Returning to Marshall: Mastering Risk by Understanding It

By Tom Flounders

Joint Doctrine does not sufficiently and separately address risk as both a necessary part of military operations and as a series of hazards to the force. Risk is not just a list of “things to avoid and mitigate,” but instead must be identified and categorized into two separate classes: accidental and operational. A conflation of these two types of risk directly contributes to the perception that the US military is a “risk averse” organization that refuses to allow for and appropriately reward prudent risk-taking. Thusly, Joint Doctrine must specify the differences between accidental and operational risk in a more deliberate way than it currently does in order to provide clarity to commanders and staffs.

Throughout American history, there have been several military leaders that demonstrated an understanding of the costs and benefits associated with assuming operational risks. George Washington repeatedly balanced risk and reward either by avoiding the British in open battle or by massing at specific times under favorable conditions. Then-Colonel David Perkins seized upon an opportunity and assumed risk while conducting the “Thunder Run” into downtown Baghdad in 2003. But perhaps most explicitly, Army Chief of Staff General of the Army (GA) George Marshall developed an organizational understanding that prudent risk-taking was not just an option, but was a keystone to successful military operations.

General Marshall clearly laid out his expectations for his subordinates and calculated risk-taking was a cornerstone of his outlook on military operations. He had a keen understanding of the requirements of combat in the 1940s and demanded prudent risk-taking from his commanders. In fact, he emphasized flexibility as a key trait for modern Army leaders during his overhaul of instruction at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he served as the Deputy Commandant from 1927-1932.

Marshall didn’t expect perfection from his subordinates. He knew that in times of war both sides were going to be caught by surprise. He was unique because he demanded that his people prepare for and quickly respond to surprises so that no event or series of events would be catastrophic. He demanded commanders take calculated and well thought out risks. MacArthur going into Leyte without air cover was a good example of the type of risks that Marshall encouraged. The whole operation was a big risk but probably shortened the war by six months to a year.General Andrew J. Goodpaster

This open-mindedness regarding the nature of risk-taking was a critical element for the successes – or failures – of Allied Forces on the battlefields of the Pacific, North Africa, and Europe.  Marshall constructed an incentive system that encouraged prudent operational risk-taking by rewarding commanders that took risks and removing those that were overly cautious. And herein lies the necessity to understand the different types of risks that commanders can and will encounter.

There are two separate and distinct forms of risk: Accidental (avoidable) and Operational (necessary). Accidental risks are the obvious threats to a force that must be identified, assessed, and mitigated as they are hazards to the combat power and effectiveness of a force. These are addressed ad nauseam in doctrine. However, the second category is far more complicated. Operational risks are those prudent risks that a commander assumes to exploit opportunities on the battlefield. A commander must take these to achieve operational objectives. Most importantly, they are relative to the value of the outcomes that the force can achieve by assuming them.

This relative value of risks to rewards is the most important part of understanding and exploiting the fleeting opportunities of the modern battlefield. Commanders and staffs must deliberately analyze, understand, and reevaluate the prudent risks that a unit must take to achieve its objectives. Risks and rewards are both dynamic and reassessment as operations progress is critical to a unit’s success or failure.

Risk is a misunderstood and misused term when it comes to military operations. While the commonly accepted and generic use of “risk” typically describes risks that a commander will seek to avoid and/or mitigate due to an unacceptable impact to her/his force, the operational risks are decisions that the commander makes to exploit opportunities on the battlefield. These are better described as prudent risks.  There are several instances where prudent risk is discussed in doctrine, but the understanding of this term is generally not wholly integrated in the development of flexible, adaptable courses of action.

Currently, the operational nature of prudent risk-taking is only shallowly discussed in Joint Doctrine. In Joint Publication 3-0 Operations “risk” is mentioned eighty-three times in the main text and appendices. However, in only six of these is the mention of risk more than meaning accidental risk. And in only three of these six does the document deliberately relate that risks taken must be weighed with the benefits of the success of the action. In the absence of direction, audacity is the trait commanders must exhibit to seize, exploit, and retain the initiative via taking prudent risks. Therefore, risk must be clearly understood, assumed, and mitigated at every echelon.

Army Doctrinal Reference Publication 3-0 Operations describes this process as, “commanders balanc[ing] audacity and imagination with risk and uncertainty to strike at a time and place and in a manner wholly unexpected by enemy forces. This is the essence of surprise. It results from carefully considering and accepting risk.” However, audacity without solid understanding of the operating environment and of the costs and benefits of assuming specific operational risks can quickly turn into disaster. But with a misunderstanding of “risk,” the ADRP 3-0’s description loses its significance. Risk, in this sense, is an operational risk, one that a commander must assume, not one he/she must seek to avoid or mitigate.

The perception that today’s military is a risk averse organization unwilling to permit subordinate units to assume prudent risks can partly trace from a lack of understanding of these different kinds of risk. When viewed from a cost-first perspective, risks will almost always fall into the accidental (must avoid) category. However, when approached from the reward-first viewpoint, commanders can easily understand, visualize, and describe not only which risks are acceptable to achieve an end state, but why these risks are prudent to take. The relative nature of operational risks allows for flexibility to the entirety of the force by ensuring an organization-wide understanding of risk.

A risk averse nature may be inherent to an organization when it believes that subordinates will haphazardly assume unnecessary accidental risk or will gamble when assuming operational risk. The first is a matter of discipline and attention to detail. The second is a matter of education, training, and experience. Education, as General Marshall emphasized at Fort Benning, allows for commanders and staffs to be flexible in their thinking and to solve problems efficiently. Training prepares units for known scenarios and gives familiarity to the actions that must be taken to achieve the commander’s intent and build experience in decision making. But to truly enable subordinates to make good decisions related to risk, leaders must build trust amongst their subordinates, peers, and superiors. Unfamiliarity of adjacent units, parochialism, or narrow-mindedness is a breeding ground for a lack of trust.

Therefore, Joint Doctrine must be reorganized to effectively account for and relate the differences between these two categories of risk. Accidental risk must be framed in terms of hazards to the force that must be avoided to preserve combat power. These are absolute risks to a unit and unnecessarily degrade combat capability if not mitigated. Operational risk must be framed as the prudent risks a commander identifies and takes to achieve specified objectives and the commander’s intent. These risks are relative to the objective being achieved and are dynamic and subjective as the operational environment transforms. Both of these categories must be addressed in Joint Doctrine separately.

Commanders and their staffs must continually assess and account for the ever-changing nature of operational risk. As deliberate, anticipated prudent risk-taking opportunities are identified, staffs must account for each of them with pre-planned decision points. These provide options for commanders at every echelon to maximize the potential for success at each of these points in time and space. The analysis of the cost-to-benefit ratio of each risk and decision allows for the dynamic understanding of when risks become most prudent and beneficial to assume. Commanders must learn to seize upon overlaid opportunities while mitigating the effects of underlaid ones, and be rewarded for doing so. Operational risks are not just a step of the planning process, but instead are the foundation for sound, dynamic, flexible planning, preparation, execution, and assessment for the Joint Force.

This understanding of risk is a simple way to avoid the pitfall of paralysis due to the changing nature of the risks on the battlefield. Staffs cannot build flexible courses of action that take a fixed perspective to the operational risks the plan assumes. Commanders cannot remain fixed in their understanding of the risks their force will encounter. But without a clear picture of what risk truly means, the Joint Force cannot hope to develop a holistic shared understanding of the meaning of prudent risk in the same way George Marshall inculcated in the generals of his era.

Tom Flounders is an armor officer in the United States Army.  He is a graduate of the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the Air Force Command and Staff College and a Senior Editor of Over the Horizon.

All views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, or the Department of Defense.

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