Small Wars Journal

Operational Design Process and Security Force Assistance

Sat, 06/07/2008 - 9:35pm
Using ODP to Establish a Campaign Design Framework for SFA Activities

The link is to a draft white paper I've been working on as part of my duties at the Joint Center for International Security Force Assistance. Any comments, criticisms, or suggestions are most welcome. Here are two excerpts, one from the introduction and one from the summary.


ODP (Operational Design Process) fills a gap between the issuance of a policy objective, and the planning to achieve that policy objective. Contained within is a description of a way of framing a design for the purpose of proposing a problem, and then developing a theory of action. It is an interpretation and adaptation of the Operational Design Process (developed at SAMS and employed at the Army's Unified Quest 2008 War Game and is itself an adaptation of Systemic Operational Design). It must be inclusive of not only the "out puts" or "products" of the process, but more importantly the interaction of the people who participate in the process, and who will go forward in planning and implementation / execution. The critical issue ODP highlights is that the right problem is identified and considered based on a thorough analysis to which a theory of action can be developed that can be scrutinized based on continuous interaction.

This is not planning. It is a process that should be done prior to planning, but can be continued through implementation in order to ensure the theory remains valid. Designing the Operational Frame by establishing a theory of reality and a theory of action helps the commander and staff to avoid the effects of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the effect where because a COA has been committed to in planning, all other relevant information which might contradict or conflict with the COA that has been committed to, or invested in, is ignored, bent to establish a fallacious causal relationship, or biased as to have the wrong weight. Cognitive dissonance can cause a commander and staff to see only what they wish to see, and make bad decisions. While all bias cannot be eliminated, the ODP can help mitigate the natural biases commanders and staffs have with regard to a chosen COA. It does this through its interactive nature which better represents reality, and by identifying many of the various potential outcomes, and establishing more explicitly how those outcomes might occur.


ODP is not planning, it is a theory of reality that informs a theory of action upon which a campaign design can be built and tested through interaction. ODP fills a gap between the issuance of a policy objective, and the planning to achieve that policy objective. This is founded on assessing the environment as holistic, interactive, biological system which recognizes that there are critical subsystems within. These subsystems of people often interact in non-linear ways with produce non-linear outcomes. As a process, it seeks to test the underpinning logic to which we ascribe rationality, with the recognition that although we might consider an act as irrational, the cultural, sociological and political conditions in which the system exist may make the same act plausible, rational or even likely. This process engenders that it is better to think in terms of tolerances and relevance then in absolutes. This process recognizes that as long as there are people and politics there will remain interaction, and as such tolerances and relevance can change over time. ODP can be applied wherever there are complex interactive problems.

Using ODP to Establish a Campaign Design Framework for SFA Activities -- June 2008 DRAFT white paper

Discuss at Small Wars Council


Rob Thornton

Sun, 06/08/2008 - 4:48pm

"Reforms (if deemed necessary by the sovereign state) have to be initiated and developed by the sovereign state. If we tell them how to do things and how they are wrong and screwed up I do not think we are going to get very far."

I think your comment is key to sustainability. We can assist in a number of ways from assisting in outlining alternatives and possibilities, to facilitating development, but ultimately the key to sustainability is partner ownership.

There have been some examples where states have undertaken reform, and even asked for external assistance. Understanding that program ownership and continued interest may mean our accepting things that may not always line up perfectly with our perception of just right, but may in fact be more in tune with their own cultural environment, and thus more sustainable and more in line with our own long term interests. I think Dave Kilcullen had it about right back when he mentioned we have to "get our actions to match our narratives".

That is one of the things I like about ODP - it is a way to go about understanding the tolerances of the environment, and the potential outcomes before we act. Although that may not always be possible, and at times we may identify the adverse consequences but be required to act anyway because of the nature of the policy objective, we should at least know why. We should consider what those potential outcomes are and how they may jeopardize other interests. If we can do that, we might be able to better prepare for follow on operations that better address our long term goals when having to meet short term policy requirements.

The mention of SSR in doctrine (upcoming FM 3-07, and some of the new Hand Books), and increasingly in our strategic documents is a policy issue. I think there are pluses to doing so, and as you point out some potential for adverse consequences. The pluses are that it guides development in DOTMLPF, and provides strategic direction and transparency with regard to our actions. I suppose the negatives are a different take on some of the positives. However, the flexibility comes in application and implementation - again, here is where a process that allows us to explore the the tolerances and potential outcomes should prove useful in helping us from taking a one size fits all for strategy and policy.

I think some other areas an ODP like function can assist with is Civ/Mil discussion on issues such as the limits of military power alone; the short term goal and approach vs. long term interests and approaches; and I also think it can help articulate needs and approaches that may be non-standard, or not addressed by current organizational structures.

I will say though the full value of something like ODP is contingent on the commander. Leadership here like in all other places is required to ensure unpleasant realities and requests are given their full due vs. only seeing what is expeditious and desired.

Best Regards, Rob


good comments. But the reform issue is key. We have to be careful how we present our emerging doctrine and concepts to those around the world. I do think we are going to gain acceptance from our friends, partners and allies if our going in position and CONOPS are how we are going to reform your country. Just as we have taken a beating for the appearance that we want to be the world's policeman we will take an IO beating if now we are going to become the world's reformer and everywhere we go we are going to reform some aspect of a soveriegn nation. Reforms (if deemed necessary by the sovereign state) have to be intitiated and developed by the soveriegn state. If we tell them how to do things and how they are wrong and screwed up I do not think we are going to get very far. Yes we have to help our friends, partners, and allies but we have to repsect sovereignty first and foremost otherwise we have no credibility and legitimacy. Dave

Rob Thornton

Sun, 06/08/2008 - 9:50am

Hi Sir,
Thanks for both comments, and I think both are things that need to be discussed both within DoD and the broader USG. I'll talk about the use of reform first.

One of the reasons reform is brought up is in ref. to SSR or security sector reform. This is not a term or approach exclusive to the USG, in fact we (DoD) are more the late comers to the concept, but are making real efforts and I think good strides toward operationalizing it within the DoD and broader USG in a way that helps us achieve policy objectives. It is mentioned in the GEF (and I'm actually pulling from the UNCLASS slides that explain it here since the full doc and its contents are SECRET) as one of the top activities that DoD will take part in. It is also likely to come out in the new NDS. JFCOM J9 just sponsored an Inter-Agency workshop on it this last week as part of their series on military support to RoL (Rule of Law). SSR is pretty widely known in development circles both within JIIM and within the IO and NGO communities.

I think what matters is the spirit of the approach. If the approach is "we're from the U.S. and we're here to fix your problem you don't see as a problem", then it no matter what we call it, it will probably meet with resentment. If however we show where it has value to their own goals and approach them in a manner that is within their tolerances, they may be more willing to participate. If they are not reform minded at all and not willing to partner for the purposes of building their own capacity to provide sustainable government that benefits not only their own state, but possibly the region and either directly or indirectly our own policy objectives, then they're not much of a partner, and perhaps we should focus resources elsewhere. That is a policy decision though because we all know that in some cases the policy objective won't wait, and the ways to achieve that objective could take on a different character.

That was one of the things we found at UQ 08 (I'll send you the trip report if you'd like) - that the government of the state we were interacting with had a high tolerance level for pain from within and the campaign design was predicated on the logic that as things got worse, the government would recognize the need to reform. It did not, and so only small parts of the design were considered to be implementable - such as strengthening those states around the state in question in order to improve their systems for resiting the effects of war, and strengthening the IGO, IO and NGO capability in the area through either the USG or through partner states in order to better contain the problems and ultimately to make the problems that were being generated easier to deal with on the back end of the conflict. It was a matter of recognizing what could and what should be done under the current reality. In the end of the exercise there was a coup, Red became Green and the new Green was interested in consolidating power through a more inclusive arrangement, and was interested in having more legitimacy for a number of reasons. The new Green was more open to reform and as such more of the campaign design. We considered that an opportunity in kind of a golden window - think of it as an entry point upon which partnerships can be built on.

I think to finish this thought, each situation is going to be different and the environmental context of the partner matters. If the state is unwilling (or unable) to commit to reform then we need to look at our long term policy objectives and consider what can or should be done. It may mean strengthening regional states, it may mean enabling IGOs, IOs, NGOs, or others to do the type of acceptable work that can be done within the tolerances of the state. It might mean doing very little within the state. At that point what is within our own tolerances needs to be addressed. These are by nature long term engagement plans that may even go 10-20 years. That is probably both good and OK. Good in that we recognize that adaptation occurs over time and exceeds the life of one CDR and his staff, and OK in the sense that as a state with broad and enduring policy objectives, its better to set our steps correctly over the long term as opposed to trying to change things over night to suit our short terms goals at the expense of long term interests (at least where possible).

On your second question. I don't see FID and SFA in competition. FID has a great definition and clearly develops capacity in a number of ways. SFA is kind of the toolbox/umbrella that all the various means of effecting a security sector can be applied in a holistic manner with an eye toward sustainable security not only within the state, but also in consideration of how that state will interact with its neighbors. SFA is a part of FID, but it is also a part of any operation, plan or approach where we assist the partner be it a state or regional security organization with improving its capabilities and capacities in its security sector. It can be thought of as chapter in the book where that book is on a book shelf. One book might say FID on the binder, others might say something else. It largely depends on what the policy objectives are. SFA is not an operation unto itself, but is is a way of articulating and applying the means that help that operation or plan succeed in a sustainable fashion.

It probably was not clear, but the reason I called the paper what I did was because within the CSA's objectives for UQ 08 he wanted to explore the possibilities for ODP outside the academic and wargame world. As such I went back and thought about how it applied to JCISFA since until about JAN 2011 (3 yr Joint assignment) that is where I can make the most difference. When I mentioned it within the paper - I wanted to highlight to my organization where SFA plays a role - I wanted to make it relevant for them, possibly even exploring where it might fit into the SFA Planner's Guide.

I think I put it in the first couple of pages of the paper, but I believe ODP has relevance beyond any one set of activities, and tried to articulate that while using the examples I did. Its form must follow the function it is used for. I've socialized the paper with folks from various agencies and within the broader DoD to get a feel for how they read it. Largely its met with interest and in many cases enthusiasm - not for its take on SFA or even SSR, but because its aimed at a comprehensive approach to understanding and producing knowledge through interaction before we act.

Many recognize that there is a gap we need to address between policy and planning, how that gap gets filled is still debatable (and should be). It is a recognition that our problems in relative peacetime looked much different than they exist in light of today's reality. These are wickedly complex problems that require comprehensive consideration. Every action (or inaction) we take produces new outcomes, so before we inject new energy into the system that may prove counter to our intentions or interests, we should try and understand better what those potential outcomes may be and how they may effect other things.

Hope that addressed some of the points you brought up. SSR and RoL are things we are going to have to work within as policy tools. They are published in a number of USG strategic docs and their use touches other areas of politics. SFA is part of an ongoing discussion. SOCOM now has Joint Proponency for it and from what I've seen on the implementation letter they will not seek to make it something its not, but they will apply its description in a way that compliments other concepts and operations.

Best Regards, Rob


I am a believer in ODP after Gen Wass de Czaga explained it me over dinner a few months ago (but he just whet my appetite!!). It has great merit and it extends beyond what we have been doing in SOF and in particular CA and PSYOP planning for years.

I do have two points on which I would like to caution you and the first is your reference to "reform". We have to be careful about going to a friend, partner, or ally and telling them they need to reform this or that aspect of their political, military, or intelligence system, etc. Where we have had success as advisors is when we have helped our friends, partners, or allies and allowed them to determine what needed to be changed or fixed and then helped them when they asked. We have to be careful with the perception that we are from the (US) government and we are here to help you!! I have seen cases where a country will just humor such advisors because they want to get access to whatever the US can bring but they have no real intent to make changes that US advisors say they must make. I would really caution against publicizing the fact that want to assess our friends, partners, and allies and then devise reforms for them. As a little humorous aside one of the reasons that Kim Jong Il cannot "reform" the north Korean economy is that if you reform something then that means there was something wrong with it and in north Korea's case that would mean that the de facto diety and Great Leader Kim Il Sung was wrong and that would just undercut the legitimacy of the Kim Family Regime. But I digress. Sorry.

The second point I would like to make is that you talk about Security Force Assistance but what you are relly outlining is Foreign Internal Defense. Application of the ODP methodology in your paper extends well beyond Security Force Assistance because you are talking about a holistic (as in whole of government or interagency) approach looking at all the elements of power. In my mind the term Security Force Assistance is to narrowly focused on only Security and assisting Security Forces. That is one element of FID (both direct and indirect FID) approaches. But the importance of FID doctrine that currently exists is that it is much broader than the military component. I am curious as to why the emphasis is only on Security Force Assistance and we have given it that name when you clearly recognize in your paper that aid to our friends, partners, and allies requires application of more than just the military component. It is FID. Why the new name (and Train, Adivise, and Assist as well). SFA and TAA are clearly elements of FID (as is COIN). Why do we have to develop something new and not correctly apply existing doctrine that is already proven? Sorry for my soap box rant there at the end!! Dave