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