Research Brief

The United States had six months for planning, organizing, and training its forces in Operation Desert Storm. It may never again enjoy such favorable circumstances. To be ready for future challenges, the Air Force is reviewing and reevaluating how it plans and executes air operations in support of theater campaigns. Project AIR FORCE researchers at RAND interviewed planners at U.S. Air Force organizations—at home and abroad—to gain insights into air campaign planning and how the process might be improved. In Perspectives on Theater Air Campaign Planning, David Thaler and David Shlapak compare the planning process in its ideal form with the planning process as it really is.

The Ideal Planning Process

In theory, campaigns would be planned according to a hierarchy of objectives. This hierarchy begins with the President, who formulates national security objectives, and ends with component commanders' staffs, who define the operational tasks that must be accomplished to achieve objectives in a particular theater. There is also a hierarchy in the planning process—it begins with the theater commander-in-chief (CINC) who prepares a campaign plan for his area of responsibility and ends with the air component commander who oversees the air campaign. The air component commander's staff prepares the air tasking order—a script for operations—to give to the air units. At all levels, the development and adjustment of these plans depend upon quality and timely intelligence, assessment, and communications.

The Real Planning Process

Air campaign planning does not always proceed as smoothly as this model suggests. The chain between the national command authority and the theater CINC and his components can break in at least three places: (1) The national command authority may not articulate national objectives clearly enough for the theater commander, (2) the CINC's guidance may be unclear to one or more of his component commanders, and (3) the components may be unable or unwilling to harmonize their activities to achieve the theater CINC's goals. Conversations with planners revealed examples of all three disconnects. Planning for prospective air operations in Bosnia, for example, seems to have suffered from a lack of coherent top-level guidance on objectives.

Many interviewees complained that the planning, decision, and execution cycle—the process of setting priorities, developing a time-phased plan, and building and disseminating an air tasking order—is not responsive enough. The length of the cycle, which runs from 36 to 48 hours, can make adaptation to rapid change in the battle space difficult. Much of this cycle time is consumed in building the air tasking order—a long and complex document to guide aircrews in executing missions. Sometimes those at the wing and squadron level are not left with enough time for mission preparation once the air tasking order is distributed.

Interviewees also expressed concern that the feedback loop between planning, execution, and assessment is broken. Accurate information about what has been attacked does not percolate rapidly back to either the target-nominators or the planners, often resulting in the perception that target requests have been lost in the shuffle; this can cause friction among the component commanders. Damage assessment also tends to focus on physical rather than functional results of battle. Commanders need to know how their actions affect enemy capabilities, not merely how much enemy equipment they have destroyed. Otherwise, they may order unnecessary reattacks or neglect still-functioning targets.

Although there is great potential for automation in air campaign planning, the current process is not yet integrated. Different planning groups designed and purchased their own hardware and software with little attention to whether it would all work together. As a result, planners in different communities have not been able to call up and work from a common database. A solution to this problem, however, is on its way.

Improving the Planning Process

Discovering ways to strengthen the weak links in the hierarchy of objectives will require a concentrated effort. In particular, remedies are needed for situations where national- and theater-level objectives are not well defined or where cause-and-effect relationships between military options and desired political results are unclear. There is a need to build a menu of potential campaign and operational objectives in various scenarios, to gain insights into priorities among these objectives, and to link the achievement of these objectives to political aims.

The disputes and disconnects that now arise between communities and components in the planning, decision, and execution cycle could be addressed through air operations groups. These are standing mini-Joint Forces Air Component Commander staffs that all of the commands have organized or are organizing. The Air Operations Groups can serve at least three other important functions in enhancing air campaign planning: They can contribute to long-range planning, train future air component command staff, and test new planning and execution concepts.

In spite of interviewee complaints that the planning, decision, and execution cycle is too slow, RAND researchers maintain that flexibility may be more important to increasing the cycle's responsiveness than speed. Reforms should be directed at creating a planning process that (1) provides timely outputs to facilitate sortie generation, (2) lets the theater commander and his component commanders understand and control the overall campaign architecture, (3) makes the planning process and execution outcomes more transparent to the other components, and (4) is adaptive to the ebb and flow of events in the battle space.

To improve intelligence support for campaign planning, more emphasis should be placed on assessing functional disruption as opposed to the physical results of an attack. Commanders and planners need to know the effect of their actions on enemy capabilities, not merely how many items of equipment are "confirmed kills." If a physical assessment after a first attack reveals that the bridge remains standing, for example, a commander might order a reattack. However, a functional assessment might show after a first attack that enemy forces approaching the bridge turned around without crossing. The commander would then know that the bridge is impassable.

The maze of hardware, software, and data that planners now rely on is being integrated into a common architecture through the contingency automated planning system (CTAPS). Universally applauded by users, CTAPS consists largely of off-the-shelf hardware and software. CTAPS now allows automatic transmission of the air tasking order and will eventually be interoperable with automated command and control support systems deployed by the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.

Despite advances in automation, planning will remain a manpower-intensive process requiring smart, well-trained people. The recommendations made here will require further research and analysis before they are ready for implementation. The planning system is not badly broken, but some fine-tuning is needed to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

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