Assumptions matter: A perspective from the northern wall

THULE AIR BASE, Greenland -- -- Thirty-fourth president and first Supreme Allied Commander Europe Dwight D. Eisenhower is known to have said “Plans are nothing; but planning is everything.”

Most can agree that plans are often overcome by events, or OBE, by the time it comes to execution. Human interactions, technological improvements, and alterations in the physical and cyber terrain are usually too dynamic to be rigidly confined to paper. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” and all that.

But the second half of Ike’s statement is just as compelling; by acknowledging that plans quickly become OBE, we should not just ‘wing it.’ Instead, we build and invest in processes which continuously evaluate planning elements and assumptions, rather than entrusting our fate to heroics.

Through the routine and careful revisiting, and even testing of existing assumptions, we usually discover more about our own weaknesses and strengths as well as those of our potential adversaries. To brutalize Sun Tzu, “If you know yourself and your enemy, you will never know defeat.” Information, whether it be from the Intelligence Community, open source reporting, accurate SITREPS, and systematic reviews of programs is paramount to feeding this analysis.

Take the concept of the ‘permissive environment,’ which is a prevalent assumption in most CONUS-based planning. This assumption essentially means we can do what we want when we want because our opponents are either incapable or unwilling. Air, space, and cyberspace superiority, secure basing, and other unhindered operations are features of the permissive, or unchallenged, environment.

In light of resurgent international competition in Europe and the Pacific, in all domains, do all our activities truly operate in an unchallenged environment? How many current operations and future plans are built on the permissive environment assumption? How many waivers or deviations from established but under-resourced requirements rely on the overriding belief that it cannot happen ‘here?’ How quickly assumptions can change: Hannibal’s elephants over the Alps, Pearl Harbor, the Tet Offensive, and 9/11 are all examples which demonstrate how quickly the operational environment alters. Is our readiness-resources, manpower, training-postured or at least building toward the threats to come?

This gray area is where young CGOs and the junior NCOs can thrive. They are the plans OICs, the training NCOs, and the readiness monitors. They are the closest to the ‘problem;’ that is the person best positioned to identify the gap and build to a solution.

In light of our dynamic environment, all program managers, enlisted and officer, owe it to their commander not to gloss over shortfalls. Training staffs must frequently apprise their commanders on what is not getting done due to resource or qualification constraints. And the useful staff officer will advise her commander not just on what is broken, but plan out how to correct the gap, that is, how to get to yes. Commanders all have a ‘1 to N’ list of priorities; there is no shame in developing ‘N,’ you at least have made the list. And even if it is a dormant priority, your commander is now equipped for when opportunity has met your preparation.

But how do young staff officers and NCOs identify gaps? Well, they must revisit the assumptions.

Take for instance a support agreement, where another organization has agreed to provide capability that you need, a capability that your organization cannot generate organically. Have you contacted them lately? Do you even know their phone number? If they are military, do they also deploy that capability-implying that capability may not be there when you need it?

Assuming positive feedback, have you exercised the relationship? Here is where your inspection teams and wing planning offices can earn their pay. Because if you have not tested the agreement, you cannot know that it actually works. And if it works, without testing, it probably will not work well.

Concerning materiel-what capability or requirement have you been waiving which you might need in that contested environment? Does your organization have a plan or messaged an actionable unfunded requirement to fill this gap? Very few requirements and capabilities are the kind that your organization will NEVER need. Be careful in using the ‘permissive environment’ assumption to justify its liquidation, because the day that assumption is invalidated is the day you will need it.

It is OK to start a plan that will take some years to achieve; build continuity concurrently with your planning so it can be carried and even finished by those who follow you. Build for the long game to ensure we can overcome in the contested environment.