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U.S. Department of Defense Strategic Planning: The Missing Nexus

Authored by Professor Douglas C. Lovelace Jr., Dr. Thomas-Durell Young. | September 1995

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Strategic planning is a challenging, but necessary, endeavor for any organization, small or large. For the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) it is a sacred responsibility to the Nation. President Eisenhower said in 1958, ?No military task is of greater importance than the development of strategic plans which relate our revolutionary new weapons and force deployments to national security objectives.?1 In spite of its attention to strategic planning, DoD has not enjoyed great success in this area. For example, in 1985, a congressional staff report characterized DoD? s strategic planning in the following manner:

Inattention to strategic planning has led to numerous deficiencies, including a lack of clarity of DoD? s strategic goals. The stated goals are vague and ambiguous. In an organization as large as DoD, the clear articulation of overall strategic goals can play an important role in achieving a coordinated effort toward these goals by the various components and individuals within them. Clarity of goals can enhance unity and integration. DoD loses the benefit of this unifying mechanism through its failure to clarify its strategic goals. To correct this probli and other strategic planning deficiencies, DoD needs to establish and maintain a well-designed and highly interactive strategic planning process.2

Following up on this staff finding, Congress, in the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 (GNA), prescribed for DoD a hierarchical process for strategic direction, strategic planning, and contingency planning for the U.S. Armed Forces.3 This process was designed to improve strategic planning by harmonizing strategic direction and planning with the development of defense programs that would enable DoD to achieve its strategic goals. It was also designed to integrate and rationalize the strategic and operational planning conducted by the combatant Commanders-in-Chief (CINCs). To these ends, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) was assigned key and specific responsibilities.4 Since passage of the GNA, which is now codified in Title 10, United States Code (10 USC), the JCS and then the Chairman have developed, impliented, and revised specific processes for fulfilling most of these statutory responsibilities.

Enactment of the GNA notwithstanding, strategic planning currently conducted by the Joint Staff, on behalf of the Chairman, does not adequately establish and specify strategic objectives nor does it integrate and establish priorities for them. In short, current strategic planning for the U.S. Armed Forces is of limited use in planning for future military capabilities and integrating the planning conducted by the CINCs. It should ensure that both of these efforts conform to national military and security objectives. Equally disturbing, it does not provide sufficient underlying rationale for the review of service functions nor does it provide unequivocal and compelling bases for the development and implientation of joint doctrine.

This essay will describe and assess the strategic direction and planning processes used by the Chairman, identify and discuss difficulties with the extant processes, and assess potential solutions. It will focus on the strategic planning conducted at the Chairman?s level because that planning should provide the critical nexus between national security policy formulation and the execution of that policy by the CINCs. It should also serve as the critical link between the requirements of the CINCs and the programs designed by the Services to meet those requirements.

We recognize that substantial and ultimate responsibility for strategic direction and strategic planning resides with the Secretary of Defense and President, and that the processes they use and the products they produce affect the efforts of the Chairman. Therefore, this essay will also examine and assess aspects of the President?s National Security Strategy (NSS) and the Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) issued by the Secretary of Defense to initiate the Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS) .5

To provide a foundation for analysis, this essay will first define ?strategic plans? as used in the GNA and 10 USC. To frame more clearly and describe the strategic planning responsibilities of the Chairman, a brief review of the President?s and Secretary of Defense?s roles in this arena will be conducted. Next an examination of the current Joint Strategic Planning System (JSPS) will be presented, followed by a discussion of many of the strategic planning initiatives impliented since passage of the GNA. Inadequacies within the current strategic planning processes which inhibit their utility in assisting the Chairman in providing integrated strategic advice to the National Command Authorities (NCA)6 will be identified and assessed to show that these deficiencies result from the absence of a comprehensive strategic plan. The current planning processes produce a plethora of documents designed to provide unified strategic direction to the Services, CINCs and defense agencies, and timely military advice to the National Command Authorities. However, assessments of those documents reveal significant inadequacies because the prime integrating document, a strategic plan, is absent. The essay concludes with recommendations for changes in the current strategic planning system.


This essay has argued that strategic plans should act as the critical nexus connecting national security policy with operation planning, military requirements determination, and military capability development. Without strategic plans, joint strategic planning will continue to be flawed by:

  • inability to establish specific priorities for national military objectives;
  • unnecessary duplication in the development of military capabilities;
  • disaggregated, regionally-focused contingency plan- ning;
  • inability to reach consensus on a more rational assignment of service functions; and,
  • continued difficulty in the development and implientation of joint doctrine.

10 USC, as amended by GNA, vests the Chairman with responsibility for the development of ?strategic plans.? The Chairman holds the highest position in the strategic planning hierarchy that is not directly constrained by political considerations. This is not to infer that the Chairman is oblivious or immune to political forces, but only to point out that he may have greater political latitude than the Secretary of Defense or the President. There is no statutory requirement for the Secretary or the President explicitly to approve the strategic plans prepared by the Chairman. The National Military Strategic Plan should be considered part of his military advice to the National Command Authorities. So advised, the National Command Authorities may develop a clearer and more concise approach toward implienting the National Security Strategy, without openly risking the political capital that a more precise NSS might risk.

When Georgy Arbatov, Chairman of the U.S.A.-Canada Institute, said in late 1989 ?We are depriving you of an enemy,? few realized the prescience of his comment.100 The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, demise of the Soviet Union, and end of the Cold War unsuspectingly cut away the anchor that provided continuity in strategic planning for the U.S. Armed Forces. Set adrift, the ship of state has successfully defended itself from encroaching menacing vessels. It defeated a corrupt government of Panama, punished and ejected Iraq from Kuwait, and restored the legitimate government of Haiti. However, the United States cannot drift indefinitely lest it unexpectedly run aground or be caught up in an unforeseen storm. The United States needs proactive strategic plans that will equip the U.S. Armed Forces to face the challenges of the 21st century. It is time to set sail and get underway. The strategic planning machinery is already in place. All that is needed is a star by which to steer.


1. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Message to Congress, April 3, 1958, cited in Directions for Defense (Advance Copy), Report of the Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces, May 24, 1995, pp. 2-2.

2. U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services,Defense Organization and the Need for Change, Staff Report, 99th Congress, 1st Session, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985, p. 8.

3. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, Report 99-824, 99th Congress, 2nd Session, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986, pp. 5, 17.

4. Ibid., pp. 17-18.

5. The Secretary of Defense?s Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS) and the President?s National Security Council System (NSCS) are critical to national level strategic direction and planning and are certainly worthy of critical analysis. However, we will address them in this essay only to the extent necessary to facilitate our study of Chairman level processes and products. For example, the National Security Strategy (NSS), developed by the NSC, directly impacts and to some extent predetermines the National Military Strategy developed by the Chairman. While we will refrain from assessing the NSCS, we must examine the NSS. Similarly, while a complete assessment of the PPBS is beyond the scope of this study, we will examine the Defense Planning Guidance and the manner in which it relates to the strategic planning conducted by the Chairman. Therefore, we will focus on the interfaces between the Chairman?s Joint Strategic Planning System (JSPS) and the PPBS and NSCS.

6. Joint Pub 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, p. 253, defines the NCA as the President and the Secretary of Defense or their duly deputized alternates or successors.

100 Georgy Arbatov, ?We Are Depriving You of an Enemy, ? USA Today, November 16, 1989, Sec. A, p. 7.