Six Lessons for Combined Planning

A Guest Post by Nick Simontis

“There is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies – And that is to fight without them”  

-Winston S. Churchill

Sitting down in a conference room surrounded by blank whiteboards and charged with developing a plan can be a daunting task for a group of Army planners. The task becomes increasingly difficult in a joint environment, as planners wrestle with joint and service doctrines, service-specific jargon and acronyms, and conflicting service interests. These challenges multiply in a bilateral or multinational environment. Yet this is a situation that we will face more frequently as the trend of coalition operations continues, and working with international partners becomes our new normal. Unfortunately, while doctrine addresses the planning process broadly, there are no doctrinal references that address the actual nuts and bolts of combined planning, laying out the hurdles to multinational planning at the operational planning team (OPT) level.

U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Inf. Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Inf. Division and the Senegalese Army’s 1st Paratrooper Battalion rehearse mortar crew drills July 12, in Thies, Senegal as part of Africa Readiness Training 2016.

Over the course of my career, through luck or happenstance, I either led or participated in multiple bilateral or multinational planning efforts centered on developing contingency or operational plans for the Middle East or in Asia. Over the course of my experiences, I developed a fair amount of scar tissue and learned a few lessons along the way. I pass these lessons along here in the form of six rules for multinational planning.

Lesson One – Allow Sufficient Time. Multinational planning invariably takes significantly more time than planning in a U.S. only group. My rule of thumb when laying out the planning timeline (the plan to plan) in a multinational or bilateral setting is to allow three times the time I would allot for a U.S. only group. For example, if I would expect a U.S. only OPT to complete mission analysis in two days, I will allot six days for a multinational planning team. Even then, it may not be sufficient time. Thus, another useful technique is to work in plenty of catch-up days in your timeline, to ensure you hit key gates, such as scheduled update briefings to key leaders. The additional time investment can be a challenge to deconflict with other priorities, but it is well worth the investment. The primary consumer of time is simply the process of communication. All discussions must be slow and precise to ensure common understanding. The communication cycle – speaking, waiting for translation, ensuring receipt and understanding, clarifying questions, and responses to those questions, all takes time and a great deal of patience. If you go into the planning effort with a realistic appreciation of the amount of time required, it will relieve a lot of pressure at the outset.

Lesson Two – Doctrine Provides a Common Frame of Reference. Doctrine is the fundamental set of precepts and conventions that serve as the foundations for military actions. Those actions include staff processes such as planning. Doctrine provides a common frame of reference for planning participants. When disagreements on procedures occur, and they inevitably will, doctrine provides a useful guide to referee disputes. Often it helps to establish the doctrine that will guide the planning effort at the outset. In most instances, it will be the Joint Planning Process (JPP – formerly known as JOPP), contained in JP 5-0.

Lesson Three – You Can Never Have too many Translators. Translators are like ammunition, you can never have enough. Translating conversation, particularly extended esoteric doctrinal discussions is mentally exhausting. Minimally, you should have at least two translators available at all times. One will serve as the primary translator for no more than two or three hours at a time, while the other translator simply listens and performs a secondary check on the translation. The translators should then swap duties periodically. This ensures the translation remains accurate and allows the translators to stay fresh, which benefits the entire group of planners.

Lesson Four – Culture and History Matter. In your dealings with multinational planners, be cognizant of cultural and historical filters. Much of this is common sense, but experience also matters. For example, some cultural or historical topics may be particularly sensitive, often for a variety of reasons, which may be difficult to understand. Bear such sensitivities in mind, and work around them – they are potential stumbling blocks that are best avoided. Similarly, in your dealings with foreign counterparts, it is important to understand how their organizations make decisions. Are action officers empowered to make decisions, or will a senior leader decide every matter? How does their military interact with civilian authorities? All of these considerations affect how the OPT runs, and how quickly or slowly the OPT can work through issues.

Lesson Five – Play Nicely. Developing a plan from scratch under deadline pressure is a challenging project under the best circumstances. Introduce language and cultural barriers while working through translators to resolve disagreements over long days and weeks, and the merely challenging can become quickly frustrating, and then exasperating. It is important to recognize that this can and will happen and have a plan to deal with it. Ensure you incorporate plenty of breaks – periodic breaks during planning meetings, and longer breaks interspersed in the planning timeline to give participants some space. If a particular topic or problem becomes heated (and it will) you can table that topic for a period of time, and return to it with fresh ideas and fresh attitudes. If you remain unable to reach an acceptable solution another option is to set up a meeting with the lead planner from each country, along with his or her colonel, or equivalent supervisor, and present the issue in a combined “Council of Colonels” to discuss and work through impasses. Throughout the process, the focus should remain on solving issues at the lowest possible level in a respectful and professional manner.

Lesson Six Choose Your Battles Wisely. This lesson is really a corollary to lesson five. If you reach an impasse on a critically important matter and cannot find a compromise solution, remember that you can “fall on your sword” only once or twice. After that, the technique becomes ineffective, hence you become ineffective. If you consider escalation, whether a heated argument or walking out of an OPT, as examples, ensure you thoroughly evaluate whether the issues at stake warrant such a decisive move. There are rare occasions when this sort of escalation can actually move an OPT forward, but you should thoroughly work through the potential consequences with your boss and some trusted advisors before taking such a drastic step. In general, it is best to stick to lesson five.


Combined or bilateral operations are certainly the way of the future, and it is increasingly likely that you will find yourself working in a multinational environment at some point in your career. The process of planning for combined operations is as frustrating as it is necessary. To borrow from Otto Von Bismarck, multinational planning, like politics, is the art of the possible. Put another way, set appropriate goals for the planning process and manage expectations accordingly. The plan you ultimately develop in a multinational or bilateral combined planning environment will be the product of many compromises. Moreover, the final written plan, mutually concurred to, often represents merely the first step in the process, as the plan is revised and adjusted to evolving circumstance. Recognize this and accept it as part of a process that ultimately results in a better-combined plan that all participants endorse and can underwrite.

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Simontis is an Army Strategist with a BS in Engineering from the University of South Carolina, an MA in Security Studies from Kansas State University, and an MMAS in Theater Operations from the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS). LTC Simontis is currently the Chief of Strategy at US Army Central (USARCENT).