Is It Time To Bring Back Threat-Based Planning?

The end of the Cold War in 1989, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union two years later created a new world order in which a single monolithic, and well understood threat was replaced with a plethora of potential adversaries. These included rogue states, and non-state actors such as insurgents, trans-national criminal organizations, terrorist groups, and violent religious extremists to name but a few. In order to deal with this fragmented and volatile security environment a new type of military force would need to be created. Western militaries could no longer rely on the established model of capability development, which at the time was Threat-Based Planning. As such, a new process was developed and that method came to be known as Capability-Based Planning (CBP).

From its initial introduction into the military establishment CBP has been extremely controversial and divisive. Supporters believe it breaks down traditional stovepipes while providing transparency and coherence to the capability development process. They suggest it provides “a more rational basis for making decisions on future acquisitions, and makes planning more responsive to uncertainty, economic constraints and risk.”[1] Critics argue that it does not live up to many of these claims and is unable of actually producing the capability it is seeking. More importantly, they feel it ignores the necessity for analyzing such things as cultural, geographic and the strategic aspects of fighting a specific opponent in favour of developing technology to defeat a generic enemy.[2]

Despite these perceived advantages and disadvantages, the driving force behind moving away from Threat-Based Planning (TBP) was the fact that there was no longer a specific threat.[3] This situation has changed in recent years. The West is now seeing the emergence of Russia and China along with the rise of powerful and well-armed non-state actors such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) to challenge the current world order.
In light of this changing security environment, the rational for using CBP is no longer valid. The process needs to return to the traditional and more focused TBP. To understand the strengths and weakness of each process we will begin by looking at CBP and explore its usefulness as a force development tool.

Introduction To Capability-Based Planning

Capability-Based Planning was officially introduced into the U.S. military establishment in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The central idea behind adopting this process was that military organizations would no longer know what nation, combination of nations, or armed non-state actors would potentially pose a future security threat to Western interests. To overcome this problem the document suggests the West could “anticipate the capabilities that an adversary might employ.” [4] In this respect, a capabilities-based model would allow nations to focus more on how “an adversary might fight rather than who the adversary might be or where a war might occur.”[5]

To achieve this type of insight the process is based on “a functional analysis of operational requirements.” This means that capabilities are identified based on the tasks required. Once the required capability has been defined, the most cost effective and efficient options are sought to satisfy that requirement.[6] The process takes a top down approach and is guided by high-level capability objectives. As a clear understanding of how the future force will fight is needed, an overarching operational concept must be produced and validated.[7]

With the guidance and concepts in place, an analytical methodology is developed to determine the specific capabilities the future force will need.[8] If done correctly the process will allow participants to think “outside the box” about capabilities. This is done by having analysts identify what “capability is needed in functional terms and then assess a number of different ways to obtain them.”[9] When using this method it is not assumed there is a need for a next-generation bomber. Rather one considers alternatives such as “long-range missiles, existing bombers with standoff weapons, or unmanned aircraft.”[10] If completed with rigour the process is supposed to be able to produce innovative weapons, and employment concepts. [11]

A major weakness with CBP is that it does not work well in all situations. As John F. Troxell of the Strategic Studies Institute points out, this method is useful when threats are “multifaceted and uncertain, and do not lend themselves to single point scenario-based analysis.” Moreover, as planners do not focus on one specific opponent they must apply “a liberal dose of military judgment to determine the appropriate mix of required military capabilities.” As a result, justifying that the military judgment has made the correct linkages can be an issue.[12]

Threat-Based Planning

An alternative development process commonly used by militaries and the one that Capability-Based Planning replaced, is Threat-Based Planning. [13] To be effective, this method must have an identifiable enemy and a reasonable scenario for that enemy to follow. This information allows analysts to determine weaknesses, and then to come up with a concept of operations, type, and the amount of force needed to win in that particular scenario.[14] An example of this approach is the U.S. Army’s development of its AirLand Battle doctrine in the 1980s. That doctrine was specifically produced to deal with a possible attack by the Soviet Union in Central Europe. Once developed and officially approved, the doctrine drove acquisition, training and force posture for the Americans. More importantly, it led to the crushing victory in 1991 of the U.S. lead coalition over the Iraqi Army in Operation Desert Storm.[15]

The Desert Storm victory was due, in large part, to the fact that the coalition understood how its enemy would fight. Specifically, they recognized that Soviet Red Army doctrine, which the Iraqis employed, was based on large concentrations of forces in the form of successive echelons of attack. They also realized that the coalition’s technological superiority was not sufficient to defeat the echelons because they could not destroy the Red Army’s divisions faster than the Soviets could deploy them.[16] However, they did understand enemy’s echelons needed a lot of depth to deploy and that technological superiority could be combined with the right doctrine to destroy those echelons in depth and far behind the front lines. Desert Storm proved just how effective that concept could have been had it been necessary. [17]

It is the ability to link strategy, operating concepts and the acquisition of equipment to exploit specific weakness that is at the heart of the Threat Based Planning approach. According to Col. Michael W. Pietrucha, USAF, that type of focus is currently lacking with Capability-Based Planning. He states, “In embracing CBP, we have become focused on a fog bank—the nameless, faceless adversary who may be technologically advanced and may even be a “near peer” in a similarly undefined way. But that adversary has no connections to any geography, culture, alliance structure or fighting methodology.”[18] He believes that the current Capability-Based Planning process is totally disconnected from the realities of actually fighting a war in favour of fighting an enemy. [19]

Despite these specific criticisms, the reality is that there is no one capability development process that can cover all security situations. As we have seen, TBP is appropriate when a nation is faced with a known monolithic threat while CBP works best when threats are uncertain and do not lend themselves to single point scenario-based analysis. Therefore, the question of CBP’s continued usefulness must rest on the nature of the security environment Western nations are facing now and into the future.

The Emergence Of A New Security Environment

Over the last few years the international security situation has changed significantly. The West is seeing a far more aggressive Russia in Crimea, Ukraine, and now in Syria. China has also been developing its military capability for the last 20 years and has started to take an assertive stance in the South China Sea. Additionally Western nations are currently attempting to deal with the rise of sophisticated armed non-state actors such as ISIS which are using an insurgency based model to engage in hybrid warfare. It is informative to look at each of these threats in more detail.

Russia – Russia has been building up its military capability and transforming its forces since 2008. According to Stephen Blank, an expert on the post-Soviet world, the current Russian buildup aims to acquire a multi-domain, strategic-level reconnaissance-strike as well as a tactical-level reconnaissance-fire capability that together will give Russia “high-tech precision forces that could conduct operations in space, under the ocean, in the air, on the sea and the ground and in cyberspace.” He goes on to say, “this force would have parity with the US and NATO in conventional and nuclear dimensions of high-tech warfare, and therefore the capability to deter and intimidate NATO.”[20]

More concerning is the fact that these ambitious modernization plans have been fully funded with major increases in defence spending budgeted for each year out to 2020.[21] Assuming the Russians are able to achieve its military buildup objectives by 2020, it is estimated they “will return to a million active-duty personnel, backed up by 2300 new tanks, some 1200 new helicopters and planes, with a navy fielding fifty new surface ships and twenty-eight submarines, with one hundred new satellites designed to augment Russia’s communications, command and control capabilities.”[22] In addition to reequipping its forces the Russians have realized that should they have to fight an all-out conventional war against NATO, in the short term, they would likely lose. As a result, they have been developing a host of asymmetric strategies against Western nations. The result of those efforts has been the development of a state level hybrid warfare doctrine they are referring to as “New Generation Warfare”.[23]

“New Generation Warfare” was first introduced to the public in a paper published by General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian General Staff, in February 2013.[24] In it Gerasimov lays out a number of key principles behind Russia’s thinking on the employment of hybrid warfare. The first is the idea that the world is now in a continual state of war. He states that “in the 21st century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace.” He goes on to say that the conduct of wars has changed as they are no longer declared and, having begun, they move in different and unfamiliar directions.[25] He asserts, “This unfamiliar template refers to asymmetrical operations using a host of [strategic] capabilities to ‘nullification of an enemy’s advantages in armed conflict.’”

It is interesting to note this new doctrine is the direct result of studying a potential enemy (NATO) and adopting a strategy and the necessary capabilities to exploit its perceived weaknesses. The effectiveness of this approach was laid open for all to see in Crimea and the Ukraine.

China – Russia is not the only country attempting to modernize its military forces. Over the past 20 years China has also increased its military spending, which by 2020 is estimated to reach $260 billion annually.[26] According to CNBC news, “Much of that spending has gone to Chinese naval assets and other standoff weapons designed to keep foreign navies — and especially the U.S. Navy — at bay.” [27] The report goes on to say, “More worrisome to U.S. naval planners and their allies in the region are a range of new land-based ballistic missiles designed to sink naval ships or destroy airfields.” [28] One such missile, the DF-26C, is believed to have sufficient range to reach U.S. airbases on the island of Guam, thousands of kilometers away. [29]

Much of this defence spending has been fueled by Chinese economic growth, which has enabled it to shift the balance of power in the region.[30] In fact, China’s emergence as a major regional military power was the driving factor in a new strategy, announced in 2012 by the United States, to rebalance its forces into the Asia-Pacific region. [31] These events have also impacted the strategy and military developments in other Asian powers. [32]

For example, Japan has increased its national defence budget to booster its defence capabilities and passed measures so that the country can take a greater military role in overseas conflicts. In addition, the United States is easing a longstanding arms embargo on Vietnam, while sending new naval vessels to the Philippines.[33] Based on these reports it appears that China’s goal is to dominate the East and South China Seas and it views its main threat to achieving this goal as American sea and air power.

ISIS Hybrid Warfare – Since the end of the Cold War the influence of non-state actors, particularly armed ones, has steadily increased to the point where they now pose a major security challenge to international stability. Of particular concern is the unique challenges Western nations face when dealing with sophisticated organizations such as ISIS . In addition to becoming dominant local and regional players, these non-state actors have developed the capabilities to strike at high-value political, economic and symbolic targets around the world.[34] The development of this threat has been influence by a number of factors including advances in technology, the rise of globalization, and the increased capabilities of modern weapons. All of these factors have combined to create a new context within the idea of irregular warfare. From the perspective of the armed non-state actor these changes have created a new conceptual approach to military operations that many within the security establishment are now referring to as hybrid war. [35]

Frank G. Hoffman, a leading authority on this type of conflict, defines a hybrid war as “any adversary that simultaneously and adaptively employs a fused mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism and criminal behaviour in the battle space to obtain their political objectives.[36] He believes that hybrid war is the blurring of lines between different types of warfare, who fights them, and the technologies that are used.[37] Over the last two decades these non-state actors have not only increased their ability to employ multiple types of warfare, they have continued to bring together these various fighting methods into a single operational methodology.[38]

It is this ability to switch from one method of fighting to anther or to combine different methods simultaneously that has changed the dynamics of the battlefield and created significant security challenges for any country fighting these hybrid forces. Of greater concern is the fact that these changes in the conceptual approach to fighting have been coupled with the introduction of key high technology weapon systems. This new ability has allowed these irregular elements within the hybrid construct to emerge as an operationally decisive force on the battlefield.[39]

Summary Of Threats

A more aggressive Russia and China indicates that they are becoming increasingly confident about their capabilities. Moreover, it clearly shows that any notion that Western nations still live in an era of ambiguous threats is no longer valid. The future security environment is now emerging with clear and present dangers and they need to be dealt with in a coherent and focused manner. This must start with a well-defined strategic concept on how to win a war rather than the current practice of producing capabilities to defeat the capabilities of a generic enemy. The Russians, Chinese and ISIS all know who their enemies are. More importantly, they have been studying Western methods of warfare since 1991 to find weakness that they can exploit.


Capabilities-Based Planning was adopted by many Western nations because there was no identifiable threat on which to base future planning. Although this methodology has served its purpose for a number of years it is now clear that the security situation has changed. As we have seen there are a number of emerging threats that provide clear and identifiable benchmarks for long term strategic planning and capability development. As such, the usefulness of Capability-Based Planning as a force development is no longer valid and needs to be replaced with Threat -Based Planning.

(To read more on Canada’s defence perspectives, be sure to download your free copy of Security Matters magazine here.)

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