Small Wars Journal

Defense Forecasting in Theory and Practice: Conceptualizing and Teaching the Future Operating Environment

Fri, 01/04/2013 - 5:30am

Author’s Note: The authors would like to think Scott Gorman and Bruce Stanley for providing constructive comments. The views expressed in this paper are the authors’ own and in no way reflect the official views of the School of Advanced Military Studies, the US Army, or the US Department of Defense.

Introduction: Toward a new understanding of “defense forecasting”

“Defense forecasting” is a phrase with multiple meanings, ranging from the prosaic to the strategic. In its traditional usage, defense forecasting generally applies to Department of Defense budgeting processes.[1] Given that much of defense forecasting has taken place in the context of the DoD budget and allocation process, it is no surprise that the process of “defense forecasting” is generally static, linear, and reasonably mechanical. Used in another sense, though, “defense forecasting” is much more interesting: here, it implies foresight, planning and careful consideration of how the future operating environment (FOE) may look. Even more importantly, defense forecasting helps planners at all levels envision the role of US forces within the FOE.

At all levels of planning, defense forecasting links the realms of policy, strategy and operations together. At the policy level, defense forecasting is useful for understanding and anticipating the potential existential threats to the country, while at the strategic level defense forecasting plays a major role not just in predicting future strategic threats but also in shaping the U.S. military’s procurement and force generation cycles, closing the loop by offering force generation recommendations to policymakers. At the operational level of war, peering into the future is less about policy recommendations or strategic planning and more about the need to anticipate threats and adversaries which will affect deployed US forces. Here, officers work to develop rational scenarios that can be used to hone planning and leadership skills.

In this paper, we explore the concept of defense forecasting at various levels of the American defense establishment. After a brief treatment of forecasting at the policy and strategic levels, the paper critically examines forecasting at the operational level, first with a conceptual overview and then via a case study of scenario development at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Defense forecasting at the policy and strategy levels: Envisioning the FOE

How might current challenges and threats to the United States evolve from the current operating environment (COE) to the future operating environment (FOE)? How do we even begin to presume that we know the opportunities, challenges, or threats that will emerge? In many respects, these are the fundamental questions for defense forecasting. Far from a ‘blue sky’ exercise, defense forecasting considers the current operating environment first before projecting into the future. Writing in a recent issue of Army magazine on the role of movement and maneuver in the FOE, MG Robert Brown (2011:61) notes that the FOE is likely to look similar to the COE, but takes into account the natural evolution that accompanies all systems:

The future operating environment will include adversaries ranging from well-led, well-trained and well-equipped conventional military formations experienced in close fighting to irregular and hybrid forces. Our most likely opponents will continue to be irregular forces, extending from trained insurgents focused on local or regional regime change or global jihad to criminals and tribal groups focused on maintaining power within their local areas for economic reasons. In some cases these enemies will work together, forming a hybrid threat that combines conventional and unconventional units, equipment and tactics. Regardless of makeup or aim, however, the enemy will continue to be adaptive and networked, employing a range of weapons and technologies along with conventional and improvised weapons.[2]

Even more importantly, defense forecasting implies a conscious effort to match capabilities to resources. This is accomplished through planning, at all levels of a nation’s military and security apparatus. Understanding how a nation plans for its defense and security is crucial to understanding its defense and security posture (and indeed, its attitude toward other actors in the international arena). Thus to understand the FOE, we must first understand the COE, and specifically how threats are identified, assessed, and mitigated at all levels. The next section of this paper briefly examines these levels, and the nature of defense forecasting and planning at each level.

Grand strategic/strategic level threats and defense forecasting/planning

It might be said that the business of defense is contingency planning, or defense forecasting as we refer to it here. Defense forecasting is constant and continuous, and occurs at every level of a nation’s defense and security apparatus. At the highest level, national policy and strategy are conjoined and conflated: each affects and influences the other. Threats at this level are at a minimum threats to national objectives, and at a maximum existential.[3] At the international level, grand strategic threats are those which threaten not merely one nation’s existence, but rather the very foundations of the global order itself. A prime example of a policy-level (or grand strategic) threat at this level is that of genocide.[4] At the national level, grand strategic threats, if misread or missed entirely, threaten the very survival not merely of a nation’s military but of its people, economy, and culture. Moreover, beyond threats which threaten a nation’s survival, grand strategic-level threats can be those which directly impact the identity of a nation. Thus, a conflict such as the Cold War was not merely a strategic threat to US objectives in Europe and worldwide, but also a policy-level threat insofar as a victory for the Soviet Union would have undermined the notion that the “West” had not merely a material but also an ideational advantage.

Grand strategic-level defense forecasting often takes place at a level not far below that of policy-level guidance (usually issued by the President in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief), and the distinction between the two levels is sometimes more nuanced than readily apparent. The key distinction is one of objective, and of application of resources to achieve those objectives. Thus the strategic level was defined by US Army FM 3-0 (section 2-4) as “that level at which a nation, often as one of a group of nations, determines national and multinational security objectives and guidance and develops and uses national resources to accomplish them.”[5] How those objectives are met, and how resources are allocated and planned for to accomplish them, is the focus of the next section of this paper.

The US Department of Defense (DoD)

Grand strategic-level threats are addressed at the national level by a variety of government agencies, each with its own bureaucratic culture and mindset. No one agency is responsible for all facets of strategic threat assessment, nor for strategic planning and defense forecasting. Indeed, only the US Department of Defense undertakes true strategic planning, via its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). This is a serious problem, as Flournoy and Brimley point out:

There is still no systematic effort at strategic planning 
for American national security that is wholly inclusive,
 deliberative, and integrative….The absence of an institutionalized process for long-range national security planning puts the United States at a strategic disadvantage.[6]

DoD strategic planning is intrinsically focused on the FOE, even if not explicitly stated as such. The need to plan, manage, and deploy forces against future threats permeates DoD planning processes, and in many respects drives those processes towards “jointness.”[7] Strategic planning guidance is funneled from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) through a particular decision-making process where capabilities are defined matched with resources[8]. Zavadil, Tindal and Kahan note that DoD strategic planning, taking place in the QDR, has evolved over time, and the 2001 QDR outlined a major shift in strategic threat assessment and defense forecasting. They note that the 2001 QDR:

…moved force planning, including strategic forces, from a threat-based, country-specific approach to a non-country-specific continuum of capabilities from minimal force to nuclear weapons. This transformation has changed the basic US force planning philosophy to a capabilities-based planning approach (CBP)…[9]

DoD capabilities-based planning (CBP), according to Walker, was intended to more rapidly, effectively, and efficiently move capabilities to combatant commanders in a resource-constrained environment.[10] Specifically, it was intended to replace the Resource Generation System (RGS), a “bottom-up” means of planning that led to service-driven “stovepipes” and lack of interoperability (see Figure one). Insofar as a “strategic” threat was identified, planning for its mitigation or elimination often took on the character of the weapons platform or system favored by the individual services.[11]

Figure 1: CPB versus RGS (source: Joint Staff J8 2005)    

CPB’s intended effect was to involve the Secretary of Defense earlier in the planning process, to avoid service-level requests surviving unchallenged through the initial stages of planning and becoming “stovepiped” until they landed on the Secretary’s desk at the end of the process[12]. Coupled with an increased emphasis on new joint planning process—the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS)—the effect on strategic planning was to streamline defense forecasting to better match capabilities and resources against threats (see Figure Two).

JCIDS is the evolution of (and indeed merges elements of) the Joint Warfighting Capabilities Assessment (JWCA), which now takes place within the JCIDS process, seeking at a lower level to identify gaps where joint capabilities are not realized, and to work to identify solutions to overcome those gaps. JWCA and JCIDS together represent a major attempt to merge the strategic defense forecasting and defense acquisitions process. According to official Joint Chiefs of Staff documents:

The JWCA process exists to support the Chairman and the JROC [Joint Requirements Oversight Council][13] in accordance with CJCS/JROC guidance. JWCAs provide analytic support for JROC discussions and decisions on joint operational concepts, operational views of integrated architectures, requirements, and programmatic issues.[14]

While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of CBP on identifying and mitigating grand strategic threats, it cannot be said that DoD is not at the very least doing its part to undertake the “systematic effort” in strategic planning identified by Flournoy and Brimley in 2006.[15]

Figure Two:


Figure 2: The JCIDS Process (source: Morgan 2005)

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

We have seen how the DoD undertakes high-level strategic planning via the QDR and operationalizes it via CBP; it focuses on defending the US against grand strategic threats. Another US agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), tasked with securing the nation against external threats, looks at defense forecasting in a different light: through risk management. In its most recent strategic plan, covering the fiscal years 2008 through 2013, DHS explains its approach to defense forecasting in the following way:

Because it is not feasible to secure our homeland against every conceivable threat, we have instituted risk management as the primary basis for policy and resource allocation decision-making. Risk management assesses threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences, examines the best opportunities to mitigate risk, and provides a useful framework for obtaining and allocating the resources necessary to reduce risk to acceptable levels. We will anticipate emerging threats and take appropriate early action.[16]

In this case, the objective of DHS is, as noted, not to plan for every contingency, but rather to assess and manage risk to the homeland. Importantly, DHS must do so in budgetary competition with DoD and other Cabinet-level agencies. For FY 2012, for example, DHS has requested a total budget authority of $57 billion, compared to $670 billion for DoD.[17] To maximize efficiency in formulating the appropriate locations to place resources, and to assess and evaluate the strategic position of the United States with respect to threats DHS uses risk management techniques:

The homeland security mission is complex, and resources are constrained. The Department will use qualitative and quantitative risk assessments to inform resource decisions. These resources will be targeted at the most significant threats, vulnerabilities, and potential consequences.[18]

In merging budgeting with strategic planning, DHS utilizes the Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) planning framework, borrowed from the Department of Defense in 2008 and implemented for the 2010-2014 planning cycle (Figure Three).[19] Of its four titular phases, the most important for our purposes here is the Planning phase, whereby DHS assesses the operating environment, undertakes a strategic risk assessment, develops strategy and policy for planning guidance, and prioritizes needs versus strategic risk.[20]

Figure Three:


Figure 3: US Department of Homeland Security PPBE Cycle (source: DHS 2008)              

In the PPBE, operating as it is in the realm of limited information, limited resources, and an expansive mission (protecting the homeland), planning is by necessity a high priority. According to Bronson:

The planning phase of the DHS PPBE system is led by the Office of Policy with input from PA&E/OCFO and other offices throughout the DHS. The Integrated Planning Guidance (IPG) is the final product of the planning phase. The IPG forms the basis for threat information to guide component resource plan development. The annual IPG also serves as the strategic framework for the DHS PPBE programming phase.[21]

The planning phase of the PPBE process entails, in the words of DHS itself, “the unconstrained prioritization of needs vs [sic] risk.”[22] The planning phase ends with the Integrated Planning Guidance (IPG), which “provides guidance, direction, and prioritization for both long-term resource and near-term operational planning.”[23]

The two examples of planning processes at the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security show that, at the grand strategic level, defense forecasting is done either via a systematic, capabilities-based planning process like that which takes place in the DoD, or via a somewhat less systematic, more-actuarial risk management process like that which takes place at DHS. How is such strategic-level defense forecasting operationalized? What, at the operational level, does defense forecasting look like, and what lessons might we draw from this level that may be applicable to defense forecasting at higher levels? It is to these questions that this paper now turns, through an examination of one particular instance of defense forecasting via scenario planning at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth.

Defense forecasting in practice at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS)

Using Scenarios to Anticipate and Plan for Future Threats

The objective at SAMS in examining the FOE is not to examine long-term trends for the purposes of determining which military platforms are appropriate to address future threats. Nor is SAMS in the business of teaching students what methods will help military strategists and policymakers best predict the future. Finally, while there is an element of risk analysis present in SAMS uses of scenarios to anticipate how to address potential future threats, SAMS is not primarily, or even secondarily, focused on assessing risks to the United States homeland.

Having said this, trends analysis and capabilities based planning do play a limited role in the initial stages of case selection at SAMS so understanding these processes, but not in depth, is necessary in order that appropriate cases are selected for scenario development and war-gaming. SAMS is focused on developing high-level planners and leaders who can deal with these threats, with a great deal of adaptability, in order that the initiative is never ceded to the enemy (ADP 3-0).[24] The following background and example of lessons learned over the last two years of instruction at SAMS serves to elucidate how scenario planning for the FOE is distinct from other attempts to understand the FOE and how this process helps on-the-ground practitioners develop the critical thinking skills to deal with an uncertain future and a multitude of enemy threats.

If the 9/11 attacks taught America anything, it was that future threats are difficult to anticipate even if the enemy has been identified. Despite what Nassim Taleb (2007) postulates, 9/11 was not a “black swan” that changed the nature of warfare.[25] According to Clausewitz, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for the nature of warfare to change, for there are immutable aspects of war such as “danger, exertion, uncertainty, and chance.”[26] The character of war or how the war is fought is a different matter and that can change when a state is facing a different threat than was previously anticipated. Therefore, 9/11 was not an instance of America being caught off guard. Instead, it was a representation of a state being caught on guard for a wrongly anticipated future. This may seem to the reader, at this point, as semantically splitting hairs but it what we are attempting to relate is that this distinction is important and far more useful than attempting to predict and plan for alleged “black swans.”

In the intelligence community and in a major proportion of the scholarly community, using trends analysis to predict future threats is a mainstay. But in the military community, especially outside of military intelligence, scenario building and war-gaming become important tools for anticipating the details and how a military might react in a coherent way to these potential threats. So while books such as Andrew Krepinevich’s Seven Deadly Scenarios (2009) seem to fit the bill, these are simply overly general and somewhat sensationalized accounts of events that might occur in the future but they do little to prepare military planners and strategists for the actual threat they may have to face.

At SAMS, anticipating and planning for potential future threats is one of the pillars of the education that elite field grade officers receive. Each officer goes through seven exercises each dealing with a different potential future threat situation. But because SAMS focuses on operational art, these exercises contain both conceptual and detailed planning elements which create a higher order learning more applicable to a practitioner honing skills to anticipate and plan against any future military threat that might come that soldiers way. The threat itself ends up taking a back seat to the lessons learned over repeated attempts to develop concepts and details to deal with these threats.

A generic example of some lessons learned will help to illustrate the types of opportunities and pitfalls that can be gleaned from repeated scenario development and testing. The following does not represent a real scenario used at SAMS but instead is a generic scenario overlaid with some real insights students learned over the past two years of using scenarios to anticipate and plan for the future.

Figure Four shows a very generic setup that captures some of the lessons students at SAMS have learned by developing concepts and digging into the details of war-gaming against a slightly fictionalized future adversary. Figure 4 represents an amalgamation of lessons drawn from several scenarios SAMS students had to address and should not be construed as representing any particular real-world problem or any real-world nation-states. While trends analysis and grand theories of deadly future scenarios are important in leading the SAMS faculty, especially the exercise cell, to potential problem states and situations, in the end, the lessons learned come from delving into the minutia that only arises when one grinds through conceptual and detailed planning.

In Figure Four below, the United States has an Army group in the far northwest corner of its ally, Atopia. Atopia is an ally that not only shares good foreign relations with the United States but also has good oil production which the United States wishes to ensure is uninterrupted. Atopia’s immediate neighbor to the east is a hostile failing state, Btopia, which is undemocratic and historically antagonistic to both Atopia and the United States. Immediately to the east of Btopia is a regional economic and military power that shares a common ideology and history with Btopia, known here as Adversaria. Both the United States and Adversaria have a vested interest in Btopia. The United States is worried about the imminent collapse of this failing state and the implications for its ally Atopia as well as the potential disruption in world oil production since both Atopia and Btopia are major producers of oil. The United States is also worried about chemical weapons production and proliferation as Btopia has publically stated it is manufacturing chemical weapons in order to protect its sovereignty from bull western aggressor states. If a collapse occurs, the United States would like to see Btopia embrace democracy and capitalism as a coherent whole. The fragmentation of Btopia is viewed as a suboptimal outcome.

Key: Rectangles represent friendly forces (from the US perspective). Diamonds represent opposing forces from both Atopia and Adversaria. The symbology used comes from the US Army, so a rectangle with an X through its body represents an infantry group, a rectangle containing an oval is an armor group, etc. The stars represent the capitals of Atopia and Btopia while dark circles represent other cities within these two states.

Figure 4: Amalgamated Scenario Lessons (source: Cox 2011)


Adversaria has an interest in increasing ties with Btopia in order to create a more favorable oil exchange agreement. Adversaria has an interest in Btopia surviving as a state, even after a messy exchange of power, to serve as a buffer and in order that a democratic state not directly border its state. Adversaria views the chemical weapons as a deterrent to western aggressors and, even if the Btopia were to fracture, would prefer a new state form that has chemical weapon production capability. Both the United States and Adversaria also have a vested interest in avoiding conflict with one another which further complicates the situation.

Even though the scenarios through which SAMS students are given to work are set in the future—generally no more than five years—assumptions about military capacity and placement are based on reality. While Figure 4 is completely fictional as an illustration, SAMS students would have access to some intelligence of real-world force placement and capability and, as in this scenario, this creates operational problems that have to be addressed. Given the set-up described above and the map of forces and states presented in Figure 1, SAMS students begin to recognize potentials and pitfalls offered by the situation which are never explored in a trends analysis or broad opinion pieces on future perils facing the United States.

One of the first things as SAMS student will notice, they are at a positional disadvantage in terms of force predisposition. The major US Army group has been relegated to the far northwestern corner of Atopia. This is a political consideration, as the Atopian politicians do not wish to appear weak to their people or overly reliant on western military intervention. Even so, Adversaria has closer placement of troops and what appears to be a far easier path into the Btopia should they decide to intervene in a crisis.

SAMS students will also note that there are not a lot of paved roads in either country, which is typical in the developing world and most likely places that the US Army will fight, and no significant railroads. Logistical movement of troops and materiel from such a disadvantageous starting position will be problematic. The inclination to cheat out of the northwest corner as even a threat of danger approaches becomes strong but political realities on the ground may not allow for this.

Btopia is clearly in an aggressive position menacing Atopia’s capital and its most significant oil field. It is obvious, since Btopia is on the brink of collapse, that Btopia is attempting a classic semi-authoritarian diversion by attacking another state so the problems at home are forgotten. The SAMS students will be inclined to all sorts of thought initially such as reconfiguring Atopia’s predisposition only to learn the hard lesson of coalition warfare that other states are loathe to cede sovereignty over their own military to a foreign power no matter how closely allied the two states are. They also learn how hard it is to synchronize and time force movements and attacks with a coalition partner.

As the scenario plays out, another interesting conundrum emerges. Many of the hostile forces in Btopia switch from being addressed as clearly hostile to their predisposition being unknown. Btopia has collapsed in the middle of a war. Even some of the front line units stop fighting but the SAMS students cannot ascertain if this is an operational pause or an indication of the military fracturing or surrendering. As US and Atopian troops enter Btopia, they have to determine when, where, and whom to fight and they should not, although they can, continue to believe all units are hostile. The same problem faces Adversaria which may have crossed the border to help Btopia fight or under the ruse of humanitarian or refugee assistance in order to secure land for a new puppet regime. Neither the combined US/Atopian or Adversaria forces are sufficient to fight and conquer all of Btopia’s forces so both sides could use help from a renegade general or more simply from troops unwilling to fight.

This means that bypassing formerly opposing forces becomes an option but students have to really think hard about operational risk. Simply assuming forces that did not fire upon you when you passed will not fire on you or attempt to sabotage your mission in the future is folly. What students have done when they bypass a Btopian unit of unknown predisposition is to place a potentially harmful force on their ground line of communication which could result in severe resupply issues.

These are just a sampling of some of the conundrums and lessons SAMS students have learned from scenario exercises aimed at preparing them to be better leaders and anticipating future operational problems they may face when they go back into the field. These lessons tend to come out more starkly and leave a far most lasting impression on students when the scenario exercises are competitive. Students are far more clever, try harder, become more vested into the scenario, and discover far more when they battle one another. This is not an option with trends analysis and other speculative methodologies about the future. Further, the lessons learned are not universal but some of the challenges are common to almost any operation and the exercise itself helps the SAMS student become a more agile and adaptive thinker. This may be the most important aspect of scenario development and war-gaming which allows these officers to better anticipate the future and adapt to it.

These exercises are augmented by a twelve-lesson graduate course, Future Operational Art, which delves into the various theories and methods of predicting and anticipating the future, some relevant historical and contemporary case studies, and a capstone requirement for students to develop their own version of one potential military problem they feel the United States will face in the near future.

The development of the case study is a group project comprising three to four students. The students are required to define the problem, present the operational environment including an order of battle or the array of forces, identify the United States’ interest and speculate on the strategic and policy guidance for this military situation, translate this guidance into an operational campaign, and then identify the potentials and pitfalls any realistically comprised US force would face in such as situation. This is a daunting exercise, but SAMS students work hard every time to provide very good end products. Since the Future Operational Art course comes at the end of the academic training for these field-grade officers, the class and this project, in particular, allows the students to synthesize all they have learned and apply it toward thinking about the future.

The School of Advanced Military Studies does not have a bias against trends analysis or speculation on future threats. Instead, SAMS uses the products of these tools to guide case selection for scenario development and then develops scenarios about the near future and war-games them competitively in order that abstract theory is translated into good practice, conceptual and detailed planning is learned, and in order to understand the promise and peril that each unique future challenge might offer to military practitioners. The truth is more akin to Philip Tetlock’s “fox and hedgehog” analogy: both trend analyzers and scenario war-gamers bring different methodologies to the table.[27] Neither is perfect and each alone is likely insufficient so reliance on one methodology at the exclusion of the other would be a grave mistake.

Conclusion: The Future of Defense Forecasting

Defense forecasting is an arcane science, and this paper has only scratched the surface of the planning process at each level of the US defense and security apparatus. While much progress has been made in streamlining defense forecasting and threat assessment at the grand strategic level, the fact that two of the country’s most prominent defense/security bureaucracies employ entirely different mechanisms to analyze risk implies a long and difficult road ahead to reach the nirvana of an integrated threat assessment/management/mitigation strategy.

What we have presented here should not be interpreted as an attack on trends analysis, capabilities based planning, or risk assessment based forecasting. Instead, we offer a fourth, less examined, possibility for examining the FOE. Since SAMS is developing planners and leaders who will need to understand the detailed obstacles and potential future threats offer, scenario development offers the officer the ability to develop not only conceptual plans but detailed plans and to better understand how concepts and details interact. Examining the details, ironically, allows for a better, deeper understanding of the potential threat which trends analysis may have identified.

The example of defense forecasting at the operational level, where US Army and sister service Majors and Lt. Colonels seek to plan in a complex environment sheds light on lessons that might be applied at levels further up the chain of command, but in order to do so the entire notion of defense forecasting may have to undergo an even more radical shift than it has so far: accepting (and embracing) complexity, chaos, and risk in the international arena.           

Another interesting implication from this paper is that businesses tend to rely heavily on strategic analyses of future threats and companies that might be potential threats. It may turn out that SAMS’ use of scenarios has interesting implications for US businesses as well. Regardless of its use, the value of defense forecasting to complex organizations such as the US military (or the even larger and more complex US defense and security apparatus) is clear: forward-leaning, informed speculation on the future operating environment can make the difference between being able to respond to or mitigate unexpected events or failing to adequately address these challenges.

[1] United States Department of Defense, Economic and Manpower Analysis Division. “US Defense Purchases: An Introduction to IDEPPS.” Washington, D.C., March 2011.

[2] Brown, MG Robert G. “Movement and Maneuver: A Vision for the Future,” Army (June 2011), pp. 61-63.

[3] Posen, Barry. Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain and Germany Between the World Wars. Cornell, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986.

[4] Michael Innes, “Ordinary Bystanders,” 
SAIS Review: 22:2 (Summer-Fall 2002).

[5] United States Department of the Army, US Army Field Manual 3-0 (deprecated).

[6] Flournoy, Michele and Shawn W. Brimley. “Strategic Planning for U.S. National Security: A Project Solarium for the 21st Century,” Princeton Project Papers, 2006, pp. 2,6

[7]  United States Department of Defense, Joint Staff J-8, Capabilities and Acquisition Division. “JCIDS Overview.” PowerPoint presentation, 10 May 2008; Cook, Gregory P. “JCIDS:
The New Language of Defense Planning, Programming and Acquisition,” 2006.

[8] ibid.

[9] Zavadil, Stephen W., Ralph L. Tindal and Jerome H. Kahan. “The New US Strategic Framework and Capabilities-based Planning: Application to Strategic Force Planning.” Paper presented at the
 US-RU Confidence Building Measures Conference, Garmisch, Germany
, 3-4 June 2003. p. 1.

[10] Walker, Colonel Stephen K. “Capabilities-Based Planning – How It Is Intended to Work and Challenges to Its Successful Implementation,” US Army War College Strategy Research Project, 2005, p. iii.

[11] United States Department of Defense, Joint Staff J-8, Capabilities and Acquisition Division. “JCIDS Overview.” PowerPoint presentation, 10 May 2008

[12] Walker 2005, p. 10.

[13] JROC is composed of the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other service vice-commanders.

[14] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction, “The Joint Warfighting Capabilities Assessment Process” 15 April 2002, p. B1

[16] “One Team, One Mission, Securing Our Homeland” U.S. Department of Homeland Security Strategic Plan Fiscal Years 2008–2013: Washington, DC, DHS. p. 2.

[17] United States Department of Homeland Security, “FY 2012 Budget in Brief,” Washington, D.C.; United States Department of Defense, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) / CFO, “Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Request: Overview,” Washington, DC.

[18] “One Team, One Mission,” p. 4

[19] Czerwinski, Jonah. “DHS Budgeting Learns from DOD Practice; 5-Year Guidance to be Issued,” Homeland Security Watch, 25 October 2008.

[20]  One Team, One Mission”,  p. 34

[21] Bronson, Patricia. “After-Action Report for the Department of Homeland Security’s FY 2010–2014 Program Review,” Institute for Defense Analysis, March 2009.

2009, p. 2

[22] Department of Homeland Security Management Directives System MD Number: 1330 “Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution.” Issue Date: 02/14/2005, p. A-1

[23] DHS 2005, p. C-2

[24] United States Department of the Army. Army Doctrinal Publication 3-0 “Unified Land Operations.” Washington, D.C., October 2011.

[25] Taleb, Nassim. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007), New York: Random House.

[26] von Clausewitz, Carl. On War, indexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (1984), Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, p. 104.

[27] Tetlock, Philip. Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (2005). Princeton: Princeton University Press 


About the Author(s)

Dr. Michael Mosser is lecturer with a joint appointment in the Department of Government, the European Studies Center, and the International Relations and Global Governance Major at the University of Texas at Austin. From August 2009 to May 2012, he was a visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX. From January to June 2009, he served as Associate Director of the European Union Center of Excellence and a Fellow of the Robert S. Strauss Center at the University of Texas at Austin. From June 2009 to May 2010, he was the initial military/education liaison for the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs Robert S. Strauss Center’s “Climate Change and African Political Stability” grant funded by the US Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative. From 2006 to 2009 he was an assistant professor at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he taught international relations, security studies, and comparative foreign policy of Western Europe.  He has published articles in the fields of military art and science and military sociology, and is presently co-authoring a textbook on international organizations.

Dan G. Cox is Associate Professor of Political Science at the School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  Dr. Cox has published in peer-reviewed journals such as The Journal of Peace Research, Parameters, The International Journal of Public Opinion Research and Congress and the Presidency.  Dr. Cox’s work has also appeared in journals such as Joint Force Quarterly, Terrorism Monitor and Small Wars Journal.  Dr. Cox’s work was cited in Foreign Policy Magazine online and the Straits Times of Singapore, the Bangkok Post, and the Somaliland Times.  His current research interests include identity and conflict, armed nation-building, counterinsurgency, terrorism, strategy and military planning, operational art, and security issues in Asia and Africa.  Dr. Cox is also a featured blogger on E-International Relations.


At the center of defense forecasting and planning should be the goals and objectives of the United States; both those goals and objectives that we have for today, and those goals and objectives that we are likely to pursue in the somewhat near-term future.

These goals and objectives -- and the threats and challenges that we might expect to encounter as we pursue our desired ends -- these matters, taken together I would contend, should form the basis for articulating, understanding and addressing (1) the current operating environment (COE) and (2) the future operating environment (FOE).

It would also seem logical to suggest that the goals and objectives of the United States -- and the threats and challenges that the United States should expect to encounter in the pursuit of such goals and objectives -- these matters should, likewise, form the basis for appropriate scenerio development and contingency planning.

From the "generic" example provided by the author of this article above, we might surmise:

a. That the goals and objectives of the United States are to cause all states and societies (especially those of some importance or potential importance to the global economy) to become -- and/or to remain -- cohesive, democratic and capitalist entities aligned with the western world.

b. That the threats and challenges that the United States is likely to face -- in the pursuit of these goals and objectives -- will come from those individuals, groups, states and societies whose goals and objectives are different from and/or opposed to those of the United States and its allies. And, finally,

c. That the United States is likely to (1) use the opportunities presented by various state and/or societial difficulty (ex: natural disaster, humanitarian crisis, insurgency, terrorism, genocide, etc.) to (2) intervene in foreign lands so as to (3) pursue its goals and objectives noted at "a" above.

These items ("a" - "c") forming both the COE and the FOE and, thus, forming the basis upon which our defense forecasting, defense planning, scenerio development and contingency planning should be based.


Sun, 01/06/2013 - 8:00pm

As a non-SAMS person, the problem I see with this approach is that it begins by divorcing our military mission from the political objective. It starts with a "stuff" based approach:

"DoD capabilities-based planning (CBP), according to Walker, was intended to more rapidly, effectively, and efficiently move capabilities to combatant commanders in a resource-constrained environment.[10] Specifically, it was intended to replace the Resource Generation System (RGS), a “bottom-up” means of planning that led to service-driven “stovepipes” and lack of interoperability (see Figure one). Insofar as a “strategic” threat was identified, planning for its mitigation or elimination often took on the character of the weapons platform or system favored by the individual services."

It is designed from the onset to produce stuff based on an assessment of our future enemy's "stuff". It is not designed to look at what our civilian masters actually expect the military to be able to accomplish as an end state. We look only at the combat situation, not the political objective. From this point forward you might as well be in Wonderland as Atopia, you will never be able to accomplish your mission since you are not even looking at what that mission really is.


Sun, 01/06/2013 - 1:10pm

In reply to by Move Forward

The goal of this article was far narrower than explaining every single aspect wargamed through the exercise program at SAMS. Everything you have mentioned and more is considered and planned by SAMS students during their excercises. Again, the point of this article is to expand traditional notions of trends forecasting which rely heavily on statistical analyses, especially regression analysis, as the primary futurecasting methodology. Atopia vs Btopia is NOT a scenario given to SAMS students but rather an amalgamation of SOME of the lessons learned over the course of several scenarios we felt were important for anticipating how to deal with real future threats.

I would also disagree with the assertion that a civilian degree is a substitute for what SAMS students receive. I taught in civilian universities for ten years prior to acceptinng the job at SAMS. Civilian universities are excellent at teaching the theory and the method but are less adept at linking these lessons to practical application. Since SAMS students will serve as lead military planners, there is a specific goal that must be kept in mind when educating these highly specialized students. As such, classes at SAMS integrate theory, history, doctrine, and practical application in order to create the best possible leaders, teammates, and planners possible. I would put our rigorous curriculum up against any other Master's program in the country civilian or otherwise.


Sun, 01/06/2013 - 5:25pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward,

I still have questions regarding your points regarding the need for an 'in-house' advanced education system to see to our nation's needs. First the points of agreement: our service academies unbiasedly serve the nation and earn taxpayer support each and every day. Now, to where I disagree: the US university system is a tested, large, non monolithic, world class system and I contrast that with our military education system. This is not to say that there are not pockets of excellence within the military education system, nor is it meant as a cheap shot at our dedicated educators who staff that system. We are however, to my view, at an inflection point in history; as a result I feel that we have an obligation to chase quality as opposed to politically correct solutions which unquestioningly favor non productive and entrenched interests. I see this as being inline with American history; one of shunning nobility in favor of market thinking if you will. As a practicing civil engineer - (airborne wings earned as a rotc cadet, a mba, a bs in civil engineering, a ba in biology, and 25 years of total military service which included a couple of trips to Iraq), - I recognize, however, that my experiences may shape my thinking ;)

Move Forward

Sun, 01/06/2013 - 11:02am

In reply to by Surferbeetle

<blockquote> Each officer goes through seven exercises each dealing with a different potential future threat situation. </blockquote>

After re-reading, they may be doing more real world scenarios but cannot discuss them due to their classified nature. You would believe real world terrain and force simulation could depict the scenarios and be networked with Pentagon planners. In that way, SAMS students preparing for assignments in regionally-aligned brigades or combatant command staffs simultaneously would gain training and education about their area. As applicable, modify OPLANs using input from scenarios exercised by the SAMS students or use them as visual MDMP COAs if the actual situation arises. Focus talented students on the conceptual and detailed planning of real likely scenarios.

Given seven scenarios, groups of regionally-specializing officers would work together on four regional scenarios while three scenarios would apply Army-wide. Students would brief each other on their areas throughout the learning/training process without every student planning every world scenario.

<blockquote> Furthermore, much of our military educational system does not meet the same rigorous requirements of our world class civilian university system. </blockquote>Surferbeetle, I’m always skeptical about Masters out of military-related schools. Was somewhat questioning that one recent co-author of a highly controversial SWJ article had earned a PhD based on his study of the history of SAMS. I thoroughly realize only top officers attend resident ILE and then go to SAMS. However, that makes it more essential that they use real scenarios rather than fictional “how-to-think” scenarios to gain simultaneous education and training. Country names and inexact depictions of Figure 4 left me struggling to correlate the scenario to real places and problems...but none align as Syria cannot be Btopia as it is not an oil power. Was Atopia a hint at either Saudi Arabia or Turkey (also not an oil power) and Adversaria supposed to be Iran?

Another concern about civilian education and professors is their frequent liberal bias and lack of experience in the real world. Generally, I was happy with my son's described professors and college experience. However, was troubled that he became an instant Global Warming advocate after Bill Nye spoke there. Without getting into the science aspects, the "horrors" of slightly higher temperatures occurring over decades ignored by most alarmists is that the U.S. is neither the problem, nor could it reverse the process at great expense and sacrifice. China, India, and other nations continue to pollute, drill, and laugh at us for restraining our own economy and homegrown energy resources.

Offshore drilling, fracking, Keystone, Alaska, and public land permits are not creating major environmental damage relative to the benefits to real people trying to work when unemployment is near 8%. Not everyone can be a college-graduate and few private sector workers have tenure. Blue State educators unfamiliar with how the other half lives block progress for the remaining 50% of the country. College professors who never worked in real businesses, or who may live in an area where public transportation is more viable, feel free to impose green energy costs and policies on the rest of us who prefer cheap clean coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy and love our cars.

Liberal bias carries over into the foreign policy debates leading to things like Benghazi where security is shortchanged out of fear of offending our hosts. Apology tours throughout the Middle East are the result of civilian diplomats or think tanks. Coalition warfare, while essential, often becomes an excessively political exercise. Well-meaning allied militaries are short-changed by home defense budgets leaving them to fight in dangerous areas like Basra, Kandahar, and Sangin without adequate force to be effective. The US then must go in and bail them out casting doubt on the notion that less force is more. Civilian advisors in Kabul or the Green Zone become the experts while Soldiers/Marines die on the real battlefield constrained by civilians recommending overly-diplomatic policies.

Even as the military enforces strict ROE concerning drone strikes and pre-shoot surveillance, stateside civilian educators, journalists, and think tanks opine that the US is committing war crimes or creating more insurgents than it is eliminating. Yet drone strike collateral damage is minimal compared to Taliban IED-caused civilian deaths. Also, drone attacks induce a paranoia that greatly restrains insurgent leader activities, reveals networks, and stymies insurgent progress far more than any slight increase in the rank and file...who themselves cannot train or travel in the open as a massed group for very long. Misinformed or liberal twisting of this reality risks this critical capability solely because those with higher-education credentials comment...even when their studies had little to do with the area in which they pass judgment.

<blockquote>We are disturbed by the proliferation of trends analysis and econometrics determinism in futurecasting such as what Bruce Bueno De Mesquita is hawking to the CIA through his consulting firm. </blockquote>
This is a classic example of where a PhD in one field questions the legitimate informed views of another in the STEM field. Because I had no idea who this professor was, I googled him and then watched his TED briefing about Iran. He finished his talk with this paraphrased quote:

<blockquote>When people say to you, “that’s impossible,” you say back to them when you say that’s impossible you’re confused. What you really are saying is “I don’t know how to do it.” </blockquote>

That is the dilemma faced when STEM professors who are geniuses in their particular fields, or technology innovators, offer real potential solutions to improving the future. Naysayers emerge imagining ways to circumvent the technology citing VUCA without bothering to envision counter-counter measures or the broad benefits of such technology as it evolves. Liberal arts PhDs often are better talkers and writers than STEM professors (even Professor Bueno De Mesquita was stuffy in his TED brief), so their influence may win the day when briefing military and civilian leaders.

I got enough taste of math at the academy and running a small business to realize that most math is not open to debate in the same manner that most foreign policy and domestic politics is. If an adversary country has a $10 billion annual defense budget, they never will field numerous $100 million stealth fighters purchased from China or Russia. They never will have a large nuclear submarine or aircraft carrier fleet. You don’t need calculus or statistics for that level of simple common sense math. You also easily can surmise that they <strong>can</strong> afford a large lesser paid ground military that can hide from airpower or hug civilians until the cows come home.

Admittedly, STEM professors and engineers have their own problems, and they seem more prevalent in the Navy and Air Force. Yet, when you can read in about 3000 miles of underground tunnels for China’s nuclear weapons, you scratch your head when airpower advocates suggest we need to go after those tunnels as if it would not start a nuclear war.…

Global Strike is another STEM gem as advocates fail to recognize how the art of the possible increases risk of nuclear war. In this case, the wisdom of military historian and retired Marine Colonel TX Hammes makes more sense where he advocates off-shore control. In this strategy, we board and halt civil vessels in response to Chinese aggression, thus putting small tactical targets at risk that strategically hit China where it hurts. The Army and Marines can do that. In contrast, AirSea Battle tactics of deep penetrating airstrikes attempt to destroy hidden missiles and C2 nodes thus risking nuclear war.

If we maintain control of the first island chain due to connections with allies who join us when missiles strike their homeland, or their sovereign territory is seized, then China cannot win any prolonged conflict where we strangle their export commerce and their military supply lifeline between Taiwan and the mainland. You don’t need a PhD or think tank credentials to figure that out.


Sat, 01/05/2013 - 11:52am

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward,

As always your holistic summations and synthesis of capabilities are interesting and informative. Let's, however, take a look at military training and education in general.

Military training is what gives us the gift of finding ourselves on the ground, behind cover, rifle to our shoulder, and acquiring targets without having to really think about it. Education, on the other hand, gives us the gift of being able to gain an understanding our area of operations, build consensus (departmental, allies, and fence sitters), formulate successful strategies, and operationalize these strategies in order to achieve our objectives.

Our military educational system is not up to the task set before it. The military is a hybrid caste and meritocratic system, and the structure of our educational system (SAMS for example) reflects this. One has to be of the correct caste before one can be considered for SAMS, if that initial hurdle/barrier to entry is surmounted then meritocratic hurdles (appropriately) follow. Furthermore, much of our military educational system does not meet the same rigorous requirements of our world class civilian university system. This systemic educational flaw impacts military output as we see in the on the ground deliverables in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A way forward is to fully, and without preconception, consider the difference between training and education and who can successfully provide those training and education services. The US military is skilled at providing training while the US university system is skilled at providing education....there is no shame in this specialization, and much good, as Adam Smith reminds us.

All service members need training, and all (irrespective of rank) should have the opportunity to struggle for, and achieve, education in the civilian US university system. We should also keep in mind that education is not a one time event, one can envision the need for five or ten year event intervals for example. Those that survive this process, irrespective of caste, should be sorted and assigned as needed so that our nation can achieve it's objectives. Admittedly, the Human Resource/Personnel Management skills needed to accomplish this effort do not exist within our military, but Adam Smith's teachings can help us here as well.

Broadly then, 'iron rice bowls' will have to be broken in order to effect a needed, and fundamental, change. Being able to gain an understanding our area of operations, build consensus (departmental, allies, and fence sitters), formulate successful strategies, and operationalize these strategies in order to achieve our objectives is not a function of caste, it is a function of merit.

Move Forward

Sat, 01/05/2013 - 1:22am

Guess I'm somewhat stunned that SAMS is not considering:

1) deployment aspects of getting these multiple divisions/brigades to theaters necessitating sea and air access over extended intertheater and intratheater distances while the enemy tries to keep us out. Where are these three nations relative to the sea and other allies that can help with overflight and overland rights? Isn't developing realistic deployment timelines and facilities one reason for regionally-aligned brigades? Shouldn't we team up more in planning with the the USAF airlift community and military sealift command to figure out how to fight at an early disadvantage while deployment continues?

2) air defense, joint airpower, army aviation and RSTA, SF/SOF, and missile defense as well as enemy counterparts and tactical ballistic missiles...if Atopia wants our missile defense and airpower protection, they should offer flexibility on military dispositions

3) logistics aspects of resupplying these multiple divisions and the associated cost per year thereof and inherent or evolving IED/mine threats to that resupply. The trucks that resupply armored units face real threats with far less armor as they travel by bypassed areas.

4) international boundaries often are hardly straight, logical lines and are colonial vestiges that leave ethnicities and religions divided within the same nation...the source of who may or may not support us if we invade

5) ample unclassified simulation data bases and maps exist for real terrain of actual nations with true defense budgets, tech limits, and forecast capabilities that can expand annually at understood rates. Money and sanctions constrain how long it takes nations to develop a strong air force, navy, or army. Only the latter is realistically priced for most adversary nations in the Pacific and elsewhere. The China and Russia exceptions are deterred by MAD and mutual economic assured destruction. China also has its own A2/AD challenge getting onto and holding Taiwan. That elephant in the room is never mentioned when citing the inflated threat of a mere 1500 TBM and cruise missiles while we can generate tens of thousands of air sorties in weeks and sink surface ships with ease as they try to make Taiwan.

6) What about the less capable rogue partners and surrogates of near peers? However, weapons that make their way to those nations may return to haunt Chinese and Russian militaries when homegrown insurgents employ them, copy technology as knock-offs, or start limited nuclear war. Extremists and rogue nations may not care about the consequences of one-sided nuclear destruction...and radiation and chemical hazards that travel with the wind. One of these days, all that CBRN gear actually will be essential abroad and at home.

7) PMESII-PT operational and METT-TC mission variables easier to create with real nations and scenarios. Where are main axis of advance, supply routes, and the complex and urban terrain where enemies can hide, ambush, or hug? Real nations have gaps and weaker bridges. Real roads are tore up by tracks of heavy vehicles...I see no Stryker symbology and lots of Stryker brigades exist to simplify deployment and logistics. Even Israel is looking at lighter armored vehicles in its future.

8) lessons of current conflicts where allies prolonged the coalition fight by coming to the fight in dangerous areas without adequate resources, or locating strictly in safer areas, and/or used separate ROE. Some sort of agreed upon Machiavellian division of conquered nations on ethnic or religious lines may need to be a future understood precondition prior to invasion or follow-on elections to preclude the sorts of continued insurgencies witnessed in Iraq and AfPak.

What's the definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?

Vitesse, that is actually the exact opposite of what we are arguing. We are disturbed by the proliferation of trends analysis and econometrics determinism in futurecasting such as what Bruce Bueno De Mesquita is hawking to the CIA through his consulting firm. We simply offer scenario development and wargaming as another method of anticipating not predicting the future. The scenario excercises force SAMS students to deal with both the conceptual and detailed problems a future threat might pose and hone planning skills that should serve them well with any complex future problem, "black swan" or otherwise, these planners might face.

Scholars and policymakers often become enamored with the latest fadish concepts that seem to explain a fundamental shock or surprise but upon deeper review offer little of practical value. We are interested in exploring avenues of inquiry that help men and women of action develop tools that will better enable them to become competent leaders, teammates, and planners in order to deal with the next "black swan" or whatever we are calling it in the future.

Vitesse et Puissance

Fri, 01/04/2013 - 1:40pm

Since the authors went out of their way to mangle Talib's "black swan" definition, a bit of turnabout is fair play - this article reeks of what Talib calls "Mediocristan" - a linear extrapolation of past trends. Perhaps one can get away with this approach for a few five year time horizons - but eventually, the very indeterminacy of warfare itself surpasses the salami-slicing, play-it-safe incrementalism of it all. No mention was made of the fact that the Beltway strategists are deeply committed to risk taking as a long term strategic approach. But this is no excuse for ignoring Talib's definition of a "black swan" event as a low-probability occurance with high consequences. By definition, such events are rare and not easily repeatable. Therefore, by corrolary, they are not outward and visible signs of a revolution in military affairs, or a deep change in the nature of warfare itself. And it does matter when Army intellectuals get these distinctions wrong-side out.