Planning for War with Iran

Responding SECDEF Bob Gates’ statement that “nobody is planning — we are not planning for a war with Iran,” Michael O’Hare observes, “Not planning for a war is not at all the same as planning not to have a war.”

Quite true. Indeed, even if we’re planning not to have a war with Iran–which I hope is true–I would sincerely hope we would be planning for war with Iran. Circumstances could quickly change, making war the least bad option. Failure to do detailed planning for that contingency would be irresponsible indeed.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jim says:

    Your concern is well-considered. We do plan for wars; what we do with the plans — particularly those that the recipients of the plans find unpalatable — is another matter entirely.

    Several years ago, I participated in one of the Global War Games, at the Naval War College in Rhode Island. The scenario for that year’s game was based on a Pacific Rim threat, and a concurrent threat “somewhere” in Southwestern Asia.

    After a week of playing out the possibilities, of teasing out the logistics supply lines as far as they would go, it was clear to all participants that the US response to anything more than one major conflict and two “surprise” regional conflicts a quarter of the globe away would be hamstrung by our inability to move troops and materiel fast enough, and in sufficient numbers, to suppress, or even hold-back, a determined offensive force or forces.

    At the end of the session, the game’s results were properly documented, sent along to the leadership, and promptly disregarded. Not all that unusual, frankly, because these games, or sandbox scenarios, are simply meant to keep the real-world warfighters (Defense and associated agencies) on their toes. Nonetheless, it is an example of “planning for war” vs “not planning to have a war” that is frequently muddied up in the national debate.

  2. Anderson says:

    Gates is, of course, lying, just like Bush in 2002 when he said he wasn’t planning to go to war with Iraq.

    “Planning for” of course has multiple meanings — “preparing a contingency plan” vs. “intending.”

  3. Jem says:

    One of the key roles of the Joint Staff and the Combattant Commanders (CoComs)is to prepare plans of various sorts. There are several books and DoD manuals on the subject, but the short story is that the CoComs are ordered to produce certain Operational Plans and Contingency Plans (with or without deployment planning), given a set of statements about likely threats and a list of forces they can use for planning purposes. In addition to these directed planning efforts, the CoComs are authorized to direct their staffs to develop additional plans (as when Gen Schwartzkopf ordered his staff to prepare plans for Iraq prior to Baghdad’s invasion of Kuwait…in addition to the directed plan concerning Iran).

    There is a significant difference between this sort of deliberate planning, however, and the contingency planning that occurs when the US is actively preparing to use its military forces outside their normal garrison/training areas. The contingency process often draws on the work done in the deliberate phase, but rarely is a deliberate plan kept largely intact once the contingency planning begins.

    It’s probably not much of a stretch to believe there are one or more deliberate plans addressing Iran. Nor is it much of a stretch to believe CENTCOM, which would be in charge of any contingency planning for Iran, is too heavily engaged in the Iraq and Afghanistan efforts to be simultaneously conducting contingency planning for Iran.

  4. Jim Henley says:

    I think Anderson is focused on the wrong word game: I don’t think it “depends what the meaning of ‘plan’ is,” I think it depends what the meaning of war is. When the Administration starts bombing Iran, they will offer, when pressed, some cockamamie but energetic explanation why it isn’t a “war.” Perhaps they’ll go for the ultimate in cheek: “Only Congress can declare war. Congress hasn’t declared war. Therefore, this isn’t a war. Fire!”

  5. mannning says:

    If you look at the moves on the Mid East chessboard, it doesn’t take much imagination to perceive an unstated plan of pressure against Iran, as well as an overt side–the moving of carriers to the area, and a small increase of troops in Iraq. One wonders, however, just how small it will be in the end. My sense of things is that we are targeting a possible war with Iran in about one year from now, and we will see more surges until the right number and mix is on the ground.

  6. amdg says:

    we should be making plans in case of war with iran. to not do so would be completely irresponsible and could leave us with our dicks in the dirt if we were ever attacked. the u.s. doesn’t want to go to war with iran the same way they did with iraq. a war with iran would be dissatrous for the united states and even bush knows this but to think that we shouldn’t be planning for war in case of an attack is ridiculess.