What can we learn from military planning processes?

Last week, Mo and Mia were at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, part of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. Don’t worry, we’re not planning on joining the army! Instead, we were there to support a multinational Peace Support Operation exercise, acting as humanitarian advisors to around 250 future commanders and staff officers of the Army, Navy and Air Force. These students were from five European Defence Colleges, coming together to train in a unique, multinational forum.

During the week, the officers planned a military operation in a fictional, complex emergency, based in an imaginary region of the world. The operation in this exercise was EU-led, underlining the comprehensive civil-military approach to the crisis. They grappled with challenges such as internal and cross-border tribal conflict, potential widespread ethnic violence, IDPs/refugees, and the resulting acute humanitarian needs of the civilian population.

Mo and Mia were part of a team of experienced humanitarians, whose role was to work with the officers as they made their plans. We answered questions, gave advice and posed problems relating to the humanitarian needs in the scenario. We also helped the officers to navigate the difficult waters of working alongside/co-operating with the many international organisations intervening in the crisis. In addition, we formed a panel of experts for one of the highlights of the week – a series of Q&A workshops where the officers got to ask their burning questions about the aid sector.

This is the second year we’ve been involved in the exercise, which we think is an extremely important initiative.  It’s great that the military takes humanitarian concerns so seriously, and is committed to improving the knowledge and skills of its senior staff, in preparation for future peace building operations.

But the officers are not the only ones to gain from the exercise – here are some of the benefits we gained from being involved:

  • Our involvement helped to dispel any prejudices or misconceptions between military and humanitarian personnel, a benefit that obviously went both ways!
  • We gained a valuable insight into the unique culture and language of the military (they rival the aid sector for ‘most number of acronyms’!), which will help us next time we need to co-operate with military personnel in the field.
  • We had the opportunity to expand our usual focus on the humanitarian aspects of a crisis and look at the wider security issues. It gave us a real appreciation of the challenges the military face, and how we can work more effectively with them.
  • We got to experience the tools and processes that the military use to plan their operations. Whilst such a detailed process is unlikely to be practical for use by individual humanitarian organisations, at the heart of it, the basic principles were essentially the same as our familiar logframe.

With this latter point in mind, we drew two key lessons from the exercise that could be used to improve our project design process:

  1. Mia was particularly taken by the way her group kept their exit strategy in the forefront of both the planning process and the operation itself. Of course, we all consider our exit strategy when designing projects – but do we really monitor our progress against it as much as we should? Mia will be looking at incorporating this into all future Aid Works project designs, with the intention that a continual monitoring of progress towards the exit strategy will encourage more meaningful and regular capacity building, and a swifter handover to the host country.
  2. The other takeaway was the extent to which the officers tested their plans, through the use of alternative CoAs (Courses of Action) and War Gaming (which sounds bloodthirsty, but it’s actually a very productive imagining of what could happen to derail your plans, and how you could react to compensate). We’ll be using these techniques to strengthen Aid Works projects.

Overall, we found the experience invaluable, and would highly recommend that humanitarian agencies consider offering a staff member with field experience to join the humanitarian advisors next year (let us know if you’d like the contact details). Not only would they be making senior officers more effective on future peace building deployments; their staff will also return with some invaluable insights into both civil-military cooperation, and effective planning techniques – both of which can only improve our work in the field.