Developing multiple sustainment courses of action in support of a maneuver plan

By Lt. Col. Aaron M. CornettAugust 6, 2018

Developing Multiple Sustainment Courses of Action in Support of a Maneuver Plan
Capt. Robert Reynolds, an observer-coach/trainer in the 1st Brigade, Great Lakes Training Division, 75th Training Brigade, explains the course of action development step of the military decision-making process to members of the 419th Combat Service S... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

While spending two years as an observer-coach/trainer with Operations Group Sierra at the Mission Command Training Program and one year as an instructor in the Department of Logistics and Resource Operations at the Army Command and General Staff College, I noticed an alarming trend among sustainment planners. Many sustainment planners are unable to develop multiple sustainment courses of action (COAs) when planning to support a single concept of the operation developed by maneuver planners.

All too often, sustainment planners find them-selves presenting a single sustainment COA, thereby failing to provide sustainment commanders with options during the military decision-making process (MDMP). Even when sustainment units deliberately create two or more COA teams to force the creation of multiple COAs, those teams often come up with the same plan or plans that do not distinguish themselves enough from others to force a commander into an important decision.


The most common method sustainment planners use to develop sustainment COAs is the MDMP. The MDMP is one of the Army's three planning methodologies. According to Army Doctrine Publication 5-0, The Operations Process, the MDMP is "an iterative planning methodology to understand the situation and mission, develop a COA, and produce an operation plan or order."

Furthermore, Field Manual (FM) 6-0, Commander and Staff Organization and Operations, says that the purpose of MDMP is to help leaders apply "thoroughness, clarity, sound judgment, logic, and professional knowledge to understand situations, develop options to solve problems, and reach decisions."

COA development is step 3 of the 7-step MDMP. It follows mission analysis and precedes wargaming. FM 6-0 defines a COA as a "broad potential solution to an identified problem." In addition, FM 6-0 states that COA development generates "options for subsequent analysis and comparison."


The main idea behind COA development is that planners will develop multiple COAs by combining different elements of operational art, such as line of effort, basing, and tempo. By developing multiple COAs, the planners provide commanders with options to choose from or combine when determining how to best support a maneuver plan.

FM 6-0 also states that planners should develop multiple COAs and examine their validity by using certain screening criteria. The criteria of a COA includes the following:

• Feasibility. A feasible COA can accomplish the mission within the given time, space, and resource limitations.

• Acceptability. An acceptable COA must have the right balance among cost, risk, and the potential advantaged gained.

• Suitability. A suitable COA can be executed within the commander's intent and planning guidance.

• Distinguishability. A distinguishable COA must differ significantly enough from other possible COAs.

• Completeness. A complete COA incorporates the key elements of decisive, shaping, and sustaining operations and accounts for tasks to be performed and conditions achieved in offense, defense, stability, or defense support to civil authorities.

Of course, there are times when developing multiple COAs simply is not possible. For instance, in time-constrained environments, commanders have the authority to alter the steps of the MDMP to facilitate the creation of a satisfactory plan in a timely manner. One such action commanders can take in this situation is directing the staff to focus on only one COA.

In addition, to save time, the commander may also limit the staff to a certain number of COAs or specify which COAs should not be explored. Nevertheless, these are exceptions to the rule. In the best-case scenario, sustainment planners would have ample time and develop two or more COAs that are feasible, acceptable, suitable, distinguishable, and complete.


The prevailing trend is that sustainment planners are unable to develop multiple sustainment COAs when planning to support a single concept of the operation developed by maneuver planners. However, during my observations of expeditionary sustainment commands and sustainment brigades planning for warfighter exercises and of students during Command and General Staff College planning repetitions, I saw some excellent tactics, techniques, and procedures for overcoming this hurdle and producing multiple sustainment COAs that meet all of the required criteria and provide the commander with more options.

The first way in which sustainment planners can develop different COAs is to take a hard look at the task organization of allocated forces provided in annex A of an operation order. In most cases, depending on the defined command relationships, sustainment planners have the ability to recommend changes to the task organization to facilitate mission accomplishment.

It may be appropriate for sustainment planners to task organize again in order to ensure the sup-porting force is properly equipped to sustain the supported force. That could be as simple as taking one composite supply company from one combat sustainment support battalion (CSSB) and moving it to another CSSB. Alternatively, the new task organization may involve multiple units from company level down to platoons or squads.

Sustainment planners may also want to re-task organize their forces to ensure support is weighted toward the main effort of an operation. I have seen a planning team completely re-task organize its CSSBs into one with a heavy distribution mission and one with a heavy storage and holding mission.

Planners are not stuck with the same task organization in phase III that they had in phase I. The task organization can change from phase to phase--it does not have to stay the same throughout every phase of the operation.

Another way to develop different sustainment COAs is to vary the location of key sustainment nodes within the area of operations. Some locations may be dictated by a higher command's order, but in most cases sustainment planners have the ability to determine where key sustainment nodes will be located.

This is especially true for the latter phases of an operation and at the tactical level. Sustainment planners should consider varying the location of logistics support areas, forward logistics elements, potential air-land or air drop sites, and refuel on the move sites in order to develop different sustainment COAs. It is likely that planners and commanders will find both pros and cons to each potential location, but I think providing options is the key to COA development.

In many operations, sustainment forces must echelon forward to keep up with their maneuver customers and help them maintain operational reach and endurance. That being said, yet another way sustainment planners can develop different COAs is to look at how they are echeloning sustainment forces forward to support their maneuver customers.

They must consider not only where they will echelon forces but also when they will echelon forces. This can be done by shifting the triggers or decision points used to determine when to echelon forces forward in support of the maneuver plan. Those triggers or decision points may be tied to phase lines, objectives, or specific actions accomplished by the maneuver force. Whatever the case may be, there are several ways that sustainment planners can use the echeloning of forces to differentiate COAs during MDMP.

Sustainment planners may also choose to differentiate their COAs by altering the distribution methods used throughout the operation. In most cases, a combination of unit distribution, supply point distribution, or throughput is used in any given operation.

The distribution methods used are often determined by assets available, distance between locations, commodity, or the phase of the operation. A mixture of ground transport, fixed-wing airdrop, air-land, or rotary-wing lift provide a variety of options throughout an operation. Sustainment planners can use one or a combination of all methods to differentiate COAs and give a commander more options.

Finally, the last method for developing different sustainment COAs is the use of fixed sustainment assets versus the use of more mobile sustainment assets. For instance, in some cases it may be best to rely on the use of the fuel system supply point, which can store a significant amount of fuel at a fixed location.

Alternatively, certain instances may call for storing fuel in a distribution platform such as a heavy expanded-mobility tactical truck, which provides greater mobility and flexibility. The same logic can also be applied to other classes of supply. Is it appropriate to set up a fixed class I (subsistence) yard or ammunition transfer and holding point, or would it be more beneficial to put those commodities on flatbed or palletized load system trucks to maintain mobility and increase reaction time? Those are the types of questions sustainment planners have to continually ask and are yet another way to ensure they present multiple COAs to their commanders.

One of the keys to successful sustainment planning is providing the commander options for how a particular operation can be supported. Planners create those options during step 3 of the MDMP (course of action development). In order to avoid the common pitfall of providing only one sustainment COA, planners must make a conscious effort to differentiate their COAs whenever possible. There are a number of ways to differentiate COAs, several of which I have described above. Those examples are by no means the only options, but they can help get the creative juices flowing. Providing multiple sustainment COAs will improve not only the chances for sustainment success but also the chances for success in the operation over-all.


Lt. Col. Aaron M. Cornett is an instructor at the Baltic Defence College in Tartu, Estonia. He formerly served as an instructor in the Mission Command Training Program at the Army Command and General Staff College. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Kansas.


This article is an Army Sustainment magazine product.

Related Links:

Army Sustainment Magazine Archives

Browse Army Sustainment Magazine

Sustainer News