Why Planning Is Everything for the Military

While an argument can be made for cuts to defense spending, it must be enough to allow the United States to appropriately respond in the event of future security crises or wars.

By + More
The guided-missile destroyer USS Milius is docked at Glenn Cruise Terminal in Port Klang, Malaysia.

Michael P. Noonan is the director of the program on national security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Over at foreignpolicy.com Micah Zenko, the Douglas Dillon fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written a provocative piece about the U.S. military's inability to predict future wars correctly and their penchant for using force sizing models to make up for their lack of predictive certainty. His big takeaway seems to be that

In short, [current U.S. military capabilities are plenty], especially in an era when the United States faces no plausible significant security challenges, and the world enjoys fewer violent conflicts, increased political freedom, and greater economic opportunity than at virtually any other point in human history. The U.S. military has what General Mattis described as "a built-in shock absorber, basically can go anywhere and do anything." However, there are tremendous economic and human costs to sustaining such an enormous, latent warfighting capacity. By having a defense budget ($525 billion, not including Afghanistan costs) that is more than 11 times that of the State Department budget, USAID budget, and all foreign assistance combined ($47 billion), you arrive at the "militarization of foreign policy" that senior military officials constantly lament.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

While an argument can be made that current U.S. defense spending should be reduced or restructured, particularly if we withdraw significant forces from Afghanistan in the near future, I am not sure that his own assumption and prediction that the United States "faces no plausible significant security challenge" holds—or will continue to hold even if one thinks that that is where we are at today. The rise of China, the continued relevance of al Qaeda affiliates and their affiliated movement, drug-fueled violence in Mexico, etc., etc. make the future security environment far from certain.

The big concern is that the quest for savings will favor maintaining capital-intensive systems while cutting back on things like professional military education. Fellow The World Report blogger Ilan Berman wrote about such short-sightedness at the National Defense University yesterday. Reprogramming professional military education funding, especially in an age of fiscal austerity and rapid change, is the epitome of being penny wise and pound foolish. As the noted author Eric Hoffer wrote, "In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Returning to Zenko's comments about planning and predictions, much can be learned from a speech that the President Dwight David Eisenhower delivered before the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference in Washington, D.C. on November 14, 1957. In that speech he stated,

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: The very definition of "emergency" is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.

So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven't been planning you can't start to work, intelligently at least.

That is the reason it is so important to plan, to keep yourselves steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve—or to help to solve.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

This was good advice in 1957 and is even better advice today. So while the U.S. military may be "100 percent Right 0 percent of the time" the thinking and planning that gets to that outcome has a better than zero percent return on investment.

  • Read Elizabeth Prodromou: Keep Turkey's Military Out of Syria
  • Read Andrew Natsios: The U.S. Finds Odd Bedfellows in the Arab Spring
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy