The Digital Planning Process:  Lessons Learned from the AWEs

by Major Michael A. LaChance 

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No one plans to fail---but many fail to plan.


The Army's Advanced Warfighting Experiments (AWEs) in digitization, conducted from March through November 1997, demonstrated the lethality of the modern division on the future battlefield. The results were clear. No other army can execute combat operations with the speed, precision, and lethality of the Force XXI Division. Unfortunately, the mighty Force XXI Division does have an Achilles heel--the planning process.

In a perfect world, the planning process is relevant, dynamic, and responsive to the changing nature of the battlefield. The commander relies on his planners to project the current situation into the future and to develop a synchronized plan to defeat the enemy. Naturally, the plan will only be as good as the planners' ability to develop, synchronize, and coordinate its transition to execution. On today's digital battlefield, the planner still relies heavily on a largely manual planning system. Not much has changed for the planner since the beginning of warfare. With the exception of the situational awareness and the Battlefield Planning Visualization (BPV) System (discussed in detail below), the Army's current inventory of planning tools lags behind its development of command and control systems. We, the collective Army, must do a better job of planning to plan.

The Process

The AWEs reaffirmed the Army's planning doctrine in the current version of FM 101-5, Staff Organization and Operations. It was a solid point of reference from which all planning emanated. New tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) were developed to accommodate the various digitization steps along the way. The techniques and procedures to meet the intent of our doctrine have changed.

A Vacuum Without Attachments

The dichotomy of the quasi-automated planning and digital execution during the AWEs created a literal and figurative execution vacuum. What is worse, the Army had a vacuum without all the necessary attachments! There was no planner's toolbox attachment to the Army Tactical Command and Control System (ATCCS) when we bought the system. The execution vacuum drew the planners closer and closer to the current fight and thereby denied them the crucial time needed to plan and develop future operations.

During the AWEs, the overarching goal of the planners was to "get inside the enemy's decision cycle" and shape the battlespace to our advantage, thereby denying the enemy a favorable course of action (COA) and allowing maximum flexibility for our units. The situational awareness and common relevant picture offered by the ATCCS was a double-edged sword when it came to planning. The commander "knew" with certainty the current situation. Armed with that certainty, the commander was able to discern tactical advantages, but needed to synchronize the next fight's actions. The result was a daily synchronization meeting that challenged the ability of the planners to maintain a vision beyond the 48-hour timeframe (one fight deep). The detailed synchronization of the next fight compelled the planners to "work" the current plan through execution (synchronizing the current plan) rather than shaping the future enemy situation for the fight after next (shaping the battle). Planners struggled to retain the planning edge offered by situational awareness while dealing with the obvious need to synchronize current operations and their subsequent fragmentary orders (FRAGOs). From a planning perspective, planning was secondary to execution. It is the chicken and egg argument: which came first--a good plan or good execution?

The tactical advantages offered by situational awareness will only last as long as we fight an enemy without a digital capability similar to our own. We currently lead the way in this capability. Over time, the enemy will also achieve this ability. The advantage will then go to the army that can more rapidly exploit its enemy's weaknesses revealed by situational awareness. Ergo, we must develop more integrated and timely planning processes and tools.

During the AWEs, planning was so intensive with so little time between conception and execution that the planners were often drawn into "synchronizing" and changing the "current" plan as close as 12 hours before its start, but were rarely able to develop a "new" plan beyond 48 hours away. The intensity of the planning system preempted more than a single sequel at a time, and that sequel needed refinement right up to execution. Thus the execution vacuum sucked the planners into its clutches, and denied them the ability to develop a well-thought-out plan and hindered their analysis of the enemy's COAs beyond 24 to 48 hours.

This paper could argue the merit of reactivity, flexibility versus planning, but that is not the intent. The point is raised simply to emphasize that the winner on tomorrow's battlefield will be the army that is not only capable of exploiting a weakness, but capable of planning, creating, and shaping a weakness.

Tools of the Trade

All-Source Analysis System (ASAS). As noted earlier, the major advantage offered to the planner by the ATCCS is the concept of a shared relevant common picture of the current battlefield. As the intelligence planner, I relied heavily on the ASAS. The system does have some rudimentary planning tools including:

ASAS provided me with the starting point for all plans. We had already manually entered the order of battle (OB) in the database, a tedious job, and we were in contact with the enemy. As the G2 Plans officer, I would verify, validate, and confirm the existence of all the elements anticipated to affect the future battles. The current situation was then exported from ASAS (at icon-entity level) to the BPV system. The G2 Planner was then able to see the current situation with crystal clarity; this allowed us, in conjunction with the Analysis and Control Element (ACE), to more accurately project, analyze, and predict future enemy COAs. ASAS provided the starting data on the enemy. The web-browser allowed us to tap the many hypertext links available on several servers. This capability was invaluable as a "virtual" library. We were able to call the analysts and chat with them or to call up their overlays if we had questions.

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The Pit: Bazannini (AOC-M) area in TAC 1 during the DAWE.

The Maneuver Control System. MCS, like ASAS, provides critical starting data and graphics on all friendly or "Blue" units , and has many of the same tools that ASAS has for the enemy forces. The only additional tool in the MCS for intelligence planners is the distributed operations order (OPORD). The MCS icon-level units and graphics were exported to the BPV. The distributed OPORD tool, although good in concept, was quirky; we had to use many workarounds to make it effective. Once the OPORD had been written in plain text format using Microsoft Word1 and Excel, the G3 planners still had to format and send the document via E-mail to all the units. It is also important to note that the collection manager used MCS in conjunction with the BPV (see page 16) to develop the collection plan. MCS, unlike ASAS, was able to receive data from the BPV. This helped enormously as we tried to integrate the planning process. The Blue units' data and graphics could be exported and imported with ease; thus, changes made during the wargame were easily translated back to the MCS.

Battlefield Planning and Visualization System. The BPV (a UNIX-based Silicon Graphics Octane processor) was the mainstay of the intelligence planning process (see Figure 1). It provided planners with the unique capability of moving unit icons on 3D and 2D terrain models while simultaneously showing OBs to the entity level, ground and aerial range fans, anticipated effects, battlefield conditions, routes, graphics, attrition, and most importantly, a visual representation of intent. All COAs could be saved as scenarios and played back at any time. The playback could be from the start or from any time or point on the battlefield, which made it ideal to aid in planning sequels or developing FRAGOs.

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Figure 1. AWE Planning Architecture

The BPV systems were distributed across the battlefield to each of the tactical operations centers and were networked on the local area network (LAN) as well. By networking the systems, the division and brigades were able to receive or pull data at will. The power and utility of the 3D-terrain engine developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and modified by the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command was phenomenal. All scenarios could be saved as "movies" in a personal computer-compatible (.MPG file extension) format. Thus, anyone with a laptop or desktop PC can view the file. No better means of communicating the desired effects of a unit's synchronized activity can be achieved by any other system I know of today.

MS Office and Laptop PCs. In the early stages of planning, networked PCs (using Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel) provided the means to develop rough concepts. Planners tried to use imported (.GIF file extension) pictures from the ASAS or BPV system to accurately represent the terrain in PowerPoint concept briefs. MS Word provided the basic text capability for the written order. Excel spreadsheets displayed the synchronization efforts of the wargame.

None of the three planning tools above have a built-in capability of capturing wargame results with words. While using the BPV during the wargame, we caught the conversation of the various planners--who were providing their respective input to each phase of an operation--on an Excel spreadsheet using a small LAN. We tried to avoid PowerPoint briefs, but PowerPoint is the only means by which to present basically textual briefings such as the mission and intent statements, and basic OB briefs. Toward the end of the AWEs, we began to experiment with briefs produced in PowerPoint but translated into hypertext message language (HTML) and then easily accessed with the built-in web-browser capabilities of the systems.

The Products

The AWE planning products were digital in the strict sense of the word, but not necessarily integrated, easy, or even fast. We planners often importuned that our digital appearance was only a facade of the integrated, lightning fast system we wanted. To the casual observer we may have appeared every bit as digitally integrated as the rest of the operation. This, in reality, was far from the truth. The Microsoft Office suite software provided the majority of the concept planning tools we used. We pushed the envelope on our TTP for creating, editing, and moving the information to the appropriate ATCCS systems, but often we were plagued by the shear weight of duplicate data entry into multiple systems. The products we generated will be discussed in the order in which they are first produced and then how they change and migrate as we near the OPORD brief.

We initially produced orders of battle in traditional line-and-block PowerPoint briefs. They were validated and refined during our intelligence preparation of the battlefield and entered into the ASAS database. The PowerPoint version was then translated into HTML format for ready reference on the servers via a web browser. Next, we imported the OB at the icon level into the BPV where entity items (individual vehicles) were added. BPV has a templating capability that makes this very easy. For instance, to turn a motorized rifle regiment icon into a fully equipped MRR with all its equipment was a simple click of a button. With another click of the button, you can have the formation in which they are moving or their dispersion in the stop and defend mode. The OB is always visible in the BPV.

The engineer detachment produced the terrain and mobility products and the modified combined obstacles overlay using their systems, but it is important to note that we used PowerPoint, MCS, ASAS and the BPV to augment the salient points of terrain analysis. In the BPV system, the terrain factors showing movement had to be manually changed to slow a unit's march but the period spent adjusting the rates was well worth the time in the long run. By adjusting the movement factors in the BPV, we were able to visualize the synchronized movement of units. Other terrain factors were easily replicated in the ASAS, MCS, and the BPV system. Each system has built-in visibility and line-of-sight filters that can be toggled on and off depending on the level of detail needed. In most instances, products about key terrain were made as overlays in MCS and ASAS. PowerPoint and HTML files were created for the terrain brief.

COA Overlays and Scenarios. ASAS enemy data and corps graphics were imported to the BPV. We then wargamed the enemy COAs on the BPV. The G2 Plans Officer briefed the planners on the COAs using the BPV and they developed concept sketches on imported (.GIF) pictures of the terrain. This constituted a rough Blue concept used to obtain the commander's planning guidance. After receiving the guidance, the planners began the development and refinement of blue COAs on the ASAS, MCS, and BPV system. Data from ASAS and MCS was imported to the BPV. The planners programmed routes into the BPV and saved the desired effects of the Blue actions. They saved the scenario for each branch and sequel.

During the wargame, the COAs were refined and the results and synchronization recorded on Excel worksheets and on the BPV system. The scenarios were saved as graphic (.MPG) files, placed on the homepage, and disseminated to the brigades' BPVs. These scenarios (COAs) were played during the OPORD brief to ensure the subordinate commanders understood the commander's intent and synchronization requirements. The graphic (.MPG) files had the added advantage of being playable at any time on any PC tied to the tactical LAN. To augment the BPV scenarios and facilitate the transition to execution, the ACE produced snapshots "in time" from the results of the wargame. Overlays were created on ASAS and MCS for dissemination with the order. These overlays have text typed in the corner describing the events and activities that occur during that phase of the battle. Traditional graphics depict activity and action. The image (.GIF) files were saved and posted to the homepage as well.

Value Added

Lethality was gained through the synergistic effects of well-thought out plans. To use a worn axiom, "a picture is worth a thousand words." With the use of the BPV, the commander's intent was never clearer, the results of the wargame never more precise, and the ability of the lower echelon commanders to review the thoughts and intent of the commander in his absence was never easier. Terrain is now, more than ever, integrated into the wargame process. The ability of the planners and commander to remotely see terrain and the enemy on it is indispensable.

Improvement is Still Needed

Simply stated, any planning tool that speeds the planning process without sacrificing accuracy and integration is needed. Specifically, the planners need a wargaming tool that allows them to import starting data, manipulate it with the ease of a point and click graphical interface, assign units' coefficients to equipment that can run a quick wargame with or without the planner's intervention. In addition, they need the interfaces to send their products to MCS and ASAS.


The AWE digital planning process was a success due in large part to the determination of the Division Commander and his staff to streamline the mostly manual system. With time as the crucial element in any plan, our tools need further development to speed the process. By doing this, the Army will maintain the edge we currently have in digitization.


1. Microsoft Office 97 MS WordTM, and MS PowerPoint TM are trademarks of the Microsoft Corporation. Several companies have trademarks on portions of Excel.

Major LaChance is currently the Executive Officer, 104th MI Battalion, Fort Hood, Texas. He was recently the G2 Plans Officer and Division XXI Intelligence Coordinator with the Experimental Force Coordination Cell. MAJ LaChance has served with the 101st Airborne as both a Company Commander and S2. He has a bachelor of science degree in Public Administration from Auburn University and a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence degree from the Joint Military Intelligence College. Readers can contact him via E-mail at [email protected] or [email protected] and telephonically at (254) 288-3831 or DSN 738-3831. He is also the webmaster of the 104th MI Battalion Homepage at http://