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MDMP: One Tool in the Commander’s Tool Chest

Although it is not the only tool in a leader’s kit bag, the military decisionmaking process (MDMP) is an important part of the staff planning process. An effective commander combines a deliberate planning process, such as the MDMP, with the ability to make intuitive, informed, and situation- based decisions rapidly. However, the MDMP’s strengths are also the source of its weakness. A deliberate, well-established planning process, the MDMP is designed to cover all aspects of a situation. Because it is deliberate, it takes time.

In today’s current operational environment, a leader must be able to make effective decisions rapidly. Intuitive, informed, and situation-based decision models, such as the recognition-primed decision model, provide other tools for the commander to use as appropriate. A commander and his staff must determine the best decisionmaking process to use based on the situation they face.

MDMP

As stated in Field Manual 5–0, Army Planning and Orders Production, the strength of the MDMP process is that it is “an established and proven analytical planning process.” The process consists of seven major steps, from mission receipt to orders production, with over 40 substeps. The MDMP entails deliberate planning and development of several courses of action in order to determine the best course of action for a situation.

The first major strength of this process is that it provides a consistent framework, or baseline, throughout the Army for planning. The Army education system ingrains the MDMP process in its leaders, giving everyone common baseline knowledge. Even inexperienced commanders and staffs can apply the seven steps and create well-defined and workable plans. Furthermore, the established process allows a commander to adapt the best decisionmaking model for his unit. When time is not a factor, the well-developed, lock-step planning methodology presented by the MDMP is extremely effective.

MDMP in Use

The deliberate planning process for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) began in the spring of 2002 under the guidance of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and in coordination with Special Operations Command Central, V Corps, Coalition Forces Land Component Command, and many other joint commands. During this planning process, the units used the MDMP.

Before 2002, the Army conducted detailed planning during staff exercises—warfighter exercises to develop contingency plans for their focus areas. For example, during the time I served as a battalion operations officer, company commander, and deputy G–4 planner in the 3d Infantry Division (Mechanized), each of the warfighter exercises was based on an Iraq-like scenario. The National Training Center rotations focused on the same scenario. In each case, every level of staff conducted a version of the MDMP. These exercises established contingency plans, and the wargaming process served as a basis for the actual OIF planning process. General David H. Petraeus said that the deliberate planning process conducted before the start of the war in Iraq served as the “initial cornerstone plans for the 101st [Airborne Division] in OIF,” further illustrating the continued worth of the MDMP when time is available. The ability to adapt from an established model is also an MDMP strength.

Every Army unit has developed its own unit-specific standing operating procedure (SOP) for its planning process. In most cases, the SOP developed is based on the MDMP described in FM 5–0. Although a unit’s SOP serves as its operating guide, the strong base of the doctrinal MDMP allows other people or units to rapidly understand and participate in the planning process. The common base of understanding will be more important as we continue to transition to the brigade combat team (BCT) model in which BCTs will be task organized under higher headquarters that they have never worked with. In this type of scenario, the MDMP process can serve as a common planning process.

MDMP Weaknesses

The MDMP’s greatest weakness is the time it takes to conduct a full mission analysis. Because of its deliberate nature, the time required to conduct an MDMP often makes it ineffective. In the current operating environment, commanders often do not have the time to conduct deliberate planning because of the rapidly changing situation and mission. FM 5–0 states—

The disadvantage of using the full MDMP is that it is time-consuming. The longer the higher headquarters spends planning, the less time for the subordinates to plan, prepare, and execute operations.


Although FM 5–0 provides a guideline for conducting planning in a time-constrained environment, it still focuses on a very structured decisionmaking process. Current operations often cannot support a structured decisionmaking process that takes a significant amount of time to conduct.

In the current fight, leaders often are required to make rapid decisions based on their experience, the situation, and the overall understanding of the commander’s intent. Today’s operations occur in a nonlinear environment. Battalions often conduct operations across the full spectrum of operations within a relatively short timeframe. For example, a battalion may have one platoon conducting base security, another breaking ground for a new soccer field, a company conducting a raid, and another conducting presence patrols. Each mission can require many decisions to be made based on the different situations that arise.

Often, operations must be executed rapidly based on actionable intelligence gained during an ongoing operation. A recent example of this was the successful operation that killed terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Commanders did not have the luxury of time to conduct a full MDMP. Rather, they were required to execute the operation rapidly so as not to lose the opportunity provided. The recognition-primed decision model (RPDM) is effective in this type of time-constrained operation.

RPDM

Developed by Dr. Gary A. Klein, the RPDM is based on the naturalistic decisionmaking process. This process relies heavily on the experience of the commander and his ability to rapidly formulate plans without the assistance of a deliberate planning process. RPDM is a four-step process in which leaders—

  • Identify the mission and conceptualize the course of action (COA).
  • Test and operationalize the COA.
  • Wargame the COA.
  • Develop the orders.

The greatest strength of this model is the rapid decisions that it produces. According to studies conducted by Klein Associates, the RPDM decreases the planning time by over 20 percent over the MDMP. Other RPDM strengths include the maximum use of the leader’s experience and the adaptability of the planning process to events on a nonlinear battlefield.

The strengths of the RPDM process are also its weaknesses. First, it is critically dependent on the experience of the commander. Although it is a very effective tool for a commander who has been in his position for an extended amount of time, it does not address all issues. For example, a battalion commander who takes over just before his first rotation to Southwest Asia will not have the experience needed to use the RPDM. In that case, a modified version of the MDMP, as proposed in FM 5–0, is a more effective decision tool until the commander achieves the experience level required for the RPDM.

Another concern with this model is its lack of in-depth analysis. RPDM does not effectively address complex, multifaceted operations. Rather, it is meant for operations requiring quick decisions. CENTCOM planners could not have used the RPDM to plan OIF because of the detailed analysis and massive coordination required for an operation of that magnitude. The detailed order produced from the deliberate MDMP process serves as a basis for future operations, specifically branches and sequels to the original plan. Although the MDMP process is much better suited for those types of operational planning, the RPDM provides the commander an excellent planning tool in a time-constrained nonlinear environment.

As proven during recent operations in the Global War on Terrorism, the MDMP continues to serve as an important planning tool for military operations. The Army must have a standardized process for conducting deliberate planning, which the MDMP provides. This capability can be effectively combined with a more rapid decisionmaking process, such as the RPDM, to provide the commander the appropriate tools for making decisions in all situations. Although the MDMP is not the best tool for every situation, it is still a critical tool and must be maintained as one of many planning tools for a commander and staff to use.
ALOG

Major John D. Nawoichyk is assigned to the Department of Military Instruction at the United States Military Academy. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the United States Military Academy and a master’s degree in history from Western Illinois University. He is a graduate of the Ordnance Officer Basic Course, the Combined Logistics Officers Advanced Course, and the Intermediate-Level Education Course.