Technology, Innovation and Modern War — Class 14 — Planning- Major General Mike Fenzel

We just held our fourteenth session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern War. Joe Felter, Raj Shah and I designed a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.

Today’s topic was Strategy, Plans and Policy in the Joint Staff.

Catch up with the class by reading our summaries of the previous thirteen classes here.

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Some of the readings for this week included CNAS “The Next Defense Strategy” series, Sustaining the Future of Indo-Pacific Defense Strategy, Enhancing Forward Defense: The Role of Allies and Partners in the Indo-Pacific, Make China the Explicit Priority in the Next NDS, the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, Lessons for a Future War

Our guest speaker was Major General Mike Fenzel, Vice Director for Strategy, Plans and Policy, J5 for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Joint Chiefs are advisors to the President, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff submits a national military strategy biennially to Congress. The Joint Chiefs have no operational authority over troops. The chain of command for military operations goes from the President to the Secretary of Defense directly to the commanders of the combatant commands.

The mission of the Joint Staff J5 is to propose strategies, plans, and policy recommendations to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to support his provision of military advice to the President and other national leaders across the full spectrum of national security concerns. The J5 ensures these recommendations are informed by a larger strategic context–coordinated with interagency and alliance partners; account for the view and requirements of the combatant commanders; and assess risk in executing the National Military Strategy. The J5 is one of eight primary staff directorates in the Joint Chiefs of Staff organization, which is depicted below.

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The diagram below is a summary of the DoD’s Adaptive Planning and Execution Enterprise. The top right shows the civilian-military dialog that gives the military direction for the development and execution of military plans. The purple box in the middle is where the Joint Chiefs of Staff – and General Fenzel’s group — help develop the National Military Strategy (NMS), Joint Strategic Campaign Plan (JSCP), Joint Military Net Assessment (JMNA) and the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO). These plans drive the detailed military plans and courses of action.

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A major emphasis of this course is appreciating that developing technologies is not what directly impacts modern war but how these technologies are adopted by militaries to develop new operational concepts, doctrines and strategies. Given this, we thought the class would benefit hearing from one of the top officers in the U.S. military responsible for developing our military’s strategies and plans for conducting future wars. I’ve extracted and paraphrased a few of General Fenzel’s key insights and urge you to read the entire transcript here and listen to the audio of his complete talk.

How is Defense Policy Formed?

Policy is formed starting at the Joint Staff with advice. It’s referred to as the best military advice. That’s what we as a Joint Staff tee up for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since he is a principal military advisor to both the President and the Secretary of Defense. Most of our time is spent ensuring that that advice can be formed and offered in a concerted and thoughtful way. And that it takes into consideration all of the conditions, circumstances and opinions of the combatant commanders.

You’re sitting through what’s called an operational deputies meeting, which is the precursor to something that’s referred to as a Tank (the nickname given to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Conference Room in the Pentagon). And that’s where all the service chiefs and all the Combatant Command commanders and all the Joint Staff directors come together. And they decide how they should proceed before a recommendation goes to the Secretary of Defense. It’s a very big deal.

There is a painting on the wall of the Tank with Abraham Lincoln and his commanders; it’s called The Peacemakers. I think it’s important that painting is on the wall because that reflects how we all feel. Those who experienced war are the ones that hate it the most.

Global Integration of Operational Plans

In the past, when we talked about Operational Plans for combatant commands like Central Command, or INDOPACOM, or a European Command, we didn’t think about global integration. We would be developing those Plans in isolation because it was us against one adversary or another. Now it’s not that neat. It’s not limited to a given region, or area of operation. There’s cyber, there’s space. There has always been the nuclear issue. But cyber and space alone demand global integration. If there is a threat in one region, there are implications in other regions as well.

We refer to this as a “global integration framework.” We’re developing a framework for how to think about the problem, instead of launching right into a given course that might be irrelevant the moment the plan is completed. There’s a lot of effort involved in thinking about what can be done early, what can be done as the crisis is brewing, to get us to what we call “off ramps” — a position where we steer away from conflict. And that’s an area that I’m most obsessed with and most interested in — off ramps to conflict, rather than moving to conflict because of the far-reaching complications associated with any conflict that might erupt.

There’s a Need for AI in Operational Planning

We have a desperate need for artificial intelligence to be brought to bear in this environment. We have something called operational plans. We have an operational plan for just about every scenario you can think of. Every adversary, every condition, every circumstance, we have an Oplan that’s numbered. I have them on my desk. I’m looking at them. It is an eight and a half by 14 sheet of paper, with size 10 font. It’s all the way filled up with all of our Operational plans.

But each one of those Operational plans is for essentially a moment in time. That means, this is how many forces are applied against it, how many tasks have to be accomplished, this is the way the flow is going to go, these are the phases. All brilliant, except as soon as you’re done with it, it’s almost irrelevant, because things aren’t going to go the way you plan them to go. The very first minutes of any battle are going to change that. It’s going to change the requirements as well. So if we had that ability to knock back down these silos and take the variables, input them and then collate them quickly based upon the way the Chairman or these commanders would like to think about it. Or what if we change this variable or that variable, we would be in a much stronger position. So that’s something we need help with, to provide us greater agility. But there must be a way to develop a mechanism by which we can think through these things quicker, and change variables in order to provide additional options.

What’s your process to try to predict what’s going to happen so far down the road?

The short answer is that it’s challenging. Not a moment goes by without us considering how we should test or evaluate one of those concepts. We have an entire Joint Staff Directorate that is devoted to thinking about the future. The Office of Net Assessment in the Office Secretary of Defense (it used to be run by Andy Marshal and now Jim Baker) is focused on thinking out to 50 years. But the bridge between where we are today, and where we’re going to be in 30 years, that’s the J-7 (Joint Force Development) thinking hard about developing a concept, that’s considered in iterations and critiqued. In these Tanks and other forums, over and over again, we consider what are the tenets of this future concept going to be?”

Once it’s established it’s immediately going to be tested in the form of tabletop exercises and in global integrated exercises — where all the Combatant Commands and all the services are involved. And then after each one of those tabletop exercises, and after those integration exercises, which last about 10 days or longer, we take the lessons learned, and we put them right back and correct the concept as it’s developed. The feedback we get from the regional commands and the services is obviously at the heart of it. Their lifeblood is to determine what the requirements are going to be in terms of weaponry. What are the requirements are going to be in terms of technology? Where are we are going to be potentially fighting so that we’re in a position to respond? And things like hypersonics, things like directed energy, all of those things are being worked quite actively.

But if they’re not applied against a concept that addresses how we how we fight, then it’s disjointed and then not effective in the end. So it’s the synchronization of those two — the commands and their perspectives, the services and their responsibility to train and equip the force — coupled with how we press forward as a joint force, which is how we refer to all the services and all of their roles, that’s the glue. And that’s what happens up here at the Joint Staff.

How has your thinking changed in the last couple years realizing that we don’t have 30 years to deploy exquisite systems? Might we want to get back to these fast, disposable things that we could deploy rapidly, or have we not gotten there?

We’re moving in that direction purposefully. What we’re concerned with on the Joint Staff and across the combatant commands and the services, is how we leap ahead. What is it going to look like? And what are those things that we’ve been doing, because the military industrial complex is so powerful, that we don’t need to be doing anymore? What are systems that are no longer connected to the way we’ll fight in the future? Those things that are going provide us future dominance on future battlefields of whatever variety, whatever shape. We want to move purposefully in that direction, but not walk away from the potential for a shooting fight to develop and us not be in a position to respond with overwhelming force.

You see what’s going on in the Nagorno Karabakh right now. And you realize that this is moving in a clear direction, but perhaps not at the pace that we might believe. So we’ve got to create a balance between that high-end fighting and cyber warfare, and some of these other things that are clearly going to develop and become far more important in the future.

If the US military has a conflict where would we fail?

It’s the issue of force projection. It’s the time and distance. If you’re talking about a European Theater you’re talking in terms of hours. When you talk about Indo Pacific, you’re talking about days. Then there is the concomitant challenge of logistics. And as you start to distribute your forces, they are almost by definition, they begin to be cut off. So how is it that you project force, maintain force and supply the force? Working through those challenges, that is crucially important.

So we need to speed up the cementing of these alliances and coalitions. Otherwise, there’s simply no way to bridge these distances. No way to effectively address the overwhelming requirements for force projection. And by that, it can be sea lift, air, you pick the type, it’s just not possible to do it on our own. And it’s not possible to do it with previous alliances alone. They’ve got to expand. Because if we go to war in the future, we’re certainly going to go to war as an alliance, as a coalition. The development and cementing of past close relationships and then bringing in other strange bedfellows into this alliance is something critically important to consider. There are the traditional partners, like Australia and New Zealand and the Philippines. There are others that we’d welcome to be brought in as well, like Vietnam, like Indonesia. That sort of work is diplomatic to be sure, but that is going to be the most important thing.

What should future American global alliances look like?

In the Indo Pacific, the thing that I believe has to be addressed much more intensively is the Indo part of Indo Pacific. India and the potential to cooperate more closely with United States to advance shared interests is a critical step to take. The timing is right, as you’ve watched some of the events unfold on the border between India and China.But that’s one that is going to take time. Because it’s moving away from what was a more solitary approach that they’ve taken up until recently, to where perhaps it can go.

We have to be more strategic in the way we consider it right now. What you see now is a sort of hyper-focused obsession with China. And I’m not saying that’s the wrong approach. But I am saying it can be limiting. We’re expanding beyond just the Indo Pacific because China has expanded far beyond the Indo Pacific.

A Global Alliance has to consider where China is located. They’re in Africa, they’re in South America, they are globally represented. And they’ve done so quite strategically, I just believe in the development of alliances and whether that be through countering the Belt and Road initiative and engaging those countries, when it comes to overflight, basing, and things like that. Those things are critically important to consider. And it can’t simply be limited to IndoPacom. Because China is not limiting themselves to their region.

Obviously, their backyard is what China focuses on the most. And the Taiwan Straits are a hot-button issue. And the South China Sea is something there’s great intensity about when we talk about freedom of navigation operations. But of course, in our own back yard China is also engaging countries within our Western Hemisphere. And so, as we develop these alliances, we have to give as much thought to their development as was given to NATO in the development and its origins as well. I understand there are some that exist already. There’s ASEAN, there’s others. There’s a number of those that are related directly to the Western Hemisphere. But we can be more thoughtful about how we knit these together.

Should the Joint Staff have a structure for the acquisition of capabilities, making sure it matches the modernization of our operational concepts?

Embedded in that question is this issue of how long it takes to get anything done. If you decide something is worthwhile purchasing. It can 10 years before it becomes a fielded requirement, which is not acceptable. That’s where we need to take a page from the private sector and apply it. We have to find a way to cut through the bureaucracy and move more quickly. There is an entire command that cuts through bureaucratic friction very, very quickly. And that’s Special Operations Command.

Why and how that hasn’t been expanded and become more pervasive I’m not entirely sure. There are Congressional limitations and legal issues associated with it. But I believe that’s a model that that needs to be replicated. I also believe, and perhaps this is what you’re suggesting, that there should be some level of capability pushed down well below the major command level. So from the four-star level, perhaps down to at least the two-star level, which is normally between 10,000 and 20,000 troops, to address their needs. Because as you deploy troops, whether it be a task force, or a ground force, they all have unique capabilities. And the inability for us to adjust to the new threats as they present themselves quickly, is critical.

We have to build into the systems for acquisition a method by which we can be far more agile. It needs to be pushed down to an appropriate level to allow for units to be more agile and to adjust if there’s a change of mission. If you’re going into Africa, and that’s your focus one month, but then you’re moving to into INDOPACOM and another you’re must be able to then shift your focus and prepare yourselves quickly for what might come whether that be off the shelf, or otherwise. But the future is going to demand that we become more agile as it pertains to acquisition.

How do you view the balance between conventional versus Special Operations Forces and how does that translate in a conflict with a near peer competitor?

I think the operative word is balance. I don’t think there’s any conflict we should ever be involved in — whether it be near peer or otherwise — without having a combination of the forces where they’re complementing one another – where one or the other is reinforcing. I’ll give you an example and it’s rather an emotional example, but it’s illustrative.

Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan that led to the death of four of our Navy SEALSyou may have seen the movie Lone Survivor. I was the acting Brigade Commander in what was Regional command East at the time. The commander was on leave. A group of five SEALS came in to coordinate on an operation they were going to be doing up in the hills above the Korengal Valley. We had a conversation, they walked through the mission they were going to be conducting. I suggested they delay the operation for about four days. A full battalion of Marines – 900 Marines – were going to be operating in that same area by then and they would have been in a position to be a QRF. The SEALS opted to stick with their planned timeline.

Three days later, you had the MH-47 (helicopter) crash. You had the loss of four SEALS. To me that has always stood out as a demonstration of the imperative of the complementary nature of both conventional and special operating forces. And when you’re talking about fighting a near peer, and having been in in Desert Storm, you had special operations forces working in a very different way. They were focused on SCUD missiles at the time. But what they were doing was preparing the way for the conventional forces to flow forward.

There are 1,000 different permutations of that. But if the relationship between the conventional force and special operations forces is not close, if there isn’t true integration, then you’ve got a much more difficult problem set as it pertains to whatever conflict with whatever enemy force you’re speaking about. And then there are cases with this two plus three; we talked about the three – the last one being violent extremist organizations. Special Operations Forces, they can’t go anywhere without conventional support. Whether to provide security, quick reaction force, or whatever the case may be. So I think defining and cementing this approach to complementarity and reinforcement, that is at the at the center of what all future plans should consider.

Do you think that the State Department should also be expanded to meet that increased need to cultivate greater cooperation?

You’ve just put your finger on a hot-button issue for me. I worked there for a year and a half. The commitment and the investment in the State Department and frankly in diplomacy, is about 1/20th of what it should be. I’m not suggesting the military should be drawn down and the diplomatic force should be expanded. I am absolutely suggesting that the State Department should be expanded to a point where it’s commensurate with the demands that are placed upon it.

When I traveled it was clear to me how overstretched each Country Team at our embassies was. It didn’t matter what country or embassy we were in. Every person had four or five jobs, all of which are critical for the conduct of diplomacy in that country. I was overwhelmed at how hard they were working to keep things moving forward to support US interests. Overstretched and underfunded.

The military prides themselves on the close relationship they have with their diplomatic counterparts. We depend on one another. Certainly, the diplomats depend on the military for protection, but it’s far, far beyond that. It goes into the complementary nature of our respective missions. And that is precisely what prevents conflict. I think in the places where we don’t have engagement, those are the places where the greatest threat exists.

A dramatic expansion, both to the funding and to the infrastructure to support it, is terribly important. I know, you’ve heard the quote of Secretary Mattis, “I far prefer for my diplomatic counterparts to do the work they have to do than me to have to expend one bullet.”

Advice to students?

Don’t ever lose the level of learning you feel right now and the intensity by which you’re pursuing it. That in my experience differentiates those that move up quickly whether in the military or private sector. It’s the intense curiosity, the intellectual curiosity, that demand for more information. One of my closest friends, I find him online on a regular basis, taking online courses with MIT, just trying to figure out some aspect of AI that he didn’t understand. And he pursues it zealously. That, I think, is one of those character traits that you’re going to have to maintain throughout your entire career if you want to get to the level that you’re driven to.

Read the entire transcript of General Fenzel’s talk and listen to the audio.

Lessons Learned

— There’s an Operational Plan for everything

  • Today they’re all drawn up by hand
  • Wars and contingencies never play out as they are planned- but planning is still critical.
  • There’s a real opportunity for AI in planning

— Force projection in Indo-Pacific is a time and distance problem

  • How it is that you project force, maintain force and supply the force when it would take days?
  • The answer is more fully leveraging the potential of our allies and partners

— Alliances matter

  • The State Department is the military’s partner in building and maintaining alliances and coalitions
  • But it is woefully underfunded and understaffed

— Acquisition is not meeting DoD requirements, but Special Operations Command has seemed to find a way around it

Steve Blank writes about defense innovation at

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