Monday, January 06, 2020

One Simply Does Not Do "Throw Away COAs"

Over the weekend I pounded out a thread on twitter that got a lot of attention, so I wanted to bring it here for the good folks on the Front Porch who wisely stay away from that hellsite.

What prompted the thread was the story started, I believe, by a writer at NYT that the killing of Qasem Soleimani was "a mistake" because some careless staffer put that option in a decision brief as a poison pill to drive decisions towards what they wanted ... yet Trump picked it anyway to everyone's shock.

Though "garbage COAs" or "throwaway options" should be an urban myth, you do see it as a too-clever-by-half bureaucratic tactic by the immature, unprofessional, uneducated, or unethical who by some mistake make it in to a planning team. 

Both in the classroom and the staff room, those type of people or mercilessly culled or used as an object of scorn as an example of what not to do. I'm sorry, that simply is not what is done.

Like a religion, operational planning at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels have a myriad of confessions and variations on a theme. They do have some fundamentals in common.

Along those lines, I offered to set the record straight that at the highest levels, these things are not done. Sure, they do happen now and then - but that poorly of a led staff is the great exception, not the rule - and you can tell by the decisions they made.

Good people can disagree on if it was time to eliminate QS; but after the storming of our embassy, it was not a "throwaway."

Enough intro, you can read the unroll here, or just the repeat below. It has not been edited, put down warts and all.
It simply is not done.

Here is how it works. This is for a 4-star, you can scale up to a CINC.

Before the 4-star sees the slide deck, 50/50 chance the COS has looked at it (another 3 or 4 star). Prior to that, the at least two other 2 or 3 stars have approved it. Before that a whole gaggle of O6 types were involved in getting it ready for prime time.

Everyone in that series would have to give a nod to a "throwaway slide" containing something they would not want to, or would not be able to, execute. Best practices, based on preliminary direction & guidance, would allow 2 or at most 3 Courses of Action (COA) for the principal to choose from.

They run a spectrum usually based on increasing levels of effort/risk. All COA are what the staff recommend as valid and executable options. Below the above mentioned O6 (Colonel or navy Captain) is a whole bee hive of O3-O5s working. If anyone of them were a jackass enough to propose something we couldn't sell to OPS or PLANS - much less the O6 gauntlet, they wouldn't be on the planning group anymore. I had people removed from my teams for less.

It would help everyone if those who are so vested in hating Trump that they can't think straight would just check themselves for a bit. Say what you want about Trump, but there are some people of exceptional quality in his national security staff, both civilian & military, who are briefing options for him.

I am willing to have history prove me wrong, but I know enough about those people & have played that game enough to be willing to put down a paycheck or two that the "throwaway slide" is just made up, or is a bitter boy talking out of school because his/her preferred COA was not the one the CINC approved.

You see, that is a thing about COA - each one is there because in the chain of staff officers there are some who are convinced that their COA is the best option. The other COAs are sub-optimal garbage staff officers of lesser vision have proposed. Yes, even in staffs, crap is political and egos are in play. Good GOFO promote that friction though, as they want different and valid options to bring up to the Principal.

Heck, I was briefing my preferred COA to a 4-star once & his 3-star ground component commander (who I later briefly worked for when he got his 4th star - fun story for a different day) interrupted & challenged my/our ground force levels (he wanted more & different). I - just a middling navy O5 - looked over at the Principal, who just said, "Well, Sal explain to LtGen XXX what he doesn't understand about your COA." ... and he let me go back and forth with the GCC. (NB: the J3 told me the COA I was briefing was the one J00 wanted, so I knew I was OK to dance).

Anyway, the other 2 COA briefed that day were also valid & good COA, all depended on the Principal's desired effort/risk calculus. In that crowd, with a constellation of GOFO and senior civilian leaders, it would be career suicide - not to mention gross professional malpractice & unethical - to put anything up there that was "garbage" or "throwaway." 
Sure, the Principal may choose COA-C - and that will cause butthurt for those on the staff who really like COA-A & COA-B, but that does not make COA-C a throwaway ... unless of course, the person calling it that is a immature & unprofessional brat who by using that terminology, just advertises that they should not been on that high level of a staff to begin with.

So, at the end of the day, 99% this is either a made up story or was a leak by a disgruntled staffer who is butthurt their preferred COA was not chosen.

There is that 1% chance that history will prove me wrong and at the highest levels of the US government we have staffers who will produce and approve options for the CINC that are "garbage" and "throwaway" to the degree they would fail out of my NATO Operational Planning course.

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