

1230-1330: Develop Mission Analysis Briefing (JPG Lead w/lead staff planners)

1430-1500: Provide Mission Analysis IPR to J3 (JPG Lead w/lead staff planners)

-6 Hours Later-

You return to your office cubicle to eat your (late) lunch.  A coworker leans over and says, “So how did it go?” 

With a sigh, you respond, “It’s not over… at least today isn’t.  We were really moving along this morning.  Everyone showed up on time and ready to contribute.  We had the strategic guidance ready to review.  The J-2 team provided a quick but valuable briefing.  Like I had scripted, we moved into mission analysis around 1000 hours or so.  Then, well…”

“Well what?  Something go wrong?”

You reply, “Yeah.  I passed out the copies of my handwritten notes from the conversation with the J3.  Everyone took about 10 minutes and reviewed the document thoroughly.  Then, we began identifying facts and assumptions.  That’s when it felt like we hit quicksand.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“We posted someone at the whiteboard to write down facts and assumptions, and then asked for input.  As everyone contributed, I realized that we couldn’t get consensus on what was a valuable and relevant fact and what wasn’t.  As for assumptions, we were all over the place.  The group really struggled with determining what, if any, assumptions were necessary for us to continue with planning.  It was difficult for us to get through this step quickly.  In hindsight, I wish I had prepared a product that focused the JPG to be able to develop relevant facts and assumptions.  Maybe I’ll look into that after this week is over.” 

“So, what’s next?

“Well, we missed our initial briefing window with the J3.  Luckily, the J3 was in a forgiving mood today.  We are back on his calendar to brief him at 1900 tonight before he departs for Washington.”        

-End Scenario-

“Determining” facts and “developing” assumptions can be one of the most onerous portions of mission analysis.  When Joint Force Commanders (JFC) require plans for the employment of combat power, they convene a JPG and task it to develop solutions.  Inevitably, the JPG arrives at the mission analysis step of the JPP and begins to work through the mission analysis activities.[1]  Activity four is the seemingly simple step to “Determine known facts and develop planning assumptions”.  And that’s when the problems begin.  Precious hours are lost while the JPG works to define relevant and valuable facts and assumptions.  These problems originate first from confusion about the unique role and value facts and planning assumptions in plans, and then with identifying which facts and assumptions are relevant to the JFC.

What are facts and why are they important?

JP 5-0 defines a fact as “a statement of information known to be true.”[2]  Lamentably, joint doctrine links the determining facts and developing assumptions steps together, but these ingredients serve two distinct purposes in planning.  Overtly stated facts facilitate developing the JPG and commander’s understanding of current conditions in the Operational Environment (OE).  In particular, facts are useful tools for describing the OE and determining limitations.    Unfortunately, the definition leaves a great amount of flexibility to the planner’s interpretation.  For example, the statement “the sun rises in the east” is a fact.  It is also irrelevant.

General Rules for Fact Development

Overtly stated facts should have direct relevance to the issue under consideration.  Any captured, recorded and, most importantly, briefed fact must add value to the planning conversation.  If the commander and JPG already know the fact, it doesn’t need to be restated.


Adversary X’s military doctrine has a concept for WMD employment early in a conflict.       

Facts are statements of the present.  Generally, facts should be written in present tense.  They are captured to provide understanding and aid with framing the plan.      


The U.S. maintains a status of forces agreement with X country.

So what are planning assumptions and why are they important?

JP 5-0 defines an assumption as “A[a] supposition about the current situation or future course of events, presumed to be true in the absence of facts.”  It must be “…logical, realistic, and essential for planning to continue.”[3]  In planning, assumptions have the unique role of being the basis on which the plan is built.  In particular, assumptions allow planners to fill in the gaps on future conditions in the Operational Environment (OE).  A former planning mentor eloquently describes assumptions as “…the framework for the plan”.[4]  They provide the guideposts for the planning effort.  Assumptions are so critical in plan development that consideration of their invalidation should lead to the list of possible branch plans for future development.

General Rules for Assumption Development

Keep the list short.  A perceptive reader will note that not all assumptions deserve to be treated with the same level of gravitas.   As a general rule, JPG participants should strive to minimize assumptions (and facts, for that matter) to those that are “necessary and sufficient” for continued planning.[5]  Failing to follow this rule can quickly lead planners to endless lists of assumptions.

Assumptions don’t solve problems.  Assumptions should never be used to make problems easier.  Assumptions do not provide the plan’s solution.  “Don’t wish away the problem”, was a point of particular emphasis conveyed to the author when discussing assumptions with senior DoD officials.[6]  A generic example of a faulty assumption of this type might be, “We will establish sea control no later than D+9.”  The backwards nature of this statement deserves consideration.  Establishing sea control no later than D+9 is likely a task to the naval component.  It is part of the solution to the problem. Put another way, establishing sea control may be part of the plan’s solution, but not as part of forecasting conditions in the future OE.             

Assumptions are declarations of the future.  Generally speaking, all assumptions should be written in future tense.  Planners should strive to write assumptions using “will/will not” or “shall/shall not”.

An assumption can spring forth from a fact.    Once a JPG has developed a fact that is valuable enough to capture and present to the boss, the group will often realize it should lead to a declaration about the future, also known as a planning assumption.

When developing JFC-level planning assumptions, what makes the cut for presentation to the JFC and Secretary of Defense and what goes into backup work?

A New Method for Assumption Development

When developing assumptions, a JPG leader can reduce team confusion and friction while also increasing team efficiency and productivity by starting with generic assumption categories or “bins” as primers. 

The generic assumptions bins below are not all inclusive, and there are likely others.   For example, there may be substantially different bins created for functional combatant commands.  However, they are provided as a guide to keep momentum within the planning team as well as keep the group at the appropriate level of thought. 

Assumption Bins

  • Threat Behavior
  • WMD- Chemical/Biological
  • WMD-Nuclear
  • Alliance Defense Treaties
  • Support Abroad
  • Behavior of Regional Actors
  • Available forces
  • U.S. Strategic Decisions

Of note, these suggestions are most applicable at the combatant commander’s theater strategic level of war.  They also require enduring consideration; planners must revisit and validate assumptions through continued planning, the IPR process, or evolving world events.             

Threat Behavior.  With their development of the Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Environment, contributing J-2 planners will usually have quite a bit to provide for this assumption bin.  It is important for lead planners not to get lost in the details, however.  A critical assumption in this bin is the answer to this question:

Who starts with the initiative?

An additional output from this assumption bin is an estimate or draft warning and execution timeline.  If U.S. and multinational forces do not start with initiative, but the adversary does, then the team must capture the ambiguous and unambiguous warning time windows.


There will be # weeks/months of ambiguous warning and # hrs./days/weeks of unambiguous warning before an adversary’s attack.


At the onset of hostilities, the U.S./Alliance will have the initiative.     

Weapons of Mass Destruction – Chemical/Biological.  Although it doesn’t have to be separated from the Threat Behavior bin, this assumption bin guides the JPG to delve deeply into the ramifications of operations where chemical and biological Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) may be employed.  Distinguishing this bin focuses the JPG on the significance of having WMD in use (or not) from adversaries and, potentially, allies.  It also has implications during course of action development when addressing the protection joint function and the arrangement of the joint force.


An adversary will employ chemical and/or biological weapons to deny access to key air/sea ports of debarkation.      

Weapons of Mass Destruction – Nuclear.  Conflicts where opposing belligerents are both equipped with nuclear weapons are unique.  When opposing belligerents have this capability, planners work to identify what might cause or trigger friendly or adversary nuclear escalation and employment.


An Adversary will begin nuclear escalation when it determines its strategic forces are threatened.    

Alliance Defense Treaties.  The U.S. military benefits from seven collective defense treaties.  Planners, however, should take time to understand the challenges or opportunities these treaties present within theirs and others AORs – real, not exercised, political sensitivities matter.  In this assumption bin, planners attempt to anticipate the actions of allies based upon how the situation is expected to occur.  In particular, the JPG should capture assumptions related to access, agreements, and Host Nation Support (HNS).


An ally will allow access to airfields/ports and provide HNS at the onset of conflict with an adversary.    

Support Abroad.  This assumption bin helps the team address and plan for perceptions of the global community.  Although the U.S. Military is not the proponent for strategic messaging, assumptions in this bin help guide plan development and conversations that must occur between the CCDR/JFC and the National Command Authority (NCA).


Global actors will support U.S. actions against adversary and provide support as permitted by their respective political situations.      

Behavior of Regional Actors.  In this assumption bin, the team should identify the behavior (action or inaction) of other actors in the region who are peripheral to the problem, but may have an impact on U.S., ally, or adversary actions and behaviors.


Regional actors will increase calming rhetoric but will not intervene unless the situation directly impacts their national interests.    

Available forces.  Per Joint guidance, planners use the Forces apportioned in the Global Force Management Implementation Guidance (GFMIG) to best estimate forces available for their plan.[7]  In many ways, the availability of forces provided in the GFMIG tables are assumptions themselves.  Currently, the tables are published on a quarterly basis; however, level IV planning efforts generally take 18 to 24 months.  To avoid the potential perturbations caused by continually changing available forces, planners must make an assumption about which GFMIG table is applicable for the plan under development.  Although the GFMIG tables are robust, they will often be incomplete when identifying resources that are critical to a plan’s success.  In that instance, planners must make informed assumptions about that element’s availability.  Planners will usually initiate a dialogue with the military component to best determine availability of specific forces.  Finally, this assumption bin also provides the team an opportunity to address the impacts of simultaneous execution of another plan or contingency.


Forces identified in the 2nd Qtr, FYXX GFMIG table will be available for plan execution.


X force element will be available 30 days after C- day for deployment.


There will not be a major combat operation underway at the onset of this plan’s execution. 

U.S. Strategic Decisions.  In this bin, assumptions should be made about personnel mobilization, strategic lift mobilization and delegation of authorities from the National Command Authority.  Lamentably, this assumption bin is often the most critical for plan development and yet the least complete.  The assumptions that result from this bin help inform political decision makers, guiding discussions involving ramifications across the whole of government.  This bin is crucial, as it will assist in developing a strategic level timeline and the Commander’s Critical Information Requirements (CCIR) necessary to make timely and informed decisions or recommendations.      

Personnel mobilization assumptions should address items such as voluntary, Presidential Reserve call-up, partial mobilization, and/or full mobilization.  Each personnel mobilization threshold mobilizes additional personnel but requires a different level of authority and has a greater impact on U.S. society as a whole.   


At C-day, the President will exercise the Reserve call-up authority.

Strategic lift assumptions should address activation levels of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (I/II/or III), the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA), the Voluntary Tanker Agreement (VTA) and others.  These assumptions underpin development of the force flow model, and ultimately, operational timelines.


At C-day, the NCA will authorize activation of CRAF level II, VISA, and VTA. 

Lastly, the JPG should begin capturing assumptions about what authorities the CCDR will need from the NCA (and when) in order to execute the plan.  These assumptions can be far ranging, but typically include discussion of authority to initiate Strategic Reconnaissance (SR) and Operational Preparation of the Environment (OPE), etc.


At the onset of hostilities, the NCA will authorize manned overflight of the adversary, initiation of SR, OPE, etc.


During mission analysis, both seasoned and novice planners wrestle with developing valid and valuable facts and planning assumptions.  If JPG leaders follow the general rules for fact and assumption development, they are likely to create valuable and relevant facts and assumptions faster and with less wasted effort.  Although not a complete list, these assumption bins should assist JPG leaders in guiding a planning team to develop these critically important portions of the plan.  They are particularly useful when the group’s time is short or when the group is having a hard time identifying which assumptions are necessary at the CCMD or JFC level.  Maybe, just maybe, the JPG will be able to get its planning work done without having to burn the midnight oil.

End Notes    

[1] Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Joint Planning (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, June 16, 2017), V-8. 

[2] Ibid. V-8.

[3] Ibid. GL-5.

[4] Credit for this statement goes to COL(R) Bill Sorrells, U.S. Army Strategist, during his tenure as the Chief of Plans, J54, U.S. Pacific Command, Camp Smith, Hawaii.

[5] Insight gleaned from discussion with COL Juan Ulloa, U.S. Army Strategist and Director of the Department of Joint, Interagency, and Multinational Operations, CGSC, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

[6] Derived from discussion with LTG(R) Anthony Crutchfield, U.S. Army, during his tenure as Deputy Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, Camp Smith, Hawaii.

[7] JP 5-0, II-8, II-22. 

About the Author(s)

LTC “Mat” Hammons is an Army Strategist currently teaching in the Department of Joint, Interagency, and Multinational Operations at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  His most recent joint experience was as a planner in the contingency plans section, J54, at U.S. Pacific Command where he earned his keep leading and participating in many joint planning groups.