Science-Based Scenario Design

A Proposed Method to Support Political-Strategic Analysis

by Timothy R. Heath, Matthew Lane

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Research Questions

  1. How can nonmilitary factors be used in defense planning?
  2. What is the different between political-strategic and military decisions in defense planning?
  3. Why is the current approach to scenario analysis to support political-strategic decisions problematic?
  4. How can recent findings in social science regarding variables related to crises and wars offer the potential to remedy defects of the current approach and aid the development of more rigorous, transparent, and politically realistic scenarios?
  5. How can scenario designers incorporate these factors into more holistic, rigorous, and politically realistic scenarios?

Among the most important types of decisions that confront decisionmakers and defense planners are those that commit a nation to conflict, calibrate the use of force to achieve overall strategic goals, and de-escalate a crisis situation in a manner consistent with political objectives. Decisions that authorize a dramatic initiation or escalation of force can carry profound implications for a nation's economy, strategic situation, or survival. Scenario-based analysis remains the most developed and useful tool to support such decisionmaking, but the lack of guidance on how to incorporate nonmilitary factors has often resulted in scenarios that suffer problems of opaque methodology, unsupported assumptions, and implausibility.

In this report, the authors aim to achieve four things. First, they distinguish between political-strategic and military decisions in the work of defense planning. Second, they explain why the current approach to employing scenario analysis to support political-strategic decisions is problematic. Third, they argue that recent findings in social science regarding variables related to crises and wars offer the potential to remedy these defects and aid the development of scenarios that are more rigorous, transparent, and politically realistic. Finally, the authors show how analysts can incorporate these factors into more-holistic and more-realistic assumptions through a process that generates "science-based structured scenarios." To illustrate how this methodology might be applied, the authors provide an example centered on a hypothetical China-Taiwan conflict.

Key Findings

  • Growth in scientific research on the causes of war and the drivers of conflict escalation provides a valuable resource to create scenarios that more accurately present the conditions that could create future crises or conflict.
  • The onset of conflict is deeply influenced by structural and proximate variables.
  • Some of the structural and proximate nonmilitary factors — such as the tendency toward the multilateralization of disputes, alliance building, and serial crises — carry important implications for military decisions.


  • Strengthening the nonmilitary factors in scenarios designed to support military decision-making could thus help improve the quality of military as well as political-strategic analysis.
  • More work will be required to translate the findings from the social sciences into formats that can be more easily used in defense planning processes and intelligence analysis.
  • Findings can be summarized and arranged in a systematic manner to more closely support the development of escalation templates.
  • Further research could help clarify how differing types of conflict scenarios involve specific structural and proximate factors.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Distinguishing Between Military and Political-Strategic Decisions in Defense Planning

  • Chapter Three

    A Way Forward: Science-Based Structured Scenarios

  • Chapter Four

    Developing Science-Based Structured Scenarios

  • Chapter Five


  • Appendix A

    Variation in Nonmilitary Factors for Different Types of Crisis and Conflict Situations

  • Appendix B

    Sample Scenario Build: China-Taiwan Conflict Onset

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the Cyber and Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute (NDRI), a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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