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Lesson 6: National Security Planning

Lesson Overview

This lesson provides an overview of the national security planning.

At the end of this lesson, you will be able to describe:

  • Various types of national security planning
  • The key planning processes used by department and agencies in the Federal Government
  • Examples of effective interagency planning

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This lesson takes approximately 20 minutes to complete.

National Security Planning Overview

There are many different planning processes and initiatives used for national security affairs. The term ‘planning’ has no common definition across the US government, but fundamentally planning involves the process of aligning resources and developing a methodology to achieve goals. Planning can include the development of national strategies and national policy guidance, the development of agency strategic plans mandated by the Government Performance and Results Act, or operational planning.

In general, the US government "plans" for three reasons:

  • To accomplish near-term goals;
  • To prepare for contingencies; and
  • To develop capabilities.
Image of world map with highlighted locations scattered throughout Central America, Africa, Middle East and Southeast Asia.

The starting point for all national security planning is the National Security Strategy. All departments and agencies plan in some fashion to accomplish near-term goals. This type of planning usually results in a budget and the agency's strategic plan. Fewer departments and agencies plan in advance for contingencies or have formal processes to respond to national security crises. Capability development planning also varies widely by department or agency. Of note, the homeland security community also has a comprehensive national planning system under development that will guide interagency planning. (More information on homeland security planning).

U.S. ‘whole-of-government’ planning is increasingly the focus of national security planning initiatives. Even individual agencies responsible for key national security functions are beginning to integrate interagency feedback into their internal planning processes. These initiatives are a recognition that integrated action requires coordination of planning effort.

Agency Strategic Plans

All national security departments and agencies (except the CIA) are required to develop a strategic plan under the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA). These plans generally reflect an individual department or agency's priorities only and tend to be budget-oriented.

GPRA mandates that strategic plans cover at least five years and contain a comprehensive mission statement, general goals and objectives, and a description of how the goals and objectives are to be achieved. Strategic plans must be updated at least every three years.

Images of multiple government reports on strategic planning.

Department and Agency Strategic Plans

Homeland Security
Health and Human Services
Housing and Urban Development
Quadrennial Defense Review

Foreign Policy and Development Planning

Cover of the Strategic Plan  from the U.S. Dept. of State and U.S. Agency for International Development

The Department of State and the US Agency for International Development produce a joint strategic plan every 2-3 years that defines the primary goals of US foreign policy and development assistance as well as the Departmental priorities within each of the goals. The joint strategic plan also establishes regional foreign policy priorities.

Each year every mission prepares a Mission Strategic Plan (MSP) that outlines the intended goals, priority initiatives, and performance indicators with targets for the country team. The MSP covers all US government activity in a mission, since it is produced by the country team. MSPs are required to link mission programs to the Department of State's foreign policy goals and strategic objectives outlined in the joint strategic plan. The Director of Foreign Assistance works with each Mission, Bureau and Congress to negotiate funding allocations for foreign assistance programs. After agreement is reached with Congress, each Mission is provided their specific funding allocations, which the Mission then uses to develop more detailed budget plans.

Each operating unit (country, bureau, or regional program) that receives foreign assistance funds also develops an Operational Plan, a one-year tactical implementation plan for that operating unit, to ensure that all foreign assistance resources are coordinated and appropriately linked to foreign policy objectives. This plan is intended to provide a comprehensive, interagency picture of all foreign assistance resources planned for implementation in country. Country Operational Plans are approved by the Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance at the Department of State.

The Department of State also requires each bureau to develop an annual Bureau Strategic Plan that identifies a specific plan to achieve that bureau's objectives, including budget and human resource requests related to specific goals and priorities. All of the outlined plans are used as input to the State Department budgeting and assessment processes, which include OMB-directed program planning documents, such as the Performance and Accountability Report and the Program Assessment Rating Tool.

Country Assistance Strategies

In early 2008, the Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance approved a new concept for developing "whole of government" country assistance strategies (CAS). The CAS process will produce a statement of overall USG foreign assistance priorities in a given country, regardless of funding source. The CAS concept is being tested in ten countries around the world: Tanzania, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Philippines, Armenia, Bosnia, Morocco, Nepal, Jamaica, and Honduras.

Images of recipients of U.S. aid around the world. People of developing nations.

Not every country receiving US foreign assistance will be required to complete a CAS. Generally, countries with very small or one-dimensional assistance programs would be exempted, as would certain countries already under intense interagency scrutiny (e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan.) A CAS will provide a clear sense of what the U.S. government anticipates can be achieved by the end of the five-year period. While long-term in focus, it is open to modification in response to unforeseen developments. A CAS will provide focus, not be a comprehensive description of all U.S. government foreign assistance interests or programs in a given country. The CAS will be based on consultations with the host government and other important stakeholders. While it is meant to inform budgetary decisions, the CAS will not serve as a resource request or performance management plan.

The desired result is improved strategic and programmatic coordination among the various departments, agencies, and other entities involved in implementing foreign assistance, both at headquarters and in the field. Making the CAS a joint effort between Washington and the field will ensure that the advantages of both perspectives—the field's superior knowledge of local conditions and Washington’s knowledge of policy, political and resource trends—are fully exploited and reflected in the document.

An evaluation of the pilot CAS experience will help refine the process of producing the CAS, as well as the content of the document itself, and will be used to develop comprehensive guidance for broader implementation.

Best Practice: Plan Colombia

Plane flying over Colombia  as part of U.S. and Columbia partnership

"Plan Colombia" is often cited as a best practice for interagency cooperation. In 2000, the US government designed a comprehensive $1.6 billion package of assistance to help Colombia fight the illicit drug trade, increase the rule of law, protect human rights, expand economic development, institute judicial reform, and foster peace. The assistance package had five components:

  • Improve governing capacity and respect for human rights
  • Train and equip counter-narcotics units to enable operations into Southern Colombia
  • Provide economic alternatives assistance
  • Increase interdiction in Colombia and the region
  • Assist Colombian National Police eradication efforts

The State Department worked closely with the National Security Council staff, the Department of Defense, the US Agency for International Development, law enforcement agencies, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Congress, and the Colombia government to develop the comprehensive assistance package. Early in the process, US government partners agreed upon the goals for US assistance, and established various governance and working groups in Washington, at US Southern Command, and in Colombia. These working groups met on a recurring basis to work through the details of the assistance plan. They were supported by a strong, cohesive interagency leadership team that set a positive example of interagency collaboration.

Interagency collaboration was critical throughout the policy cycle from policy development to resourcing to execution of US assistance. Other unique aspects of Plan Colombia that contributed to its success included significant, coordinated, and successful efforts to gain Congressional support, the flexibility of planning efforts to adjust to changing circumstances, and the support of the Colombia government.

Since inception, Plan Colombia has helped establish security in the Colombian countryside, contributed to strong economic growth, and fostered public confidence in Colombian governmental institutions. Since 2001, Colombia’s cocaine production has declined by 22 percent, and seizures of cocaine bound for the United States have increased by two thirds. Additionally, kidnappings in Colombia have fallen by 76 percent, terrorist attacks by 61 percent, and homicides by 40 percent, and poverty has also been reduced.

More information on Plan Colombia

National Implementation Plan for the War on Terror

The National Implementation Plan for the War on Terror (NIP), approved by the President in June 2006, was a groundbreaking collaborative effort by the US government to synchronize counterterrorism planning and activities of departments and agencies representing all elements of national power. The NIP was produced under the authorities for strategic operational planning that were assigned to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which legislated many of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. NCTC worked closely with a wide variety of departments and agencies and a Senior Interagency Strategy Team (SIST)—a body of senior representatives from core CT departments and agencies—to produce the original NIP in 2006 and an updated version in 2008.

The NIP contains four component plans that serve as the foundation for implementing the strategy: Protect and Defend the Homeland (PD), Attack Terrorists and their Capacity to Operate in the United States and Abroad (ATC), Counter Violent Extremism (CVE), and Prevent Terrorists' Acquisition or Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD-T). Recognizing that some elements of strategic planning touch all the component plans, NIP 2008 includes four cross-cutting enablers: Expand Foreign Partners and Partnership Capacity, Institutionalization of the Strategy for the War on Terror, Information Sharing, and Intelligence Collection and Analysis.

The updated NIP contains 18 strategic objectives and 64 sub-objectives, crafted as end states to reflect a desired condition where the United States is best positioned to prevent, disrupt, and respond to terrorism. The sub-objectives describe a measurable and achievable outcome to facilitate assessment of interagency progress toward the goals. In NIP 2008, departmental leads and partners are assigned at the sub-objective level and are accountable for collaborating to ensure the sub-objective is achieved.

Image of the NIP 2008 Process and Framework for Implementation

Text description of this graphic is available on a separate page.

NIP 2008 includes a process for implementation that builds on the lessons learned from the original NIP. This new framework for NIP implementation lays out a system by which departments and agencies identify impediments to successful achievement of strategic objectives and then determine an interagency approach to resolve the issue(s). The process will leverage ongoing interagency initiatives and existing interagency forums to the extent possible. The graphic to the right depicts the framework for NIP 2008 implementation.

NIP 2008, as its predecessor, reflects the collaborative process that was used in both its creation and execution. Over twenty departments and agencies and over one hundred representatives from across the US government contributed to the development of the document and many more work daily to ensure its implementation through ongoing efforts that leverage the full range of US government instruments of national power. Efforts range from domestic work with state and local governments to international efforts to build foreign partnerships and capacity to counter terrorism far from US borders. The NIP is a living document that will continue to evolve to address changing tactics of our enemy and reflect increased US government and partner nation capacity. As with the 2008 version, it also will continue to evolve to institutionalize lessons learned in collaborative interagency implementation of a multi-faceted and long range strategy for the War on Terror.

Reconstruction and Stabilization Planning

As reinforced by recent lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan, the success of US government efforts to respond to complex reconstruction and stabilization environments requires an integrated, interagency approach. NSPD-44 designated the Secretary of State to coordinate and lead US efforts to prepare for, plan, conduct and assess reconstruction and stabilization activities. Over the past several years, S/CRS has been building a "whole-of-government" planning framework, associated with its Interagency Management System, for reconstruction and stabilization. The planning framework accounts for both crisis response and long-term scenario-based planning. A guiding principle is the inclusion of all relevant US government departments and agencies in the planning process.

Image of the New Planning Framework for R & S

Text description of this graphic is available on a separate page.

View the Foreign Assistance Framework Chart.

The planning framework for reconstruction and stabilization establishes a four-stage process:

  • Situation analysis assembles data and strategic information to build a knowledge base on vulnerable countries using the Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework.
  • Policy formulation articulates clear policy options with associated risks and benefits in the form of a Policy Advisory Memo. A Principals or Deputies Committee issues a Policy Statement that sets the reconstruction and stabilization goals, provides estimated resource availability, and designates the lead US agency responsible for planning and the lead US official responsible for reconstruction and stabilization operations.
  • Strategy development results in an approved US government reconstruction and stabilization Strategic Plan that prioritizes, sequences, and identifies cross-sectoral linkages of US government efforts. The Strategic Plan includes:
    • Plan overview template—one page graphic depiction of the plan
    • Strategic plan narrative—situation analysis; overarching policy goal; critical planning considerations; major mission elements; prioritization, sequencing and linkages of major mission elements
    • Comprehensive resource and management strategy—rough order of magnitude requirements and availabilities for each major mission element
    • Major mission element concepts—approach for achieving this mission; linkages with other mission elements; sub-objectives; criteria for success; capability requirements; other planning considerations
    • Relevant technical annexes (e.g., logistics, personnel, etc.)
    • Decisions that remain in Washington (e.g., decision to work with host nation armed forces)
  • Interagency implementation planning is an iterative process to synchronize diplomatic, development and defense implementation planning and tasks towards the Strategic Plan. This plan refines major mission element concepts based on the development of sub-objective concepts, determines how to use resources, establishes evaluation metrics, and continues to synchronize cross-sectoral activities.

As this planning framework comes into use, lessons will be incorporated on how best to create the desired unity of effort in reconstruction and stabilization missions.

Military Planning

Image of the cover of the National Defense Strategy for June 2008

DOD’s planning hierarchy starts with the National Defense Strategy which is an unclassified document updated every two years by the Secretary of Defense that describes overarching defense objectives and strategy; broadly outlines how DOD will support national guidance/strategy objectives; and evaluates the strategic environment, challenges, and risks.

Unique to DOD, the Secretary of Defense also issues planning guidance captured in two documents: Guidance for Employment of the Force (0-2 year timeframe and focused on operations) and Guidance for Development of the Force (2-20 year timeframe and focused on capability development). Each planning guidance document assigns planning tasks; outlines more detailed objectives; establishes relative priorities; provides assumptions; outlines planning processes; and provides resource allocation guidance.

The development of operational plans, which is most often what DOD refers to as planning is conducted using the Secretary’s guidance and the adaptive planning process. There are two types of operational plans:

  • Campaign Plans: Accomplish near-term goals; implemented upon approval; synchronize DOD activities and resources, including security cooperation that will be applied to a region or a functional issue over the next fiscal year.
  • Contingency Plans: Prepare for potential contingencies; executed only at the direction of the Secretary of Defense and with the approval of the President; depending on the assigned detail level, can range from describing a strategic concept of operation to a very detailed time-phased description of how an operation will be executed.

Combatant commanders are responsible for developing campaign and contingency plans, and often work with country teams to provide input to mission plans. Below the combatant commander level, sub-unified commands, service component commands, joint task forces, and other units down through the tactical level all do operational planning that is linked to the next higher headquarters plan.

Various DOD components use the Guidance for Development of the Force to build various types of capability plans. These longer-term capability plans then serve as the basis for DOD’s six-year budget plan, called the Future Years Defense Program. Short-term resource allocation processes (0-2 years) focus on the next budget year and the force allocation process.

In the last several years, DOD has sought interagency input to DOD plans more consistently, both in the development of its planning guidance and, increasingly, in the development of operational plans. The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are responsible for coordinating DOD plans with other departments and agencies and for leading DoD input to the national "whole of government" planning efforts led by other agencies. As mentioned, combatant commanders also coordinate with country teams in the development of country-specific plans. The Secretary of Defense uses the interagency coordination process led by the National Security Council to resolve any policy issues that arise during DOD plan development.

Adaptive Planning Brief
Joint Publication 5-0: Joint Operation Planning

Best Practice: PROMOTE COOPERATION Initiative

Cover of the Game Book from Expeditionary Warrior 07

While DOD has long recognized the necessity to collaborate with other USG departments and agencies on contingency planning, there are significant impediments to interagency planning collaboration, including dissimilar planning cultures, diverse timelines, and security concerns. In 2001, DOD established the PROMOTE COOPERATION initiative to better integrate interagency viewpoints into its planning efforts.

PROMOTE COOPERATION is a forum sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff to bring partners together from across the interagency community to help DOD work through specific planning issues. PROMOTE COOPERATION meetings vary in format and participants based on the planning issue to be discussed. In addition to working through specific issues, PROMOTE COOPERATION provides an opportunity for participants to gain a better understanding of each agency’s role, missions, and capabilities. Recent seminars have featured more than 30 different offices from across the US government coming together for a common purpose. The results of PROMOTE COOPERATION conferences are improving DOD’s planning assumptions and its understanding of how civilian agency actions and programs integrate with DOD plans, as well as identifying issues that require further collaboration.

The Guidance for Employment of the Force directed interagency input early in the plan development process on two campaign plans—US Southern Command and US Africa Command. PROMOTE COOPERATION provides a forum to develop these new plans and to develop the relationships and processes required for success.

Contact the Joint Staff/J7, Interagency Planning Branch for more information on PROMOTE COOPERATION (703-697-3017).

Knowledge Review

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Lesson 6: Summary

This lesson presented the following topics:

  • Various types of national security planning
  • The key planning processes used by department and agencies in the Federal Government
  • Examples of effective interagency planning

The next lesson summarizes this orientation course and provides additional resources.


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