A war plan develops a concept to win a war militarily and politically; it is the detailed ways and means of an overarching strategy.

The Department of Defense has no definition of “war plan” according to its own doctrine. There are the Unified Command Plan, campaign plans, theaters of war, and regional theater strategies. There is even a Global Integrated Base Plan. But there is no war plan for the U.S. military. The U.S. has had war plans before, and it needs to again. Developed between World Wars I and II, the collective color plans, mobilization plans, and Rainbow  Plans considered operational, industrial, political, and civilian concerns. If we consider war to be a political act between two or more states, nations, or other polities, a war plan must consider the totality of those polities’ potential political objectives, industrial capabilities, and military options for the expected duration of the conflict. A war plan develops a concept to win a war militarily and politically; it is the detailed ways and means of an overarching strategy. A review of two historical examples of such planning offer approaches to overcome organizational and institutional obstacles to effective comprehensive war planning. These examples point to the value of what is sometimes called “Track II planning,” which is valuable in all cases, but is all the more important in preparing for potential future large-scale conflict.

Of course, today’s military does have plans—lots of them. They just are not complete, or they are too limited in scope, not going beyond the military’s actions. Rather, the Department of Defense has a set of planned reactions for various regional contingencies. These “contingency plans” emanate from the six geographic combatant commands. These plans combine into a Global Integrated Base Plan which informs decisions about which military forces should support which aspect of the plan(s). The contingency plans are geographically focused and vary in their detail. But they share a number of shortcomings. Critically, what the contingencies plans do not plan well is the continuance of conflict. Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom highlight this shortcoming on current planning approaches. More importantly, while they often include social, economic, political, industrial, medical factors and concerns, and they imagine what winning in war looks like against potential or likely enemies and predict what will be needed to achieve that victory, they do so from a regional, not national, perspective.

Recent initiatives by the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) to define his role to “globally integrate” forces and the creation of the Global Integrated Base Plan attempt to develop a national war plan. Yet these efforts still fail to meet the threshold of a national war plan. For one thing, many of the integration efforts are focused on peacetime or “competition below armed conflict” planning, which take up enormous amounts of time and attention of the Chairman. Further, the Chairman and the Joint Staff do not constitute in law, intent, or make-up, a national level general staff. They simply do not have the time, people, or resources to do comprehensive war planning. As a result, the contingency plans, including the Global Integrated Base Plan, outline only immediate responses using available resources to deal with an armed conflict. These short-term plans can be quite good, but as noted, they did not offer the long term vision necessary for dealing with the prolonged wars, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And armed conflicts with great powers such as Russia or China are even more likely to require the full mobilization and synchronization of the entirety of the U.S. Government, industry, and economy for a sustained period.

The U.S. did have such comprehensive national level war planning once upon a time, but its nature has often been misunderstood. The color plans and Rainbow Plans consisted of a series of plans developed by the Joint Board to balance the competing priorities of the Army and Navy from mobilization of citizens and industry to application of forces in theaters. They were not perfect and did not consider in depth what to do in a theater, but the Rainbow Plans allowed for leaders to understand the time and resources required to fight against several different types of threats. The key to their usefulness was less in what to do with military forces and more to do with envisioning what would lead to conflict and the efforts required to create a suitable force to win in such a conflict.

What made the refinement of these plans unique and special over the 1920s and 1930s was what we will call Track II planning. Track II diplomacy is the more traditional usage of this concept, but it essentially involves multiple parallel efforts of conducting diplomacy at a variety of levels. Track II planning follows a similar model with formal and informal planning processes looking at similar contingencies, but a variety of individuals and institutions conduct this planning. Such planning allows for collective efforts that can sidestep the institutional inertia and potential political challenges of devising new approaches that challenge norms.

War planning in the interwar period was formally conducted by the Joint Board, but that was not the only place it happened. Using just War Plan Orange, the potential war with Japan, the Joint Board wrote a series of Orange plans from the national perspective. In the meantime, and only loosely connected, the Philippine Department developed its own versions of War Plan Orange, using a more regional perspective. In 1933, the War Department ordered the chief of the Air Corps to do a plan for the role of a General Headquarters Air Force in existing war plans, including Orange. At the U.S. Army and Naval War Colleges, students reviewed the various Orange plans, developed their own, and wargamed them without the constraints inherent in working in the formal joint Army and Navy planning structures. As students they provided feedback to the Joint Board or the War or Navy Departments which might inform each plan’s evolution.  But primarily, their planning efforts were educational. These students would then become members of the War and Navy Departments or the Joint Board to work on the very same plans well informed from their theoretical study. At the same time, these students, along with students at the Army Industrial College and more formal organizations such as the Army and Navy Munitions Board, also developed parallel plans for mobilization of industry and the American population for full scale war. None of these plans were perfect templates of the total war effort in World War II, but collectively these plans applied theories that incorporated military approaches with political, economic, industrial, and societal concerns related to mobilizing for and fighting sustained global war.

With such a history of building effective planning approaches, why the U.S. military no longer uses them presents an interesting question.

The Cold War provides a second, more focused, example of Track II planning.  In the 1950s, General Lauris Norstad, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), developed a classified planning group codenamed “Live Oak” to develop and analyze plans specific to the defense of Berlin. American, French, British, and German officers comprised the team. Working directly for General Norstad, the team developed plans outside of the political pressures of the nascent Cold War and NATO. Live Oak was a separate cell outside of NATO’s command and was able to avoid the politically charge debates within NATO in the early-1960s. Although no Live Oak plan was ever used, the group provided insight and alternatives for NATO Commanders for almost four decades as they faced multiple challenges in defending and supporting Berlin during the Cold War.

With such a history of building effective planning approaches, why the U.S. military no longer uses them presents an interesting question. Various reforms to build efficiency and oversight in Department of Defense programs and the Cold War all contributed. The numerous restructures of the Department of Defense changed what the department and the Armed Forces focused on at the highest level. Additionally, the size and cost of the Department of Defense requires extensive oversight by the Executive and Congressional arms of the government. Accordingly, through structure and law, the Geographic Combatant Commands ended up becoming the primary planners of conflict.

A future large-scale conflict will be global by nature. Although a full World War II-style mobilization of the country may not be necessary to fight such a war, the entirety of the nation will have to contribute in some form or fashion. Recent efforts to understand the characteristics of future conflict such as Joint All Domain Command and Control and Multi-Domain Operations, provide options to fight a battle or a campaign. These efforts still do not address how the Department of Defense informs the rest of the U.S. Government and private sector how to fight and win on a national level.

As the two examples highlight, such capabilities are only developed when a wide variety of military leaders make the effort and build the expertise to think and plan about future conflict. Senior Service Colleges once again can still provide a pool of experienced and invested military and civilian leaders to examine and study war plans. The requirement to do such planning would also enhance the education of the students. The Joint Staff can also build and use a Live Oak-like organization, as senior leaders refine the role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the global integrator of the Armed Forces.

The National Security Council is another potential location for a “Live Oak”-like cell. By leveraging all agencies tied to national defense and security, the team is where major security decisions and strategies develop. Leveraging an interagency team that reports directly to the National Security Advisor places national emphasis on war planning, not just military planning. It is an ideal venue for political scientists, historians, and industry leaders to offer insights and perspectives a purely political or military team would fail to see.

Some will argue that the current system works and reflects the desires of civilian authority and oversight of the military. There is no doubt that Congress and the Presidency shaped strategic military planning to what it is today. Others still will say that the expertise and insight provided in the detailed plans provided by geographic combatant commands far surpass anything a central planning cell could do. And it would be foolish to think otherwise, at least from a regional and heavily military perspective.

Comforting ourselves that our current plans will set the stage for long-term success in a large conflict may allow some to sleep better at night. Likewise, the realities of law, current policy, and domestic politics may constrain what the Armed Forces can openly plan. These considerations may make it seem too daunting task to develop a national set of war plans. Nevertheless, the U.S. military must build such plans. We have an explicit responsibility to think broadly about all aspects of war. Track II planning efforts can be successful in informing what might be required to win a sustained large-scale war. As Dwight Eisenhower advised on several occasions, “peace-time plans are of no particular value, but peace-time planning is indispensable.”

Lieutenant Colonel Mike Loftus is an Army Engineer who most recently served as Brigade Engineer Battalion Commander with the 1st Armored Division and forward deployed to the Republic of Korea. He previously served as a Fellow for the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group. He is a graduate of the AY20 Resident Class of the U.S. Army War College.The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Just three days prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the December 4, 1941 Chicago Daily Tribune headline revealing the existence of national level war plans described as “a blueprint for total war on a scale unprecedented in at least two oceans and three continents, Europe, Africa, and Asia.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy Chicago Daily Tribune Archives


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