I've complained ad nauseam about the scientific, mathematical approach to planning military operations, known as the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) a few times (most notably here and here). As near as I can determine, (and as the MDMP manual points out) this process was first developed by the German General Staff during the decades prior to the First World War, and was largely applied to planning one specific campaign: the Schlieffen Plan, which was designed to be a six-week German sweep through Belgium and into France, followed by a re-deployment of forces from France to counter any possible Russian invasion.
Although the Schlieffen Plan featured meticulous planning, it was strategically flawed. Much like our foray into Iraq in 2003, it failed to take into account the effects of insurgents—in this case, the effects that the Belgian insurgents had upon German troop movements through Belgium and into France. The German General Staff also made the false assumption that the Russian Army would take greater than six months to mobilize. This resulted in the Western thrust through France being too weak to counter French resistance just short of Paris, as German troops were diverted to protect against the oncoming Russian invasion.
MDMP can be an effective tool when facing conventional armies much like our own, whose movements generally have some sense of predictability. It also works well for non-tactical movements (such as a movement of troops and supplies to an initial staging base, for example), which can also be predicted with relative certainty. Unfortunately, there are far too many variables, in many cases, to accurately apply it to an insurgency.
But the US Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, under the leadership of former 82nd Airborne Division Commander Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, has developed an alternative to the traditional Military Decision Making Process. Known as "Systemic Operational Design", it is a method for first understanding and then solving the multiple layers of problems which permeate the complex hybrid wars we might find ourselves in. As is pointed out in Joint Forces Quarterly:
In the end, design is what commanders do before formulating their commander's guidance and statement of intent that initiate formal planning. It is what they do during operations, when they consider not only whether they are doing things well, but also if they are doing the right things.6 Design is "a method of problem solving that utilizes learning and rigorous dialectic to derive sound appreciation of the problem and the best options available for managing and treating" the underlying causes of complex transformative situations.7
Design, on the other hand, is meant to help commanders tackle less clear-cut problems. Let's say Country X's government has collapsed after years of instability, and now there's rioting, drug-running and bloody sectarian squabbling on the streets — the kind of societal collapse that has a bad habit of spreading across borders. (For an example, see the overlapping conflicts in Chad, Darfur, South Sudan and Central African Republic, which one Army intel officer characterized as a Mad Max-style "Thunderdome.") In that kind of situation, it's not always clear what caused the problem, or how to deal with it. MDMP isn't equipped for handling so many unknowns. Rather than trying to squeeze the square peg of Country X's rioters, drug runners and tribal militaimen, into the round hole of a theoretical tank battalion, Design asks commanders to conceptualize a brand-new strategy, from scratch. Simply put, you've got to think outside your old, dog-eared field manual.
If sounds to you like an overly verbose description of a very basic idea, you're not alone. "This is not a new way doing things," Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, commander of the Army's intellectual establishment at Ft. Leavenworth, told Danger Room. "All great leaders have always thought this way." The Army just wants to get it into writing. Caldwell is overseeing the writing of a new field manual, FM 5-0, that includes a chapter on Design.
Design is about commanders "spending time figuring out what the problem is they're really trying to solve," rather than simply "jumping in trying to solve" the problem they're most comfortable with. That kind of sober yet creative command is exactly what the U.S. military needs, in this age of hybrid, irregular threats.
Certainly worth reading more about. The new manual which will contain the SOD process, FM 5-0 is still in development, so it will be some time before we see it in action. The description of the process also seems to indicate that this process doesn't completely replace the traditional MDMP, rather, it enhances it. It gives commanders a framework through which they can understand the underlying and fundamental causes of a complex problem before they go about coming up with a solution to it. We'll still need the traditional MDMP, as there are still many aspects of it which are applicable to a number of missions.
Yes, that means that, for the foreseeable future, captains at the career courses will still slug through MDMP while fighting Soviet Division Tactical Groups. Sigh…
US Army Combined Arms Center Blog re: Design
A Systemic Concept for Operational Design (Very John Boyd-like title)
Small Wars Council—Should the Army and Marines adopt Systemic Operational Design?
And, to aid the dialectic process, a case against SOD (the author claims that it was used by the Israeli Army with less-than-spectacular results)