August 31, 2012

Always Have a Plan B...and Be Courageous Enough to Develop It

I had the great pleasure of the attending the Change of Command ceremony for the Marine Corps’ Special Operations Command (MARSOC), where MajGen Paul Lefebvre handed over command to MajGen Mark Clark. I count myself quite blessed to have MajGen Lefebvre as an exceptional mentor, counselor, and the finest example of leadership at all levels. In bringing me into the Strategic Initiatives Group a dozen years ago, he gave me my start as an analyst and extended great patience, encouragement, and confidence as I found my feet in the art of finding and connecting ‘the dots’. Further, I have long admired his capacity for and dedication to ‘intellectual courage’ in saying things that needed to be said about subjects that others were unwilling to address. Specifically, the General has been a strong advocate of reviewing the Corps’ strategic purpose and the way in which it makes is optimal contribution to the Nation’s security especially as the operating environment has changed over the past decade and our national capabilities have correspondingly evolved. 

Whether we like it or not, the world changes. Old powers depart the scene and new powers emerge. Technological advances change the ability of actors to pursue objectives just as shifting power structures and alliances change the geographic and cultural settings of America’s security interests. A decade of war has had its impact on our forces, their relative capabilities and the relationships among the services and operational commands. For example, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has dramatically changed in its role, capabilities, global presence, and utility and there are now different operational relationships between the national intelligence community and military forces deployed into operational theaters. One can also not ignore the implications of our country’s profoundly changed fiscal environment. With increased budgetary pressures driving expectations of relatively less resources being available for defense in the coming years it stands to reason that changes will be imposed on the military services. Service leaders should be accounting for this. 

For many years now, the Corps has stood firmly by its tagline “the Nation’s 911 force” and the related catchphrase “most ready when the nation is least ready.” But what does that mean in our current and projected-future context? What are the implications of a dramatically changed budget environment? Senior Marine Corps leadership has flatly stated that a Corps end-strength of 182,000 (accounting for a directed reduction of 20K Marines) is the absolute ‘floor’ for manpower, that anything less would compromise the ability of the Corps to serve the needs of the Nation. Yet 182K is still 8,000 more than what the Corps had only a few years ago and it was manned at that level in a much more robust economic climate. If what senior defense officials are saying is true, that the Defense Department is not actively planning alternative structures to account for the potential, and increasingly likely, implementation of sequestration in 2013 and beyond, then the military services will be quite unprepared for such cuts if/when they do occur. It is quite true that demand from the regional combatant commands (CENTCOM, SOUTHCOM, PACOM, et al) for Marines and Marine Corps units is stronger than ever. I suspect, however, this is because of the inherent nature, training and capabilities of Marines and the general utility of Marine Corps units when compared to the highly specialized nature of units from other Services. 

Criticism of the Corps for not developing an Option B (and C, D, E and F) that accounts for sequestration or other challenges to the preferred Marine Corps plan is applicable to the other services and the Department as a whole too. Any military commander worth his salt develops alternative courses of action and ‘branches and sequels’ when planning an operation, i.e. different ways to attack a problem and variations of ‘what if’ scenarios to account for the unexpected and “what if the enemy does ‘x’ instead of ‘y’”. Failure to do so introduces potentially lethal vulnerabilities to any plan since the commander, his staff, and the force will be unprepared such events. One reason the Services appear not to be doing so as suggested by the many folks who are wondering about the lack of alternative planning is that senior leaders are playing a game of ‘chicken’ with Congress -- ‘we have one plan and only one plan that we’re executing and you guys had better fund it or...’ Left unstated, of course, is what comes after ‘or...’ I think it is highly likely that the Defense Department will have its bluff called if not intentionally by Congress (for many reasons) then by default as a result of Congress’ inability to find budget savings elsewhere sufficient to avoid sequestration. Consequently, the Services will be caught flat-footed with their single options in a range of major programs suddenly fiscally untenable. 

Developing a "Plan B" does come with risks among them being the possibility that in a severely constrained fiscal environment one's preferred but very expensive system falls victim to the cheaper Plan B Alternative. Looking at alternatives also tends to threaten vested interests who have much to gain for the success of Plan A but perhaps not so much from Plan B. Alternative plans also tend to generate disruption or an uncomfortable bit of 'unknown' in an otherwise smoothly running, comfortable, and well understood operations. Look at alternatives and developing them into 'B' options takes courage. It can certainly upset some apple carts but it's the right thing to do for long-term success.

This coming Winter and Spring should be an interesting time for those in the programs and resources business.

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