View Full Version : Operational Design Process and Security Force Assistance

06-08-2008, 01:01 AM
Operational Design Process and Security Force Assistance (http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2008/06/operational-design-process-and/)

by Rob Thornton, SWJ Blog

Using ODP to Establish a Campaign Design Framework for SFA Activities (http://www.smallwarsjournal.com/documents/sfadraftwhitepaper.pdf)

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.

Rob Thornton
06-08-2008, 12:54 PM
I asked Dave to consider this piece for SWJ because after having been exposed to ODP at Unified Quest 08 I believe it has value. During the exercise we got some real mileage out of it, and through its use spent some real time thinking about the conditions present in the operational environment as opposed to doing what comes natural, embarking on banging out a plan for action, then getting invested in it.

As a panel we had some learning pains as we went. It was painful to discover through ODP that for the early years of the proposed campaign design our “assistance” to the host nation was both largely unwanted and would probably make things worse by spreading and protracting conflict. This was partly due to the type of assistance we were offering, and to who we were thinking of offering it to. However, it would have been more painful to not have discovered that the actions we’d committed ourselves to, and gone on to execute what would have created greater strategic risk, and cost unnecessary lives. This was the benefit; we thought and learned before we committed. I’d add that through ODP we had a better understanding of when our assistance might actually benefit U.S. policy objectives, the host nation and its populace and the broader region our panel dealt with – in the end it paid off. It was a worthwhile 2 weeks – glad I went, glad to have had the chance to work around some great folks.

One of the CSA’s objectives for UQ 08 was to explore the applicability and implementation of ODP for big Army (and possibly the Joint force); as such I took back what I’d learned from participating in UQ and considered how it might apply to SFA planning. This paper is the result – which is a way of getting it out and talking about it.

Whatever is good in this paper is primarily due to the hard work of the SAMS students who led the UQ 08 panels through ODP as a concept. They did most of the design work back at Leavenworth prior to UQ and showed up with a great place for the panels to start. I’d also add to that the work of the participants in the panels was important – it may have been through interaction that we benefited most, and were able to internalize some of what the SAMS students had worked so hard to learn prior to the event.

The paper then is both an interpretation and an adaptation of ODP as we worked through it in our panel (panel #3). It is not a complete lift – so if I’ve misrepresented ODP, it’s a failure on my part. One thing that was added for example is the Zone of Tolerance – an idea we discussed with regard to “what is tolerable” in terms of the logic that underpins the theory – but I wanted to capture as a separate idea. Possibly added is the idea of a wargame – it may be that this is just what we went through as a result of it being UQ – however, I think that was one of the most beneficial things we undertook, as it placed tension in the theory and challenged the logic in ways that might not have otherwise occurred.

That really gets to one of the take aways – each time a group undertakes ODP (or any like process) it may look different based on the makeup of the group, or the nature of the conditions. I don’t think it should be too rigid, or it will lose a good deal of its value. I don’t believe it should be prescriptive in form or as a step either. I do believe it has value for the reasons I outlined above and in the paper – certainly it helped us uncover things in UQ that we’d have not gotten to if we’d went right to planning. I think is critical that form follows function. I’ve ran the paper past a number of folks I respect (many are SWC members) – some liked it, some did not –some liked parts of it, and not other parts. Some thought it was too complex, others thought it appropriate given the complex nature of the politics, societies and cultures. Some thought it would fill a gap, and do what I thought it did for us, others wanted to go right to planning. I guess I’d say if you find something you like use it, but moreover know why you do, or why you don’t.

If anyone is interested in the actual trip report that discusses how the UQ 08 Panel 3 went shoot me a PM and I'll send it on - it may provide more context.
Best, Rob

06-08-2008, 01:43 PM
I've been exposed to ODP or its precursor, Systemic Operational Design (SOD) mainly through reading and talking to SAMS grads who learned it in school. I think that it has great utility, especially for irregular warfare. One caution I would offer, however, is that even in its "basic form" it can appear overly complex and somewhat obtuse. That's not a reason to not pursue it, but I'm not sure we need ODP customized for various circumstances, complete with new definitions and concepts. ODP, by its general nature, should be adapted similar to the various military decisionmaking processes. As I read the current ODP, I think it can support SFA without alot of alteration.
What ODP highlights to me, and Rob captures it in his text, is that there isn't just "Blue" and "Red", but also "Green", the country/group we are trying to assist. ODP illuminates that we need to realize that our objectives are likely different than those we are working with and that our plan needs to take that into account. Understanding this up and down the chain, especially with advisors, would possibly relieve some of the frustration and bring better understanding of why the host nation security forces do what they do--their definition of victory is different than ours and thus their actions, all the way to the tactical level, will be shaped by their own objectives.
Additionally, ODP points out that we need as much intel collection directed at our "allies" as we do against the enemy. This places the advisor in an uncomfortable position. He cannot be seen as an intel agent by the very unit he is living with, but that information can be crucial to the intelligence community (and the commander) in developing the overall picture of the conflict. I have seen deliberate firewalls constructed between advisors and intel analysts charged with reviewing the host government.

Rob Thornton
06-08-2008, 10:00 PM
I wanted to make the my trip report available, I thought it would context on how ODP was used in the context of our panel. I wrote this up prior to exploring how SFA might fit into ODP. I needed to change some of the references to the panels, but by and large this is the same report I sent out.

Best Rob

John T. Fishel
06-09-2008, 02:48 PM
Rob has made a significant contribution with his paper on ODP. I came to that conclusion slowly, however, because when I started reading my first reaction was that ODP was nothing new but merely some (generally) good ideas dressed up in complex and convoluted verbiage. As I got deeper into the paper I found by initial impression needed major modification because there really is something new here.

ODP appears to operate at the interface of the strategic and operational levels of war. It is both strategy and a prerequisite for effective campaign planning. What bothered me initially about it was the notion of a Theory of Reality. How, I asked, does that differ from a “strategic appraisal (assessment, appreciation, estimate)”? Answer: it doesn’t. So, is there any justification for creating a new term? The only reason I can see is for the sake of symmetry – and only then if the second concept of a Theory of Action can be justified.

The Theory of Reality/Strategic Appraisal is, I think, key to the successful use of ODP by strategists and campaign planners. It is “intelligence” in its most basic and complete sense. It focuses first on what used to be called basic intelligence with an emphasis on cultural, social, political, economic, and security factors. Most important, it is never a finished product but is always changing as new information requires additional analysis. Thus, it provides a constantly refined moving analysis of the environment, players, and events in the target area. As it changes the individuals charged with developing the Theory of Action must modify their theory or concept.

This brings us to the question of how the Theory of Action differs from strategy or an operational concept. From Rob’s description I get the sense that the Theory of Action encompasses both terms. It addresses the questions of what we want to accomplish, how to go about it, and what resources we must have to do so. But it reaches down into the operational level with its addressing Areas of Effort (AOE) and Lines of Effort (LOE) as well as specific objectives within both. As a result, I can see the utility of the term Theory of Action which, in turn, justifies the notion of using the term Theory of Reality for the sake of symmetry. The only caveat I would suggest is that the equation of the Theory of Reality with the Strategic appraisal be made explicit (so that cantankerous intel weenies like me will be appeased).

The real strengths of the ODP lie in its conception of the players as, at a minimum, Green, Red, and Blue. If that were all, however, it would not be much of an improvement. But it is not all. There are multiple permutations of Green, Red, and Blue and the permutations can change colors thereby changing the Theory of Reality. The second major strength is that the ODP is highly interactive and relies to a very great extent on the practice of free play simulation (war gaming). As a result, the reality created by the simulation is used to gain insight into how to affect the conditional reality of the Theory of Reality. The one danger that I see is that players (strategists and planners) could decide that the simulated reality is the reality of the real world and follow that garden path to a road to disaster. A rigorous AAR process and ongoing use of the FAS test mitigates that danger significantly.



Rob Thornton
06-10-2008, 01:29 PM
Hi John,

Thanks for reading it and expending some grey matter. I do need to ensure that the SAMS students are given full credit. I just took what they'd spent the better part of a year on and adapted it some.

One of the participants at UQ 08 remarked that they did not think ODP should be considered for doctrine because doctrine would make it too rigid and prescriptive. The participant went onto say that "Clausewitzian" bent would take hold. I think the participant misunderstands how we apply doctrine - that while definitions are precise, the concepts are broad and descriptive - they are adaptable to the environment and the conditions within.

I also think the participant missed the mark on Clausewitz. The remark shows a shallow reading and understanding. In fact I think Clausewitz would understand the discussion - he understood the value of art, and the limitations of theory. He understood how objectives change due to inevitable interactions and nonlinearity. His thoughts take us from limited objectives to the idea total war.

One thought that often gets left off of another more well known is (paraphrased) "that the primacy of policy is rooted in the idea that the statesman understands which is correct instrument of policy to employ". I think that one is critical as civilian leaders have a broad background and some come with little to no understanding of particular policy instruments. With regard to military leaders, its incumbent upon us to provide the best advice to those leaders as they contemplate using military force to achieve a policy objective. The advice however must be put in a way that those leaders understand the associated risks such as pursuing short term goals at the expense of more enduring ones. Often the risk may not be evident at first glance. It may also not be recognized that a more effective and even efficient (relative to using other means) way of achieving the short without as much risk to the enduring is at hand. Here I think considering the design and stressing it may bear that out. As such something like ODP facilitates the discussion and can temper policy appetite some keeping the pendulum more in the center (unless the passion of the people is invoked and then there is new weight assigned)

Another thing I liked about it is the value in looking long range - like out to 20 years. I really think we've made a big step forward with the GEF (Guidance for Employment of the Force) and the GDF (Guidance for the Development of the Force) (both can be Googled for the UNCLASS .ppts and PDFs - the actuals are on SIPR). While the GCCs Theater Campaign Plans reflect the priorities of the GEF (which reflect our strategic documents), the GDF reflects a combination of our analysis of from future studies and from the GCCs identified priorities and expressed gaps.

Here I think an ODP process can better help the broader USG consider gaps in the broader USG from Inter-Agency requirements to legislation such as the 1206/1207 paras of the NDA. The two go hand in hand - we could have the perfect suite of tools prepared but unless we have the authorizations required to employ them and make them effective when opportunities or crises arise they are of limited use. Looking ahead in a comprehensive manner starts the debate early and can does a better job and considering some of the indicators that might take the argument in one direction or another. We could be talking about organizational structure or manning, or about issues what policies to pursue, the goal is to better address the conditions which lead to ad-hoc, partially effective solutions that often create more problems then they solve.

I don't mean to say its perfect, infallible, or a panacea - only better then what we do now because it facilitates continued engagement and opens the door to recognizing new potential outcomes as a result of interaction. Having said that, the full value still resides in the leaders openness to hearing other opinions then the one they might prefer. Something like ODP better lays out the relevancy, and makes it harder to cling to a view formed on incomplete understanding. If done throughout - it constantly stresses assumptions and produces new knowledge that can be used to adjust ends/ways/means over time as new interactions occur and actors are introduced, retire or change their position in accordance with new realities brought on by interaction.

Best, Rob

Rob Thornton
06-10-2008, 09:03 PM
I was looking for a way to depict the relationship between ODP and planning/implmentation. Its important I think because the implementation of a policy, strategy and plan are far harder then the act of putting it down on paper. I realize its not perfect - but what it should express is the environment is interactive and having a theory you can test as new events unfold that were unanticipated produces new knowledge. Understand that those bands are not fixed - they could plateu, could diverge, could change color, and that objectives may change over time. I did not want to go down the road of a slide build which shows time, better to just tell folks that the frequency and strength of each line is contingent. Its an interactive environment, and being beholden to a policy which is no longer relevant can cause no end of pain and risk. I apologize for the colors and complexity up front, but with the caveat that the environment is often complex.

Best, Rob

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