Combat troops to Syria? Not so fast

Pentagon considering proposing troops in Syria
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Story highlights

  • Mark Hertling: Reports of a presidential-directed review to step up ISIS fight don't signal anything close to a done deal
  • He says such an idea would be part of military planners' exploration of options, and a careful consideration of outcomes

Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. He served for 37 years in the Army, including three years in combat, and retired as commanding general of US Army Europe and 7th Army. He is the author of "Growing Physician Leaders." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)Throughout the 2016 election campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly promised a new approach to battlefield victory over ISIS, saying he would ask "the generals" to provide a new plan within 30 days of his inauguration.

This week Navy captain and Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis reported the Department of Defense was in the process of conducting the presidential-directed review, and that there were a number of measures they were considering to "accelerate the campaign against ISIS," but no decisions had yet been made. CNN journalists followed this announcement by reporting that one proposal was to send combat forces to Syria. (Only small teams made up largely of Special Operations forces have operated there, providing training and assistance to anti-ISIS opposition groups on the ground.)
    Is there a disconnect? How can the Pentagon say it is considering a "number of measures" when a news organization reports a proposal to send additional troops? What does all this mean?
    Having served as the Director, J7 -- the position that oversees war plans on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon -- I know the details of the intricate, disciplined and multistepped planning process the US military uses before deploying forces into a combat situation. What may seem a tedious and meticulous process to many (especially political leaders or those who have never worn the cloth of the country), developing operational plans for war-fighting is designed to provide the best chance of mission accomplishment with the fewest number of American casualties.

    Critical questions for planning

    Truth is, there are a lot of "contingency plans" already on the books for many potential hot spots (these are often reviewed according to published schedules). There are also multiple ongoing "operations" that are based on plans that are now being executed in various parts of the world (many Americans might be surprised at the actual numbers of plans that are driving the action of our military today).
    Finally, there are requirements to update, review and adjust plans and operations, based on changes in the world environment, new technologies, updated intelligence, or guidance received by either the secretary of defense or the President.
    When the military gets such directives, lots of things start to happen.
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    In a smart Pentagon, planners are constantly leaning far forward in anticipation of being given new directions. Indeed, many in Central Command (the combatant headquarters responsible for planning for actions in Middle Eastern countries) had been continuously updating their approach to the fight against ISIS based on a variety of issues long before President Trump issued the 30-day order.
    But when new guidance from the civilian masters is part of the update, planners' first order of business is getting answers from the civilian leaders -- the secretary of defense and the President -- to a slew of very important questions.
    What are the objectives? What is the "end state" (how do you want this to look when the action is completed)? Are there any specific constraints (things the military must do), and restraints (things the military cannot do)?
    What are the political, economic, and force deployment limitations and implications? What different risks and dangers are we willing to accept, and are there any specific ways you would like the military to mitigate those? What allies should we petition for assistance, and which nations should be informed of our actions (friend and foe)?
    Which members of the interagency in our government -- and members of Congress -- should be informed of our anticipated actions? How quickly do you want this to start, and what is the expectation for the time frame of the entire operation?
    Tough questions, but these are just a sample. My experience has been that many civilian masters in government want to avoid answering them, so a good chairman of the Joint Chiefs or Combatant Commander -- those four star generals and admirals who must execute the plans within their areas of operation -- must continuously push for those answers. These senior officers must be ready and willing to provide information based on their pragmatic experiences and the judgment they have learned from the battlefield; the President needs that kind of input before making such important decisions.
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    But even when military planners get the answers to these and many other questions, they are still just at the start of the planning process. What happens next is outlined in a doctrinal manual entitled "Joint Publication 5.0, Joint Operations Planning," which, interestingly, is not classified and can be found on the web.
    The methods are transparent, available, filled with sometimes confusing acronyms and details, and usually not read or understood by many in government. But the manual lays out the way our nation's military starts the process of sending America's sons and daughters into danger to accomplish national security objectives and defend our country from threats.

    The planning process in high gear

    Military planners and their counterparts in other government agencies -- and sometimes from other countries who might be part of an alliance -- then begin analyzing the mission in greater detail, determining how an enemy fights, how friendly forces might conduct maneuvers, how the battlefield environment will shape the situation, and the risks involved. From there, the planners develop "mission success criteria" and a related "force analysis" to determine what can be accomplished, and by which forces and actions.
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    There isn't just one solution. The planners put together multiple courses of action, or COAs, to provide choices for the civilian leaders. Most presidents don't like to be told what to do; instead, they usually want options to choose from that offer varying degrees of force deployment size, speed and boldness of action. Of course, all those factors result in different risks regarding potential casualties, political fallout, support from the American public, and contributions from allies.
    I have briefed presidents on plans during my time in the military. The sessions were filled with tough questions, and complicated answers. I remember once President George W. Bush saying to a group of us: "You guys have given me options, not decisions, and I appreciate that. But none of the options are easy." When you make decisions about sending men and women into combat, none of them is easy.

    What does it mean for Syria?

    When a reporter suggests that a president is considering sending ground combat troops to Syria as a result of a Pentagon spokesman saying there are a number of options under review, this isn't a disconnect. Rather, the statement from the Pentagon is implying that a force deployment is just one of many options the President will see and consider.
    And those options will be along a spectrum with at one end no changes at all to the current plan, progressing to more Special Operations troops and additional aircraft with intelligence and logistics support, all the way to the other end, which might include maneuver brigades with allies under the control of a joint task force for a specific mission.
    Whatever the decision, each deployment is challenging, the planning for it is meticulous, and the risks and objectives are key considerations.
    All this is important because we are placing American lives at risk.
    But what is most important is the answer to one key question: How does this look when it ends?
    Correction: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly referenced "additional combat troops" in describing a report that the Defense Department is exploring a proposal for American combat troops in Syria. The troops currently in Syria are largely Special Operations, not combat.