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Standard of Ur, 26th century BC, "War" panel, c.2600BC


Planning to fight a war is universally seen as aggressive. After all, "planning" to fight a war means that the planner intends to do serious violence to the people their war plan defines as "the enemy", right? And violence is bad -- therefore, war planning must be a bad thing...right?

Well - no.

US Army staff meeting, Baghdad, Iraq, 2011 - US Department of Defense photo

Countries fight wars. If the reader learns nothing else from History class, it should be that. Now, wars are fought for many reasons; sometimes, those wars are fought for all the wrong reasons, for mistakes and errors of judgement, sometimes for loot or religion, and sometimes, just for the "doing" of conquest.

German troops crossing the Soviet border during Operation Barbarossa, 22 June 1941

 But, what about "just" wars? Suppose that Country X has "stuff". Country X is willing to share...but their neighbor, Country Y, doesn't want to share - they want all the stuff. Country X has two options: they can blare a prerecorded message saying "We Surrender!" over loudspeakers scattered throughout the country, as Country Y's forces march in (this was actually proposed by Leftist politicians in the Scandinavian country of Denmark in the 1980's; the Danes - being Danes - politely declined), or Country X can resist.




Ramses II at the Battle of Kadesh (relief at Abu Simbel)

Insert four thousand years of recorded battle, army creation, training and support history here.

Over the millennia, those who study it have been able to agree that certain aspects of warfare are universal. While this is not the venue to discuss all of those common aspects, one of the central tenets is that having a plan - almost any plan - when sharp, pointy objects start flying, is infinitely better than having no plan at all.

Now, it's important to define what we're talking about, here. We are talking about nation-level plans. We are not talking about what the British Army used to call "Small Tactics", or the methods of moving tiny groups of troops in direct combat with an enemy. Neither is it the maneuvering of larger units, such as regiments and brigades, or even divisions.

What we are talking about here, is the planning at the national level. Let's look at the best-documented modern example: the development of the so-called "Rainbow Plans" of the United States of America, in the first half of the 20th Century.

For countless generations after the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, common thinking on warfare was usually limited to a very narrow world of people, in any given place and time. It was only improvements in communications and the wider interchange of people between states and cultures that opened the door to that interchange, beginning in earnest in the 15th Century: the walls of Constantinople - capitol of the Eastern Roman Empire (often called the 'Byzantine Empire') - stood, impregnable, for over a thousand years before falling to Ottoman cannon fire...and those cannons were largely designed by a Christian Hungarian military engineer.

Foreign Officers and Correspondents after the Battle of Shaho, 1904 - By P. F. Collier & Son [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


By the 19th Century, it was entirely possible to find many foreign officers serving their respective states as observers in wars their state was not involved in: Prussian officers observed Federal forces during the American Civil War, while their counterparts from England observed the Confederate forces. These officers neither advised, nor took part in the fighting; they merely observed operations. The information and experiences they brought home, frequently helped shape their own armies' future policies.

Still, however, war planning was generally a very nebulous exercise; it was usually done "on the fly". Information was usually scarce, and commanders in the field largely had to guess the situation they were walking into...And, if this sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, it usually was. This was taken as a "cost of doing business" by commanders, because no one saw an alternative.

And then - the Spanish-American War happened.

Detail from Charge of the 24th and 25th Colored Infantry and Rescue of Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, July 2, 1898 depicting the Battle of San Juan Hill - By Kurz and Allison [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Then-US Secretary of State John Hay might have called it a "splendid little war", but in point of fact, the United States force's performance was abysmally bad. It is in no way a stretch to say that the United States won the war more because Spanish forces were even more incompetent than they were. Once the stirring sounds of marching bands and the cheers of the crowds faded in the war's aftermath, the US Army and Navy faced the fact that their respective on-scene commanders both pursued separate theater strategies, and neither had either the information or support - intelligence or logistic -

American troops raising the Flag at Fort San Antonio De Abad, Malate, Philippines (1899) - By Alden March [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

to properly execute the separate and mutually exclusive plans they determined to pursue. Where the United States had been able to project military power beyond its shores fifty years before, and to effectively coordinate joint operations forty years prior, something had gone wrong.


The result, in 1903, was the Joint Army and Navy Board.

Aircraft carrier HMS Argus, 1918 - US Navy photo

The Board's mission was to plan for potential wars that the United States may need to wage. Since the 1870's, the United States - like many European powers before it - had become increasingly tied to foreign trade; instability in a foreign land had the potential to cause significant damage to the US economy, if not start an actual shooting war. US military power at that time was nowhere near what it is today - the prospect of a hostile navy conducting a devastating shelling of US coastal cities was a very real concern.



Red guard unit of the Vulkan factory in Petrograd, October 1917 - Viktor Bulla [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 Much has been made, over time, about the Joint Board and its supposedly isolated and insular nature, operating outside the reality of geopolitics. In fact, the Joint Board began by only acting on information fed to it from the civilian State Department. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, this assumed new urgency. Like Iran some sixty years later, an ally quite literally changed from a friend to a potential enemy overnight.

The Joint Board thus began examining as many potential conflicts as it could realistically foresee, as evidenced by the list of plans they produced at some level, between 1904 and 1945:

BLUE           USA
BLACK        Germany
ORANGE     Japan
RED              Great Britain
CRIMSON    Canada
SCARLET    Australia
GARNET      New Zealand
RUBY           Indian Empire
GOLD           France
SILVER         Italy
OLIVE          Spain
GREEN        Mexico
BROWN      Netherlands East Indies/Indonesia
LEMON       Portugal
CITRON      Brazil
YELLOW    China
INDIGO       Iceland
EMERALD  Eire/Ireland
GRAY          Azores
TAN             Cuba
VIOLET      China Intervention
WHITE        USA (Domestic Contingency)

[Source: Michael Vlahos, The Blue Sword, 1980]

Some of these plans are well known, such as ORANGE (the war plan to defeat the Empire of Japan), and RED (the war plan to fight Great Britain, the subject of a somewhat breathless documentary by Britain's Channel 5, in 2011). But the rest of the plans reflected the reality of the United States' strategic situation in the first four decades of the 20th Century.

One aspect of these plans were the so-called "Rainbow Plans", begun in the 1930's, that postulated potential wars against alliances of multiple states on the list.

So -- what goes into a war plan at this level?

The primary purpose of a nation's strategic war plan against a potential enemy, is to present a realistic assessment of that potential opponent's capabilities. Assessing the strategic intent of an enemy is not usually a concern for the war planner, because - as in the case of both Russia and Iran - those intentions can change with surprising speed. A war plan focuses on the actions of the "friendly country" once war has been declared, or (as was the case after the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii) once combat operations have commenced.

A war plan is a theoretical blueprint. It seeks to present "best options", based on assessments of the enemy in question: What resources does the enemy possess? What are the points of entry into their country? What targets and systems need to be attacked, in what order? What forces and facilities of the enemy need to be attacked immediately, and which can be bypassed, and dealt with later? What are the enemy's capabilities to strike your country and its forces?

These are not questions that can be addressed on the fly. The information takes time to assemble, and planners are only human - the cycle of information intake, assessment and employment cannot be accelerated at short notice. A war plan, then, uses the most accurate information available to make general plans. Those general plans are far easier to alter based on current information, than starting from scratch. Orders can be instantly disseminated to commands, to get the right forces moving, in the right order.

But...Why is this important?

German women doing their washing at a cold water hydrant in a Berlin street, 3 July 1945 - By No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Wilkes A (Sergeant) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

No one profits from long wars. The faster the decision cycle, the faster that decisive, war-winning dominance can be gained by one side or the other, the faster the war ends, and the fewer people die...And therein lays the secret that anti-military people hate to acknowledge: the best militaries always seek to win as quickly as possible, with the fewest number of deaths to the "friendly" side -- and, more likely than not, fewer deaths on the "enemy" side. That requires states to quite literally spend money on guns, instead of butter: to plan, prepare, stockpile equipment, train troops, maintain ready forces and update all of those things as necessary, against the day when they may be needed.

The core of the war plan, then, is a clear understanding of what the planning force is to accomplish, in the shortest possible time, with the most effective expenditure of people and resources.

Failure to plan effectively, inevitably leads to complete failures of strategy, and long, bloody wars, that can last interminably, wrecking the economy of the country and killing entire generations of youth.

Would, that leaders of the first part of the 21st Century had listened to the leaders of the first part of the 20th.

U.S. and Czech soldiers provide security, Bagram, Afghanistan, 26 March 2015 - US Department of Defense



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